The ‘Values Discussion Group’ of 1949

Root post: The bias of communication

As set out in William Buxton’s fine report, ‘The “Values” Discussion Group at the University of Toronto, February – May 1949‘, McLuhan participated in an informal seminar with Innis in early 1949 where bias was one of the central topics:

the members of the group examined how the prevailing social, economic, and political conditions affected the writings of economists and philosophers. In particular, they gave consideration to “what extent do certain conditions of change cause these scholars to deal with more or less highly abstract propositions than at other times they would?” This led to a discussion of the way in which various scholarly fields, including history, economics, and philosophy, dealt with questions of standpoint, premises, and bias. (Fourth Meeting, March 1, 1949)

The presentation by Innis (Eighth Meeting on April 5, 1949) was a trial run for his ‘Bias of Communication’ lecture two weeks later in Ann Arbor.

The ‘Values Discussion Group’ was chaired by William Thomas (Tom) Easterbrook (1907-1985), McLuhan’s old Winnipeg friend and University of Manitoba classmate, who had traveled in England with McLuhan in 1932. After graduating with McLuhan from Manitoba in the same class of ’33, Easterbrook became a student and later colleague of Harold Innis in the Department of Political Economy at UT. The two were close enough that Innis arranged for the publication of Easterbrook’s PhD thesis, Farm Credit in Canada (UTP, 1938), and personally contributed a foreword to it. Then, in a final sign of their personal and professional association, it was Easterbrook who took over Innis’ communications course when Innis became seriously ill with cancer in 1951 before dying of the disease in 1952.

After McLuhan arrived in Toronto in 1946, he was joined there in 1947 by Easterbrook. Since receiving his doctorate from UT in 1938, Easterbrook had been teaching at Brandon College in Manitoba (1938-1941), doing post-grad work with a 1941 Guggenheim award and then working for the Manitoba Post-War Reconstruction Committee.  Coincidentally, Innis also worked in Manitoba in the immediate post-war years as a member of the Manitoba Royal Commission on Adult Education. (The section of the report of the commission authored by Innis is reprinted as an appendix to The Bias of Communication.) Once the two of them were together again in Toronto, McLuhan must have been motivated by his decades old friendship with Easterbrook to learn about his friend’s work and, perhaps particularly, given McLuhan’s long-standing interest in communication, about Easterbrook’s close knowledge of Innis’ new research interests in that area. For  Easterbrook was familiar with ground-breaking research Innis had been doing since around 1940 on the history of communications.

In his 1964 ‘Introduction’ to Innis’ Bias of Communication, McLuhan reports that the first thing he read by Innis was his 1947 presidential address to the Royal Society of Canada, ‘Minerva’s Owl‘, which UTP issued in print in 1948. The coincidence of these dates with Easterbrook’s return to UT is significant. Then, once McLuhan had grasped the potential importance of Innis for his own developing work, he was able to establish personal contact with him through Easterbrook as seen in (and perhaps as first realized in) this ‘Values Discussion Group’ of 1949.

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