Curriculum -- 1890
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Historical Inquiry and Communication
"The Kind of Education


Expectations: The student will:

  • formulate questions, interpret and analyze information gathered through research, articulate assumptions, and then communicate results of their inquiry

  • compare and contrast Ontario curriculum today and Ontario curriculum in 1890

  • articulate an opinion on the use of violence in learning materials

Rich Task Exercises:

First read the entries on this page (below), all pages linked to the Education main page, as well as any relevant information that appears at other linked pages at various locations in the text below. You should also go to Search This Site and perform searches using words such as "Education", "School" and "Learn". Refer also to the Subject Index and "New this Month" pages. In completing the assignment below, be sure to address the Expectations above. As usual you must clearly state all of your assumptions.

  1. Compare and contrast curriculum today and curriculum in 1890.

  2. Which stories in the 1890 Ontario Reader are not acceptable in school today? Explain why.

  3. Describe the advantages of learning by repetition.

  4. Consider the following position: "There has always been far too much to learn in the allotted time in school. It is much better to learn the most important things very well than to pretend to learn many things very superficially." Do you agree with the stated position -- all of it or only certain parts? Clearly state your own position on the basic problem -- "so much to learn, so little time". 

  5. You are an education consultant. You have been asked by a major multi-national corporation to design a new model secondary school that the corporation will finance and support for at least the next 50 years. The corporation is serious about educating students who will graduate from this school and then serve apprenticeships within their business sector -- consumer product sales. Write a "Design Brief".  List the design criteria that the new model school must meet. Be sure to clearly state the priorities of education for the new model school. Clearly explain why you would or would not send your own children to this new model school that you are designing. Would your own opinion on this issue influence your work as the education consultant on this project? What "checks and balances" would you add as design criteria?

The following glimpse into the Ontario curriculum in 1890 is adapted from a draft paper, "Brown's Corners", by Nancy Weir McCowan. Nancy was a granddaughter of John J. Weir and Janet Torrance. Her parents were James Muir Tanner Weir and Nellie Hall. But before we start, the Managing Editor would like to add that, during the milking once at the Unionville farm, Grandpa Weir astonished me by very quickly reciting the alphabet backwards.

The Curriculum in 1890
By Nancy Weir McCowan

When I was about six years old my Dad, Jim Weir, almost died from pneumonia. As fate would have it and luckily for me, his life was spared.  When he was recovering, I would go to his room and he would recite a poem to me which started out "A froggie would a wooing go, uh huh". It went on for verse after verse and I was always amazed how he could remember all of it.  As time went on and we were talking about school, he would remark about some of the stories in the readers he had had at school.  He said some of the stories were so scary that he used to have bad dreams about them sometimes.

One of the books I looked at while researching at the Greenwood Library was "The Ontario Reader - Third", published in 1890, nine years after Dad was born.  It was possibly one that he had studied. One story he had mentioned to me was about a family driving horses through forests and being pursued by wolves.  I think I found it. The story of The Heroic Serf is basically this.

A nobleman, his wife and daughter were traveling through the dark forests of Russia.  They came to an inn and asked for fresh horses.  They were begged not to proceed because of the wolves, but they insisted on resuming the journey.  The driver was the nobleman's serf who loved the family well.  Suddenly they heard the mournful howling of a pack of wolves and were soon being chased.  The serf and the nobleman shot two with their muskets and the pack fell on the two dead wolves and tore them to pieces.  The taste of blood made the others advance with more fury.  Two more fell and were devoured.  The nobleman decided to let one of the horses go, and it was soon torn apart by the wolves.  Another horse was cut loose and he soon shared the fate of his fellow.

The servant offered to jump down to delay the wolves' progress but the nobleman refused to allow it.  The sleigh glided on as fast as the two remaining horses could drag it.  Then the servant jumped down, firing his pistol and fell prey to the wolves.  But meanwhile the Post-house was reached and the family was safe. On the spot where the wolves had pulled to pieces the devoted servant, there now stands a large wooden cross, erected by the nobleman.  It bears the inscription - "Greater love had no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15, verse 13).

No wonder Dad had nightmares!  Any child would after reading that!  

Also in the scary category are the following stories in this Ontario public school reader:

"Lucy Gray" by Wordsworth is a poem about a young girl being sent out in the dark to meet her father with a candle.  She becomes lost and perishes.  Some people say that she is still alive, wandering the Scottish moors.

"Lord Ullin's Daughter" is the story of a young woman just married to a young man who is hated by her father.  They are fleeing her angry father and go out to sea in a storm and are lost.  The father repents and cries at the loss of his daughter.

"The Black Douglas" is the story of Lord Douglas (Good James).  He was a wild Scottish fighter and often the "English children were told if they misbehaved that the Black Douglas would get them".  There was a bedtime song "Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye;  Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye;  the Black Douglas shall not get ye!" Here is a summary of The Black Douglas story.

Douglas fought with King Robert Bruce at Bannockburn. When King Robert lay dying he asked Douglas to come to his bedside.  He asked Douglas to embalm his heart and carry it to the Holy City , and deposit it in the Holy Sepulchre.  The heart was embalmed and Douglas wore it on a chain around his neck.  He set out for Jerusalem , but on the way was engaged in the war against the Moorish King of Granada.  He fell in Andalusia , in battle.  Just before his death he threw the silver casket into the thickest of the fight, exclaiming "Heart Bruce, I follow thee or die!" The heart of Bruce was found beside Douglas ' body.  The silver casket was brought back to Scotland and deposited in the ivy-clad Abbey of Melrose. " Douglas was a real hero and few things more engaging than his exploits were ever told under the Holly and Mistletoe, or in the warm Christmas light of the old Scottish Yule-logs."

I can't imagine telling my children a story like that on Christmas Eve!

"The Poor Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen is another "weeper" from this Third Reader. It goes like this...

On a cold and snowy New Year's eve a little girl in bare feet, numbed with cold is seen carrying a bundle of matches which she had been trying to sell in vain.  She had earned not a penny.  She struck the matches one by one to keep warm and fantacized about beautiful things and warm places - "bright stove, the nice supper, and the Christmas tree".  She saw a falling star and had been told by her grandmother that when a star falls - someone dies. "Again she struck; and, behold, a bright light shone round about her, and in the midst of it stood her kind grandmother."  She begged her grandmother to take her and struck the rest of the matches at once.  Her grandmother lifted her and they soared far, far away;  where there was no longer any cold, or hunger or pain -- they were in Paradise !  In the morning she was found frozen to death beside her burnt matches.  People said "She has been trying to warm herself, poor thing!  But, they knew not what glorious things she had seen;  they knew not into what joys she had entered - nor how happy she was on this festival of the New Year."

Many of the poems in the Reader deal with death in War. For example, "The Road to the Trenches" by Lushington - the last verse being:

One more gone for England 's sake,
Where so many go, Lying down without complaint,
Dying in the snow, Starving, striving for her sake,
Dying in the snow.

Death is even in "The Brook" by Tennyson.  The last verse - "And out again I curve and flow to join the brimming river;  For men may come, and men may go, But I go on forever."

Some of the stories are about animals. In "The Farmer and the Fox", a farmer has some poultry stolen.  He catches a fox in a trap.  The fox, in his cunning, tries to persuade the farmer not to kill him.  He uses various arguments until the farmer finally says "I don't hate you and I don't want to revenge myself on you; but you and I can't get along together and I think I am of more importance than you.  If nettles and thistles grow in my cabbage garden, I don't try and persuade them to grow into cabbages.  I just dig them up.  I don't hate them;  but I feel somehow that they mustn't hinder me with my cabbages, and I must put them away;  and so, my poor friend, I am sorry for you, but I am afraid you must swing."

"Farmer John" is a poem about a farmer who has been away on a trip and then talks to his animals saying that the best part of the trip is coming home to them.

"The Village Blacksmith" by Longfellow is about the strong hardworking blacksmith.  "Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands;  The smith, a mighty man is he with large and sinewy hands,  And the muscles of his brawny arms are strong as iron bands."

"Ants and their Slaves" is a study of ants. "The large reds raid the black domicile and carry off children by the hundreds to be their slaves."

"Trust in God and do the Right" by Norman MacLeod.  "Courage, brother!  do not stumble;  Though thy path be dark as night,  There's a star to guide the humble;  Trust in God, and do the right."

"Hearts of Oak"  by David Garrick.  Last verse - "Hearts of Oak are our ships, hearts of oak are our men.  We always are ready,  Steady boys, steady.  We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again."  So, another poem about War.

There is a little bit about geography and nature in the Reader --  " Egypt and its Ruins",  "Curious Birds' Nests" and "Volcanoes".

The Ontario Reader had articles which would teach something about Science, such as "The Ruby Throated Hummingbird",  "The Flower",  "Canadian Trees", "Heat: Conduction and Radiation",  "Shapes of Leaves",  "The Root",  "The Age of Trees",  "The Thermometer", and "The Monster of the Nile" (Sir Samuel Baker) and "Few creatures are so sly and wary as the crocodile".  Some of the stories were about far away exotic places.

Thus, the  "The Ontario Reader - Third", published in 1890, does its best to scare the daylights out of small children, teaches a little about nature and geography and throws in a little about "The Golden Rule".  The Third Reader combined Literature, Science, Geography and History.  In about 1940, when I was in about Junior Third or Grade 5 as it is now, Geography and History were combined in a subject called "Social Studies".  How my family laughed when I told them about that!

I would think that when my father and mother went to school in the 1890s, the "Reader" was perhaps the main book that was used.  When not studying it, the students were probably doing sums and subtractions and listening to the teacher giving the other grades their lessons -- theirs was a one-room school for all ages.  Spelling and Penmanship were important and much learning was done by 'rote' or by repetition.  I have heard Dad repeat the names of all the counties of southern Ontario, in rotation, clockwise around the map.  In my time at school, we never had to learn that!  This repetition of facts and figures was probably why Dad became so proficient at mental addition and subtraction.  He could do this much faster than I could do it on paper and just about as accurately.

When Dad finished Senior Fourth at Scarborough S. S. #3 he took a few months of High School education at Markham High School. Because he lived on a farm and because be was ten years older than his only brother, it was expected that he be available to help with the farm work. Getting an education when he was as big as a full grown man and able to work in the fields would not sit well with his father.  It was expected that he would take over the farm eventually.  So, when seeding time came in the spring he left High School for good.  

 The Scarboro Heights Record V14 #9