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Blackening the Ivory Tower

by Archives January 20, 2009

George was a bright and well-traveled little boy. Born in Kingston, he moved to England was he was six, and returned to Canada at the ripe old age of nine.
One day, he said something that made his grade three teacher blush and sputter. The offending word designated in rather crude terms a woman’s nether regions, and rhymed with “punt.”
Little did she know, little George grew up in Yorkshire, where the regional accent hardened the harmless “can’t” into the considerably cheekier “KOON-t.” What followed for George were weeks of linguistic rehab. Eventually, he learned to express negatives like a respectable Canadian child.
Fast-forward 46 years. George is now a writer: George Keith Young, by his full name. He’s wearing a cream-coloured sweater with an upturned and curiously patterned collar. His mane of hair is permanently tousled. Although lined, his face is open, his expression frank. And what’s become of him? Nothing much, as he would have you believe. He’s still concerned with words, but of a slightly different order: cocksucker, pervert, panties, penis, pedophilia.
George started writing at 17. He dropped out of school after a short stint at Lakehead University, only to return decades later to complete an undergraduate degree in sociology at age 44. During his time in academia, he grew disillusioned with Canada’s education system.
“University infantilizes students. It’s a hierarchy, but a hierarchy that works for the people who own the place, not the people who go there,” he said over coffee and homemade sweet breads.
George has written and recorded six stories about the seedy side of the Canadian college experience. Most of the plot lines are based on true incidents of abuse, incompetence, and deceit. George’s stories share an “emotional geography” that impresses on readers a slice of Canadian university life in one area, Thunder Bay. Although the location is fixed, the themes are universal. “Just Another Mr. Boob,” for example, recounts the story of a professor who takes advantage of female students.
“This actually happened,” said George. “One day, a friend told me a teacher had touched her breast, but it wasn’t the first time; he’d done it to three other women. I wanted to report him, but she refused to back me up. There was nothing I could do. He’s still there now, teaching. What kind of a system is that?”
Another story, “Dinosaur Feet,” addresses privilege. The main character is a dim-witted man named Andy whose parents are both university professors. He learns “the facts of life” from his father early on:
“Listen to me carefully, son,” Howard said quietly, “your mother and I are better than most people in this town. They know it, we know it, and you should know it now too. That means we get to do things most other people don’t. Never forget that, and act accordingly.”
Because of his pedigree, Andy manages to get a doctorate and, eventually, a professorship teaching statistics to students who know less than he does. For George, “Dinosaur Feet” is an accurate reflection of today’s universities. The system, he argues, is not designed to accommodate the working class.
“Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin – three of the greatest thinkers of all time,” he said, “did not work within a university system. Incidentally, they all came from working class backgrounds.”
Sex and gender occupy an integral space in George’s writing. His characters’ relationships are often dysfunctional, but never clichéd.
“Universities have become more sexist, not less, despite all the feminism,” he said.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of degrees granted to women at the undergraduate level rose 26 per cent between 1995 and 2005. In comparison, the number of degrees granted to men increased by only nine per cent. The sexes tend to level off at the master’s level; in 2005, 15,915 degrees went to men and 17,706 to women. At the doctorate level, men still outnumber women.
“It’s a crying shame,” said George. “Men are afraid of themselves and don’t reflect enough. When women hit 13, they get their periods and go ‘Holy shit! What is that?” Guys discover their ability to masturbate; it’s not quite the same.”
“I don’t want to hang onto my dick when I’m writing,” he adds.
George’s literary influences are broad. He cites the importance of rhetoric, the Enlightenment, and positivism. He detests Stuart Maclean’s Vinyl Café stories and Malcolm Gladwell’s books, eschewing them in favour of Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Nathaniel West, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant. He refuses to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
“The thing I admire about writers is how they write about freedom,” he said. “So I despise writers who misuse their freedom by writing about abuse.”
What does George want his readers to take away from his stories, in the end?
“I want people to think: ‘Am I being taken advantage of?'” he said. “If you talk to a quiet revolutionary from Quebec, they’ll tell you the rhetoric wasn’t working anymore. One day, a woman went home and said: ‘The Church is abusing our children. It’s bullshit and we won’t allow it anymore.’ If a student walks into a university and says: ‘You’re taking $20,000 from me,’ things will change.”
“Ultimately, university is beneficial,” he concluded. “It’s the way schools are set up that isn’t.”

To listen to George’s stories, visit TulipsU.notlong.com.

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