In dealing with a country like Canada, the educationist must always keep before him the fact that the vast majority of children in rural schools will be employed on the Land. It is, therefore, of the first importance to instil into their minds as early as possible in the school career a love of the soil and a knowledge of the principles which underlie successful agriculture. The rural school, therefore, must be the basis of all agricultural education.
In Canada, as in the older countries, it was unfortunately the case that the curriculum of the rural school was modelled upon that of the town school. There is little excuse for the methods of the town school ; transplant those methods to the country and they are ridiculous. To combat these old ideas Canada’s necessity found the men in Sir William Macdonald and Dr. J. W. Robertson. Sir William Macdonald was born in Prince Edward Island, and left home at an early age, and for some time was employed at New York. Later, turning his face to his native country, he settled in Montreal, and became interested in the tobacco manufacture just at the time when the existing conditions in the United States were favourable to his schemes. At this time he laid the foundations of the successful business which later on brought him a great fortune.
The moving principle of Sir William Macdonald’s life was a deep love of his native land, and the will to forward her interests in every possible way where money could be of use. Amongst other things he observed that Canada needed for her future development a band of trained engineers, and he forthwith provided the McGill University with a fully equipped engineering building. This munificent gift was followed by the gift of a Physics building and a Chemistry building with an endowment for maintaining them. Sir William Macdonald was the Director of a great bank of Montreal whose policy has been to establish branch banks in prosperous farming communities for the purpose of receiving deposits. It was noticed that in the communities where creameries were located the bank deposits increased very markedly. Further inquiry into the success of these creameries at Prince Edward Island drew his attention to the fact that it was largely the work of one man. This man was James W. Robertson. In 1898 these two men began to work together : Professor James Robertson providing the ideas and Sir William Macdonald the money, and both the enthusiasm, without which no great scheme can prevail.
A few words about Dr. Robertson’s career may not be out of place here. Born in Dunlop, in the county of Ayr, he emigrated with his father to a farm near London, Ontario, when he was eighteen years of age. He soon gained more than a local reputation and later on gave up a business career to undertake the professorship of dairy farming at the noted college of Guelph. For four years he retained his professorship at Guelph, and for the last two years of his term he was retained as non-resident lecturer to Cornell. At the end of 1890, he was appointed Commissioner of Dairying to the Dominion.
Previous to 1900 many half-hearted attempts had been made to improve the usefulness of rural schools by introducing school gardens and outdoor study. They had been made without plan, and were backed by no great driving force until in 1899 Dr. Robertson, in the course of his work was led to wonder whether the farmer could be induced to take a more scientific interest in the selection of seed. He began modestly from his private purse with an offer of 100 dollars in prizes to Canadian boys and girls who would send him the largest heads from the finest ears of wheat and oats taken from their fathers’ fields. The response was so enormously encouraging that he went to Sir William Macdonald with his scheme and his hopes, with the result that Sir William offered 10,000 dollars in prizes to boys and girls who would select the best heads of cereals and from them grow seed of their own. By 1903 the crop of spring wheat sown in this fashion was 28% heavier than that of 1900 from unselected seed. In oats the increase was 27%.
It will be understood that with magnificent prizes of this kind the children were not the only ones interested in the subject, although the figures mentioned referred to seed-grown plots operated by boys and girls under eighteen years of age ; but their parents had been watching with keen interest the progress of the competitions, and this led to the Canadian Seed-Growers’ Association, organised for the purpose of improving the crops of Canada. In 1906 it was estimated that these competitions were responsible for an increase in Canadian crops to an extent of half-a-million dollars. What is more to the point of this chapter, it also proved that children could easily be interested in agriculture.
Manual training was the next step in the history of this movement. Sir William Macdonald founded through-out Canada twenty-one manual training centres, attended by 7,000 children, and costing 3,600 dollars a month for teachers’ salaries during the three years. The arrangement was, that at the end of the three-years’ probation, the local authorities were free to continue the schools if they pleased. In every case the schools were taken over by the local authorities and additions made to them. In Ontario, for example, the three Macdonald centres have grown to forty, in Nova Scotia more than twenty school centres have been built, and are being run by local funds.
Having set these training centres firmly upon their feet the next important step was to introduce into rural schools some form of manual training, and to make manual training effective it was desirable that Nature study, elementary biology, and elementary agriculture should become part of the school course. School gardens were provided to each five schools in each of the five provinces. Each group of five has a trained instructor who devotes one day a week to each school. His instruction extends both to children and to their teachers. The most useful lessons have been learned, the advantage of using selected seed, the desirability of the rotation of crops, and the steps to be taken to protect the crops from disease. At the school garden at Prince Edward Island, for example, the children reaped 32 per cent. more wheat from a crop sown with selected seed than from one sown with unselected seed. In most gardens, too, plots side by side were planted with potatoes, one being sprayed with Bordeaux mixture to keep away blight, and the other treated in exactly the same fashion except for the use of the Bordeaux mixture. The increase varied between 41 % and 111 % in favour of the potatoes which had been sprayed.
The effect of these schools upon the children was shown by the examination which took place at Ontario in 1906. In Carleton Co., of the candidates from schools without gardens 49 % passed, and from the five schools with gardens 71% passed. On all hands there was a consensus of opinion that so far from manual training interfering with book work, its effect was beneficial, thus vindicating the views of those educationists in England who had been striving in this direction for many years. Yet, in spite of all that could be done for it in the way of private or public encouragement the rural school in the scattered district must necessarily be, in the nature of things, somewhat inefficient, and to overcome this inherent fault Sir William Macdonald tried the effect of consolidating a number of rural schools into one large school and trans-porting the children from quite considerable distances to the central school. Four consolidated schools were first founded in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, with classes in manual training, household sciences, and nature study. In three years the cost of these schools was 180,000 dollars, and so evident was the improvement in the teaching gained and in the results obtained that now the consolidated school is rapidly taking the place of the small country school. Consolidation allows a certain amount of specialising on the part of the teachers. It allows the inclusion of special subjects such as manual training and agriculture. It allows of better pay and better prospects for the teachers, and it raises the whole system of education at once to a higher plane. In actual practice it has increased the daily attendance from 50% to 100 %.