Lessons in Learning in Leacock 132
by Louise Fabiani, BSc’80
Jane Goodall pant-hooted like a chimpanzee. Ralph Nader got us laughing at radiation. An avuncular Linus Pauling repeatedly rose on his tip-toes behind the podium.
These are just three of the remarkable individuals who have addressed students, staff and the general public in room 132 of the Stephen Leacock Building. I was lucky enough to hear all three in person.
McGill has a long history of hosting public lectures featuring distinguished speakers and, as the University’s largest lecture hall, Leacock 132 has been the site for many of them. For several years, the University’s most prestigious talks, the Beatty Memorial Lecture Series, were headquartered in Leacock 132. (This changed recently when the Beatty talks became part of McGill Homecoming and the University needed to find an even larger venue to accommodate audiences than the 800 seats in Leacock 132.)
A few months after I graduated from McGill and became a member of the “general public,” I found a job in the McGill Libraries. In more than one sense, I never really left the University at all. I regularly checked bulletin boards and weekly issues of The Reporter for notices of interesting lectures and went to as many of them as possible.
As an undergraduate, Leacock 132 was the site for many of my introductory courses. With convocation now behind me, the lecture hall continued to play an important part in my life, giving me access to some of the greatest minds of my time. A short walk from work and I could enjoy listening to lectures by the likes of essayist Susan Sontag and mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Whereas my undergraduate degree had been around 75 percent focused on understanding the workings of science (ecological, biomedical, geological), Phase II of my McGill education consisted of more “real world” studies. I became a political animal and a budding activist. I needed facts to shape and support my nascent beliefs, and new ideas to inspire me. In my continuing treks to Leacock 132, I found both by the bucketful.
You could say that my Phase II education actually began while I was still an undergraduate.
During my first fall term, a friend and I ducked out of class early to see Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s presentation on his new discipline, sociobiology. Overhead in the darkened hall (where she and I had shared several 101 classes) flashed slides of amusing little stick figures depicting acts of altruism. Wilson explained that risking your life to save another’s is really not as selfless as it appears, if you save a relative, because some of your (shared) genes will survive. The suggestion that genes “guide” human actions shocked many thinkers at the time (and still does).
Few of the lectures I attended after graduation involved my major. One, in 1983, by eclectic sensory deprivation pioneer John C. Lilly (with his wife, Toni Lilly) delved into dolphin intelligence. Jane Goodall, about a year later, packed the hall with fans of her groundbreaking work on chimpanzees—and delighted us with her spot-on imitation of a chimpanzee vocalization, the “pant-hoot.”
Looking now through very old notebooks, it is more than a bit chilling to chart the trajectory of my post-graduation autodidactic journey. The subject of nuclear disarmament came up again and again. Like a student, I filled pages with scribbled notes: pithy phrases, essential statistics—as if my anxiety refused to fade without facts.
Consumer rights activist Ralph Nader gave one of the first disarmament talks I heard in early 1981. His understated charisma and wry humour held the capacity audience in L 132 spellbound. I did not take notes that time (none that survive, anyway), but I do remember his warning about medical radiation. “When the dentist says, ‘x-ray time!’ be sure to tell him ‘lead-apron time!’”
The arms race began escalating as soon as U.S. president Ronald Reagan took office in January, 1981. The pall nuclear arms cast at the time may be hard to imagine now. In April, 1982, the distinguished economist John Kenneth Galbraith spoke on “Economics and the Arms Race.” “A curtain is lowered over the future,” he warned. The “nuclear theologians” of the military-industrial complex and their focus on profit made “horror their business” and threatened humankind’s “5000-year cultural heritage.” From two-time Nobel laureate (the first for chemistry, the second for peace) Linus Pauling (October, ‘82), I was staggered to learn that Reagan had an arms budget of $1.6 trillion (in 1982!). Author Robert Jay Lifton (spring 1984), famous for his writing on Hiroshima and an expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, emphasized the psychological effects of living with the nuclear threat. He called the arms race “a desecration of childhood itself.”
While this swirled around me, invading my dreams, I thought of writing a novel like that classic of Italian literature, The Decameron. Instead of 10 aristocrats heading to the hills to escape the Black Death, there would be 10 survivors of a nuclear strike. I abandoned it for being too bleak, even for me.
I eventually left McGill completely, moved to Toronto to do graduate work in environmental studies, and spent nearly six years in Ontario before returning to Montreal with my husband in 1995. In 2006, while researching a novel much like the one I nearly wrote 20 years earlier, I returned to L 132 after a long absence and took notes on the Axial Age, a remarkably fertile period for new approaches to spirituality, such as Buddhism and Confucianism (British author and theologian Karen Armstrong was the speaker that night). That fascinating lecture provided a belated addition to Phase II of my lifelong learning, which—like Phase I—began in L 132.
Louise Fabiani is a Montreal writer, and is busy rewriting that novel.
If These Walls Could Talk: Overheard in Leacock 132
The H. Noel Fieldhouse Auditorium (also known as Leacock 132) has played host to dozens of high-profile speakers, including Nobel laureates (among them, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka and environmental scientist Paul Crutzen), Oscar winners (actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft) and prominent activists (including Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger, U.S. human rights activist Angela Davis and No Logo author Naomi Klein).
Audience members in the lecture hall have heard presentations by everyone from NASA planetary scientist Christopher McKay, to pretend space scientist James Doohan (Star Trek’s Scotty), to eccentric former Montreal Expos pitcher Bill (the Spaceman) Lee.
Here are some sound bites culled from memorable presentations that have taken place in Leacock 132 over the years.
“Student activism today is an oxymoron, like the ‘working press,’ or ‘military intelligence.’ I don’t trust anyone under 30.”
Sixties radical and anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman in 1986
“It seems to be trendy right now [to have films by black filmmakers], but we don’t want this to be a trend. We want to be here for the long run. Blacks have to start financing and producing our own films if we want to control the presentation of our own images.”
Filmmaker Spike Lee in 1990
“If we do nothing [to intervene when countries violently target their own citizens], if we do not invent balanced and civilized systems, a brotherhood and a collective solidarity, if we do not find common values to create a collective mechanism, we shall have to cure again and again wars of desolation, always too late.”
Médecins sans frontiers founder Bernard Kouchner in 1996
“It’s important for me to communicate these strange case histories as exemplars or parables of the possible. My feeling is that we are built to survive. People learn ways of surviving or discover or create ways of surviving in almost any circumstances.”
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of best-sellers such as the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in 1997
“Everyone else would like to have a stroke on the golf course. I’d rather have cancer because it does give us a chance to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Goodbye’ – and I would like to tidy up my desk.”
Palliative care pioneer Dame Cicely Saunders in 1997
“We are not here because mammals slowly made their superior way against dinosaurs. For hundreds of millions of years, mammals existed as small creatures which could not make any headway in a world ruled by dinosaurs. We eventually emerged on top only because dinosaurs were wiped out.”
Author and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in 1998
“There is, in my mind, no arguable case that health care is anything other than a human right.”
Author and philosopher John Ralston Saul, BA’69, DLitt’97, in 2001
“We’ve come a long way in the last 500 years, but we’re still ignorant of much more. That’s why I say science is much nearer its beginning than its end.”
Sir John Maddox, former editor-in-chief of Nature in 2002
“Our faiths have been misrepresented by the hands of a few who distort the meaning of our sacred texts with narrow, uncompromising, and often violent actions.”
Queen Noor of Jordan in 2002
“Architecture is more of a storytelling profession than a technical one.”
Architect Daniel Libeskind, whose works include the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, in 2004
“It is an intergenerational crime that in the face of the work of [environmental] scientists over the last 20 years, [politicians] keep dithering as they are.”
Environmentalist and The Nature of Things host David Suzuki in 2008
“Before the excrement hit the ventilation system, I went on a TV show to talk about Satanic Verses and soon realized that the mounting campaign to discredit the book had very little to do with me, but more about galvanizing a certain group of people who felt that fanaticism was the only way to share an identity.”
Novelist Salman Rushdie in 2010
“The world should be grateful we ran out of gas; the American Empire will be little more than a footnote of history.”
Author, playwright and political commentator Gore Vidal in 2011
Do you have any recollections of memorable talks that you heard in L 132? Please add your comments and let us know about them.