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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 669-670
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No Ordinary Academics:
Economics and Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan, 1910–1960
When does an academic department deserve to be commemorated in a hardback book? When it has played an important role in its discipline(s) or in the social, cultural, or political life of the society that feeds it.
From 1946 to about 1960 economics and political science at the University of Saskatchewan (henceforth USask) were united in a department that passed this test. Several of its leading members made groundbreaking contributions to Keynesian economics and Canadian economics. They also exerted an important left-leaning influence on Saskatchewan and national public life, as did some of the students they trained.
How should an academic department be commemorated in a book? By describing and explaining its intellectual life and crosscurrents. Easier said than done. The author has to have been on the inside, has to be a good historian of academic disciplines, and has to have the imagination and writing skills of a novelist.
The author of this book does not quite measure up to these exacting demands (who does?). She was a student of the department, not an insider, and she comes across as an archivist and biographer, not as a historian of ideas or a novelist.
The bulk of the book consists of biographies of faculty members in the two disciplines, loosely connected by descriptions and anecdotes concerning university administrators and their aims; the economic, social, and political contexts in which the university operated; and the university's relations with other universities.
The biographies range in length from one-paragraph CVs to many-page accounts that start before the subject's birth and continue past his or her employment at USask. There is even a biography of an unsuccessful applicant for a faculty position (113). We learn more than we want to know: What high school did Ira Allen MacKay attend (83)? What was the occupation of Frank Underhill's grandfather (93)?
There was, it seems, only one female faculty member in the book's period. This was the formidable Mabel Timlin, who started at USask as a stenographer and obtained her Ph.D. at the age of fifty with a revolutionary revision of the Keynesian system that won her international fame. She became the intellectual mother of scores of students of economics.
The author rightly stresses that during the half century the book covers, USask presidents sought economists who would serve the interests of Saskatchewan farmers, not only in teaching and research, but also as government consultants, members [End Page 669] of commissions, and witnesses before courts and commissions. What makes the department worth writing about, in my opinion, is the way this role was handled after the Second World War. George Britnell, Vernon Fowke, and Timlin, later joined by Kenneth Buckley, performed this task as a collective, as anticorporate populists, and without sacrificing high standards of academic achievement.
This important phenomenon is not ignored in the book (see especially pages 188 and 189), but it receives only a few paragraphs of incomplete description, and no analysis. Its significance is buried in a mass of less significant detail.
For the reader interested in universities, in the social sciences, or in Canadian history, there is a lot of good material in this book, but it has to be excavated.
Gideon Rosenbluth, Professor Emeritus , University of British Columbia