Sunday, November 21, 2010


Things were getting a bit serious here on Measure of Doubt, so I thought I'd inject a measure of levity with a blast-from-the-past, a peek into the mind of your author at age 15 (nearly 16), by posting my winning entry in the 1986 A.B. Lucas Secondary School Bad Poetry Contest. (A portrait of the artist as a young man is on the left.) All hail Mr. Watson, our enormously creative and patient Grade 11 Enriched English teacher.

Rabid Rabbits, Or How Cam the Cannibal Learned to Make Rabbit Stew of Squirrels

Pretty soon there will be lots of rabbits around
Due to their natural multiplicative predilections
(That's how much they screw around
When showing their affections.)

Like a small furry floppy-eared herbivore
Rabbits boldly go where no man has gone before
Except other small furry floppy-eared herbivores
Which aren't really men anyway come to think of it

Clubbing a rabbit to death
Mercilessly with a carrot
The hunter shows his true colours
The way grapes do when you peel off the skin

Fortunately a hunting warden
Arrives to save the day
And clubs the hunter to death
With a baby seal
And eats him up, like breaded veal

It's not so bad being a cannibal
A pound of flesh
Provides more essential vitamins
Than good old fashioned oatmeal

Suddenly – from the door
Comes a loud banging noise
Rabbits lined up four by four
Like great big soldiers, only small like toys

Armed with guns and bombs and tanks and thermonuclear fusion weapons
The rabbits charge
Like a bull at the sight of a red flag
Like a football player at the sound of "hut"
Like a hell of a lot of rabbits trying to get inside a house

The warden makes a run for it
A brook is in his way
It's one small step for a man
But one hell of a leap for a bunny rabbit
This was his chance to get away!

Though he runs faster than a speeding bullet
With the agility of a Chinese acrobat
With the stealth of a real quiet person
Soon the rabbits are upon him

But here's a blessing in disguise!
These rabbits are really squirrels inside!
"Why go after me anyway? I saved you from
that hunter, just today!"

"True," at last, the squirrels confess
"But what's up, doc? With this puzzling mess:
How many roads must a man walk down?
Until he feels the thrill of victory?
Or the agony of the feet?"


Alas, so much high school writing was lost when my Commodore 64 and all its floppy disks went the way of yesterday's newspaper — literally into the garbage — when my parents moved in 1995. Whole volumes of poetry, short stories, a radio play, "movie" screenplays, scraps of unfinished novels, countless own personal Library of Alexandria, hauled to the curb with empty bottles of Cheez Whiz and old copies of National Geographic. A little part of me dies to think of it.

Longtime friends can confirm that, for the same course for which I composed the Award Winning Bad Poem above, I wrote a full-length novel as some sort of project. I have no idea why I went to such extremes, though I should note that I was not the only one: my friend Dave Seguin wrote a longer and much better novel the same year. Looking back, it was fun, and certainly a more imaginative use of a teenage brain than the average 15 hour-per-week foray into hyper-violent video gaming that is the norm for male teenagers today. (And they wonder why boys are falling behind in school.)

Anyway, last week, I happened across the novel while searching for this poem. Having spent an hour or so with it,
I can confirm the following: 1) It is so very bad that no power on this earth can compel me to show so much as a single sentence of it ever again. 2) It is slightly better than Twilight. 3) I received a mark of 85. Can I say that again? I received a mark of 85. For a freaking novel I wrote in grade 11. Today parents call to complain if their kids get below 90 for successfully completing a text message while driving. 4) The teacher’s comments were brief but, I recall, filled me with joy. “A Michael J. Fox screenplay for sure.”

Well, it was the Eighties.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Let me put a case to you. Here are two athletes. One is measurably faster, higher scoring, has fewer injuries, and brings out the best in his team-mates. The other is demonstrably slower, lower scoring, has more injuries, and is a well known prima-donna on the playing field. Which of the two would you rather sign for your team? It’s not even a question, of course. In sports we take elitism, which is to say, a regard for excellence, for granted. Would it were so in things that actually matter.

Let me put a further case to you. Here is a political candidate. He speaks five languages, is interested and indeed well read in art, architecture, botany, biology, chemistry, classical music, comparative religion, constitutional law, engineering, geography, geology, history, literature, mathematics, the philosophies of ethics, mind, and religion, political science, physics, and zoology. He is a noted author, political theorist, and can correspond on more-or-less equal terms with some of the greatest minds of his generation.

But none of this, of course, would count in Thomas Jefferson’s favour were he running for political office today, and his enthusiastic Francophilia, his lack of military service, his irreligion, together with the certain-to-be-revealed scandal of an extramarital, interracial coupling that produced a child would sink him altogether. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter would tell him to take his Godless, liberal, family-hating elitist butt back to France and to the stay there with the other book-readin’ peaceniks. We don’t like yer kind ‘round here, Jefferson.

Here is another political candidate. She speaks one language, but is famously inarticulate. Her books are ghost-written. She has never been to France. She thinks that that the world is six thousand years old. She claims to be Christian but demonstrates no knowledge of theology or scripture. She routinely condemns judges for misinterpreting the United States Constitution, but seems to have little conception of what the Constitution actually says, nor can she name a ruling she opposes except one. And yet she wishes to occupy the same office as the aforementioned Mr. Jefferson, and there are millions of people, including the three named above, who would like to make it so.

The problem, of course, isn’t with Sarah Palin, or indeed with any of hundreds of politicians like her. The problem is with the progressive diminution of the intellectual qualities of our political culture. For a great many reasons, expertly unraveled in a recent book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason, even the merest hint of higher-order intelligence on the part of a candidate is now labeled as “elitist”, sometimes even by journalists who by any standard are card-carrying members of the elite themselves.

The fundamental problem facing our society is that most of our societal problems are too complicated for people to understand without considerable effort. Climate change, the rising costs of health care, global economic transformation – understanding such issues requires effort and careful weighing of evidence. The obvious response, that people are too busy to think about such issues, misses the point. The point is that most people aren’t even trying — polls demonstrate this very clearly — and there’s little excuse for that when nearly all of us have at our immediate disposal access to vastly more information than any generation before us. If you can find an hour per week for the hockey pool or Call of Duty or re-runs of The Simpsons, is it really impossible to find an hour per week to study issues that are of actual importance?

My own position is that, if it is, it is probably best to abstain from voting. Voting is a responsibility one has to one’s fellow citizens, and voting from a position of ignorance – or voting strictly on the basis of longstanding and unexamined party allegiances – is an abuse of that responsibility. Unfortunately, as it stands, a large percentage of our political leaders are elected on the basis of their ability to mobilize unexamined or pre-existing beliefs. You can go a long way beating the podium about “tax and spend liberals” even when you fully intend to tax and spend like mad yourself, because you count on the fact that a large percentage of people won’t bother to do any independent fact-checking. You can also go a long way in trying to convince voters that your opponent is an “elitist”: somebody who, by virtue of being thoughtful and reflective, can be said to not represent the “values” of most people out there. That claim, at least, would have the virtue of being true.

I’m not a big fan of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, but there’s no denying he’s a serious intellectual with scholarly credentials that would put most academics to shame. So there’s something very sad about seeing the man reduced to wearing cowboy hats and chomping down hot dogs and calling people “folks” at rallies, all in an effort to solve what dozens of commentators have called his “image problem” – which is to say, his inability to “communicate” with the “common man.” Just once, I’d like to hear a politician say what’s demonstrably true: that it’s the “common man” who’s the problem. It’s his inability to put down the remote (or the video game controller) long enough to learn and think about issues that are of actual importance that’s the reason our democratic political process has now been reduced to the most debased and vulgar pandering populism.

Is education the solution? Certainly not: the progressive dumbing down of our societal discourse is occurring at precisely the moment when more and more people are going to school for longer than ever before. The issue isn't "education" as our school-system defines it (education as the accumulation of facts) but thinking. Above all, more than anything else, we need people to stop and think. This means acknowledging that problems of real complexity require careful consideration before we reach conclusions about them. But our political system is geared to go in to the opposite direction, and appeals instead to the basest and crassest gut instincts of people who prefer to have others do their thinking for them. Any candidate who tries to do otherwise is denounced as a spineless elitist, suitable only for the “ivory tower” and not the “real world”.

A professor of mine, recently departed, used to wander the aisles during final exams and quietly admonish his students, “More thinking. Less writing.” In other words, when you don’t know what you’re talking about, stop talking.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Most parents say that they want the best education possible for their children, and that includes the best university education possible. What most of them don’t want is to actually pay for it, and teachers and professors have to endure an almost constant barrage of hostility from people who know nothing about our jobs but who think that we get paid too much. I had this very discussion over an interminably dreary dinner with a group of people not long ago, when one loudmouth parent began the predictable grunting about “you teachers” getting “two month off in the summer”, while blue-collar construction workers like himself were out there every day breaking their backs. (I certainly agree that leaning on a shovel while a machine digs a hole involves all manner of ergonomic compromises not conducive to spinal health.) Anyway, to this my reply was, excuse me, but, I am not a “teacher.” I am a professor. I attended graduate school for eight years to earn an M.A. and a Ph.D. and then earned a tenure-stream position in a job market where perhaps one newly-minted Ph.D. in ten can expect to get one. And, moreover, I don’t get “two months off in the summer”, thank you very much. I get four.

Well, I don’t really get four months “off” in the summer, but it was a pleasure to say nonetheless. But to be fair: my dinner companion never attended university (and not much of high school for that matter) and so he doesn’t really have any conception of what my job entails. His comment was really aimed at “teachers” generally – the kind he knew and loathed as a teenager, those autocratic bastards who expected him to do things like read books and learn French and solve math problems. And, boy, did he ever show them, because he did none of those things.

For years now I’ve put up with this sort of thing in all manner of social settings. And it’s remarkable how often the people who attack our teachers demonstrate that they what they really needed at a younger age was to have paid more attention in school. The first sign you’re dealing with ignoramuses is that they mouth off about things they know nothing about. So it felt good to finally push back a little, and I took a certain pride in saying aloud to all assembled that if they were so concerned about teachers getting their summers off they should write to their MP’s and demand that their kids spend the summer in school, too. You can imagine how that went over. “But that would ruin our vacations!”

Check and mate, I think. The obvious counter-move, though, was for someone to say that the real solution is to pay teachers less, and somebody did raise this point. Again, they want the best education for their children, but not if they have to pay for it.

Well, there’s no way around this. They’re going to have to pay for it, and they’re going to have to pay more, in fact. If parents want to attract qualified people to the field of teaching they’re going to have to make it worth their while, and in a serious way. And if the Ontario government wants to keep insisting that it wants more students to go to university, it’s going to have to compensate the professoriate for the extra seven or eight years they spent, out of the workforce, getting their PhDs, and for the very real gamble they took in choosing to pursue that career path.

And it’s for this reason that I add my very small voice in support of my colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, main campus, who might go on strike this week. The fact that they already get paid more, on average, than most other people, isn’t the issue. The issue is that they deserve to, and that teachers generally deserve to, because there few things are more important than how we educate our young.