Having become accustomed to walking through the McGill university campus on my way to the best coffee in Montreal in Café Castel on Sherbroke street, run by a bunch of amiable Lebanese and Vietnamese young men who make the most amazingly skilful drawings in the cream that tops their Lattes, yesterday I took with me a soapbox, mounted it in one of those delightfully arranged plazas that are scattered throughout the campus, and delivered the following oration to a largely unimpressed gathering of young people:
“Students, including frosh (whatever that may mean), professors and hangers-on, lend me your ears for a moment. I am a man of advanced years who has been moving unobserved among you as you have gathered in ever-growing numbers hurrying towards your new lives, an experience that I believe entitles me to make a few observations on what you seem to be embracing. I have noted your excitement and your urgency and have in recent days become accustomed to feeling the rush of air as some young woman (it is the young women who seem the most urgent) whishes past me urgently on her way to whatever marvellous event confronts her as she plunges into her search for Knowledge. Whish, she goes, and I have become accustomed to indicate the movement with a rapid forward movement of my own arm, adding a yelled commentary each time: “Whoosh! Off to get the Knowledge, are you!? Avid for the Knowledge! Crazy to become the repositories of the accumulated Knowledge of homo sapiens!
“I have not talked to any of you, but I would doubt from your demeanour that you would be interested in hearing my theory that we already have too much Knowledge, that in fact the Knowledge you are so eager to discover, this self-appointed burden you appear to be so eager to undertake, could become for you a poisoned chalice that will begin to twist and distort your lives from the moment you have to first confront the debt that our grateful capitalist society will impose on you as the price for fufilling your great dream.
“Be that as it may as the fellow said, somewhere or other, I hope you will look at yourselves, so young and energetic, so full of life, so determined to flaunt your impressive, undeveloped minds; and I fear that as you look at your professors, for the most part so grey and burdened with troubles, so conscience-stricken by their half-acknowledged understanding that what they are handing on is so totally irrelevant to what is needed for this world to survive and prosper, as you look at them, I say, the darkness will begin to wrap itself around your hearts and minds.
“Not immediately, of course, for you are in the full flush of your self-awareness as developing beautiful human beings. A notable and surprising change I have noted from the last time --- several years ago --- that I had occasion to brush up against a student body has been to find that the approved garb for academia and its studies has become the same as for international tennis, or beach volleyball --- that is, the very short short, which could be, but perhaps is not, designed to drive your professors mad. I comfort myself with the thought that professors, a stern, unforgiving group of gents and ladies, must be accustomed to being confronted with such youthful vigour as they earnestly plod through their lessons in calculus or astrophysics, or, to take a common philosophical dilemma that has beaten to death generations of similarly eager students, the meaning of meaning. But who, after all, in these days, does not glory in the tanned thigh, the tattooed shoulder? I think we can depend on the professorial cadre to have only the one thing in mind: they will be straining to ensure you finish your course knowing more than two plus two equals four, and all the other complicated things you need if you are to become the bridge-builders, the railway and aircraft engineers, the rocket scientists, the research chemists, of our growing generations.
“Can all of you, professors and students, thrown together in the cavernous classrooms scattered around the campus, possibly change the stark fact that it is from these institutions, these extremely expensive, extremely pampered, resource-gobbling universities, these learned classrooms, studies and libraries, from these that have emerged all of the highly-trained people, the scientists, philosophers, artists, politicians and even statesmen, who have been so assiduously prepared to go out into the world, armed with the Knowledge they have been taught, but whose very effect has been to transform our world, so beautiful in its origins, into the hell-hole it has become, whose biggest business is to produce killing machines, whose preoccupations are with wars, riots, violence, repression, terrorism and death.
“Students, frosh, hangers-on, mark my words I pray you. You are being prepared to go out and fuck up the world with your inadequate Knowledge. Quit this place as quickly as you can before your professors have a chance to brainwash you with their useless poisons, turning you into filing cabinets so overburdened with information that you will have no idea what to do or where to turn.
“Save yourselves, I beg of you, before it is too late.”
With that I picked up my soap box and retreated to the Castel for another delicious cup of coffee.