The Canadian Education Association, originally called the Dominion Educational Association, was established 120 years ago and held its first annual meeting in Montreal in July 1892, at a time when free and compulsory public education was just gaining a foothold in Canada.
The pivotal role of public education has always been to reflect the values of the present while anticipating the needs of the future. If it fails to do the former, it loses the support of the public it serves; if it fails to do the latter, it deprives the next generation of the skills and wisdom required to adapt creatively to a changing world. The trick, of course, is to get the balance right. This is most difficult during times of rapid change – times like the present, and times like the end of the nineteenth century.
It’s impossible to place a clear frame around the “industrial age”, but it is possible to argue that the CEA made its appearance on the Canadian educational stage at a time when the pressures of industrialization as a social force were first making themselves felt throughout Europe and increasingly in North America.
The challenge to both reflect the present and anticipate the future was resulting in the need to educate young people en masse with two principal goals: to create an educated citizenry capable of participating in the young democracy and to provide the labour needed to fuel an economy that was already beginning to shift from a traditional agrarian to an industrial urban base.
To that end, the founders of CEA emphasized the importance of well-educated teachers, a curriculum designed to provide students with a solid background in basic skills and Canadian history without duplication or overlap of curriculum from year to year, the need to encourage a sense of national unity and nationhood, and the need to enforce the new regulations requiring young people to attend school until the age of 15.
The early communications from CEA reflect these concerns. They also reflect the values of the time, with echoes of the stern Protestantism that gave birth to Canada’s first public education systems. A report to that first annual meeting from the association’s Resolutions Committee reflects an unflinching – today, we would say draconian – commitment to compulsory education as well as an acknowledgment of its fragility.
Your committee is greatly impressed with the prevalence of truancy and the irregular attendance of children under 15 years of age at the schools established by the Provinces for their especial benefit. In order to overcome this evil and justify the establishment of a free system of education, it is the opinion of the Committee that the laws with regard to truancy and compulsory attendance of school should be more exacting…Your committee would also recommend that where it appears that absence from school is continuous and voluntary, Industrial schools should be established for the reclamation of the incorrigible and for the punishment of juvenile offenders, in the manner of the Industrial School established at Mimico, near the city of Toronto. [Italics added.]
A bit of research shows that the Victoria Industrial School for Boys opened in Mimico in 1887, a juvenile reformatory for boys ten through 14 that “emphasized child rescue, reform through character development, moral and academic education, and vocational training.” The schedule and curriculum seem harsh by today’s standards – even by the standards of 1934, when the school was closed “amid sensational public accusations that [it] was a ‘barbarous and antiquated’ institution.”
The CEA’s resolution committee of 1891 obviously saw it differently, perhaps influenced by this excerpt from Superintendent Hendrie’s first annual report on the school:
It seemed a curious undertaking to erect a school for these waifs without bar or cell or hardly a whip…This school differs from a reformatory in that it is in no sense a prison, and the boys are not sent down as criminals, neither are they turned loose upon the world at the expiration of a fixed term, but are apprenticed to some trusty farmer or mechanic… Poor ‘bags of bones’, found in a deplorable state, have acquired the home feeling and habits of industry and obedience in the kindly atmosphere of the School.
This 19th century attitude toward and “solution” to the problems of truancy may tempt us to judge the actions of the past by standards of the present. Certainly they do not reflect the values of educators in 2011, when free and compulsory public education is an undisputed social value, and educators would be loathe to use words like “incorrigible” and “evil” to describe students or their behaviour. But it may not be too big a stretch to see the CEA’s current initiatives to measure and improve student engagement as arising from concerns similar to the organizational founders’ concerns with truancy.
Like them, we are facing a dramatic shift in the demands of the economy, requiring a new level of student commitment to learning for a future that is unfolding in ways we cannot fully anticipate. Like them, we see the next generation entering a period of profound social and political change – in this case on a global scale. The problems of “truancy” occupy the minds of today’s educators less than concerns about lack of engagement – a kind of social and intellectual truancy that threatens the future of our young people much as failure to obtain the basics of elementary education threatened the future of Canada’s youth in 1891.
While we do not sentence the disengaged to reformatories, we do sentence them to lives divorced from the opportunity for full participation in the social and economic fabric of the nation. The need for full engagement in the learning process, rather than institutional structures, is the imperative that drives public education in the 21st century.