UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Macdonald Robertson movement 1899-1909 Greene, Kristen Jane


Between 1899 and 1910 Sir William Macdonald, tobacco millionaire and educational philanthropist and James W. Robertson, agriculturalist and educator, conducted a seed grain competition across Canada to teach new agricultural practices, and founded manual training centres to teach physical skills and aid moral development. Through the Macdonald Rural School Fund, Macdonald and Robertson established school gardens and supported nature study in eastern Canada, combining with manual training to make a useful elementary curriculum for rural children. To support these pedagogical ideas they pressed, with limited success, for rural school consolidations. Finally, they established an agricultural and teacher training college in connection with McGill University. The Macdonald-Robertson movement drew on borrowed ideas, but also trained teachers, . persuaded school boards, managed costs, and held to a consistent pedagogy through specialized object lessons. Because it treats the Macdonald-Robertson reforms together, this thesis provides a viable explanation why these two men took up the cause of reform and why the various elements of the movement succeeded or failed. I claim the reforms grew up in the first place because the Macdonald-Robertson pedagogical ideas were in the wider interest of social reformers and of the two founders. The ease with which each reform could be controlled by central administrators and implemented in a standard way from one district to the next meant Robertson would achieve "success" on some publicly believable criterion, however variable in extent, yet maintain central control. Robertson found it necessary to dedicate time and energy in persuading local districts and teachers to take up the work. Yet were it not for local autonomy, schools would have been an even easier target for a parade of politically-motivated programmes. Macdonald and Robertson's experience shows that reform must be popular and workable at the local level. Administrative talent and sound pedagogy cannot overcome local resistance if school boards, parents or teachers do not value, or cannot afford, reform. The inherent paradox of standardization and autonomy deserves to remain a hypothesis in research on educational reform. My account shows how Macdonald and Robertson sought to standardize autonomous school districts and teachers, in order to preserve the rural lifestyle, in order to help Canada on her way to economic growth and social order in the face of immigration and urbanization, and the varying extent to which regions benefited economically from industrialization.

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