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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Schools and School Masters


THE SYSTEM OF EDUCATION in the former days, if system it may be called, was very different from that of the present day. There was little machinery employed in carrying it on. Probably in new settlements it was a voluntary organization, without trustees, school-house or licensed teacher. Schools were private concerns supported by individuals who had children to be educated. The school was held in a private house and taught in winter by men, in some cases of fair ability and scholarship, but more commonly by such as had failed in almost everything else, and in the summer season by women. Frequently, a man having a family was employed for the whole year, taking farm produce in payment for his salary, and not being "passing rich with forty pounds a year," he supplemented his stipend by gardening or small farming. There were very few who made teaching a vocation or permanent business, and there was no such thing as a trained teacher or a Normal School. Teaching was a resort—too often a last resort—to which one betook himself when he had failed at everything else.

For many years young men who desired higher education and professional training were accustomed to go to the Universities of the United States and Great Britain. Preparatory work for these institutions was generally done under the supervision of private instructors, chiefly clergymen who were graduates of universities in the old country. Candidates for law and medicine took a preparatory course under practitioners of their chosen profession.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and in the early years of the nineteenth a movement began for the establishing of high schools and colleges in Nova Scotia. Kings College, organized in 1789, in Windsor, was the first institution of the kind in the Province. Through ecclesiastical restrictions, such as withholding diplomas from graduates who refused signature to the doctrines of the Anglican church, by which body it was controlled, it failed to meet the needs of the country and to become a provincial institution. At this time not over one-fourth of the population were connected with that church.

The lack of facilities for the education of a native ministry was felt seriously by the dissenting churches and led to the founding of Pictou Academy. It is said that some one—a man of sound judgment he must have been—having been asked to give the essential elements of an efficient college, replied,—"A big log with Mark Hopkins seated on one end and a live student on the other," or to that effect. Pictou Academy fittingly illustrated this definition. It got the cold shoulder, however, from the powers that barred the doors of King's College against Dissenters, and so it struggled to its feet under adverse conditions. It had not even a log that it could call its own. Its classes met in private houses; its Faculty comprised a single professor, Thomas McCulloch, D.D., but he was a whole man and all there. And while the Government of Nova Scotia refused to grant the institution degree-conferring power, the graduates had no difficulty on examination in taking degrees from Glasgow University. The institution became eminently useful, not only in the special sphere for which it was established, but also in the preparation of many for other professions, who attained distinction in their lines of public service.

Somewhat similar work was done in the western part of the Province by Rev. William Somerville in his seminary at first established in Lower Horton and later in West Cornwallis. This institution was recognized by a provincial grant from the School Commissioners of King's County down to the time when the Free Schools Act came into operation. Strange to say this very Act took away the power of the commissioners to continue the grant to this distinguished educator unless he submitted to examination for license by men far below him in scholarship and ability.

Educational machinery came in at the time of legislative aid to common schools early in the nineteenth century. The counties were divided into school sections or districts as they were then called. Each county had its Board of School Commissioners having the power of licensing teachers and the distribution of government grants with a general oversight of the public schools. The section or school district was authorized to elect a Board of Trustees whose duty it was to solicit subscriptions for the support of the school and employ a teacher. For many years the functions of the Trustees were little more than nominal, consisting chiefly in signing the teacher's report of work done during the term, by which they certified to the correctness of what they knew little about. According to the custom of the time a teacher's license was obtained from any two Commissioners, or from such other examiners as the Board chose to appoint, stating that they were satisfied as to the qualifications of the candidates.

In obtaining a license a candidate in Kings County was examined by a School Commissioner—an uncle of the late Sir Chas. Tupper, Baronet. The ordeal was not very serious. The candidate was required to read a few lines of Milton's "Paradise Lost," parse two or three lines of the poem and work an exercise in vulgar fractions. Having done the exercises to the satisfaction of the Commissioner he readily obtained endorsement of the Certificate by another Commissioner without further examination. The following is a copy of a Common School License issued in the year 1848.

It was seldom that the Trustees stood in any responsible capacity between the teacher and the people. The contract was made directly between the Teacher and the "proprietors", that is the parents who sent their children to school. The teacher bound himself to teach a "regular" school for a specified term, giving instruction according to the best of his abilities in certain branches, usually limited to reading, writing and arithmetic—sometimes adding geography and English Grammar. It bound the signatory patrons to provide suitable school room, fuel, books, and board for the teacher with the further item of paying the Teacher for work done. Sometimes the amount to be paid was a fixed salary to be divided among the patrons according to the number of days attended by their children; often it was a fixed amount for every week's attendance —nine pence or perhaps a shilling a week. The teacher was sure of his board and fairly sure of the Government allowance at the end of the half year—as for anything more he ran some risk. Then, as to board, he was a visitor at the homes of the children—he "boarded around," measuring out the time to each of his many homes according to the number of pupils he had in it. Of course he was not scrupulously exact in this matter. If he fell in with a good place, he showed his appreciation by prolonging his visit, with corresponding lessening of time in places where the fare was less generous. Whatever might be urged against this custom of boarding around, this could be said in its favor—it was relieved from monotony, and the teacher had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the homes of his pupils. Nevertheless, with all its advantages, a teacher was known to object to the custom, especially as he desired to board where he could have a private room for undisturbed study. His objection was thought to be remarkable and the reason given most unreasonable. The people supposed that they were employing a teacher, not a student. The subscription paper was circulated by a trustee, some interested parent, or by the teacher. At the close of the term similar means of collecting the salary was adopted.

In these old times school books were neither large nor numerous, nor were they expensive. Indeed, at one time within the writer's memory, the whole school course was comprised in a single text-book and that a very slender one. This ideal text-book begins with the alphabet—the A B C's, as it was called, followed by the a b abs, the b a bas, and the b l a blas. Then there were simple words of one syllable in which every letter was pronounced. In a more advanced stage these words were combined into sentences. Moving on, the pupil soon found himself in deeper water—words of two, three, four, or more syllables. Then there were words spelled differently with the same pronunciation as air, one of the elements; ere, before; heir, one who inherits. The lessons in reading included selections from the Book of Proverbs, Esop's Fables illustrated and Natural History. Lessons were given on Geography, English Grammar, Arithmetic and abbreviations in writing, and Latin words and phrases in common use. Nor was religious education overlooked. This little book contained "The Church Catechism," "Watts's Catechism," Prayers for use in school and for home use morning and night, "Grace before Meat" and "Grace after Meat." All these and more were in this book at the cost of one shilling or about twenty-five cents Canadian Currency. The book was entitled "A New Guide to the English Tongue" by Thomas Dilworth, School-master.

The school-room was fitted up in most economic fashion. On one side was a large open fireplace, and in a corner near by was a desk or a table at which sat the teacher often writing copies, or making goose-quill pens—the steel pen is a modern invention. While thus engaged he heard a class of young children read. Around three sides of the room were the writing tables, consisting of a board about four inches in breadth, extending horizontally from the wall as a shelf for ink-wells, pens and other things. To the edge of this shelf was attached a slanting board about twenty inches wide for a writing table. Originally it was fairly smooth, but in course of time its surface had become much changed, showing various designs in wood-carving with jacknives by young artists. On the south side, opposite a window, one might find a deep cutting for use rather than ornament—a sun dial to indicate the noon time.

The seats in those days were made of slabs supported by legs made of stakes driven into auger holes on the under side. They had no support for the back, and their legs were long enough for a full grown man, adapted to the convenience of Sunday meetings and singing schools in week day evenings, so that the children's feet did not reach the floor. When writing, the pupils faced the wall; at other times inward toward the master.

An amusing feature was the spelling exercise to which the last twenty minutes of the day were devoted. At first came the preparation of the lesson. The pupils seated on the high benches and facing inwards studied aloud and with no uncertain sound. As they pronounced each letter and syllable and word after this fashion—v o vo, l u n lun, volun, ta ta, volunta, r i ri, voluntari, l y ly, voluntarily—they swayed to and fro, keeping time in their bodily movements above the seat and below the seat with the rhythm of their voice, gathering up the syllables as they went along, and finally pronouncing the whole word. At the close of the preparation all stood in line around the room while the teacher heard the lesson. There was "going up and down," which excited much emulation, gravitating each way from about the middle of the line, the one at the foot seeming to be as proud of his position as was he at the head.


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