Thinning the Grove

“…taught the tree its leaf…”—Ovid

It wouldn’t be that hard to simplify academia.  The university could easily be a community of smart students, a few professors wise enough to recognize the limits of their wisdom, and a mid-size library with books.  Remember books?

Raise professors’ salaries, get rid of the money-wasting administrative cadre, increase the total number of courses students have to take, make the courses a bit harder, get rid of ‘majors’ and disciplinary allegiance, stop taking dirty money and stop giving it to special-interest groups and centers, and stop the lazy practice of giving grades and return to the hard work of lengthy, detailed prose assessments.  It’s not rocket science.

Go somewhere else to do applied rocket science.  Stay here to marvel at the beauties of thermodynamics, to work out some theoretical kinks in the physics, ethics, and communitarian possibilities of a space elevator.  Read Plato, walk and talk Socrates—get out of the classroom and stroll in the city and amongst the plane trees with your professor or students.


I urge the teachers and students (but not the ‘leaders’) of Princeton and McGill, the universities in which I’ve spent the most time, to begin now and show the world what smart, curious people can do without their handlers.  A practical place to begin is to emancipate all deans, presidents, chancellors and their ilk immediately.  You may be forced, during the transition phase, to accept their intrusions, but you can make the choice today to treat such intrusions as the incursions of interlopers and parasites.  They may force their way in through the windows, but you can choose not to let them in the front door.  Make the decision right now, for yourself, with integrity and courage, and then share it with someone else.  The only real administration that needs to happen is the arrangement of the course timetable.  One smart math student should be able to handle the simplified calendar, even with the increase in courses.

Universities are pretty good places.  Excellent for parkour, yoga in the groves, and classes.

The problem with universities is there’s too much money.  With all this money around, there’s plenty for administrators, for keeping the lights on in the daytime when sunlight would do just as well, for heating with colossal on-campus powerplants because we forgot to make passive solar buildings, and for salarying a whole sub-profession of brown-nosers who go to the dirtiest industries to suck hind teat.  Scientists can’t do any real work if they spend most of the day writing grant proposals.

Grad students

One can feel a little awkward writing letters on behalf of bright graduate students, sending them out into such a complex mish-mash of stop-gap measures patched onto a really quite beautiful notion of coming together to marvel at and to investigate the important and awe-inspiring things in life.  Welcome to the professoriate.  Beautiful but also so…laden.

For my part, I don’t have a lot of grad students.  It’s not every grad student at my university—which has a long, proud tradition of thinking of itself as the best university in the country—who’s up for the spelling on “Natures’ Futures” or courses called simply “Psychogeography.”

My students: the few, the proud, Maureen.

And hey, not just Maureen.  But still, it’s a select group, and they’re pretty successful by any standard, so I can tell myself that if nothing else my perverse ideas have had a destructive influence on the intelligentsia of three continents by now.  One does one’s best.

Upon my arrival at this university, the dean (dean of what?  Who knows?  I can no more keep track of these people than I can of the latest U.S.-sponsored banana dictator) felt a certain compulsion to criticize, in a public forum, my Psychogeography course for lacking disciplinary allegiance.  Psycho, he goes, geo, he muses, graphy, he sighs.  Did this increase our affection for deans?  Well, dear reader, we were inclined to be generous.  After all we—I need to use ‘we’ because I have so many different personae and vocations—are a juggler and a jester, and we recognized in these dim gropings of the Dean Brain the stirrings of a fellow traveler, perhaps a fellow tosser.  Three, four balls are tossed—what will happen next?


Speaking of boludos, as they say in Argentina, here’s an example of three tossed our way at U of T recently.  The Ontario government (I’ll let you guess whether here at seewalk-the-ungooglable we even recognize such an entity) apparently got lots of vote credit for long promises on a big Toronto transit deal, for which of course they’ve recently cut funding, judging by the enraged continuous-loop announcements in the subway.  What did the “government” have money for?  $25 million Ontario dollars for new facilities in the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T in 2008, which got Munk (the filthy-money gold guy) so excited he gave $35 million a few weeks ago, which got the feds so excited they promised 25 million genuine pastel-backs to the hucksters of Munk this week.  Jesus, get a hotel room, people.  Disgusting.  It’s all moving in the direction of a new “centre,” as they spell it here, for global security.

The word “security” no longer carries a hint of menace, as it once did—the hinting phase is long since over.

The center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world in the form of brutal governments willing to kill youth abroad.  Our Canamerican war against Iraq, where the demographic is young, is a war against children, against school-age children and against the very youth who most should be in university.  It’s not the resistance here at home that is anarchistic, it is the governments, now in unholy alliance with the very institutions that should be protecting youth, not slaughtering them.  Shame on us, in the university, for having anything to do with these filthy governments.  We can get away with this now, but do we really think future generations will be as generous in their assessments of our behavior as we are?

Security.  Are we reassured that otherwise intelligent university profs are chanting  this word so they can get the spigot to flow?


The academy’s constant appeal to market forces dumbs everyone down.

In literature departments the sine qua non for tenure is the monograph, the professor’s first book.  You’d think that would be judged by a community of peers, wouldn’t you?

In fact almost no university will trust its own professors and experts to judge first books—or any books—for the tenure or advancement process.  The decision is left to distant presses, where some kid who may not have been born when the professor began the twenty-to-twenty-five-year education process for tenure will have veto rights over whether the manuscript is even read, and an editor far less qualified than professors in the field will select the book for sale.  The sale is everything.

This isn’t even about greed, since university presses offer no significant money.  It’s just torpor and insecurity (or is it called ‘security’ nowadays?).  A slimmed-down university, by contrast, will have professors who are confident enough to read books for themselves.  How can formally illiterate professors teach students to read?

Who’s on Faust?

As affairs are now, the teachers with the least talent realize early on that the money’s in being a dean or administrator, as if there’s actually something that needs deaning or administering.  So they make a Faustian bargain, and drift “up” away from the classroom.

Those who can’t Faust, teach.  These non-Faustian teachers are the good guys.  Why do they—we, I—live their, our, lives “subject to the dean’s approval”?

How good do we want to be?  We can do better than this.

By getting rid of the deans, who want to be here too much, and the bottom half of the students, who don’t want to be here enough, those of us in the broad but admittedly elite center will free ourselves to the contemplation of eternal truth, the quest for knowledge, and bag lunches on alternate Thursdays with the biologists.  It’s a center that can hold.

Because the university is a middle-class venture, everyone’s afraid of appearing elitist by telling half the students they shouldn’t be there, and not elite enough by telling all the higher-ups they shouldn’t be, either.  The fear of elitism, at least, comes from not having had a solid street life to begin with.

Lucky for me, I’m just the man for the job.  I spent five years on the streets before I went to university.  I’ve got troll power, and know how to sleep under a bridge.  I get to say pretty much anything I want about anything as long as it’s true, because the worst that can happen professionally is that I might end up under that same set of bridges along route 95 that I used to haunt in the old days.  Maybe that’s my retirement package.  My old pals from Princeton might make more money than me, but they have to pretend that deans are anything but rascals to get it.  Dude, we said grove, not grovel.

University isn’t for everyone

What about access to higher education?  The left thinks they’re doing some favor to kids who aren’t interested in reading by increasing access.  But this is a form of snobbery, and it’s licensed by late capital’s notion of mass production.  The world doesn’t need another bored university student (not that I have any in my classes or anything).  The corollary of more access is “growth.”  The world doesn’t need to move “forward” under such drool-spangled banners as “building a strong Canada.”  More isn’t better, unless it’s the more of: we need more students who are willing to make do with less and to get their hands dirty with honest dirt, both inside and outside the academy.  The world needs, desperately, people who are good with their hands to retrofit the messy empire detritus that passes for architecture and to figure out the best ways to compost and to build garden cities and to solar-cook good food on a globe that is increasingly urban.  Economies need to shrink, not grow.  Growth should be reserved for fields like organic broccoli.

Whose idea is it that university should prepare people for jobs rather than educate them?  If the banks want a bunch of business students, let them pay for their own academies devoted to hire education.  Let’s keep the universities for the curious.  I’m a snob, and willing to patch the elbows on my garments to defend it.

Under the current system, the student’s parents’ wallet is lightened of a quarter of a million dollars and in exchange the student is offered a terse, nearly wordless “transcript” that assumes—perhaps correctly—that employers would be too ignorant to understand course descriptions and thus spins the graduating student’s experience with major and minor prompts for the mentally impaired.  The “major” is a straightjacket that forces the student to spend her time in university working backwards mentally from the supposedly practical constraints of the transcript, rather than taking courses from genuine curiosity.  Everyone suffers.

The transcript’s “information” is a set of nearly meaningless letters.  There’s even an odd hiccup between D and F (A, B, C, D, F?) leading one to wonder if professors can say their alphabets, let alone read.

Compare this system of assessment with one featuring, for example, a nicely bound volume of fifty-thousand words written by thirty or forty of the best scientists and people of letters in the region detailing the most interesting features of the student’s four-year trajectory, together with its limitations and concluding with a hint of future prospects for the student.  That’s it, nothing more.  But nothing less, either.  The volume is simple, elegant, excellent for keeping mentally deficient employers at bay, and I’ve already written parts of it for my own students.

Emancipation again

It cannot be said enough, apparently.  The ‘leaders’ are free to go now.

The funny thing is that, no matter how much I write against deans, such folks are among the friendliest people around and, in their best moments, inclined to agree with much of what I’m saying here, except for the part about their not being the sharpest stylus in the papyrus drawer.  We invite them, formally, to throw off their yokes, mix their metaphors up a bit, and return to the classroom, or go for the real money elsewhere.

In the healthiest groves, the foresters don’t get rid of dead wood, but let it go to ground, let it slowly release its nutrients.  If you’re a big tree and survive standing long enough, they start rumors that you’re a virgin again.  A virginity worth standing for.

Still, administrators:  if you’re dead, could you help us out here and lie down?

I guess what we’re doing is politely asking all the deans and ‘leaders’ and MBA stars to go somewhere where they can make the money and have the lifestyle they deserve. That would certainly help those of us who are curious about the meanings of life, and willing to work at a professor’s salary (or less!), to get on with it.

Not that we’re not having a good time.  Despite that double negative, it’s mostly good news from universities these days.  Maybe because I’ve taught at, or done research at, some of the nicer campuses in Canamericanglia—excluding Arlington, Texas (though even there, the campus itself is nice; it’s the visible-from-space parking lots that have to be turned into vegetable plots)—the university experience seems pretty close to utopia.  There’s plenty of money in universities, for example.  If your administrator doesn’t understand this, just tell him or her to hand over his or her salary to the common weal.  That one goes out to Berkeley, at the least.

The list of good stuff goes on.  The big trees have survived better on universities than in almost any other ecosystem.  At least half the first-year students are smart and curious.  Grad students are doing solid if underpaid work.  Professors are a little nerdy but no less interesting a social set for all that.  There are wonderful solar reading nooks everywhere.  What’s not to like?

A little pruning and we’re almost there.

DAVID Ker THOMSON has taught at eight of the following (and slept with someone from the ninth):  Princeton, Duke, McGill, Bard, Franklin and Marshall, Essex, and the Universities of Illinois, Texas, and Toronto.