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College Quarterly
Fall 2012 - Volume 15 Number 4
Canadian Studies: Past, Present, Praxis
Christl Verduyn & Jane Koustas, eds.
Halifax: Fernwood Press, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

This book made me a little angry; or, rather, it fanned old flames of fury, now dampened but not extinguished—not by a long shot. Let me explain.

In February, 1969, I was staring out from my office window onto the cold, grey campus of York University, when the phone mercifully rang. It was my old buddy Peter Spratt. He asked, in his capacity as Chair of Liberal Studies at Seneca College, whether I’d be willing to cobble together a dozen or so course outlines that would form the basis of a new Canadian Studies program he was keen to initiate. Eager for a plausible excuse to put off more pressing matters, I readily agreed. Six months later I was hired to teach and help direct that program.

For a few years, Canadian Studies at Seneca was at the heart of the liberal arts offerings. It grew to include at least twenty-five thematic, interdisciplinary and team-taught courses. The subject matter was eclectic without being scattered. It employed mainly social scientists—especially economists, geographers, political scientists and sociologists—as well as an occasional historian. It addressed issues of class, race and gender. It featured courses on labour history, women’s studies, native peoples, multiculturalism, Canadian-American and French-English relations. Intentionally ideologically and intellectually diverse, it would also be fair to say that its faculty found the analysis of Canadian society by political economists in the tradition of Harold Adams Innis to be congenial. Canada’s place in successive empires (the French, the British and the American) was an enduring and pervasive theme. In terms of sensibilities, although an occasional nod was given to literature and the arts, Seneca’s Canadian Studies program was a vehicle for explaining what we thought was “real life,” which, in turn, had to do with the asymmetrical distribution of power and the construction of social formations and relations, and left “merely” cultural matters of Canadian arts and identity decidedly in the margins.

Although a college with an emphasis on “vocational training,” Seneca made Canadian Studies a requirement for all students, regardless of their occupational inclinations. The successful completion of at least one Canadian Studies course was a condition of graduation.

It did not take long, of course, for the program to come under attack. There were several reasons. In those days, there was a quixotic movement for an “independent socialist Canada” led by the likes of Mel Watkins and Jim Laxer. It managed to frighten more than a few senior administrators and senior members of the New Democratic Party into reactions that bordered on the reactionary (the 1972 purge of left nationalists from the Ontario NDP symbolized the process). There was a general pattern of anti-intellectualism in parts of the college that undercut any and all of the liberal arts, but especially concentrated on teachers who seemed to have a political point to make. There was a growing and frenzied preoccupation with employment-related training which had no time for “frills” and culminated in the distribution of a 1974 document ominously called “Survival” which called for the extermination of the liberal arts because, as its author—a teacher in the Engineering Division—insisted, devoting time to such irrelevancies threatened to make our graduates unemployable for want of vocational skills. And, of course, there were all sorts of examples of blatant careerism and garden-variety turf wars, each of which did their own special harm to the program.

The decline and fall of Canadian Studies at Seneca more or less paralleled the decline and fall of Canadian Studies in other colleges where it had established at least a foothold. It was, however, the Canadian Studies Bureau in the Association of Canadian Community Colleges that stood as an overarching symbol for the demise. Understaffed, underfunded and relying extensively on volunteer labour, it was a small but vigorous initiative in its early years. It promoted Canadian Studies programs from coast to coast (and almost) to coast. It produced college-level journals including College Canada, Communiqué: Canadian Studies and The Canadian Studies Bulletin (issues of which I had the privilege of editing from time to time) even into the 1980s. By 1990, all that had disappeared and now, with the most respect I can muster, the ACCC serves primarily a clearing-house for international corporatist collaboration, the dissemination of applied skills and research, promoting vocational training standards, and advocating private sector partnerships in service to a globalized vision of training for a competitive international economy. It has precious little time for education—never mind any distinctively Canadian education that would prepare graduates for full-bodied citizenship and social engagement.

These observations would probably not be news to the editors of Canadian Studies: Past, Present, Praxis. Christl Verduyn and Jane Koustas are well-respected scholars and active participants in what remains of the Canadian Studies community. From their elevated vantage point the colleges merit little attention and garner little interest. It is true that Tom Symons, who made quite a splash by touting Canadian Studies throughout our educational system, manages three citations in the anthology’s collective bibliography, but the junior partners in Canadian postsecondary education are rarely mentioned. The colleges do not figure large in the editors’ preferred landscape.

Christl Verduyn is currently Director of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University and has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments over a career of more than thirty years. Jane Koustas was twice appointed Craig Dobbin Chair of Canadian Studies at University College, Dublin. She is now an UNCAP professor of Modern Languages and Literature and former head of Canadian Studies at Brock University. They are both tilted toward the literary side of the field. They both move in higher circles. College programs and college educators may be part of their expected audience, but they are not part of their subject matter.

Canadian Studies contains three parts. The first is introduced by T. H. B. Symons, whose far-famed, To Know Ourselves (1975), alerted Canadian educators, especially at the postsecondary levels, to the fact that there wasn’t much that was “Canadian” in Canadian education. The book begins by reviewing the history and founding documents of the movement and of the subsequent academic field.

When it was first released, iconic Canadian journalist and popular historian Pierre Berton called the Symons report a “zinger.” It certainly woke a lot of people up. Of course, Symons’ intervention was not as shocking to secondary school teachers who had already absorbed the message of A. B. Hodgetts’ What Culture? What Heritage (1968), but that’s another story. Near the end of Verduyn and Koustas’s Part One, Symons returns with some observations about the state of Canadian Studies at the turn of the millennium. He is cautiously pessimistic. “The current state of Canadian Studies in Canadian universities,” he says, “is far from satisfactory and far from secure … At best Canadian Studies as an organized field of study is in a holding mode, and if it is only in a holding mode in this period of fast and great change, then it is in decline.”

Symons gives “community colleges” only one mention in his twenty-five page chapter. He says that the applied research in “some of the Canadian Studies community college programs [is] more interesting and more to the point than much of the sometimes less-focused work going on at the universities.” He doesn’t give any examples and Canadian Studies teaching in the colleges is ignored.

In Part Two, the editors select essays that affirm the legitimacy and lasting importance of Canadian Studies scholarship. They acknowledge that these essays made largely the same arguments that had been advanced in the late 1960s and 1970s, but they insist that the case for Canadian Studies is now being presented from a stronger base than in the past, despite what they call “tremors” in the academic firmament.

Ian Angus starts off the section by breathing some fresh political air into the project. He discusses Canadian Studies as it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. He stresses the fact that, while never consistent or fully formed, there did exist a rationale for Canadian Studies. It was not easy to define but, he claims, it “jelled into a powerful formulation that made a difference: institutions were founded, reforms of existing programs were made, new intellectual perspectives were opened up, leftist nationalism became influential in the public sphere.” I would go further. Not only was there a leftist nationalism in the air, but there was also a reinvigoration of conservative nationalism with names as diverse as Donald Creighton, George Grant and W. L. Morton gaining prominence. And, of course, there was even a hint of bourgeois nationalism embodied in the ideals of Walter Gordon. Sometimes, at their peril, Canadian Studies teachers and Canadian academics generally raised the question of why our leading universities were so eager to hire expatriate Americans, while young Canadian scholars went unemployed. I vividly recall that, at Seneca, we invited the brash young nationalist Robin Mathews to debate just such an American scholar in an open forum. Sparks flew. Lawsuits were threatened. Our local management was at first embarrassed and then vengeful. Encouraging the airing of conflicting views was not something the college wanted and it was made plain that such a blatant exhibition of contrariness would not be tolerated in the future. That was in 1970. In a sense, our fate was already sealed.

In Part Three, Verduyn and Koustas supply us with a tentative agenda for the future. Proponents and practitioners of Canadian Studies are said to be facing the challenge of finding our place in the whirl of globalization. This is not a matter of preserving Canadian Studies as a means of maintaining a distinct Canadian culture, society and nationhood. It is certainly not a matter of generating a critical analysis of Canadian history and political economy. Instead, Canadian Studies is linked to “international,” “comparative” and “transnational” studies, culminating in a closing chapter reflecting on the ten-year history of the Trent-Carleton joint doctoral program in Canadian Studies. In this last chapter, Jeffrey Ruhl and Pauline Franklin reject the temptation “to pen yet another nostalgic elegy on the increasingly bleak state of Canadian Studies programs in Canada.” Instead, despite the fact that “domestic Canadian Studies departments continue to disappear and arguably the profile and influence of Canadian Studies programs on our university campuses appear in decline” (I feel the pain), they celebrate the endurance of the Trent-Carleton program and intimate that there may be room elsewhere for similar ventures.

It was at this point that my initial anger, born of resentment and disappointment, changed into a species of depression. It seemed to me that the universities should not be content to keep Canadian Studies as a niche boutique in the larger shopping mall of commodified education dedicated to ensuring Canadian competitiveness in the global marketplace of ideas or, more realistically, marketable skills. What’s more, Canadian Studies is presented as a means to protect identity, almost as a kind of eccentric nostalgia, just as Appalachian Studies might inform the children of coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky or Native Hawaiians of their roots in song and dance before the arrival of Euro-Americans. Who knows? Maybe the maintenance of a collective lore can be transformed into a tourist attraction? This kind of protected identity, of course, is ultimately intended as a means of integration and ultimately of assimilation into the hegemonic imperium that already seems to be falling apart or, at the very least, to be experiencing growing pains.

Lost or, at best, disguised in the process is any apparent commitment to produce a diagnosis, recommend a therapy and engage in a program of rehabilitation for Canada. It is, perhaps, not time for an autopsy yet, but the prognosis is bleak. I therefore experienced a touch of irony in the location of the word “praxis” in the title of this anthology, for it implies a vigorous commitment to theory and action. As Henry A. Giroux has repeated frequently, education is a political and a moral project. Praxis completes the list of activities worthy of free citizens. Aristotle made clear that genuinely free citizen were obliged to engage in theoria (the pursuit of truth and “ethics”), poiesis (the domain of production and “economics”) and praxis (informed community action and “politics”). Colleges (and universities) have rarely bothered with “theoria” and have concentrated on “poiesis” (though occasionally a superficial course in, for example, “business ethics” may be provided to salve the consciences of those who have been compelled to acknowledge the consequences of the increasingly poorly regulated commercial, financial and manufacturing sectors). As for “praxis,” it is generally discouraged and frequently suppressed, more by the imposition of a pedagogy obsessed with measurable learning outcomes than with overt, ham-fisted academic censorship.

The result is the final phases of what George Grant called “the defeat of Canadian nationalism” half a century ago. As he wrote in the opening chapter of his book, Lament for a Nation, the undertaking known as the building of a sovereign Canadian nation so close to the American dynamo was ridiculous from the start. Yet, no matter how quixotic the effort, we are called upon to resist the manners and morals, the means and the methods of cultural homogenization for cultural diversity is at least as important to the expression of authenticity in our lives as biodiversity is critical for the health of the natural environment. Striking a pessimistic pose that neither railed against necessity nor uncritically endorsed it, Grant (1965, pp. 5-6) simply lamented the defeat of a “tenuous hope that was the principle of [his] ancestors.” I, on the other hand, lament the defeat of a tenuous hope for the future of our children. Grant harkened back to the words of the sixteenth-century philosopher, Richard Hooker, who offered at least the consolation of knowing that, in consciously witnessing defeat, we may entertain the possibility that “posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.”

Canadian Studies? Praxis?

The more agile and energetic of the contributors to the Verduyn and Koustas anthology may yet be vindicated. Canadian Studies in the universities may endure or even thrive. Bryan Palmer’s Canada Research Chair in Canadian Studies at Trent University really is important. His specific field is social class and radical politics. His work easily meets the ideals and far surpasses the academic achievements of the program we started at Seneca forty-five years ago. And, of course, other diligent scholars, public intellectuals and postsecondary programs continue to thrive. What they do not do, however, is hold up well against global corporate ideology as it insinuates itself into our curricula and, maybe even more importantly, our pedagogy. Everything from testing methods to “vision statements” to daily managerial micromanagement is making a college “education” less and less available to our students. The culture of fear and intimidation which is essential to faculties built on “contingent” employees, programs designed to disseminate “employability skills” and courses with measurable “learning objectives” are utterly inconsistent with a liberal education, much less Canadian Studies.

So, I wish teachers of Margaret Atwood and Milton Acorn well. I tip my hat to the occasional Ph.D. dissertation on some Innisian theme—perhaps brought up-to-date in the Alberta tar sands, and I applaud the Bryan Palmers of this world who relentlessly pursue noble academic goals. And, of course, I do not mean to seem resentful or churlish. Verduyn, Koustas and their contributors cannot fairly be chastised for neglecting the colleges when it was plainly not their intention to address them at length.

On the other hand, just as Bob Rae (2005) produced his monster (and monstrous) assessment of postsecondary education in Ontario with barely a passing glance (and a somewhat demeaning one at that) toward about half of the postsecondary institutions in the province, so also this book ignores the dreams, aspirations, struggles and ultimate defeat of about half of the history of Canadian Studies, the half that floundered and largely failed or, rather, was mainly defeated in Canadian colleges.

Who knows? Perhaps one day that story will be more adequately told.

References:

Grant, G. (1965). Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart).

Hodgetts, A. B. (1968). What Culture? What Heritage? A Study of Civic Education in Canada (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).

Rae, B. (2005). Ontario: A leader in learning - Report and recommendations. Toronto: Publications Ontario.

Symons, T. H. B. (1975). To Know Ourselves: The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies. 2 vols. (Ottawa: Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com.

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