Canadian Studies & T.H.B. Symons: A Friendship to the End, or “Who’s Afraid of Canadian Studies?”

Once upon a time, in November 2009, I wrote this comparative article review for a course I took with one Professor Peter Hodgins of the Carleton University School of Canadian Studies. It was oh-so-long-ago, during my MA coursework, but I hope you find it amusing (if startlingly ridiculous) none the less.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll add that I am one of those people (or possibly the only person) with a BA, MA, and (pending) PhD in Canadian Studies, so of course I had to stick it to Bercuson et al. In the interest of staying on speaking terms with anyone who might have a Google alert set up for their name, I’d like to say that this essay was an exercise in defending one article against all others. I have no beef with anyone who doesn’t recommend Canadian Studies as a career, since the opinions of others only hurt you if you let them shape policy and legislation. In fact, one Jack Lawrence Granatstein has collaborated with one of my favo(u)rite profs and pen pals from McGill, Desmond Morton. It’s a small world, but the Canadian Studies world is even smaller than that.

TLDR (too long, didn’t read): I hope we’re all cool, fellow Canadianists.

Of the available literature ranging from arguments in favor of the study of Canada to diatribes against the funding of Canadian Studies programs, T.H.B. Symons’s call “To Know Ourselves: The Rationale for Canadian Studies” is the most impressive endorsement of Canadian Studies regionally available. His seminal 1975 work discourages academic pursuits inspired by Canadian nationalism and sovereignty, and instead encourages critical analysis of evidence, careful application of logic, and the all-important self-knowledge of Canada’s distinctness. His rallying cry is echoed in later works, such as Jill Vickers’s “Liberating Theory in Canadian Studies” (1994) and John H. Wadland’s “Voices in Search of a Conversation: An Unfinished Project” (2000), but unsuccessfully countered by David J. Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, and J.L. Granantstein in “Canadian and Other Useless Studies” (1984). Thoughtful comparison reveals that, of the four publications, Symons’s work is the model that best stands in favor of academic rigor, scholarly inquiry, and Canadian self-knowledge. A brief summary of each article and analysis of the method of academic inquiry each endorses reveal Symons’s work to be an eloquent precursor to later scholars and a successful defense against the ministrations of Bercuson et al.

In “To Know Ourselves,” the report of the 1972 Commission on Canadian Studies, Symons offers several well-grounded reasons for developing and maintaining Canadian Studies programs across Canada and internationally. In response to the question “why be concerned with Canadian studies?” (11), he argues that pursuing the ancient quest for self-knowledge in the interest of “sound balanced scholarship” (13) through the academically rigorous study of Canada will provide universities with greater accountability to Canadian society and local communities, enhance problem-solving capabilities, improve decision-making processes, satisfy student interest in the field, and fulfill Canada’s obligations to international scholarship. He endorses open-mindedness, scholarly curiosity, and a “reasonable balance” between Canadian area studies and the study of non-Canadian topics (17). He evenhandedly addresses the differing opinions held by nationalists, those solely interested in sovereignty, and critics, and favors the promotion of the “[i]nformed study, comment and criticism directed at Canadian conditions [that] have an important role to play in the formation of public policy, in decision-making and then in effective problem-solving at all levels of government and in all sectors of society” (17).

In stark contrast to Symons’s fairly balanced assessment of the issues in Canadian Studies, Bercuson et al. regale readers of “Canadian and Other Useless Studies” in The Great Brain Robbery: Canada’s Universities on the Road to Ruin with complaints about institutions of Canadian Studies, departmental funding shortages, and life in general. One particularly scintillating footnote tells readers of the ultimate indignation: “In April 1984, the government provided $11.7 million more for Canadian Studies. One project apparently is to be a comic-book history of Canada for supermarket sale!” (146) Their dismay is bemusing because, in the current age of growing information democratization, Bercuson et al. appear to prefer a more elite means of disseminating information about Canada, such as inaccessible texts composed for an in-group of other highly miffed and highly educated peers, or perhaps pay-per-view JSTOR articles, but they do not readily suggest alternatives to the notion of an accessible comic-book history of Canada for the Canadian public. As Symons point out, institutions like universities should serve communities locally, provincially, regionally, nationally, and internationally (1) by preserving, transmitting, and increasing human knowledge (16), and thus he provides a framework that accommodates such public history projects as a comic-book history of Canada and other educational activities that emerge from academic institutions to promote the general good.

As Bercuson et al.’s cautionary chapter warns readers, “Canadian Studies has come to be almost a discipline in its own right” (136). This revelation is an outgrowth of the declared shared personal opinion of the authors: “All three of us teach Canadian history and write and research about Canada, so we can scarcely be seen as objecting to the study of Canada. And yet all three of us are opposed to Canadian Studies” (135-6). Despite this initial, noble transparency, they vacillate on semantics and contradict themselves; they note that the “excessive specialization that now characterizes the honours programs in most Canadian universities… is not the problem [in Canadian Studies]” (137), but then they cite Claude Bissell’s argument that there is too much concentrated focus, exclusivity, and specialization in the field of Canadian Studies (138). They share the concern of the Canadian Historical Association in their retort to Symons: “Now we may know ourselves. Can we yet know others?” (135). They gripe that the Symons Commission turned the field of Canadian Studies into “A GOOD THING” (136) that caused funding to be siphoned from more worthy pursuits. Their rhetoric rings hollow when they bemoan the state of affairs where “[i]f a university wanted to get specially earmarked grants or if it wanted to appeal to private donors, it had to be at the cutting edge, and in Canada, in particular, that meant Canadian Studies” (137). They call Canadian Studies a field that lacks academic credibility and serves only as a well-financed escape for poor (academically and pocket-book-wise) scholars (139).

Bercuson et al. make the unsupported generalization that “Canadian Studies has fallen into the hands of the academically weak” (140), praise the intelligence of good scholars abroad (141), and decry the trickery and deceit that have led the Departments of the Secretary of State and External Affairs down Principal Ed Rooney’s proverbial primrose path of perpetual funding for Canadian Studies and its pursuant expensive scandals, including the Association of Canadian Studies and Understanding Canada (142). They bemoan the lack of solid disciplinary training for students of Canadian Studies:

The flaw in Canadian Studies is that the students take too little in any one discipline to learn anything concrete. A “shallow piecemeal effect” can be and is being created… And paradoxically, the students in Canadian Studies take too few courses about other societies and cultures to be able to truly appreciate Canada (137).

This complaint flies in the face of Symons’s reminder about the importance of holistic, interdisciplinary approaches to scholarly inquiry:

[A] knowledge of other lands and other times [is] essential to our understanding of our own lands and ourselves. Just as an individual cannot hope to know himself without knowing his own society and culture, so a society or a culture cannot hope to know itself without knowing the other societies and cultures that share its world… What happens in the rest of the world will often influence Canada. But what is done in Canada may also have a profound and helpful influence elsewhere… The maxim ‘to know thyself one must know others’ applies equally to all societies (14, 18).

Because Bercuson et al. want to maintain distinct academic disciplines and “encourage not Canadian Studies but the study of Canada… by supporting the first-class researchers who are now at work in Canadian sociology, politics, economics, history, and literature” (145), they decry Canadian Studies as a nontraditional disciplinary practice. However, as Symons points out, the university system should function “to train the critical intellect, not to inculcate belief” (12). Interdisciplinary studies train the critical intellect rather than reinforcing traditional beliefs through stringent academic guidelines.

By casually flinging ungrounded insults, such as “the truth is that in every university in Canada those who study Canada do so with far more effect than those who work in Canadian Studies,” Bercuson et al. “call [for] a halt to the waste of public and private funds in support of a quasi-discipline” (146). As they are so dismissive of Canadian Studies, it is easy to be dismissive of their objections to the field (though their publication stands as a testament to how such concerns can get you two book deals).

With the growing integration of interdisciplinary efforts in current scholarship, such a comic-book history of Canada as Bercuson et al. so readily disparage is likely of interest to many inquisitive researchers of popular culture and public history, but the writers reject the notion that any but the rarest of scholars can embrace such an interdisciplinary approach. They again cite Bissell, who claims: “The problem with all interdisciplinary studies is that they become vital only in the mind of the individual who can fuse insights from a variety of sources” (138). The authors warn that “there are few such individuals” (138-9). Ideally, scholars do strive to fuse insights from a variety of sources, so this leaves the reader wondering rude things about individuals who may not fit the bill. It is interesting to note that the road to ruin must be a long one, because 13 years later saw the publication of a riveting follow-up, Petrified Campus: The Crisis In Canada’s Universities. Today, an additional 12 years on, universities around Canada still appear to be enrolling incoming classes. [Here I am being unfair to a book I have never read. Oh, ignorant MA Amanda.] The authors were likely dismayed to learn of the funding lavished on the Understanding Canada Program launched on 1 April 2008 by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, or they may have thought it was an April Fool’s joke that reinforced their point that “Canadian Studies is a motherhood buzzword in Ottawa” (144). Regardless, despite their disparagement of the field, Canadian Studies appears to be funded and thriving internationally 25 years later, so the “unhealthy introspection and self-congratulatory navel-gazing” (137) that they warn against does not seem to have halted advances in the field.

In “Liberating Theory in Canadian Studies” Vickers takes up Symons’s rallying cry promoting Canadian Studies. She nods to Symons by noting that, domestically, Canadian Studies is “largely self-studies; that is, the motivation of most students and practitioners has been ‘to know ourselves’” (354). She explains the difference between this approach and area studies:

Those engaged in self-studies tend to position themselves in opposition to the United Kingdom and the United States, as the two great imperialist powers which most affect our country’s development. Those engaged in an area study of Canada, by contrast, engage in work which also stresses continuities with the United Kingdom and the United States (Vickers 355).

Her warning against the dangers of a dichotomous inward-looking approach is an echo that bolsters Symons’s earlier call for reasonably balanced interdisciplinary studies of Canada: “our quest for knowledge of ourselves cannot fully succeed if accompanied by an unthinking indifference or hostility to non-Canadian studies” (Symons 14). Vickers adds her call for vitality, dynamism, and revival in the field of Canadian Studies (363) to Symons’s earlier reminder to scholars to “devote sufficient attention to questions of a more enduring nature” (14). Like Symons, Vickers calls for a conversation about Canada:

[T]he potential cognitive community represented by Canadian Studies must develop ways of including diverse voices so that we actually engage in dialogue with one another about the meaning of our experiences instead of buying theoretical commodities off the shelf… In every field, the founding consensus is best challenged and re-made by new generations of students eager to know themselves, and through whom we can know ourselves anew (368).

As Symons points out, “full self-knowledge can be achieved only in conjunction with knowledge of community” (15), and research in that vein will help with “effective and responsible decision-making” (17), and Vickers endorses this mindset in her piece.

Speaking to those who have gone before, in “Voices in Search of a Conversation,” Wadland cites Vickers (58) and Symons (60) as influences in the field, and carries their call to readers, inviting us to continue the conversation of Canadian Studies (54). Wadland discusses the institutionalization of diversity as a resistance to the metanarrative during the period from 1966 to 1975 (52). He contextualizes the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of Canadian Studies as well as the “widening intellectual boundaries” of scholarship (52). He provides historical context for the development of the cooperative, interdisciplinary project of Canadian Studies, which he sees as a “community of hope” that emerges from a “[d]esire to honour a diversity of voices within a relationship of their mutual dependency – the nation state called Canada” (54). His optimistic overview calls for a renegotiation of history that recognizes all participants (Wadland 70), much as Symons calls for self-knowledge, which he explains as “the need to know and to understand ourselves: who we are; where we are in time and space; where we have been; where we are going; what we possess; what our responsibilities are to ourselves and to others” (Symons 12).

As recent writers on Canadian Studies, Vickers and Wadland deal with marginalized voices more directly than Symons; Vickers warns that a focus on historically favored “dichotomies has a negative result when we try to deal with problems related to the environment, racial or gender relations” (362) and Wadland mentions the emergent “interdisciplinary movements in Native Studies, Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies and Cultural Studies” (60).Despite Symons’s use of gendered terminology, including references to “an obligation to put knowledge to use in the service of man” (16, emphasis added) and strict use of masculine pronouns, he largely avoids the trap Vickers sees in a “distorted, partial vision” where “it is hard for anyone other than white males of the majoritarian culture to find a sense of identity in the discourse represented by the founding consensus” of Canadian Studies found in Grant and Innis (363). [Really, MA Amanda?!] Meanwhile, Becurson et al. claim that “academics crave the assurances provided by traditional structures and they are frightened by the new” (140), a statement that bolsters the impression that they would never approve of such fuddle duddlery as gender studies or Indigenous studies. Symons offers a slightly misplaced emphasis on natural resource exploitation issues in the North (17), doubtless arising from a southern Canadian’s perspective in his historical context, but he provides an otherwise comprehensive and convincing argument in favor of promoting and developing Canadian Studies as a line of inquiry. He sets out to explain the rationale for Canadian Studies, provides compelling evidence to support his claim in a convincing manner, and thoughtfully reminds us that “the concept of self-knowledge opens windows on the street of the world” (17).

Symons’s approach offers an optimistic foil to the navel-gazing work of Bercuson et al. and gives Vickers and Wadland a framework to advance the study of Canada domestically and internationally. Symons stands as a model for future writers, like Vickers and Wadland, and serves as a grounded force against which others, like Bercuson et al., rail unsuccessfully. Of the four, Symons’s article the piece that students of Canadian Studies and aspiring scholars should embrace for its call to academic rigour, interdisciplinarity, and holistic analysis. “I have sought for myself” (Symons 13) and found that scholars of Canadian Studies who wish to be truly excellent will, like Vickers and Wadland, follow in the noble footsteps of Symons and implement his recommendations for balanced scholarship applied with “the judicious spirit required” (14). They will not cower in the shadows of Plato’s allegorical cave, fearing the enlightenment of interdisciplinary research that can shine through Canadian Studies.

Bibliography of Canadian Content

Bercuson, David J., Robert Bothwell, and J.L. Granatstein. “Canadian and Other Useless Studies.” The Great Brain Robbery: Canada’s Universities on the Road to Ruin. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984.

Symons, T.H.B. “To Know Ourselves: The Rationale for Canadian Studies.” The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies. Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada: 1975.

Vickers, Jill. “Liberating Theory in Canadian Studies.” Canada: Theoretical Discourse. Terrie Goldie et al (editors). Montréal: Association for Canadian Studies, 1994.

Wadland, John H. “Voices in Search of a Conversation: An Unfinished Project.” Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2008, Volume 35, No. 1, pp 52-75.

NB: Only after writing this rather curious review piece did I find out that Symons took an unreasonably long amount of time in producing his epic pro-Canadian-Studies report. Even more recently, I started to take issue with JSTOR, so I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same. I have also (thankfully!) learned quite a bit more since November 2009, so I would not say with any certainty that my opinions are the same as they were when I was but a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, snarky MA student. For example, I now have much stronger opinions about funding for Canadian Studies because I can’t seem to ever get any.

PS: If anyone knows more about the comic book history of Canada mentioned by Bercuson et al., I’d be interested in finding out about it!

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