Category Archives: Education

John Diefenbaker


On this date in 1957 John Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to an upset electoral victory, ending 22 years of Liberal rule.

From Frye’s address on the occasion of Victoria University’s awarding an honorary doctorate to Prime Minister Diefenbaker in September 1961.

It is a sign of an immature society when politicians are contemptuous of eggheads.  It is equally a sign of an immature society when the university is contemptuous of politics, when it congratulates itself unduly on its clean hands and its pure heart.  There is a natural tension between university and government.  Government is based on majority rule; the universities are one of the most effective instruments of minority right.  The university seeks truth at all cost; the government must seek compromise at all cost.  The university, like a totalitarian state, is exclusive, and holds annual purges to remove those who do not support it with sufficient energy.  The government, in a democracy, must deal with all the people, and Mr. Diefenbaker was no less representing the people of Canada when he was Leader of the Opposition than he does now.  The university tries to abolish conflicting opinion by facts and evidence; the government must reconcile conflicting opinion in an area where all facts and evidence come too late.  What the university stands for demands admiration and respect from government; what the government stands for demands admiration and sympathy from the university.  It is this equal pact that is symbolized by the honour which the Prime Minister has done us in accepting our degree, and by our desire to honour him in offering it.  (CW 12, 314-15)

Experimental Teaching, Experimental Learning


Parts of this post come from my introduction to Eva-Lynn Jagoe’s plenary lecture – The Linda Hutcheon and J. Edward Chamberlin Lecture in Literary Theory – at the annual conference at the Centre for Comparative Literature.

I recently had the great pleasure of studying and learning in an experimental setting.  The goal of the course – Proust and Modernity – was to read Proust in relation to Modernity alongside various theoretical texts.  The theory texts consisted of the usual suspects: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Fredric Jameson, Jacques Lacan, Kaja Silverman, Julia Kristeva, Malcolm Bowie, and Carol Mavor. The course itself consisted of response papers, presentations, and a term paper.  Nothing, so far, out of the ordinary.  Well, let me introduce the first oddity: only one of the students had read Proust previously, and the professor like the rest of the students was reading Proust for the first time.  We ultimately, toward the end of the class, called this “virginal reading.”

Most readers of this blog will likely have never encountered Eva-Lynn Jagoe, the author (currently at work on “the long novel”) or the professor, so let me briefly indulge here in giving some account of her as instructor.  In the classroom, Professor Jagoe’s central goal is always to test ideas and question students and their ideas.  Her classroom is a laboratory for readers.  The first thing to know is that Eva-Lynn often seeks to break down the institutional walls of the structure: we ultimately tossed the syllabus.  In its place, each student agreed to offer commentary, work through Proust, and decide with Professor Jagoe (I’m oscillating between the professorial and the personal precisely because blurring of lines is so important, and to show that students ultimately did recognise there was a professor in the room) how we would be evaluated – but evaluation, as a university requirement, takes on a new role in her classroom.  Throughout the course on Proust, we experimented with a new pedagogy and a new classroom experience (or, perhaps, just new to me, but something felt novel).  The classroom always has food, always has drinks, always had laughter: these were the requirements.  Additionally, we were to read and discuss the novel from personal, subjective, and confessional starting points – which, naturally, makes Proust the near perfect subject of study. It is in this space that we, students and professor, began to experiment with modes of teaching, modes of learning, modes of reading.

Initially, we had set upon reading a series of theorists in addition to Proust and we had agreed to follow Roger Shattuck’s plan of study for reading Proust. However, as we began to read, we realised that something was not working; we were not able to do what we had wanted to do, which was read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Thus, the critical readings became optional and then later they became obsolete.  In addition to tossing the theory, we added an extra hour to our Friday sessions.  One of our meetings lasted over five hours, we left around 6 pm on a Friday, we began at 1, and the discussion continued over email.  In the classroom, Professor Jagoe managed to create something of a utopian space in which Proust was read, discussed, and in many ways dreamed into the living.  In these moments, Proust became real, or we became Proustian and from here the text was no longer studied in and of itself, but in relation to the greater problem of the imagination.  Proust, of course, will teach this very lesson in the last volume of the novel, he writes: “In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.  The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without his book, he would perhaps never have expressed himself.  And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is a proof of its veracity.”

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Doctoral Programmes in Literary Studies


In the last few years, there has been considerable discussion of the possibility of rethinking the nature of the doctoral dissertation in literary studies.  This is in part prompted by the fact that many students apparently take an inordinate amount of time to complete a PhD, and in part by the crisis in scholarly publishing, in which greater pressure to produce scholarly monographs to obtain tenure and promotion has coincided with reductions in the number of books published by many prominent academic presses.  The underlying causes of these various facts are complex, and disputed, and I do not want to address them here; but it is important to recognize that they provide a context for the discussion about the requirements of doctoral programmes.

In the Spring 2010 MLA Newsletter, MLA President Sidonie Smith’s column is entitled “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph.”  Mentioning both the adverse conditions that prevail for many students in humanities programmes and the digital revolution, Smith suggests that we should perhaps “begin to expand the forms the dissertation might take.”  By this, she primarily means that we should be looking at alternative forms to the Gutenberg-era book.  I noted that one of the “Member Comments” on her column was from Bob Denham, who observed that Northrop Frye, who among his innumerable accomplishments was President of the MLA, never earned a Ph.D., although he was awarded 38 honorary degrees.  Bob adds, “In fact, he likened the doctoral regimen to ‘jumping through the hoops’ and ‘turning Ph.D. cartwheels’ for the amusement of one’s elders.”

I thought it might be interesting to look at a few other passages in Frye that relate to the topic of scholarship in the humanities, in the hope of provoking some more discussion on the blog about it.  In Spiritus Mundi (1976), Frye remarks on the immense amount of effort required to produce first a humanities dissertation and then a book on the same material, but adds, “There are many things in the Ph.D. program which are extremely valuable, as I know to my cost.  I avoided the Ph.D. myself by sheer accident, but there were elements in the training which I wish I had got in the regular way, and have always felt the lack of.”  He contrasts the centrality of the book in the humanities with the way that for scientists the article is the standard means of communication.  Of course, the question here is to what extent digital technologies have changed the situation that Frye is describing.  At the very least, it seems to be true that scholars do not buy as many scholarly books as they used to.  But ebooks have started to appear in the collections of academic libraries, which might indicate that the monograph will continue to flourish in a new material form.

In 1989, Frye gave a talk entitled “Literary and Mechanical Models” to a conference on Computers and the Humanities (published in The Eternal Act of Creation).  He tells the story of Pelham Edgar’s dissertation of Shelley’s imagery, the bulk of which was a catalogue of various images and their contexts.  Frye writes that “Clearly it was of immense benefit to the author of the thesis to steep himself so thoroughly in Shelley’s poetic vocabulary, but still most of the thesis could have been done by an appropriately programmed computer in a matter of seconds.”  Frye’s utopian fantasy, later in the essay, is that the idea of a “productive scholar” should be replaced by the idea of the “creative scholar,” and the dissertation should be seen as something solely for the benefit of the student, “So the crazy chain of thesis, thesis rewritten as book, book published, book bought by libraries, book added to an already groaning bibliography, would be broken.”

Frye and the Honour Course


In response to Joe Adamson’s post:

Frye’s earliest defense of the Honour Course is in a piece he wrote for Acta Victoriana at the end of his fourth year at Victoria College:  “The Pass Course: A Polemic.”  There he argues that one of the virtues of the Honour Course is that “the subjects are all grouped around a restricted and clearly defined area of knowledge” (CW 7, 38).  In his “Response to the Macpherson Report,” which is posted in the blog’s Library, Frye wrote “The Honour course represents a unique contribution to undergraduate teaching on the continent, and at its best it affords as good an undergraduate training as can be got anywhere.”  This was a judgment he continued to defend, repeating it, for example, in a 1973 letter to Martha England (Selected Letters, 151) and elsewhere.  Otherwise:

The General Course in arts assumes that an integrated curriculum, even in so specialized a world as ours, is, up to a point, possible at the university level. The Honour Course, on the other hand, is based on the assumption than any genuine discipline can be used as a centre of knowledge, the radius of expansion from the centre being the student’s responsibility. Either assumption is justifiable, but that of the Honour Course is perhaps closer to this age of intellectual pluralism. (“The Critical Discipline,” CW 7, 113)

I have been accused, if that is the word, of defending the Honour Course whenever I get a chance, and this is one more chance. I remain obstinately of the opinion that the Honour Course, with all its rigidity and built-in administrative absurdities, gave the best undergraduate training available on the North American continent, and the best teacher training for the instructor as well. (“The Beginning of the Word,” CW 7, 540)

Other of Frye’s judgments about the Honour Course can be found by following the entries in the index to Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education (CW 7).

Here’s the way Mary Culley described the Honours course in English during the early 1950s:

The Honours Course in English Language and Literature was arranged sequentially.  In the first year we started out with Anglo‑Saxon up to the Middle Ages (Chaucer, Malory, the miracle plays); second year, the Elizabethan Age (Shakespeare, the Reformation, Milton); third year, the Age of Reason, the classicists, early Romanticism; fourth year, later Romantics, the Victorian Age, and early twentieth century.  In each time period we took three or four English courses––novels, drama, poetry, essays, plus parallel courses of the same period from Honours History, Honours Philosophy, and Honours French (or another language).  Marvellous.  (Letter of 7 June 1994)

One of the attractions of the Honour Course for Frye was this notion of parallel courses, so that while students were studying medieval literature during their first year, they would be studying medieval history and medieval philosophy at the same time.

The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye: Proposed DVD


We are delighted to present the following announcement from Bob Rodgers:

In 1981-82, as producers at the then U of T Media Centre, Bill Somerville and I recorded Northrop Frye’s classic lectures and seminars on The Bible And Literature, and have recently had them converted from analog video to the digital format. Now an independent producer, I am in discussions with Carol Moore, Chief Librarian at the Robarts Library, U of T, to adapt this material to DVD format for global distribution in the educational market. Each of 24 programs will include a full video-taped lecture, a related seminar, and interactive contextual and explanatory notes.The Main Menu reads as follows:

The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye

Program One

An Approach to the Bible and Translations of the Bible (The Lecture)

Lecture Breakdown

Seminar Segment

Lecture Transcript

References for Lecture One

Study Guide

Series Synopses

The video and support materials are designed for private study, at home or in a library, just like a book, but with interactive references at a click. As Frye intended, the information is aimed at undergraduate students lacking the basic familiarity with the Bible he believed was needed to respond adequately to western literature. Secondary applications are for use in seminars or informal study groups where this or that section of the DVD may be used for stimulation or talking points by the seminar or group leader.

For a short video clip from the lecture segment of the pilot DVD, go to For technical reasons the picture quality of this clip is inferior to that of the DVD. We have also produced a test pilot of Program One and have a limited number of copies to send to “Friends of Frye” who would like to receive a copy by mail free of charge. If you would like one, please send us your postal address and we will do our best to get it out to you.

What we would like in return is your assessment of the value of the series, a testimonial or endorsement if it meets with your approval, and an indication as to whether or not your institution is likely to aquire it. While some units will be available earlier, we anticipate completion of the full 24 part series to take 18 months from the start of production.

We are receiving queries about this undertaking from across Canada, the US, and abroad. Your response would be much appreciated as we bring it to fruition.

Contact: Bob Rodgers, Producer …. 416 504 2196….<>
ARCHIVEsync…. 110 The Esplanade, Suite 611. Toronto. Ontario M5E 1X9

Clayton Chrusch on Frye and Education


Responding to Mervyn Nicholson’s review of Frye’s Writings on Education, Clayton Chrusch writes:

I came across On Education when I returned to university to complete my undergraduate degree after a two year absence. I quoted it in nearly every essay I wrote for the rest of my time as an undergraduate. I had read The Educated Imagination as a teen and then again as a frosh, but did not understand it. But when I found On Education, I found something I could understand because it was essentially practical, even ethical.  Not that I understood it all immediately. The remaining essays I wrote as an undergraduate had, beside the exploration of their primary subjects, the secondary agenda of coming to understand this little book of Frye’s. It was with On Education that I began my stack of index cards, and it still dominates that stack.

But the roots of my involvement with Frye’s thinking on education are even deeper than that. My grade twelve high school English teacher, Mr. Madill, handed out an article by Frye that appeared in the Toronto Star (Jan 26, 1986) called “Don’t you think it’s time to start thinking.” I still have it. The article is a humble little manifesto that I am sure Frye tossed off in twenty minutes, but it has in no way been superseded by anything I have read or thought. It is still the definitive articulation of my own views.

One of the things Frye writes is: “The vast majority of things that we hear today are prejudices and cliches, simply verbal formulas that have no thought behind them but are put up as a pretence of thinking.”

The only thing I would add to this is that the verbal formulas can become arbitrarily sophisticated without ever breaking into thought. There does seem to be a certain intangible moral element in education, as there is in everything. I suspect this intangible ultimately has something to do with whether we care for the truth itself or only our own possession of it. If we are willing to be wrong so that the truth can be right, I think we are on the right track. It’s hard to imagine Frye’s own verbal formulas being thrown up as a pretence of thought, but if Frye ever becomes as influential as he deserves to be, the false intellectuals of the world will certainly use him as they use whatever else commands authority.

I suppose what I am getting at is a defense of my more traditional idea of truth which certainly ties back to my more traditional idea of God that I alluded to it my last comment on belief. Frye shows us the necessary path to intellectual liberation, but being necessary does not make it sufficient. There’s an ingredient missing, an absolute, unconditional loyalty to a truth that we can neither have nor be. I don’t think Frye views things this way. Speaking about absolutes is a step too far for Frye, but I do not see how we can truly think unless we are willing, not only to build on what we have thought, but also dismantle what we have thought, even what we have believed passionately, and that is extremely painful and so requires a detached loyalty to something outside of us.

Mervyn Nicholson: Review of Frye’s Writings on Education


In light of our ongoing interest in Frye and education,  Mervyn Nicholson offers this review of Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education, originally published in Historical Studies in Education 2002.

Jean O’Grady and Goldwin French, eds.  Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education.  Toronto: University of Toronto Presss, 2000.  pp. lii, 684.

“The aim of education” is “to make people maladjusted.”  It is “to destroy their notions that what society” does makes “sense, and that they ha[ve] only to conform to it to make sense of their own lives.”  For Northrop Frye, conformity and adjustment are to education what disease is to health.  Frye has been subject to more caricature, misrepresentation, and belittlement than any intellectual of his size, but he was a great radical thinker, as well as a great teacher, and his thought is overdue for revaluation.  The present volume is a step in this revaluation, like the rest of the Collected Edition of the Works of Northrop Frye (of which this is volume 7).  It supersedes an earlier collection of Frye’s essays, entitled On Education (1988), which was sanctioned by Frye himself and which was more compact and focused than this massive volume.  For unexplained reasons, the editors deleted some essays from the earlier collection in assembling this extremely varied new collection, which includes everything from notes about administrators and the history of Victoria College, to letters to the editor, to convocation addresses, to profound reflections that must be read and re-read to be appreciated fully.  Frye is a large and complex thinker, and this is a large and complicated collection, hence only some of the key themes can be touched on in a brief review.

Frye was a great teacher, and this alone would make him of interest to anybody concerned with teaching.  His popularity was legend.  His famous graduate course, “Principles of Literary Symbolism,” was regularly held in a lecture theatre because of its huge enrollment, and his undergraduate classes were packed.  He was one of those teachers who have a life-changing impact on students.  In fact, Frye was consciously concerned with techniques of teaching and with education generally—unlike other major literary theorists, or academics as a group, for that matter.  He abjured the notion that teaching is secondary to scholarship: he regarded his books as “teaching books,” not as specialized scholarly studies.  He explicitly preferred undergraduate teaching; he never cultivated a coterie of disciples.  He had a passion for communicating; his writing is clear, straightforward, jargon-free, as well as witty, humorous, scathing, and fully of aphoristic, quotable lines.  He was interested in children’s literature—a subject regarded with contempt by those who dominate English studies.  He insisted that elementary school and secondary school teaching was the same sort of thing that professors at university were doing, and searched for ways to bring teachers at all levels together.  He was a founding member of the curriculum studies group that the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education later swallowed up.  Can one imagine Derrida or the stars of the New Historicism showing such interest or such commitment?  Frye was unique in his interest in and commitment to education in the broadest sense of the word, and that is what this collection of essays is about.

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Re: Frye Was Different (4)


Further to Merv’s latest post:

Or younger than nineteen?

How about 15?  “Elementary Teaching and Elemental Scholarship”

The separation of images into the contrasting worlds or states of mind that Blake calls innocence and experience, and that religions call heaven and hell, is the dialectical framework of literature, and is the aspect of it that enables literature, without moralizing, to create a moral reality in imaginative experience. The full understanding of these two structures is complicated for the teacher, but their elementary principles are exceedingly simple, and can be demonstrated to any class of normally intelligent fifteen-year-olds. Analysis of this simple kind is, in my opinion, the key to understanding, not merely the conventions and the major genres of literature, but the much more important fact that literature, considered as a whole, is not the aggregate of all the works of literature that have got written, but an order of words, a coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason. If the teacher can communicate this principle, he will have done all he can for his student.

Or six?  “Criticism as Education”

I did not begin to believe in my own critical theories until I began to see ways of applying them to elementary education. In a book published over twenty years ago, I wrote that literature is not a coherent subject at all unless its elementary principles could be explained to any intelligent nineteen-year-old [Anatomy of Criticism, 14]. Since then, Buckminster Fuller has remarked that unless a first principle can be grasped by a six-year-old, it is not really a first principle, and perhaps his statement is more nearly right than mine. My estimate of the age at which a person can grasp the elementary principles of literature has been steadily going down over the last twenty years. So I am genuinely honoured to be able to pay tribute to an educator who has always insisted on the central importance of children’s literature.

“Offprints or Offspring”: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (3)


This is the last in a brief series of reflections on the profession of literary studies prompted by passages that struck me in Bob Denham’s recent edition of Frye’s Selected Letters, 1934-1991.

In a letter to Roger Shattuck, Frye comments on various aspects of the state of the humanities in 1971.  He says, “I suppose some of the bewilderment in modern humanities comes from the false analogies to business which are made at one end of the university, and the false analogies to democracy at the other.”  The assumption of the former analogy is

that the university, instead of being a process which is, in Newman’s phrase, its own end, must be a process with a product, like all other assembly lines.  The product is assumed to be either the works of “productive scholarship,” or students in the form of “trained minds.”  The conception of a university which is not essentially committed either to offprints or offspring is a difficult one to take in.

The business analogy is of course still with us, and still a major bone of contention.  It is even more pervasive because students have largely abandoned what Frye calls the false analogy of democracy.  He was writing to Shattuck in the midst of the student protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s (the Kent State Massacre had taken place in the previous year).  My sense is that the business analogy has now been adopted by many students as well as administrators (with the encouragement from universities that promote a rhetoric of customer satisfaction which students, used to completing product surveys in the hope of winning an iPod, are quite willing to respond to).

In terms of the scholarly product, the pressure to publish has only increased since the 1970s.  As for the “student product,” there have recently been efforts to quantify the “value-added” in a university education.  This is often characterized as a conservative initiative that attempts to impose an ideological straitjacket on higher education, though in his most controversial column as MLA President (see the Spring 2008 MLA Newsletter), Gerald Graff defended the general principle of outcomes assessment, arguing that too many colleges and universities are victims of what he calls the “Best-Student Fetish”: “it is as if the ultimate dream of college admissions is to recruit a student body that is already so well educated that it hardly needs any instruction!”

Once again, Frye’s reflections on the state of the academic profession identify trends that would become more and more apparent with the passage of time.  What would a university look like today if it were not committed “either to offprints or offspring”?  Can we even imagine such an institution?  Perhaps all those involved in university education need to have at least the idea of such a university in mind, as a utopian vision and a reference point while working within the less than ideal institution where they are a teacher or student.  In “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” Frye argued that everyone who works at a task in society has an imagined ideal towards which his or her actions are directed: “The model so constructed is a myth or fiction, and in normal minds it is known to be a fiction.  That does not make it unreal: what happens is rather an interchange of reality and illusion in the mind.”  A good example of what he is talking about is John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, which originated in a series of lectures in Dublin, discourses to an impoverished religious community in a colonial society who were hoping to set up some sort of college to educate their youth.  Newman responded with the most idealistic of visions of what a university could and should be.  But he then showed considerable business and political shrewdness and realism as he went about trying to create a university for Catholics in Ireland.  That combination of idealism and pragmatism is still a good model for those of us who work in higher education.

Frye and Oedipus Rex


Responding a little more to Russell Perkin’s last post:

Your “superstitious” response to teaching Oedipus Rex is understandable. I recall a workshop, where a teacher (after 30 years experience) didn’t feel ready to tackle Oedipus Rex, which struck me as odd, seeing that the plot seems pretty reader friendly, as opposed to “writerly,” to use Roland Barthes’s term. But now I know how deep the play is after applying Frye to it.

Frye’s archetypal criticism effectively places the work at the centre of the literary and social universe, where the Bible, Literature, Film, Popular Culture, Literary Criticism, Psychology, and Sociology orbit around it.


Reuben sleeps with Israel’s concubine (Genesis 35:22).

Adam rejects the Sky Father to be with the Earth Mother.

Jesus is the opposite of Oedipus: Oedipus kills Father and possesses mother sexually. Jesus obeys Father (Father kills son) and marries mother spiritually, as He is everyone’s (The Church’s) bridegroom.

The curse and plagues and unknown suffering echoes Moses and the Pharoahs and Job.


Countless stories of Father killing son, son killing father, incest, search for origins, prophecy: see “My Oedipus Complex” by Frank O’Connor.


Too many to count, but most popular include Killing of the Father (James Bond: The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day; Gladiator, Star Wars).

Popular Culture:

The Rap song by Immortal Technique Dance with the Devil where gang initiation results in son raping and killing mother.

Literary Criticism:

The Oedipus myth is used as a critical term/conceptual myth by Harold Bloom, in ways the writer writes (anxiety of influence) and readers read (misreading), both trying to kill off earlier influence.


Obviously, The Oedipus Complex. Even the 5 Stages of Grief (Oedipus goes through Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance) appear here first. And Jung’s idea of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, is the basis of every literary action/plot.


The search for the adopted parents, usually the father, is a major issue given the popularity and technology of sperm donors.

Video of Immortal Technique’s Dance with the Devil after the break.

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