Sitting in Dr. Herman Ganzevoort's office has always given me a sense of history. The irony of that statement should be duly noted. I didn't exactly know what I was searching for in university, but when it came to how I wanted to be treated by a professor the answer was very succinct. No bullshit, tell it to me straight. Don't hold back your opinion. Students pay thousands of dollars for an endowment of useless knowledge when often all we seek is the truth. Not in a metaphysical sort of way, but in a day-to day way.
The most interesting things to be learned often don't come from a PowerPoint presentation, but from the extensive mind of a professor such as Ganzevoort. If you have had the pleasure, or pain, of sitting in one of his classes, you will fit into one of two
groups. You will either find him to be an entertaining, crusty, fountain of knowledge or something of an open wound. He will fling sarcastic remarks at you just as quickly as a soliloquy detailing aboriginal history in Canada. No matter how hard he tries to deny it though, you can tell that he cares deeply about his students, their performance in his class and their lives outside of the classroom.
"Dr. G," as he is affectionately, or perhaps begrudgingly, referred to, has been teaching at the University of Calgary for over 30 years. Now nearing the age of retirement, he is toiling with the idea of leaving this university behind and settling down with his wife somewhere else, perhaps in a small house on picturesque Prince Edward Island.
"Do you have a list of questions for me?" asked Ganzevoort, to which I sheepishly replied that I am not really prepared for the interview, but followed that up with an assurance that I wasn't looking for a formal interrogation.
"Well, you know me, I've never been reluctant to give my opinion on anything," said Ganzevoort. "A fool and his opinions are soon parted."
As a professor of Canadian and American history, as well as a self-professed illuminati in many other fields, Ganzevoort has often pointed to the deficiencies of modern students. Whereas he makes a point of picking up a novel or text every night, today's students are often plopped down in front of a television, poking away at their computers or behind a counter at the local mall. He lamented that today's students are illiterate and are more concerned with working 40 hours a week than applying themselves to their studies. This is not necessarily a reflection of a lack of work ethic, but more a sign of the times. The costs of tuition, housing and food, as well as the rampant materialism all feed this desire for extra-curricular activities.
"Why did I start teaching?" Ganzevoort repeated the question emphatically. "Well, it was that or catch dogs. At the time, I was doing my master's and I was employed by the Michigan Humane Society. It sounded like too much work to me, so I thought, 'well, I'll go into graduate school.'"
"It's just that I'm too lazy to work and too stupid to steal, so what else you got?" he continued. "Be a university professor. My goal in education has always been to turn my students into anarchists, to question everything, including me. I'm as full of BS as anyone else."
Ganzevoort was born in the Netherlands. He came to Canada 60 years ago when he was just five years old. His first memory
of Canada as a young child was getting off the boat in Quebec and his father buying him a banana, which he had never seen before. When asked what was the most interesting story of his life, he replied with honesty.
"I don't know, the time I found myself in a whorehouse in Detroit," he said. "I was a humane society man picking up some puppies. It turned out to be a house of entertainment, a brothel. I didn't know that until the girls came downstairs in various states of undress and
gave me the puppies and a lot of money. It was probably the first time a john got paid in a whorehouse instead of doing it the other way around."
This type of openness is what makes his classes so interesting. In a 30-minute interview, the topics ranged from brothels to the holocaust and it always seemed there was
some sort of lesson behind it, a method to the madness, so to speak.
When asked about the state of the university today, Ganzevoort became a touch more animated.
"These people have an edifice complex," he said. "They want to build buildings and buildings and they think that's the sign of success. The reality is we have no collegial relationships with the people who rule the rooster. Who even knows what a digital library is?"
Continuing his lecture of sorts, Ganzevoort detailed how the people running the university are the "bigwigs" downtown who have no concern with the state of education.
"Increasingly, education is going to become education for the rich," he continued. "[The university administrators] are complaining, 'Maclean's does a number on us, they make us look bad.' Well, wake up guys, the place is that bad. Why do students come to me and say, 'I have been here four years and this is the first time somebody has learned my name.' What does that indicate? I've always tried to keep my door open for students."
Much like his classes, the information dissected throughout the interview was sometimes disjointed, but always informative. His lectures have always been an arena of entertainment, be it due to his relationship with the material or with his students. Finally, the interview was nearing its end, but there was still enough time for one last quip.
"Anything else you want to know, my sex life?" he asked jokingly.