By John Barber, Globe and Mail, December 22, 2010
A quick survey shows that neither Queen’s University, nor the University of Toronto, Concordia University, Dalhousie University, University of Alberta, York University, the University of Saskatchewan and Simon Fraser University name a single work by Richler in lists of texts for either undergraduate or graduate-level courses on Canadian literature.
Among the dozens of authors listed for study in the University of British Columbia’s undergraduate courses in Canadian literature, Richler is mentioned only once. And the Montreal author gets equal treatment in both undergraduate and graduate CanLit courses at McGill University – appearing on only one course list on urban writing as author of The Street, a little-known volume of early stories....
Richler (likewise) offends contemporary literary sensibilities, according to Foran, (author of a new Richler biography entitled "Mordecai: The Life and Times" by Charles Foran), especially what he considers to be the “pinched and ahistorical and impoverished notion of literature” that currently rules the academy. “More and more we want our novels – even those novels taught at the university level – to have simple and clear, preferably progressive thematic concerns,” he says. “They have to relate to progressive politics, they have to relate to social justice. What are these words doing mixed up with literature?”
There are no such programs in Richler novels. The author is condemned because “Duddy cashes the cheque,” according to Foran. The final event of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is the hero swindling his friend. The moral is opaque, to say the least.
Sanitizing the Canadian Literature courses by "respected" academics in Canadian universities, by 'overlooking' Richler's body of work, for reasons that might include Foran's take on the situation, and that might also include Richler's having offended virtually every minority from his own Jewish community to the Quebec separatists and their cause he so savagely ridiculed, is a sin of omission on which Canadian Literature scholars should be called.
This reminds me of an observation by an Ontario psychiatrist early in this decade that from what he could ascertain, no courses in Carl Jung were being offered at the university in the town where he practiced psychiatry for the previous thirty years. In discussion, the most discernible reason to emerge was that Jung's work focused on the unconscious and since empirical evidence for that subject was difficult, if not impossible, to gather, Jung's work was omitted from the study of psychology.
Having just completed reading Irving Stone's novel (Passions of the Mind) based on the life of Sigmund Freud,whose work also concentrated on the importance of the unconscious, and especially the sexual etiology of many, if not all, human neuroses, and learning of the many hurdles the iconoclastic medical researcher, who began as a student of nerology, I find it relatively easy to imagine the 'academic' justifications for not including either Richler or Jung from serious academic study. Another "establishment" feeds on its own credentialled and respected thinkers, avoiding the outsiders.
And yet, such omission seems to go with merely a public whimper of disagreement. We are, after all, dealing with the hallowed halls of the academic community and who would want to challenge the opinions of those whose life work focuses on doctoral studies of Canadian writers.
Compare, for example, the fact that while ten grants for research into the work of Margaret Atwood have been made by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in the last dozen years, only one such grant has been made for research on Richler's body of work (according to the Barber piece in the Globe and Mail.)
And here, for these many decades, I always thought, even wanted to believe, that the universities were created for the search for truth, and that truth included the insights of those writers and thinkers whose work did not fit easily into previously assigned and accepted categories of political correctness. Have we become so perfectly committed to our form of Canadian perfection, including a perfectly unsullied interpretation of our minorities, including the Quebec sovereignists, that Richler's savage treatment of their cause is off limits for the next generations of Canadian students? Are we afraid that those bodies who provide funds, including federal and provincial governments, and large corporations for whom the mere scent of conflict is radioactive, will not provide grants if we cross the line of political correctness? Is the study of Richler's work now being repressed because his iconic and ironic and satiric and even acerbic view of the world that excludes the outsider is so objectionable? What does that omission say about our compulsive attempts to avoid such consideration of the "outsider".
And there's more to upset the casual observer about the fate of Candian Literature in Canadian schools.
By Susan Swan, Globe and Mail, December 24, 2010
For starters, few Canadian books are taught in our schools, and with one or two exceptions, no province has a mandatory course in Canadian literature.
British Columbia and Saskatchewan have legislation ensuring that high-school students study novels and non-fiction books by Canadian writers. And some provinces, like Quebec and Newfoundland, enjoy teaching their own writers.
But for the rest of the country, there’s still a lingering attitude that Canadian literature is substandard, according to Jean Baird, a publishing consultant who fought for legislation that now makes it mandatory for every English Language Arts student in B.C. to study at least one Canadian text a year from Grade 8 to Grade 12.
“We may be one of the few countries in the developed world that doesn’t teach our own literature,” says Ms. Baird, who believes our education system is failing to grow the next generation of readers.
Eight years ago, Ms. Baird did a comprehensive survey of teachers, students and school boards for the Canada Council and found that not many high-school and elementary students could identify Canadian authors. As little as 31 per cent of schools had courses in Canadian literature.
It is not that long ago that, along with a few other secondary teachers, I was proud to host a Canadian Writer's Day for senior students with some dozen or more Canadian authors of some note, who spoke with, and answered questions, both in public forum, and in private conversation, posed by the students.
Earle Birney visited our school for a day, on a solo flight, as did Margaret Atwood, and the students were always very receptive of their presence, their insights and their celebrity, although it would not compare with Justin Bieber's of today. Other Canadians Writer's Days were held in various parts of Ontario, and some of us took students to meet authors like Farley Mowat and the infamous Judy LaMarsh, who had just recently written "A Bird in a Guilded Cage" as her political autobiography.
Were we so naive, and so unsophisticated, back then, that contemporary educators would now look on our work as pitiable and without scholarly merit?
Little wonder there is so little interest in Canadian affairs by Canadians, and governments can count on most of the population sleeping through most news stories, including this one.