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The University Zoo: The animals run wise and free–as you and I should be.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is one of the most unique and powerful organizations of the right now. Its mission is to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” and it is extremely successful in this regard. Indeed, a few years back when the Oregon Commentator was defunded by the Programs Finance Committee for our content, FIRE came in with a letter to then-President Dave Frohnmayer and our funding was restored. FIRE also publishes guides to student rights on university campuses, including a particularly interesting one on student fees and funding (hint hint ASUO folks hint hint).

Basically, FIRE is hella awesome, as are the people who work there.

One of those people, Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel, is an Oregon Commentator fan as well as an excellent writer. And in 2008, he was published by the National Association of Scholars as part of a post on Dr. Seuss’s 1950 fable If I Ran The Zoo. First, some of Peter Wood’s comments:

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.

And, of course, Kissel’s contribution:

(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.

Absolutely brilliant. Indeed, I believe my exact word to him was, “Heroic.”

Follow Adam on Twitter (and FIRE while you’re at it). We have a Twitter account, too: you can follow us here.

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks, Lyzi!

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