Ryerson’s School Bill Of 1846

THE year 1846 will ever be memorable in the annals of school legislation in Upper Canada, because it established the main principles upon which all subsequent school legislation was founded. As already pointed out, the Act of 1843 was largely a failure because it did not provide adequate machinery for the enforce-ment of its provisions. No important school legislation was undertaken during 1845 in anticipation of Ryerson’s report. After making his report, Ryerson drafted a Bill which, with a few trifling emendations, became the Common School Act of 1846. It will assist us to an intelligent grasp of future legislation if we examine this Act with some care.

It first defined the duties of the Superintendent of Schools. He became the chief executive officer of the Government in all school matters. He was to apportion among the various District Councils (there were twenty at this time) in proportion to the school population, the money voted by the Legislature for the support of common schools (the total Legislative grant for 1846 was 120,962 to 2,736 schools) and see that it was expended according to the Act ; he was to supply school officers with all necessary forms for making school returns and keep them posted as to school regulations; he was to discourage unsuitable books as texts and for school libraries and to recommend the use of uniform and approved texts ; he was to assume a general direction of the Normal School when it became established; he was to prepare and recommend plans for school-houses, with proper furniture; he was to encourage school libraries, and finally he was to diffuse information generally on education and submit an annual report to the Governor-General_

The Act established the first General Board of Education. It was to consist of the Superintendent of Education and six other members appointed by the Governor-General. This Board was to manage the Normal School, to authorize texts for schools and to aid the Superintendent with advice upon any subject which he should submit to it.

The Act provided for a Normal and Model School. It required each Municipal District Council to appoint a Superintendent of Schools. No qualification was fixed for the District Superintendent. It would have been useless to do so, because there were no men technically qualified for such positions. The only thing to do was trust to the District Council to choose the best man available. The District Municipal Council was also instructed to levy upon the rateable property of the District a sum for support of schools at least equal to the Legislative grant. They were to divide each town-ship, town or city into numbered school sections. They were also given power by by-law to levy rates upon any school section for the purchase of school sites, erection of school buildings or teachers’ residences in that section.

The District Superintendents became very important officers, and upon their learning, zeal, integrity and tact must have depended much of the success or failure of the schools of this period. They were required to apportion the District School Fund, consisting of the Legislative grant and Municipal levy, among the various school sections in proportion to the number of children between five and sixteen years of age resident in the section, and pay these sums to the teacher on the proper order being presented ; to visit all schools in their Districts* at least once a year and report on their progress and general condition: to advise trustees and teachers in regard to school management ; to examine candidates for teachers’ certificates, and grant licenses, either temporary or permanent, to those who were proficient ; to revoke licenses held by incompetent or unsuitable teachers; to prevent the use of unauthorized textbooks; and finally, to make an annual report of the schools in their districts to the Chief Superintendent.

The Act declared that all Clergymen. Judges of the District Court, Wardens, Councillors and Justices of the Peace were to be school visitors, with the right to visit any school or schools in their districts except Separate Schools. They were given authority to question pupils, conduct examinations and advise the teachers, or make reports to the District Superintendent. They were especially charged with the duty of encouraging school libraries. One remarkable power was conferred upon them. Any two school visitors of a district were allowed to examine a candidate for a teacher’s license and grant such license if they saw fit for a term not exceeding one year in a specified school.

There are two simple explanations of this clause in Ryerson’s School Act. He may have wished to interest school visitors in the schools by giving them some power. He may have wished to create a local power to act in an emergency if a school became vacant through any cause during a school term. In many cases the Superintendent lived fifty to seventy-five miles from the remote corners of his District, and with the primitive means of communication in use at that time, it was an advantage to have some local body with authority to license teachers.

It is a matter for regret that at the present time the various officials mentioned here as school visitors, as well as parents generally, are so seldom seen inside the public schools. True, we now have trained teachers, and teaching has so far become a profession that few school visitors would care to question pupils, but the very presence in the school-room from time to time of educated men and women, and especially those occupying public positions, has a beneficial effect upon both teachers and pupils. Pupils feel that the work of the school must be important if it is worthy of the attention of busy and successful men. Teachers are encouraged to make a good showing and are often hungry for the few words of sympathy and encouragement that would naturally ac-company such visits. The school can never fully realize its function as a social institution unless the best citizens take an active interest in it. This was uppermost in Ryerson’s mind when he penned that part of his report relating to individual efforts in promoting the welfare of the school.*

The Act of 1846 defined in detail how school trustees were to be elected. In all previous Acts the whole Trustee Board was elected annually. This gave to the Board no continuity of corporate life. One Trustee Board might have certain plans and make a certain bargain with a teacher. The new Board might have different plans and repudiate the contracts of its predecessor. Ryerson’s Bill solved the difficulty by having trustees elected for three years, one to retire annually. Trustees’ duties were not materially different from those of trustees to-day except in one or two particulars. They had to raise by a rate bill upon parents of pupils attending school such sums as were required over and above the two school grants for payment of the teacher’s salary and the incidental expenses of the school ; they were required to make provision by which the children of indigent parents were exempted, wholly or in part, from school rates ; and they were required to select school books from a list sanctioned by the Department of Education. In Ryerson’s draft bill he proposed that the rate bill should be levied upon the property of the section. This would virtually have given free schools. The Legislature of 1846 amended this clause and made the rate bill assessable only upon parents of children in actual attendance. Ryerson says of these rate bills:* ” The evils of the present system of school rate bills have been brought under my notice from the most populous townships and by the most experienced educationists in Canada. When it is apprehended that the rate hill in a school section will be high, many will not send their children to the school at all then there is no school ; or else a few give enough to pay the teacher for three months, including the Government grant ; or even after the school has commenced, if it be found that the school is not so large as had been anticipated, and that those who send will consequently be required to pay more than they had expected, parents will begin to take their children from school in order to escape the rate bill as persons would flee from a falling house

The consequence is that the school is either broken up, or the whole burthen of paying the teacher falls upon the trustees, and often as a consequence a quarrel ensues between them and the teacher. I have been assured by the most experienced and judicious men, with whom I have conversed on the subject, that it is impossible to have good schools under the present rate bill system. I think the substitute I proposed will remedy the evil. I know of none who will object to it but the rich and the child-less and the selfish. Education is a public good ; ignorance is a public evil. What affects the public ought to be binding upon each individual composing it. In every good government and in every good system the interests of the whole society are obligatory upon each member of it.”

This rate bill, as authorized in 1846, was, however, an improvement on the old one which was levied upon parents according to the actual time of the child’s attendance, whereas the Bill of 1846 levied a tax upon the parents of children in actual attendance for at least two-thirds of the whole school term, whether the children attended regularly or irregularly.

Teachers’ duties were defined by the Act much as they are today. District Model Schools were authorized on the same condition as in the Act of 1843. The clauses in the Act of 1 843 relating to the formation of Separate Roman Catholic or Protestant schools were also embodied in the Act of 1846.

Now, what are the distinguishing features of this School Act that reflect credit upon its author? It would be idle to pretend that there were not in Upper Canada many able men who saw the weaknesses of the school system as clearly as Dr. Ryerson. Ryerson’s claim to distinction rests upon the fact that he organized a system that worked. He not only co-ordinated the several parts of the system, but put life into it. This was no easy task. The people were very jealous of their power of local control, and yet unless this local control could be subjected to some central control, improvement was hopeless. It was here that Ryerson did what no other man had done. He lessened local, and strengthened central, control, and did it so gradually, so wisely, and so tactfully, that local prejudices were soothed and in many cases the people scarcely recognized what was being done until the thing was accomplished. We must not suppose that all this was completed by the legislation of 1846. It began then, but its complete evolution was the work of a quarter-century.

If we ask through what agency Ryerson was enabled to secure this gradual executive strength that makes our educational machinery so effective the answer must be—the Legislative grant. The Legislature placed the grant at the disposal of the Superintendent for him to apportion among the Districts. Here was a lever of wonderful power, and Ryerson was quick to perceive its possibilities. I f Districts wished a grant they must conform to certain requirements. I f school sections wished a grant from the District Superintendent, they, too, must satisfy certain requirements as to text-books, qualified teachers, building and equipment.

No doubt the Prussian system gave Ryerson many hints on this subject, but he knew that the Canadian spirit was very different from the docile German spirit fostered by generations of benevolent paternalism. I think, too, there can be no reasonable doubt that he received many practical hints on this point from the workings of Her Majesty’s Committee on Education formed by the Imperial Parliament. The history of the world presents no more significant illustration of how an outside body may come to exercise an effective control over various kinds of schools than is presented by the history of the schools of Great Britain and Ireland and their control by Her Majesty’s Government through parliamentary grants.

That the leaders of Canadian public opinion in the years following 1846 saw all that was involved in Ryerson’s gradual strengthening of central control of educational affairs is made abundantly clear by the leading editorials in the press of that period. The Toronto Globe, which had been established in 1844 by the Browns, was already in 1846 the leading exponent of advanced liberal ideas in Upper Canada. As the Globe had been bitterly opposed to Lord Metcalfe, and had resented Ryerson’s defence of him, it was not to be expected that Ryerson’s appointment as Superintendent of Education would be satisfactory to that journal, or that his educational plans would be leniently criticised. Indeed, the Globe editor’s first objection to Ryerson’s Bill of 1846 was to the great powers conferred upon the Superintendent and to the irresponsible nature of his Commission. The following is from a Globe editorial of April 14th, 1846;* ” We have read a draft of the new School Bill for Upper Canada brought in by Mr. Draper. We have not been able to go over all its claims, but it contains one objectionable principle, viz. : the appointment and dismissal of the Superintendent is vested in the Governor-General personally and not in the Governor-General with the advice of his Council, as it ought to be. The whole funds from which the school system is to derive support are raised by the people of Canada, and the disposal of them should he subjected to the control of the House through the Executive Council. . . . The powers of the Superintendent are very great and embrace many points such as the selection of proper books, etc. A Board of seven Commissioners to assist the Superintendent is named, but the Governor may appoint them, or not, and the Superintendent may take their advice, or not, and he has also power to prevent interference at any time, for he is only to receive advice on all measures which he may submit to them.’ The whole of this extensive institution, if the Bill passes, will be lodged in the Governor-General personally and in the Superintendent, and they may work it for any purpose that suits their views.” On July 14th, 1846, the editor of the Globe again criticises the School Bill, because the Superintendent reports to the Governor and not to the Governor-General-in-Council.

These articles are interesting and important. Why was Ryerson’s appointment vested in the Governor and not in the Executive Council? The answer not only throws valuable light upon the way that Ryerson himself viewed his office and its relation to the public, but it incidentally shows how imperfectly responsible government was established in Upper Canada in 1846. We should gasp with astonishment in Canada to-day if it were proposed to vest the appointment of any public officers in the Governor-General personally. We allow our Governors no personal freedom in the conduct of public affairs. But in 1846 that idea was not wholly accepted. There still lingered a feeling that the Crown had certain vaguely-defined prerogatives, which might be exercised without let or hindrance from Councillors. And many who recognized that the British Crown had little individual freedom of action in public affairs in Britain could not see that the sane status ought to he established for the Crown’s representative in a colony. Or, to put it in another way, the people did not see how a colony could be self-governing without being wholly independent.

Ryerson wished his appointment to be vested in the Governor, rather than in the Executive Council, because he thought that by such an arrangement he was a servant of the country and not of any political party. Ile thought that a Superintendent of Education ought, like a judge, to be placed beyond the accidents and turmoil of politics. No doubt that was an illogical position. Indeed, time showed it to be so, and that full recognition of the principle of responsible government required a Minister of Education responsible directly to the Legislature. We can only speculate as to what would have been the effect upon our schools had Ryerson’s position been looked upon as political and had he been forced to vacate his office with every change of government. It seems doubtful whether our schools would have improved as rapidly as they did under the conservative, but truly progressive, policy of Ryerson.

There is abundant evidence that there were many in Upper Canada who wished to see the position of Superintendent closely connected with politics. A Globe editorial, Jan. 6th, 1847, commenting on Ryerson’s report, says: ” We expected that when our new Superintendent stepped into his ill-gotten office he would immediately take measures to make himself acquainted with the replies to such questions as the following : First, the situation, condition and number of schools and school-houses of all kinds in the Province. Second, the manner in which school trustees, town, county and district Superintendents had discharged their several duties. Third, the desire manifested by parents generally for the education of their children. Fourth, the competency and efficiency of the teachers, their salaries, etc_ Fifth, the kind of school books used, the school libraries and other apparatus for teaching. Had such questions been proposed and answered, the Superintendent would have had something to base a report upon. It was but natural to suppose that an officer whose sole prospects of success are in the confidence and co-operation of the people would have taken some steps to gain that confidence and cooperation, that he would have been desirous by direct communication with superintendents, trustees, experienced teachers and influential persons in the Province of ascertaining their views and of obtaining their suggestions as to the best means of promoting the interests of the noble department over which he had been called to preside. But no, it is true he was devising a system of education for Canada, but what had the wants or wishes of the people to do with it? The serfs must receive anything I, their lord and master, may import from the cringing subjects of despotic monarchies. We are more and more convinced from the examination of this report that Mr. Ryerson is not competent for the situation which he occupies.

This is manifestly unfair. Ryerson knew from previous experience and without any further special investigation, the answer to every one of the five questions propounded above. In 1848, just after the Baldwin-Lafontaine administration was formed, and before the newly-formed ministry had met Parliament, there was more or less discussion about dismissing Ryerson from his position as Superintendent of Education. The Globe of April 29th, 1848, says : ” Will any man, except a few of his own clique, say that Egerton Ryerson should be Superintendent of Education under a Liberal Government ? We apprehend none. He has done nothing wrong since his appointment, it is said. We say he has. He spent many months on the Continent of Europe and in Britain in amusement or recreation, professing to get information about things which every person knew already…. We have had hints of the Prussian system being applicable to Canada and we feel convinced that he, who sold himself to the late Administration, would have readily brought all the youth of Canada to the same market and placed them under the domination of an arbitrary and coercive power. He had sold their fathers for pelf, why not sell the sons also? Vas he not in league with that party which would retain the Province in vassalage to the old Compact which he had so heartily denounced in former times ? Is he not a member of that Methodist Committee which bargained away to a worth-less Ministry the Methodist votes for £1,500 to Victoria College? These are most memorable events in the annals of political corruption. . . . But we care not if there had been no ground for complaint since 1844. We know that Egerton Ryerson sold himself body and spirit to Lord Metcalfe and that he broached doctrines of the most unconstitutional kind, threatening those who were but asking the common rights of British subjects with the vengeance of the whole Empire. The man who holds such views is unfit to be at the head of the country’s education. He would convert the children of the Province into the most pliable tools of an arbitrary system.”

These articles show clearly that the party press was not disposed to judge Ryerson by his work as Superintendent of Education.

They claimed that because he championed Lord Metcalfe in 1844 he was a partizan, and if a partizan in 1844. He must still be one in 1848.

Besides a certain amount of political prejudice, Ryerson had to overcome the many points of friction caused by an attempt to work the Bill of 1846, and when we consider the ignorance and incompetence among those upon whom the administration of the Act rested, and the prejudices against the Act by many who were supremely selfish, we have to admit that a less courageous man would have utterly failed. Many trustees could neither read nor write. In some cases the District Municipal Councillors who were parties to school ad-ministration were equally ignorant. District Superintendents of schools were not always fitted for such a responsibility. Perhaps half the whole body of teachers made up a motley assortment of impecunious tramps. The Superintendent’s report for 1847 shows that out of 2,572 schoolhouses only 133 Were of brick or stone, and that 1,399 Were made of logs; 1,378 had no playground, and only 163 were provided with water-closets. With many superintendents, trustees, and teachers miserably incompetent, with buildings and equipment woefully inadequate, it required a stout heart to undertake a reformation.

Ryerson had two temperamental qualities that stood him in good stead ; he had an idealist’s faith in humanity, believing that men would choose the higher if it could once be shown them ; he had besides an infinite capacity for hard work and for taking pains. This is fully shown by the way he met the many objections to his Bill of 1846. The bitterest opposition came from the Council of the Gore District, now the County of Went-worth, a District from which more progressive ideas might have been expected. On the 10th November, 1846, this Council* petitioned the Legislative Assembly against Ryerson’s Bill. They objected to a Provincial Board of Education and to a Chief Superintendent. They wished to have re-enacted the School Bills of 1816 and 1820. Among other things the petition says : ” With respect to the necessity of establishing a Normal. with elementary Model Schools in this Province, your memorialists are of opinion that however well adapted such an institution might be to the wants of the old and densely populated countries of Europe, where service in almost every vocation will scarcely yield the common necessaries of life, they are altogether unsuited to a country like Upper Canada, where a young man of such excellent character as a candidate is required to he to enter a Normal School and having the advantage of a good education besides, need only turn to the right hand or to the left to make his service much more agreeable and profitable to himself, than in the drudgery of a common school, at an average of 129 per annum [the average in Upper Canada for 1845] ; nor do your memorialists hope to provide qualified teachers by any other means in the present circumstances of the country than by securing as heretofore the services of those whose physical disabilities from age render this mode of obtaining a livelihood the only one suited to their decaying energy, or by employing such of the newly-arrived immigrants as are qualified for common school teachers, year by year as they come amongst us, and who will adopt this as a means of temporary support until their character and abilities are known and turned to better account for themselves.”

This petition was sent to every District Council in Lipper Canada. Some districts agreed with it, some were indifferent and some wholly opposed its spirit. Colborne District Council took a very different attitude. They praised the Chief Superintendent, warmly approved of a Normal School, and found much to admire in the legislation of 1846. The following from their report will serve as an illustration :* ” As the Normal and Model Schools begin to yield their legitimate fruits, and as the blighting effects of employing men as school teachers who are neither in manners nor in intellectual endowments much above the lowest menials, shall press less and less heavily upon the mental and moral habitudes of the rising generation, the great benefits to be derived from the present Common School Act, and its immense superiority over all former school laws of Upper Canada, will become more and more confessed and appreciated. Already that public apathy which is the deadliest enemy to improvement is slowly yielding to the necessity imposed by the present school law upon the trustees and others of acquiring extended in-formation, of entering with a deeper interest into all matters connected with Common Schools and of joining with school visitors, superintendents and municipal councillors in a more active and vigilant oversight of them.”

Ryerson saw that public opinion must be educated. The problem was a wider one than the education of the rising generation in the schoolhouses. The fathers and mothers and all who made public opinion must be awakened. This work Ryerson did in a characteristic manner. He had been a missionary preacher of the Gospel ; he now became an educational missionary. He sent carefully-prepared circulars to Municipal Councils, to District Superintendents, to school trustees and to teachers. He established at his own financial risk, and without accepting a penny of the profits for his labour, an educational journal as a means of communication with the general public. In the autumn of 1847 he spent ten weeks in visits to the twenty-one Districts into which Upper Canada was at that time divided. Fie called District Educational Conventions, lasting each two days. To these were invited teachers, District Superintendents, School Visitors, Municipal Councillors and the general public. The Warden was generally secured as chair-man. During the day, Ryerson discussed the School Act and its operation. He found that often the people had been misled and that trustees who had never made any attempt to enforce the Act had laid the blame for their poor school upon the Act of 1846. In almost every case a frank discussion face to face with the parties concerned removed unreasonable prejudices and made friends for the new Superintendent. In the evening, Ryerson gave a public lecture. His subject in 1847 was ” The Advantage of Education to an Agricultural People.” No subject could have been more appropriate to secure the sympathy of the mass of the people and to give the lecturer an opportunity to show what he hoped to do for Upper Canada.