If I Ran the Zoo XIV

Erin O'Connor

In 1977, Theodore Geisel—a.k.a. Dr. Seuss—delivered the Lake Forest College commencement address. The whole affair was an accident. When Geisel accepted the invitation, he thought he would simply be receiving an honorary degree. He had no idea he had agreed to speak. When he discovered that he was expected to give a graduation speech, he called the college president to explain that he would not be doing so. “I talk with people, not to people,” he said.

Lake Forest’s president begged Geisel to reconsider his position. But when graduation day arrived, he hadn’t gotten anywhere. He commenced the ceremony without a speaker on hand. When it came time to award Geisel his honorary degree, the president made a final, whispered plea. And Dr. Seuss obliged. Reaching under his gown, he withdrew a sheet of paper. On it were some verses he had scribbled while sitting onstage. He read them out to the assembled graduates. They went like this:

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant’s bill of fare.

And, when they were served,
he regarded them with 
a penetrating stare…

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

“To eat these things,”

said my uncle,

“you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what’s solid…


you must spit out the air!”


as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,

that’s darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.

And be careful what you swallow.

The poem is a charming one, and contains about as much wisdom, and considerably more brevity, than the standard graduation speech. But it’s also a gesture of refusal. Dr. Seuss wanted no part of telling college graduates what to think or be or do. It seems safe to assume that he would not have wanted to run the collegiate zoo—or even to speculate, as the contributors to this forum are doing, about what he would do if the zoo were his to run.

And small wonder. Geisel’s refusal of the authoritative advisory moment no doubt had many, layered reasons behind it. But it’s hard not to draw at least a provisional connection between it and his own undergraduate years at Dartmouth. As a college student during the1920s, Geisel underwent a formative run-in with an administration that was, to say the least, given to creative abuses of authority. Caught serving alcohol at a party in his rooms, he was punished nonsensically and memorably—with a gag order forbidding him from editing and contributing to the campus humor magazine for the duration of his time at Dartmouth. Geisel continued his work on the Jack-o-Lantern anyway—editing, writing humorous essays, and publishing cartoons under the pseudonym of Seuss.

After graduation, Geisel matriculated at Oxford with the aim of becoming an English professor. Bored and uninspired, his lecture notes covered with doodles, he dropped out, abandoning the pursuit of collegiate authority and eventually settling on a career as a self-starting, self-sufficient author of children’s books. The “Dr.” in “Dr. Seuss” was added in playful reference to Geisel’s abandonment of academic life.

Conceived in opposition to censorious administrators and anointed with an ironic anti-title commemorating his rejection of academia, Dr. Seuss could hardly turn around, decades later, and moralize at students about their futures. His entire career had been forged upon the anti-authoritarian ideals of play, whimsy, and deftly done allegory. He spoke of nonsense as something that “wakes up the brain cells,” and described fantasy as “a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope … that enables you to laugh at all of life's realities.” Straightforward admonition was not only not his thing, it was positively anathema to his philosophy of life.

The popover poem allowed Seuss to sidestep the dreaded advisory moment—and it allowed him to do so in a manner that subtly registered the precise nature of the problem he faced. For Uncle Terwilliger, the advocate of careful popover consumption, is not just any uncle. He is not a rhetorical conceit created for the Lake Forest graduation moment. He’s an established Seussical personality. When he’s not eating popovers, he waltzes with bears. And when he’s not doing that, he’s a maniacally autocratic teacher, bossing students around in exactly the ways Seuss reviled.

The star of Seuss’s 1953 musical film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Terwilliker (as his name is here spelled) appears initially to be a fairly innocuous, if strict, piano teacher. He believes in discipline, repetition, rote, and practice; he’s an old-school authoritarian, no more, no less. But in the dreams of his reluctant student, Bartholomew Collins, Terwilliger morphs into a terrifying embodiment of the worst sorts of pedagogical abuse. 

One night, Bart dreams that the evil Dr. Terwilliker has conscripted 500 boys to play an elaborate piano composition with their 5,000 fingers. Terwilliker plans to take over the world with his powerful music. He is dictatorial and cruel, obsessed with power, and given to fits of terrifying rage when he does not get his way. He keeps the boys in a dungeon, confiscates their toys, starves them, and tortures anyone who refuses to play his part in the plan for world domination. But Bart isn’t having it—and in the end he and his compatriots overthrow Terwilliker’s regime for good. The film is a surreal indictment of pedagogical authority, one so intensely focused on drawing links between strict teachers and evil dictators that it openly models Terwilliker on Hitler and uses the cultural accoutrements of Nazi Germany to establish the repressive feel of Terwilliker’s dream-regime (as Bernard Welt has observed, the music, the architecture, the processionals, and even the cinematic style all owe much to Hitler’s era; Bart’s dream is filmed in a manner that specifically recalls Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

All of this is to say that Dr. Seuss’ seemingly light-hearted commencement poem is actually a thoroughgoing set of self-referential in-jokes about abusive academic authority. A gentle refusal of the teacherly project of telling students what to do and who to be, the poem quietly but decisively condemns the very prospect of an adult trying to run the zoo.

Published in 1950, three years before Terwilliker made his film debut, If I Ran the Zoo forms an intriguing anticipatory companion piece to the movie. If the problem with Dr. Terwilliker is that he’s a grown man using children to prop up his own quest for power, the appeal of this sweet book is that Gerald McGrew gets to fantasize about running the zoo because he is a child. Gerald’s fantasy, like Bart’s, is one of resistance—and creative liberation—from below, not of authoritative control from above. Adults, by definition, can’t participate in it—that’s doubly so for adults in positions of institutional authority over children, and perhaps triply so for those who run the zoo we call higher education.

Still, it’s worth thinking about how Gerald McGrew thought he might run his zoo. Because when we do, what we see is that Seuss’ story contains quite a revealing exploration of how fantasies about institutional reform take shape.

The first thing to note is that Gerald McGrew wants change for change’s sake. “You see things like [lions and tigers and that kind of stuff] in just any old zoo,” he complains. “They’re awfully old-fashioned. I want something new!” And so he plans to acquire, among other things, a bustard, a flustard, a gootch, and a natch. There is nothing wrong with the traditional beasts except for the fact that they are traditional. 

The second thing to note is that Gerald McGrew’s plan for cultivating zoological diversity is centered on shock value. He wants to make people “gawk” at the “strangest odd creatures that ever did walk.” In Gerald McGrew’s zoo, exoticism is a positive value—not because it’s educational, but because it’s daring, transgressive, and surprising.

The third thing to note is that Gerald McGrew’s zoo is all about Gerald McGrew. “The whole world will say, ‘Young McGrew’s make his mark. / He’s built a zoo better than Noah’s whole Ark! / These wonderful, marvelous beasts that he chooses / Have made him the greatest of all the McGrewses!’” His ultimate aim is to showcase himself.

The fourth thing to note is Gerald’s total lack of thought and anticipation. How will he staff this zoo? Fund its acquisitions? Care for its exotics? Will he pass the increased costs of his boutique establishment on to customers? Seek federal or state subsidies? Set up as a privately funded non-profit? Other? On such subjects, young Gerald McGrew predictably has nothing to say. Nor does he have a plan for what he will do when the new zoo acquisitions inevitably become the old, unremarkable mainstays of his establishment —he seems not to grasp that his new, radically reformed zoo will quickly become an old, implicitly dull and traditional status quo.

This is not to criticize Gerald McGrew. He is, after all, what children naturally and appropriately are—a utopian fantasist with plenty of autocratic intent and no real plan. But it is to suggest that If I Ran the Zoo reads like a primer on the fundamentals of misguided leadership. We might observe, for example, that Gerald sounds an awful lot like a certain presidential candidate—audacious and hopeful, long on utopian beliefs about the virtues of change, short on specifics about what changes are needed and how they will be implemented, and breathtakingly silent on the subject of all that is good and worth keeping.

We might also note that he sounds a great deal like that generation of academic reformers, now reaching retirement, that has worked so hard to do away with traditional ideas of what is worth knowing largely because they are traditional ideas of what is worth knowing. Certainly, Gerald’s new, improved zoo has much in common with the contemporary university, which has abandoned traditional disciplines for the sake of trendy, often shockadelic courses of study; has adopted poorly conceptualized and unworkable diversity plans; has come to center more on the careers of administrators than on the educations of students; and suffers from such an enduring failure of governance that we are growing accustomed to the once unthinkable idea that, if academics won’t hold themselves accountable, government might have to do it for them.

Looked at in this light, If I Ran the Zoo begins to read like an uncannily apt caricature of how adults regularly botch the delicate project of institutional reform precisely because they naively imagine that the zoo would be perfect if only they could run it. Power corrupts. But utopian fantasies—as childish as they are—can make us forget that simple fact.

 All of this brings us back to Uncle Terwilliger, who seems far wiser in his avuncular capacity than in his pedagogical guise. Having mellowed over time, Uncle Terwilliger appears at the Lake Forest graduation not in the capacity of a teacher, but in the special incapacity of an uncle—who by definition has no real authority over his nieces and nephews. His graduation advice reflects his comfortably powerless position. When he tells students to be wary of hot air, he is telling them to think for themselves. When he points out that popovers contain hot air, he is urging his audience to recognize that the good and the bad come jumbled together, and that in order to get at the one you have to be able to identify and reject the other. He is, in other words, going to the heart of what education ideally enables one to do: to think independently, and to come to one’s own conclusions about what to do, be, and believe.

Maybe, ironically, it’s the mellowed Uncle Terwilliger, and not the radical Gerald McGrew, who should inspire us when we think about how higher education could be improved. Certainly—and even more ironically—that’s what Dartmouth seems to think. Just this year, the college that once attempted to censor Theodore Geisel adopted Uncle Terwilliger as a sort of graduation mascot. For a mere eleven dollars, Dartmouth’s class of 2008 could purchase a commemorative t-shirt bearing the entirety of Terwilliger’s graduation speech. Say what you will about the marketing ploy. Terwilliger’s are more than just words to live by—they are also words for trustees, administrators, and faculty to lead by.

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