Category Archives: Education

Isaac Asimov


Asimov’s “Science and Beauty,” first published in the Washington Post in 1979

Today is Isaac Asimov‘s birthday (1920-1992).

Frye in “Introduction to Design for Learning“:

Mathematics is often said to be the language of science, but it is a secondary language: all elementary understanding is verbal, and most of the understanding of it at any level continues to be so.  The verbal understanding of science, at least on the elementary level, is quite as much imaginative, quite as dependent on metaphor and analogy, as it is descriptive.  Here is a passage from The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, by Isaac Asimov, which illustrates how metaphorical a writer must become when he has to explain science to scientific illiterates: “Cosmic rays bombarding atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere knock out neutrons when they shatter the atoms; some of these neutrons bounce out of the atmosphere into space; they then decay into protons, and the charged protons are trapped by magnetic lines of force of the earth.”  This functional use of metaphor is one of the many reasons why no programme of study in English, however utilitarian its aims, can ever lose contact with English as literature.  (CW 7, 134)

Theodore Dreiser


Dreiser’s article “The Factory” (1910)

On this date in 1945 Theodore Dreiser died (born 1871).

Frye in “Design as a Creative Principle in the Arts”:

The tendency of of contemporary poets, and many novelists and dramatists as well, to be attracted toward myth and metaphor, rather than toward a realistic emphasis on content, is thus a cultural tendency parallel to the emphasis on abstract design in the visual arts.  It exhibits also the same paradox, or seeming paradox: it is usually a highly sophisticated, even erudite and academic, approach to the art, yet the features of the art which are most interesting to it are primitive and popular features.  Dylan Thomas seems more complex and and baffling than Theodore Dreiser, yet it is easier for me to imagine Dylan Thomas genuinely popular than to imagine Dreiser, for all his obvious and considerable merits, genuinely popular.  This is not to suggest a preference between two utterly incomparable things, but to suggest that writers who concentrate on literary design rather than content, despite their superficial difficulties, are the writers most likely to reach the widest public most quickly.  The principles of literary design are also the readiest means by which literature can be effectively taught, at any level from kindergarten to graduate school.  And as myth and metaphor are habits of mind and not merely artificial devices, such teaching should lead us, not simply to admire works of literature more, but to transfer something something of their imaginative energy to our own lives.  It is that transfer of imaginative energy which is the aim of all education in the arts, and to the possibility of which the arts themselves bear witness.  (CW 27, 236-7)

Quote of the Day

“Victoria’s distinctive tradition, then, has three aspects, religious, humanistic, and residential, and removing any of these would destroy, for both staff and students, the double identity of a distinguished college and a great university which they possess now. If all the colleges were weakened beyond effectiveness, the arts and science faculty would still be big and impressive, but no longer great. Such a disaster could occur, not through spiritual wickedness in high places, but simply through the heavy inert pressure of restricted budgets that in time will wear down any university into an academic processing factory. (“Installation Address as Chancellor,” CW 7, 521)

The Essence of the University

Frye in his robes as Chancellor of Victoria College

“Academic freedom is the only form of freedom, in the long run, of which humanity is capable, and it cannot be obtained unless the university itself is free.”  (CW 7, 421)

I have recently posted on my concerns regarding a series of donations made to the University of Toronto by benefactors like Peter Munk, Leslie Dan, and Joseph Rotman.  Even given all of the ways we might characterize their generosity, the issue that remains most important is the essence of the university.  What precisely is the purpose of the university and what are its goals?  What is the role of the university in society?  In an age of global capitalism, it seems all the more important to ask such questions.  It may be that I am nostalgic for a time I never knew, when the university was assumed to be the epicentre of thought, and whose value to the public good was never in question.   Even so, I still want to ask the question: what is the university?

Northrop Frye writes that “a university is not, like a church, a political party, or a pressure group, primarily a concerned organization” (CW 7, 401).  I wish all universities would work this principle into their Statements of Institutional Purpose. The university is not a political faction, not an ideological platform, not a pressure group, not a corporate enterprise.  As Frye says, “the university itself stands for something different: it is not directly trying to create a certain kind of society. It is not conservative, not radical, not reactionary, nor is it a façade for any of those attitudes” (CW 7, 401).  This is may be the kind of university setting some of us long for.  Today, however, the university is increasingly caught up in the special interests of its private and corporate benefactors.

The issue is not simply a matter of questioning these interests for the sake of attacking them, but for the sake of preserving an institution whose role is unique:

As [its] authority is the same thing as freedom, the university is also the only place in society where freedom is defined.  We may think of freedom, first of all, as something to be gained or increased by attacking the symbols of external compulsion in society.  A good many of these, in every society, deserve to be attacked. But if we destroyed the external compulsions, we should still have the internal compulsions that made us attack them, and they would instantly produce a whole new set of external ones. (CW 7, 403)

Where does this lead us?  Perhaps we must return to Frye’s singular vision of authority: “[t]he authority of the logical argument, the repeatable experiment, the compelling imagination, is the final authority in society, and it is an authority that demands no submission, no subordinating, no lessening of dignity” (CW 7, 403).  And the notion of an authority like this one must be defended by the the most senior administrators at the university: the President, the Chancellor, the Principal, the Provost, the Deanery.

I have quoted this passage before, but it is probably worth repeating:

When anyone is considered for a deanship or a presidency, one of the first questions asked about him is, ‘How good a scholar is he?’ It sounds absurd to associate a man’s administrative ability with his specialized knowledge of a scholarly discipline, but the question is relevant none the less. If he has never been a scholar, he doesn’t know what a university is or what it stands for, and if he doesn’t know that, God help the university that gives him a responsible job.  (CW 7, 314)

Finally, when it comes to the relation to the university to society, Frye observes in “The Definition of a University”:

The university belongs to its society, and the notion of autonomy of the university is an illusion. It is an illusion which it would be hard to maintain on the campus of the University of Toronto, situated as it is between the Parliament Buildings on one side and an educational Pentagon on the other, like Samson between the Pillars of a Philistine temple. But the university has a difficult and delicate job to do: it is responsible to society for what it does, very deeply responsible, yet its function is a critical function and it can fulfil that function only by asserting an authority that no other institution in society can command. It is not there to reflect society, but to reflect the real form of society, the reality that lies behind the mirage of social trends. It is not withdrawn or neutral on social issues: it defines our real social vision as that of a democracy devoted to the ideals of freedom and equality, which disappears when society is taken over by a conspiracy against these things. (CW 7, 421)

In this regard, the university is, as Frye would have it, the closest to a utopian space as we can manage, and it is therefore an ideal we must strive to realize today as much as we ever did in the past.

“The humanities in all of us”

Gate House, Victoria College, Frye’s undergrad residence

Here’s an article on the current state of the humanities in today’s Mail & Guardian.

A sample:

Public funding of universities, especially national research strategies, now emphasise the idea of innovation, which has become a code word for quality. As a result, in both Canada and South Africa, solid academic fields in the humanities — comparative literature is a good example — are either threatened or have already fallen away. Given this thinking, it is not surprising that students and their parents came to consider higher education as a form of private investment rather than, as it once was judged, a public good.

But the old saw remains: making things happen in a university (or elsewhere, for that matter) doesn’t mean that thinking happens. The challenge for the humanities remains not to return to some “golden age” but rather to inspire students — and, quite simply, this can happen only by encouraging them to think.

Frye in conversation with David Cayley:

The university is the source of authority in society.  It’s the only one there is that I can see.  But, of course, by authority I mean spiritual authority, the kind that doesn’t give orders. . . The university is where you go to learn about an authority that is not externally applied.  It doesn’t tell you to do this or that.  (CW 24, 989)

G. B. Shaw

On this date in 1926 George Bernard Shaw refused to accept the money for his Nobel Prize, saying, “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for inventing dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”

Frye cites another famous Shaw quote in conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: Have you ever wondered whether education is wasted on the young?

Frye: It’s like Bernard Shaw says, “Youth is too valuable to be wasted on the young.”  You’re rather stuck with it.  I think that students at university have many obstacles thrown in their way by the pedantry and misunderstandings of their teachers and so forth, but those are human conflicts.  We all have those.

Video of the Day: “I am going to grad school in English”


There is not much to add to this wry and wintry little video.  It expresses a truth that can just barely be rendered as satire, and a lot of people may find themselves squirming uncomfortably.  The Humanities are under siege like never before.  Not “relevant,” certainly not career stream, and, frankly, priced out the market.  Who is going to run up a debt of tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree in a subject few people care about, and, it needs to be said, is taught in a way that hardly recognizes the subject is in fact literature?

But it wasn’t always so and certainly does not need to be so now.  Here is Frye in a 1979 interview talking about the enduring imaginative value of literature in its social context.  In the background you can unmistakably hear the post-modernist tide rising and beginning to flow under the door:

My own interests have always been centred upon literature itself, upon what might be call the social context of literature, its real function in society.  I was educated in the authentic philistine tradition: literature was something you only concerned yourself with after the day’s work, that is, after you’d earned your living and had success.  Literature was a luxury article, a thing one could easily do without, an amusement to be cultivated only after the real problems had been resolved.  However, when I started to study a truly primitive culture, for example, the culture of the Inuit, a culture in which their problems of survival of food, and of shelter, are very serious and direct, I noted that both poetry and the poetic tradition were for them of vital importance.  The more primitive the society, the more important poetry is for its survival.  In more contemporary societies, complex and sophisticated as they are, literature and life are suffocated under a vast weight of false priorities.

So I decided to study the original functions of literature in order to discover what literature can still do for us today.  In fact, I think an individual participates in society principally through his or her imagination.  In the last hundred years there has been a fracture between appearance and reality, between language and reality.  In the Middle Ages, this division — or fracture — did not exist: symbol and reality, language and reality, were one and the same.  You just have to think of the “realism” of Thomas Aquinas.  However, from Rousseau, Marx, and Freud, we have learned not to trust appearances: we’ve learned to look for the reality which is hidden behind the facade of society and of language.  We have learned to refuse to believe the myths imposed by the authorities because they are patently false and absurd.  The collapse of the myths which make society and authority cohesive has, in turn, provoked a collapse of commitment and faith.  Now it seems to me that literature can help us to disover, behind and beyond the various facades offered by society, the real sources and structures of our personal and collective imagination, and thus of commitment and faith.

So literature itself has always been at the centre of my interests, and that makes me somewhat rare among contemporary literary critics.  Much interesting progress in recent literary criticism, in fact, has come from nonliterary fields, from sectors such as linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and so on.  Critics such as Roland Barthes, who adopt the conceptual instruments from these sectors, often stray from literature and from criticism — in the narrow sense of the word — towards those other parallel fields.  But I have remained centred on literature–on its role in the creation and transmission of our personal and collective imagination.  (CW 24, 455-6)

(Thanks to the superlative Amanda Etches-Johnson for the tip on the video.)

Quote of the Day: “A warning sign here in Canada”


Waiting for Superman trailer

Bill Gates, who’s retired from Microsoft and is donating billions of dollars to promote education, is at the TIFF for the premiere of his film Waiting for Superman.  Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Toronto Star:

The candid panel discussion that followed — which included Guggenheim, superstar educational activist Geoffrey Canada, and Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates — turned up the voltage on an already powerful film.

“The power of this movie is partly why I’m optimistic about change on this issue,” Gates, who is interviewed in the film, told the crowd at the packed Winter Garden Theatre.

“Waiting for Superman” follows a handful of children and families in public schools across the country. Despite decades of promises by politicians that no child will be left behind, drop-out rates are sky-high and many children fail to learn even the basics. The film details how the system has been paralyzed by complacency, a bloated bureaucracy and powerful teachers unions. It also follows activist educators who are desperate to make changes, especially in inner city schools.

In 2006, an international survey ranked the U.S. at 25th out of 30 developed nations when it comes to teens’ proficiency in math and science. Canada took the fifth spot on the same assessment.

“Use us as a warning sign here in Canada,” producer Lesley Chilcott said. “My understanding is things are starting to slip here.”

Allan Bloom


Allan Bloom on The Closing of the American Mind.  (The rest of the interview after the jump.)

Today is American philosopher Allan Bloom‘s birthday (1930-1992).

Frye does not mention Bloom by name, but he is clearly referring to The Closing of the American Mind in “Some Reflections on Life and Habit”:

Our present mood in regard to education, however, is past-centred rather than future-centred, and is more inclined to ask, Are doing as well as we used to?  This is mainly a reaction to elementary and high school educators who do not understand why we should transform our environment by reading Shakespeare when we can so easily adapt to it by reading Stephen King.  I was recently looking through a book that has been on the bestseller list for a long time, and which propounds the thesis that students have been cheated out of their education, socially and morally as well as intellectually.  I thought, in reading it: somebody writes this book every ten years; I have lived through four or five cycles of similar protests, and have in fact contributed to some of them. . . Some books are often, like this book, warmly received and are accompanied by a feeling that something should be done.  Nothing is ever done, so there must be something that the protest has failed to reach.

Two points occur to me in this connection.  One is that there is seldom any recommendation for action in this field except to prod the educational bureaucracy. . . The other is that what the public picks up from such books is what literary critics call a pastoral myth.  The past was a simple time, the myth runs, when things were a lot better, so let’s get back to them.  But just as the future does not yet exist, so the past has ceased to exist, and an idealized past never did exist.  I distrust all “back to basics” slogans because I distrust all movements that begin with “back to.”  (CW 17, 348)

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Quote of the Day: The Community College Professor

Andrew Sullivan’s site, The Daily Dish, has been running an ongoing series from readers describing their jobs.  One of them today is a community college professor.  What he has to say is very moving and is certainly consistent with my experience.  He just puts it better than I ever have.

I believe the assumption is that instructors are the product of a liberal-biased education and then we decide to join that liberal bastion and are just going with the established flow. For those of us in the junior college ranks, however, I think there is a more concrete reason for the lean left, rather than the abstract leftism offered in certain courses we took as students.

When I hear friends and family offer specific illustrations of why they list in a more conservative direction, it often has to do with anecdotes revolving around the person they check out at the grocery store using food stamps to buy a jug of Carlo Rossi zinfandel or spending their welfare check on some other decidedly non-essential item. Or the stories they hear from mutual friends in law enforcement or social services who deal with the dregs of society on a daily basis. Who could possibly support any form of social safety net when a portion of that net will be devoted to such vermin?

Well, on an equally anecdotal and emotional level (not pillars of rational thought, granted, but clearly major inspirations for why and how most people choose a side) we here at a community college tend to see the better side of our fellow humans who are struggling on the low end of the economic ladder. We see them trying to better themselves, working hard in spite of their conditions to try and take a step up said ladder. Hell, some of them may even be spending public money on a pack of Winstons, but we don’t see that. We see them in their best light, for the most part.

And that’s what I want people to know about my job: I don’t have empathy for poor people because I read Sinclair Lewis or Karl Marx; I have it because I work in an environment in which I see them at their best. Some of them are clearly not cut out for college, some of them are unpleasant to deal with, some of them probably do spend their meager checks on stupid things. But they are also trying to change their lot. And they have much less margin for error in doing so. If I taught at an elementary school or high school, I may assume that the kids in my classes were on their way to the destinies that social research and my own perceptions had fated for them. If I taught at a university, I would never meet people who take an English class so they can legitimately compete for a promotion at the hotel chain in which they work, or pass the nursing program to get their AA degree. The world would be easier to categorize. But since I work in the gray area between, I know that it’s not that easy, and that people defy your definitions for them all the time.