If I ran the zoo…

The National Association of Scholars is running a series on visions of the academy, amusingly based on the Dr. Seuss story about re-inventing a zoo.

Dr. Seuss’s protagonist, young Gerald McGrew, suffers none of his sophisticated contemporaries’s deadly contempt for life as it is, or for his social surroundings.  His opening words are, “It’s a pretty good zoo, and the fellow who runs it seems proud of it too.”  But McGrew imagines he could do better.   He would release the current animals and acquire creatures such as a ten-footed lion and a family of Lunks in a bucket from the wilds of Nantucket.   He dreams of zookeeper glory, when “the whole world will say, ‘Young McGrews’s made his mark. / He’s built a zoo better than Noah’s whole Ark!’”

McGrew’s bestiary comes from Linneas-knows-not-where, but surely Dr. Seuss has posed a good question.  If you ran the zoo, could you outdo McGrew?

It’s a nice conceit, although many of the authors have been grinding various axes with affirmative action, speech codes, or feminism and not really offering much of value. Some of them also offer some good sense alongside the bullshit. Anyway, it’s a fun game without any chance of changing anything, but if I somehow found myself Commissioner of all things post-secondary, well, here’s what I’d do:

If I ran American Higher Education…

…all libraries would allow coffee in spill-proof containers.

…all academic journals would be published on-line and freely available to the public.

…there would be Pell Grants for prisoners and incarcerated students would get quality faculty to teach them.

…there’d be no pro-male affirmative action. Women, who have higher scores and higher grades, would be admitted in numbers proportionate to their qualifications, not rejected to keep classes gender balanced.

…there’d be more, smaller schools rather than massive megaversities.

…charitable donations would not be tax-deductible unless used for scholarships, architecture, or books.

…schools would never pay for computer operating systems: Ubuntu or typewriters are fine, but no proprietary tech, especially if it’s donated to create path dependent consumers. (Computers and software have played a major role in hiking tuition and expending endowments in the last two decades.)

…there’d be no organized athletics.

…no course could count towards a degree unless taught by a Ph.D.

…graduate students would be students, not cheap labor. Grading and research assistance would not be available as a perk for talented researchers, and classes would have to be sized to be gradeable by a single person.

…every “full-time” faculty member would be required to teach at least four courses a year, regardless of endowed chairs or administrative tasks.

…full-time researchers would work for private scientific labs or political think tanks. Basic research would occur at these private labs but be publicly funded and results would be owned by the public. Faculty would be expected to go on sabbatical if they wanted to go work for one of these labs or think tanks, so no double-dipping. (I could go on, here, but the research university has really damaged higher ed in this country, as Eisenhower suggested it would: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”)

…there’d be fewer administrators, and administrators would always answer to faculty, not vice versa.

…law school would only take two years, not three.

…medical education would proceed from nurse’s training or physician’s assistant training to medical school, and every MD would have to work as an RN or a PA before moving on.

…graduate students in the liberal arts and sciences would be required to teach high school students for a year in their subject area, after receiving a Masters but before going on to finish their Ph.D. (This is similar to the French system, and has the perk of creating a pool of better educated and more enthusiastic high school teachers, while supplying better prepared freshmen and making the last two years of high school worthwhile rather than a waste of everyone’s time.)

Anyway, I offer the challenge to my baker’s dozen of readers: how would you run the zoo if you were its keeper?

[UPDATE: In the interestes of transparency, I’ve been tinkering with some of the suggestions based on reader comments. Most notably, I got rid of a prohibition on fraternities and sororities, and changed a hard student-limit to a soft prescription for smaller schools.]






13 responses to “If I ran the zoo…”

  1. Dr. J Avatar
    Dr. J

    This is great, J. I copied your idea on my blog (but gave you credit!).

    But how are grad students going to learn how to teach if they can't teach until they have a Ph.D.? By teaching high-schoolers?

  2. Brunson Avatar

    I take it that your dream proposal would include changing high school programs to include philosophy classes.

  3. Dr. J Avatar
    Dr. J

    I DO like the idea of requiring grad students to teach high school between the M.A. and the Ph.D., though….

  4. melanie Avatar

    Get rid of organized athletics? Really? I would keep the sports but have Division III style regulations for all of them.

    I think the high school idea is good too.

  5. admin Avatar


    Philosophy classes in high school are eminently doable. As I understand it, many private schools have this option, or else get taught philosophy texts in English class. Even at my relatively weak public school, they had psychology and sociology courses as electives. I had to go to the local community college for an intro to philosophy course, and it obviously had a major effect.

    There's nothing magical about K-12 that couldn't be accomplished in K-10. My alma mater, Bard College, takes talented 11th and 12th graders and puts them through college-level courses without much trouble, and I think this makes sense. 11th grade is about where my public school started distinguishing college-prep students from vocational training students. You took shop or you took calculus. Why not beef up both the vocational and college-prep stuff?

  6. admin Avatar


    I'm all for student-athletes, but I worry about tuition money and donor-dollars going to athletics when they could be devoted our primary purpose, education.

    Consider Joe Paterno and the Classics Department. On the one hand, I have nothing but respect for a man who's willing to give so much of his personal wealth to support dusty old texts and languages. On the other hand, it troubles me that our priorities are so out of whack that we'd rather pay coaches than Aeneid specialists and the only person who saw the problem there was the coach.

  7. Brunson Avatar

    Sure, in the fantastical context of the original question, but this point moves beyond changing academe to changing education in general (and busting up teacher's unions?). And why not business majors and engineers? Another point is that your call to limit the size of universities and the number of people allowed to teach implies limiting the number of people who go to college – which maybe we should do anyway, eh?: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/college

    PS: I took calculus and shop at my public high school, and read Plato in my Latin class (Mrs. Varga was definitely an outlier).

  8. admin Avatar

    so long as we're just building utopias, I don't see why I can't make changes to the university that have effects that are arguably salutary on culture as a whole.

    "limiting the number of people who go to college": That's not the idea, no. Smaller schools and smaller classes means more schools and more teachers to teach the same number of students, that's all.

    "busting up teacher's unions": Can't the grad students join the unions?

    "why not business majors and engineers?" Exactly: let's do business and engineering in high school, too! Or maybe just econ and physics taught by people with applied skills who are looking to go on to a Ph.D. (There's nothing here arguing that terminal MAs need to conclude with teaching experience, just people looking to teach in higher ed.)

    "read Plato in my Latin class" Is this a typo? I think your school was pretty extraordinary, since most don't even teach Latin, let alone Latin versions of Greek philosophers. I was able to chose between French and Spanish, which was mostly, again, a decision between college-prep and vocational language skills. The way my high school was designed, they were scheduled against each other, creating a fairly formal tracking system.

  9. Brunson Avatar

    No typo – after Varga threw out our Latin textbook and gave us Caesar and Cicero, she had us read Plato (in English) because it would be good for us.

  10. Dr. J Avatar
    Dr. J

    Okay, so here's my "IF I Ran the Zoo" contribution (copied from my own blog):

    If I were McGrew, the first thing I’d do,

    is line up all the zookeepers, two by two.

    I’d march them to corners where they hide the zoo’s poo,

    and point out the truth of what poo-shovels do.

    “Keepers!” I’d say, “the problem with hiding this mess

    is that each one, all of us, works under duress,

    while perfectly fine shovels never get put to the test,

    because you keepers are too busy testing the rest!”

    Then the bird-keepers squawked about the state of their cages,

    The big-cat-keepers roared out in analogous rages,

    The fish-keepers insisted on the priority of tanks,

    But all of the keepers kept ignoring the stank.

    “Can’t you smell that?” I’d ask, while holding my nose,

    “Can’t you feel something squishy between all your toes?

    That’s the left-over muck of a thousand missed ways

    To solve a thousand old problems, put off a thousand more days!”

    Then I’d sigh, like a captain, facing the main,

    and I’d wonder what use it is to complain,

    when the keepers won’t unite under a banner as plain

    As “Pick up your shovels! Lay down your chains!”

  11. admin Avatar

    I like it, Dr. J, but I must admit that the exact nature of the muck confuses me. "missed ways to solve old problems"?

    I wish I had had the patience to do Seussian rhyme, but I've been pretty busy this summer and after my first experiments sucked, I just went for the straight bullet list.

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