JOIN EHA

DONATE

Published by EH.NET (September 2000)

Shirley Spafford, No Ordinary Academics: Economics and Political Science at

the University of Saskatchewan, 1910-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto

Press, 2000. ix + 272 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8020-4437-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robin F. Neill, Department of Economics, University of

Prince Edward Island and Carleton University.

In the words of W. C. Murray, President of the University of Saskatchewan from

its founding in 1910 until his retirement in 1937, his economists were to be

“no ordinary academics” because, following practice at the University of

Wisconsin (as Murray saw it), they were to serve the economic and political

interests of the farmers who, ultimately, paid the university’s bills. There

was little, if any, institutional and personnel difference between economics

and political science at the university, in part because political science had

yet to identify itself as a separate social science, and in part because the

mission of economics at Saskatchewan was to shape national and provincial

policy in the interests of Western Canada.

No Ordinary Academics is well written in the tradition of Canadian

academic biography. Shirley Spafford is to be congratulated on a contribution

to the field of Canadian Intellectual History. Still, some caveats for the

would-be reader are in order.

The book is not a work in the history of ideas. Its approach is personal and

institutional. With the exception of a few pages describing a strong element in

the historiographical stance of Vernon Fowke, the reader is left with just a

suggestion of what the content of Economics and Political Science was on the

Saskatoon campus. Classroom economics was what it was elsewhere, but what it

was elsewhere is not revealed. It seems to have been unimportant to the people

involved. Having the correct policy stance, one consistent with the views of

the agrarian community to be served, was more important. Political science was

constitutional history and a smattering of the classics in political

philosophy. Competence in advanced neoclassical theory, or, later, in Keynesian

theory, in mathematical economics, or econometrics was not a requirement,

though it was increasingly present in the department. Of course, there were

courses in introductory economics, money and banking, international trade, and

public finance.

It was important for the faculty to be adequately schooled in economics. Until

Murray resigned in 1937, to be Scots was also important. To be Scots and

Presbyterian was to be among the chosen.

Murray, in the course of a long interview, showed only lukewarm interest in

hiring him until it came out that [R. McG.] Dawson was Nova Scotian, and proud

of it, at which point Murray, whose fondness for Nova Scotia had never

diminished, was completely won over (p. 115).

The book has some tantalizing interest for the historian of economic thought in

Canada. For example, we all know that H. A. Innis, at Toronto in the 1930s, was

less than accepting of the socialist historian, Frank Underhill. What I expect

few of us knew, and Spafford has revealed, is that Underhill, while a member of

the Department of Economics and Political Science at Saskatchewan, “published a

searing criticism of Innis’s book on the fur trade.” But here we experience the

shortcoming of Spafford’s book. She offers not a clue as to the views expressed

by Innis or Underhill in this matter, and she does not provide detailed

bibliographical references to the literature in question. Indeed, the book has

thirty-nine pages of endnotes, citing mostly other biographies, personal

papers, and letters, and it has an excellent nineteen-page index, but it has no

bibliography or list of references. The present reviewer would have benefited

from the in-text, general references to the works of Fowke and Timlin in the

chapter dealing with their contributions, but considerable additional digging

would have been necessary before the newly revealed items could have been added

to attempted definitive lists of their publications. Spafford recounts in some

detail the personal conflicts and power struggles in the department, but, some

intriguing clues aside, she throws no light on their doctrinal dimensions.

Weak with respect to ideas and bibliography, No Ordinary Academics is

strong with respect to personal, social, and institutional history. Economics

at Saskatchewan was heavily influenced by the preferences of the self-selecting

elite that shaped Canadian universities, especially between 1910 and 1940. The

account presents an impressive list of outstanding Canadian social scientists

(which is not to say economists, as that term is now understood) whose early

careers included a stay in the department at Saskatchewan. In the end, however,

given the financial constraints on the university in the 1930s, it was

home-grown scholars, influenced by conditions on the Prairies, that made a

distinctively western contribution to economic analysis of the Canadian case.

(For the intellectual substance of their contribution see R. F. Neill,

“Economic Historiography in the 1950s: the Saskatchewan School,” Journal of

Canadian Studies, Vol. 34, 1999, pp. 243-260.)

No Ordinary Academics is an account of selected external factors shaping

economics at the University of Saskatchewan between 1910 and 1960. The

principal members of what elsewhere has been called the Saskatchewan School —

Vernon Fowke, George Britnell, Mabel Timlin, and Ken Buckley — were no

ordinary academics. From Spafford’s history we know that they were idealists,

even romantics, who put economics at the service of their altogether honorable

social goals. Their rewards were largely non-monetary; working as they did for

their students, their associations, and their governments, provincial and

national, frequently at their own expense, and despite appallingly low

remuneration.