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Manitoba History: Review: David C. Jones, Nancy M. Sheehan, Robert M. Stamp (editors), Shaping the Schools of the Canadian West

by Ken Osborne
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This book brings together fifteen papers on different aspects of the educational history of Western Canada. Most of them are reasonably well known and have appeared elsewhere, but it is useful to have them collected into one volume, especially for people who do not have ready access to good libraries. There is, however, nothing in this volume that will be new to specialists.

Given the size and importance of the educational enterprise in Canada, and given the historical role assigned to the school as the shaper of a hoped-for Canadian nationality, it is incredible that we know so little about its development. University departments of history and education have largely had other priorities and, at least until recently, the history of education has been one of the least-tilled fields in Canadian historiography. If nothing else, this volume may introduce such people as David Goggin, J.W. Gibson, Susan Gunn, Irene Parlby and others to a wider audience.

The essays deal variously with questions of language, culture and ethnicity in education, the role of the schools in attempting to shape cultural and national identity, the school curriculum and teacher training, and the school promoters (to use Alison Prentice’s phrase) of the west. However, as is inevitable with a collection of essays, it handles only limited aspects of these themes and leaves many others aside. A more accurate title for the volume would have included the phrase “some aspects of.” The reader does not get a comprehensive picture of the development of western Canadian education, but rather a sampling of work that has been and is being done. A useful addition would have been a bibliography of relevant theses, articles, papers and so forth.

Conspicuously lacking is any conceptual frame-work to hold the essays together. Indeed, most of the essays rarely move beyond description with at best a dash of personal comment. They resolutely pursue the Sergeant Friday approach to history—”Just give me the facts, ma’am.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two most successful essays in the book—by Dunn on the rise of vocational education in B.C. and by Gresko on native education, if “education” is the right word for it—are the two most clearly linked to wider theoretical concerns. Dunn plants his essay squarely in the context of the debates stimulated by the “new” history of education concerning the schools’ role in helping to “preserve societal relationships and stability threatened by industrialization” (p. 236). Gresko, writing as an anthropologist as much as a historian, situates her work in the anthropological discussions of acculturation and nicely describes not only white attempts to destroy native culture, but also Indian resistance to them.

Indian children with teachers at Cross Lake, Manitoba, 1919
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

In the last ten years or so, a revolution has occurred in the study of the history of education, although there are very few traces of it in this book. What used to be a factual account of legislation and of institution building, or a series of parables to stir the blood of student-teachers, has become an inquiry into the ways in which some groups in society try to use formal education to marshall others into line, and into the means by which those others try to resist or subvert the marshalling. Recently, the fashionable and much abused term for this has been “hegemony.” Michael Katz, a prominent practitioner of the “new” educational history, has described hegemony as the “unselfconscious and willing acceptance of a direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” This formulation, however, is far too neat. Hegemony is not simply a top-down process of conditioning. It also includes the ways in which people resist, sabotage and direct the process. Education is not a simple vehicle of social control, but an arena where different groups struggle to impose or to defend their view of culture and society.

None of this is discussed in this book, except for Gresko’s essay on native education. What is lacking is a good introductory essay which both provides such a conceptual framework for the works that follow and sets them within some historiography. As it is, the introduction only summarizes the essays and provides no kind of discussion whatsoever. This is all the more the pity since it would be helpful at least to know what is not covered in this collection.

Two gaps stand out. One is the almost complete lack of any examination of how the schools appeared to those at the receiving end of education. Just how did parents and students perceive all those attempts to bestow on them the blessings of Anglo-Canadian civilization? Were they opposed to education tout court, or only to the use of education as a means of cultural assimilation? In his essay on Ruthenian schools, Jaenen makes a passing reference to the problem (p. 143) but does not pursue it. Throughout the essays, again with the exception of Gresko, nothing is said of the view from the bottom. A few years ago Raphael Samuel noted that the history of education is a prime example of history written through the eyes of those who gave it, not those who received it: “It is either a history of great headmasters and reformers or else about educational change. The student ... does not need to know much about the children—where they sat, what they learned, how they were disciplined (or bribed) into education ...” It is, of course, difficult to reconstruct the inner life of schools, but it can be done. Moreover, western Canada’s schools are not yet all that old. Many students and even teachers are still alive—a potential bonanza of information for the oral historian.

The second gap in this collection is the scarcity of discussion about education in Manitoba. Some of the essays deal with the west generally, but, where specific provinces are treated, Alberta and British Columbia get most attention. One cannot wholly blame the editors for this. The real problem is that very little has appeared in print on Manitoba’s educational history. There are plenty of theses and research papers, but little in the way of published material. The Manitoba Schools Question has received its fair share of attention (some would say more than its fair share), but much remains to be done.

In sum, this book should be taken for what it is: a collection of disparate essays, of varying quality, which are held together only by the thinnest of threads. There are, inevitably, large gaps. Especially puzzling is the editors’ failure to provide a more useful introduction. They hope that their book “will provide a more useful background for teachers and teachers-in-training, an historiographical study for prospective historians, an insight for subsequent researchers, and a foundation for future policy makers.” This is an ambitious agenda. It is doubtful whether any single volume could achieve all this, and certainly not one written by mere mortals. Nonetheless, and despite all reservations, the book does make more widely available material that has hitherto been accessible only in specialist journals. It thereby increases the all-too-sketchy knowledge of an important subject. To that extent, at least, it is to be welcomed.

Page revised: 24 December 2012

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