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An Education for "Character" in Alberta Schools, 1905-45

 by Amy von Heyking

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The Alexandra Series of Readers: Conveying the overarching theme of The Golden RuleIn 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.

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