A Collegiate Casting-Out of Devilish Devices

I first discovered Terry Pratchett back in seventh grade when I stole a copy of Good Omens off my sister’s bookshelf. I read it, thoroughly enjoyed it, and resolved to check out more of Pratchett’s writing immediately.

A resolution I promptly forgot about.

Several months later I was standing in a bookshop searching for something, anything, to read. I picked up Witches Abroad almost at random, and within the first few pages I was hooked. And thus began my two-year love affair with the Discworld.

The Disc is, as my fellow Pratchett-lovers well know, a flat world balanced on the back of four elephants who in turn stand on the back of the World Turtle, Great A’Tuin, who swims slowly through the sea of space to an unknown destination. And it’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds.

On the Disc, there are sensible witches and buffoonish wizards. There’s magic, so much magic that the laws of physics become unnecessary and a little irrelevant. There are gods who act like overgrown children, and children who are a little too savvy and a little too sarcastic and a little too sociopathic, just like children everywhere. There are bad men and good men and men who hang around uncertainly in the middle. There are dragons, little ones who fall asleep in your lap at dinner. There are vampires and werewolves and zombies and trolls and dwarves and goblins, all of whom are just trying to make their ways in the world. There are politics. Oh, boy, are there politics.

In short, it’s just like our world, only a lot less insane.

Terry Pratchett had a gift. I’ve called him “insanely creative” before, but sometimes I think that’s doing him a disservice. he was brilliant, but he didn’t need to be creative. He took people— ordinary, everyday, boring, foolish, fascinating, extraordinary people— and he wrote them down. He added in a fair share of nonsense and fantastical shenanigans, but in the end he created a world that is eerily similar to our own. He mocked everything and anything without discrimination, but always with a disarming cheerfulness and a healthy dose of pure cheek.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many years of reading Pratchett, however, it’s that the man never stopped thinking. And that might be what I admired about him the most. He wasn’t afraid to offer his opinions on anything, be it banking or the postal service or the proper kind of policing or the question of whether it’s better to be good or to be nice.

Today, I’m going to talk about his views on universities.

I just finished reading A Blink of the Screen, the first ever collection of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. While I enjoyed it just as much as I expected to (if not more), as usual I also found a lot in the stories that prompted me to sit back and think. The story I want to discuss today is “A Collegiate Casting-Out of Devilish Devices,” which features some of my favorite Discworld characters: the wizard faculty of Unseen University.

As a current college student, I feel secure in saying that there are a lot of things in the current American university system that I dislike. This is especially apparent to me at Cornell; while in some ways I absolutely adore this school and everything it has to offer, it’s hard to ignore the grossly overinflated bureaucracy, the academic stagnancy of certain departments, the sheer self-importance that comes as part of the package at any Ivy League university. And that’s without bringing in the especially problematic question of diversity, a question which Pratchett tackles with his usual aplomb. This problem of diversity is especially relevant to Cornell, which prides itself on being the most diverse school in the Ivy League.

But before I get to the diversity question, I’m going to talk about some of the other issues first.

There’s been so much written on the subject of unnecessary bureaucracy in American universities that I’m hesitant to approach it, for fear of rehashing what more intelligent minds have already expressed far more eloquently than I could hope to. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that Cornell especially has a bad case of this particular plague.

During the spring semester of 2015, the campus was shaken by the sudden announcement of a new $350 “health fee” that would be imposed on any student who chose to waive Cornell’s voluntary student health insurance. Since I was writing for a student newspaper that was covering the event, I attended a Q&A session with one of the administrators, where it was revealed that most of the fee would be used to cover the salaries of extra health staff brought on back in 2009 to combat the H1N1 virus. Cornell had never reduced their health staff after the epidemic died down, and as a result had been borrowing heavily in order to maintain the salaries of the extra staff.

When pressed for more information on the debt the administration had incurred, it was revealed that the budget for student health services was very unbalanced. Eventually, the administrator went on the defensive and insisted that students didn’t come to Cornell to figure out budgetary questions— they come here to be students. She insisted that the administration needed to exist in order to manage the business side of the university.

All of this is old news for Cornellians, but there were a few interesting takeaways from the entire health fee ruckus. Personally, I came away with the firm impression that half the administration didn’t know what the other half was doing. The huge debt incurred as a result of overstaffing, the unbalanced budget, and the appalling lack of communication between administrators and students all indicated to me that the administration wasn’t going about the “business” of Cornell in a terribly efficient way.

So when I picked up A Blink of the Screen today and ran into my old friend Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully, it was reassuring to see that Sir Terry shared my sentiments:

‘Well, if we’re asking that kind of question, Archchancellor, what do you do?’ said the Dean testily.

‘I administer, Dean,’ said Ridcully calmly.

‘Then we must be doing something, otherwise you’d have nothing to administrate.’

‘That comment strikes at the very heart of the bureaucratic principle, Dean, and I shall ignore it.’

Ridcully and his fellow wizards are buffoonish, lazy, small-minded, and petty men. They’re also supposedly some of the most intelligent men on the Disc (which, to paraphrase another one of my favorite Pratchett characters, can only elicit the response “God help us”). Yet somehow I still find their amiable stupidity and self-importance far preferable to the wizards’ real-life counterparts. The idiots you encounter at Ivy Leagues never seem fully aware of their own ignorance, while Ridcully wears his like a suit of armor (and isn’t afraid to parade it around a bit, either).

The one trait that saves Pratchett’s wizards from being distasteful is that they never claim to be intelligent, or not in the way pompous professors in most universities do. At the very least, the staff of Unseen University thoroughly understand the one rule of any good university: “Carefully directed ignorance is the key to all knowledge.” Or, as the Archchancellor enthusiastically put it, “Bring ‘em in stupid, send them away clever, that’s the UU way!”

One issue I have with the American education system is that it puts a premium on being “naturally intelligent.” What Pratchett is saying here, however, is that the entire idea of natural intelligence is innately a stupid and self-important one. Any student who arrives at Cornell was probably near the top of the bell curve in high school. The moment new freshmen start class in the fall, however, each and every one immediately realizes that this is no longer the case. The playing field has been leveled; students who breezed through high school with report cards full of A’s suddenly start receiving B’s and C’s, or even D’s or F’s. It’s a culture shock for a lot of people, and there are those out there who are unable to face the prospect of being average at best. However, as UU’s Dean asks, “What is a university for if it isn’t to tell you that everything you think is wrong?”

One of the things I like most about Cornell is that it is a selective school. And I think it’s important that it continues to be selective. Because while I agree that every child should have the right and ideally the ability to obtain a university education if they so choose, I also firmly believe that not all adolescents in the United States are suited to pursue that education. This is not my way of saying that “some people are too dumb to go to college”; instead, what I mean is that there are a wide variety of people in this country (and, by extension, in this world), with a variety of different skill sets and interests and backgrounds and upbringings. A college degree is practically a necessity of life in the United States at the moment, but it’s a simple fact that this situation is not in everyone’s best interests.

When Ridcully is confronted by the idea of admitting students who “by accident of birth, upbringing, background, or early education would not meet the usual entrance requirements,” he asks, “And are we to take it for granted that…[the inspector] intends to make a point of hiring clerks who aren’t very good at sums and file everything under ’S’ for ‘stuff’?”

And so we arrive at diversity. Again, I’m hesitant to touch this topic— for one thing, it’s highly controversial and I’m not sure if I’m educated enough on some of the issues tied to it in order to offer a fully-informed opinion. Then again, Pratchett knew nothing about economics and still wrote a whole book on the Disc’s banking system, so I guess I’ll just have to channel a little of his indomitable spirit here and give my two cents anyway.

I don’t think diversity should be a main concern of American universities. Or, indeed, of universities anywhere. When universities start admitting students while factoring in upbringing, family/racial/ethnic background, or similar considerations, then the entire idea of judging students based only on merit has already been lost. The only way to truly treat all applicants equally based on their qualifications is to consider only their qualifications. To me, Cornell’s focus on diversity seems a little out-of-place, or possibly even misplaced. I don’t think that was what Ezra Cornell meant by “Any Person, Any Study.” I don’t think he wanted us to make diversity our main selling point. I think he wanted us to be an academic institution, first and foremost, dedicated to educating anyone who was willing and able to learn.

Of course, that’s just my two cents. I can’t be sure that I’m interpreting Pratchett correctly, of course. But Mustrum Ridcully seems to agree with me at least, and I guess that’s good enough for me.

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