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"The mind can be a passionate organ, too"

Photo:  President Don Michael RandelIt is hard to resist the temptation simply to gush-about the University and its people, about the city and its people, about the excitement of being a member of both groups. At a recent and magnificently warm welcoming event on Navy Pier, I poached on an essay by Nicholson Baker to describe Chicago as a city of tall thoughts. In daily life, during the few months since sinking my roots here, I have often been struck by a metaphor a good deal closer to the ground-a city and a university of really big shoes. My father teased me a lot about my big feet when I was growing up. I wouldn't mind his reassurance on the point now. Whether as a member of the faculty or as the president of the University, I cannot help but think of shoes and feet to fill them.

However much I may feel myself to be inextricably rooted in this University and in this city, I am, of course, a newcomer. This fact inspires many questions of me from people who have been here much longer. "Are you settled? How do you find the University and its community? What do you think of it?" Underneath these questions lies a question clearly present but never asked in these terms: "Do you love it as much as I do?"

The short answer is "yes," though it may take some time yet before some of my interlocutors come to believe that I could possibly both know it and love it as much as they do. What I can say with perhaps more authority-the, as it were, dispassionate authority of a kind that a newcomer can claim to have-is that the University is in fact today precisely the University that you have always known and loved and that it is now my privilege to know and love.

In the midst of our recent and characteristically rambunctious debates, what about this University continues to make it the one we know and love? It is that we care about ideas above all else, and we believe in the power of ideas to transform the lives of us all, individually and collectively. The word fun got into a certain amount of trouble here recently. This is not because fun is inherently a bad word but because fun, at least in current usage, is not a big enough word-because fun in current usage tries to drive a wedge between thinking and feeling, a wedge, with ancient roots, to be sure, that we ought not to admit to the discussion of our university, however much in its thrall other universities listed in the rankings of U. S. News and World Report may be.

Here we are not about fun as the low-grade hallucination that passes for it in many quarters. As two faculty colleagues (Joel Snyder in art history and Berthold Hoeckner in music) have said to me in one way or another in recent exchanges, here we are about something more nearly akin to joy and, yes, happiness. That is what we, at least, mean by fun. It rests on the belief that the life of the mind is the only life worth living and that the mind and the heart are not wholly unrelated organs.

We are blessed in these first weeks of the fall quarter with an inspiring and moving and entertaining production at Court Theatre of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. It is about A. E. Housman, scholar and poet, in relation to Oscar Wilde. It is about the relation between thinking and feeling. At least one reviewer (Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books) thinks that Stoppard has got it all wrong, failing to recognize in the character of Housman that "the mind can be a passionate organ, too."

This is something that the University of Chicago has got right-that thinking is the inseparable companion of the feelings most worth having, that joy and happiness (as distinct from mere fun) are the ultimate aims in life and that thinking is the activity most likely to lead to them. As Housman, the most serious of scholars and at the same time a poet of profound feeling, put it, "Our business here is not to live, but to live happily." More and more talented students understand the difference between mere fun on the one hand and joy and happiness on the other and that the University of Chicago is a place like no other in precisely this respect. On the first day of Orientation I passed a first-year on the sidewalk wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Got any evidence?"

That is what we still teach at the University of Chicago and what we believe, assuming a subtle and broad definition of evidence, is most likely to lead to joy and happiness. In this sense, it is still the University that you know and love, even as we rethink regularly, as we have through all of our history, precisely which books to read and which courses to require. We have a one-of-a-kind university in a one-of-a-kind city. This should continue to inspire in all of us-well, joy and happiness.

The Magazine has invited President Don Michael Randel to write a column each issue on a topic of his choosing.-Ed.

  OCTOBER 2000

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Déjà views
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Women in white
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Gay studies at Chicago
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Reclamation project

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