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July 15, 2018

Book Review: A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960


Robin Sutton Harris was born on October 27th, 1919 in Toronto, Ontario. In 1941, Harris received his BA in English Language and Literature from honor courses within the University of Toronto’s English department. After a brief period of war service, he found himself teaching at the elementary school level for about a year before applying returning to his Alma mater. Here, in 1947, Harris earned his MA degree in English. He accepted a temporary instructor-ship at the University of Western Ontario, and his experience teaching in upper academia encouraged him to continue his own education. In 1952, Harris received his PhD in English and Education after surviving the rigorous doctoral program at the University of Michigan. His dissertation, “The Place of English Studies in a University Program of General Education” laid the groundwork for his interest in the foundations of Canadian and American higher education systems. Harris passed away on February 11th, 2000 at the age of eighty.

Harris spent most of his academic life teaching and researching the history of higher education. His contribution to both the fields of education and history were recognized by Claude Bissell – the 8th President of the University of Toronto – as he was appointed to the position of ‘University Historian’. At the height of his career, Harris received honorary degrees from both the University of Western Ontario and the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. I see no room for bias in such analytical and research-based writing. His books, including A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960, all have substantial merit and show applied research in a way that showcases a true form of advanced historiography.

A History of Higher Education in CanadaIf one were to cycle through some of Harris’s works, one would witness his incredible infatuation with the evolution and changing patterns of higher education in Canada on both a provincial and national sense. He had twelve major publications[1], with his most significant work being his six-hundred-plus page study titled A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960. It reads exactly as one would expect, with academic vomit-thought that goes above and beyond what the average reader could take advantage of. The history, albeit as complete as “fifteen years of research”[2] could possibly be, leaves one in a sea of wine-dark ambiguity and language that could easily startle if not completely isolate a majority of possible readers. If one can think through Harris’s language, then one would be able to evaluate the books ground-breaking research and outstanding history.

The book itself is far more valid than it even needs to be. Harris’s background in the field and his extensive fifteen-year period of research shows readers a staggering amount of information with sources along every step of the way. Each chapter ends with a “notes” section, highlighting endnotes and leading to additional resources concerning the topics that had been previously discussed. At the end of this rather large work exists appendixes filled with data tables and a complete bibliography. Any questions on validity or credibility of A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960 are almost instantly answered by the immense amount of research provided.

A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960 is separated into five distinct events over a period of nearly three hundred years. From the royal visit of Prince Albert Edward (later crowned Edward VII) which showcased staggering connections between Canadian enterprises of education with those across the pond to the altering of federal and provincial “higher education” exactly one hundred years later, Harris analyzes the critical events in Canadian educational history.[3] Perhaps the most astonishing problem within the Canadian education system, as portrayed through Harris’s extensive research, would be the complete separation of French and English Canadian provinces.

Even as Prince Albert Edward roamed the sprawling urban universities in 1860, he was careful to avoid Roman Catholic institutions regardless of academic prowess.[4] I believe that this very well marks just how the English culture and the French culture of Canadian geography and history have always been at odds. Such stark differences in language and religion created chaotic differences in how English Canadians and French Canadians created and continued their universities and colleges.

The book dedicates a very early chunk of its foundation to highlighting the development of higher education in both French and English Canada from the very beginning until around the period of 1860, when conferences and educational societies began the attempt to bring scholarship and research together to improve upon the floundering and separatist provincial governments. With two major cultures at constant odds against one another, Harris attempts to find out if Canada’s education system is sui generis, or unique, in any way or if the country had ultimately stolen its learning theory and university foundations from each of the ‘founding nations’ of their society. [5]

Higher Education in Canada

In a sense, the main question would have to be whether their education was inherently Canadian by nature, or if “Canadian” education had crawled behind the well-established ideologies presented by Father France or Mother England. As Canadians began heading for increased institutional development on a more national and legislative level, it appears as if the Canadian system took shape as a fully independent and sui generis system.[6] As the Canadian economic position in the world allowed for increased budgets and slight compromise (rather than unity) across the provinces and territories, the nation’s education system began migrating away from those of the ‘major players’ that the growing nation had been forced to copy early on in their colonial history.

Prior to 1850, ten years before Prince Albert Edward visited English-speaking universities, Canadian colleges were nothing more than “transplants from England, Scotland, the United States, and France.” It was secularization, throughout the 1850s, that would eventually distance Canada’s concept of education from neighboring forces and ancestral heritage. Harris refers to this as “the Canadianization of the curricula”, something that would take centuries to come into fruition as the country had to shed much of their adoration for previously existing systems.[7] With no early sense of identity or history, the provinces had to play catch-up to become something unique and advanced.

Professional reviews have been on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to the presentation and necessity of A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960. In a review published by The Canadian Historical Review in 1977, writer A.R.M. Lower claimed that “Mr. Harris’s book is hard to review, […] as it is a manual rather than a history”. The History of Education Quarterly published a review by Paul Axelrod claiming that Harris should have “narrowed his ambitions and deepened his analysis [to have a] greater contribution to his subject”. This is a historiography of higher education, one with a focus on research and scholarship across a country that has become a melting pot of many distinct cultures. The history itself is obtuse and infinite in many ways, which made writing this book a lengthy challenge. Had Harris “narrowed his ambitions”, I highly doubt that his overall thesis would have been sufficiently answered.

Robert Lawson, a professor at the University of Calgary, stated that “[…it] is a work of master craftsmanship, flawless in its form and precious in its substance. No other such complete record exists, so the book will surely serve as a basic reference for educational historians as well as for those with general and specific interests in Canadian higher education.” This is by far the most accurate representation of the book, in my professional opinion. A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663 – 1960 is an extensive work that is unrivaled due to its sheer amount of content.

Overall, I would have the same opinion as Robert Lawson when it comes to recommending this book to anyone. As stated earlier, the language and structure of the piece would be an instant nosebleed to those who were uninterested in Canadian history or educational history. To those Canadians who wish to know why their schools have ‘failed’ them or those Americans who are deeply interested in the neighbors to the north, I would highly suggest picking up some light reading before attempting to finish this masterpiece of research.

Read more: J. L. Granatstein and the Message of Multiculturalism in Canadian History

[1] "Harris, Robin S." Harris, Robin S. - Senior College Encyclopedia. September 13, 2015. Accessed January 15, 2018. https://sce.library.utoronto.ca/index.php?title=Harris%2C_Robin_S.

[2] Harris, Robin S. A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663-1960. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1978, pp. xvi.

[3] Ibid, pp. xxi, 3-8.

[4] Ibid, pp. 9-10.

[5] Ibid, pp.14-36.

[6] Ibid, pp. 103.

[7] Ibid, pp. xix.

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