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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2000

Memoir Provides Glimpse into University Establishment

Bill Bruneau

Conscience & History: A Memoir

Kenneth McNaught, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999; 202 pp; cloth $30 CA.
The Canadian Forum recently published several pages of Ken McNaught's Conscience and History, mostly to do with the Harry Crowe case at Winnipeg's United College in 1958. McNaught's writing tempted me to a local book emporium. After an hour or so compulsively reading the book in the store, I gave in and bought it. I have no regrets, and recommend the work to Bulletin readers.

The memoir was incomplete at McNaught's death in 1997, and was prepared for publication by J.L. Granatstein and Michael Bliss. At book's end, mid-sentence on page 193, the reader is surprised and frustrated -- for after nearly 200 pages, one has been drawn into a whole social and academic world. We know its general features, but find its particulars are utterly foreign, just a generation later.

Everywhere McNaught reveals his preferences and ideas of the world. The social democrat, the father and husband, the historian, the teacher, and the ambitious academic -- all make their appearances. We come to know what an academic salary could buy in the 1950s and 1960s, what it was like to feed and educate kids in the period, what Beverley (McNaught's wife) thought about him, and why his summer vacations meant the renting of a "cottage," a feature of life no longer possible for many academics.

But then, most of what McNaught experienced is impossible in 2000. The city and the University of Toronto may still claim imperial status, but not many Canadians pay attention these days.

McNaught came from a family whose paternal ancestors did well in the jewellery business and investments. McNaught's own father, Carl, was the fifth of five sons. Carl graduated from the University of Toronto in 1911 and worked as an advertising executive until retirement. But Carl's inclinations ran counter to those of the family. Carl was firmly in the camp of the social democrats, even though he sent young Ken to Upper Canada College.

Ken McNaught was as interested in, and as committed to the CCF as his dad. It's at least remarkable that Ken could maintain a social democratic outlook at Upper Canada College. Mind you, it helped that his friends at school included Geoff Ridout (later an important Canadian composer and musician), that one of his history teachers was Nicky Ignatieff, that a frequent visitor at home was J.S. Woodsworth, and that nearly the entire editorial history of the Canadian Forum in the 1930s was played out in endless committee meetings in the McNaught living room on Blythwood Road.

Ken McNaught attended the University of Toronto, like his dad before him, in 1937. He studied with Charles Cochrane, Harold Innis, C.B. Macpherson, D.G. Creighton, Edgar McInnis, and Frank Underhill (who had been a student with his father), altogether a who's who of Canadian social science before 1950. After war service, McNaught was back in the U of T history department where graduate student colleagues included John Cairns (later a doyen of European history in Canada), Roger Graham (the biographer of Arthur Meighen), and Stewart Reid (the first executive secretary of CAUT).

How tiny a world the Canadian university was in 1947. As McNaught headed out to teach history at United College in Winnipeg, he already knew his close connections with the English-Canadian, male, Toronto-dominated academic elite would help him return to the U of T as a professor.

First he must pay his dues. There was a PhD thesis to finish -- a biography of J.S. Woodsworth, published in 1959. There were articles to write, many on Canadian-American relations, and books, including his well-known Pelican History of Canada. As McNaught writes, "Arthur Lower's constant admonition, 'publish or perish,' I had always taken seriously." (p. 136)

In 1947, there was as yet no place for McNaught in the Toronto history department, and United was the answer. McNaught gives a believable treatment of the history of the College in the period 1947-1958, warts and all. I was struck not only by his assessment of the College's ties to the United Church, and their consequences -- but also by his discussion of relations between the College and the University of Manitoba, just across town. McNaught accidentally, but usefully suggests some of the motives for the subsequent political and educational histories of the University of Winnipeg (which United College became) vis-à-vis the University of Manitoba.

The 30-page discussion of the Crowe case (pp. 101-130) is possibly the most readable I have seen. CAUT's commission of inquiry (Fowke-Laskin, 1958) into the case was, of course, a defining moment of the organization's history. Here is McNaught on the CAUT executive council meeting in Toronto (King Edward Hotel, Nov. 22-23, 1959) deciding what to do with the Fowke-Laskin report:

"The last time I had been in that hotel had been for a 'tea dance' in the Oak Room while I was still at Upper Canada College, when my chief concern was to behave correctly to my hostess and pay attention to the rhythm of Stanley St Johns's great little orchestra. I remember Stan's accepting a request to play my favourite dance tune, 'In the Mood.' Would the council members be as obliging?" (p. 124)

As we know, the council was indeed obliging. In the end, the Crowe affair led to 15 resignations, McNaught's among them.

McNaught's landing was soft. He was at last appointed to the University of Toronto. From 1958 until his retirement, McNaught taught influential young historians, superintended (with his wife, Bev) the growth and education of three children, enjoyed 30 years of summers on Lake Ontario, managed to keep up with mortgage payments on a big Toronto house, and remained true to his social democratic ways.

His part in the Canadian anti-Vietnam war movement was considerable and his discussion of it fair. (pp. 176-183) The student movement and its excesses don't seem to have bothered McNaught all that much. He knew reform movements come and go and produce modest changes. And anyway, "As with the student movements' attempt to take over the universities and run them as structureless happenings, the New Left's assault upon the old socialist left would crumble on its own internal contradictions." (p. 190)

I enjoyed the book, and see it as an important source document for the history of the Canadian university. The book includes surprisingly little argument on university governance or curriculum, and not much more on Canadian politics, although these must have been preoccupations for McNaught. And despite his frankness about matters of family and social life, McNaught shows himself occasionally unaware of his own mental and cultural outlook. As a fortunate scion of English Torontonian society, McNaught's outlook on money, politics and the life of the mind makes most sense if seen in that way.

But it's silly to complain overmuch, for this book is a memoir, and not itself a piece of social history. It provides us a precious set of clues on the nature and origins of the Canadian Anglophone professoriate in the golden days of expansion and social experiment. We need more, many more, books like these, by colleagues of both sexes, and in every region. With their help we have a basis for understanding more completely the roots of the university as we ourselves know it.

Bill Bruneau is past president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.