A Bear of Pleasing Manner and a Positively Startling Lack of Brain has caused a Small Ruckus Over Nothing at the University of California at Berkeley. All because integrative biology professor Marian Diamond made A.A. Milne's "The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh" her pick for the college's unofficial summer reading list -- which also includes Genesis and Exodus.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the Associated Press took notice; Jay Leno and Craig Kilborn lobbed potshots. A Reuters item in the New York Times reported
that the list was "recommended reading for all freshman" and put "Milne on a par with" two-fifths of the Pentateuch. It's the
sort of academic news blurb that sends conservative pundits reaching for their guns, blasting the book's inclusion as typical of the leftist sophistry that would have the best minds of a generation doing sex work for credit.
But the inclusion made this liberal arts flunky a little wary as well. What can incoming freshman learn from the bear that they can't already
glean from the winsome Milne aphorisms emblazoned on those ubiquitous "Classic Pooh" trinkets? Or by flipping through Benjamin Hoff's point-
that the bardic bear could do battle with the Great Books if he had to, even if his philosophy isn't nestled in iambic pentameter. He's got his
own ars poetica, for one. ("Poetry and hums aren't things which you get," he tells Piglet, "they're things which get you. And all you can do
is to go where they can find you.")
But I'll say no more on this. An entire school of Pooh thought exists to make this point for me, devoted to re-visioning Pooh as Avatar of Grand
Thoughts Espoused by the West -- see titles like "Pooh and the Millennium," "Pooh and the
Philosophers" and "The Pooh Perplex," a 1962 book that skewers lit-crit movements
by applying them to tales of the Hundred-Acre Wood.
So no one needs to get their bow tie in a knot. Besides, a conversation with Steve Tollefson -- a lecturer in the university's college writing program who has been coordinating the list for nearly 15 years with Ellen Meltzer, the head of UC-Berkeley's teaching library -- reveals that the Reuters item blew things out of proportion. No one has to read Milne, he emphasizes. The goal of the list, which students receive with orientation forms, is to remind students
that Berkeley promises more than bureaucracy -- a life of the mind awaits.
Faculty and staff are asked to choose a book for personal, not professional reasons. It's a noble effort to mobilize against the
academic careerism that begins in nursery school -- although it's an effort that
Tollefson seems to recognize as futile.
"We tell them that these are books they might want to have with them if they're lying on a beach somewhere," says Tollefson. "Of course, most
of them don't lie on the beach," he adds, referring to Berkeley students' overachieving habits. Diamond chose "Winnie-the-Pooh" because it is a "simple little story which provides a certain peace of mind which has somehow been overrun with technology," according to the text of the reading list -- but Milne's appreciation of idling might be lost on Diamond's audience.
At the close of "The House at Pooh Corner," for instance, Christopher Robin explains
his going away to school with "I'm not going to do Nothing anymore." When Pooh asks, "Never again?" the boy answers, "Well, not so much. They don't let you." Doing Nothing when you could be interning with heart surgeons? The notion might be as baffling as a first skirmish with Derrida.
Perhaps students looking for a summer read could do worse than to sing ho! for the life of a bear after all. "They're always going to read Ayn
Rand," Tollefson says. "And I guess we can't do anything about that."