Northrop Frye on free speech and books

Northrop Frye gives an excellent account of intellectual freedom in his preface to a collection of his speeches and essays entitled On Education.
“It seems to me that what is called academic freedom is the key to all freedom.”

His view on education is of particular interest to me, not just because he was Canada’s greatest literary critic, but because his career spanned the depression, second world war, cold war, student unrest of the 60s, and the “expectant stagnation of the seventies and eighties.” He was one of the founding members of the grassroots Ontario Curriculum Institute, before it was taken over by the provincial government in what is now OISE.

Here he discusses the relation between freedom of speech, and books:

It matters very little what one knows if one cannot express and communicate what one knows. That is why I think of the study of literature and related disciplines as fighting on the front lines of civilization. Free speech can only mean highly disciplined speech: it is normally (there are exceptions, but they remain exceptions) a skill resulting from relentless practice and a relentless search for the exact words that express one’s meaning. As is obvious, such practice is a moral as well as a cultural meaning. As is obvious, such practice is a moral as well as a cultural training. Its chief technological instruments are, and I think always will be, books. The book is often regarded as introverted (“always sitting in a corner reading a book,” as many parents say when worried by the fact that their children show symptoms of developing minds), and of course it can be that. But the book is actually a companion in dialogue: it helps to structure and make sense of the flood of automatic gabble that keeps rolling through the mind. This interior monologue, as it is called, never relates to other people, however often it is poured over them. Further, a book stays where it is, and does not vanish into ether or the garbage bin like the mass media. So the book becomes the focus of a community, as more and more people read it and are affected by it. It moves in the opposite direction the introversion of what has been called “the lonely crowd”, where no one can communicate with his neighbor because he is too close to him mentally to have anything to say.  (p.4)

Frye’s view of books as “communities” of readers reminds me of Montaigne’s argument that reading books could be a substitute for personal experience. Practical judgment could be a habit of the mind. You could learn practical judgment when you

. . . inquire into the conduct, the resources, and the alliances of this prince and that. These are things very pleasant to learn and very useful to know. In this association with men I mean to include, and foremost, those who live only in the memory of books. He will associate, by means of histories, with those great souls of the best ages. (Montaigne, Collected Works, 1957, p. 115)

The progressive view articulated by John Dewey, which is largely our own, has done much to dissuade us from this form of acquiring practical judgment.  In the 20th century, Dewey says we have

…finally reached a point where learning means discovery, not memorizing traditions. (‘Philosophy of Education’  in Cyclopedia of Education, 1913, p. 702)

Contrast this to Frye’s view on cultivating literacy:

I do not  trust any way of teaching writing except composition from models, feeling one’s way into the idiom of cultivated prose. (‘The Beginning of the Word’ in On Education, p. 17)

To be explored in future posts is the relation between freedom and discipline (not the punishment type..)

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