Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Academia Shows Flaws and Strengths in Year of the Griffin

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Year of the Griffin, Diana Wynne Jones’s 2000 masterpiece, tackles several issues. But, she ties them all together through her critique of academia. Jones balances her critique with an admiration for what good that academia can do for people, if they’re in the right place. She weaves together an amazing story, with some lessons that certain universities should take note of.

Spoilers for Year of the Griffin, and for Dark Lord of Derkholm

So, What Happened?

Year of the Griffin opens with the staff of the Wizard’s University talking about money. They raised the fees, and plan to send out letters asking for more money from student’s parents. Corkoran, acting head, meets his class of new students. Elda, a griffin, Ruskin, a revolutionary dwarf, Felim, hiding from the Emir, Claudia, in exile from the Empire because of her jinx, Olga, who doesn’t talk about her family, and Lukin, a jinxed poor prince.

The six of them gel into a close group, partly through the stress of academia and partly through their hatred of Wermacht. He teaches practically all the intro classes, doesn’t teach well, and insults all of them at one time or another. Derk comes to visit Elda and tells them about better teaching methods and the letters to families.

Assassins come for Felim, and the six manage to protect him, though disrupting the university. Olga and Lukin fall in love. Corkoran grades them badly because they focus on theory, though he engages when they help him attempt to get to the moon. Olaf, Olga’s pirate father, shows up to ‘retrieve’ her. Elda turns them into mice. A few days afterwards, a group of senators, and a group of dwarves show up, to kill or kidnap Claudia and Ruskin. Corkoran manages the senators. Lukin ‘buys’ Ruskin from the forgemasters.

Afterwards, Corkoran discovers the shrunken assassins destroyed his moonship and his notes. Feral griffins arrive, but Kit and Blade (Elda’s siblings) drive them off. The six, Kit, and Blade, attempt to get Corkoran to the moon. Claudia and Lukin’s jinxes mean they wind up on Mars. Kit and Blade help fix the jinxes, and they return home. Querida forcibly retires Corkoran, and the petrified statue of Policant, the founder takes control of the university.

The Flaws of Academia

The Teachers

One thing that everyone that reads Year of the Griffin can agree on is that Wermacht is a horrible teacher. He dictates exactly what notes the students should take and what heading sizes they should be. He’s the type of teacher that everyone in school hates, restrictive and conservative. Because of Lukin’s relatively poor clothes, Wermacht calls him, “you with the secondhand jacket!” (26). It is the kindest nickname he gives any of the six.

And he doesn’t just teach one class, he teaches over half the first-year courses. Claudia eventually decides that she despises and pities him. “Because all the older [wizards] know it’s hard, boring work hammering basics into first years and they let Wizard Wermacht do it because he’s too stupid to see it isn’t an honor.” (41). In actual academia, the role of teaching basics falls to adjunct professors. Though most of them do not possess Wermacht’s nastiness, academia exploits them both.

The students at the Wizard’s University don’t have a capable advisor either. Corkoran, their personal tutor, spends all of his time working on his moonshot. He rushes out of classes early, gives stock lectures instead of considered ones, and resents grading papers. While independent research fuels academia, Corkoran’s behavior is beyond the pale.

The only competent professor at the University is Myrna, the only female staff member. But she pays for her competence steeply. She rants to Wizard Finn after the opening staff meeting. Corkoran assigned her to send begging letters to the students’ parents. “I’ve seen to all the students’ rooms, and the college staff, and the kitchens, and the bedding, … I did the admissions, too” (6-7). Everyone assigns Myrna duties because she actually completes them. The gender differential between Myrna and the male staff represents academia at its worst.

Academic Policy and Ability

In Derk’s cameo, he foreshadows several problems with the University policy. Given that Diana chronicled his doubts about the university previously, it doesn’t surprise me. He tells the six students about how the wizards pared down what they taught to be of service to Mr. Chesney. The old teachers didn’t have time to teach properly, so they squashed theory. Then, they retired after Chesney ‘left’. “The ones teaching now were taught by the old ones” (47). So the current crop of teachers had a shoddy education, that Corkoran’s policy encourages.

The most egregious academic policy I have ever seen lies at Corkoran’s feet. He decreed that the University needed to produce “working wizards” (361).

“There was no place for deep research or Felim’s kind of speculations. What the word needed was run-of-the-mill practical magic. For this reason Corkoran had decreed that only third-year students and then only those who showed supreme practical skills should ever get an A.” (146-7).

First off, this is a disgusting mindset for a teacher to have. A teacher should build up and encourage students, not grinding them down and forcing them into your mindset. High school generally ends up in this mold, but academia should be about enjoying learning, about doing that ‘deep research’. Secondly, that disdain for ‘deep research’ and the lauding of practicality seems reminiscent of the current devaluing of the liberal arts in service of STEM. Academia and popular thinking hold theater, art, literature, all the things that make culture as less valuable than the supposedly more ‘practical’ sciences. I believe that thinking has damaged our culture.

That type of thinking certainly damaged the university wards. The teacher’s lack of higher research led to the slow failure of the wards, as assassins, pirates, and cave griffins invaded.

University Funds and Fees

From the beginning, we understand that money is the University’s first concern. “We’ve raised the student fees again—’ ‘And got fewer students than ever,’ Wizard Finn pointed out, … ‘but the ones we have got must all come from very rich families, or they couldn’t afford the fees. It stands to reason. I propose we ask these families for money;” (2). So, they keep raising the price of attending university. We know from the later chapters, that some of them can’t afford to pay more. The largest problem with academia is the exclusiveness that comes from the fact that in order to attend, unless you are in the 1%, you will graduate with a crippling amount of student debt.

But, while the students are short of money, the teachers seem to have endless amounts. “Corkoran that week imploded more peaches than he cared to think about. And peaches were beginning to be expensive now that autumn was coming on. The new load he ordered cost more than twice this much.” (35). Research can be expensive. However, there were two components to his moonshot problem. Protecting himself, and transportation. Corkoran could have shifted his attention to the moonship instead of utilizing out-of-season fruit for his experiments. He sinks a hefty portion of the University budget into this.

The upper floors of the buildings get turned into apartments for the staff. Beyond that, the student food is so horrible that Ruskin tries to fix it with magic. On the other hand, “Corkoran himself always sent out to the town’s one good restaurant. A man in a crisp white apron brought him the chef’s special every evening” (154). This reflects more on the upper echelons of academia than the professors, but again, the students should be the priority.

Negative and Positive Mixing in Academia


Melissa is a secondary character, one of the incoming class. She is completely and utterly stupid. Felim begins to entangle himself with her, but his friends warn him off. “’She must have some brains, I suppose, or she wouldn’t be here, but I’ve yet to see it.’ … ‘Truly’ Felim asked Claudia. ‘You think she is stupid?’ ‘Horribly,’ said Claudia. ‘Hopelessly.’” (33-4). While this seems judgmental on their part, it is the truth. Melissa largely fulfills the stereotype of the damsel, or the stupid sorority girl.

However, Diana Wynne Jones doesn’t let that rest there. Through the rest of the book, Melissa works to improve herself. “No she’s not [a wimp]’, said Olga. ‘Just stupid, and it’s not her fault she was born that way, She knows she was, and she’s trying to do something about it. I respect that. Those other girls helping her respect her for it, too.” (232). While the partying sorority girl is a genuine person you might meet on a college campus, they also are human, and have as much depth as any of us. Melissa’s journey to educate herself is inspiring, and one that deserves more time.

She also grows out of the damsel role. When Olaf comes and tries to force Olga to marry one of his lieutenants, Melissa speaks out against it first. She gives a feminist screed about how people restrict women’s agency, and “Everyone thought, Well, fancy Melissa having the nerve!” (164). So, while she fulfills the negative stereotypes about sorority women in college, she also has nerve and drive. It makes her a blend of the good and bad things you find in academia.

Academia and Benefits

Place of Refuge and Self-Discovery

Despite the failing wards allowing enemies through, the University becomes a place of discovery and safety for three of our six students. Lukin came to the school with a jinx, which caused him to continually make holes in things. Claudia’s jinx completely wrecked her ability to travel. While all of them were trapped on Mars, Blade and Kit gave the jinxed pair what was essentially therapy to heal their jinxes. For Lukin, they start him talking about his distant relationship with his father, and he says. “There’s a gap—‘… Your [magic] just peppers everything you do with that gap your father didn’t notice,” (354). The emotional catharsis he gains from that allows him to repair his magic.

As for Claudia, she talks about how she kept going between the Marshlands and the Empire. How she was made to feel an outsider in both. “You’ve spent most of your life shuttling between two places you hated… It was your way of kicking and screaming as they dragged you back and forth.” (351). For the both of them, the University (though tangentially) helped them deal with problems.

With Olga, her catharsis and escape comes earlier. After Elda turned her father into a mouse, Olga confides in the group about how she learned to raise winds and talk with elementals, but her father beat her one day for talking to them. She still feels wounded over the loss of her ability to speak with elementals. After she and Lukin fight, she starts crying, and the elementals come back. “She had refused to make a noise or shed a tear [when Olaf beat her]. Somehow it had been important not to” (229-30). It is a staggeringly accurate depiction of abuse recovery, where you can only feel the effects after you’ve escaped.

Place of Romance

From the beginning, college seems to be a place where you can experiment with romance. Felim considered Melissa before being warned off. Even Ruskin, a dwarf among humans managed to find someone. “Ruskin was known to be sneaking off to the nearby Healers Hall to drink tea with a great, tall novice girl whom he had met in Herbal Studies” (33). This interspecies romance and the non-comment made by his friends indicates the ideal of romantic freedom that college and academia provides. You can learn who you are, who you like. Where heterosexual, homosexual, and other relationships pass without comment.

Elda’s crush on Corkoran contains shades of this, along with the ‘student falls in love with the professor trope.’ However, Elda’s crush on Corkoran never exceeds comparing him to a teddy bear. The more valuable lesson she learns from this comes after the assassin on the Astronomy Tower situation. Elda flies Corkoran up the tower, and feels and smells his fear. Afterwards she feels physically and emotionally horrible, but her friends support her in both.

Olga and Lukin pair off from the start, as quickly as Ruskin and his healer girl, and they manage decently well. They do occasionally have communication problems, such as after Lukin ‘buys’ Ruskin and behaved peremptorily towards Olga. But after the rest of the group rubs Lukin’s nose in his privilege, he goes and finds her to apologize. Olga thought he was making fun of her by calling her his fiancé in front of the dwarven delegation, because of her own feelings about her father. “I love you,’ Lukin repeated. …‘I don’t care whether your father’s one of the Emperor’s elephants or chief bullfrog in the Marshes, I’d still love you. You’re Olga” (231). This signals their potential ability to handle further conflict.

Academia and Freedom

But beyond personal growth and expression, academia is about developing people’s minds. Derk recommends magical theory books. Subversive is the word that he uses, and it spirals further when they actually start reading those texts. Ruskin reads a dramatic text on the wonders of magic and says. “It’s blissful,’ … ‘It’s what I always imagined a book of magic was—until I came here and found Wermacht, I mean.” (66). This text restores his hopes that magic can be wonderful instead of just ‘next big headings’.

As for Elda, when she starts reading Policant, it has a similar affect on her. She wonders why Policant asks certain questions, and then realizes that he’s pulling a Socrates, asking bad questions to make her think. “After that she was hooked. It dawned on her that she had chosen the most exciting subject in the world to study and she read and read and read.” (74-5). Everyone else recognizes the effect it had on her, and queue up to read Policant next.

That inspires their essays that Corkoran mercilessly downgrades. But the summaries and the themes of the papers serve as an argument against Corkoran’s B policy and his hatred of theory. These six students talk how magic cannot be standardized, how magic should be fun, and how magic exists outside of what is currently taught. It makes Corkoran’s ideals stand out as counter to the ideals of academia.

So, when Policant’s statue becomes the living, flesh and blood Policant at the end, it marks a shift. “We shall of course in future run this place both as a means of educating wizards of true power and as the center for magical research it was designed to be.” (384). The university returns to the initial ideal of academia as a place for research.

In Conclusion

Diana Wynne Jones seems much more complimentary towards academia than she ever seemed towards tourism. Though this likely has to do with the nature of the subjects discussed. In the case of the exploitative Mr. Chesney, we can still see the damage he did to both the world and the institutions of the world eight years from his expulsion. She reinforces her theme about the damages of touristic exploitation.

She still does critique academia, especially what it has now become, more of a business than a school. But, as all academic work should be, it gives a balanced critique. Jones admires the good that higher education can do for people, as a place of knowledge, both of external and self knowledge.

Of the two institutions that she interrogates, academia comes off the lighter for it. Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin seem almost prophetic in their view of tourism and academia. It highlights the lack of progress that we have made in making these institutions less exploitative. So, as high schools and colleges let out for the summer, and tourist season begins, remember these two books. Remember the damage that these institutions can do alongside the joy they bring.

Have a good summer everyone.

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