AN EXPERIMENT IN EDUCATION
AN ADDRESS BY REVEREND C. W. SOWBY, M.A.,
PRINCIPAL, UPPER CANADA COLLEGE, TORONTO
Chairman: The President, Mr. H. G. Colebrook
Thursday, November 17th, 1949
Honoured Guests--Members of the Upper Canada College Old Boys Association--Members of the Empire Club of Canada--it is not often our privilege in extending a welcome to our Guest Speaker that we can act in the dual capacity of extending to him also a very hearty and sincere welcome to our midst as a new Canadian.
It is, I think, most fitting that the Empire Club of Canada, founded for a single purpose and aim--that of strengthening the bonds of unity within the Empire should be one of the first public bodies to extend this welcome to the Rev. Mr. Sowby.
You will have learned with interest from your notice cards of the distinguished career of our honoured guest and will have noted with pleasure, I am sure, that while he has temporarily sojourned in a country not notoriously friendly to the British Empire, that he was "Always keenly interested in the British Commonwealth and that Mr. Sowby welcomed the opportunity of bringing his family to Canada and living again under the British Flag."
As Canadians we rejoice in knowing that Upper Canada College has brought Mr. Sowby to assume the very important role of Principal of that Institution and I am sure I speak for all of you when I express the hope that his work may yield to him a full measure of happiness, success and satisfaction.
Mr. Sowby has chosen as the subject of his address today "An Experiment in Education".
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen
It is a great honour to be asked to speak at the Empire Club. As an Englishman with an interest in history, and particularly in Empire development, as one who has lived in Southern Ireland 15 years, I have learnt to appreciate what this Club stands for: the greatest and most successful experiment in voluntary co-operation among free and equal nations that the world has ever known. I have had many friends in Ireland, England and in the Dominions who have a vision of what the Empire and Commonwealth means to the future of the world. One of my greatest friends was instrumental in helping to draw up the Statute of Westminster. For that reason among others I am delighted to be with you now, even as an Infant Canadian.
I appreciate the honour you have done me. I hope I shall convey to you my thoughts better than when I spoke further south on this continent two years ago. I was lecturing and in the front row a lady sat with eyes and mouth open, listening to me apparently with the greatest interest. This encouraged me greatly and when I had finished the Chairman asked for questions. The lady continued to gaze at me and said, "Gee, I love your English accent, you're just cute". I am afraid she had listened only to the accent!
I am grateful to the Secretary for the help he has given me. I feel now like the policeman outside Westminster Abbey early on the morning of the Coronation. A figure appeared outside the Abbey clad in gorgeous mediaeval robes and an old lady said, "Constable, who is that young man?" "That, ma'am", replied the policeman, "is His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshall of England. If this show goes well, he gets the credit, if it goes bad, I gets the blame".
When I asked for some advice as to what I should talk about, some of your members asked me to give you a bit of Irish Blarney and others to talk about my own subject--Education. Obviously I can't take up your time telling you funny stories about the land where the impossible always happens and the inevitable never does! Neither can I talk to you about education in Canada when I have been here less than three months. It would be most foolish of me to attempt it. So I propose to tell you about an educational experiment which has gone on in Ireland over the last 100 years. It is about the School over which I had the honour to preside' as Warden of St. Columba's College.
I find that the title of Warden always causes some amusement on this continent. I notice a smile spreading over the faces of the audience. I now know that on this side of the world the title is reserved for the heads of institutions with higher walls and fewer holidays than a boy's school. Nevertheless, I must ask you to believe that I presided over a perfectly respectable boys' private school of the type that in Great Britain is quite logically called a Public School.
About 100 years ago in 1840, there was a young Oxford Don, William Sewen, a brilliant man, primarily a scholar, yet full of many interests. He was one of the progressive Tories whose conscience was shocked by the conditions of the poor in industrial England-conditions in the mines and factories, women and children working long hours and at impossible tasks. He joined heart and soul with Disraeli and Shaftesbury in trying to improve these conditions.
At Oxford he met many of the sons of the Irish Protestant landlords and was also shocked by their attitude towards their tenants, whom they regarded as scarcely human. But he met two conscientious men, Lord Adare and William Mansell, both Members of Parliament, who were anxious to improve the conditions of their country and particularly the appalling conditions of the Irish peasantry who were living in poverty and filth and with: no hope of improvement. In Ireland there was none of the fierce loyalty which existed between the Scottish landlords and their clans, or the friendly relationship which usually obtained between the English squire and his people playing cricket on the village green. In Ireland, at that time, there was often bitterness or indifference; there was also the great barrier of religion and language, for the peasants spoke Irish and the landlords English. Sewell visited Ireland, saw the facts for himself and advised that Ireland needed a Public School in Ireland at which the future Irish Protestant landlords should be educated to be Irish and not imitation Englishmen, as they became by going to the English Schools. He was himself a Winchester boy and had long dreamed of an ideal Public School, a modern version of what Eton and Winchester were originally intended to be--a Christian Collegiate body composed of a number of cultured men living a common life like that of a University Common Room. His School was to be a Christian family where there should be courtesy, restraint, good humour and a common love of learning and teaching. The assistant masters were to take their part with the Headmaster, sharing his responsibilities, helping and advising him, so that with corporate responsibility they should speak with one voice. Education, he said, was not to be a means of making money, but a work of Christian duty and Christian love. They were to work with equal earnestness for all boys (not just for the most promising) and to form strict and accurate habits on all alike. Masters were also to be associated with the boys in their amusements as well as in their studies.
Sewell believed that a School should be a "family writ large"! that the discipline should be of a domestic or parental character,, based not so much on fear of punishment as on mutual respect and consideration, gradually becoming self-discipline as boys matured, to be a blend of friendly informality with a certain dignity.
They decided that in order to found such a College, they must first find a really beautiful site. They chose a magnificent position on a richly wooded mountain, overlooking the sea. Here Sewell's imagination showed itself again. Believing in the almost forgotten Platonic theory that children should be surrounded by beauty, dignity and calm, they collected as many beautiful things as they could put into the School, beginning with some magnificent oak stalls for the chapel. These were very foolishly being thrown out by the Magdalen College, Oxford. He also obtained some very beautiful oak furniture, some of it of historic interest, for the house, 17th century tapestries, gold plate, including the flagon made for Charles Ist's wedding and the gold reliquary which belonged to St. Columba himself. Sewell consulted Arnold of Rugby, who agreed and said, "Sir, you cannot educate except under the shadow of antiquity." So they wisely imported the antiquity.
Only this week at Upper Canada, a small, boy arrived at my house to call for a book which I had promised to lend to a master. He seemed to be interested in books and I showed him a book which was 250 years old and then he saw an old table. He said, "How old is this?" When I told him that it was 200 years old, he said, "My, sir, you have taken good care of it!"
The College was opened in 1843. For those days, the curriculum was positively revolutionary in its originality at a time when only the Classics were being studied in most other Public Schools. At St. Columba's, they remained the basis, but Mathematics were taught. Physical Science was taught, though it was thought that the laws of Chemistry might best be impressed on boys by being given to them to be turned into Latin Verse. Modern History was also taught and boys had a choice of French, Italian or German, Music and Art and Botany also were on the curriculum and at a time when in the English Schools the attitude towards games was one of disapproval or, at its best, indifference, Sewell insisted on his boys doing gymnastic exercises. We take all these things for granted now-but they were quite unheard of in those days. He was a great pioneer in education.
Over all this, the Irish language was compulsory for all scholars, in the hope of bridging one of the gaps between the Protestant landlords and clergy and the Irish-speaking peasantry. At the centre of it all was the Christian religion. By Collegiate body, they meant a community of practising Christians with God at the centre of every individual life and of the family life.
Those Founders a century ago also planned that eventually the College should compose its own music, draw its own building plans, build its own buildings, its own printing, run its own farm, in order to train men who would be independent, original and self-reliant. They saw the vision of a school which would be Irish and not a pale imitation of an English school; which would produce men who would have a feeling of responsibility to Ireland without being anti-English or anti anything else, men of wide interests and balanced judgment, capable of separating the good from the third rate, men whose ambition was to serve.
That was over a century ago! How did they succeed? Their College produced the leaders-an astonishing number of them in all walks of life, the Services (the College produced 16 generals in the last war alone although the country was officially neutral. As an Irishman in Dublin said, "Sure, we're neutral, we don't care who kills Hitler").
The College also produced many Indian Civil Servants, Colonial Servants, Judges, Doctors, leaders here in Canada--but practically none of them stayed in Ireland--and Ireland was much the poorer for it.
Now we move on 90 years, leaving aside the Home Rule period, the Irish Rebellion of 1916, the Treaty and the Irish Civil War. This is not the time or place to speak of them. I want to take up again the story of this Educational Experiment at the point at which I became an eye witness or participant. In 1934 times had changed. The Church of Ireland numbers had declined by 46% in less than 20 years, so that the Church of Ireland became only 5% of the population of South Ireland. The first reaction was an atmosphere of depression and defeatism. The survivors stood apart from the national life, lamenting a vanished past, waiting for a show of hostility from those newly in power. At any rate, they felt certain that there was no future for themselves or for their children in the new Ireland and that perhaps they had better send them to England. They were gradually reassured from time to time when the new Governments made it clear that they wanted the Southern Protestants to stay in the country, not as a disgruntled minority standing apart, but playing a useful part in the common life.
Times had changed in another respect. The broad and wise educational aims of the Founders had been to some extent forgotten. The current view of education was that it was a matter of training children to pass examinations at all costs, and that almost anything else was irrelevant. There is a true story about one very distinguished Irish Headmaster, the apostle of that school of thought (he was a great man and a great Head and I had a deep respect for him). For many years the Inspectors of the Irish Department of Education inspected his school, but each year they recommended to him that there should be a Library--each year he replied, "No, we work here, we have no time for reading!" At last, pressure was brought to bear by his Governors and once more the Inspectors presented themselves for their annual visit. "Now," he said grimly and grudgingly, "I've had to do it, come to see the Library". He showed them into a large room, empty except for a revolving bookcase housing the Encyclopaedia Britannica. With a magnificent gesture he said, "There, that's all we have time to read here!"
In 1934, St. Columba's felt that its original aims stood--to produce responsible men of wide and balanced education, capable of independent thought and also of serving the community-so the educational experiment was revived.
The Founders' idea was of a wide and balanced education with an opportunity for each boy to develop what is best in him, to develop his own character (we must never talk about moulding a boy's character--we have no right to mould anyone to our ideas of what he ought to be) and yet helping him to live happily in a community and to serve it.
To get real education, you must have a keen, vigorous and cheerful atmosphere, friendly relations and mutual trust between masters and boys. (The old idea of masters and boys being natural enemies is out-of-date). With the right leadership, the boys will be alive and keen-the discipline (for there must be discipline) will be something nearer to self-discipline and there will be a strong and vigorous community spirit and public opinion.
So, of course, we developed our clubs and societies, Art, Music, Dramatics, of course. The Natural History several years in succession was led by a prominent member of the Rugby team, watching birds and studying wild flowers and geology at weekends, debating and so on. Then, of course, there was manual work, carpentry, radio, engineering, printing, etc. to be fitted in. We were not a rich school, so we had to adapt our houses as club rooms, reroof them and put in new windows and doors--they were not professional jobs but the boys who did the work appreciated them all the more. These had to be made financially self-supporting.
The most popular community effort was half a mile or more of concrete road. The main avenue to the College was on the mountain side and became a mountain stream in wet weather. We borrowed a cement mixer and laid the cement. It took a year to do in short periods of an hour or two at a time, but it has stood the test of 10 years and still survives. It was hard work; but it taught us to enjoy working together in spite of blistered hands and stiff backs.
Then came the farm! This is an educational experiment, not just a method of producing food even though that was important, in view of the uncertainties during the war.
There is, I believe, a real danger that city dwellers are coming to regard the country merely as a place to picnic in and to look upon the farmer as a primitive or backward man who is content to spend his life in the mud because he hasn't got the intelligence to get out of it and into the city.
A civilization which believes that will perish and will deserve to perish. The warnings of Lord Boyd Orr ought to have taught us that. I believe that every child should learn to know something of Nature and the soil and the satisfaction of growing things and of caring for animals, of the dangers of soil erosion and of our duty of conserving it and of putting back into it what we have taken out; of the necessity of re-planting the forests and of not wasting God's natural gifts. We don't want to make them all into farmers, but we want them to appreciate the spiritual basis of the natural world. "Lord, how manifold are thy works, in wisdom hast Thou made them all, the earth is full of Thy riches".
So we worked our School farm of 110 acres. We had a dairy herd of twenty cows which provided our milk; we had our flock of sheep and killed our own mutton. We grew our oats and wheat, potatoes. We had our poultry and pigs, and Oh! those pigs! Many a morning I had to go down in my pyjamas and drive away the pigs which had escaped from their rightful quarters with their not inconsiderable families and rooted on my front lawns.
We had an agricultural graduate in charge of the farm. He had a farm committee, composed of himself, 8 boys and a workman. They met each week, kept minutes, reviewed the work of the past week and outlined the work for the next week. Then for two hours in the afternoon the farming boys worked in the fields hedging, ditching, feeding animals, sowing or picking potatoes. One day a week they had farm lectures by an expert. They also had a Young Farmers' Club--which visited other farms, had outside lecturers and films and an agricultural library in their club rooms, which they had made out of a ruined cottage.
Some boys took farming instead of games, some did some of each. All farmers did the full matriculation course, so that farming did not become a soft option.
During the last eight years, 16 1/2% of the boys who left St. Columba's went into farming or veterinary work. The Government became quite keen and gave all possible help-by giving handsome financial grants. They were keen to encourage the boys to stay on the land, in the hope that they would set an example of good farming in their own neighbourhoods and also take a more active part in the life of the countryside, which their fathers and grandfathers had left in order to join the British Services.
I hear someone (probably an Upper Canada father) muttering to himself= "with all those activities outside the curriculum, how do they get any School work done?" A very natural question and one I am glad to answer and I answer without hesitation. I have meditated for some time as to whether I should tell you this but perhaps I should give the results as they are the real justification of the experiment. During those years there was a steady rise in the standard of work in all cases. The number of university scholarships in all subjects grew steadily, and in the last two years boys from St. Columba's won the greatest number of scholarships at Trinity College Dublin of any School in Ireland. The numbers of boys obtaining First Honours in the University also rose steadily from 6 in 1938 to 29 in 1947 and 31 in 1948. They also had the largest number of any School on the Varsity Rugby Team, which shows a balance.
School Certificate or Matriculation results for the average boys improved steadily. In the last five years, four times all the candidates passed School. Certificate with an average of 6 credits. Best of all, those boys who were below the average came into their own, while many of them flourished and their academic results surprised at tunes even the most optimistic members of the staff. Why? Because they were alive and active and developing in a balanced way. Of that I have no doubt at all. I should add that the standard of play in all games and track also improved. It is probably only a coincidence that our leading farmer of one year grew into the man who stroked the Cambridge University and also the English Olympic boat in 1948. Farmers have their uses! During 16 years of being a headmaster, I have proved to my own satisfaction that if the education is balanced and the foundations are sound, the examination results will follow as a bi-product, which is all that they deserve to be.
We made our mistakes--plenty of them, but at any rate it was interesting and exhilarating work. I expect that similar things are being done here in different ways--some of it is being done much better: Probably the same ideas would not work out the same in detail here. Ideas and plans have to be adapted to different conditions.
Maybe Plato and his friends knew more about it all than we do and if they could come to speak to The Empire Club we might think them rather idealistic and impractical. I know what I think about it.