The English Teacher

By Northrop Frye
Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 211 pp.

Ahoy, undergrads – particularly you two in the back row poring over The Hockey News. Professor Frye here has a few words on education he’d like to share with us.

Well, actually more than a few words. Eighteen essays, to be precise: a series of talks and lectures, meditations and convocation addresses drawn from a span of 30 years as a distinguished University of Toronto educator, literary critic and man of letters. On Education is an open invitation to think along with Northrop.

Given the still-warm embers of the debate over free trade and Canadian cultural identity, the comparatively inclined may wish to contrast Frye’s ruminations with their recent American equivalent: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Whatever one’s estimation of the merits of the latter (and no matter if one wonders whether the American mind was ever open in the first place), the differences between the two are nowhere more evident than in their respective tones.

Whereas Bloom’s effort was a brash, sweeping and pugnacious harangue, Frye’s carries the stamp of its author’s genial persona. There is nothing particularly provocative or even argumentative about On Education – nothing with which one can seriously disagree. It is a book that wishes to persuade solely by virtue of its genteel reasoning. So while Bloom’s polemic sought to shake the reader by the lapels, Frye’s is not only a mannered collection but an extremely well-mannered one – the type of book that makes you want to shake the author by the hand.

But what is it Frye wishes to persuade us of? This is not a sociological tract: there is very little consideration of the educational system qua social institution, and virtually no attention paid to the litany of administrative problems that plague Canadian schools and universities (underfunding and overcrowding, forced retirement for older scholars and constricted opportunities for their younger colleagues, corporate involvement in the research effort and so on).

Nor is it one of those programmatic statements of how to teach: how to galvanize students’ interest, how to manage the transition from high school learning to university investigation, how to inculcate a critical, questioning will. Frye does indeed address such issues, but not with any dictatorial intention. He wishes to inspire by learned example.

There is, therefore, a vaguely quaint luster to the book. The central problematic, if there is one, is the question of how to instill in society as a whole a love of ideas – how to recapture the sense of play in the hard work of inquiry. When all is said and done, what Frye argues is nothing more (or less) profound than the sentiment parodied in the motto of the fictional Faber College in National Lampoon’s Animal House: “Knowledge is good.”

It is a platitude, of course, but then literature itself, as Thornton Wilder said, is merely the orchestration of platitudes. And when the orchestration is as witty and harmonious as it is in On Education, who’s to complain?

Which is not to say that the book will sweep Canadian universities the way in which The Closing of the American Mind became a must-read item on U.S. campuses. Frye is too grandfatherly to ignite the passions of the younger generation of graduate students and scholars. He is a respected and erudite figure – the type of professor we all should have had as undergraduates – but his gentle homilies on the virtues of learning are missives from an earlier age.

Indeed, in essay after essay he unselfconsciously articulates positions currently being enthusiastically deconstructed by the younger generation. He is barely detained by concerns over knowledge as power, and hence declines to engage the university as a crucial agent in the maintenance of social order.

The result is an admirable collection of soothing observations – a book as creased and comfortable as one’s favorite armchair – but one that pursues a line of inquiry on a wholly different trajectory from the current hot debates in the sociology of knowledge. It is the product of an old and wise man, but the likelihood is that the Young Turks are too otherwise preoccupied to give it much

  • Montreal Gazette December 3, 1988