Chopin Alley

Dr. Seuss and the Wisdom of Popovers


Dr. Seuss was already comfortably established as a children's author when I was in short pants*, so comfortably that it was and is easy to forget that he was an inveterate upsetter of apple carts and skeptic of received wisdom.

The National Association of Scholars has been running a series of articles on higher education reform, somehow built around themes from the Good Doctor's If I Ran the Zoo.  On her weblog, Critical Mass, Erin O'Connor has reproduced her contribution (with Maurice Black) to the discussion: an essay built around Dr. Seuss' graduation speech to the class of 1977 at Lake Forest College, the entire text of which speech is here reproduced:

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
'To eat these things,'
said my uncle,
'you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!'

as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

Theodore Geisel became "Dr. Seuss," as Erin explains, while attending Dartmouth in the 1920s, in response to "Geisel" being banned by collegiate authorities from contributing to the school's humor magazine.  Variants on "Terwilliger" or "Terwilliker" had a recurring importance in Seuss World, including the authoritarian appearance of the latter, in the person of Hans Conried, as the titular "T" in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the very "embodiment of the worst sorts of pedagogical abuse."  The young narrator of If I Ran the Zoo, she suggests, in his utopian glee is not necessarily an improvement, as "he sounds a great deal like that generation of academic reformers, now reaching retirement, that has worked so hard to do away with traditional ideas of what is worth knowing largely because they are traditional ideas of what is worth knowing."

When he reemerges at Lake Forest many years later, the now-avuncular Terwilliger achieves his most benevolent form:

Having mellowed over time, Uncle Terwilliger appears at the Lake Forest graduation not in the capacity of a teacher, but in the special incapacity of an uncle -- who by definition has no real authority over his nieces and nephews.  His graduation advice reflects his comfortably powerless position.  When he tells students to be wary of hot air, he is telling them to think for themselves.  When he points out that popovers contain hot air, he is urging his audience to recognize that the good and the bad come jumbled together, and that in order to get at the one you have to be able to identify and reject the other.  He is, in other words, going to the heart of what education ideally enables one to do: to think independently, and to come to one's own conclusions about what to do, be, and believe.

As Thomas Mendip mused, "What a wonderful thing is metaphor." 

Read the complete O'Connor/Black/Seuss essay at Critical Mass or (with illustrations) at NAS.


Photo: "Popover with Ocean Backdrop" (at the Cliff House, San Francisco), by Flickr user Cameron Maddux, used under Creative Commons license.


*  Yes, I actually was in short pants.  There exists a photo, which I'll not reproduce here because it's not been scanned in to digital form, showing me in my bow-tied and short-pantsed Sunday Best in the company of my long-suffering Bear.  We were both of us much younger, and much closer to the same height, in those days.


The comments to this entry are closed.