Sunday, June 2, 2013

School Days in Early Toronto

Last weekend was “Doors Open” in Toronto. It’s an annual event that invites residents to go out and explore some of our city’s most interesting buildings. My wife and I visited the site of Upper Canada’s first parliament building, which, alas, is mostly paved over by a car dealership. More uplifting was the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse (1849), Toronto’s first free school.

The Schoolhouse, just east of Parliament St. and south of King St.
After our visit, I was curious to learn more about education in those days. Prior to 1841, education was low on the list of priorities for most of the common people. The immigrants to Upper Canada wanted two things: land, and a farm on that land. The practical skills of agriculture and domestic life were far more pressing than English grammar.

Some legislation had passed in 1816 which encouraged local communities to promote their own schooling. It basically said, “If you want a school, then just appoint trustees, build or find a building, hire a teacher, and establish whatever curriculum seems good to you.” By 1841, there was a smattering of local schools across the province, but without consistency. And those children who did attend were only there for a few short years.

Egerton Ryerson, with his eccentric hair well suited to his eccentric name

Enter Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister and a new hero of mine. He and other reformers wanted a system with standardized content and equal access for everyone. He said “education should be as plentiful as water and as free as air.” Through the reform movement, the free market of education went under public administration in 1841.

Ryerson went on to become superintendent of education in the province, and served from 1844 to 1876. Under his careful management, the schools adopted standard textbooks, a system of graded subjects, uniform assessment, and a central administration. He also established Toronto’s first teacher training facility, which would later become Ryerson University.

The Enoch Turner Schoolhouse came to exist out of a shortcoming of the early system. Schools received funding from the government, but parents were required to pay fees as well. This was a problem for the working class. Enter Enoch Turner. He was a wealthy brewer in the distillery district of Toronto, and he was concerned for the poor Irish immigrants living in Corktown, the neighborhood adjacent to his brewery. So, he decided to donate all the money required to build and run a free school for the children of Corktown. The school opened its doors in 1849, and it held lessons for 80 to 90 students each day.
Inside the schoolhouse

The curriculum focused on “the three Rs,” which had nothing to do with conservation. They were “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” The discerning reader may note that only one of them actually begins with R, but the student who pointed that out probably got the strap.

The schoolhouse was slated for demolition in 1960 – to build a condo, no doubt – but a group of citizens banded together to raise funds for its protection. Hats off to them! The building is a standing history lesson about childhood in 19th century Toronto, and a lasting tribute to its generous founder.

Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel. History of the Canadian Peoples: Beginnings to 1867.
J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague. The Structure of Canadian History.
Photo References

No comments:

Post a Comment