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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2012

Writing History

A Professor’s Life

Michael Bliss. Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2011; 428 pp; ISBN: 978-1-55488-953-2, cloth $40 CAD.

Reviewed by Gregory S. Kealey

In his well-written autobiography, Michael Bliss sets out to explain to readers “what it was like to be a university professor in North America in the last half of the twentieth century” and to describe “the process of writing history.” Both aims are articulated in his title. For this reader he is most successful at achieving his second goal, rather less so at his first.

Let me identify at the outset that I was a student of Michael’s in 1969, his first year of teaching at the University of Toronto. As careful readers will note, I am lumped together with a series of New Left student radicals for whom the author can hardly hide his contempt. Steve Langdon and Bob Rae get their lumps, but on pp. 145-6, I am described as “menacing and blustering,” a student who “contained his annoyance and rudeness just short of direct confrontation.”

After a few begrudging remarks about my subsequent career, he launches into further discussions of student radicalism at U of T in the early 1970s, especially the Banfield affair of 1974,* without noting the changes in the politics or the cast of characters. As a scholar’s account of the student New Left of the 1960s, it fails most tests of historical analysis.

I cite these relatively few pages not only to disclose and simultaneously to dismiss, but also to develop my theme that the book is best when Bliss turns to historical research and writing and worst when he comments on Canadian universities as he has experienced them.

On the former he waxes eloquent on the subjects of his historical passions — business history, political history, and most powerfully, medical history and biography. His adventures in publishing, his choice of subject matter, his archival and oral history discoveries, the hard, diligent work of research and writing are all covered in loving and fascinating detail. His descriptions of the work on Banting and Best, on the discovery of insu­lin, on Osler, and on Cushing all make for compelling reading.

Far less intriguing, except for their curious iconoclasm, are his views on Canadian academic life in his 40 years of university teaching, all at the U of T. The last point is, of course, a telling one which bears considerable reflection from readers, especially because it goes virtually unnoticed by the author.

A youthful star, chosen to accompany U of T president Claude Bissell to Harvard in 1968, he commences full-time teaching at his alma mater before even completing his PhD. While he earned his stripes in his first decade with relatively heavy undergraduate and graduate work as well as a fine research and publishing record, his career from the late 1970s forward is unlike that of most Canadian university professors, even those at relatively elite institutions like U of T.

This is quite simply never acknowledged. Hence, while his career makes for compelling reading, it should not be confused with the description of a typical Canadian university professor’s life in the late 20th century.

His cherished, self-described iconoclasm and sharp individualism are constantly on display in his discussions of university life and politics. He bemoans the evils of academic administration and savagely criticizes U of T vice-president Jill Ker Conway (1973-1975) and president John Evans (1972-1978) at considerable length. He self-righteously writes of refusing to pursue administrative position at U of T, only to complain of his failed attempt at gaining the presidency of Trent University.

Similarly, he is consistently critical of funding agencies, especially the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Council for the Arts, although when he finally wins a Killam Prize in the late 1990s he says little about it. Meanwhile, SSHRC is demeaned but he is only too willing to work for the Medical Research Council (now the Canadian Institutes of Health Research), under president Henry Friesen as a ghost writer. Indeed, he mentions helping write documents aiding the MRC-CIHR transition.

Contradictions of a related kind arise from his attitudes to professional societies. The Canadian Historical Association is dismissed and the meetings of the Learned Societies, now called the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, are derided. Yet, when the opportunity comes later to participate in the obscure but prestigious Oslar Society he embraces it with enthusiasm. Frequent denunciations of grants­personship and the politics of council funding apparently do not apply to the Hannah Foundation/Associated Medical Services Inc., which funded much of his medical history research, including his self-described palatial office at U of T.

A final example of his curious contradictory behavior arises from his pride in his frequent and well-rewarded lecturing for the major international drug companies, not to mention the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company funding of his survey of Canadian business history. Yet the proposed naming of a room at Massey College for Christopher Ondaatje sends him into a paroxysm of self-righteousness.

To be fair, on occasion, the author appears to catch himself and needs to explain his obsessive crankiness and criticism of the system that has rewarded him so well. Particularly striking examples include a reflection on the late 1970s: “In those years I was anything but mellow; temperamentally inclined to be a good hater, I neither forgot nor forgave.” That this important self-critical reflection arose from a minor battle about the necessity of obtaining ethics approval for a research project seems quite extraordinary. Later he describes himself as “a temperamental outsider, walking and running by myself” who “felt little loyalty or fulfillment in the work of organizations.”

Most interestingly, while “governance and administration were intellectually undemanding,” “the thought of being responsible for the decisions … almost frightened me. What if things went wrong? Deep personal insecurity and fear of failure lurked just below the surface through most of my life.” At the end of the book, he reflects on “how my mother had instilled a tremendous need to prove ourselves in her sons.”

While eschewing psychological commentary here, I can only feel that more consistent introspection along these lines would explain many of the contradictory attitudes to the university world of the second half of the 20th century. It also would probably throw far more light on just how much the 1950s shaped our author. It might also explain his deep perturbation about the 1960s.

I have ignored here the author’s reflections on his role as, he says, “a public intellectual.” Most readers will be aware of his frequent political commentary over the past four decades, but the one strikingly consistent element in an array of positions is his unending admiration of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. From support in 1968 through co-operation in opposition to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, Bliss enthuses about the highly-political Liberal philosopher.

One should read Writing History for its admirable invocation of historical research and writing, but not read it expecting to discover “a professor’s life,” for it is only an account of one star professor at an elite institution.

Gregory Kealey is professor of history at the University of New Brunswick.

* Edward Banfield, Harvard political scientist and well-known conservative, had lectures disrupted at U of T by student radicals.