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Egerton Ryerson
Chapter VII - Founding The Common School System

IN Mr. Ryerson's last interview with Lord Sydenham, shortly before the accident which resulted in His Excellency's death, the governor discussed with him his contemplated measures for the improvement of popular education, and proposed that Mr. Ryerson should take charge of that important work. The matter was again considered under Sir Charles Ragot's administration in 1812, but the Rev. Mr. Murray was appointed. Near the close of 1813 Sir Charles Metcalfe conferred with Dr. Ryerson on educational matters and again suggested that he should undertake the necessary work, which had made no progress under Mr. Murray's tenure of office. A few weeks later the rupture took place between the governor and his cabinet. At first Mr. Ryerson was disposed to take a view unfavourable to the position assumed by the governor. Rut after a careful study of the question involved, as it was set, forth by the newly organized Reform Association, he took up his pen in defence of Sir Charles, at the same time avowing his intention to accept no office until this question had been settled by the voice of the people at the polls. At the election m the autumn of 1844, the new advisers of Sir Charles, led by Mr. Draper, were sustained, and in September Dr. Ryerson was appointed superintendent of schools under the act of 1843, with permission to visit the United States and Europe for the purpose of studying the best systems then in operation before preparing a new bill for the improvement of common schools in Upper Canada. On this tour of investigation and study, Dr. Ryerson started in November, 1844, returning early in 1840. We cannot follow him through the various interesting episodes of this visit, but before taking up his work on his return, as it appears in the Common School Act of 1840 and the reports which preceded and followed immediately oil that measure, it w ill be necessary to review briefly the state of the common schools of Canada West when he accepted office.

The elementary schools of Upper Canada had been organized into something approaching system by the acts of 1841 and 1843. Parliamentary aid to the extent of £20.000 annually supplemented the local effort. Schools were generally established in all the older settled parts of the country, and were to some extent under the oversight of a provincial superintendent and local superintendents. But there were several fatal defects in the so-called system. The central authority was weak. It was authorized by the law to apportion the grant, to receive reports, and to make regulations for the schools. But it lacked authority to enforce its regulations or to secure proper reports, and its principal function was the distribution of the parliamentary grant. The local authorities, consisting of the district or township superintendent, the district, town or city municipal council, and the trustees, were possessed of large powers, but were generally incompetent for their exercise. The powers and duties of the local superintendents were the examination and licensing of teachers, the inspection of the schools, the making of reports to the provincial superintendent and the distribution of the provincial and county grant. But as these duties were associated most frequently with other employment, they were often performed in the most superficial manner, and there was absolutely no uniformity of standard in the qualification of teachers; and it; is perhaps not too much to say that the majority of them were quite inefficient. The municipal councils possessed absolute authority in the selection and appointment of these superintendents, there being no standard of qualification; and the same body fixed their remuneration, and hence the grade of service which they were able to render. The other powers of the municipal council consisted in levying a county assessment to equal the parliamentary grant, and the formation of school sections. To the local trustees were assigned some of the most important functions. They selected and hired the teacher, they determined the character and appointments of the schoolroom and the text books to be used, and to their regulations the teacher was responsible, as the regulations of the provincial authorities were recommendatory and not imperative. One power they lacked: they could establish a school only for those who desired it and were willing to pay, they could not make it a school for all the children. Finally, while model schools were encouraged and established in the older districts at which teachers might learn by example, there was no efficient high class provision for the thorough professional training of teachers.

Such a system among a people the most of whom had grown up without enjoyment of proper school advantages and whose circumstances made the keeping down of expenses one of the most influential considerations of their lives, was certain to produce miserable school houses, haphazard school books and poor teachers, and even these inefficient provisions reached only a part, of the population. In the state of New York from which they had been originally borrowed they were already largely modified so as to obviate the chief objections.

For the work of reconstructing this inefficient system and of remedying its great defects, no man was better qualified than Dr. Ryerson. He had himself grown up and had been educated under its influence. He had seen it in its best and in its worst results. He had lived in touch with it all his life, now over forty years. A large part of his life work had been in the field of education, and he knew the people of the country, their wants and their possibilities as few men knew them. Moreover his careful conservative habit of mind made him a safe as well as a practical and successful reformer of defects. In addressing himself to his task, the comprehensive grasp of his mind, his clear judgment, and keen observation revealed to him at once both the important defects in the existing system and their real causes. He has set these before us very fully in his first and fundamental reports, and with the defects he sets forth the remedies. First of all. properly qualified teachers must be provided, proper school house accommodation and equipment, proper and uniform text books and proper inspection of schools. To secure these with fair uniformity and efficiency they must be more largely controlled or directed from the central provincial department. These important elements were now entirely in the hands of the local authorities, and the result was a body of starved and inefficient schools with here and there a notable exception. To secure the necessary central control and direction without creating fatal antagonism was a task calling for the very highest qualities of the wise statesman, clearly defined ends, good judgment as to ways and means, courage and firmness in administration, and yet sympathy with the difficulties and forbearance with even the prejudices of the people. The success of Dr. Ryerson's effort is the best proof of the high order of ability which he brought to his work.

As we have seen, before entering upon his work he had devoted a year to the study of the school systems of many lands, but it is evident from the results that he was most deeply impressed by three, those of Prussia, Ireland and Massachusetts. In Prussia he had seen the advantages of strong and wise central direction and authority. In Ireland he had found a promising solution of the religious question in education to which we must presently devote specific attention, and in Massachusetts he had found examples and methods of dealing with many of the problems which arise in the application of a central administrative system to a free people in this western world. But while learning from all these, his mind was too independent and original to borrow any one of them or use it as a model. Ilis strong conservative instinct led him to build upon historic foundations and to use the materials which had grown up ready to his hand. His work was not to sweep these away but to mould them to his great ends. He found a central superintendency and a board of education; he increased the power and extended the functions of these unt il they were sufficient for his purposes. He found a local superintendency; he brought it under proper control and responsibility, made it a profession in the work of education, occupying the entire time and gifts of qualified men who should make this their only and lifelong calling. lie found the municipal councils taking part >n the work, and he skilfully encouraged as well as directed their co-operation in the task without depriving them of a single function which they had previously exercised, and, as in a few years the municipal system was perfected in form, he adapted its educational functions to the more perfect municipal institutions. He found as the fundamental element of the whole system boards of school trustees elected according to immemorial Saxon custom by the assembly of the people. These too he adopted, and without seeming to deprive them of any of their accustomed functions, he first of all gave them experience and continuity of life as a body corporate by making each member hold ollice for three years, while the continuous interest was maintained by the annual election of one new member of the hoard, and by the annual discussion of all school matters at the school meeting of all the ratepayers. While skilfully stimulating their ambition to have a good school through the inspectors' reports and free publication of results and honourable mention whenever possible or deserved, and by insisting on at least a minimum of efficiency, he secured them from personal liability by making them a corporate body of trustees, so that the whole people whom they represented, and not the mere patrons of the school were liable for their lawful action; and at the same time he gave them such power to levy school rates as well as fees as should secure adequate support. As an offset to the limited financial views of local authorities, he made the parliamentary-grant a stimulus to larger liberality, helping those who helped themselves, and making the minimum of efficiency an indispensable condition to sharing in the public grants.

The Common School Act of 1846 seemed then to be but an amendment here and there, somewhat thorough it is true, but still no more than an amendment of that of 1843. Rut in reality it was inspired by a new principle of life. The old system dealt out a legislative grant and left the individual schools v ery much to care for themselves, scarcely securing even a complete return of the number and attendance at the schools. The new system directed the whole educational force of the country into a combined, wise, scientific effort for the proper education of every child of the land, and held every officer of the system to proper responsibility both to the people and to the central government. On no point was Dr. Ryerson more careful than to make it appear that his system was in thorough harmony with the principles of responsible government. At the one end of the system he maintained the most thorough responsibility to parliament through report of the entire work of the department as a branch of the civil service. At the other end he brought the local trustees of each school section under responsibility to the local meeting of ratepayers, as well as tlie local superintendents to the municipal authorities. The new political principle was that, under this universal responsibility, there was instituted all along the line a strong executive. Every officer from the chief superintendent to the local trustee was invested with power, and held responsible for its exercise, both to the people and their representatives, and also to the higher executive authorities. But on the other hand the enforcement of responsibility or of penalty for neglect was in no case matter of individual judgment. The delinquent could be displaced only by the authority by which he was appointed, or punished by regular process of law. There was no room for individual caprice.

It is thus evident that Dr. 'Ryerson very fairly claimed that his system was based throughout on the principles of responsible government; at the same time it is equally certain that it was animated by the idea of a thoroughly effective government. To this efficiency his own strong convictions, clear judgment and masterful character were largely contributory. Separated as he was by at least one remove from the changing forces of popular political life, he felt himself, like the men who have with so remarkable a record presided in our courts of justice, shielded from those transient and changeful currents of popular influence which must be felt by the ordinary minister of the crown. The latter can assert his manhood and his convictions only by holding office loosely, as a thing which he will at any time resign rather than compromise his principles. Dr. Ryerson held that the dignity and importance of the work in which he was engaged demanded, as in the administration of justice, absolute independence of action and position. He felt that this work was a sacred calling to be directed by fundamental principles, and not by considerations of temporary expediency, as expressed by the changes of popular opinion, and that it demanded, by its very nature, stability and permanency of method as well as of ideal.

Two principles which he adopted from the outset as the very basis of his system were destined to give rise to no little difficulty in the future. One was that religion and morality are essential elements in all education. We have already seen how steadily he held by this principle in the discussion of the university question, and we shall presently see how large and difficult were the problems to which it gave rise in the field of elementary schools.

The other was that the state provision of education should be comprehensive, bringing its advantages as a matter of equal rights to every child irrespective of creed, wealth, or class. We have seen that these two principles were to him matters of sacred conviction and essential justice at every period of his career. They appear in every controversy in which he took part, and always ranked with him as higher and more imperative than even the very important political maxim of the complete independence of church and state.

Before entering on the special study of the free school question and the separate school question as they appear in the work of Dr. Ryerson, we must devote a little space to another important aspect of his system as he introduced it from the beginning, viz., the normal school as a provision for the training of teachers. "Up to the time of Dr. Ryerson's taking office the only provision in this direction was the model school in each district. These were merely better schools, they made no provision for either practical or theoretical training in the art of teaching. As usual, in this work he started from a sound fundamental principle, to create a fountain-head of good teaching and well-trained teachers and wait till its streams flowed forth to enrich the whole land. Ilis report on a normal school followed close upon his report on a system of common schools, and a year later he succeeded in his task of founding the Toronto Normal school.

His wisdom in this foundation was in no way more conspicuous than in the choice of the principal and first masters of the school. Thomas Jaffray Robertson, M.A., was a man whose power over students has seldom been equalled. In remote parts of the country long years after they had left the "Normal," we have met with students still under the spell of his power. His original methods of teaching reappeared in every county in Ontario and passed down to the second and third generations of teachers. Henry Youle Hind, M.A., the distinguished scientist, was afterward to win fame in a wider field. The Rev. William Ormiston, M.A., was another of the mighty men of his choice in that early day, followed by J. H. Sangster, M. A., M.D., another strong man. Dr. Ryerson was preeminently a believer that the power to educate lay in the mental and moral power of the teacher and not in his mere technical learning, and in the choice of such men he laid one of the very strongest foundations of his new system.

No large part of the instruction of the normal school in those days was devoted to theories of education, or to what is known as "scientific pedagogies." Lectures were given on the management and organization of a school, and perhaps on the history of education, but the strength of the school lay in thorough mastery of the subjects to be subsequently taught, in the example and influence of master teachers, and the criticism of the practical efforts of the normal students by experienced teachers in the model school. Rut though the method might to-day be considered empirical, the results in a very few years raised the standard of teaching in every part of the province, and provided able teachers for all the centres of population, as well as many of the better rural schools, and also furnished an experienced and efficient class of men to act as local inspectors.

The system thus introduced by Dr. Ryerson in 1816, and much more completely by the act of 1850 which has really been the foundation of all subsequent school legislation, was by no means completed at one stroke. Apart from the great questions of free schools, separate schools, and grammar or high schools which have in some sense a distinct history of their own, experience suggested many minor improvements and adaptations to the growing development of the country and the rising standard of intellectual life which was the result of the successful work of the school systems. But the fundamental principles and even machinery were adopted from the very outset, and were so wisely chosen that each subsequent change seemed only natural historic growth. The following summary may represent the main elements of the system as introduced between 1846 and 1850, the principles of which we have already discussed:

1. It was brought into operation in ever}' school section in the province by an annual meeting of the freeholders and householders of the section. At this meeting school matters were reported and discussed, a trustee board formed or filled for the ensuing year, and the manner of raising school monies for the next year determined, whether by fees, by taxation, or both.

2. The trustee board thus formed was made a body corporate, responsible for and holding all school property for the section, and with full powers to provide school room, teachers and equipment, and to appoint a secretary-treasurer and a collector, or to apply to that township or municipality for the collection of all such school rates as were raised by general taxation of all taxable property in the section. They were required to see that the school was conducted according to law, that uniform and authorized text books were used, and to make a full annual report according to legal form to the local superintendent, "which report was also read at the annual school meeting, the report to shew the time the school was kept open, the money expended and how raised, the number of children in the section and the number attending school, the branches of education taught and the visits of inspection, examinations and other special exercises connected with the school during the year, thus bringing the whole work of the school for the year under review.

3. It made full provision for the proper qualification of teachers, and made them accountable for their duties in the school to the trustees and to the local superintendent of schools. The qualification of teachers was secured through a county hoard of education consisting of the grammar school trustees and the local superintendent or superintendents of schools for the county.

4. It made it the duty of municipal councils in the townships and in cities, towns and incorporated villages, to levy assessments as desired by the trustees, or to authorize loans for the purchase or erection of school buildings, to form proper school sections, and to report all acts of the council affecting the schools to the local superintendent.

5. It made it the duty of the county municipal council to appoint the local superintendents and the grammar school trustees, who formed the county board of education, and to levy, by a county school rale, a sum at least equal to the share of the parliamentary school grant allotted to the county. The provision of public libraries was also placed in the hands of the municipal council of the county and the county board of education.

6. It made full provision for the appointment, support and duties of the local superintendents of schools. It not only provided for thorough inspection of schools, but It placed in the hands of the inspectors power to enforce the observance of the law by giving them authority to distribute the school grant under conditions of the fulfilment of all legal requirements, and also power to act as arbitrators in case of dispute on school matters, subject to appeal to the chief superintendent. It gave also the power to cancel or suspend teachers' certificates for neglect of duty, or inefficiency in its discharge or breach of law. The local superintendents thus became the executive officers through whom the most important provisions of the law were enforced. A local visitorial power was also placed in the hands of clergymen, judges, members of parliament, magistrates, and municipal councillors, by which a local interest and confidence in the schools might be created in the minds of the people.

7. At the centre of this system, with adequate powers to secure energy and efficiency in its entire working, was placed the chief superintendent of schools, and the council of public instruction. The chief superintendent was invested with duties and powers for the province corresponding to those of the local superintendents in their district. They were required to report to him, and the final executive administration of the whole system was under his supervision, with power to direct and enforce its efficient operation, and with judicial powers either on reference or appeal. His direct power of enforcement, lay in the administration of the legislative grant, The law must be observed, or the warrant for the money was not issued. His power of direction lay in the preparation of the forms and regulations through which the provisions of the law were to be observed.

Matters of more obvious legislation, such as the authorization of text hooks, rules for the government and discipline of schools, and the entire responsibility and direction of the normal school were wisely placed in the hands of the council of public instruction, who also prescribed the classification, qualification, and subjects of examination of teachers.

The .simplicity, unity, and efficiency of this system are its highest praise. It was built upon no theory of education. It involved no complicated machinery. It was not unduly centralized. It involved the intelligent cooperation of the people of the whole country, and of all the bodies responsible for executive government and legislation. It thus made the schools at once the schools of the people, of the counties and of the province, almost compelling an interest in them at every point. Hut beyond all this, its grand success—for its success every one must acknowledge — depended in no small measure upon the energy, tlie wisdom, the administrative ability and the tireless industry of the grand personality who stood at its head as chief superintendent. Devoting his magnificent abilities to this one work, turned aside from it by no complications of the political, the ecclesiastical, or the commercial world, he put the energy of his life into it, and that energy was felt throughout the entire system. Rut even his work could not have been so complete apart from the cooperation of a younger man who mastered all details, compiled all reports, and generalized all particulars, and kept before the eye of his chief the entire working of the system. J. George Hodgins was the indispensable complement of Dr. "Ryerson, and no one knew or appreciated this more than the doctor himself.

A system introducing forces and principles so decidedly new in Canadian educational life was not to be launched without strong opposition. Perhaps its most disturbing characteristic was the fact 1 hat in almost all its features it touched the pockets of the people who had never before regarded education as a matter in which they had any special concern, and also of the people who desired education, but at as cheap a rate as possible. It demanded qualified and efficient teachers, and this called for better salaries; the Gore district council proclaimed throughout the country that old men and cripples, who could do nothing else, and poor immigrants, glad of work at any wage, were quite competent for this work. It demanded uniform text books of better quality, and loyal and British in their teachings; many people thought that the school books were a matter of indifference. It called for school houses properly built, warmed and ventilated, and provided with proper furniture, maps, and other means of teaching; the whole community who were taxed for these purposes rebelled against the expense. It required a moderate outlay for administration and inspection, both general and local; several district councils united in proclaiming this a useless waste of money. All the essential features of the system which contributed directly to improve the character of the schools were thus assailed, nominally as unnecessary, but really on the ground of expense. A people who had grown up themselves under the school hill of 1810 were seemingly utterly "without power to appreciate the 180 need of better things. A few places were noble except ions to this outburst of ignorant opposition. The municipal council of the Colborne district (Peterborough) was conspicuous in its enlightened support of the new measures, while in the far east municipal authorities refused to recognize or to act under the new law.

The opposition was first encountered in the parliament itself' As the bill was prepared by Dr. Ryerson and introduced by the government, it aimed at bringing education within reach of all the people, poor as well as rich. For this purpose it proposed not at first to make the schools entirely free, but it looked in this direction, and many clauses of the bill making provision for this were eliminated or so modified as to be ineffective. In 1848 a new administration came into power, personally opposed or unfavourable to Dr. Ryerson, and, without consulting him, a new bill was introduced in 1849 making still further changes, crippling the power of administration and inspection. One of the objections of those who were unwilling to appear illiberal in the matter of education was that the system placed too much power in the hands of the ccntral authority; that in fact t was the introduction of a Prussian despotism, with the chief superintendent as absolute monarch. While the new bill copied verbatim all the local provisions of the act of 1846, and thus seemed to maintain the system in the main intact, yet by restoring the old township superintendents, by making the district board of education an appointment not of the municipal council but of the governor-in-council (and so political), and by limiting the powers of the chief superintendent and council of public 'instruction, and throwing the text book question back upon local authorities, it took the strength, the unity and the efficiency out of the system, and gave scope once more for that ignorant prejudice and selfish penuriousness which had nullified all previous attempts at educational advancement. The animus of the whole measure was manifest in one of its first clauses, which reduced the moderate salary of £500 assigned to the chief superintendent to £420, a magnificent saving to the country of $3201 Mr. Baldwin, fortunately, was too enlightened and high-minded a statesman to descend to pettiness or to be deceived as to the results of such a measure, and although the bill—introduced by an individual member, who lived to see his mistake and make generous amends- -was passed through the House, it was, on Mr. Baldwin's advice, disallowed by the governor, and in 1850 Dr. Ryerson was given opportunity in a new school act to advance the system towards his ideal conception.

The act of 1850 was the complete foundation of that, school system which Ontario maintains to-day, and which has commanded the admiration of the whole civilized world. The battle for the fundamentals of the system was by no means ended when the act of 1850 was passed. Other grave questions arose, the history of which is still before us. But with the passage of the act of 1850 the victory was won for the system, and in contending for that victory Or. Ryerson had exhibited all the characteristics of the true British statesman. He was courageous in the face of opposition, patient and wise in his measures in the midst of difficulty, strong and clearly defined in his convictions and policy, and not afraid to resign at once when by the passage of the bill of 1849 he seemed to be defeated, thus maintaining his manly independence and the strength and truth of his principles. The results have more than justified his course.

Our review of Dr. Ryerson's system of common schools would be incomplete without some reference to two or three important adjuncts of that system, which furnished excellent service at this time, but which are now remembered only by the older people. The first of these was the educational depository. The supply of the new uniform text books to the 200,000 school children of the country offered so obvious a field for commercial enterprise that it might safely be left to the trade, only taking care to protect the public as to price and quality. This was from the beginning the policy both of the council of public instruction and of the chief superintendent. Hav ing obtained permission for the free use of the Irish national series of text books, which they resolved to adopt, these rights were transferred to responsible dealers who agreed to furnish books of approved workmanship and reasonable price. Rut other matters requisite for efficient or high-class schools did not as yet offer the same encouragement to commercial enterprise. They were not the things universally necessary and soon worn out by use, and hence in continuous demand in large quantities. Such were philosophical apparatus, illustrative specimens, and! advanced books required by teachers, or for school libraries or prizes. All these were at first the luxuries of education, the demand for them was limited, and their use needed encouragement, as leading to the highest perfection in the work of education Such encouragement Dr. Ryerson secured in the form of government assistance to all schools making an effort to secure these higher and more perfect aids in their work. The requisite voucher being presented that the articles required were bona fide for the use of the teacher or of the school, they were furnished from the educational depository at half the cost price. The teachers of forty and fifty years ago will remember very distinctly the large assistance afforded in their work and especially in the improvement of their schools or of their own scholarship by those simple, liberal, but thus necessary provisions. A holiday visit to Toronto nearly always resulted in bringing home something which added to the interest and intellectual life of the school. Even the country log school house often had its case in which were preserved the means of illustrating the zones and the changes of the seasons, and the mysteries of square and cube root; and a few well-selected prize books were indeed light-bearers in the darkness in the days when books were still not abundant.

Associated with this depository was the educational museum, which still survives in its enlarged and modern form. The art critics of to-day will perhaps smile at the copies of the old masters imported from France, Germany and Italy. But in those days they served their purpose, and sowed the seeds of that aesthetic life which to-day is developing a true Canadian art.

Closely associated with the depository was the scheme for the establishment of public school libraries throughout the country. These were not libraries for use in the school, but libraries for the people and attached to the school. The object was to improve the taste and intelligence of the adult population, as well as of the senior scholars. This had been a favourite idea with Dr. Ryerson for many years. "When the first suggestion was made to him by Lord Sydenham of undertaking the superintendence and improvement of the public school system, he connected with it in his own mind and n his private letters this wider object. In his opinion no people could exercise the exalted responsibilities of self-government apart from morality and intelligence, and at a lime when the intelligence of the people was far less widely affected by the public press than now, he looked very largely to the public library planted in the public school to give the whole people that higher know ledge which would make them wise, patriotic, broad-minded citizens. Science, too, was then beginning the wonderful and brilliant career of discovery which has been the most remarkable characteristic of the nineteenth century, and her work had not yet grown so technical as to be beyond the power of ordinary intelligence to follow with both profit and interest. The refinement of the public taste by means of poetry and literature was also before bis mind. In all these respects he had been deeply interested and impressed by the ideas of Horace Maim, as expressed in his reports and addresses on the school system of Massachusetts. His earlier conceptions on this subject may be illustrated by the following paragraph from the close of his report of 1840:—"The advantages of the school can be but very partially enjoyed unless they are continued and ext ended by means of books. As the school is the pupil's first teacher, so books are Ins second; in the former he acquires the elements of knowledge, in the latter he acquires knowledge itself; in the former lie converses with the schoolmaster, in the latter he holds intercourse with the greatest and wisest men in all ages, and countries and professions, on all subjects and in every variety of style. But in any community few persons can be expected to possess the means necessary to procure anything like a general assortment of books—in a new and rural community perhaps none. One library for the whole community is the best substitute. Each one acquires the fruits of the united contributions of all. and the teacher and the poor man with his family participate in the common advantage.'*

The outcome of these ideas was the provision made in the early school acts for the establishment of township or district circulating libraries. Through the depository a supply of appropriate and judiciously selected books was brought within easy reach. By means of a supplementary legislative grant the effort to secure this boon was substantially aided. By a simple system of sections circulating from school to school, a very considerable library was brought within reach oi every school section in the township or county. The care of the books was provided for through the municipal officers, the trustees and the teachers; and many older persons will remember with hearty appreciation the advantages accruing to many municipalities forty years ago from these provisions.

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