An Education for "Character" in Alberta Schools

by Amy von Heyking

In the early part of this century, public schools in Alberta recognized their obligation to create boys and girls of good character, but while private schools openly operated within a tradition of Christian nurture, public schools avoided language and issues which would provoke sectarian conflicts. Public schools concentrated instead on the language of secular virtue to support the virtues necessary for successful living. These virtues changed over the space of 40 years and two world wars. An examination of what students were taught about the nature of society and about good citizenship gives us interesting insight into the nature of Alberta society itself and its response to the challenges of the modern world.

Alberta schools have always tried to create responsible citizens, but character education has always been linked to an understanding of what such a citizen should be. Before WWI, a good citizen was clearly defined in Christian terms. Thus being a good citizen meant acting in accordance with standards of right conduct and Christian virtue. In the 1920s, the explicit connection to Christian nurture was downplayed. The experience of a world war taught Albertans about the need for harmony and co-operation. Thus, the prevailing definition of good citizenship in this era was a recognition of the duties that went along with living in a community. The good citizen fit in and took up the responsibilities for which he or she was fitted for. As the economic situation in the 1930s worsened, and as political tension degenerated into WWII, there were demands among educators and the public for schools to take up new responsibilities. Many argued that for too long schools had inculcated young people with an unthinking loyalty to the state and blind obedience to authority Increasingly they called for citizens who could take up the task of improving society according to more rigorous standards of justice and equity. Between 1905 and 1945, therefore, there was a transformation in the expectations or responsibilities schools were to meet in terms of character or citizenship education — from training in virtue and acceptance of the benefits of social organization, to a commitment to reconstruction of Alberta society.

Three subject areas in the early school curriculum undertook training in good citizenship: reading, history and military drill. These subjects all emphasized obedience to authority and loyalty to the British Empire, as well as Christian virtues such as persistence, truthfulness, courage and generosity. Lessons in reading and literature were drawn primarily from the Alexandra series of readers, used in Alberta schools from 1908 to 1923. These readers featured coloured plates of the Union Jack, pictures of members of the Royal family, and the first and last selections were usually "God Save the King." Reading selections were drawn from some of the finest English authors: Tennyson, Scott, Dickens and Wordsworth. The psalms often appeared among the readings, but even secular readings contained moral lessons. Characters who were lazy or inattentive to duty were punished. Those who were courageous and persistent found their just reward. One-line "gems of wisdom" appeared at the end of selections, for example, "A kind face is a beautiful face," or, "A good action is never thrown away." The Golden Rule was the overarching theme of the readings.

The most important subject in the teaching of citizenship and virtue, however, was history. The 1907 program of studies for the earliest grades mandated that students learn about the distinguished men of history: "Discussion of the chief excellences and defects in their character to teach moral discrimination and ultimately to derive principles of conduct." Somewhat older children surveyed the important political events of Canadian history in order to " train moral judgment and incidentally to teach patriotism and civic duty." So what specific lessons in historical interpretation and character did school children learn from their history books? They learned that Canadian society was orderly and harmonious. Historical figures who had challenged the natural order or rebelled against the government, such as William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis Riel, were treated harshly in these books. They learned that political and material progress was inevitable and good, and that those who stood against progress would fail. Heroes such as Lord Durham were referred to as "His Greatness," and the early explorers of Canada were celebrated in sentimental and melodramatic stories.

The enemies of progress, however, were harshly criticized. An award-winning Canadian textbook used in the early part of the century criticized the character and habits of native Canadians: "To the early Europeans the Indian was not an attractive figure. They describe him as of unclean habits and without morals. Master of woodcraft, he was seen at his best when hunting. Upon the war-path he was cruel, tomahawking, scalping and torturing with fiendish ingenuity. A stoic fortitude when himself tortured was about his only heroic quality." Stories about the deaths of the Roman Catholic martyrs in New France were accompanied by graphic illustrations and woodcuts. Students were encouraged to judge races and entire-civilizations. The Standard VII (Grade 11) general history examination in 1907 asked pupils to "account for the unprogressive character of Chinese civilization."2 Those with good memories would have repeated the explanation contained in Myers' General History, the authorized textbook for the course: "The Chinese in strictly obeying the injunction to walk in the old ways, to conform to the customs of the ancient, have failed to mark out any new footpaths for themselves; hence one cause of the unprogressive character of Chinese civilization."

Students in the period before WW I learned that the qualities of harmony and progress were best embodied within the British Empire. In 1912, the program of studies directed teachers to assist students in appreciating "the greatness, of the British Empire of today and our privileges as Citizens of that Empire." Departmental examinations ensured that students could recite the benefits of parliamentary democracy. In 1908 the Standard VIII (Grade 12) history examination included these two questions: "The principal characteristics of the English constitution are inapplicable in countries where the materials for monarchy or an aristocracy do not exist.' Explain this and point out the strong features of a monarchy. "The merit of the British Constitution consists in the close union and fusion of the legislative and executive authorities. Explain and compare with Presidential Government in this respect."

The interpretation of British history included in these texts reinforced the notion that the British Empire acted out of good and noble impulses and therefore prevailed, while other nations and other empires were punished for their greed and ambition. The Highroads of History series, after reviewing the flaws in Napoleon's character, concluded that the British victory confirmed the virtue of her position. Britain needed an overseas empire and safe passage for her ships in order to become something more than a small state, while France was quite capable of supporting her population without an empire and therefore lost. Other texts described the series of groups that invaded the British Isles and over time had the good sense to become Britons: "The Normans could not overcome Robin Hood, nor could they overcome the English people. They beat them and robbed them, and put many of them to death; but the English people would not give in. As the years went by the Normans became English, and were proud to call themselves Englishmen."

The connection of Alberta students to the British Empire was further strengthened during WW I. During the war years, the schools reminded students and their parents of the justice of the cause and their duty to the Empire. Through the singing of patriotic songs, production of special plays, and participation in wartime essay contests, public school students were encouraged to do their bit for the Empire's war effort. In 1916, teachers in central Alberta complied with the directive from the provincial Department of Education requiring them to take an oath of allegiance.

The expansion of the cadet drill program in schools during the war years reinforced the lessons about good citizenship and good conduct that students learned from books. Cadet training had been part of the school curriculum before the war, and was usually taught by British army veterans who entertained their male charges with stories about their experiences in India or South Africa. The students were outfitted in uniforms and equipped with old Snider-Enfield rifles cut down to make them more maneuverable by shorter arms and smaller hands. The drill these students learned was intended to stress good health and obedience. Most boys, through their experience with cadets and watching the returning veterans of the war, learned something about moral duty and political obligations.

An education for good citizenship before WW I implied education for right conduct. Pupils were explicitly taught the importance of virtues such as punctuality, industry, truthfulness, obedience, regard for others and a sense of justice. It was assumed that these virtues were associated primarily with British parliamentary democracy and a specifically English character. The political and economic challenges and unrest of the 1920s resulted in changes in school content and a new understanding of good citizenship and good character. The public demanded that schools address the challenges facing Alberta society and protect youth from the social transformations resulting from new technology and the increased influence of American popular culture. The result was that the nature of education for good citizenship was redefined.

Textbooks used in literature classrooms continued to stress the secular virtues associated with good character. The Canadian Readers series, used in Alberta schools from 1923 to 1935, was very much like the earlier Alexandra series, but included more Canadian content. The Canadian readers included stories which emphasized the golden rule and other moral lessons. The Good Samaritan, Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell were featured in reading selections. Students were still introduced to the courage of important historical figures such as Lord Nelson. Reading selections for older students emphasized the virtues of hard work and service, and were divided into sections with headings such as "Joy in Work" and "Stories of Achievement."

History lessons, on the other hand, changed significantly. In the earlier grades, the teaching of history was abandoned. Instead, students listened to and read history stories in their citizenship classes. In 1922 the program of studies for the citizenship courses declared that it was the responsibility of teachers: " to provide suitable work life activities in classroom and school, as a medium through which the citizenship experience obtained by children naturally in family and playgroup will take form and meaning in accordance with what is implied in living as an adult member of present-day organized communities, social and political." History stories were intended to interest students in the past and help them appreciate the demands of group living. While traditional history courses had emphasized the facts students should learn about the past, the new course demanded that teachers create in their students an appropriate "group spirit." The understanding of citizenship embodied in the new courses was characterized by a willingness to get along in the group and fit into the family and society. Civics textbooks portrayed the family in harmonious terms which they hoped would extend to the rest of society. James McCaig's Studies in Citizenship, used in Grades 7 and 8, described the middle-class domestic tranquility to which all families should aspire:

The happiest homes are those in which all the members of the family work together and have their interests in common. In the evening, they sit around the table together and tell of the strange or amusing things that have happened during the day. They brighten the remainder of the evening with songs, games, telling stories or reading interesting books. They picnic together, they go to the country together, if they live in the town, or to the town together, if they live in the country. The entire family is united in close bond of sympathy and affection.

The emphasis on harmony and co-operation extended into general lessons in history and citizenship. Groups like the League of Nations Society and the United Farmers of Alberta pressured the Alberta government to eliminate passages in texts that glorified war and instead stress the need for world peace and co-operation. In response, there were some modifications to history texts, and new interpretations were given to historical content covered in Alberta classrooms. In 1923 the program of studies for high schools directed teachers to familiarize students with the reasonable claims of both Canadians and Americans during the War of 1812. In lessons on the development of responsible government, British politicians were not to be portrayed as stubborn and domineering and Canadians as wise and enlightened. Educators also attempted to address the political divisions between English and French within Canada, which had become apparent during WWI, by dealing more kindly with the French regime in Canada: "Our history should be so taught to give English-speaking Canadians a clear and sympathetic understanding of French-Canadians and vice versa. On such a mutual understanding, and on the tolerance and co-operation which spring from it, depend the unity and prosperity of our common country."

The association of the concept of good citizenship with co-operation and group living meant that group activities were extremely important in student life after WWI. Teachers were encouraged to involve students in choirs, literary and dramatic societies, and clubs of all kinds. Experiments in student government, either in the form of student councils or parliaments, were seen as particularly good training in leadership and group decision-making for students. Organizations like the Junior Red Cross and Canadian Girls in Training involved students in community service projects. However, the war had increased an anti-militarist sentiment, and under pressure from women's organizations, the government abandoned cadet training for boys. Physical training, however, became a central part of every student's citizenship education.

Good citizenship, in the period after WWI, was equated with taking up one's designated economic and social responsibilities. The huge increase in the number of children in school led the public and educators to call for a more appropriate school curriculum, which would prepare all children for responsible citizenship. It was argued that schools should determine what students are best fitted for, and then prepare them for their future role in society. The program of studies for Alberta elementary schools said that schools "shall prepare the individual to do better those things which he is likely to have to do anyway." The emphasis on "getting along" and "playing by the rules" led naturally to the use of the metaphor of sportsmanlike behaviour in descriptions of good citizenship. Games and sports, therefore, took on an important role in the training of these new citizens.

Educational writers of the period warned that students, if left to their own devices, would turn to unhealthy idleness or deviant behaviour. Teachers could prevent this unfortunate consequence by teaching children games and sports. Writers concerned about the increased mechanization in industry stressed that organized and supervised play would ensure that young people would be strong and physically fit. Organized sports also taught important moral lessons, such as a sense of justice and honesty. Sporting activities were described as "the most perfect democracy" because participation depended entirely on the ability and commitment of the student, rather than on the amount of money his or her family had. The importance of sports and games in the curriculum and outside school hours demonstrates the extent to which good citizenship was identified with the virtues of good sportsmanship and good character.

Increasingly, however, encouraging students to play by the rules was seen as an inadequate response to the opening political and economic crises of the 1930s and 1940s. In the period before WW II, schools were accused of indoctrinating students. Some people charged that teachers demanded intellectual servitude rather than critical reflection, an essential quality of good citizenship in the modern world. Schools had been guilty of encouraging a false confidence in traditional economic and political institutions which had caused a tremendous economic crisis, and ultimately, another world war. The public and educators demanded that schools provide solutions for the problems of the modern world. The public confidence in scientists' ability to effect technological improvements was transferred to social scientists' and educators' ability to effect social improvements. A teacher writing in A.T.A. Magazine argued that schools should take on the task of restructuring society: "the accomplishment of that end will be a feat of educational engineering, comparable in social importance to those great feats of mechanical engineering of which the present age is justly so proud."

What did these demands for new training in citizenship — as preparation for the modern world — mean for traditional citizenship training, which had always emphasized the virtues of the present system and the importance of fitting in? History teaching which stressed the virtues of the past was seen as completely inadequate to the needs of modern society. A teacher writing in A.T.A. Magazine argued: "industry has been disturbed for three years by the clouds of Depression, and so far, no historian has supplied one practical suggestion for the alleviation of unemployment, or one single thought to dispel the aura of despair." Modern preparation for citizenship was centred, not on the teaching of history, but on the teaching of the new social sciences which could provide answers to the political, economic, and social issues plaguing society.

The social sciences and the new understanding of citizenship were part of the educational reforms known as "progressive education" introduced in Alberta in the 1930s. The best statement of the aims of progressive education came from Donalda Dickie, a teacher in all three of Alberta's Normal schools and author of The Enterprise in Theory in Practice (1941). While traditional educators had accepted the acquisition of knowledge as the primary aim of schooling, Dickie insisted: "education, when all is said and done, has just one purpose: to help people to learn how to live happily together in the world." Education no longer referred to the development of an individual's intellectual abilities. Rather, progressive education emphasized the social development of children. Progressive education transformed the understanding of the learning process. There was a new emphasis on learning by doing. Educators insisted that students must actively participate in learning exercises led, but not controlled, by a teacher. Progressive education therefore was characterized by group work and activity-based, interdisciplinary projects intended to spark students' interest and develop their academic and social skills.

Social studies was central to the philosophy of progressive education because it allowed students to work in groups to solve contemporary social problems or learn about foreign countries. Students in Alberta schools in the 1940s remember projects on "China" or "Transportation," which consisted of taking notes from books, drawing maps and pictures, and presenting what they learned to the class. Because learning was understood as an active process, in 1935 the program of studies abandoned topics in favour of a series of problems that formed the basis of each social studies course. What problems did the curriculum direct pupils to solve? Grade 8 social studies primarily addressed the problem of Canada's relationship with the United States and the remainder of the British Empire. The Grade 9 course took a much broader approach in asking students to inquire into the problem of the impact of technology on the modern world. High school students concentrated on contemporary politics, particularly in Europe.

From the first introduction of social studies in Alberta schools, teachers had difficulty translating the demands of the new program of studies into classroom activities. A.T.A. Magazine included projects that teachers could assign their students, including group activities and scrapbooks. Teachers were specifically reminded to show eager male students the proper technique for gluing materials in scrapbooks without gluing themselves. Most of the activities demonstrate the extent to which teachers tended to fill time with activities of little educational value. Classroom discipline was also a concern for many teachers. They were reminded to keep their rooms organized and orderly: "If a student walks into such a room as that — where everything is kept in order; where the boards are clean at the start of the day, and where Social Studies is looking at him from every corner of the room, he just says to himself, 'This place looks like business; I don't think there will be any fooling around in here'. You may depend on it."

The most serious concern, however, was that teachers had no idea how to evaluate their students' understanding of the new definition of good citizenship. How could teachers ensure that their students were committed to solving social problems? Stanley Clarke, a teacher in Two Hills, designed a test intended to evaluate his students' citizenship skills. The test (reprinted in A.T.A. Magazine in September 1939) demonstrated the difficulty teachers faced in implementing the new understanding of citizenship. Each question presented students with a separate problem in which a dilemma was described and three solutions were offered. Students ranked the solutions in order of preference, though they were not asked to defend or explain their ranking. Some questions seemed to test the teacher's commitment to progressive education rather than the students' skills of responsible citizenship:

One of the boys in the Sociology class is a Red — a definite Communist. Many students are not yet well informed and are easily influenced.

(a) The teacher should cut him short every time he starts to say anything in discussions.

(b) The teacher should argue with him and show him where he is wrong.

(c) The teacher should keep in the background as far as possible and let him and the other members of the class discuss all matters freely.

Other questions failed to ask anything at all:

There is an election for officers of the Students' Union at your school. One student says he isn't going to vote. Another says he ought to. Consider these reasons which were given for not voting.

(a) It doesn't make any difference which side gets in.

(b) I don't know any of the candidates or what they stand for.

(c) We ought to have a director of each activity (say, a teacher) instead of the Students' Union sponsoring and controlling it.

Not surprisingly, the author of the exam asked for the help of A.T.A. Magazine readers to create a correct-answer key for his examination.

The central feature of this new approach to citizenship education was that it didn't seek an explanation for the past, it sought emancipation from it. The earliest attempts to teach citizenship assumed that there was a connection between good citizenship and good conduct, that the good citizen was, in essence, a good person. After WWI, the connection between good citizenship and a Christian understanding of virtue was forgotten. In the 1920s, schools tried to create good citizens by showing students how to fit in, but while explicit references to traditional virtues ended, the assumption continued that society could function effectively and parliamentary democracy worked if everyone understood their role. Progressive education and the adoption of social studies meant that this confidence in existing economic and political institutions was abandoned. Under the new curriculum, schools were supposed to prepare students, not for participation in the current system, but for participation and active citizenship in a better world in the future. The irony was, of course, that this task depended even more heavily on personal virtue. Only good people could provide vision and leadership for this mission, and only citizens who believed in a better world could play an active role in the new society. Yet adoption of social studies also signaled the end of formal character education.