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“Who Went to School?

  • Michael B. Katz


“Calmly, deliberately, and advisedly, I give it as my opinion that no one other anti-progressive agent exercises so pernicious and clogging an influence on the educational growth and prosperity of Canada as irregular attendance of children in school.” The aura of profundity and revelation with which the author of this statement surrounded his remarks surely was unnecessary; by 1861, when it appeared, virtually no one associated with schools would have disagreed. Nearly all of the writers on educational problems during the last two decades had made the same point. After all they believed, as Mr. G. A. Barber, the superintendent of schools in Toronto, put it in 1854, that “a numerous and regular attendance of scholars” was “the keystone of successful popular education.” If that were the case, the success of popular education remained problematical. Judge Haggarty might have substituted the name of almost any other North American city when he told a grand jury that “the streets of Toronto, like those of too many other towns, still present the miserable spectacle of idle, untaught children, male and female—a crop too rapidly ripening for the dram-shop, the brothel and the prison—and that too under the shadow of spacious and admirably kept school houses, into which all may enter free of cost.”



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1. Journal of Education (May 1861), p. 68.

2. Quoted ibid. (July 1854), p. 198.

3. Ibid. (April 1860), p. 56.

4. Rubenstein, David, School Attendance in London, 1870–1904: A Social History, University of Hull, Occasional Papers in Economics and Social History No. 1 (Hull, England, 1969).

5. I have dealt with some of these problems in The Irony of Early School Reform (Cambridge, 1968) and in Class, Bureaucracy and Schools: The Illusion of Educational Change in America (New York, 1971); I have collected some nineteenth-century documents that bear on the topic in School Reform: Past and Present (Boston, 1971).

6. The Canadian Social History Project is described in my The Canadian Social History Project: Interim Report No. 3, an informal publication of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, November 1971, and in two earlier interim reports.

7. See “How ‘Representative’ was Hamilton?” Working Paper No. 23 in Interim Report No. 3.

8. Hobsbawm, Eric, Industry and Empire (London, 1969) p. 157; Foster, John, “Nineteenth-Century Towns—A Class Dimension,” in The Study of Urban History, ed. Dyos, H. J., (London, 1968), p. 299.

9. See “Conspicuous Consumption,” Working Paper No. 5, Interim Report No. 2, November 1969.

10. By my calculations, in 1851, 25 percent of tinsmiths were reasonably well-to-do, compared to 11 percent of clerks.

11. Thompson, E. P. and Yeo, Eileen, eds., The Unknown Mayhew (London, 1971), pp. 338, 367.

12. The separate school issue refers to the settlement of the Catholic demand for a share of public money to run Catholic schools. See Report of the Royal Commission on Education in Ontario (1950).

13. The 1850s was a decade of educational reform in general throughout the province. In Hamilton it was most notable for the establishment of the central school but evident in other respects, too (see Table 7).


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