Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

By George M. Wrong1

In Canada there has been no really great crisis like that of the Revolution or of the civil war in the United States to intensify historical interest. Many a citizen of Canada is not sure whether the old land of his ancestor, or the new one of his birth or adoption is his real country. He still belongs to both, and his patriotic interest is widely diffused. Perhaps, as a result, he is more cosmopolitan, but he is usually wanting in that almost fierce love for his country’s past which in the United States is so keen a stimulus to historical study. A natural situation in Canada inimical to history has not been improved by enlightened policy. The Canadian universities, like the Scotch, have, until recently, quite neglected history. The subject had only a minor place on the curriculum and no adequate training in historical method was furnished. Happily a marked change has taken place. In the two largest Canadian universities (the University of Toronto and McGill University) history now occupies a respectable place, though it still receives far less attention than universities of similar importance give it in the United States.

There is no uniform educational system in Canada; the government of each Province is charged with education as is that of each State in the United States. The Federal Government in Canada has not even that shadowy oversight of education that is implied in the United States by the existence of a Federal Commissioner of Education. Nearly five of the six millions of people in Canada are in the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In Quebec the schools are chiefly French, and are largely under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously the Province of Ontario must be the principal field of our inquiries. This Province, containing nearly half of the population of Canada, owes the first organization of its government to the American Revolution. Thousands of Loyalists, who refused to consent to the severance of. the American colonies from Great Britain, found a refuge in what is now Ontario. Many of them belonged to the educated classes, and had a zeal for education similar to that of the New England pioneers. The early governors, too, were on the whole enlightened men, who for many years wielded a power almost despotic. Extensive lands were set apart for educational purposes. For a long time the Anglican Church struggled to control State-aided education. She failed in the end. Roman Catholics still have separate schools supported by the rates levied on the taxpayers adhering to that church, but the remainder of the State system is now completely secularized.

The secondary schools are numerous, and are sometimes found in villages of less than 1,000 inhabitants. The State university for a long time charged an annual fee of only $10. It is now but $40, so that a college course is within the reach of a large number. It is becoming not uncommon for a farmer’s son to take a degree in the university before settling down upon the farm.

Until within the last ten years classics and mathematics claimed chief attention. Now modern languages are on about the same footing with them, the relative standard in mathematics being probably the highest of all the subjects. History has a fairly good place in the lower forms, but an unimportant one in the work for the college-entrance examination, being worth only one-third of the value of Greek or Latin, and one-sixth of that of mathematics.

The curriculum in the secondary schools of Ontario is limited to the history of ancient Greece and Rome, of England, and of Canada. In some of the smaller provinces an outline of general history is included. History is compulsory in every year of the course, which usually extends over about four years. In some schools five hours a week are given to history; the average would be about three hours. The larger schools with five or more teachers have usually a specialist devoted to history alone. In some of the smaller schools any member of the staff may have a class in history thrust upon him.

Let me summarize briefly my criticisms and suggestions:

  1. The adequate training of the teacher was for a long time neglected. There has been a two-fold reason for this. On the one hand the real difficulties both of teaching and of learning history have been underestimated. Roederer, the minister of the first Napoleon, banished the teaching of history from the French schools on the ground that the subject could easily be learned without being taught. This view is still widespread. In Canada it has hardly yet been realized that the truths of history are subtle and may easily be missed, and that to teach it there must be added to a thoughtful study of the facts a vigorous and disciplined imagination and the power of arranging complex material effectively. Because the teaching was usually bad, pupils came to regard history as a dreary and painful study. The other cause of the insufficient training of teachers of history has been the defective work of the universities, already referred to. The education department for Ontario has been quick to utilize for the schools the better work which the colleges are now doing in history. There is a system of specialist certificates for teachers. To teach classics, mathematics, etc., a high specialistic qualification had long been required. For a long time any one was allowed to teach history, but now a specialist in history must pass examinations hardly less difficult than those for an honor degree in modern history at Oxford. The improvement of the teaching of history, as a result of this policy, will probably soon be very marked. Of course it will still happen in the smaller schools that history will be taught by masters with no special qualifications, for these schools can not have a master devoted exclusively to history. The point gained, however, is that history is now on the same footing as other departments with regard to specialistic training.
  2. The curriculum is defective. The history of Greece and Rome to the Augustan age, and that of England and Canada, do not form a well-balanced course of historical study. It leaves untouched, almost, the great epochs of continental Europe, and makes it possible for a student to go up to the university having scarcely heard of St. Bernard, Charles V, Frederick the Great, or Mirabeau. In Canada, a part of the British Empire, pupils know nothing of other portions of the same Empire-India or Australia, and as far as I can learn, the history of the United States is not taught in any Canadian school. The curriculum suggested in the foregoing report is hardly suitable for Canada, but that portion of it which relates to the history of continental Europe might well be adopted in the Canadian schools.
  3. The time given to history is usually, though not always, inadequate. New subjects are making claims, sometimes extravagant, upon the time of the schools. In a large secondary school in Toronto, the time available weekly was divided into thirty-five periods. Of these the physical sciences claimed at first twenty-two, much to the amusement of the other departments. History with no technical language, appears to be easier than chemistry, and it may plausibly be urged that it should take a minor place upon the time table. Friends of history ought to insist that an extension of the curriculum should go hand in hand with an extension of the time for instruction. It should be laid down as a general rule that the teaching must cover the whole ground of the curriculum. The pupils usually remember what they read in the text-book only when they hear it talked about in the class.
  4. The text-books are inferior in quality. The education department requires the same text-book to be used in all the schools. For English history the highest classes use Green’s “Short History of the English People”—by far the best book on the list, but, in my opinion not a good text-book. The other books are, on the whole, colorless compilations, “confused in arrangement,” as one teacher writes me, “bad in diction, and with no sense of proportion.” These defects are not peculiar to the books used in Canada. To pick out the salient features of a nation’s history and to describe them with both scientific precision and literary charm are tasks requiring rare gifts. Until our best minds turn to the unattractive but useful task of writing history text-books, we shall not have what we need.

One may say in closing that though history has not as yet really flourished in the Canadian schools, its status is steadily improving. The key of the situation is really with the colleges. These train the teacher, and an able teacher properly trained will give dignity to and win a place for the subject. With such teachers the dreary history lesson has been transformed in some places in Canada into au animated lecture. Nearly every school has a library-often very incomplete, of course. A good teacher and a good library for his own needs, to which the pupils may also be referred-these will be the two best agents for improving the status of history. It is still true that the subject is often neglected, and I see no hope that a uniform standard can be adopted in all the secondary schools.

Those with a small staff sometimes try to cover as many subjects as do the larger schools, and the teaching of some branches must be slighted. One effective way of increasing the attention to history in the work for college entrance would be to establish competitive scholarships at matriculation for excellence in history. Such scholarships have done much for Greek, Latin, and modern languages. They have not yet been offered in connection with history, and naturally. the best pupils bend their energies to the subjects that have the prospect of reward.

Next section: Appendix VII

  1. This short article on “History in the Canadian Schools” was written, at the request of the committee, by Professor Wrong, professor of history in the University of Toronto. No study of Canadian schools has been made by the committee. []