The Nature of College by James Farrell


When the Pew Research Center asked members of “Generation Next” (18-25-year-olds) to describe their generation, they used labels like “lazy” and “crazy” and “fun.” Fifty percent of teens told Teenage Research Unlimited that their generation is “about fun,” and 69 percent claimed that “I always try to have as much fun as possible.”  Anthropologists who have studied contemporary college students note that fun is a primary purpose of college life.  In Coming of Age in New Jersey, his 1989 study of college life, Michael Moffatt described student perceptions of the purpose of college—and “fun” was one of their primary goals. It still is.  In her 2005 book My Freshman Year, anthropologist Rebekah Nathan found that fun is “one of the most ubiquitous words in college discourse.”

Fun is part of the rhythm of work and rewards at college; it’s almost as natural to Joe College as the rhythm of day and night.  But students don’t learn this fun morality in school; they learn it from us. Defining classwork and homework as work, students interpret work as most other Americans do—the alienating stuff that we do to justify (and pay for) the pleasurable parts of our life.  In American culture, we say “I have to go to work,” not “I get to go to work.”  And we pray the great American interdenominational prayer, “Thank God it’s Friday.”  We like Friday because it precedes the weekend, a two-day interval that might be given the single name “Funday,” because the Sabbath of fun is, for many (if not most) Americans, more important than the religious observance of the Sabbath.

That’s why, Dr. America thinks, so many American congregations are turning to the cultures of entertainment and consumption to spice up their Sunday services.  In doing so, they may still be preaching the gospel, but they’re also implicitly preaching the gospel of fun. In church and out of it, this kind of fundamentalism is more important than all other fundamentalisms combined. It’s the one religion we practice not just weekly, but daily, with our liturgical observance of TV and movies and video games and internet attractions.

Such fundamentalism is one of America’s deepest values, a way of thinking (and not thinking) that’s an essential part of our culture of distraction.  The problem with this fundamentalism, if there is one, is that the perpetual craving for diversion diverts Americans from the social and environmental imagination that might help us craft a society that’s more fulfilling than fun.  Waiting for the weekend, anticipating the Big Game, planning Saturday’s party, going out for dinner and a movie, we get engaged in fun—but not as engaged with the intellectual play that might lead to a just or sustainable society.  The quest for fun sometimes crowds out the kind of quests that used to make coming of age more meaningful.  We may be, as Neil Postman argues, “amusing ourselves to death”—or, even worse, amusing ourselves to extinctions.

If our primary educational systems (TV and commercial culture and peer pressure) can convince us that one of the primary purposes of life is to have fun, the powers that be don’t have to worry about an ecological revolution.  As Thomas Pynchon says in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”    If we focus our lives on the question “What can we do for fun?” instead of “What can we do for fulfillment? or “What can we do for our communities (human and otherwise)?” we’ll enjoy our pleasures while the world around us worsens. What’s on our minds eventually makes its way into the world—and into our character.

That’s because fun doesn’t just affect what we do; it affects who we are.  When we absorb the fun morality of American culture, we’re fundamentally different people than we were before.  We see life differently (and more superficially).  We focus on parties and games and entertainments that, on reflection, aren’t all that important to our lives (or the life of the planet).  An ethic of fun complicates a deeper ethics. An ethic of fun isn’t particularly Biblical—there’s a lot of sacrifice and sharing in the Bible, but not a lot of fun.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s also a lot of joy in the Bible, and a lot of fulfillment. So if our churches traded an ethic of fun for an ethic of joy and fulfillment, a celebration of the good earth and the good news of the gospel, it might be fun to see the result.