"A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom."... ... Robert Frost.
Commentary of the Day - March 31, 2005: I Know How Much it Costs to Hear the Caged Bird Sing. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
A short time ago I read with no small amusement about the plight of George Mason University. It seems that somebody in the administration had signed a contract with Michael Moore, the man who has made "controversy" his middle name. On Mr. Moore's side of the deal, he was to appear on campus and give a lecture; on George Mason University's side, they were to hand him a $35,000 check before he hopped into his stretch limo and roared off. The rub came when the president, who had been on a trip to China, returned to the campus, found out about the Moore invitation, and tried his best to rescind the contract. His reason was simple enough: George Mason just couldn't afford it.
After decades of watching a wide assortment of personalities "wing it" on stage at my college, I took a certain amount of [cold] comfort in knowing that other colleges and universities were in the same soup. But I also felt that a contract is a contract, even if one of the parties was Michael Moore and he was slated to get what struck me as an obscene amount of money. In fact, I kept trying to think of which distinguished writer, which scientist, which cultural analyst, was worth that kind of dough, and nobody popped into mind. I do remember once approving a $5000 check for Saul Bellow a few years before he won the Nobel Prize, and I heard that the poet W.H. Auden once read at my college for what was then a goodly sum -- $2000. But even accounting for inflation $35,000 is just too damn much; and, in my opinion, it is certainly too damn much for the likes of Michael Moore, regardless of one's politics. I would feel precisely the same if somebody in the administration wanted to make TV pundit Bill O'Reilly $35,000 richer than he already is.
At this point some bean counter could probably come up with data showing how much colleges and universities typically pay for large draw attractions, and how much a top shelf speakers bureau would charge for satirist Al Franken, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "Tonight Show" host, Jay Leno, or HBO's Bill Mahr. My hunch is that Michael Moore's $35,000 would fit somewhere between Dowd on the low end and Leno topping out in the $50,000 range. Again, my point is that all of these fees are obscene, especially when there are fine young writers, nearly distinguished poets, and plenty of people just under the radar of the Beltway's talking heads who could be thoughtful, informative, and, yes, even controversial for many thousand of dollars less.
The rub, of course, is that most undergraduates know what little they know from watching television and unless the visitor is a regular on the tube, they don't know who he or she is, and they certainly aren't going to warm an auditorium seat to find out. Thus was it ever, and that's why I used to take a special delight in telling my sophomore students that they are lucky, damn lucky, to attend such a culturally exciting school such as ours. "Just think about it," I would tell them with as straight a face as I could muster, "next Tuesday the Royal Shakespeare Company will be on campus to give their rendition of King Lear." I left time for that news to sink in, and then added: "I'm told that their production is absolutely world class." Then I would thicken the plot by adding that this is not the only cultural event scheduled for next Tuesday. "It turns out, on the same evening, there also will be a performance by a man who, I am told, can fart the 'Star Spangled Banner.'"
This announcement would invariably get the attention from a students sitting in the back row and wearing his baseball cap backwards: "He can really fart 'The Star Spangled Banner'?"
"That's what I'm told," I would earnestly reply.
"Wow, I sure don't want to miss that! And I'm going to bring my fraternity brothers too!"
"I'm quite sure you are," I would say, taking careful note of those students who were in on the joke (they would invariably get A's ten weeks later; and, those yahoos who nodded their agreement would invariably get C's and D's).
My point is simply that P.T. Barnum was right. There's a sucker born every minute, and nobody ever went broke underestimating the level of American culture. Still colleges and universities should try to raise the cultural bar, and there are some things that they can do to make things better.
Our college learned some bitter lessons during the mid-l990s when an agent for Maya Angelou got in touch with the Dean's office and passed along the news that Ms. Angelou would be in our area a few months from now and that she would be willing to give a reading at the college for the bargain basement rate of somewhere between 21 and 24 thousand dollars -- that is, if we acted within the next business day. Many of our students knew her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bid Sings (it was hard to avoid during those years), and millions of people had heard her read a poem at President Clinton's second Inaugural.
To our shame, the administration bit, and those of us in the English Department heard about the impending visit when the contract had been signed and the deal was done. Some of us objected that there were, in fact, other poets more worthy of our students' attention but since the administration, rather than the department, was paying, we agreed to dummy up.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Angelou packed the hall, but she made it clear that she was not about to meet with English classes before her reading nor would she attend a reception held in her honor by the Black Students Union after it. As a member of her entourage put it, neither event was stipulated in the contract. That's when we learned what the folks at George Mason University will most certainly discover -- namely, that a contract is a contract is a contract.
We did, however, made some adjustments after being fleeced. There now is a cap for honoraria (somewhere in the $10,000 range); and, all visitors must agree to visit a relevant classroom or two (where students were assigned relevant readings) and all lectures are followed by a no-holds-barred question and answer session. Does this mean that every visitor in my college's post-Angelou era turned out to be a roaring academic success? Hardly. But if educational institutions want to be worthy of the name they must at least try to offer their students more, much more, than bread-and-circuses.
©2005 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He currently resides in south Florida where he ruminates about the foibles of academic life on cloudy days.
The IP comments: The IP generally agrees with Sanford that most "famous" speakers on the college and university circuit these days are not worth the large sums that they command (although Angelou probably is worth more than most of them). However, the IP does remember hearing Robert Frost -- who then was nearly 90 years old -- read his poems to an audience that packed Harmon Gymnasium at U.C. Berkeley round about 1960. That performance was priceless. The IP doesn't know how much Frost was paid; but, he was worth every penny.
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