In 1950, America’s favorite childhood fantasist, Theodor Seuss Geisel, published a weighty
philosophical tome, If I Ran the Zoo. Well, perhaps weighty isn’t the best term. But Dr. Seuss’s fable ran a little against the temper of his time.
Post-war America was busy imbibing French existentialism, Austrian psychoanalysis, and Cold War dread. Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (1938) was not yet translated but its sense of stultifying despair was already fashionable. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) had offered a disenchanted vision of America’s high-minded sense of itself in World War II. J.D. Salinger’s existentialism for brats, serialized in The New Yorker in the 1940s, was about to arrive in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye. Sneering at phoniness would soon be a national pastime. Allen Ginsberg was clearing his throat for his Howl (1955) of rage against American tyranny over its creative spirits.
And here was the former war propagandist Geisel churning out insouciant pages of red, white, and mostly Cerulean blue cartoons celebrating the freedom of an American kid to imagine the world as he would like it to be, with himself at the center.
Dr. Seuss’s protagonist, young Gerald McGrew, suffers none of his sophisticated contemporaries’s deadly contempt for life as it is, or for his social surroundings. His opening words are, “It’s a pretty good zoo, and the fellow who runs it seems proud of it too.” But McGrew imagines he could do better. He would release the current animals and acquire creatures such as a ten-footed lion and a family of Lunks in a bucket from the wilds of Nantucket. He dreams of zookeeper glory, when “the whole world will say, ‘Young McGrews’s made his mark. / He’s built a zoo better than Noah’s whole Ark!’”
McGrew’s bestiary comes from Linneas-knows-not-where, but surely Dr. Seuss has posed a good question. If you ran the zoo, could you outdo McGrew?
This being the National Association of Scholars, we are interested in one particular zoo, American higher education. Of course, we mean this metaphor in the most benign way. We are not conjuring Animal House fraternities, or epithets like “Zoo Mass” for the University of Massachusetts. We are sober critics here at NAS and do not engage in petty satire. Rather we pose the question in the spirit of Dr. Seuss. We have sometimes doubted that it’s a pretty good zoo. But, say that it is. It still could be better.
With this in mind, we commence an occasional series on the theme, “If I Ran the Zoo.” We have asked contributors to forebear dwelling on what is wrong with the current zoo and instead to tell us in positive terms what they would do to improve it.
We put no restrictions on this invitation. For my part, I rather hope that the zoos in the mind’s eyes of our contributors will be robust places. Gerald McGrew saw that zoos need more than just the cute, the pliable, the droll, and the amusing. To that end he declared, “I’ll build a Bad-Animal-Catching-Machine.”
We have invited some friends and colleagues to give us their versions of “If I Ran the Zoo,” but we also are open to unsolicited submissions. Red-white-and-blue (or cadmium yellow) cartoons optional.
(1) Adam Kissel
If I Ran the University Zoo
If I ran the university zoo,
The number of administrators would be divided by two,
And two, and two, and two, and two,
Leaving more resources available for me and for you.
And maybe I’d do something about peer review.
The sociologist will learn how to speak with the entomologist
And the psychologist and the geologist
And the philologist and the astronomist and the economist
So that the Faculty Club will again serve discussion
And not only the gastronomist.
The faculty will know the difference
Between liberal education and general education,
Between liberal education and liberalism,
Between liberal education and illiberal policies,
Between liberal education and secondary education,
Between liberal education and research,
Between liberal education and Division I athletics.
The faculty will enjoy thinking about these differences,
Talking and debating about these differences,
Teaching about these differences,
And assessing students to make sure they understand
What they are doing in the zoo,
This zoo rather than some other zoo,
Where the administration has been cut by twos,
And the teams are at most in Division Two.
Sure, I believe in the unity of knowledge
But some kinds of studies are not for college,
At least not for degrees.
The world needs plumbers and clowns,
Horse-trainers and dog-trainers,
Athletes and acrobats and accordionists,
And advocates for or against this or that.
But college is the place to get up on philosophy
And science and math and religion and thinking
And writing and the other liberal arts.
College is not for jobs but for smarts.
If I got to run the zoo
And someone stood accused
Of something he maybe didn’t do
(Or maybe he did), he would get the process he is due.
The rules would be clear and applied equally to all.
Rule #1 would be a zero-tolerance policy
For speech codes and “free speech zones.”
Let academic freedom reign—
But this is where peer review
Comes into transdisciplinary purview.
Let each professor defend his work before his peers,
Across the university, and in the public sphere
So that honor may accrue where it is due—
And ridicule for those more than a few
Who cannot quite justify what it is that they do.
“The books stand open and the gates unbarred,”
Spoke Seamus Heaney at Harvard Yard.
At the university zoo, as I would do,
The animals run wise and free—as you and I should be.
(2) Herb London
Brainstorming about Higher Education
Suppose we didn’t have ivy covered buildings which house classes, suppose as well that we could start de novo in thinking about higher education. What would we do?
Each day I educate myself on the Internet. I learn what’s in the news, read essays from my favorite blog sites, communicate with intelligent colleagues and get the previous night’s baseball scores. I am a student of the Internet. In fact, I educate myself throughout the day intermittently turning to my computer for information, knowledge and, on some occasions, wisdom.
As I see it, this should be the blackboard of the future. Imagine having an education whenever you want it unencumbered by tuition payments or class schedules. Imagine as well having the best minds available to you without having to endure political diatribes which often substitute for honest discourse.
Of course, there are universities in cyberspace and several actually have solid curricula. But unfortunately most ape conventional university programs and all are eager to obtain accreditation, the gateway to respectability.
What I’m daydreaming about is different. It would be an informal university with YouTube presentations by the world’s great instructors. Milton Friedman would be teaching economics; Pitirim Sorokin, sociology; Immanuel Kant, philosophy. Yes, of course, they have all passed this mortal coil, but I’m sure you get my drift.
Moreover, every lecture would be accompanied by a reading list with books either read through “Kindle” or easily ordered through Amazon.
Should students want a degree or credential, they would go to centers where exams could be taken. It should be as easy as buying tickets for a movie. In fact, the centers would have interactive exams on line.
To deal with the labeling effect, honors would be conferred to students who do very well. This would allow parents to say, Johnny graduated with “a first” in history.
University professors will claim that this is an inadequate way to learn. Shameless as most are, they will excoriate this exercise as “matchbook degree programs,” even though these really aren’t degree programs at all.
Since most higher education is an exercise in trained incapacity, the Internet University could easily demonstrate its progeny know at least as much as students from yesteryear. In fact, when your computer lights up and says “you have mail” it may be a lecture you really want to hear. Now wouldn’t that be unusual.
(3) Thomas C. Reeves
If I Ran the University Zoo
As things now stand, higher education in this country is largely in the business of creating ideological conformity, producing successful job applicants, and providing fun for adolescents. A bi-product is an intense anti-intellectualism which has contributed substantially to the decline of our culture. It seems to me that there are only two solutions to the calamity. The first is to create and require rigorous graduation examinations. It’s the only way to insure that college graduates receive some semblance of a broad and deep education and know anything at all. There are ways to do this without involving state or federal government, but it may be necessary to employ the services of both, at least in the public institutions. If meaningful reform proves impossible (a probability), the way around the roadblock is the creation of new colleges and universities, private institutions that will take education (as opposed to mere vocational training and leftist nonsense) seriously. Indeed, there are frustrated Catholics now taking such steps. In the best of these institutions, there would be high admission standards (free of all taint of discrimination by color, race or class); uniform requirements grounded in the greatest literary, religious, and scientific products of the human mind; and an emphasis on student research, writing, and thought (as opposed to parroting). Faculty members, scholars in a minimum of solid disciplines, would be selected in part by their devotion to objectivity. They would be well-paid, be governed by a bare minimum of administrators, and protected by the full force of academic freedom.
Here are avenues of endeavor that should appeal to those who want the best for their young people and for the future of our wobbling civilization.