Ryerson and Canadian Education – Conclusion

How are we to sum up the work of this man who moulded the schools of Ontario during a period as long as the life of a single generation? Would the schools of have been what they were had there been no Ryerson? We think not.

No doubt the people of Upper Canada would, without Ryerson. have worked out a good school system, because a school system must in the end reflect the average intelligence and the fixed ideals of a people. But in Ryerson, Upper Canada had a man who, by his dogged determination and his hold upon the affections of the people, was able to secure legislation some-what in advance of a fixed public opinion. To a considerable extent he created the public sentiment which made his work possible. He knew what the people needed and persuaded them to accept it This we conceive to be the work of a statesman.

Ryerson was neither a demagogue nor a constitutionalist. He had none of the arts of one who wins the populace by flattering its vanity. He was too sincere and too deeply religious to appeal to the lower springs of human action. On the other hand he had no real sympathy with popular government. He would let people do as they wished, only so long as they wished to do what he believed to be right. He never could believe that he him-self might be wrong. Even had he wished to do so, he never could have divested himself wholly of the character of priest and pedagogue. He was always either shouting from the pulpit or thumping the desk of the schoolmaster.

His environment after 1844 strengthened and developed his natural tendency to be autocratic. He worked like a giant. He created the Education Department, appointed his sub-ordinates, was his own finance minister, established a Normal School and appointed its instructors, nominated members of a Council of Public Instruction who often did little more than formally register his decrees, organized a book and map depository and an educational museum, edited an educational journal in which he published his decrees, and prepared legislation for successive Legislatures having comparatively few members competent to criticize school administration. He administered one of the largest spending Departments of Government, and ruled somewhat rigorously a score of subordinates, and yet, for many years, was not subject to any check except the nominal oneof the Governor-General, and later of the Governor-General-in-Council.

When he visited District or County Conventions he came as a lawgiver, either to ex-plain existing regulations, promulgate new ones, or obtain assent to those for which he wished to secure legislation. Only after the Grammar Schools had become efficient did Ryerson meet at ‘leachers’ Conventions men who were intellectually his equals and who were ready to criticize his policy, and, when necessary, give him wholesome advice. Had Ryerson been a responsible Minister with a seat in the Legislature, either his nature would have been modified or he would have failed, probably the latter.

This would seem to lead to the conclusion that Ryerson after all was not a statesman, since a statesman must, in our age, carry out his measures and at the same time retain the confidence of his colleagues and the electors. But this is just what Ryerson did, although he did not do it directly through the Legislature. He appealed to a Court beyond the Legislature—the whole body of intelligent men and women of Upper Canada—and this Court sustained him in his work for thirty-two years, during which time it is doubtful if any single constituency in the country would have elected him to two successive Parliaments. If this be true we may safely assume that it was a happy chance which gave us a non-political Education Department during our formative period.

Ryerson’s greatest admirers can scarcely claim that he was a scholar. This was his misfortune and not his fault. Ile never failed to embrace whatever opportunities for intellectual improvement came in his way. His reading of history was broad and discriminating. He had little interest in anything that did not bear somewhat directly upon the problem of human virtue. Consequently his interests centred largely in civil government and theology.

Nor can we claim for Ryerson that he introduced original legislation. Hardly anything in our system of education was of his invention. New England, New York, Germany, and Ireland gave him his models, and his genius was shown in the skill with which he adapted these to suit the needs of Upper Canada. Even in the details of his school legislation, especially that relating to High Schools, Ryerson adopted suggestions of men more competent than himself to form a judgment. To say this in no way detracts from the man’s greatness. Little after all in modern legislation is actually new, and to say of a man that he is successful in using other men’s ideas is often to give him the highest praise.

In one department of work Ryerson stood in a class by himself. He was without a peer as an administrator. His intensely practical mind was quick to discover the shortest route between end and means. His energy, his system and attention to details, his broad personal knowledge of actual conditions, his capacity for long periods of effort, his thrift, his courteous treatment of subordinates, and even his sensitiveness to criticism were factors which enabled him to administer the most difficult Department of the Government with ease and smoothness.

The history of Upper Canada during a period of nearly sixty years is as much bound up with the labours of Egerton Ryerson as with the work of any other public man. He gave us lofty ideals of the meaning and purpose of life, and he had an abiding faith in the power of popular education to aid in a realization of these ideals; he fought for free schools in Upper Canada when they needed a valiant champion. Let the present generation of men and women honour the memory of the man who wrought so faithfully for their fathers and grandfathers.