Yale EAS Chair Haun Saussy’s Letter

Dear President Naylor:

I was dismayed to hear of the planned closing of the University’s Centre for Comparative Literature and the dismantling of the Department of East Asian Studies. I hope you will not take it amiss if I explain as briefly as I can why I think this plan, if carried out, is likely to be harmful to the University and to Canada’s national interest.

You will certainly have received a number of letters asking you to reconsider this reorganization. Perhaps a strategic planning committee thinks of people like me as obstacles to clear practical thinking, as anarchic throwbacks always ready to join a parade to Save the Dodo, as wasters of the University’s time and money. In these typecast debates, the sentimental humanists are always supposed to lack the tough business sense that tough times require. I would prefer to take the business analogy from another side, and ask: What are you doing to preserve the University’s brand?

Saving money is not the only activity that goes on in the managerial culture of successful businesses. If your business is founded on a unique or valuable product, you will try everything else before you cheapen its reputation.

The reputation of the University of Toronto has been a long time in the making. You are fortunate, as President, to have inherited a reputation for serious scholarship that is at once specialized and highly contagious, research that changes conditions in its own field and goes on to affect other fields. Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan are two Toronto thinkers whose work is received as an inspiration in every area of the humanities and social sciences. I could name other living Torontonians whose work will count in a similar way for future generations, but I’ll spare the parties the embarrassment of direct citation. This reputation for intellect is what makes the University’s name. Reputation makes the University attractive to professors and students, gives credibility to the research done there, and thus makes it a resource for the nation. If I were in your position, I would be extremely careful not to tamper with this formula.

Academic departments are not just cost centers. They are niches in which a certain culture of inquiry can flourish. A department is a set of people, at various stages of their careers, who are able to judge one another’s work usefully (the basis of exams, hiring, publication and promotion). Where this structure exists, you should support it (thus I am surprised to hear of the plans to dismantle the East Asian Studies department, a place where linguists, literary scholars, historians and sociologists have long been engaged in a common conversation with a geographic basis). Where it does not exist, you cannot count on being able to create it by administrative fiat.

A department composed of people who do not share this ability to judge one another’s work atrophies, because judgments will be made on weak grounds. But this is precisely what has been recommended in the case of the new School of Languages and Literatures. “Future faculty appointments will be managed by the School,” and not by the “individual language groups” (the former departments) of which the School consists. That means, if I may put forth a few imaginary examples, that a committee containing few, or no, persons literate in Russian will be making decisions about whom to hire in Russian futurism; colleagues unable to read a word of Japanese will be voting on the merits of a junior faculty member whose research might bear on the semantics of verb aspect in the Genji monogatari; and so forth. I can’t believe that this situation would be very satisfactory to anyone inside the School. Discussions and judgments would become perfunctory (“well, the book is 480 pages long and was published by Cambridge, so it must be good enough”); faculty members might find they have very little stake in retaining their colleagues, once the sense of a common enterprise has vanished; niceness might become the major criterion for promotion; or worse yet perhaps, a standard of uniformity might impose itself, so that only people who wrote about language and literature from a predetermined thematic or theoretical angle were perceived as doing “important” work. Language and literature people devote themselves intensively to pursuing the specific differences of their field. The languages are not interchangeable, nor are the cultures; diversity is here not a vague moral imperative, but a fact of life and the chief object of study. This is why the administrative convenience of lumping languages and literatures into a common unit serves the larger aims of the discipline so poorly.

In this context, I should say a word about Comparative Literature. It seems that the planning committee thought that, once the School of Languages and Literatures had been formed, Comparative Literature would have no reason to exist; for isn’t Comparative Literature what you get when you combine two or three different literatures? This way of thinking, if indeed it did motivate the disestablishment of the Centre founded in 1969 by Northrop Frye, is erroneous. Comparative Literature has as its object the interactions of different literary traditions. It is a product, not a lowest common denominator. To do it well, you need to be immersed in several different literary cultures and have, on top of all that learning, a theoretical or analogical imagination that will enable you to see meaningful parallels. As the study of interactions and interchanges, this field reflects on historical and cultural specificity; it does not negate them. Comparative Literature needs a diverse and vital community of specialists in the different languages and literatures in order to be successful: otherwise, the commonalities that it discovers will run the risk of being banal or provincial. The fact that members of other departments (e.g., English) now sometimes work in a comparative mode does not mean that Comparative Literature can be dispensed with as an institutional structure. Rather, it is a sign of the seriousness and adventurousness of Toronto at its best that Comparative Literature has for so long had a home there and produced so many renowned scholars.

The dismantling of the East Asian Studies department would have a further unfortunate effect, with practical consequences for the University and the nation. China, Japan and Korea are countries with a long past, with a great deal of historical and cultural complexity, and their interactions with the countries of North America increase daily in intensity and significance. I am not familiar with the specifics of Canada’s East Asian relations, whether political, economic or military, but I can hardly believe that they differ greatly in essence from the relations that the United States and Mexico hold with that part of the world. Our industry and commerce are deeply rooted in their productive capabilities; our finances depend on the willingness of East Asian bankers to continue buying our bonds; such political order as presently exists across the globe will increasingly rely on the desire of East Asian governments to preserve the peace (indeed, the definition of this “peace” will increasingly reflect the interests of those governments). If there is any part of the world on which North Americans would be ill-advised to turn their backs, it is East Asia. But this is what is planned: a deskilling of the present multidisciplinary department, resulting in the severing of linguistic and philological training from its applications in history, philosophy, history of science, politics and sociology. This must be stopped. Canada needs intelligent, critically-aware, polyglot diplomats, soldiers and businesspeople with the ability to engage as equals in the East Asian conversation through mastery of culture and history, which so profoundly influence present interests and behavior. Students who can chatter away in modern Chinese but have never plunged into the history of the Song Dynasty, or students whose analysis of the North Korean strategic posture is unclouded by any knowledge of the Korean language or traditions, are less valuable to Canada and to the world than students who can integrate many forms of knowledge. The better-informed students will also make fewer mistakes.

These are hard financial times for universities. I know that too. But there’s a category of things worth preserving through the hard times. I write as an admirer and well-wisher of the University of Toronto, as someone whose professional life is enriched by the existence of impressive rivals across Lake Ontario. I share with you, I believe, the desire to see the University of Toronto continue to recruit the very best students and teachers. Wholesale reorganization and deskilling, I fear, will weaken Toronto’s reputation and cause it to lose its place in the first rank of North American research universities.

Yours very truly,

Haun Saussy
Bird White Housum Professor of Comparative
Literature and East Asian Languages & Literatures;
Chair, Council on East Asian Studies
Yale University


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