One of the questions I’ve kicked around in my time here is the value of humanities education these days. One of the answers I’ve run across is that the humanities are a way of opening ourselves up to other lives, other thoughts, and other ways of being. Even if we reject those ideas once we have encountered them, we’re richer from the experience of trying to understand them, both on their terms and ours.
If you accept that premise (and the fact that you’re here indicates that at the least, you don’t find it repugnant), then I think you’ll agree with me that one of the points at which the metaphorical rubber meets the road is in the discipline of comparative literature. Granted, in some respects any study of literature is comparative, but I would argue that the trans-cultural, trans-historical approach of comparative literature is a remarkably pure effort to achieve the sort of understanding for which we in the humanities claim to strive.
It’s not surprising that my intellectual hero Northrop Frye played an instrumental role in the discipline’s development. Because of his voluminous reading and immersion in the various mythologies we have used to understand and imagine the world, he was something very near a one-man comp lit department. And what is his goal of a “synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism” if not a call for a unified theory of comparative literature?
Therefore, it’s also not surprising that Frye was instrumental in the formation of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, which has been one of the finest programs of its sort in North America, and likely the world. The Centre is an essential part of Frye’s legacy, and as I’ve suggested, a remarkable case of what we’ve agreed is a key justification for the study of the humanities.
Unfortunately, the Centre is endangered. A strategic planning committee at the University of Toronto has called for the absorption of the Centre into other bodies at the school by next year. For those of us who believe in Frye’s legacy, and the value of the humanities in general, this would be a major loss.
Fortunately, we are not without some recourse. There is a movement to save the Centre, with a corresponding online petition. I don’t normally ask you folks to take specific action — I present my ideas, and hope that they’ll make sense to you and that you’ll be moved to act accordingly, but the choice, of course, is always yours.
While the choice remains yours, I’m asking you to step up and sign the petition, which you’ll find here. If you believe in what I do, and if you believe in the perhaps purer form of what I do that the CompLit people do, check it out. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but it can’t hurt, and there’s satisfaction in standing up for something of value, and wanting it to continue.
Sign the petition; the Centre for Comparative Literature is worth conserving.