Curriculum Theory / EDUC-910 Week 5 Readings

Duncan McArthur: The history of a civic-minded politician that cared about education. Yes, there really appears to have been one.

Theodore Christou

Theodore Christou

Christou, T. (2013). The complexity of intellectual currents: Duncan McArthur and Ontario’s progressivist curriculum reforms. Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, (49)5, 677–697, Doi: 10.1080/00309230.2012.739181

The author described a period of “dramatic reorganisation” (p. 677), from 1937–1938 and 1941–1942, when progressivist reforms were directed amidst a complex reformist agenda, at a time of industrial transformation, world war and economic instability. Progressivist designs “addressed the perceived shortcomings of the established, traditional curricula, which were depicted as out of touch with contemporary reality.” (p. 677) Christou described Duncan McArthur’s role in Ontario’s Department of Education, as “seminal” (p. 678), but never “fully explored” (p. 678), as aspects of social meliorism, efficiency and child study were brought together under the progressivist banner during Duncan’s leadership.

Duncan McArthur

Duncan McArthur

The progressive movement in Ontario is described as part of an international wave of progressivism “sweeping society” (p. 678). By the 1930’s Christou discussed the progressive influence being evident across all Canadian provinces. Programmes of study across the country were revised to reflect this influence. Christou argued that, key to the implementation of these revisions was ex-award-winning undergraduate and Queen’s University professor of history, Duncan McArthur. The author described the historical and societal background of the period in much detail (p. 677–682), including industrialization, at least two recessions, the Depression, World War I and the return of troops following the war. Christou continued with a history of McArthur’s distinguished career as a lawyer and later as a member of Queen’s faculty. At the same time, McArthur…

[W]as a member of the Board of Education and participated in several special committees at the Department of Education. In the early 1930s, McArthur helped the Education Department to develop and implement midsummer examinations for high school students. His experiences in this regard would provide him with sound experience, upon which he based his educationally progressive philosophy. (p. 683)

Christou argued that this experience, particularly that at Queen’s University was to shape McArthur’s progressivist views on education. Christou praised Queen’s as a “sea rich with… idealism and civic humanism – emphasising both individual freedom and social conscience (p. 683).”

Talking Point: Christou has painted a picture of McArthur and his contemporaries—Ontario idealists (p. 684)—such as George Grant, John Watson, Adam Shortt and John Harold Putman, as gifted, idealogical civil servants and politicians. But that is what produces curriculum isn’t it? Isn’t curriculum the product of the social conscience, the politics and subject knowledge of a society? If curriculum is politics, and the result of its time and environment, can we ever really call it progressive, when its progress is the product of that time? If the time encourages revolution, then curriculum can be expected to be revolutionary, if change is not encouraged, then shouldn’t we expect the stagnation of curriculum? What are everybody else’s thoughts?

McArthur’s obituaries make clear that he took this commitment to public service seriously. (p. 685)

Christou’s history of McArthur described him as a civic-minded politician, that appeared to have a genuine concern for social improvement through education. McArthur would therefore appear to be very much a product of the era of progressive education. Anybody else’s thoughts?

Ontario’s Curriculum Reforms

The Programme of Studies for Grades I to VI of the Public and Separate Schools, 1937… was developed by a committee of educators led by Thornton Mustard and S.A. Watson and was heavily influenced by the Deputy Minister of Education, Duncan McArthur. (p. 686)

Christou described the reforms as an…

[A]n attempt to institutionalise progressivist thought in schools… the study of extant social problems, the fostering of community, enterprise learning, health studies and opportunities for students to have options regarding their courses of study. (p. 687).

Once again, Christou reiterated how McArthur had been “largely responsible” (p. 687) for these extensive progressive changes. A staunch citizen of the Commonwealth, Christou described McArthur praising the British Empire for its system of development across poorer member nations. McArthur saw the “creation and development of an intelligent and enlightened Canadian citizenship” (p. 688) as a critical feature of education in a modern democratic society.

McArthur never lost sight of education as being more than passing examinations in a spirit of competition. Christou has argued that, to McArthur, education was motivated by a desire to master a particular discipline for the betterment of society. Reflecting McArthur’s stance on education was a solid support for trainee and in-service teachers that, it can be argued, is as relevant today as it was then…

[I]f school boards wished to secure good teachers, they must give them adequate remuneration. (p. 690)

Duncan McArthur

Duncan McArthur

Social Efficiency in Progressive Reforms As a committed progressive educator, McArthur saw no harm in incorporating aspects of historically opposing theories, Christou reports him as openly admitting that…

[I]t is the function of the school to equip the young man and the young woman for the performance, in a creditable manner, of the tasks of life (p. 691).

Education, required close ties to the needs of society and the reality of the job market, but not at the expense of individual interests or those of the community at large. Concern for rural communities proved expensive, when the Department of Education was required to arrange “for the release of [50,000 to 100,00] school pupils early in April to permit them to assist in seeding and other farm duties.” (p. 691)

It is one thing for individuals such as McArthur to talk about educational systems that are both efficient and communitarian, but quite another to administer such systems. As McArthur himself lamented, the basic requirements of such a system had led to ‘a system of rigid control and minute regulation’. (p. 692)

Talking Point: As complicated as the administration became, McArthur was an effective-enough politician to enable the reforms to progress (p. 693). What sort of an achievement was it to drive these changes through?

Child Study in McArthur’s Progressive Reforms In McArthurs’s progressive curriculum, Christou described child study as appearing in two main themes: An activity-based curriculum, focusing on student development, which itself was furthered by choice of study, relating curriculum to individual interests—using personal development and interest as motivating factors in education. Examinations became less important in McArthur’s educational philosophy, and were “depicted as impositions that ignored students’ interest in the subject or their actual use of it in real life.” (p. 694) In a similar manner, McArthur decried the use of textbooks, believing that educators had a…

[T]endency to treat them like authoritative annals of facts to be memorised and recited in isolation from their relationship to human social life. The teacher and student should use many sources, some of which may be better at promoting a progressive mindset than others. (p. 694)

Christou concludes with a summary of McArthur’s practical achievements… McArthur’s progressive reforms manifested a firm conviction in the management and weaving together of seemingly contradictory visions of reform into a coherent and comprehensive vision…

[R]estrained by a faith in the importance of maintaining standards of efficiency, building social service and fostering democratic citizenship. (p. 696)

Talking Point: Christou argued that McArthur “was almost predestined to play a role as an educational reformer (p. 697)”. Rather than predestination, I would argue that McArthur was a principled, civic-minded educator, a gifted politician and very much a product of his time, it could almost be expected that the era of U.S. progressive education would fuel change in Canada… or could it? Any other opinions?


One thought on “Duncan McArthur: The history of a civic-minded politician that cared about education. Yes, there really appears to have been one.

  1. Pingback: Curriculum is Politics | Talk Curriculum

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