Sen. Linda Frum in conversation

On choosing McGill, flirting with Queen’s and snubbing Saskatchewan. ‘I got that so wrong!’

Sen. Linda Frum in conversation

Photography by Yvonne Berg

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.

Q: You suggest students ask a series of questions—do you want a big school or a small school, a big town or a small town, a prestigious school, an intellectual school? One of my favourites—and I immediately sat down with my daughter and said, “You have to think about this”—was how important is beauty to you?
A:
I’m a firm believer that our environment affects our mood and our psyche, and if you are in a beautiful old library that has stacks of books, and the chairs are made of soft leather, and you’re physically comfortable, that produces one kind of learning environment. Versus being in a portable, ugly structure that was thrown up with very little regard to aesthetics. There was this period where growth in universities coincided with terrible, austere, inhumane architecture.

Q: You called York University “ugly, impersonal, bleak, isolated and depressing.”
A:
I was there recently, and they have tried very hard to change that. Actually, they’ve put up some quite wonderful buildings.

Q: Twenty years ago you outlined what was wrong with our university system. Your observations were all pretty?.?.?.
A:
Harsh?

Q: No, relevant, still. Your first: “Universities don’t need more money, they need less.”
A:
Then I felt that there was a watering down of the value by making university education accessible to everybody. If you’re going to do that, you need a massive infusion of money, which is exactly what happened. It’s extraordinary to see how successful U of T has been, McGill, Waterloo. If you said then that U of T could mount a $1-billion fundraising campaign, I don’t think anyone would have believed it.

Q: What changed?
A:
People recognize that if we aspire to compete with the best schools in the States—as we do—then we have to play by the same rules, and the rules are that successful alumni have to contribute to help perpetuate their schools.

Q: America has a few superb schools and then mediocre schools, whereas Canada has a broad base of very good to excellent schools. What’s the trade-off between the States vs. Canada? Are your own kids looking south?
A:
They are looking south, and the rule in this house is very clear. I agree: only a very small number of U.S. schools are superlative compared to what you can get in Canada. I don’t understand why a parent should spend 10 times more on an equal product. So it has to be a different product.

Q: That’s a rule?
A:
The rule is—and we play this game all the time—“Is the school better than Queen’s?” Because Queen’s is the top, so then we play, “Is Swarthmore better than Queen’s?”

Q: Raise tuition was another of your fixes. Voila, tuition has gone way up.
A:
I still believe that our tuition is a bargain and it’s too low. If tuition is about $5,000, the true cost of educating a single student must be at least triple that.

Q: You recommended introducing a compulsory first-year curriculum.
A:
I still think it’s a great ideal, but maybe for a different time, maybe for a different world. My fear was that we were going to lose our respect and our appreciation of the liberal arts. That seems to be happening. And I don’t know if there’s any way to stop that, because India and China are looming over us, and Brazil, and if kids are preoccupied with keeping up with their global competitors, it’s hard to say, “No, no, no, you’ve really gotta read Plato before you start thinking how to be a better engineer.”

Q: Last one: “Raise entrance standards.”
A:
Well, again, a lost cause. As a society we have decided that a university degree is the new high school degree: it’s something that everybody must have. And so having invested all this money into creating institutions to make sure everybody gets their degree, you can’t raise entrance standards. In 1965, five per cent of Ontarians had an average of 80 per cent and above, and now it’s 50 per cent. There’s no point raising entrance standards; the grades just follow.

Q: Let’s talk about specific schools. Queen’s, you said, “Ask three questions: am I blonde? Did I go to private school? Am I rich?” Your kids are thinking of going to Queen’s?
A:
At the end of writing that book, the school I wish I had gone to was Queen’s. I thought it combined the best of all possible options. That idea has never left me. So they are getting a certain amount of Queen’s propaganda at the dinner table. However, my daughter has made it very clear that she wants to go to school in a big city, so Queen’s will never work for her. This was one of my points: people have to understand who they are and what they like to do.

Q: The University of Western Ontario: “I can’t recommend it to ugly or fat people unless you are very, very rich.”
A:
I don’t think it’s any big secret that in the private-school world of Toronto you go to Queen’s if you have really good marks, and if you have slightly less good marks you go to Western. As I’ve learned from the Maclean’s rankings, the satisfaction levels at Western are the highest in the country. I think the kids who choose Western get exactly what they are looking for, that they can pursue their academics, but life should be fun. And life should be fun, I’m not knocking that.

Q: Your book made universities fun, it did.
A:
I felt a little sad when I went to places where it appeared that nobody was having much fun at all, and I thought that was really too bad, and avoidable.

Q: Saskatchewan, you said, “Boring, numbingly boring.”
A:
Except that Saskatchewan is now, like, king of Canada.

Q: The best place to be.
A:
Best place to be. Everybody I meet in Ottawa who’s brilliant turns out to be from Saskatchewan. So I’m thinking, “Boy, I got that so wrong.” It was quiet, and it was numbingly dull, but that’s because they’re all coming up with new recipes to feed the world. They’re busy! Don’t knock them.

Q: Are there any other schools where you’ve thought there was something going on there that you didn’t see?
A:
I think if I had one message that I believed then and I believe it even more strongly now, it’s that we are still woefully ignorant of the variety and the quality of options that we have in this country, and we don’t have enough respect and curiosity about each other, and that if people from places west of Ontario went to visit a school like Acadia, say, which had all the feeling of an Ivy League school, they would be amazed and excited. Or the University of Victoria, what could be more beautiful? It could be our Stanford.

Q: When you wrote this book, 52 per cent of undergrads were women, and now it’s 65, and at some schools more than 70 per cent are women. So it’s a completely different experience for your son and daughter.
A:
I find it extremely upsetting because I feel the atmosphere is going to be skewed against my daughter. Just by definition it cannot be as much fun to be at a place where it’s 65 per cent female. What we wanted for women was to be valued and equal, and now they are going to be overabundant and therefore devalued. I remember how hard people fought for women to be able to go anywhere, and now, once again, the boys have the advantage, they just have it in a new way.

Q: That’s the reverse of what everybody’s saying: “We’re losing the boys. What have we done to the boys?”
A:
That’s true. But for those boys who have it together, the world’s their oyster. And my daughter has it just as together as my son— she has a 90 average and she’s a school leader, but so what? We see it in 65 per cent of the other girls, whereas he is a standout. It kind of enrages me, that women always end up with the short end of the stick.

Q: I worry, in an old-fashioned way, about my daughter finding a husband. Not that I want her to go to school to find a husband, but it is where you meet people, and, as Leonard Cohen said in your book, fall in love. There’s too many of her and not enough of him.
A:
For the past two summers my son has gone to enrichment courses, one in France and one in England, and at the one in France there were 40 girls and he was one of three boys—because they were studying French, and French is not what boys study—so did he have a good time? Oh, yes, he did.

Q: Have you gone over your original criteria with your kids? You said you have conversations constantly about school.
A:
It’s hard to separate. Am I a bossy Jewish mom telling them where to go? Or, because I did write a guidebook to universities 25 years ago, I’m unusually knowledgeable about this subject? I have my own strong ideas about where I see a good fit for them. But I also know now that there are a lot of right choices, so it’s hard to get it spectacularly wrong.

Q: My daughter wants to go to a different school every year. She wants to treat it as a travel experience: “I’ll pick a school a year.”
A:
I wonder how unusual an idea that is. This is a generation that is easily bored. Four years, that’s an eternity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more movement among students.

Q: Say your kids go to the States. Do you worry that they won’t come back?
A:
I worry terribly. I firmly believe that Canada’s the best country in the world to live, and I almost will make them sign a contract. I’m not kidding! That’s the deal. We lost my uncle, and then we lost my brother to the States, and it’s a bit of a sore topic in the Frum family, but my kids insist they want to be Canadian. I think that Canadians’ perceptions of themselves have changed since my book. I see a level of pride people have about being Canadian that it’s less dangerous to send your kids away, I’m guessing.

Q: The Olympics were just transformative in that way.
A:
Huge. It remains to be seen if my kids even leave, because—I have had this conversation, too, and I don’t know the answer—if you know you’re going to end up in Canada, is it not of more value to go to school in Canada and start creating your life here from day one, or should you get to know a foreign culture and enjoy the benefit of that?

Q: What do you think the big issues are on campus now?
A:
Creating atmospheres of respect, because we have seen political groups and ethnic groups bumping up against each other and not always in a pleasant fashion. Universities often say, “It’s not our problem,” and may the most violent group win. I think university administrations have to become more involved in maintaining an atmosphere of safety and tolerance and respect.

Q: Throughout your book you asked famous alma mater—Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Irving Layton—to complete the phrase, “I remember?.?.?.” Most were very positive and even lyrical. Leonard Cohen on McGill: “I very much credit McGill for my career. Without those houses on Peel Street, without those Gaspés on Stanley Street, without those spirits like Hugh MacLennan, Irving Layton, Frank Scott, without those men I certainly would have taken a very different turn.”
A:
That is lyrical. I do remember that I called him to ask if he would talk to me about his university experience, and he said, “Come on over.” So I ran to the Bay and I got a tape recorder, and I spent eight hours with him.

Q: Oh my God!
A:
Not like that, but I remember telling my mother, “Oh, I’m going over to his house,” and it was two o’clock, and I called her back at 10 o’clock: “I just got home!” But he was in the mood to talk.

Click to hear excerpts of the interview

Sen. Linda Frum in conversation

  1. The Life of a senator: from a free thinking individual to speaking on behalf of government/business. The issues of 'learning how to think' and 'getting a job' are not exclusive as you would have us believe. However, we all know that governments and business require predictable and trainable populations. Instead of looking at education as a time to development critical thinking skills, this government Senator advocates giving up and accepting whatever is offered to you. Perfect behavior of a placid citizenry, being groomed for whatever labour shortages are forecast. Business has long taken over university course development while the right-wing governments give their approval and accept the cash. Taking our children and industrializing their lives to create an assembly-line society, where efficiency and productivity maximizes profit. Instead of cars, it's people. Smart, critical thinkers are enemies of government and business alike, hence the need to control policy and course development at universities. Owning vast public media outlets, for social engineering and propaganda activities, greatly assists them to convince millions of people to believe they don't need an 'education', they need 'training'. The universities are just as guilty as government in this education takeover. Of course, if we keep electing CEO candidates, instead of people with histories of community involvement, we'll just keep helping our enemies to maintain a society of compliance. In conclusion: ask yourself what kind of education children of rich people choose? Where do they go to school? Do they specialize in mechanics or laboratory science? Look up the curriculum of private schools and elite universities in foreign lands. It's a different world than our public education system: a respect for education and its role in developing a well-rounded human beings.

  2. Did anyone find her tone sort of classist, condescending, and boastful as I did?

  3. Saskatchewan is still mind numbingly boring

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