Too much college

Stephen Leacock has receded from the literary history of Canada and the world, though like Chesterton, he retains many readers. He might have retained more, I venture, had he been more brutal in satirizing contemporary stupidities; but he was determined to be gentle. He thought that was the rôle of the humourist, and he assumed the rôle, from a native capacity for wit and drollery; and perhaps paradoxically, from courage. He knew that it takes more courage to state a platitude, than to invent a paradox (and less to utter a blasphemy, than defend a truth), and so he deviated just for fun. Too, he was by training an economist; where’s the fun in that?

I’ve been reading Leacock’s more serious popular books (he wrote some real drudge for the classroom), which I find more entertaining than his less serious books, produced every year at Christmas. Towards my age, he wrote Too Much College. He says what might as well be repeated today, and again be ignored. He looks back over many decades of college lecturing, after several decades of formal schooling, and many centuries of formal higher education since the Middle Ages.

We have, Leacock gently hints, created a mostly useless, but partly counter-productive, enforced educational bureaucracy, proceeding at the speed of the slowest pupil, year by tedious year. The idea that “college” is an appropriate place to study any of the number of things, that need doing before studying then doing again just after, is exhibited as farce; but also the sedentary topics are extended until, by the time the student has obtained a marketable degree, he is approaching retirement.

Education has been eating up life. The book appeared in 1939, even before the post-War inflation of “educational privilege,” but already the institutions of learning had swelled immoderately. They offered a service that “gentleman don’t need, and the poor cannot afford.” Their best, most splendid graduates are taught to speak subjunctively.

Leacock describes the evangelization of his own discipline, when it spread beyond the Manchester School to the East India Company’s school at Haileybury. “Their cadets were supposed to need it, and work it on the Hindu. The first lecturer was Malthus, the apostle of the empty cradle; but he had a hare-lip; the students couldn’t understand him; so no harm was done.” But by now, we have conferred degrees even on “masters of business administration.”

The moral damage rapidly spread from an essentially Malthusian, hare-lipped approach to reality, to the patient procedural destruction of our youth, as they are taught to think that they know something. Alas, the dear children.