The University of British Columbia is awfully excited about their half-million dollar skatepark.
They should be embarrassed. It’s hard enough to get people to take higher education seriously. Crowing about being the first campus in North America with an “angled slappy bank” doesn’t help.
For one thing, there are few activities that invoke juvenile sensibilities as skateboarding. It is, quite literally, child’s play, and, as such, right off the bat, it seems unsuited for a university campus. Is a bouncy castle next on the list?
But that in itself is hardly grounds for making too much of a fuss. Universities build needless, expensive, inappropriate things all the time. Business schools, for instance.
And, sure, universities play host to plenty of silly activities to let folks blow off steam. Still, the tab for those things doesn’t usually come in at a cool five hundred grand.
What tips the balance, though, are the books. For reasons that surpass logic, the UBC skatepark has a massive set of metal books built into it, so that students can jump on, crash into, and otherwise assault them. The press release even shows one skater joyfully pouncing on the silver tomes.
Even stranger is the quotation carved into them. On the spines of the faux books are emblazoned the following words: One must work and dare if one really wants to live. – Vincent van Gogh
Could they not find anything smarter or more profound? If they were set on Van Gogh, why this bit? Why not this little gem that I found at the web site of the Van Gogh Gallery: “I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate.” Better, smarter, and it least it fits the context, to some extent.
What they have chosen, however, seems barely relevant, even unintentionally sarcastic. For when has skateboarding, by anyone’s definition, been considered work?
And what did Van Gogh mean by the remark? Taken on its own it sounds like a life-affirming call to arms for positivity, but in its original context, the passage is actually much more bitter. Van Gogh writes, in a letter to his brother Theo in 1885:
‘I hope that by and by my studies will give you some new courage. Neither you nor I are contemporaries of that race which Gigoux, in that book you sent me, rightly calls ‘Les vaillants’ [The courageous]. But it seems to me right after all to keep the enthusiasm of those days in the present time, for it is often true that fortune favours the bold, and whatever may be true about fortune or “la joie de vivre,” as it is called, one must work and dare if one really wants to live.’ [my emphasis]
Van Gogh’s point seems to be that life, more or less, sucks these days, but we have to hang in there. If it’s inspiring, it’s just barely. I suspect that the creators of the park weren’t actually going for that.
But the real problem is having the books there in the first place. Books, after all, have long been a symbol of learning and knowledge. In fact, the official coat of arms of UBC includes a book inscribed with the university’s motto.
To reduce this symbol to a mere plaything, to create this book effigy for students—who, let’s face it, would likely be better served opening real books than ramming a wooden board into fake ones—is nothing less than an insult to those who prize learning. One hopes a few of those are still left at UBC.
Building the skatepark was silly. And though surely done here without deliberate malice, it’s still a careless act of disrespect.
Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.
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