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· Fundamentalism for Highbrows (1993) ·

Of talks collected therein — The Aims of Education: The College of the University of Chicago (1997) — my favorite is Richard Shweder's. Delivered in 1993, his "Fundamentalism for Highbrows" wittily rides the mercurial winds, both hot and cold, blowing seasonably around on the south side of Chicago. You can read it in his newly-published Why Do Men Barbecue? (2003), but I've thought to share a few extracts.

Excuse my PowerPoint style; it seems vaguely apt.

  • [A]t the University of Chicago, many believe that the brain is an erogenous zone (an intensely pleasurable section of the body) and that provocation is a fundamental virtue. That means that there is plenty of sex and very little guilt here, and you are going to have an astonishing time. And I am going to provoke you.
  • Although provocation is a virtue at the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind drove most of his reviewers, and even some of his colleagues, wild. . . . College students, Bloom complained, have become so open-minded that they don't make moral judgments and feel embarrassed when others do.
  • Cole Porter, the famous social critic, composed lyrics to go with Bloom's thesis. "Good authors, too, who once knew better words, / Now only use four-letter words. / Writing prose, anything goes." That "anything goes" attitude is sometimes called "nihilism" or "subjectivism." Bloom called it "relativism." One of the wittiest reviews of The Closing of the American Mind appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, where the book was described as "fundamentalism for highbrows."
  • Now, I am not particularly a fan of Bloom's thesis. I am far more concerned about the puritanism on American campuses than relativism. But I do like the idea of "fundamentalism for highbrows." Every other community has its sacred principles that give life to its profane activities, so why shouldn't we? Why not think of "fundamentalism for highbrows" as something like a ten commandments for saving the soul of liberal education. . . . Here are the first six . . .

  1. Don't stand up when your professor enters the room. . . . The authority of a voice has a lot to do with what is said and very little to do with who says it.
  2. Seeing is not believing. . . . A few years ago a very famous theoretical physicist was confronted with some very puzzling evidence . . . He announced, "I'll believe that data only when I have a theory that makes it plausible." . . . I can assure you that one of the most popular University of Chicago campfire songs is "anything you can do I can do meta."
  3. Students shall not sleep; they need time to worry about right and wrong.. . . Hannah Arendt, a former member of our faculty, is well known for an idea called the "banality of evil." . . . Do not forget to remind those of us with too great a stake in mundane things that there is "evil in banality" and in bureaucratic motivations. Keep us alert.
  4. Don't believe what they tell you about "the Core." . . . Tell them you came because you heard that, in Hyde Park, the brain is an erogenous zone and provocation is a virtue. Those are good reasons for coming because, if you came for those reasons, you are going to be very happy. It is good to be happy.
  5. Never take a puritan to the Monty Python show. . . . A puritan is someone who exaggerates a virtue until it becomes a vice. Puritans come clad in straight laces rather than in the untied sneakers that are the footwear of the liberal soul on our college campus. There are puritans of the "left" and of the "right." There are as many kinds of puritans as there are kinds of virtues, because any virtue can be overdrawn.
  6. There are only two things you need to know to do dermatolgy. . . . "If it is dry, make it wet. If it is wet, make it dry." Similarly, . . . to be successful in the liberal arts college of the University of Chicago: "If someone asserts it; deny it. If someone denies it, assert it."

  • On behalf of the faculty of the University of Chicago, I welcome you to this temple of liberalism. Honor it. Flourish in it. Defend it. May it live for a thousand and one years.

A good source told me Shweder received an immediate standing ovation.

How is learning going on your own campus, by the way?


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