UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

James Wilson Robertson : public servant and educator Pavey, Edwin John


As a result of rapid industrialization, urbanization and immigration, Canada underwent great social and economic changes in the final years of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth centuries. These changes affected many dimensions of Canadian life including those of agriculture and education. The hypothesis of this study is that no Canadian during this period contributed more to change in these two areas than James Wilson Robertson, 1857-1930. This thesis, biographical in form and chronological in development, examines and analyses Robertson's career in agriculture and education from the time he emigrated from Scotland at the age of seventeen. He embarked on his first job as a cheesemaker in Western Ontario at a time when too little Canadian cheese reached first quality. By turning out from his factories a product which sold well in foreign markets, Robertson demonstrated that Canadians could find a large market for prime grades of cheese. The consequent interest in his methods presented Robertson with the opportunity to display and propagate those better dairying practices which, as they gradually overcame the conservatism of local dairymen, produced improvements in both the quality and quantity of Canadian cheese. His initiative brought Robertson a rapid succession of promotions, from managing dairy cooperatives, to Professor of Dairying at Ontario Agricultural College, and finally, in 1890, to the newly created post of Dominion Commissioner of Dairying which was later extended to include agriculture. During these years Robertson taught students, developed travelling dairies, issued informative bulletins, and encouraged legislation governing standards of quality. In discussion and print he lauded the virtues of country life, preached the gospel of excellence and taught the principles of cooperation. Through a wide variety of educational techniques and devices, and with the aid of a competent staff, he regenerated Canadian agriculture, showed farmers how to exchange a subsistence wage for a decent profit, and brought about a dramatic increase in agricultural exports. In achieving prestige for Canada abroad, he also gained a national and an international reputation for himself. Robertson firmly believed and constantly reiterated that agriculture and education were the nation's most profitable and beneficial forms of investment. By the early years of the twentieth century, having proved the value of agricultural education to adults, Robertson turned his attention to the rural young. At this point in his career, his ideas coincided with those of Sir William Macdonald, millionaire benefactor of higher education. A fortuitous meeting between the two led to a plan for the improvement of rural life and education called the Macdonald-Robertson Movement. This scheme combined elements from two prevailing educational philosophies: that which tried to apply in the classroom pedagogical principles deduced from research in child psychology and the social sciences, and the other which called for a more practical and less "bookish" curriculum in order to prepare young Canadians for life in an intensely technological and competitive age. Sustained by Sir William's money and Robertson's enthusiasm and drive, the Macdonald-Robertson Movement (later known as the Macdonald Movement) provided school authorities, and the public with practical examples of the new educational ideas. They funded three-year demonstrations of manual training, nature study, school gardens, and school consolidation. In addition, Sir William endowed two teacher-training establishments, the Macdonald Institute in Guelph and Macdonald College of McGill University to train the leaders needed for rural regeneration. Robertson became the principal of the latter institution. The successes and failures, contemporary opinion and present ramifications of the Macdonald Movement form a large part of the study. During his lifetime Robertson achieved wide professional recognition. The Dominion Education Association elected him its president. The Federal Government appointed him to the Commission of Conservation and made him chairman of the Royal Commission on Industrial Education and Technical Training. In 1913, this Commission issued its remarkable report, a landmark in Canadian educational history, which formed the basis for Federal Government involvement in provincial technical education. The thesis concludes with a summary of contemporary impressions of Robertson, a description of his war-time and other public and private activities, an enumeration of the honours he gained and a survey of subsequent historical writing in which his work is cited.

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