LONDON, ONTARIO - It’s a little known fact that I attended university for a grand total of two days; just long enough to earn a profound Degree of Distaste. It’s not the kind of accomplishment that I’ve ever been able to list on a CV when applying for jobs. But those two days did constitute an education of sorts and have provided an effective inoculation against the kind of regret I’ve often heard older, self-made people express when they look back over their lives and say that they wish they’d been able to spend more time in school. It also probably explains my uncontrollable sneer reflex whenever I’m in the company of someone who identifies herself (except for the late Roy McDonald, it always seems to be a woman) as a lifelong learner.
It was 1975 and I had just finished writing my second novel and wasn’t sure what to turn my hand to next. (Insert here that trusty old saw about the devil soon finding work for idle hands.) I reasoned that because I lived to read and write, I could probably do a lot worse than to make my way to some place where people reportedly studied books and ideas all the doo dah day and see if I couldn’t push things along a little by picking up the formal education I had interrupted by dropping out of high school.
So at the age of 23, I was accepted as a ‘mature’ student (little did they know) into a first year arts program at the University of Western Ontario. I was a little irritated at the admission department drone's insistence that I would also have to take a course in remedial French (my non-gift for non-English languages has always been pronounced) and really started to wonder just what I was doing when I filled out and filed my application for a hefty student loan whose repayment scheme would blight my economic prospects for the next two or three decades. Could it be that I actually hated myself that much?
Then I set foot on campus, not as an applicant but as an actual student, and was bombarded by the magnitude of the mistake I’d just made. In a daze of sodden disenchantment, I sampled each of my courses over those two interminable days, appalled by the gargantuan size of each class and the concomitant absence of any points of human contact or engagement. Some people seem to flourish in such an environment but for one of my temperament, the impersonal scale and logistics of the place magically transformed each lecture hall into a sort of clinical cafeteria where an identical scoop of unappetizing but purportedly nourishing matter got plopped onto every student’s plate and that was that. Keep the line moving and we’ll expect your report on Friday. Gosh, it was shocking how much I loathed it.
The final elbow came in Philosophy 101 where we sat around for an hour and a half in our own manifestly existent chairs and ponderously discoursed on whether or not another chair set up on the dais next to the lecturer could also be said to exist. My offer to sit in the lecturer’s contentious chair to prove its existence was rejected as an irrelevant empirical dodge for a question we were committed to address philosophically. I guess there was some sort of point to this intellectual exercise but it was then and there I silently deduced that I’d had enough. This arid game wasn’t something I had any interest in playing for the next three or four years of my life; not when there was a whole world of books I was actually interested in reading and stories and essays of my own devising that I wanted to develop and see where they took me.
And I knew that if I was going to bail, this was the moment to do so. The first installment of my loan still hadn’t come through so I would be able to head that albatross off at the pass and have it cancelled before it lighted upon my head. I’d been given reading lists for every course but had yet to buy even one of their dreary texts. And best of all, somewhere in the fine print of a notice I’d picked up during my interviews, it stipulated that there was a 72-hour grace period for the student to activate their buyer’s remorse clause. If I walked away now, I wouldn’t be on the hook to UWO for any money at all. (They later came after me for some sort of registration fee which I supposedly owed but I ignored the several notices they mailed to me at two different addresses and the account was then passed over to a collection agency at whose behest I was called into court where the case was thrown out when nobody from the agency or the university could be bothered to show up.)
I was off the hook and Scot free and so relieved I practically levitated. Luxuriating in a sudden and illusory sense of wealth because of the money that wasn’t going to be Hoovered out of my pockets after all, I stopped into Robert’s Holmes bookshop on the way home from my ex-alma mater and bought myself a fine fat compendium of the non-fiction prose of George Orwell.
It was a brief enough passage in my life that I don’t often reflect on but I was reminded of the dull misery of it all by a rather alarming story that was flagged on the front page of today’s London Free Press. In a queasy blend of journalese and academic gobbledegook, we are told that in response to demand from students, Western’s administration has come up with a five-year mental health strategy which is being passed on to the university senate for approval:
“The strategy calls for ingraining mental health and wellness into every aspect of life at Western, and takes aim at the downside of the university’s competitive climate, recommending programs that ‘normalize setbacks’ and help students to deal with failure . . . The new strategy comes the same year that several Western students took their own lives, others complained to the media about mental health services, and a student plebiscite called on administration to make mental health and wellness a permanent priority in Western’s overall strategic plan.”
Of course, in a world where the top university executives are far more concerned with fund-raising than cultivating curricula, the vice-provost of academic programs who is also “the person in charge of the mental health file” assures the Free Press that the new program to ameliorate Western’s mental health crisis will require “significant dollars” and “operationally too, we will need some more dollars to support more staff as we move forward.”
Well, I guess that’s one way of coping with an inhuman environment that makes you start to doubt your sanity. But I still think there’s something to be said for just quitting.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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