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Work, class and education : vocationalism in British Columbia’s public schools, 1900-1929 Dunn, Timothy Allan


Debate surrounding schools and work became prevalent during the mid 1970s, but it was by no means a new issue. Indeed, just a decade earlier, federal and provincial governments invested heavily in public education. They believed that an upgraded workforce would Increase the gross national product, therefore benefitting Canadian society. Today there is little talk of matching the spending of the 1960s. Yet the matching of secondary and post secondary institutions with the economy remains at centre stage as part of a solution to high unemployment and slumping productivity. This match preoccupied education policy-makers half a century ago. The following study examines the relationships between schools and work in British Columbia from 1900 until 1929. It focuses on the emergence of vocationalian in the province's public schools during that period. Some historians and economists argue that as society industrialized with widespread mechanization and office expansion, work became more complex and specialized. This new work apparently lessened the need for the unskilled and created demands for technological, managerial and skilled personnel. The exponents of this human capital hypothesis, argue that school expansion including vocational education was a response to modern labour requirements-. Other scholars, however, deemphasize education's contribution to economic growth. Instead, they offer a social control explanation, suggesting vocationalism was part of a "search for order" to help preserve societal relationships and stability threatened by industrialization. This study seeks to determine the nature of work in British Columbia after the CPR' s arrival in 1886; to detail the skills and disciplines demanded of workers; to describe the promoters and opponents of vocationalism; and to explicate the substance of vocational instruction. The concepts and questions employed by social historians are useful to analyse the industrial workplace and response to vocational education. Recent social history gives particular attention to the changing nature and requirements of work. Also, its "bottom up" perspective considers the points of view of ordinary working people toward industrialization. British Columbia's "Annual Reports of the Public Schools", and the federal Labour Department's "Annual Reports", "Labour Gazette", and "Vocational Education", provide full details on the substance of vocational instruction and how it related to the growing industrial economy. Parliamentary Royal Commissions express the educational concerns of schoolmen, businessmen, community groups and the working class. Likewise, business and educational journals, daily newspapers, and various manuscript sources, expand public input into debates surrounding vocational education. The thesis claims that toward the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization took hold in British Columbia, especially in the resource sectors. Hierarchical work relationships, a division of labour and widespread mechanization characterized the industrial and commercial workplace. Industrialization diluted most work skills and employees mastered most tasks quickly on the job. The bulk of industrial work was dirty, dangerous and fluctuated with seasonal rhythms and cyclical economic demands. Moreover, it required large numbers of unskilled labourers to perform rigid work routines. To be sure, the economy needed some craftsmen and highly trained people, but employers usually imported them from abroad. The decaying apprenticeship system certainly supports these findings. The rise of industrial capitalism in British Columbia generated considerable social and economic unrest as unemployment, racial riots, radical politics and class conflict became acute by 1900. As part of a collective response to the challenges of industrialization and urban growth, social reformers from the ranks of prominent business and political circles formed community service groups, partly out of fear, vested interest and Christian humanitarianism. Reformers tried to ameliorate severe conditions of working people and bring order to the community threatened by the spread of moral decay, unsanitary conditions and class hatred. This study's main argument is that the introduction of vocationalism into the public schools after 1900 was largely a facet of a "thrust for efficiency" aimed at preserving stability as society adjusted to industrialization and urban growth. Efficiency was an ideal considered by many middle class reformers as a panacea to the problems of industrial capitalism. Restructuring public schooling was only part of a larger solution including municipal reforms, social service, labour legislation and corporate concentration. Reformers claimed that schools be reorganized to make education more relevant to a modern society. Representatives from business, community groups, established political parties and the provincial Education Department all claimed vocational instruction fostered "industrial efficiency." The YMCA and Local Councils of Women added that practical training raised the quality of working class life and provided an adequate supply of manual workers and domestic servants. Between 1900 and 1929 British Columbia's school system was restructured, often in accordance with suggestions made by reformers. The administration grew and became more expertise; teachers were better trained and certified in specialized subjects; the programme of studies was differentiated; and vocational education, guidance, testing and junior high schools were implemented. The ultimate aim of mass public education was to prepare youth for "socially efficient citizenship." Vocationalism played a leading role in this matter. It tried to shape students to conform to society's needs, channelling them into industrial occupations and training individuals to regard their main obligation as serving the community, particularly through employment. Schoolmen believed vocational training could stem sources of conflict plaguing society by providing students with industrial work habits and matching youth to suitable jobs. Vocationalism drew only a minimal commitment to teaching marketable work skills in favour of inculcating industrial work norms including discipline, time-thrift, submission to authority, respect for property rights and the acceptance of ones place in the social order. Manual training and technical education shaped boys' aspirations toward industrial occupations while domestic science and home economics stressed the "cult of domesticity" whereby girls were oriented toward the home. Vocationalism was largely aimed at working class children. Moreover, reformers promoted vocational education under the rubric of equality of educational opportunity. Academic education, they claimed, prepared some for the professions, while practical instruction geared others to manual occupations. Thus, all youth were to be given a chance to receive citizenship training in order to succeed in life. The working class response to vocational education was mixed. Conservative craft unions first feared that manual training might produce second rate tradesmen and undercut wages. By the early 1900s they pressed for the theoretical aspects of technical instruction to supplement the apprenticeship system. Socialists and industrial unionists perceived vocationalism as social control and also dismissed its narrow occupational focus. Many working class parents and spokesmen did, however, desire a quality academic education and decent schools for their youth. In conclusion, while vocational programmes expanded dramatically between 1900 and 1929, the vast majority of students opted for academic schooling. But more important, vocational education was ironic in that reform became control. Youth were streamed by social class into occupational destinies with grossly unequal rewards. Just how effective schools were in this respect is difficult to determine. If youth did not learn their lessons in school, they encountered them again on the job. When the schools and workplace failed there were always the courts and the police to enforce social order.

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