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Significant Scots
William Boyd

William Boyd

Dr William Boyd was the head of the Education Department at Glasgow University for most of the first half of the twentieth century and was a noted educational historian. He was educated at Kilmarnock Academy and gave a comprehensive account of the school and its rector in his time, Dr Hugh Dickie , in his Education in Ayrshire through Seven Centuries (1961). He wrote of Dickie:

As rector of the Academy he became responsible for a school of mixed character; required to devote itself to elementary work if it was to enjoy government grants but expected by School Board [sic] to reach a high academic level. Like the rectors of the other Academies he was a full-time teacher; as at the outset he was the only graduate he had the whole burden of the upper school on his shoulders. He had to teach all the higher subjects. This he did so effectively that in a year or two Kilmarnock Academy was sending a succession of well-trained pupils to Glasgow University and year by year two or three of them were making their appearance on the Bursary list. So far as scholarship was concerned he had made his ’elementary' school a real Academy.

Boyd was among those whom the school was to send to Glasgow University where he took an MA and a BSc. He taught both in schools and university before being made head of the Department of Education at Glasgow University in 1907, a post he held until his retiral in 1946. He was awarded a PhD in 1911.

His teaching at Glasgow University was described in his obituary in The Times as being ’vigorous, unconventional and iconoclastic but always inspiring'. He was one of the principal individuals involved in the University establishing the BEd degree in 1918. He founded a child guidance clinic, one of the first in the country, in the Department in 1926 which he ran with the assistance of teacher volunteers until Glasgow Corporation began its own clinic. He also helped introduce the Workers Educational Association to Scotland , an organisation which is a national provider of community-based learning and which provides adults with access to organised learning. In 1920 he became the president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the principal representative body for Scottish teachers.

His magnum opus was The History of Western Education (1 st edn 1921), a magisterial one-volume survey in the nineteenth-century tradition of the broad generalization which became the standard textbook of its time.

It was translated into several languages and still, in the early twenty-first century, turns up on bibliographies for educational courses, having gone through eleven editions and having been reprinted as recently as 1980. Boyd was an advocate of the ’New Education', associated in America with the philosopher John Dewey, ’with its faith in the free development of personality' (Boyd, History of Western Education ). It attempted to enliven education by centring school work on the interests of the child and broadened the function of the school to include intervention in health care and community life. Boyd particularly commended the Scottish Education Act of 1908 for making schools welfare centres, requiring the medical examination of the pupils and authorising the employment of doctors and nurses.

After his retiral Boyd produced several books. As well as his history of Ayrshire education, which is still to be surpassed, he wrote Emile for Today (1956) and Plato’s Republic for Today (1962). He also assisted John Strawhorn in writing the volume on Ayrshire in the Third Statistical Account of Scotland (1951). Before his death he was working on a commentary and new translation of the New Testament. He died in Totnes, Devon. His Times obituary stated that ’Boyd's complete integrity and kindness were coupled in a unique way with an indomitable courage.'

The work of William Boyd and the Educational Institute of Scotland's Research Committee in the 1920s (pdf)

From the Scottish Review (March 2016)

Tonight I am a guest at Kilmarnock Rotary Club, having been invited to speak about the achievements of a distinguished former pupil of Kilmarnock Academy, William Boyd (1874-1962). Dr Boyd was an important figure in Scottish education, whose contribution deserves to be better known. Appointed to Glasgow University as a lecturer in 1907, he helped to develop the study of education through his extensive writings and popular teaching. But he was much more than a conventional academic. He became an energetic activist, not only in Scotland but internationally, through his involvement in the New Education Fellowship, a progressive movement aimed at reforming the school curriculum and treating children more humanely.

He started the first child guidance clinic in Britain in 1926 and by the mid-1930s it was treating more than a 150 youngsters a year, with the caseload being carried by graduates who had attended Boyd’s courses. Both as an undergraduate, living in a students’ settlement in a poor part of Glasgow, and during the unemployment of the 1930s, Boyd was engaged in admirable community work, offering various forms of support to those in need. The Clydebank Mutual Service Association was founded by Boyd and his second wife, Dorothy, and was open to the whole community, employed and unemployed, men and women, old and young. The aim was to promote 'a fellowship of neighbourly help’ and 'a right conception of citizenship’.

I end my talk by asking why Boyd was never made a professor by Glasgow University, despite having worked there with distinction for nearly 40 years. There are several possible answers, none of which reflects well on the university. His brilliance as a teacher and his strong public profile may have been resented by more conservative academics. Again, his work with the unemployed raised wholly unjustified suspicions that he may have been a communist: he described himself as a 'Christian socialist’ and was certainly not involved in revolutionary politics.

Another factor may have been that education as a university subject enjoyed relatively low status, compared with established fields such as classics and philosophy. Finally, some reports suggest that on occasion Boyd deliberately exaggerated his Ayrshire accent to prick the pomposity of traditionalists: for the more precious among the academic community, that may have been the clincher. Whatever the explanation, Boyd’s place in the history of Scottish education is worthy of recognition and celebration.

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