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Mr. Gradgrind’s Literal Answers to Rhetorical Questions

People commonly ask empty rhetorical questions that rarely receive any sort of sensible answer. When you have had your surfeit of poetical whimsy and are ready for some good, hard facts, come here to be set straight.

The world would be much improved if those engaging in windy musings were more often brought up short by a nice, sharp definition or a pointed rebuke. Even the fantastical William Shakespeare, asking himself “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” goes on (admittedly at excessive length) to list a number of reasons for answering in the negative.

Of course, some questions are so ill-framed as to admit of no sensible answer. Example: Where have you been all my life? It so happens that this question has never been addressed to me; but if it were I should be at a loss to detail the many addresses at which I have resided and worked during the span of existence of some other person, even if I knew that person’s precise date of birth. Such idle musings are best ignored.

However, one can learn much by discovering facts that provide satisfactory answers to questions one might suppose at first glance to be pointless. This page is devoted to the pursuit of such answers.

What is so rare as a day in June?

June having 30 days, it is clear that days in April, September, and November are precisely as “rare,”or as common, though they are slightly less common than days in January, March, May, July, August, October, and December. Days in February are the least common, of course, so it is nonsensical to consider June days as particularly rare.

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

If the question refers to the melted product of last winter’s snowfall, the answer can sometimes be derived by analyzing the volume of water in the catch basins of dams located on streams downhill from the point of original snowfall. More precise measures may be taken of those snows that contribute to glaciers which move at regular rates ranging from a few centimeters to a hundred meters per year. The easiest place to locate such snow, however, is in the extreme arctic and antarctic regions, where, although snow is very rare and sparse, it remains satisfactorily frozen and fixed in place indefinitely.

How high the moon?

It varies between 356,000 and 407,000 km in distance from the surface of the earth, its average distance being 384,400 km.

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

D. Kolb and E.K.E. Gunderson’s study, “Alcoholism in the United States Navy” reports that attempts to prevent, diagnose and rehabilitate sailors suffering from alcohol-related problems are to a measurable degree superior to the older approach of simple hospitalization (published in Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 183-194).

Who wrote the Book of Love?

René of Anjou, King of Naples 1435-1480, wrote and illustrated his Book of Love (Le cueur d’amours espris) some time after 1473 while living idly in Provence.

Tell me why the ivy twines.

Not all ivies do twine, of course: some are mere creeping vines. However, climbing ivies such as are commonly seen covering academic buildings maximize their exposure to light by using twining tendrils to affix themselves to other plants and objects in order to gain altitude and escape their shade.

Would you like to swing on a star?

There has been a good deal of research into the use of long tethers linking space probes which could use the gravitational differential between linked units closer to and farther from a massive object to generate both electrical and kinetic energy (see L. Johnson, B. Gilchrist, R. D. Estes and E. Lorenzini: Advances in Space Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 1055-1063 (1999). However, problems of scale and temperature make it unlikely that this technique will be applied to interstellar navigation any time in the near future; so you would be wise to limit your wishes to swinging from a planet.

How long has this been going on?

Data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe produce an estimated age for the universe of 13.7 billion years, plus or minus a 1% margin of error.

What is to be done?

I find that the Filofax A5 System Organizer efficiently tracks my appointments with a minimum of fuss and is generally superior to the personal information management software products so widely touted by computer enthusiasts.

What’s up, Doc?

Presuming that the doctor addressed is a physician, one must assume that the question refers to the identity of the topmost parts of the human body, in which case the short answer is the frontal lobe of the brain, the skull, the scalp, and–if any–the hair.

How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?

Administered commodity prices resulting in an average profit per farmer of no more than $50,000 per annum should be adequate to discourage profligate trips to France.

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

No one well informed, of course, since the writer in question died in 1941; but during her lifetime she was known to have a sharp tongue, and many persons had reason to fear her wit.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Generally the petals of the flowering parts of plants wither and fall off to decay in the surrounding soil while the remainder is converted into fruiting bodies. However, the blossoms of early-flowering fruit trees such as plums and cherries are particularly subject to the destructive effects of spring rains.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Though the poet neglects to enumerate them, providing instead a mere list, a simple inventory establishes that–if we omit the purely hypothetical posthumous final one–Elizabeth Barrett loved Robert Browning in precisely seven ways.

Mr. Gradgrind recommends to those seeking guidance in matters of language the fine book by Dr. Paul Brians: Common Errors in English Usage, illustrated with excellent engravings and published by the firm of William, James & Co.


Listen to Paul Brians discussing and reading from this page on his podcast.

Write to Mr. Gradgrind

Paul Brians’ home page

Last revised July 7, 2007.

Paul Brians’ Recipes

Paul Brians’ Fruitcake 

As featured in the Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2007. Reporter Susan Warren later wrote me to say “We did get your sample and we had great fun in our bureau with a taste test of several fruitcakes. I am pleased to tell you that your fruitcake was the universal favorite!”

Tired of jokes about your fruitcake? My recipe has converted a lot of skeptics. The secret lies in avoiding those disgusting glacéed cherries, citron, etc. that are packaged for use in fruitcakes. This isn’t exactly health food, but it’s probably considerably closer to what our ancestors enjoyed than the modern stuff.


The Fruit:

Amounts can vary wildly. If you want a dense, fruit-rich cake, you’ll need two or three pounds of fruit. Other people like a more cakey texture and can use much less. It’s all up to you. But use good dried fruits, not glacéed ones. If you must use “organic” stuff from your health food mart, go ahead; but try to avoid discolored and over-dry fruit. Don’t put anything in your cake that isn’t tasty eaten separately. My old favorites: dried apples, pears, pineapple, date bits, sliced apricot logs (go easy on the apricot–it can overwhelm everything else), golden raisins, and cranberries. Look for packaged fruit bits to save yourself trouble, but read the label: some are mostly raisins. I find ordinary raisins boring, but you may like them. I add mango strips and papaya bits for color and extra-rich flavor. Recently I used dried mangoes, papayas, pineapples, and golden raisins bought at Winco. Avoid dried bananas.

A little fresh-grated lemon or orange peel is a nice thing to add.

Chop everything up into suitably-sized bits with a heavy, sharp knife and place it in your biggest bowl. I aim for 1/4″–larger chunks mean the cake won’t hold together well when sliced. A canning kettle will do. Dip the knife occasionally in very hot water if it gets harder to use.

The Soak:

Pour a cup or two of your favorite liquor or sweet dessert wine over the fruit bits, toss them, and let them sit for a few hours (or days) to absorb the liquid. Don’t try to submerge them in liquid: just moisten them. This softens the fruit and creates thousands of tiny little sponges that will spread the flavor through your cake much more efficiently than mere soaking after the cake is done. Again, don’t cheap out and use wine that’s gone bad or is unpleasant-tasting; but don’t waste a fine burgundy on your fruitcake either. A dessert wine too sweet for sophisticated palates may do just fine in a fruitcake. Most of the time I use Myers’s dark rum. If you are avoiding alcohol, apple juice is a good substitute.

The Nuts:

Walnuts are fine. In a dark fruitcake the nuts mainly add crunch: the spices overwhelm subtler-flavored nuts. But make sure they are fresh. Walnuts turn rancid if not refrigerated. Personally I use pecans because I love them and they look pretty. I splurged on macadamia nuts one year but it was a waste of money because you couldn’t detect their buttery flavor in the end result; though I’ve made a great Hawaiian fruitcake with fresh coconut, macadamia nuts, and dried pineapple. Don’t put the nuts in the marinating fruits: they’ll lose their crunch. Don’t like nuts? Leave ’em out. I like nuts, so I use a lot: a pound or more. I buy halves and don’t chop them because I like big pieces, but it’s all a matter of taste.

The Pans:

You’ll want to prepare your pan or pans ahead of time. Fruitcake cooks a long time and is very sticky, so getting it to come out of the pans cleanly is a trick. You can use loaf pans, ring molds, or whatever you like; but you’ll need to line them. Even “nonstick” coatings will be defeated by fruitcake. You can use baking parchment if you have it; but I sometimes use a cheap substitute: greased pieces of paper cut from brown paper bags. Don’t use waxed paper; it dissolves and shreds. If you’re concerned about dyes, you can avoid the printed portions of ordinary shopping bags. Grease the pans, line them with paper (cut in as few pieces as possible, but without wrinkles), then grease the paper and flour it.

The Batter:

This is essentially a classic pound cake with added spices. You can use any recipe you like, but here’s mine. If you’re avoiding butter, forget it. Substituting margarine or shortening will ruin the recipe. What makes my fruitcakes taste special is that I always begin with fresh whole spices (bought in bulk, so I can get just the amount I need), ground in a small coffee mill just before adding them to the recipe. This releases many volatile oils and perfumes which are long gone in commercial ground spices. I use a mill I bought just for spices; if you use your coffee mill be prepared for spiced coffee for a while afterward.

Break nutmegs up a bit with a hammer or large knife before grinding them. Cloves and nutmeg are moist, so you may want to grind them with a little of the sugar. Soft “Mexican” cinnamon sticks grind nicely. Hard cassia sticks sold as cinnamon are horrible to grind and are not nearly as flavorful. Penzey’s makes a cinnamon mix that is amazing.

There is no such thing as “whole” mace. Because fresh-ground spices are so pungent you will not need to increase the amounts below; just roughly measure the spices before grinding. Substitute preground spices if you must, but it won’t be the same.

  • 2 cups butter (I prefer unsalted)
  • 2 cups sugar (Don’t reduce the sugar! If you want health food, eat rice cakes.)
  • 9 large eggs
  • 4 cups cake flour (I now use gluten-free flour, and it works fine)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cloves
  • 1 tablespoon allspice
  • 1 tablespoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 tablespoon mace

Cream the butter together with the sugar. Then beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly until it’s light and fluffy. Add cream of tartar as you beat the eggs. In a classic pound cake the eggs are separated and the whites beaten to lighten the dough, but we want a dense texture here. The eggs will provide just enough leavening: no baking powder needed.

Sift the flour together with the salt and ground spices. Sprinkle some of the flour mixture over the soaking fruit and toss it. The idea is keep the fruit from sticking together. If you’ve been too generous with your soaking liquid, you may have to add more flour.

Add the spiced flour into the wet mixture a cup at a time, beating it only long enough to produce a smooth, fairly thick batter. Try to resist licking the batter if you’re concerned about salmonella–but you’ll find it hard.

Stir the batter into the fruit, then add the nuts. Use a wooden spoon or just plunge in with your hands and reminisce about what fun it was to make mud pies when you were little. Or you can wear disposible plastic gloves. Mix it all up. You will have a mixture that is mostly fruits and nuts with just enough batter to hold it together.

Assembling and Baking:

Place the dough in the lined pans, pressing down to fill in the corners. You can fill the pans almost to the brim because the cake will rise only slightly. Place the pans in the lower third of a 275 degree oven for 1 1/2 to 3 hours, until a knife or testing straw comes out clean. Timing is extremely variable. Small cakes will cook quicker, larger cakes take longer. Test each cake separately, and take it out as soon as your tester comes out clean. You don’t want to dry out the cake. If it starts to burn before the inside is done, cover the top with foil. You can’t bake a fruitcake in a hurry.

Beautifully baked fruit cake, by candle light.

When the cakes are done, let them cool on racks for an hour or so before trying to remove them from the pans. Use a knife to loosen any stuck spots. Sprinkle them all over with your liquor or juice to get the outsides good and moist. Traditionalists will wrap cakes with soaked linen, but I find that enclosing them in plastic bags works as well and is cheaper and more efficient. Let them mature in the refrigerator or other cool space for at least a couple of weeks to blend the flavors. Months is better; but who thinks about making fruitcake in August? If they seem to be getting dry, sprinkle on more liquid, but don’t make them sodden. The sugar and alcohol will retard spoilage; but once you start serving this cake you’re unlikely to discover how long it might have lasted. It’s too irresistible.

Old-Fashioned Mincemeat

A food processor makes this recipe a snap. The result is far more flavorful than the canned product: rich, really fruity and not overwhelmingly sweet. Vegetarians can omit the beef and substitute butter for the suet; the result is distinctly different, but good. But then you’re honor bound to call the end product “mince pie” and not “mincemeat pie.”


  • 1 lb stewing beef, boiled until thoroughly cooked (20 minutes or so), drained and ground. Or you can roast or braise the meat. Browning it gives it a richer flavor.
  • 5 large, firm, rich-flavored apples.
  • 1 cup (5 oz) ground suet (firm beef fat—many butchers give it away, but you often need to arrange to get it in advance).
  • 3 cups raisins
  • 2 cups pineapple juice (this is the one ingredient that probably wasn’t around in the 19th century, but it does add to the flavor).
  • 2 cups canned beef broth, or beef concentrate diluted with the cooking water from the stewing beef.
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons allspice (freshly ground is best)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves (ditto)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2-4 peeled oranges, chopped and seeded, or substitute a half-dozen tangerines for a milder flavor.
  • 1 lemon, pulp and grated zest (the yellow part of the rind) only
  • 1/4-1/2 cup marmalade
  • a little rum or brandy (optional)


Grind or chop all the solid ingredients and mix everything together. Boil the filling, stirring occasionally, until it reduces to a fairly thick consistency. Cool and test a spoonful to see whether it needs more sugar. Keep in mind that it will thicken more when it is cool. I like to get it to the point where little volcanic spurts of liquid are erupting through a fairly solid mass; but be careful that the bottom doesn’t get scorched. You can pour in a little dark rum or brandy or whatever to give it an extra punch.

Because this has meat in it, I have never been able to confirm with an expert what a safe canning time would be, but it freezes extremely well. This recipe makes enough filling for two large pies or three smaller ones. Don’t overfill and you will avoid drips and burning in the oven.

To bake pies, pour the filling into your favorite pie crust, cover with a top crust or lattice. Seal and flute the edges. Make sure there is some sort of slit or steam hole in the top.

Bake at 425 degrees for 40-50 minutes until the juices begin to bubble up out of the holes in the top and the crust is browned. A glass pie plate will let you check how well the bottom has browned.

Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed, with whipped cream or straight. Again, because it contains meat, the pie should not sit out for days at a time. Refrigerated portions can be rewarmed in a conventional oven, but microwaving will toughen the crust.


Grandma Brookover’s Christmas Pudding



  • 1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks, 1/2 lb.)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 2 cups carrots, grated
  • 2 cups potatoes, grated
  • Hard Sauce:
  • 1/4 lb butter (not margarine)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 Tbl rum (preferably Myerís dark)


Prepare mold by greasing, lining with waxed paper to aid in unmolding. Use a large pudding mold, or a 3 lb coffee can, or a 4 quart pot, or several smaller containers. At any rate, the containers must be sealed tightly during cooking, whether with lids, or foil.

Cream the sugar, butter, and flour together. Add the salt, baking soda, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Beat in well. Stir in the raisins, nuts, grated carrots and potatoes. A food processor is great for grating the vegetables.

Pour the pudding into the mold(s). In a large kettle with about 2-3 inches of boiling water in it, place the pudding container. Let the water return to a boil, lower the heat to the lowest point at which the water will still boil (not just simmer). Cover the kettle tightly and steam about 2 hours, or until the pudding assumes a fairly solid shape. Two or more small molds will take less time than one large one. Don’t worry about overcooking: as long as the kettle doesn’t boil dry, you’re safe.

Serve with hard sauce, made by creaming together the listed ingredients. Can be reheated by steaming, or wrapping and reheating in microwave or conventional oven.

Doubled, the recipe fits into a 5-lb coffee can to be cooked for 3 1/2 hours; but you may find it more convenient to divide such a large batch into two molds and cook them separately to save time.

If you insist on flaming your pudding, do so at your own risk. English flamed puddings are generally denser and less porous than this, which is like a heavy cake. Pouring brandy or other alcohol over this pudding does not result in a nice flame, but in a sodden, unignitable, inedible mess.

Apple Pie

When we first began coming to Bainbridge Island there was a farm on Miller Road that in the fall sold fresh-pressed cider from heritage apple varieties and something called “a pie in a bag.” This was simply a paper bag filled with assorted tasty varieties, and the idea was to make a pie from them in which all those flavors would be mixed together, resulting in a really delicious pie.

We tried it, and it worked.

The farm is gone, but every autumn I make another mixed-apple pie, and it gets raves; so I thought I’d share some tips on how I go about this. When we lived in Pullman, we would go to the WSU Tukey Orchard stand where we could sample all sorts of rare and newly developed varieties, but today almost every grocery store offers an interesting variety beyond the bland Red Delicious and the super-tart Granny Smith.

Currently I’m using a slightly adapted version of Mark Bittman’s traditional apple pie recipe from my favorite cookbook: How to Cook Everything.

Filling recipe

  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • pinch salt
  • 5 or 6 good-tasting apples
  • 3 tablespoons tapioca


First, the crust. You already know whether you can make a nice flaky crust. I use Julia Child’s recipe, which involves half butter and half lard, made in a food processor.

If you’ve never mastered this art, don’t despair. You can buy an OK pre-made crust in the frozen-food department of your grocery store. Unfortunately these are only bottom crusts, and trying to flatten one into a top crust is a hassle. So you can make streusel topping. Or you can bag the whole pie idea and make an apple crisp. The filling will taste the same.

Gluten-free tips

I happen to be one of the unfortunate 1% who is actually gluten-intolerant, not just a gluten-free wannabe, so I use gluten-free baking mix. Some of these are rather gritty in texture because the brown rice that makes up the bulk of most mixes is not ground finely enough. If you’re ambitious enough to make your own mix, pay the extra for a bag of Authentic Foods superfine brown rice flour. It has an excellent texture. Authentic Foods also makes a piecrust mix which I haven’t tried. They don’t make any claims to it being superfine, but it might be worth a try if you can find it— most likely in your local health-food store. Ordering their products by mail costs a fortune: they’re not only pricey, but the shipping fees are huge.

Traditional piecrust recipes call for you to allow the crust mixture to “relax” in the refrigerator because the initial kneading develops the wheat gluten and makes the dough chewy. Using frozen butter and refrigerated lard I found that this wasn’t really necessary, but guess what—you can skip this step altogether if you’re baking gluten free because—no gluten!

However, the downside of GF dough is that it is really crumbly: it doesn’t want to hang together and form nice flakes. So I add a teaspoon of xanthan gum to the crust mixture. Xanthan gum is used in all sorts of GF baked goods to make them chewy but it’s pricey (buy it in bulk when you can) and this is a lot; however, I find using this much makes my crust hold together better.

If it’s not a medical necessity, use regular wheat flour. It tastes much better and may actually be more nutritious.

Another crust tip

Adding the correct amount of water to piecrust mix is one of the trickiest things in the process. Too little, and the crust won’t hang together properly. Too much, and it will be a soggy mess that bakes up into a hard, tough crust. Buy the cheapest vodka you can find and substitute it for half or more of the water. It will evaporate in the baking and make your crust lighter and flakier.

The filling

Now to the good stuff. Use apples that taste good.


What you like and what others like won’t necessarily match. Pay attention to flavor, not crunch. This filling is meant to be soft and any apple baked long enough will do. I often choose five different varieties, one apple apiece.

Core, peel, and slice the apples. I prefer thin slices, ¼ to 1/8 inch thick. That way the filling collapses to give a nice, solid texture without apple-free voids. You can also pack more apples into a pie when they are thinly sliced.

Bittman calls for half white sugar and half brown. I prefer all light brown. Suit your own taste, but don’t skimp a lot on the sugar or your pie may not hold together.


I’m a cinnamon fanatic. A bottle of cinnamon that’s been sitting in your spice cabinet for years has lost all the volatile oils that give a good cinnamon its magic. The good stuff is true cinnamon—otherwise known as Ceylon cinnamon. The hard sticks sold for putting in cider are usually Cassia cinnamon, which is much less complex in flavor. Penzey’s sells several kinds of cinnamon, including their own mix, which is wonderful. Always use Ceylon cinnamon if you can find it.

But my preference is to grind my own spices. They are much fuller-flavored when freshly ground. You don’t need a mortar and pestle. I use a cheap electric coffee mill that is devoted entirely to this task, but wipe it out carefully after grinding spices— or if you like spiced coffee you can use it as is.

A popular line of Mexican spices used to sell true cinnamon sticks quite reasonably, but they’ve changed to cassia in recent years. The two are easy to tell apart: if the sticks are like hard curled pieces of wood, they’re cassia. If they consist of soft shreds you can crumble with your fingers, they’re true cinnamon. You can find true cinnamon sticks in specialty stores and buy just enough to use for a half-year or so. Grind it to a very fine powdery texture.

Nutmeg is even more important to use freshly grated. A cheap grater will do fine. If you need to grind a large quantity of nutmeg (like for a large batch of fruitcake batter), you can slice it with a heavy knife and put it in the electric mill with some flour or sugar from the recipe. Nutmeg is moist and will not become powdery by itself.

Why salt? Salt is a flavor enhancer. You don’t want the pie to actually taste salty, but it enlivens the other flavors.

Bittman adds a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice. That’s a matter of taste. Some apple varieties are more tart than others, and some people like an edgier taste than others. Suit yourself.


Cornstarch or flour often makes for a runny or gooey filling. I use tapioca for all fruit pies. I made the mistake of going overboard with a recent blackberry pie that came out with a texture sort of like chewing gum. Bittman calls for 2 tablespoons of tapioca. I find 3 works better for me. This is the regular cheap little tapioca pellets that come in a box to make tapioca pudding: not pearls or tapioca flour.

Mix everything thoroughly so the spice mixture coats the apples and the various varieties and mixed together. Topping it off Most fruit pie recipes call for you to dot the filling with butter before applying the top crust. I usually forget, but it does make for a nicer finish.

You can brush the top crust with egg or milk to give it a nice smooth brown finish, and sprinkle it with white sugar if you like that look.

Baking the pie

Bittman calls for baking the pie at 450˚ for 10 minutes and at 350˚ for 40-50 minutes. I don’t know why, but my pies always take much longer. The challenge is to get the top nicely browned and the bottom thoroughly cooked without burning any part of the pie. With standard recipes, the bottom crust often comes out underbaked or raw.

Things that will cause bottom crusts to bake too slowly:

1) ingredients too cold

2) mixture too moist

3) flour not ideal

Baking a fruit pie on a sheet to catch drips is a good idea if you hate cleaning the oven, but it will slow down the process of baking the bottom crust. Using a black cast-iron griddle to catch the drips should speed things up.

A metal pie plate, especially a black one, will brown the crust faster, but I always use a Pyrex one. It takes longer, but I can see how the bottom crust is doing. It will never be as dark as the top, but it should show some color. To my taste, as long as nothing is burning the pie isn’t overdone.

The usual instruction to cook until the filling liquid bubbles up through the slits in the topic crust (you did slit it, didn’t you?) for me results in an underbaked pie. I always have to leave it in longer. The pie will hold together better if you let it cool until it’s just slightly warm. This can take a few hours.

My father always had a slice of Velveeta cheese on top of his hot apple pie, and for a lot of people this dish is not complete without vanilla ice cream; but first sample the pie by itself to savor its true deliciosity.

Paul Brians

Bainbridge Island, WA

First posted October 22, 2016.

Revised January 3, 2024.

History of the Community Free University

Back in 1968, the word “free” had a very special resonance. It had not only to do with idealistic ideas of freedom–from restrictive regulations and laws, from the constraints of middle-class taste and middle-class morality–but with ideas of opting out of the money economy altogether. The diggers in the Haight-Ashbury set up their famous free store where anyone could take the scrounged and donated goods on display without question, and could equally walk in and take over the management of the store. “Free” alternative institutions strove not only to be as open to ideas as possible, but to be as inexpensive as possible.

It was in this radical context that the first free universities were born. The model was the alternative college at San Francisco State, where courses were offered in a host of subjects not covered (or covered in a limited way) in the conventional curriculum. A group of WSU students from the local YMCA came back from a meeting in Portland on alternative education fired up to do something similar in Pullman. They knew of me as a young faculty activist, and asked me to join them in organizing this new enterprise. We met at Betty’s Tavern (now My Office) late in the fall of 1968, and quickly arrived at a vision CFU has essentially adhered to ever since. We would let anyone teach anything to anyone so long as the content wasn’t positively illegal. The fee for a course would be a minimal one dollar. No exams, no requirements, and–most significant of all–no pay for the teachers. This was to be a strictly volunteer effort.

Today most of the institutions which can trace their heritage back to the free university movement have evolved into private businesses, often run on a more or less cooperative basis, but definitely existing in part to make money for the instructors. CFU on the Palouse was never the target of a takeover attempt by any group or the subject of contentious power struggles because there was nothing to take over: it was decentralized, open to all, and virtually penniless. We were part of an ethos of volunteerism which persists in some quarters today.

There are no copies of the first Free U. catalog in my files, but I remember it vividly because we mimeographed it, assembled it by hand, and stapled it together in a long, hard session on the CUB 3rd floor. We put out press releases and stuck up posters. The time was right: before we were ready to begin registration that spring of 1969, there were over 500 people waiting in line, hoping to get into fewer than a dozen classes.

The Free U roared ahead during the late sixties and early seventies, at one point offering fifty courses in a single semester. It was normal to have four or five hundred students sign up for classes. After several years, we decided to offer a summer session as well (which is why the number of years we’ve been in existence doesn’t divide neatly into the number of semesters). One summer Mount St. Helens threatened to defeat us, but we came out with a small catalog anyway.

One of the things that made alternative publications and institutions possible was cheap web-press printing. We could print and distribute by hand thousands of flyers printed for us at local newspaper plants, all paid for out of the dollar each our students paid us. One of our biggest problems over the years has been the escalating cost of newsprint and printing. It was a severe blow when the Daily News decided not to do small print jobs any more and we had to turn to a much more expensive format (these flyers cost more than ten cents each) and print many fewer copies. I have to give them credit for unfailingly printing our press releases, however. Even when we couldn’t afford to buy ads, their pages were open to us, which is more than can be said of the Daily Evergreen, which steadfastly ignored the Free U. throughout almost all its existence, despite our many efforts to get coverage in its pages.

After the initial group of undergraduates who founded the Free U graduated, I was left by default the sole member of the coordinating board. For the next couple of decades, anyone who showed up for one of our meetings could vote on any matter affecting policy. We had very few votes, operating usually by loose consensus. In the mid-seventies, Mary Finney arrived in Pullman from Manhattan, Kansas, the home of the University for Man: the nerve center of the free university movement, with a host of ideas and seemingly inexhaustible energy. Eventually she became co-coordinator with me, and it was her idea to change the generic name “Free University” to “Community Free University” to emphasize that we were a community-based organization unconnected with WSU in any official way. After the Finneys moved away, I resumed the job of coordinator by myself, with the help of many wonderful volunteers, almost all of them teachers. Lewis Elwood of Albion has been with us longer than anyone and did a host of important chores for us. Mary Jane Engh later did wonderful work writing our publicity, even taking over for me entirely when I was traveling.

CFU has offered an extreme variety of courses: early examples were radical economics courses, horse-race handicapping, and witchcraft. We taught people how to tune up their VW engines and cook classic French cuisine. Our hallmark was openness to all comers: we several times listed courses taught by religious fundamentalists alongside courses by groups aimed at combating those very fundamentalists–and got the warm support of both (though I can’t say we generated many enrollments for either side).

Very few of our instructors were professional educators. They have been mostly people who had a skill or interest they wanted to share for the pure joy of it. Many of have been retired people–CFU has attracted teachers of all ages from the beginning. Some of them tried out their wings in our low-risk environment and went on to become paid teachers in other programs. Some businesses reached out to their customers through the Free U., notably Doug Eier’s bicycle shop, which taught many folks how to fix their own bikes. Doug also led many biking, rafting and skiing expeditions.

We are proud of the fact that many ongoing organizations and projects were incubated in the Free U. The first gay group at WSU, the first Marxism study group, the first Aikdo club, and many other organizations and groups debuted as CFU classes.

Over the years hundreds of wonderful people have taught classes, but there are some whose dedication and generosity deserves to be singled out.

Lewis Elwood taught classes on alternative energy sources and pedal-power boats for many years; and just this fall gave a wonderful tour of historic sites in the Palouse. Mary Jane Engh taught “Latin for Fun” (which one semester was our most popular class), nonsexist language, courses on Blacks and women in antiquity, and is offering in this farewell catalog a new course on women in early Christianity along with another long-time CFU participant, Kathryn Meyer. Wiley Hollingsworth has taught an amazing number of people to belly-dance in his mother’s living room, and in recent years has held extremely popular waltz, foxtrot, and swing dance classes as well. He has done more volunteer work than anyone to see that posters were put up and catalogues distributed, even when he wasn’t offering a course that particular semester.

Martha Duran has taught huge numbers of people to make paper and print it with beautiful marbled designs in CFU classes which she taught for free, though she was also in demand elsewhere by programs that paid her for similar lessons. The late Myra Smart showed people how to knit, how to find and use the wild plants of the Palouse and how to make bread and soap, and was a tireless advocate for CFU, much missed.

Larry Meinert generated enormous enthusiasm for his wine-tastings (and brought in a lot of needed fees in lean times for the Free U.).

These are the people who kept us alive all these years, and the community owes them a great debt.

We owe special thanks to Jim Nielsen, director of the WSU Common Ministry. Although CFU has jealously guarded its independence by never being formally sponsored by or affiliated with any other organization, we have long had a friendly informal working relationship with the Common Ministry. We publicized many of their classes, and in return, they offered classrooms for many of our courses over the years free of charge. CFU has never had a physical educational plant, offering classes mostly in church basements (until the churches began to charge for their use), the Cougar Depot, people’s living rooms, and other odd spots around town (we rarely held classes on the WSU campus, since we resisted the controls implied by official university recognition); but in so far as there has been a building identified with CFU, it has been the Common Ministry’s always-hospitable Koinonia House.

We also owe a debt to Neill Public Library in Pullman, where our brochures always landed first and were always available. They’ve been great supporters over the years.

We reached out to other areas in the Palouse, offering many in Moscow, others in Palouse, Colfax, Garfield and even Lewiston. For a brief period, the University of Idaho had its own Free U., founded with grant money. It flourished only while the money lasted, whereas CFU scraped along on its tiny fees, raised at first from one to three dollars, and then from three to five.

Well into the nineties we could count on generating anywhere from a dozen to two dozen courses per semester. It became harder and harder to reach the public, however, because of the increasing cost of printing our brochure and buying advertisements. Fewer and fewer people knew we existed or confused us with the city parks and recreation program. (I don’t know how many times I’ve been told “We got your brochure in the mail”; CFU has never distributed its publicity by mail.)

But the last half of the nineties has been hard. It has always been difficult to convince some people that a course taught by an unpaid instructor could be worth something, though the experience of thousands of happy students tells us otherwise; but the increasing emphasis on market forces in modern culture has made the bias against volunteer-based classes very hard to overcome. However, it’s been easier to get students than teachers in recent years. People seem to be busier than they used to be, and it has become tougher and tougher to attract instructors, despite our mailing list of more than fifty people who have offered to teach at one time or another. Last semester, the “faculty” was down to long-timer Lewis Elwood and myself. It seems the time has come to ring down the curtain on CFU. It’s had a great thirty-year run.

Looked at more positively, other institutions have gradually taken over many of the roles CFU used to play. The city parks and recreation programs in particular have offered many innovative and interesting courses which, though they cost more, also are held in better facilities than we could afford. The days when it was difficult to get dissenting or marginal points of view heard in university classrooms are long gone; topics which once found refuge only in the Free U. are now the subject of regular university classes and even whole programs of study. Particularly interesting are the University of Idaho’s Community Enrichment Program. The Common Ministry continues with its own programs, as do many other organizations in the community.

I’m grateful for the many fascinating and generous people I’ve met through the Free U., either as teachers or as students in my classes. I’ve particularly enjoyed the last few years teaching several retired folks how to use the Internet. I think CFU has brought together more different kinds of people–young and old, powerful and marginal, professional and amateur–than any other organization in the area. Thanks to you all.

Paul Brians, Coordinator
Spring, 1999

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Variations on the Name of Hildegard of Bingen

The 12th-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (German “von Bingen”) is renowned as an herbalist, a correspondent with kings, a mystic visionary, a poet, a playwright, and a brilliantly original composer. Recordings of her music abound, including a Euro-disco version of her chants; new-age seekers earnestly prescribe her herbal remedies, and the textbook I used for teaching World Civilizations considers her important enough as a poet to discuss her at some length without ever mentioning that she was also a composer. (She is also often called an artist, but the paintings associated with her were evidently executed by nuns under her supervision.)

Although the frenzy surrounding Hildegard threatens to rival the Virginia Woolf industry in fervor if not in scale, her existence comes as news to most undergraduates, who seem to have great difficulty in remembering her name on tests.

Herewith is a list of some of the many variations on the spelling of her name I have encountered in student papers and examinations.

      • Bingen of Hildegard
      • Grunen Hidelburg
      • Haldegard
      • Heldagaurd
      • Heldigard
      • Hidegar
      • Hidegard
      • Hidegard of Bilgard
      • Hildaberg
      • Hildagar
      • Hildagard of Bigen
      • Hildagrad
      • Hildegard Beign
      • Hildegard de Benin
      • Hildegard de Bergen
      • Hildegard de Bingen
      • Hildegard di Bingen
      • Hildegard of Begnign
      • Hildegard of Begnin
      • Hildegard of Benen
      • Hildegard of Bengin
      • Hildegard of Benin (this student actually identified her as a West African)
      • Hildegard of Beningn
      • Hildegard of Bignen
      • Hildegard of Bingham
      • Hildegard of Bingin
      • Hildegard of Branigan
      • Hildeguard of Bingen
      • Hildemar
      • Hildergard of Bingen
      • Hildergard of Bingling
      • Hildgard Bingd
      • Hildgen of Bigen
      • Hildigar of Bingens
      • Hildigard of Bingen
      • Hildiguard
      • Hiledarg
      • Hilegrad
      • Hilegard of Bingen
      • Hileburd of Bingin
      • Hilgard of Benign
      • Hilgrad of Bringam
      • Hyldegard of Bingen
      • Heldegard de Bingen
      • Heligard of Bingam
      • Heligard of Bingen
      • Hidilar Bingen
      • Hildegar of Bingen
      • Hildegar of Binger
      • Hildegard Benign
      • Hildegard Duarde of Bingen
      • Hildegard de Bennin
      • Hilden of Rergan
      • Hillgard of Bengen
      • Hillgard of Bengin
      • Hildigar of Bingin
      • Saint Bengam

and the winner in the category of most bizarre misspelling:

    • Higard of Briggians

Prof. Katherine Meyer contributed these gems from her students:

  • Hidegarde of Bingen was an abyss in the Middle Ages. She was very learned and deep.
  • As a teen, Hildegard was a renounced virgin. When she was 42 years old, she hired a secretary who wrote of her illusions.
  • Hildegard turned to the Church for conformation. She was also a leading proponent of the Gregorian Revolts.

Inspired by this page, Don Noble wrote the following poem in which each line is composed of an anagram of Hildegard of Bingen’s name (as properly spelled):

Bed for hiding angel

Hildegard of Bingen
If gardening, behold
Finding age old herb,
Binding her feal god

Binge, oh glad friend!
Heralding bed of gin
Bring God, heal fiend,
Her old fading begin

Hiding blend of rage
Finding her age bold –
Ringing bed, halo fed,
In her fading be gold

Honing fabled dirge
Frigid hag ennobled.

If you have encountered other variations and would like to contribute to this list, please write me: Paul Brians.

Last updated May 8, 2004.

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