In 1987, Linda Frum travelled across Canada to write The Guide to Canadian Universities. She was 24. The book was funny, political and personal and an instant bestseller. Fast forward 23 years: Sen. Frum is about to see her twin children launch their own university careers.
Q: Your book may be 23 years old, but it’s still right on. A lot of it is about how you make the right choice for you. You chose McGill.
A: My mother and my father had one rule only, which was that I wasn’t allowed to stay at home. I graduated from high school in 1981. It was just a terrible time in Quebec’s economic history and, as a result, in McGill’s history. The place was completely decrepit. It was in a struggle with the provincial government; they were trying to choke it to death, just get rid of any remnants of English society, and my mother thought that I would learn a lot from witnessing this death struggle in person. I just worship my mother, and if she thought it was a good idea . . .
Q: Did you do the tour before you went?
A: No, I didn’t. I don’t think I was unusual. I did not visit any school. As a result, a parent’s advice had such influence, because what else would help you make that choice?
Q: Enter your guide book. Not your parents’ guide, is how many people described it.
A: It would be hard for prospective university students today to understand how scarce information was. It wasn’t just that there was no Internet, but the universities themselves didn’t feel any pressing need to sell themselves to their clientele, because most people would pick the school closest to them.
Q: My parents expected me to go to university, but there was not a conversation. “Go forth to a university, whichever one it is.”
A: I laugh when I think about enrolling my twins—who are now in Grade 11—in nursery school. I researched every school inside and outside of my neighbourhood, I spoke to each principal, I met the teachers, I sat in on classes, and I remember my father saying, “What the hell are you doing? It’s nursery school!” But clearly this was a reaction to the feeling that my parents’ generation hadn’t been thoughtful enough about choices.
Q: Your book filled this void, back in the days before obsessive parenting. There was a lot of controversy when it came out.
A: Tons. People felt, “Who the hell are you to tell us about these universities?” and it was a completely legitimate question. It’s the old cliché—if you walk into somebody’s family and you start picking apart Uncle Charlie . . .
Q: Aunt Edith’s going to get mad. I wonder how you feel about some of your book’s recommendations, now that your own kids are ready to go to university. For example, “I recommend you go far, far away from your parents.”
A: No! Terrible advice! Stay home with Mommy! It kills me to think about them leaving. But okay, putting that aside, yes, I do believe they have to leave. What we are seeing are generations of kids who are just refusing to grow up, right? People are saying that 30 is the new 20. I think 20 should be the old 20, that 18 is the time to start taking care of your own life and your own self, and the best way to do that is to move out of mom and dad’s house. So even if my kids choose to go to U of T—and my daughter says she might—she will not be living with me.
Q: You’re going to put her in residence.
A: I’ll put her in residence. It’s time to cut the cord. It’s almost a bigger deal to tell parents, “Get your hands off your kids and just let them grow up.”
Q: You quote Philip Roth, who said, “What right did that 18-year-old have to decide that I would be a dentist?” and it spoke to your theme throughout the book, which is to avoid specialization and use university to become a civilized human being. Where do you sit now on the expand-the-mind vs. get-a-job debate?
A: The well-rounded, character-building liberal arts education is a luxury now. It’s very hard to recommend your child take an unfocused degree and emerge with a history or an English degree.
Q: But it’s the only chance in your life you’ll ever get to think and develop your brain.
A: I agree, but I also understand now that people’s interest in those kinds of intellectual pursuits are diminishing.
Q: Do you think that’s bad?
A: I think it’s terrible, but I also just think it is the way it is. So much time is spent talking about not teaching kids information, facts, and knowledge, but teaching them how to think, and I never understand that argument. If we’re encouraging people to be confident about their opinions without any substance behind them, I don’t think we’re doing a good job of educating them whatsoever.