Essays in Idleness


Vivat academia

I am not radically opposed to letting smart people into universities, though I think the process has got out of hand. That to the “best” universities, only the smartest should apply, is now generally accepted. The flip side of this is that self-styled “smart people” are uniquely welcome in these universities, which become, as it were, ghetti of the sciences.

Up to the beginning of the 20th century, and slightly over, universities in all parts of the world tended to be venerable, and conservative. They were in effect clubs where the aristocracy could send their male children (females usually required tutors). Occasionally a poor boy, of real promise but from a commonplace background, would be admitted on some sort of scholarship. So long as there were not too many of them, there was no harm done.

There was always a place for reprobate youth, and indeed superior quarters in which to keep them — if they came from good families. They were an important part of every university’s oeconomy.

Here in America, I associate the corruption of universities with Woodrow Wilson, a man of bottomless arrogance and a strange belief — in “progress.” He brought smart people into his government, in the perverse conviction that they were uniquely qualified to solve the problems of the world. There are, a hundred years later, still those who believe this fatuous nonsense. But finally, it is dying away.

The challenge of the university today, is to recover what has been lost to a century (and sometimes more) of “reform” movements; in the course of which the whole tone of “higher education” has been lost. Smart people have, by now, taken over, to the regret of most others.

“Smarts” is the lowest form of human intelligence. It is what is measured with SAT scores and on IQ tests. It can be predicted and detected in the newly born. It is a medical condition.

By contrast, universities are places for persons of quality to collect, and where another generation of them can be formed. This is done while their elders teach, and while the best traditions are inculcated. It is of the greatest importance that professors be underpaid, and carefully underadministered; that they should look to the students for most, if not all, of their income, with no prospect of getting vulgarly rich.

Researches (sciences) may also be pursued, and financed, within the schools and without, by enthusiasts of all kinds. And the students may also drink, and compose drinking songs.


I have found, with discs and recordings, that although they are good for something, and seem to follow the music accurately enough — at whatever volume you have assigned — they are frustrating and inadequate. This is true even of a superior performance, carefully recorded. Compare it to an inferior performance (though not an incompetent). Not a recorded, live performance, but an actual live performance, coming (inevitably) from a specific place. Indeed, being able to move it is one of the flaws, and playing it over, it sounds exactly the same. This is a terrible flaw. One is bored by this repetitive trick. Give me a living show every time.

The same is true of buildings. A photograph of a great building wears even before it ages. It cannot be improved. Even a lesser building, actually before one, stands out. A painting or architect’s drawing may at first dazzle us with relations, shapes and spaces, even light and colour. Then it becomes tedious. Soon one is willing to move on. But a real building is immense. It does not stop moving. We stop to take parts of it in.

Misfortunes of Elphin

Aristocracy is government by the best, once we recognize them. The opposite is not democracy but kakistocracy — government by the worst. That the worst are the least suitable, most corrupt, unscrupulous and shameless, is generally conceded. But I read this Greek-founded word, kakistocracy, in a political blog, and guessed that some things might not be conceded.

Thomas Love Peacock revived the term in his marvellous novel, The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829): a recreation of the Welsh mediaeval past, from its poetry. A learned and patient man, notwithstanding his friendship with Shelley — and well-acquainted with Greek as well as Welsh — he used the term thoughtfully. But in more recent revivals it is used to be merely clever, by, for instance, those who wish to demonize Donald Trump. The word is flung out of places like Twitter. It is just a word.

When it first appeared, it was in a sermon to Parliament during the Civil War — the English one of the 17th century. It was part of a long meditation on “the peace of Jerusalem,” and why we should pray for it. The preacher, Paul Gosnold, did mention “sticking and medling,” and being “stung with a perpetuall itch of changing and innovating,” among the political characteristics he disapproved; and naturally he touched upon the deteriorating  scene of 1644. But his interest was with prayer — collectively and nationally — not with advancing a programme.

“It is the greatest torment to be depriv’d of Heaven, so it is not the least of pleasures to be freed of Hell,” he said, in repeating the wise Richard Hooker. His homily is full of literary echoes.

It is hard for us to imagine a world in which “the peace of Jerusalem” could be conceived in such a divine, cosmic way; in which men had more, much more, to fear than death. Public safety could not be reduced to public health.

Egerton Ryerson

I see that the statue of Egerton Ryerson has been desecrated and toppled from its plinth at the front of the “Ryerson University” campus. Since the Black Lives Matter riots last year, it had been covered with pink paint, and since the reports of extensive burials on the grounds of the Indian residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, it had become a specific target of Woke demonstrators.

Ryerson was among the most distinguished educators in Canadian history. He is worth looking up. As a “youff” I once threw a snowball at the same public monument: that symbol of the Upper Canadian establishment. Yet it was a reminder of how impressive, enterprising, and courageous that establishment had been. It had created a society in which, once upon a time, people were free and could express themselves.

Ryerson was also a figure in the development of Canada’s “residential schools,” which took Indians from (mostly) dysfunctional homes and gave them an education with priests, nuns, and respectable Protestants. Not all denizens of an orphanage are happy, and by attaching the word “colonialism,” and giving simplified accounts, full of libels, “progressive” Canadian politicians have made this period of Canadian history into a scandal. Those who know better have been silenced.

Some years ago I tried to defend the “residential schools,” more or less alone in the Canadian “meejah.” I received many, many letters from former students of them, who said their memories were happy. They had been inspired by teachers of real Christian faith and conviction, and had been equipped with the rudiments of sound learning. “They saved my life,” was a frequent comment.

I could understand the residential schools because I am familiar with Canadian education before it was taken over by barbaric hordes; and also because I am myself partly a product of “British colonial” private schools in Asia, decades ago. They were brutal towards their boys, sometimes. I was myself beaten, and their teachers were sometimes tyrannical.

As a young man I thought this was the way of the world. Now that I am old, I look back on the teaching I received with great pride. It was vastly better than what I would receive in a Canadian high school; and that was much better than what we get today.

But of course, I am not a political whack-case. In another country, perhaps, there would be a few sceptical journalists, backed by historians, who would look into the claims of the leftwing savages, and provide some much-needed context. Today, and here, there is just the one tedious point of view, and that febrile and ignorant.