Academic Modernization and the Decline of Higher Learning: The University Question in the Later Scholarship of Harold Innis

Philip A. Massolin (University of Alberta)

Abstract: In addition to communication theories, Harold Innis' examination of the modernization of higher learning is a significant component of his later scholarship. A chief objective of this analysis is to trace the development of Innis' critique. It is important, moreover, to place Innis' ideas within their historical contexts. His critique formed a part of scholarly debates on the direction of the humanities and social sciences current in the 1940s and early 1950s. In lamenting the death of traditional scholarship he commented on contemporary issues in the liberal arts: specialization, inadequate funding, and, perhaps most damaging of all, the exodus of high-quality scholars to government bureaucracies and to foreign universities. Most significantly, Innis attempted to define a role for the scholar and the university within society. His appeal for the university tradition was an effort to show how the university could and indeed should again become an integral part of society. In its largest sense, it was an endeavour to make relevant the university in a culture that shunned intellectual achievement.

Résumé: L'examen qu'a fait Harold Innis de la modernisation des études supérieures est une composante significative des études qu'il a faites plus tard dans sa vie, en plus de ses théories sur la communication. Un objectif clé de l'article qui suit est de retracer le développement de la critique d'Innis. Il est important, en outre, de situer les idées d'Innis dans leur contexte historique. Sa critique fait parties des débats savants sur la direction des sciences humaines et sociales courants durant les années 40 et au début des années 50. En lamentant la mort d'études traditionnelles, il commenta sur les questions contemporaines dans les arts libéraux : la spécialisation, les subventions inadéquates, et la question peut-être la plus négative de toutes, l'exode de chercheurs de qualité vers les bureaucraties gouvernementales et les universités étrangères. Ce qui est significatif dans ce contexte, c'est qu'Innis a tenté de définir le rôle du chercheur et de l'université dans la société. Son désir de retourner aux traditions universitaires était un effort de montrer comment l'université pouvait-et même devait-refaire partie intégrante de la société. Dans son sens le plus large, il s'agissait d'un effort de rendre l'université pertinente au sein d'une culture qui fuyait les accomplissements intellectuels.

The monopoly of knowledge concept is vital to Harold Innis' later thought. It formed the core of Innis' understanding of the rise and decay of historical-political units called "empires." Most importantly, it helped Innis develop a critique of modern society and, with it, his notion of the demise of the modern university. Innis employed the concept of monopoly, an economic idea taken from his earlier scholarship, as a tool to show contemporaries how society's most significant institution -- the university -- had become susceptible to rigidities of thought. He showed how the deficiencies of modern scholarship affected the humanities and social sciences to such a degree that they prevented the university from fulfilling its traditional societal role as critic and purveyor of social virtues. For Innis, the modern university was in crisis due to the dominance of "biased" scholarship and the circumscription of free thinking. Its decline signaled the decay of centuries-old academic traditions and, ultimately, the collapse of Western society.

Innis' university problem must be understood not only as an application of the monopoly of knowledge idea to developments in higher learning. Rather, his critique of the modern university has clear historical roots. His examination of modern scholarly trends, his pleas for the university traditions of academic freedom, and the quest for objective or unbiased scholarly analysis must all be considered in light of the happenings of a historical period increasingly indifferent to the institution of higher education. His critique also formed a part of scholarly debates on the direction of the humanities and social sciences that were current in the 1940s and early 1950s. In lamenting the death of traditional scholarship Innis also commented on contemporary issues in the liberal arts: specialization, inadequate funding, and, perhaps most damaging of all, the exodus of high-quality scholars to government bureaucracies and to foreign universities. Innis' critique is clearly grounded in the historical-intellectual environment of the mid-twentieth century. It will be studied, therefore, not only as part of the larger corpus of his later thought but also in its historical context.

The story of the university question in Innisian thought begins in the 1930s. The depression decade was a period of great transformation in the social sciences in Canadian universities. Whereas political economists of the past were concerned with the philosophical problems of society, economists of the interwar era were preoccupied almost exclusively with secular and material concerns. The period between the wars also evidenced the growing importance of the university scholar as "expert," not merely in his own academic field but increasingly as a source of information and advice for government bureaucrats and the public at large. The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of a new group of civil servants who brought with them into government social-scientific training and theories of social management and government intervention (Owram, 1986). Many academics, who were used to the cloistered surrounding of the academy, now became involved in governmental policymaking. They sat on boards, became Royal Commissioners, took part in official surveys, and provided expert testimony for committees (Creighton, 1957). The roots of what historian Doug Owram has called "The Government Generation" of Canadian scholars were taking hold.

As the senior scholar at the University of Toronto -- the most respected political economy department in the country -- Harold Innis was well placed to assess the transformation of the social sciences. Innis distrusted the departmentalization of the different branches of knowledge in the liberal arts and was unimpressed with the new-found prestige of the social scientist (Creighton, 1957). He warned that social scientists who purported to have the solution to economic or social difficulties of the depression were intellectually dishonest and "certainly wrong" (quoted in Creighton, 1957, p. 83). Instead, he stressed that economists must be aware of their limitations, especially in an era in which governments and the public relied heavily on their counsel.1 The social sciences had not developed yet to a stage where they could advise with assurance proper courses of action or governmental planning. Innis urged caution and restraint. He implored social scientists not to become too taken with their new influence. He cautioned against the abandonment of the age-old scholarly pursuits of truth and objectivity and recommended instead that social scientists continue their work until they were asked to participate in public debate. He advised the social scientist "to render the best advice of which he is capable that [he] might not do more harm than good to the economic structure" (quoted in Creighton, 1957, p. 83). The social scientist, Innis declared in 1933, could only concentrate "on courses of disturbance and prepare himself for the occasion in which the politician may dare to consult him" (quoted in Creighton, 1957, p. 83). Innis, in short, was critical of growing involvement in bureaucracies and urged instead the continuation of more traditional scholarly pursuits.

Innis formalized his views in a 1935 article written for the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science entitled "The Role of Intelligence: Some Further Notes." In this article Innis highlighted the follies and foibles of modern social scientists. Participation in government or business, he explained, seriously impaired the judgment of social scientists and clouded scholarly quests for truth and objectivity. In pursuing vested interests in outside projects, social scientists developed a bias since external endeavours limited the range of their thought and understanding to the short-term interests. Their intellectual capacity became rigid because they no longer concentrated their energies on larger concerns such as the impacts of industrialization and technology on modern society. Rather, they insisted on resolving narrowly defined economic and political difficulties: distribution and over-capacity problems, increasing business profitability, or achieving partisan policy objectives. Innis was convinced, for instance, that in consulting for businesses, social scientists invariably developed a vested interest in the enterprises with which they had become associated. Generally, many intellectuals had become preoccupied with "increasing profits and the increasing sale of products irrespective of the wants of the community" (Innis, 1935, pp. 280-281). In consequence, they disregarded their duties to seek out answers to larger philosophical questions. In serving the needs of government, Innis went on to argue, social scientists abrogated their rightful obligations to the academy and the community. Government officials deceived these academicians into thinking that service to the state "implie[d] assistance to the community as a whole" (Innis, 1935, p. 281). Instead, the bureaucrat only used the social scientist for his own political advantage. The intellectual in government was, as a result, nothing more than a handmaiden of partisan politics.

The effects of bias, which vested interests produced, were also experienced within academe itself. In "The Role of Intelligence" Innis showed how the social scientist had succumbed to specialization.2 He criticized social scientists' use of the methodologies of mathematics and the physical sciences and contended that specialized studies employing these approaches underemphasized the value of non-quantifiable factors in social-scientific analysis (Innis, 1935). New social-scientific approaches were incomplete and misleading as a result. For Innis, academic specialization displayed the defects of the modern social sciences, namely, social scientists' obsession with narrow viewpoints. "[I]ntelligence in the social sciences tends ... to be lost in specialization," he concluded, "with the result that it is unable to participate in the endless and complex and possibly fruitless search for trends" (Innis, 1935, p. 285).

Innis also concluded that, "paradoxically, the innumerable difficulties of the social scientist," once understood, also provided the starting point for "his salvation" (1935, p. 284). Specialization and vested interests would eventually demonstrate the defects of modern social scientists. It was imperative that scholars become aware of their deficiencies for once the search for scholarly limitations had begun and bias was therefore identified, the quest for the truth could likewise be begun in earnest (Innis, 1935). The paradox was that bias changed the nature of social sciences almost to the point of making this vital scholarly role unrecognizable. Nevertheless, Innis was confident that the proliferation of bias would make scholars aware of their limitations and impel them to fulfill their rightful duties of seeking truth and objectivity. Indeed, through daily academic routines social scientists could begin to understand the relationships of the social process and, over time, discover bias (Innis, 1935; Pal, 1977).3 For Innis, scholarly experience and diligence were essential to the achievement of an objective, unencumbered analysis of society. "The never-ending shell of life," he wrote, "suggested in the persistent character of bias[,] provides the possibilities of intensive study of the limits of life and its probable direction" (Innis, 1935, p. 283). The constant awareness of bias and its effects on scholarship was thus the most effective way not only to avoid it but also to attempt to overcome it.

"The Role of Intelligence" was very significant in the corpus of Innisian thought because it was his first sustained treatment of the university problem. It also showed how Innis responded to surrounding conditions and how these conditions affected the development of his thought. The concept of bias, for instance, developed in relation to the evolving role of Canadian social scientists. It was the result of the fixation with the economic problems of the 1930s and the social scientists' new-found role as technical experts in government and business. Indeed, he attributed the "present-mindedness" of his colleagues to the great "disturbances" of the interwar period. Great historical disturbances, he averred, resulted in great cultural change. The developing role of intelligence was simply one manifestation of the economic upheaval of the 1930s. The article, in short, showed Innis' profound sensitivity for historical development4 and hinted at the ways Innis' historical and intellectual circumstances influenced his emerging critique of the university.

Another great historical disturbance, the Second World War, contributed to Innis' concerns for the changing role of intelligence. The second great war of Innis' lifetime enhanced his existing fears for the plight of modern scholarship while creating several new misgivings. Prime among these were trepidations about the place of the university in a society increasingly dominated by "force." Issues of academic freedom, the development of monopolies of knowledge, the role of the university as a cultural instrument, and renewed concerns for the bureaucratization of Canadian academia were all key concerns for Innis in the 1940s. The war led Innis and many of his contemporaries to recognize a crisis in social values and to question Western culture and the role of the university in it. Above all, the Second World War acted as a catalyst for Innis' critique of the modern university.

There can be no doubt that the Second World War repulsed Innis. A veteran of the Great War, he was a converted pacifist who, in much of his correspondence and addresses of the 1940s, made unfavourable references to the current conflict. In "This Has Killed That," he called war a tragedy in terms of the loss of human life, the tolls of which were "never repaid" (Innis, 1977, p. 4). Elsewhere, he referred to battles fought during the war as "massacres" or "atrocities" and the use of the atom bomb as an event so profoundly "disturbing to moral sense of Anglo-Saxons that Churchill [had] to say it was necessary" ("Values" discussion group, 1949, pp. 3-4). The massive slaughtering of the war resulted, for Innis, in the breakdown of an international moral code ("Values" Discussion Group, 1949). While many of his contemporaries championed the economic benefits of the war and the need to combat fascism, Innis was convinced that the war was an event of no redeeming value whatsoever and contributed instead to the depletion of human resources and the dulling of moral sensibilities (Innis, 1977).

The war represented for Innis far more than the loss of life or even the disruption of ethical conduct; it was at the root of the university crisis. It extended the 1930s trend towards bureaucratization and precipitated what Innis saw as a mass exodus of intellectuals to the cause of "winning the war" (Innis, Untitled "Rough Draft," n.d.; Innis, Economics and Business, n.d.). The incursions of the government into academia, Innis wrote, led "to the withdrawal of social scientists from research work of a fundamental character" and lowered "intellectual achievements in academic work" (Innis, Economics and Business, n.d., p. 1). Academic pursuits suffered because scholars in government concerned themselves with short-term difficulties instead of the "long-run problems" that once engaged the social scientist. Indeed, the advisor or researcher in government was the antithesis to Innis' ideal scholar, the intellectual who, unfettered with narrow government or political interests, involved himself in larger philosophical problems (Innis, Untitled "Rough Draft," n.d.). Furthermore, the wartime association with governments meant that, by war's end, the "academic mind" would become used to government needs and academia would be transformed into "a standing surplus reserve labour pool to meet the varying demands of government" (Innis, Economics and Business, n.d., p. 2). University intellectuals would become merely a brain-trust of the party in power and therefore lose touch with their greater function in society. Even more than in the 1930s, thus, the heavy demands of the war on human resources meant the degradation of a noble profession and the diversion of academics from their rightful roles.

The war also threatened academic freedom. In 1941, University of Toronto officials and the Provincial Legislature of Ontario threatened to dismiss historian F. H. Underhill for wartime statements that they believed to be offensive and contrary to the war effort (Creighton, 1957). Despite "crossing swords" with Underhill on various occasions, Innis felt obliged to defend a colleague (Innis, n.d. [1941], p. 1).5 He wrote an impassioned plea to the University's President, heavy with symbolic references to both his own and Underhill's service in the Great War. In it he urged his colleagues to unite in order to protect a "fallen comrade" during what he perceived to be the "war on the home front," that is, the fight to preserve the sacred medieval tradition of scholarly freedom. He even threatened resignation as a means of emphasizing his principles. "If a man's position is endangered because of reckless fearlessness" to speak freely about the war, Innis declared, "I should be glad to run the risk of losing my own academic position to save him" (Innis, n.d. [1941], p. 1). He closed his memorandum stating that the University of Toronto had established an "enviable reputation in the maintenance of academic freedom" and that if it did not defend Underhill, it stood to "lose the respect of other institutions" throughout Canada, Great Britain, and the United States (Innis, n.d. [1941], p. 2; Innis to Creighton, 1941).

The Underhill affair was not merely an attempt to support a censured colleague, however; nor was it just an issue of academic freedom. Rather, it called attention to a larger issue, an issue of "vital importance" to the maintenance of freedom within a society at war (Innis, n.d. [1941], p. 2). Innis implied that academic freedom acted as a prism through which problems of liberal-democratic societies manifested themselves. Central governments of the Western "democracies" had adopted additional powers, an egregious infringement on liberty for Innis and others. Under the guise of fighting totalitarianism, new special controls (such as the War Measures Act) limited individual liberties and greatly burdened the free-thinking individual's understanding of current philosophical difficulties. Ironically, to Innis and several of his colleagues (the foremost of whom were E. J. Urwick, Donald Creighton,6 and Arthur Lower7), the talk of war aims and of a new order after the war, sensitive to the needs of democracy, was really merely a smoke screen which obscured the realities of increased governmental controls and a manipulated democracy concerned with government by the few for the few and privileged (Urwick to Innis, 1940, 1942). With the resort to force and militarism during the war, Innis argued, society was unable to uphold the principles of freedom and democracy: "We have resorted to force rather than persuasion," he wrote in 1944, "and to bullets rather than ballots" (Innis, 1977, p. 3).

Even worse than the increasingly illiberal atmosphere of wartime were governmental efforts to deceive and propagandize the population into thinking that it was the guardian of a free and democratic society. Through the vehicle of public opinion government officials attempted to appeal to "slogans in the interest of mass support." In this rabble-rousing climate, Innis explained, toleration and respect disappeared and the "demagoguery of politicians" took over (Innis, 1977, p. 4). Through the aid of the press, nationalist rhetoric intensified and in turn destroyed internationalism and the capacity for toleration and restraint. Ironically, the rhetoric of politicians and propaganda machines "educating" against the evils of Hitlerism contributed to the development of an illiberal, even fascist-like state at home. Innis, to be sure, loathed the emergence of a state in which power and control were pervasive features, allowing no room for counterbalancing forces to offset an increasingly intolerant, undemocratic polity. He was afraid, in other words, of a state in which bias and monopolies of knowledge prevailed.

The intensification of the control-oriented state during the war also implied for Innis the institutionalization of bias, that is, the creation of "monopolies of knowledge." An extension of his earlier critique of specialized approaches to scholarship, Innis applied the notion of bias to current conditions of the early 1940s.8 In falling prey to the propagandist, he argued, intellectuals and individuals on the whole lost the ability to understand their environment and therefore to comprehend the debilitating effects of the war. Governments thus effectively controlled not merely the distribution of information but also directed the citizenry's understanding of the wartime world. Monopolies of knowledge were, for Innis, institutionally sponsored manifestations of partial truths and tainted information, products of a world concerned with short-term objectives such as winning military battles and solving economic problems.

As Innis noted earlier in his career, monopolies of knowledge had their most profound effects on the universities. In "A Plea for the University Tradition" (1994), his most succinct statement of the university problem, Innis demonstrated how the university had historically come under attack from controlling political or religious institutions, and how it was able to avoid the adverse effects of political control and monopolies of knowledge. He established that the university was an instrument imparting the wisdom necessary to expose bias and therefore promote truth. The academy was the historical counterweight to bias. From the nineteenth century to the present, however, he showed how the Western university had become less and less respectful of its traditions in the humanities and liberal arts and how it succumbed to new trends in the sciences and mathematics. In the mid-twentieth century the university fell away even further from its old beliefs and yielded to the tendencies of "bureaucracy and dictatorship . . . , the intensification of nationalism," and the "evils of monopolies in commerce and industry" (Innis, 1944, pp. 299-300). For Innis, the tradition of unbiased humanistic scholarship had lapsed by the 1940s.

Innis went further in "A Plea for the University Tradition" and other writings of the 1940s than his earlier critique of the university; in these strictures he detailed the effects of monopolies of knowledge on the Canadian university. In 1943, for instance, he complained to University of Toronto President H. J. Cody that courses that the Board of Governors deemed "as not essential to the national interest or the prosecution of the war" were being taken off the books. He considered this government intervention in university affairs as not only a breach of academic freedom but also a blow to the "prestige of the university" and a "dismantling and weakening of the [course] structure" that the president and other intellectuals had worked so hard to establish (Innis to Cody, 1943). In the same memorandum, Innis bemoaned the scant teaching resources available at Toronto due to the increased presence of academics within government bureaucracies. In a letter to G. M. Weir of the Department of Pensions and Health he continued his lament. He warned that the lack of personnel (professors and graduate students embroiled in war) meant that the fledgling graduate program, which had approached a point at which it could grant doctorates and begin to compete with graduate schools in the United States and Great Britain, was to cease work completely for rest of 1943 (Innis to Weir, 1943). Innis was also concerned about the state's ever-increasing role in education to "conserve knowledge." As a result of state intervention, he claimed, the university became concerned with fact-finding to aid in the resolution of current problems and hence began to disregard longer-term cultural and philosophical difficulties. The tendency towards the conservation of facts, he wrote, was evident in the "in the lack of interest in educational philosophy and in the tendency of educational institutions ... to avoid major philosophical problems of western civilization" (Innis, 1964, p. 204). Finally, he railed against the insinuation of politics into the university, as the Underhill affair had demonstrated a few years earlier. Acting in response to the demands of political parties, the Board of Governors even interfered with the content of university courses (Innis, 1944). For Innis and others, the penetration of outside groups into university life was deep indeed. Innis summarized his contempt for the politicization of the university declaring that governments and political groups have

felt themselves compelled to lend themselves to the systematic rape of scholarship.... Nothing has been more indicative of the decline in cultural life in Canada since the last war than the infiltration of politics in the Universities, and nothing has done more to hamper the development of intellectual maturity than the institutional framework of Canadian Universities which permits and encourages the exploitation of scholars, and plays the treasonable rôle of betraying the traditions for which we fought in the last war and for which we fight in this. (Innis, 1944, p. 303)

While Innis provided some of the most scathing criticisms of wartime academic trends, his was not a isolated voice of dissent. Writing in 1945 in a report commissioned by the Canadian Social Science and Research Council called Scholarship for Canada, J. B. Brebner,9 Innis' close friend, agreed wholeheartedly with Innis' ideas concerning the negative impact of state intervention in scholarly life. Brebner (1945) argued that the modern state, swollen by the demands of the war, had participated in what amounted to an attack on scholars. The collective state, Brebner wrote, "conflict[ed] sharply with intellectual and other personal freedoms" (p. 13). Political, economic, and philosophical pressures resulted from the current war and, in consequence, Western democracies strengthened the state in order to cope (Brebner, 1945). The centralized state, which "needed expertness and specialized knowledge as never before, ... reached into the universities to obtain them, thereby often putting the blinders of specific political direction on eyes which serve wisdom better when they were able to look around freely" (Brebner, 1945, p. 14). Further, public opinion, the instrument of propaganda Innis came to despise, became "less favourable to the scholar's spirit of free enquiry" (p. 14). Echoing Innis' sentiments in the aftermath of the Underhill affair, he argued that the state persecuted scholars who presented opinions that conflicted with prevailing partisan rhetoric. This devaluation of academic freedom and scholarly insight, Brebner concluded, plagued Canada during the course of the war.

Brebner went on in Scholarship for Canada to chide specialization, advocate the cross-Canada expansion of graduate training, and, perhaps most important of all, to identify the lack of resources Canadian scholars had to endure. Like Innis, who in his capacity as Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto (1947-52) devoted significant energies to secure funding from "outside" (i.e., non-governmental) sources (Innis, 1946), Brebner bemoaned the lack of scholarly funding in Canada. He wondered why a Canadian millionaire had not endowed a learned foundation such as existed in the United States (the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations).10 Most significantly, he extolled the advantages of independent financial funding. Like Innis, who believed that state funding of the Canadian university was not only an example of the infiltration of the government into university life but also a reflection of current educational and cultural decline,11 Brebner (1945) thought that independently funded universities promoted learning unconstrained by governmental responsibilities. Liberated scholarship was, in Innisian terms, "unbiased" scholarship. Through adequate funding, moreover, Brebner asserted that scholars no longer needed to work for business or governments to supplement their meagre earnings. Instead, they could concentrate on their researches, even having the resources to conduct research trips and attend conferences in locations far from Canada.

The lack of financial and scholarly resources, both Brebner and Dean Innis agreed, was potentially disastrous. Canadian higher learning, both academics agreed, was at a crossroads. As a nation Canada had reached a maturity through the interwar and war periods and was ready for additional cultural and intellectual development. In spite of Canada's developing national status, however, universities were in danger of losing scholars to institutions in the United States and Great Britain (Innis, Memorandum for the Sub-committee, n.d.; Brebner, 1945). If the apparatus of higher learning was not improved, both Brebner and Innis warned, bright students would have no choice but to pursue their studies in established universities. If the major universities did not enlarge and improve graduate schools, and if funding was not made widely available, Canadian universities would not be able to compete with larger, more adequately endowed institutions. In essence, they would remain feeders for established universities in Great Britain and the United States, and Canada would miss the opportunity to develop culturally and intellectually.12

Although related to Brebner's critique of the development of Canadian scholarship, Innis' personal experiences as head of the largest and most distinguished graduate school in Canada also informed his criticisms of higher education. His concerns for the development of Canadian universities mirrored trepidations for his own institution and the leadership role it had assumed in Canadian society. He was convinced, for example, that the University of Toronto should continue to take the lead at the upper levels of scholarship; it must expose the limitations of specialization and other scholarly "fads" that had begun to plague Canadian universities (Innis, n.d. [1946-47]). Accordingly, he implored the University of Toronto to reduce course loads, increase independent funding, and expand graduate school capacities, thereby facilitating "sound scholarship" and creating a strong institution able to compete with other established universities in the English-speaking world (Innis, n.d. [1946-47], pp. 7-8). Further, he advocated the appointment of "competent staff " to guide students and produce well-rounded scholars, capable of contributing to intellectual life in Canada. Above all, he wanted to foster the development of institutions in which Canada's most talented students could learn and thrive (and therefore prevent their exodus abroad) as well as contribute to the growing cultural needs of a still culturally immature Canada.13 The creation of conditions amenable to unbiased, unspecialized scholarship was, in Innis' opinion, the only way Toronto could fulfill its responsibilities as a leading institution of culture in Canada.

Despite Innis' pleas and protestations, the University of Toronto and other institutions in Canada failed to create conditions in which scholarship could thrive. This failure was due primarily to the lapse of humanistic traditions. Indeed by the mid-1940s he had begun to lament the growing indifference of scholars and Canadians generally towards humanistic scholarship. The decline of the humanities was problematic because the humanistic approaches to scholarship were integral to the exposure of bias and monopolies of knowledge. Philosophical and historical analyses were essential counterweights to scientific approaches and growing specialization. Indeed, Innis advocated a resurrection of the "Greek tradition of the humanities," a tradition that had always been integral to the consistent "avoidance of extremes and extravagance" (Innis, 1944, p. 299), for the emphasis of the intellectual principles of balance and proportion of the ancient Greeks was vital to understanding bias. Ultimately, the Greek tradition could promote the objectivity and perspective that seemed everywhere lacking. Yet, significantly to Innis and others sympathetic to the Greek liberal arts tradition, the humanities seemed to be in eclipse within Canadian universities and indeed throughout the Western world. Stating the "Greek problem," Innis commented that "[w]e have been much concerned in academic circles with the decline of Greek, but I am afraid we do not realize that this is a symptom of an unwillingness to face the exacting demands implied in the study of Greek civilization. [As a result,] we have neglected the philosophical problems of the West" (Innis, 1947, p. 2). Disdain for the Greek approach meant, in short, that moderns had failed to appreciate the philosophical problems of bias and monopoly that bedeviled the modern world.

Concern over the decline of the "Greek approach" to scholarship and indeed to modern problems was not peculiar to the Innisian worldview, however; rather, it resonated throughout the Canadian humanistic community. In The Humanities in Canada, Watson Kirkconnell & A. S. P. Woodhouse published the results of a survey of the humanities faculties across Canada. They found that humanists were in "the midst of a movement that [was] reacting against excessive preoccupation with techniques divorced from humanizing influences" (Kirkconnell & Woodhouse, 1947, p. 6). Kirkconnell & Woodhouse discovered scholars such as Innis disliked trends towards de-humanized scholarship and advocated instead a return to the humanist learning of the pre-modern university. They asserted that association with poets, orators, and historians detached the academic "from the mere present, humanized his imagination and elevated his sentiments" (1947, pp. 6-7). Like Innis, they intimated that the humanities contained the eternal truths about the human condition. The purpose of the humanities was to aid in the development of intellectual faculties to appreciate the "full measure of humanity" (p. 7). As with the Greek humanistic tradition, Kirkconnell & Woodhouse championed the humanities as a balancing influence for moderns, enabling a complete understanding of cultural and human circumstances. Indeed, the humanities' greatest role was to liberalize and to provide much-needed perspective.

Kirkconnell & Woodhouse also argued that the humanities contributed to personal intellectual development. The humanities fostered "inner cultivation" (1947, p. 8). Association with the beauty of art and the reason of philosophy would develop a "greater esthetic sensitivity, a purification and refinement of emotions, and a keener, more creative experience of beauty" (p. 8). In addition, the humanities promoted the ethical and moral awareness of the individual. Kirkconnell & Woodhouse contended that a liberal education was essential in modern times rife with the perversity of war, for it embodied moral values of goodness and beauty and confronted "the terror and cruelty of [the] contemporary world" (p. 11). Liberal learning was, in short, much more than mere instruction in the arts and letters; it was the means by which human virtues could be realized and the human condition, corrupted by the immoralities of the present age, could be set aright.

Innis agreed that a liberal education contributed to the liberation of humanity. His hopes for the salvation of the modern world rested with the ideal scholar. For Innis the ideal scholar was the embodiment of the intellectually and morally refined individual. He possessed the self-awareness, morality, and the ability to judge and pronounce. He was the individual endowed with the attributes to cope with larger philosophical issues. The educational system should therefore be concerned, Innis averred, with developing such outstanding individuals and, "like the Greeks[,] with making men," not overwhelming them with facts and knowledge (Innis, 1964, p. 203). Graduate students, he continued, were not to be "regarded as sausages to be stuffed with the particular brand of material produced" in universities; rather, graduate and other courses should place less emphasis on "content and more on the character of instruction" (Innis, n.d. [1949-50], p. 7). The university professor ought to cultivate integrity and dedication and encourage the scholar to serve society. University training was not merely designed to prepare scholars for teaching and research in their own specialized fields of knowledge; rather, it was preparation to use their intellectual and personal qualities of wisdom and judgment, balance and perspective, to contribute to the culture of which they formed a part.

Innis' later scholarship embodied his teachings on the social role of intellectuals. Innis himself was on a self-appointed mission to address the problems of modern civilization. He was in fact the ideal scholar he had written about. His "pleas" for time and the university tradition were those of the enlightened scholar he had praised, the intellectual who had knowledge of bias and was willing to confront limited perceptions (Watson, 1981). Through his critique of the modern university, furthermore, he attempted to heighten his colleagues' cultural awareness. He wanted his associates to see what he saw, for only the scholar could expose bias and therefore address the current socio-cultural malaise.14 By demonstrating the role of the scholar and the university through his own tireless scholarship, Innis endeavoured to provide his contemporaries with an example of scholarly activity, a lead which he hoped, for the sake of Canadian culture, his contemporaries would follow.

Innis' appeals were significant because they came at a time of considerable change for Canadian universities. The war accelerated the long-term trend towards the increasingly utilitarian orientation of higher learning. Most of all, it contributed to the development of a "culture of utility" (McKillop, 1994) within institutions of higher learning: the predominance of "practical" academic disciplines over their less useful counterparts. Indeed, during the war government officials and Canadians at large began to realize the crucial contributions that the universities made to the war effort. The massive material requirements of total war, for instance, resulted in a great need for engineers and industrial technicians of all kinds to manage the war effort on the home front. The clamour for trained scientists, engineers, and health-care professionals by government and military meant that disciplines of practical value, that is, those that had been deemed necessary to fight the war, rose in size and stature within university communities throughout early 1940s (McKillop, 1994). The war resulted, moreover, in unprecedented publicity for the nation's universities. In 1945 the news magazine Saturday Night concluded that "Learning as an end in itself [was] no longer valid in a nation which needs the minds of its youth for leadership in the rough new world to come" (quoted in McKillop, 1994, p. 557). The news media pressured universities to foster the training of technicians and business leaders. They reflected the increasingly prevalent opinion that universities ought to focus on training personnel for industry and government to aid in the development Canadian society both in war and in peacetime.

This utilitarian view of higher learning was not universally appreciated, however. Concern had surfaced shortly after 1939 that university and governmental encouragement of the practical disciplines translated into the further erosion of the humanistic focus of the Canadian university. Penned by Innis, the Canadian Social Science Research Council (CSSRC) submitted to J. W. Pickersgill of the Prime Minister's office a brief outlining the effects of the war on higher education. The brief focused particular attention on the rise of sciences at the expense of the humanities. Most directly, it was a response to governmental policy to protect university students, especially science students, from military service. Using classic rhetorical overstatement, Innis implicitly condemned a government increasingly concerned with the well-being of the practical component of higher learning:

The Council strongly deprecates the tendency evident even in university circles to neglect the Humanities and to overemphasize the Natural Sciences. Recognizing the strong drift in that direction it appreciates its relation to the demands of the war effort, but wishes to point out the dangers of weakening the Arts tradition, the place of Humanities modern democracy, and the possibility of losing on the home front as well as the war front in the struggle against authoritarian powers. Deterioration becomes rapid after the danger point has been reached and involved increasing problems with the continued length of the war. The neglect of the cultural standards of a generation of men in the war and in the post-war period is unfair to those who have participated and to the generation immediately following and has ominous implications for the whole future of civilization. (In Canadian Social Sciences Research Council, 1942, p. 2)

The CSSRC brief highlighted much more than the rivalry between university faculties for government funds and public recognition; indeed, the words of Innis and the others showed how the rise of technical education reflected the tendency to value material and technological advancement over equally important "humanistic" social values. The triumph of the applied sciences over the arts was a reflection of society that had begun to turn its back on the seemingly less socially relevant liberal arts. Most of all, the struggle for prominence between the two main approaches to knowledge indicated a greater crisis of values in the Western world. University of Toronto Chancellor Vincent Massey explained that this malaise had been reflected in a "crisis in education." At the root of both crises, he reasoned, was a predisposition to favour technical over humanistic learning. Massey wanted the balance redressed. The universities, he wrote, had a

very ancient and very vital function to perform in the field of the humanities. Technological and scientific progress had not made this function obsolete: it has made it more necessary.... It is obvious that technology is of tremendous importance in modern life, but while it is a good and necessary servant it must not be allowed to become our master. No one passing through a university should fail to come under the influence of the humanities, because it is in this field -- that of liberal education -- that the student is enabled to acquire a true sense of values, to understand something about the relation of man to society, to distinguish between the real things in life and the fakes, to put first things first, and to sharpen his mental curiosity.... (Massey, 1948, pp. 10-14)

Philosopher Grant also entered the debate, declaring in 1950: "Can it be doubted that Canadian universities today exist essentially as technical schools for the training of specialists?" (Grant, 1950, p. 3; see also Grant, 1948). Even humanistic disciplines such as history, the classics, and European literature were treated as technical subjects with no regard for "the sweep of our spiritual tradition" (Grant, 1950, p. 3). Institutions of higher learning could scarcely be called "universities," in Grant's opinion, given the preponderance of technical disciplines and the highly specialized nature of modern scholarship. In a paper tellingly subtitled "What Can the Humanities Do for Government?" Creighton, referring specifically to the role of the historian, added his voice to those of Massey and Grant. "Obviously," he began, "in an age characterized by the enormous prestige of the physical and social sciences and ... what is reverently described as `know-how,' the claims made for the humanities can hardly be exclusive and monopolistic. But they are nevertheless very considerable, and it is perhaps not inappropriate that an historian should try to restate them" (Creighton, n.d., p. 1). Commenting on the importance of a liberal education to the art of government, he wrote, "one sometimes wonders whether the humanities would have lent themselves to such monstrous perversions" as the rise of the totalitarian states. "One sometimes wonders whether," he added caustically, "if the old liberal education had continued its old sway, the modern world would have had so many illiterate megalomaniacs as leaders, and whether such a cowed and intellectually humiliated civil service would have been tolerated, so often and in so many countries" (Creighton, n.d., p. 1). As for Massey, Grant, Innis, and the members of the CSSRC, Creighton saw the inestimable benefits of a "liberal education." Like Innis and the others, he understood the impact of a system of higher learning characterized by technical education and a society that exalted the values of industrial-technological society over those associated with the liberal arts tradition.

To conclude, several historical, intellectual, and cultural factors have been highlighted to show how Innis' university problem emerged and developed in the interwar period through to the end of his career. Innis embarked on a debate on higher learning in the 1930s, a time of substantial change in arts faculties and Canadian universities more generally. Indeed, Innis' early conception of the university issue was a response to his historical and intellectual circumstances. Innis reacted to new developments of specialized scholarship and the emergence of the scholar as expert by showing how changes in the university obscured scholars' true purpose and disrupted their efforts to guide society.

Similarly, Innis' mature conception of the university malaise constituted a response to historical and intellectual conditions of the 1940s and early 1950s. Specifically, the Second World War profoundly influenced Innis' view of the university problem. First of all, it produced demonstrable changes in university courses and programs, hastened the exodus of scholars away from the academy, and, perhaps most damaging of all, fostered a new utilitarian spirit within the universities themselves. It engendered conditions, in short, that were repugnant to the development of the humanities and social sciences. Furthermore, the war constituted in Innis' mind an unprecedented illiberal force that resulted not only in increased state control, but also reflected the greater trend toward monopolies of knowledge. By the mid-1940s Innis suggested that individuals' perception of truth had changed so much that they did not realize the value of timeless verities, such as those intrinsic to the university tradition, and adhered instead to a worldview rooted in the present. In facilitating bias and limited perceptions of truth the war helped circumscribe outlooks and hence narrowed perceptions and understandings. Through instruments of bias such as propaganda and public opinion, it contributed new and relativistic perceptions of truth. For Innis, the war was deeply disquieting not only because of its material effects on human populations, but also because of its role in muting the highest philosophical traditions of Western culture and in suppressing the university, the only counterweight to monopoly and bias.

In addition to specific historical and intellectual contexts, Innis' university critique was also an attempt to define a role for the scholar and the university within a society that had become increasingly indifferent to higher learning. He lamented apathetic attitudes towards the university because indifference indicated a negligible role for the academic in society. He championed an idealized conception of the scholar as sage, the individual responsible for guiding society morally and culturally. His appeal for the university tradition was an effort to show how the university could and indeed should again become an integral part of society. In its largest sense, the problem of the university was a search for relevance in a culture that rejected higher learning and intellectual achievement. Innis' pronouncements and pleas were really the proclamations of an individual desperately concerned with the enduring pertinence of the university and its traditions. Innis' later scholarship, in the last analysis, was as much an attempt to endorse the university and promote its true utility to society as it was an effort to define the cultural importance of communications media. Indeed, the university problem formed the core of much of Innis' later thought.


The 1930s was an age in which the prestige of economists was great. Governments, the media, and the public at large looked to this group of academics for answers to the socio-economic malaise of the decade.
Discussing "important recent works in economics," Innis showed how social scientists advanced the interests of a set of groups (economists in government were concerned with the economic difficulties of the 1930s) and neglected other interests and the needs of the community at large. Recent social-scientific studies were, to Innis, instances of scholarly efforts biased by special interests (Innis, 1935).
Unlike Urwick, who advocated a highly relativistic approach to social-scientific study, Innis still suggested that objectivity in scholarship was tenable, assuming the proper functioning of the university and the scholar within it (Innis, 1935; see also Pal, 1977, p. 34).
Not surprising since Innis' roots as a historian of course originate in the 1920s.
Innis was fundamentally opposed to Underhill's view that the scholar should take up positions outside academia. He urged the scholar to remain in the academy, a notion that conflicted with Underhill's idea of the social role of the university.
Writing near the war's end in 1944, Creighton showed that "the war appear[ed] to have revealed certain unexpected weaknesses in the foundation of free speculation in Western society; and the present intensification of political power, as well as the vast extension of planning, may suggest other impending difficulties for the future" (Creighton, n.d. [1944], p. 2).
To Lower (1975), the war had resulted in a "vast increase in the edifice of control" over all aspects of life; "at present," he indicated, "we have a very complete degree of political control: control of opinion, of personal freedom, assembly, organization, movement, and residence, and no great reverence for due process of law." "The innumerable boards and commissions thrown up by the war," he continued, were responsible for "establishing mechanisms" to increase state control over the individual (p. 108). See also Lower's original publication (Lower, 1941).
Note that Innis had always been concerned, in his earlier scholarly work, with the impact of monopolies on Canadian economic development. See, especially, Innis (1930, 1933).
Council officials chose Brebner to write the report because he was an American and therefore had "no ax to grind."
Like Innis, historian Donald Creighton, Innis' friend and colleague, worked tirelessly through the 1940s and 1950s in an effort to secure funding for social-science faculties of Canadian universities.
In "The University in the Modern Crisis," Innis wrote that business and government essentially exploited universities through "bribes" and that they attempted to "buy and sell" universities with the aid of university administrators "trained in playing for the highest bid." But this effort to buy universities, Innis continued, was an effort "to destroy them and with them the civilization for which they stand" (Innis, 1946, p. 75).
Watson Kirkconnell & A. S. P. Woodhouse (1947) implicitly concurred with Innis and Brebner, arguing that Canada was at a crossroads in its history; it had either to concentrate on its cultural or material development. They advocated the cultural development of Canadian society through the amelioration of graduate schools, especially graduate studies dealing with humanistic subjects.
Innis lamented the fact that he could not attend graduate school in Canada following his service in the Great War. He hoped that veterans would have the opportunity to complete their graduate studies in Canada. As Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, he worked to prevent the drain of young scholars from Canadian universities and to create an established institution which war veterans could attend upon their return (Innis to Weir, 1943).
Innis was concerned to the point of obsession with making his colleagues (even Arthur Cole, who was well informed on Innis' later researches) aware of his work to identify bias and monopolies and to promote tradition and continuity. Much of Innis' later correspondence dealt with, or at least noted, the problems of bias and "time." See, for example, Innis, Confidential Memorandum (1951); Innis to Cole (1947, 1950a, 1950b, 1950c, 1950d, 1951, 1952); Innis to Creighton (1952); Innis to Hutchins (1952).


Brebner, John Bartlet. (1945). Scholarship for Canada: The function of graduate studies. Ottawa: Canadian Social Sciences and Research Council.

Canadian Social Sciences Research Council. (1942, November). Brief to the Canadian government. Donald Creighton Papers, Public Archives of Canada (PAC), v. 15, H. A. Innis, 1924-54, MG 31 D77.

Creighton, Donald. (n.d.). Education for government: What can the humanities do for government? Unpublished address, "draft copy." Donald Creighton Papers, PAC, v. 15, Education for government, MG 31 D77.

Creighton, Donald. (n.d. [1944]). Memorandum for the conference on American thought. Donald Creighton Papers, PAC, v. 1, General correspondence, 1944, #2, 31 D77.

Creighton, Donald. (1957). Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a scholar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Grant, George. (1948). "Philosophy" in Canada. In Royal Commission studies: A selection of essays prepared for the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier.

Grant, George. (1950, October 24). The teaching of philosophy in English-speaking Canada. Draft copy. Hilda Neatby Papers, University of Saskatchewan Archives, II. 93; file: Grant, Professor G. P., The teaching of philosophy in English-speaking Canada.

Innis, H. A. (n.d. [1941]). Address to the president. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 005, file 18, B72-0003.

Innis, H. A. (n.d.). Economics and business. Unpublished manuscript. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 012, file 47, B72-0003.

Innis, H. A. (n.d.). Memorandum for the sub-committee on social sciences. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 012, file 47, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A. (n.d. [1946-47]). Untitled address -- Draft copy. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 012, file 48, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A. (n.d. [1949-50]). Untitled address. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 22, file 11, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A. (n.d.). Untitled "rough draft" of a memorandum. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 23, file 10, B72-0003.

Innis, H. A. (1930). The fur trade in Canada: An introduction into Canadian economic history. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Innis, H. A. (1933). Problems of staple production in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press.

Innis, H. A. (1935). The role of intelligence: Some further notes. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1, 280-287.

Innis, H. A. (1944). A plea for the university tradition. Dalhousie Review, 24, 298-305.

Innis, H. A. (1946). The university in the modern crisis. In Political economy in the modern state (pp. 72-82). Toronto: Ryerson Press.

Innis, H. A. (1947). The church in Canada. In Time for healing (pp. 47-54). Twenty-second annual report of the Board of Evangelism and Social Service. Toronto: United Church of Canada.

Innis, H. A. (1951, September 21). Confidential memorandum on operations of economic history committee. Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A. (1964). The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Originally published in 1951)

Innis, H. A. (1977). This has killed that. Journal of Canadian Studies, 12(5), 3-5. (Article originally published in 1944)

Innis, H. A., to Cody, H. J. (1943, December 3). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 005, file 18, B72-0003.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1947, October). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1950a, January 9). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1950b, January 20). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 01, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1950c, February 28). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1950d, April 24). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1951, June 14). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Cole, Arthur. (1952, March 26). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 03, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Creighton, Donald. (1941, February 15). Donald Creighton Papers, Public Archives of Canada (PAC), v. 1, General Correspondence, 1941, 31 D77.

Innis, H. A., to Creighton, Donald. (1952). Creighton Papers, v. 2, General correspondence, 1952, #1, 31 D77.

Innis, H. A., to Hutchins, Robert M. (1952, April 1). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 010, file 01, B72-0025.

Innis, H. A., to Weir, G. M. (1943, March 8). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 005, file 18, B72-0003.

Kirkconnell, Watson, & Woodhouse, A. S. P. (1947). The humanities in Canada. Ottawa: Humanities Research Council.

Lower, A. R. M. (1941, March). The social sciences and the post-war world. Canadian Historical Review, 22, 1-13.

Lower, A. R. M. (1975). The social sciences and the post-war world. In Welf H. Heick (Ed.), History and myth: Arthur Lower and the making of Canadian nationalism (pp. 104-114). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. (Article originally published in 1941)

Massey, Vincent. (1948, April 23). Address by the Right Honourable Vincent Massey before the graduate organization of the University of Toronto for Kingston and District, Kingston, Ontario. Vincent Massey Papers, UTA, Box 421, file 08, B87-0082.

McKillop, A. B. (1994). Matters of mind: The university in Ontario 1791-1951. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Owram, Doug. (1986). The government generation: Canadian intellectuals and the state 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pal, L. A. (1977). Scholarship and the later Innis. Journal of Canadian Studies, 12(5), 32-42.

Urwick, E. J., to Innis, H. A. (1940, November 18). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 15, B72-0025.

Urwick, E. J., to Innis, H. A. (1942, December 30). Harold Innis Papers, UTA, Box 011, file 15, B72-0025.

"Values" discussion group. (1949, April 5). Harold Innis Papers, University of Toronto Archives (UTA), Box 030, file 06, B72-0003, 3-4.

Watson, J. A. (1981). Marginal man: Harold Innis's communications works in context. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.