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Historical Inquiry and Communication
Valuing Education


Expectations: The student will:

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

  • assess the value that parents place on education for their children

  • assess the pros and cons of public education vis a vis private schooling

Rich Task Exercises:

First read the entries on this page (below), the linked pages listed at the top of this 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 three Expectations above. As usual you must clearly state all of your assumptions.

  1. There are two articles below relating to farm boys attending private schools, "Preparing for Success" (in Scotland) and "Private Schooling for a Farmer's Son?" (in Scarborough). Which of the two articles places greater emphasis on the extreme value of education? Defend your position. What was the purpose of the author of the Private Schooling article?
  2. In "Private Schooling for a Farmer's Son?", what sort of information should the researcher endeavour to find and then add to the article in order to strengthen her theory that farm boy John J. Weir, born 1851 in Scarborough, attended boarding school at Rockwood Academy? Suggest additional research that should be conducted.
  3. Using other information on to provide additional context, write the dialog for a scene in a play. The characters in your scene are twelve year old John J. Weir, his younger sister Margaret (10 years) and their parents, James and Janet Weir, Scarborough farmers. They are discussing the pros and cons of sending John J. to boarding school in Guelph. Be sure to address John's personal goals and the parents' goals for their son. They should also discuss the distance to Guelph, the tuition cost, new friends, new perspectives. What about Margaret's goals? 
  4. Carefully read the article, "Pioneers in the Benefits of De-Streamed Classrooms". Does Mr. Ramsay's article support private schools for the children of the wealthy?  Compare this article to the other two articles below. Rewrite this article (Pioneers) in your own words, summarizing Mr. Ramsay's apparent position on the benefits of public education for all students regardless of social status.
  5. Write your own "position paper" on public vs private education today. What is different now relative to 150 years ago? What is still very similar? Give clear reasons for your position. In your argument, you may consider extreme positions such as "Private schools should be abolished" or "Public schools should have user fees". If you support a "middle ground" or compromise position be sure to clearly state exactly what would be required to make your "educational system" operate effectively and fairly. In other words, you will write some of the requirements for an educational system that you would "design". Identify all of the criteria that are important to the design of an educational system (eg effectiveness, fairness etc.)

Pioneers in the Benefits of De-Streamed Classrooms

The education system in Scotland two centuries ago was one of the best in Europe . To a significant extent, the Scottish enlightenment was led by ordinary Scots.  The wealthy may have endorsed, promoted and otherwise supported these efforts in literature, science, industry, democracy and other socio-economic endeavours, but it was very ordinary folk who took much of the risk and did a huge percentage of the actual work. Ordinary Scots took their strong work ethic abroad to achieve profound successes around the world.

We can get a sense of how this support mechanism for self-improvement came to be from the celebrated late 18th century diarist, John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, Perthshire, Scotland:

In a few instances the sons of private gentlemen were bred [educated] at home by a tutor: but the far greater part went to the neighbouring school every morning, foul day or fair day, carrying their little dinner with them. If the school lay at a distance, they were boarded at a trifling expense in some town or village…  They were nothing the worse for being bred with the sons of their country neighbours [the common folk]… The vulagarisms and rusticity contracted at country schools gradually wore off, while some good consequences remained. It strengthened young people’s attachment to the place of their nativity… They learned to estimate their country [rural] neighbours with justice and liberality, not to consider them as animals of an inferior species. It laid a foundation for the future exercise of humanity and forbearance towards their old schoolfellows. And intimacies were sometimes formed between superiors and inferiors which, after a long separation, were remembered on a proper occasion, much to the honour of one and the advantage of the other.

 The Scarboro Heights Record V14 #9


Preparing For Success

Obtaining a good education is hard work and it can also be rather "inconvenient", especially when one must travel a long distance on foot to attend classes. But the rewards can be immense as illustrated by this partial biography of a Scottish success story...

The Late Mr. David McCowan, LL.D.
Cumnock's Worthiest Son

It is with feelings of profound regret that we today record the passing of Mr. David McCowan, LL.D, which took place at his home, 7 Lynedoch Crescent, Glasgow, on Sunday last. For a long time Mr. McCowan, who was in his eighty-third year, had been in indifferent health. Against it he battled with rare courage, consistency and bravery, and never once did he allow his own physical weakness to stand between him and his duties, very many of which were self imposed. Mr. McCowan belonged to a rare class of men of whom the world holds but few. To a splendid faculty for business he joined a large-hearted generosity, which won for him distinction not only in the commercial, but in the philanthropic circles of the city. If we were asked to describe him in a word we would say that he was a philanthropist and would use that word not in any narrow or limited sense, but in its noblest and broadest meaning.

Mr. McCowan was a rich man, and he acquired his wealth by diligence and by business ability. That he derived great pleasure in it's acquirement may not be doubted, but he had even greater pleasure in giving expression to the philanthropic impulses which were forever actuating his heart and mind. Of him it might truly be said that although one of the most modest and most unobtrusive of men, yet he had at all times the courage to avow his sentiments with a tongue which was really the herald of his heart. Truth and honour were his consistent guides and rule of life, and a kindly benevolence had its home in his bosom.

Mr. McCowan was born at Caponacre in this parish [Cumnock, Ayrshire] in 1826, and was the second youngest of a family of nine sons and 2 daughters, all of whom he outlived. His father [William] was an excellent type of man, and one who was possessed of an intelligence much above the average in his walk of life, which was that of a small farmer. He had an accurate conception of the value of education, and he saw to it that all his children received as much learning as the times could afford. His son David was first sent to the parish school, which was at that time kept by James Campbell, but  whose methods did not approve themselves to the head of the McCowan family. The boy was taken from Campbell and sent to an adventure school in the town, where he remained until he was eleven years of age. Then came an important turning in his life in that he was sent to Ayr Academy, there to pursue his studies. He attended this Academy for three years, and that he ever cherished a kindly remembrance for it was evidenced in after years by his generosity towards it. The McCowan gold medal -- the chief prize of the institution -- was his gift, and it was but one of  several ways in which he showed his solicitude for the welfare of the place where he had himself derived so much benefit...

I'll include more about David McCowan's philanthropy and business successes in another issue.

The Scarboro Heights Record V10 #8 and
The McCowans' Who's Who, Vol. 4


The following material on education is from a draft Weir family history prepared by Nancy Weir McCowan. Her paternal great-grandparents were Scottish immigrants James Weir and Janet Muir. The Weir homestead was on Tapscott Road north of Finch Avenue in northeast Scarborough, lot 16 concession 4. We should suppose that James' and Janet's ten children would all attend the local school, known as "Number 3" at the corner of Finch and Neilson. But did they?

Some chance discovery and perceptive analysis of various bits of information has prompted Nancy to derive an interesting conclusion about at least a part of the educational experience of her grandfather, John J. Weir, born in Scarborough on Oct. 30 1851.


Private Schooling for a Farmer's Son?
By Nancy Weir McCowan

In March, 1990, I visited the Greenwood Public Library which is near my home in Pickering.  I went there to try to find some old school textbooks from the mid 1800's.  I had been told that this particular library was the one which kept the old books from yesteryear.  These books are not allowed out of the library but I was able to peruse them for an hour or two.  I will have more to say about this later, but just before I left for the day, my hand happened to go to a small book "Canadian Series English Grammar" printed in 1869.  The flyleaf was signed by a John J. Weir and beneath the name was written "Eramosa".  A coin had been placed below the signature and rubbed with a pencil.  Inside the cover, opposite the signature was a label saying "Presented to the Library of the Ontario College of Education, the University of Toronto , by Miss Jean Weir".  The "J's" of the signature were written with a flourish like my Dad had and the "Weir" is quite similar to my signature before I changed my name to McCowan. 

The word "Eramosa" did not mean anything to me but I have since learned that there is an Eramosa River and a Township by that name near Guelph , Ontario.  We have a book called "Reader's Digest Book of the Road".  I looked up "Eramosa" and was directed in the index to page 92.  Under the heading "Rockwood" is the following statement - "The Rockwood Academy, a pioneer boarding school for boys, was established here in 1850.  A surviving three-story stone school building (1853) is now a private residence." 

I have since seen a copy of my Grandfather's signature on a couple of legal documents and to my admittedly untrained eye, the two "John. J. Weir" signatures look enough alike to be written by the same person.  An expert in handwriting could verify whether they are the same or not.  I do believe that it was that of my Grandfather, John J. Weir.  My great-grandparents became fairly wealthy farmers and I imagine they wanted their sons to have a good education.  John J. possibly attended boarding school at Rockwood Academy for a year or two.  We do know that his younger brother, Robert, became a druggist after attending the College of Pharmacy in Toronto .  After eight years Robert changed his vocation to that of insurance, with the Western Assurance Company.  I cannot speculate about the higher education of the other members of James' and Janet's family (all born between 1845 and 1869).  I would doubt that the girls were sent to get higher education as it was not deemed necessary for women in those days to learn much other than homemaking.

 The Scarboro Heights Record V14 #9