Friday, September 16, 2011

Back to School Back Then

Our city has been buzzing with activity since school started up again just a couple of weeks ago. The back to school season is something that has caused excited for citizens of Brandon of all ages, from young children to university students to parents, for many decades.  In this blog I’d like to focus on what the experience of the back to school season would have been like in the earliest days of Brandon.  It’s amazing how similar the school experience today is to that of a completely different era.
                The founding of Brandon as a city coincided with a larger movement throughout the Victorian world towards standardized public education instead of taking lessons in the home or simply passing down skills generation to generation.  Of course, this change did not happen all at once.  The Chautaugua Art Desk pictured here, donated to the Daly House Museum by Mary Lovatt, was a medium through which children did lessons at home; they would simply scroll down to see lessons and copy each lesson onto a chalk slate.  Practises like this persisted into the early 20th century.

                The first public school in Brandon, the Old Central School, opened the same year the city was founded, in 1882.   At that time, there were only six classrooms and four teachers to educate the young people of Brandon’s growing population.  However, it was still acceptable during the first decades of compulsory public school for children to miss school due to family agricultural labour needs, which kept class sizes down significantly.  The number of children attending school in Brandon gradually increased over the next couple of decades, as did the number of schools in the city.  In 1889 five hundred children were attending public school in Brandon, and by 1901 that number had increased to a thousand.
                In 1890 a significant change was made to the public schools of Manitoba with the passing of the Manitoba Schools Act in legislature.  This act, now infamous in Manitoba history, led to the secularization and Anglicization of all public schools in Manitoba.  From that point on, Catholic and French schools had to be privately run and funded.  The material taught in Manitoba schools became increasingly pro-English.  Schools were designed to make children into good citizens of the Dominion of Canada.
                Prairie schools would have specific standardized textbooks designed to emphasize the lifestyles of most of the students.  For example, the textbook for spelling, The Canadian Speller, had a special edition for Prairie Provinces which included a large number of farming and agricultural words, due to the rural background of many students. Topics in western editions of The Canadian Readers, a series of books designed to improve students’ ability to read, include farms, nature, and winter as well as a series of traditional British fairytales.  Thus, the culture preferred by the schools and government was subtly imposed upon students.  At the beginning of each Canadian Readers book is a poem called, “The Dominion Hymn of Canada”, which expresses pride in Canada as well as the wider British Empire.

                The combination of British and Canadian content is a common theme throughout all standardized school textbooks written and published during this era.  For example, the Manitoba School Song Book published in 1940, which aims to put forth a collection of “song literature appropriate for use in school classes”, combines protestant hymns, songs about Canada, and Scottish and English folk songs.  While other countries are briefly touched upon, the emphasis is put on traditional British culture.

                A more extreme example can be found in the The Manitoba Readers books, which were provincial versions of The Canadian Readers.  In one edition of The Manitoba Readers, poems which are studied include “Canadian Timber”, “Canadian Boat Song”, and “England, My England”.  It’s hard to imagine poems which proclaim the glories of England being part of a core school curriculum today.  Even Canadian content isn’t as common as it used to be.  Of course, the large amount of Canadian content from this era was likely included as an attempt to boost national pride in a nation that was only in its earliest stages of development and identity.

                The types of lessons taught throughout the day would not be that different from the ones found in a public elementary school today.  Standardized science textbooks, such as this Botany one, were used for each grade.  The content of the courses, however, was slightly different.  Basic Darwinian principals such as “survival of the fittest” would be included along with various diagrams and explanations of plant life.
                Music and sports were also important parts of the school experience right from the beginning.  This Christie’s catalogue from the early 20th century sells a variety of musical instruments and sporting equipment along with regular school supplies such as pens, paper, binders, and markers that are required for students today.  The school experience that we are so familiar with today clearly was developing by the end of the Victorian era.

                Overall, the day to day procedures and classroom experiences of school were very similar in the Victorian era to what they are today.  However, the content of the individual classes as well as the underlying purposes of public education were significantly different.