On Relevance: Frye on Universities and the Deluge of Cant

Frye’s bust in Northrop Frye Hall, Victoria College, University of Toronto. His interview with Ramsay Cook, referenced below, can be found here.


The last six words of my heading are, in fact, the title of an essay (CW 7: 465-69) by Frye about the “bureaucratic cant” that floods any discussion of the role of the university in society, at least from the news media and, even more significantly, within educational bureaucracies themselves, which have internalized the prejudices of larger society outside the colleges and universities.

Bob Denham’s essay “Common Cause” (in his new book published here in our library) draws out the core assumptions of Frye’s understanding of the links identifying criticism, art and literature, and education. The threat to university education has continued to grow over the last four decades. Like any other university, and like the Soviet Union under Stalin, the institution to which I belong, McMaster University, has been regularly subjected to presidential five-year year plans, and now, once again, we have been presented with a new vision from our president, now in the second year of his term. Vision, however, is not the word for what is essentially, to use Frye’s phrase, a deluge of cant, a torrent of clichés and platitudes about the new directions university education must take if we are to keep up with the Joneses and not end up in the dust-bin of history, as if such logic were not the surest guarantee of the oblivion we should be trying to avoid. Predictably, we hear the same old mantras about the necessity of change and the need for “relevance.” In the current political climate, this means that change must go in the direction of digital technology and the immediate utilitarian needs of the economic system and social policies as set by provincial and federal governments. At the federal level, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has already introduced changes tying doctoral and research grants to the perceived immediate needs of society. In an unprecedented way, justification for funding must fall in line with what governments have decided is most useful for society at this particular moment in time; never before in this country has university education been asked to mirror so closely society as it presently exists outside it.

The concept of “relevance” and the meaningfulness of a university education first arose in the late sixties at the time of student unrest on campuses across North America; it was part of protest movements that questioned the absurdity and evil of a society implicated in the horrors of the Vietnam war. Frye was sympathetic to the reasons for the unrest, to the desire of young people at universities to participate fully in society and transform existing arrangements in ways that would bring it closer to a world that makes human sense. But he also believed that the only thing that has had any power to change the world in a positive direction are the arts and sciences. He makes the very illuminating distinction between society as it exists and the genuine and permanent society that remains, even as the ephemeral society of history keeps disappearing. The only enduring society is the one we build up from the study of the physical universe and the study of the imaginative or virtual one that presents us with a vision of the world as it might be if we had the will to change it.

Since the sixties, the idea of relevance urged by a sense of absurdity and alienation has largely shifted to a much more utilitarian one. The exception perhaps has been in the teaching of literature and related humanistic disciplines where the old New Left still holds sway.  Frye observes more than once that relevance as an educational concept on a large scale was invented by the Nazis. In his Northrop Frye in Conversation, a transcription of a series of interviews with David Cayley aired on the CBC in 1989, the word appears in print as Fachwissenschaft. My German is wildly imperfect, but from what I can tell this word simply means subject of knowledge. There may have been an error in transcribing the German word as it was filtered through the goose-honk of Frye’s Maritime accent. The word Frye uses is, I believe, Zweckwissenschaft, or target-knowledge. The Nazis threw all their scientific resources into military and related technology as they prepared for war, but they also, of course, on the cultural front, overhauled humanistic teaching in a ruthless way to make it consistent with their racist theories and propaganda. Everything else was purged. The spectre of such a totalitarian control of education always haunts us, even in a democracy; or, more precisely, it haunts us because fascism, as Frye observed, is a disease of democracy. Among the students of the New Left who came of age in the sixties are many who swallowed their apparent disgust with the irrelevance of the universities and ended up teaching in the humanities. As they took over departments they became instrumental in creating a sea-change of “relevance” in the teaching of literature and the arts. They are now the champions of post-structuralism, New Historicism, cultural studies, and the proliferating sub-disciplines of these essentially ideological forms of criticism. They have overhauled the curriculum so that it now conforms to the issue-oriented dictates of political correctness. They see themselves, to use Frye’s apt phrase, as turning the wheel of history. But the problem, as Frye knew, is that that particular wheel turns on its own, so that what appears to be the permanent form of reality very quickly proves to be another illusion. In the meantime, however, what becomes of the permanent form of society–the world of the arts and sciences–when we pursue a will-of-the wisp and destroy the structures of the university that provide it with a home?

When it comes to relevance, Frye asks the obvious but unasked question. Relevance to what? Who decides what is relevant? Any focus of study at the university, as he insists, should be regarded as relevant as any other. In an interview on the CBC in 1973, Ramsay Cook asked Frye:

Do you feel that—if we may move on to a somewhat different subject—do you feel that the university teacher, as you have been all your life, has a special obligation to involve himself in contemporary issues? Or does he have a special obligation to stay out of contemporary issues?

Frye: Well, if he’s a university professor he has a responsibility to teach, and to teach means showing the student the necessity of commitment without pushing him.

Cook: In the modern contemporary university we have had a great many developments. Our students and some members of our staff have argued that in fact the university has to be more relevant, that we have to teach subjects which have an application to society.

Frye: My opinion of that argument is something that would involve some mechanical interference with this program. [laughter] I think that relevance is something which the student has to establish for himself, whatever he studies. If he can’t do that he isn’t worthy of the very impressive and dignified title of student. (CW 24: 30)

When Frye says here that the student must establish for himself the relevance of what he is studying he does not mean that the student should determine the subject-matter, though the humanities have certainly been pushed in this direction by chronic underfunding and the need to boost enrolments in order to survive. The result of catering to the likes or dislikes of students is that the student, to use Frye’s image for it, ends up a Narcissus, staring into the mirror of their own prejudices and never escaping the prison of them.

Cook: In other words, the study of Greek philosophy can be as relevant, or perhaps more relevant, than the study of the problems of the lower ward of Toronto?

Frye: Of course it is. When England was sending out people to run India in the nineteenth century it gave them a totally irrelevant education in Classics. That meant that when they got to India they had some acquaintance with a totally alien language and method of thought. I don’t think it was too bad a training.

Frye is clearly not celebrating British imperialism, though I am sure that is what many of my colleagues would seize upon as revealing the true bias of such an example. (Most of them are doubtless ignorant of Frye’s tenure as editor of the Canadian Forum, of his opposition to the Vietnam war, or of his surveillance by the RCMP for the perceived threat of his political views.) His point in the interview is the ultimate irrelevance of relevance. Who can say what knowledge is relevant and what isn’t? The question is all the more valid today when the rapid pace of change is without precedent. It is not something of immediate relevance that needs to be transmitted to the student, but a creative habit, the concentration of intellectual energy that comes from creative repetition, whatever the discipline.

At the university the study of the “obsolete past” should be just as relevant as the study that leads to a cure for cancer; the study of Old English should be just as relevant as research into more environmental- friendly sources of energy that might slow down global warming. Writing in 1970, Frye observes that

Not long ago, the King of England was Emperor of India; Nazi Germany ruled Europe from the Atlantic to the Volga; China was a bourgeois friend, Japan a totalitarian enemy, and so on. The moral that one ought to draw from this is that what appears to be real society is not real society at all, but only the transient appearance of society. The permanent form of human society is the form which can only be studied in the arts and the sciences. Those are the genuinely organized structures of human civilization. It is in the arts and the science that we understand where the causes are that make society change so rapidly and seem so unpredictable. Of all the superstitions that have bedevilled the human mind, one of the most dismal and fatuous is the notion that education is a preparation for life. It was very largely this notion of education that caused the projecting of anxiety and the fear of change on the “adolescent,” and on efforts to maintain him in an imaginary state of innocence. (CW 7: 414)

Frye was fond of reminding us that “[n]ot only is the world we live in a phantasmagoria, it is also a world which seems to be dominated by an almost continuous hysteria” (424). The hysteria about relevance is one of these phantasms or illusions. It is the kind of hysteria that Frye identified in the portentousness about new media and electronic technologies that came to a head in the McLuhan phenomenon. The latest tablets brought down from the mountain by our university president speak of our need to adapt to the epistemological transformation brought about by the digital revolution. Not surprisingly, he quotes McLuhan: “‘Most  of  our  assumptions,”  famously  wrote  Marshall  McLuhan,  “have  outlived  their usefulness.’” But in a world so driven by the excitements of change, who in the end has the authority to say which of our assumptions have outlived their usefulness.

The danger of such predictions is that they are often unthinkingly acted upon by bureaucrats and administrators. The head librarian at my university has taken to incinerating journals and he may have already gone on to burning books for all I know; he has certainly stated on the record that librarians themselves have become obsolete. Like the rumour of Mark Twain’s death, the news of the death of the book has been grossly exaggerated. It is old news now, and was rumoured years ago when we first learned that the medium is the message. It is true: we now have electronic books and light-weight devices for storing entire libraries that can fit in our pockets or purses. But in whatever way we decide to read a book, it is still a book we are reading.

Frye was particularly critical of McLuhan’s claim that the simultaneous apprehension of new visual media supersedes the linearity of print culture. Linearity and simultaneity are involved in all art forms and all media. Linearity is part of reading online or watching a film on television or a computer. But when we read a novel we are also building up at the same time a simultaneous apprehension which is completed when we come to the end of the book, at this point we now have a kind of spatial map or diagram of the entire book in our minds. Simply because information is more easily and more immediately accessible does not constitute an epistemological revolution.  The book, in Frye’s view, was the central technology in education, and he clearly does not conceive of the possibility of education without it:

Reading is above all a continuous and not a fragmented experience. The written document is the focus of a community because the written document is there to be returned to. It is the basis of all repetition, of all the habit and the practice which underlies the genuine educational process. This is why the art of reading, with its stationary book which keeps patiently saying the same things no matter how often one opens it, is still the basis of all education, and can never be replaced by the fragmented and the temporary media, however large a part of our lives they may occupy.(CW 7: 429-30)

McLuhan’s importance, in the end, is not as a thinker, but as a prototype of the hysteria about the role of technology in determining the direction of human societies. In the minds of many technology is either an all-powerful bugaboo, or a golden calf. Either way it is treated as a Fate that has befallen us and about which we are powerless. Over a century and half ago, Henry Thoreau satirized this kind of thinking and the abdication of freedom and responsibility that it encourages. The following is a passage from Walden, in which he is talking about the railroad, but it just as clearly applies to the magical thinking about the new technologies of our own day:

I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbours, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings.  To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.  There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case.  We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.  (Let that be the name of your engine.)  Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward particular points of the compass; yet it interferes with no man’s business, and the children go to school on the other track. We live the steadier for it.  We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell.  The air is full of invisible bolts.  Every path but your own is the path of fate.  Keep on your own track, then.

When Frye refers to McLuhan he tends to blame the “nitwit McLuhanites,” not McLuhan himself, but this is because it was the baleful influence, as he saw it, of McLuhan’s poorly conceived thinking that disturbed him. The core tenet of McLuhan’s thought is that technology is, to use Thoreau’s word, an Atropos: it directs us, we do not direct or control the technology we invent: we are subject to it as the tragic hero is subject to the wheel of fortune or Fate. It will not swerve to avoid us so we better jump on the bandwagon or get out of its way.

Frye rejected all forms of determinism because they are unthinking and they fly in the face of one of Frye’s most important tenets, Vico’s principle of verum factum, that

what is true for us is what we have made. But the phrase is less simple than that rendering of it may suggest. What is true for us is a creation in which we have participated, whether we have been in on the making of it or on the responding to it. We are accustomed to think, rather helplessly, of whatever presents itself to us objectively as reality. But if we wake up in the morning in a bedroom, everything we see around us that is real, in contrast to our dreams, is a human creation, and whatever human beings have made human beings can remake. (Words with Power 82)

The last line appears to be an allusion to Stevens’ “The Latest Freed Man,” who wakes up in the morning in his room without a description of the world, and sets out in his imagination to create a new one. We create the world according to the model of the world we imagine, which is why the humanities and criticism must continue to be an essential and central part of the idea of a university. In the last chapter of Words with Power Frye discusses the deepest form of human consciousness and creative descent and wisdom, which he divides into four streams: the purgatorial, the technological, the educational and the utopian. He observes that “[t]he fear of technology is linked to the fear of something anticreative in the mind, something that produces the mechanical act that repeats without knowing why, the clinging to set patterns of behaviour however self-destructive or foolish.” and that “the creative opposite” of this fear is the basis of all genuine forms of education:

the stabilizing repetition of practice, of what is called habitus in Latin and hexis in Greek, the repetition that gradually accumulates a skill. This contrast takes us back to Nature’s distinction in Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos between those over whom change rules and those who rule over change. Creative repetition is one of the central themes of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and reappears in such formulas as “without ceasing” (Romans 1:19, etc.) in the New.

Bob Denham cites a similar passage about creative repetition at the end of his essay “Common Cause,” where Frye also insists on the creativity of repetition that produces skill. Frye’s favourite example is playing the piano. A pianist “can only set himself free to play the piano when he has compelled himself to play automatically the right notes” (CW 16: 92), as he puts it in a discussion of education and freedom of will in The Return of Eden. There are natural cycles of change or mutability, and there is the phantasmagoria of history, of which technological change is part. The statements of university presidents and bureaucrats invariably take the form of asking us all to accept the inevitability of change, dismissing any other attitude as immature, unrealistic and timidly fearful. But the issue is not whether or not there will be change, but whether we want to be ruled by change, or rule over it. In a convocation address at the University of Windsor in 1970, Frye had this to say to the graduating class about change, and about which of these two paths we might want to take:

When we hear so much nonsense about how a degree is a mere piece of paper, a mere this or a mere that, it is perhaps as well to say that you have a degree not only because you have done the work required of you, but because you have had the moral courage to concentrate on it. The Indian teachers of yoga say that when a novice sits down to meditate, all the demons for miles around come to distract him, because they are terrified of the power of a concentrated intelligence. I often think of Bunyan’s Christian, plodding through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and having to listen to all the silly gabble of the voices in that valley, which, says Bunyan, “he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind.” You may have had your demons too, some telling you to go in for relevance, which means trying to educate yourselves by echo, by listening to the sound of your own prejudices; some telling you that there are no goals in society worthy of your efforts; some telling you to become radicalized, or to transcend your ego-consciousness, or whatever other synonym of goofing off is currently fashionable. There is always something more exciting and picturesque to do than to cultivate the intellect and imagination. But whatever issues demand commitment without critical intelligence today will be stone dead tomorrow, and it is always disconcerting to discover that one has been embracing a corpse. (CW 7: 404)

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4 thoughts on “On Relevance: Frye on Universities and the Deluge of Cant

  1. Prof. Mondo

    Home run! In some ways I feel like the humanities have been put in the position of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.: “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small.” In others, I fear that we’ve done much of that to ourselves by catering to Narcissus — just because we can criticize any imaginative structure doesn’t make it terribly worthwhile to do so — Jersey Shore conferences, anyone?

    Thanks so much for posting this.

  2. Martin

    I have to talk with you more often Joe. This is a beautiful piece leaving me much to think about, much more to learn.


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