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Manitoba History: Review: Nancy M. Sheehan, J. Donald Wilson and David C. Jones (editors), Schools in the West: Essays in Canadian Educational History

by David G. Burley
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 16, Autumn 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Schools in the West: Essays in Canadian Educational History. Nancy M. Sheehan, J. Donald Wilson, David C. Jones, eds. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1986. ISBN 0-920490-57-3.

The editors express high hopes for this collection of sixteen essays, eleven of which are published here for the first time. In his introduction, J. Donald Wilson contends immodestly that, by focusing on the educational process itself, this volume embarks upon a new agenda and constitutes the sort of regional synthesis from which the larger national picture might be derived. A number of fine articles indeed explore problems in curriculum, teachers and their training, and the demands of parents and various local constituencies for educational services, the very sort of issues left unaddressed by historians who until recently seemed pre-occupied with the intent of social control implicit in the school promotions of the Anglophone Protestant middle class. Acknowledging the merits of the individual contributions, however, does not mean that this is a satisfactory book: the whole seems less than the sum of its parts. No synthesis emerges, in large measure because Wilson’s introduction — really a series of article abstracts — fails to suggest how regionalism can help explain the educational process, a matter of provincial responsibility. Indeed with three exceptions the authors themselves chose provincial frameworks for their studies.

Of these three, E. Brian Titley’s essay on Indian industrial schools best demonstrates the merits of a regional framework. Assuming that native peoples were doomed unless they adapted to European civilization, the Dominion government and its agents in providing educational services, the various Christian Churches, imposed an essentially regional system as one mechanism of absorbing a marginalized race. The unity of the system was built upon a combination of external precedents: earlier residential schools in eastern Canada, the model of the industrial school — “factory-like institutions in which neglected or delinquent children were trained by brutal regimen for the menial roles they were destined to play in the system of production” (133) — and an existing system of such schools for Indian children in the United States.

Several articles on provincial education do implicitly advance a regional approach of sorts despite their more carefully defined boundaries, but they come dangerously close to what might be termed the regionalist tautology. For example, Nancy Sheehan’s discussion of the development of Alberta’s curriculum in the twentieth century, John Calam’s analysis of teacher training in British Columbia in the 1920s, and Jean Barman’s study of the institutional structure in nineteenth-century British Columbia all emphasize the contradiction between educational systems and social ideologies imported from outside and the imperatives of provincial educational practice. Western educational history from this perspective is the adjustment of the unsuitable to the region’s reality; thus, what has resulted has been what has been best suited to the nature of the West.

Yet two authors — Clinton White in a previously published study of German Catholic schools in Saskatchewan and Stella Hryniuk and Neil McDonald on the Ukrainian experience in Manitoba — do provide a new qualification to the role of external factors. Resistance to acculturation through education and the form which this resistance took grew from experiences of these two groups before their immigration. In a sense, then, the West witnessed contention among external factors.

A regionalism which simply opposes external ideas with local practice will hardly provide the foundation for synthesis. This is not to say that the diligent reader will not find independently some utility in a regional frame-work. Indeed one might argue that the presence of four political jurisdictions in one region presents an ideal opportunity to study comparatively various responses to problems arising within the context of a more or less shared cultural ecology and historical relationship to other regions. For example, David Jones’s reprinted study of the interrelationship between schools and social disintegration in the Alberta dry belt in the 1920s raises the question of whether “the fanatical determination to maintain schools” (278) similarly tore apart communities in the marginal districts of other provinces. As well the financial exigencies of Prairie school districts contributed to what Robert S. Patterson identifies in the most interesting of the book’s articles as the ambiguous status experienced by those entering the teaching profession in the interwar years. Expected to be competent, virtuous and sufficiently tough to maintain classroom order and survive appalling living conditions, new teachers, women in the main, nevertheless suffered intimidation, sexual harassment, and a lack of respect from the suspicious communities and niggardly trustees whom they served. Recourse to professional organizations asserted self-esteem and a collective search for survival skills. Such conclusions point to the need to study rural/urban dynamics in forming teachers’ professional consciousness and in defining the objectives of associational activity within and outside the west. Similarly comparisons are tempted by Bill Maciejko’s article on the critique of public schooling by radical workers in Winnipeg from 1914 to 1921. Did a more intense class polarization in “injunction city” inform more acutely the workers’ consciousness of the role of education in the state’s support for the prerogatives of capital?

In several instances the relevance of the regional and even the provincial framework is problematic. In Nancy Sheehan’s article on the WCTU on the Prairies and Robert S. Patterson’s on Prairie teachers, a regional framework is simply a convenient unit of analysis. Similarly the province provides the appropriate frame of reference for Harro Van Brummelen’s article on changing religious values in British Columbia textbooks, Morris Mott’s inquiry into the origins of physical education in Manitoba, James Lyons’s essay on the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation in the Depression, Thomas Fleming’s analysis of the advent of local control over the appointment of school administrators in British Columbia, and L. W. Downey’s discussion of British Columbia’s adoption of funding aid for independent schools in 1977. Each of these offer useful perspectives on notable themes in educational history and to recognize them as such is not a trite or flip evaluation. But they are not what their editor purports them to be.

The time for a regional synthesis of western educational history may well be near. Already there has been much good work, including these articles. Unfortunately efforts to conceptualize a theoretical framework for generalization have been lacking.

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