This past week was one of those news weeks where reporters don’t get a moment to rest. Toronto’s mayor took the stand in court and showed that not only is he impossibly unqualified for the job of mayor, but that he possibly might not have an IQ high enough to drive. Then he followed his “victory” with a giant barbeque at his house. Then, as though that wasn’t enough, to keep pens glued to paper, fingers tapping at keyboards and Canadian Evernote accounts permanently maxed out, Prime Minister Stephen Harper severed all diplomatic ties with Iran.
With that in mind, Margaret Wente was compelled to write “What I learned at university”.
I imagine Wente dressed up as Grizabella the Glamour Cat when she wrote this, singing Memory to her Dell Inspiron as she hit “save as”, selected “Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP/2003 (.doc)” and then sent it away as a Gmail attachment. The opening paragraph is waterlogged by nostalgia:
More years ago than I care to think, my mother drove me to the small town five hours from Toronto where I was about to start university. Everything I owned was stuffed in the back of her Volkswagen Beetle. I was anxious and excited. I was worried that everyone would be smarter than me, to say nothing of more worldly and more sexually experienced. I hoped I would like my roommate. I hoped she wouldn’t be too tall.
Which small town does she mean? Windsor? Sudbury? Ottawa? Nope. She means Ann Arbor, which is a city. I suppose we may cross “The difference between a small town and a city” off of the things Wente learned at university.
So what did Wente learn at university? English, I suppose?
The thing to know about university is that it will be among the most intense experiences of your life. You’ll make friends there you’ll keep forever. You’ll probably discover something you’re passionate about (and if you don’t, why are you there?). Fifty years from now, decades of your life will have vanished down the memory hole without a trace. But you’ll remember certain scenes from university as if they’d happened yesterday. You won’t be able to recall what courses you took or what you learned in them. It’s what you learned outside the classroom that will stick.
Who exactly does Wente think her readership is? College students? High school students about to go to college? Parents of college-aged students who will give this to their kids to read and then their kids won’t read it and it won’t ever get brought up again? Seriously though: college students? She thinks her readers are college students?
To today’s students, some parts of my university experience would seem as remote as the Pleistocene epoch. The digital age lay in the distant future. Instead of a laptop, I had a small typewriter, whose keys jammed if I typed too fast. I regarded Wite-Out as the most important technological breakthrough of the decade. Our dorm had one phone at the end of the hall – which, apart from writing a letter, was the only way of contacting one’s parents. I went for weeks without speaking to them, and that was fine with me. For all they knew of my life, I might as well have been on Mars.
A typewriter! Wite-Out! One phone! How quaint. These are the things adorable movies are made of. You know, the good old days. Tom Hanks movies where he manages a band. Ray. What the restaurant chain Medieval Times is all about. Nostalgia. She describes the dark ages some more:
For the first two years, it was mandatory for students to live in residence. Men and women lived in different dorms, and curfews were enforced. Men were only allowed in women’s rooms on Sunday afternoons. You were supposed to keep the door partly open, and three feet on the floor. Nobody handed out condoms during orientation week.
Did they have condoms pre-Gutenberg? Oh, hang on. I’m getting my decades wrong. Sidebar: when you type “the sixties” into Google Image search, an alarming amount of it is pictures of the Beatles. It’s like they’re all that happened. Just the Beatles with a hint of the Vietnam War.
By my second year in university, the ’60s revolution had arrived. Three girlfriends and I moved out of the dorm into a big old one-room flat. One day, I ran into my freshman adviser in the street. I barely recognized him. He had swapped his tweed jacket and tie for an open-necked shirt and love beads, and his thinning hair had grown down to his shoulders. By my third year, our poetry professor was smoking dope with us. Patty’s boyfriend began supplementing his income by dealing LSD and pot. We seldom drank (we were the art-house, not frat-house, crowd), but every so often we’d get a craving for jelly doughnuts at 3 a.m. My friend Trish was famous because she could eat more than anyone.
It starts to read like the lyrics to Summer of ’69:
Me and some guys from school/ Had a band and we tried real hard/ Jimmy quit, Patty’s boyfriend started selling acid/ Shoulda known, we’d never get far.
Yeah, the art house crowd. The jelly doughnuts at 3 a.m. crowd. I remember that part about doughnuts in Howl:
Again, this is what the kids are going to be reading. A bunch of jokes I made about Brian Adams and Allen Ginsberg and Margaret Wente. Real, real hip stuff. But for the rest of us: a revelation. Wente shows us her Achilles heel, and it is logic!
There were other disappointments, too – intellectual ones. I had planned to minor in philosophy, which required me to take a course in logic. Logic was highly analytical. It was the first subject that I couldn’t master with a bit of effort. (To be sure, I’d been careful to avoid all the other ones.) Logic humiliated me. I just couldn’t get it. That’s when I learned what it feels like to bang your head against the ceiling. This is an essential experience for those to whom most things come easily.
Come easily, Margaret? Like your columns of effortless illogic? Of course, no column titled “What I learned at university” would be complete without a list of those things the author learned, and here is Wente’s:
- Rewriting something always makes it better.
Right off the bat, she’s either lying or wrong. This very column could have been rewritten 5,000 times and not been improved.
- You can go two nights without sleep, but not three.
Sure? I’m not sure what she wanted us to make of this. I, certainly, have never needed to know this, despite spending 6 days awake in early 1993 just to see what would happen (things got heavy).
- Most people you’ll meet are just as sexually insecure as you are.
Ma’am, I… she thinks college kids need to know this? So they can go into sexual encounters thinking, “This is okay, nobody else here has any idea what they’re doing either. In it goes”?
- Ideas are intoxicating and unlike beer, they won’t give you a hangover.
Again, lying or wrong. This business of “intoxicating ideas” is why so many bad ideas (i.e. Ask.com) are floating around.
- Men come and men go, but great art is forever.
This I can’t disagree with, except to add that this is why so many men throughout history have helped to promote the essentially stupid idea of “great art”.
- Everything you really need can fit in the back of a Volkswagen.
Which one? A Golf? A Rabbit? I’d like to see you fit everything you need in the back of a Golf.
Incidentally, and because there is no clear way to a punchline without it, here’s my list:
The waitress isn’t going to go out with you.
- Sure, those jeans seem like the only jeans you’ll ever want to wear now but when you’re 25 and being 18 feels like 400 years ago, you’re going to wonder which one of your girlfriends forced you to wear them.
- Those kids who call their parents more than once a month are actually the normal, well-adjusted ones. What’s your problem, Mr. Boundaries?
- DJs who think of themselves as musicians are as bad as musicians. DJs who are weird nerds who know the name of every single record that ever came out are best friend material.
- Your friends who own cats now will never have children.