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Review

Schooling in Transition: Readings in Canadian History of Education

By Sara Z. Burke and Patrice Milewski, Editors

June 19, 2014

Review By Patrick A. Dunae

This collection of essays is edited by Sara Burke, a historian, and Patrick Milewski, a sociologist and former elementary school teacher, at Laurentian University. The title, Schooling in Transition, reflects the editors’ belief that public education is characterized “not by continuous progression, but by recurring contests over pedagogy, curriculum, and politics” (3). Thus, public education “now, as in the past, continues to be schooling in transition” (80). In this collection, the editors have focussed on enduring contests about “the changing role of the state in schooling, patterns of exclusion in public education based on class, race, gender, and language; provincial versus local control of education; “the development of the teaching profession;” and the “ongoing struggle between traditional and child-centred models of schooling” (8).

The book is aimed at college and university students. It contains twenty-four previously published scholarly articles and is intended to provide students with an overview of key themes in the academic history of public education in Canada. The articles are presented in twelve chapters, each of them with a brief thematic introduction and “Suggestions for Further Reading.” Also helpful is an introductory essay, where the editors provide some historiographical context for the articles. They suggest that the writing of education history in the past fifty years can be “conceptualized in terms of four broadly defined but overlapping stages: the traditional progressive approach of the 1950s and 1960s; the revisionism of the 1970s; the emphasis on factors of race, class, and gender of the 1980s; and by the 1990s, the turn toward diversity and multidisciplinarity” (3).

Several essays in this collection are pertinent to British Columbia. Eric W. Sager of the University of Victoria alludes to BC teachers in an essay, first published in 2007, entitled “Women Teachers in Canada, 1881-1901: Revisiting the ‘Feminization’ of an Occupation.” Sager deploys quantitative and qualitative data to reassess the motivations and experiences of middle-class women who became teachers. Timothy J. Stanley of the University of Ottawa addresses the subject of discrimination and exclusion in his essay, first published in 1990, entitled “White Supremacy, Chinese Schooling, and School Segregation in Victoria: The Case of the Chinese Students’ Strike, 1922-1923.” Essays by three eminent educational historians, all now retired from UBC, are included in this reader. Jean Barman’s “Schooled for Inequality: The Education of British Columbia Aboriginal Children,” (c. 1995) examines the consequences of compelling First Nations children to attend schools that were inadequately funded and run by denominational teachers with little or no pedagogical training. J. Donald Wilson’s essay, first published in 1990, “‘I Am Here to Help If you Need Me:’ British Columbia’s Rural Teachers’ Welfare Officer, 1928-1935,” describes the work of the indomitable Lottie Bowron, who tried to ameliorate some of the dire conditions that novice female teachers endured in remote school districts and primitive schools. In “The Triumph of ‘Formalism’: Elementary Schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s,” which first appeared in BC Studies in Spring-Summer 1986, Neil Sutherland explains why teachers, who were introduced to new theories of learning in teachers’ colleges, persisted in following traditional modes of teaching in their classrooms. Also included is an essay first published in 1996 by Mona Gleason of UBC’s Department of Educational Studies, entitled “Disciplining Children, Disciplining Parents: The Nature and Meaning of Advice to Canadian Parents, 1945-1955.” Gleason argues that literature written by so-called experts in child development undermined the experiential knowledge of parents and teachers.

All of these articles have been reprinted in other edited collections, and several appeared in a popular reader compiled by Barman, Sutherland, and Wilson entitled Children, Teachers, and Schools in the History of British Columbia (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1995). The essays were subsequently reprinted in the second edition of Children, Teachers and Schools, edited by Barman and Gleason, in 2003. Several articles presented here in Schooling in Transition were also included in Nancy Janovicek and Joy Parr, editors, Histories of Canadian Children and Youth (Oxford University Press, 2003). Is there a demand and market for another packaged collection like this one?

Twenty years ago the field of educational history in Canada was booming. In British Columbia, all of the universities and university-colleges had teacher training programs with “foundations” courses on the history of education. Ten years ago, the scholarly discipline had diminished, but it still flourished in post-secondary institutions now classified as research and teaching universities. Today, foundations courses have been curtailed or eliminated in Faculties of Education; and History departments, within Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences faculties, regrettably do not offer undergraduate courses on the history of education. However, this collection of essays may signal a renaissance in historical studies in education in Canada; it may stimulate interest in, and promote debate about, the historical character of public schools in a new generation of undergraduate and postgraduate students. If so, this book is very encouraging.

The book contains a dozen historical photographs, including three from the BC Archives. Placed at the start of each chapter, the photographs provide a good visual element to the book’s topics and themes. But the image on the front cover is puzzling. It is reproduced courtesy of the Archives of Ontario, and in the photo credit line it is described as “Children walk to school [circa 1910].” It shows a group of schoolboys carrying satchels and lunch boxes walking down a country road. The boys have their backs to the reader; that is, they are walking away from us. What were they feeling about their situation when this photograph was taken: were they looking forward to another stimulating day at school or were they resigned to impending classroom drudgery? It would be easier to speculate on these questions if we could see their faces. And where are the girls? A more inclusive and engaging cover image would have enhanced this publication. But in this case, the cliché about not judging a book by its cover is appropriate. The editors have selected judiciously from an extensive body of literature. These essays not only address major themes in the history of education; they also relate to important issues in the wider fields of social, economic, and political history.

Schooling in Transition: Readings in Canadian History of Education
Sara Z. Burke and Patrice Milewski, Editors
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 423 pp. Illus., $95.00 cloth; $49.95 paper