Schooling in a Fishing Society: Education and Economic Conditions
Schooling in a Fishing Society: Education and Economic Conditions
J. W. Bulcock
In this two volume work, Phillip McCann, Professor Emeritus of Education at Memorial University, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and University of Manchester Ph.D., has written the definitive social history of Newfoundland education covering the 150 year period from colonial times to the beginning of the 1990s. Volume one begins inauspiciously, however, with the unassuming claim on the first page that the purpose of the book is to comment on the many statistical tables (most of which, incidentally, are presented in the second volume). Thus, the book "does not pretend to be either a history of education or a treatise on economic development", a claim which is belied both by the book's title and by the paradoxical statement on the second page, that the book "cannot pretend to be absolutely definitive." (Emphasis added.) Notwithstanding these caveats the fact remains that following its publication no future historian of Newfoundland education will be able to ignore this work. If in McCann's opinion it is not absolutely definitive it is still a significant step in that direction. Its 600 plus pages represents an immense intellectual effort over many years. While the title specifies the period covered as 1836-1986, McCann brings the work more up to date with a "postscript" chapter dealing critically with the social and economic policies of the Wells' Government and their potential consequences for education. In particular, the postscript chapter addresses the educational implications of two Government reports published in 1992: Change and Challenge: A Strategic Economic Plan for Newfoundland and Labrador, and Our Children Our Future, the Report of a Royal Commission on Education.
McCann's tenure at Memorial University covers 28 years, during which time he has written extensively, but not exclusively, on Newfoundland education. These volumes are not, however, a mere synthesis of his previous scholarly endeavours, but, rather, a reassessment of the relationships between the economy and education, or the role of education in its social and economic context, on the basis of an exhaustive survey of over 30 archival sources in Newfoundland, England, and Ireland. The Institute of Social and Economic Research, the research sponsor, and publisher of the two volumes, is to be congratulated for recognizing the importance of publishing the 330 pages of statistical data in volume two as constituting a stimulus to yet additional research by others on aspects of the economy and education not covered by McCann. For example, with due respect to most Newfoundland historians, there would seem to be some evidence that the Commission Government years did not constitute a kind of stagnant backwater in so far as education was concerned. Indeed, as McCann himself suggests in his 1987 paper in Newfoundland Studies, educational policies in the first Smallwood Government may have been simply logical extensions of policies already in place -- a position implied but not addressed in Schooling in a Fishing Society.
Phillip McCann's doctorate is from the University of Manchester where the first chair of economic history in Europe was established in 1910. The "Manchester school" as it was called, pioneered new methods of historical inquiry including econometric history or cliometrics, and social history. The school encouraged closer liaisons between historians and social scientists, while at the same time it was shifting away from the prevailing narrative style of political history, and toward a mode of historical scholarship emphasizing an understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural, or structural, trends underlying historical events. Like the members of the Annals school in France which emerged later, the members of the Manchester school believed that historians had to be acquainted with the social sciences, even to the point of using social science methodology such as the case study, comparative research, and interviewing techniques -- all which McCann has used in some of his earlier studies (for example, McCann, 1982; McCann and Young, 1987; and Stewart and McCann, 1967).
Such trends had reached "take-off" in English and French historiography
in the 1950s when McCann was a doctoral candidate in Manchester.
The history of social groups and changing social structure was carried
out by both historians and sociologists using the new methods of quantitative
history. Their analyses tended to be unemotional, thoroughly documented
from primary sources, and relatively impartial, a style which permeates
Schooling in a Fishing Society. Yet, McCann incorporates more recent
historiographic research emphases into his analysis. There is a pervasive
sociological thrust to Part IV of volume one, as well as in both the postscript
and the conclusion, in which he draws on the work of Neil Smelser, a student
of the structural-functionalist, Talcott Parsons. While this would
seem to place McCann in the evolutionary/consensus as opposed to the revolutionary/conflict,
or Marxist camp of change theorists, Smelser (1990: 12) describes McCann
as a Marxist historian who like
Early Fabians such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, J.L. and Barbara Hammond, and R.H. Tawney belonged to this tradition as do various more recent "radical" interpretations by Brian Simon, Ivan Moorish, Phillip McCann, and to some degree, Harold Silver. (Emphasis added.)
The most pervasive theme in Schooling in a Fishing Society is that it is the economy which is of basic importance to a country's social and cultural life; and that while the two may operate reciprocally, the economic effects on education are substantially greater than educational effects on the economy. Effectively, this is the rejection of the liberal thesis of the late David Alexander (1980). This thesis holds that because educational attainment governs income, and because income is maldistributed in society, then education is potentially an important lever for redistributing incomes on a more equitable basis. McCann's three-fold counter argument applies predominantly to pre-Confederation Newfoundland. First, the purchasing power of the Newfoundland population depended on the bounty of the fishery and on the price of fish in international markets. Second, the magnitude of customs duties depended, in turn, on purchasing power. Third, since educational financing depended virtually entirely on custom's duties, then both the quantity (enrolment) and quality (standards) of Newfoundland schooling depended on the economy.
The logical obverse of this argument is labeled the human capital
thesis. It is people, the argument goes, that make up society; and
the wealth of society, its intellectual and moral strengths, depend on
the industriousness, initiative, knowledge, and motivation of its people.
The primary institution with the mandate for promoting and enhancing people's
resources is the educational system; and the human capital equations demonstrate
unambiguously that investments in health care and education yield substantial
private and social returns in terms of personal incomes and national income
growth accounting. In fact, the research to date appears conclusive.
No factor of production accounts for greater reductions in the residuals
of the income growth accounting equations than the human capital element.
And further, the human capital element is the primary factor accounting
for the intergenerational transmission of both abilities and wealth.
But these claims by the human capital economists are far from being self
evident to Professor McCann, whose concluding words in volume one are:
The history of Newfoundland education suggests that the economic conditions of society exercise a stronger influence on education than the latter has ever done on the economy. (p. 253)
The contribution of school to society -- at best problematic -- is here taken as the teaching of a wide range of subjects in the best possible manner in order to achieve a satisfactory development of human potential. (p. 114)
There is much more to the study of Schooling in a Fishing Society than the rejection of Alexander's (1980) liberal thesis. The book addresses the issue of urban-rural differences in school achievement; and the fact that despite living in recessionary times now that ground fish stocks have declined, recent governments have not significantly reduced the availability of educational resources; for example, teacher's salaries have continued to increase, attendance rates are at an all-time high, and pupil-teacher ratios continue to decline. Yet, despite all the attention, educational standards remain virtually unchanged. It is in this context that attention is drawn to current government educational policy. He criticizes the role specified for education in Change and Challenge, the strategic plan for the future social and economic development of the province, on the grounds that it is simply a pale reflection of the conservative educational reforms, "ideological imports", of the 1980s in the U.S.A. At the same time he recognizes that Change and Challenge" lays out a bleak economic future for Newfoundland unless the economy can become much more productive than it has been in the past. Short shrift is also accorded the 1992 Royal Commission report on education, Our Children Our Future. He claims that in terms of educational governance the report is "scarcely an advance on the non-denominational system of 1836-1843."
McCann provides the reader with much food for thought about the development of Newfoundland education. For the economic historian there are tables of the dollar values, per capita of the fishery labour force, of major fish products (Table II-60, p. 210), and the per capita productivity of the fishery labour force, in quintals (Table II-61, p. 211) from 1861-1916, for both the entire province and by region. There were substantial variations by year, and within years by region. It is doubtful that these data, painstakenly gathered from Newfoundland censuses over the 55 year period, have ever been compiled into tables of the kind McCann presents in volume 2. They will prove a boon to future economic historians. They show that children in the 19th century "acted as a reserve pool of labour for the fishery, subsidizing the value and output of the industry at the expense of their schooling." Thus, when "productivity in the fishery was high, greater numbers of children would be employed within the fishery, with a consequent lowering of their attendance records." Since boys were affected more than girls it is correct to say that Newfoundland women to this day have tended to have higher standards of educational attainment than men.
For the social historian the data substantially extends that provided by Alexander (1980). This permits superior estimates of what it would have cost the Newfoundland government in the period 1861-1916 to provide universal education. The estimates generate the conclusion that it would have cost "... a mere 2.4% of export values" to provide "... a school place for all the (5-15 year-olds) age group". (Vol. 1. p. 103.) But given that Newfoundland education was seriously underfunded even by the prevailing standards of the day, the question which arises is, why? Five reasons are suggested: the somewhat primitive cashless capitalism, the relative absence of technological change in the fishery, the rapidly growing population, the exporting of considerable capital gained from profits in the fishery, and the substantial private investments in the Newfoundland railway and dockyards.
For the educational historian there are major sections of the
first volume dealing with the quality of education; for example pages 117
through 149. To this day Statistics Canada presents educational data
which is almost exclusively quantitative -- enrolments, per capita expenditures
by province, the number of schools by type and such like. Very little
qualitative data exists related to national or provincial educational standards.
McCann somehow has been able to overcome this dearth of qualitative data
for the 55 years beginning 1861 by identifying the proportion of student
enrolment in the advanced levels; and, above all, by describing in Volume
2, Appendix III, (pp. 315-329) what the standards from standard I to standard
VI meant. For example, the Newfoundland standard V in writing was
described as follows:
To write from memory the substance of a story read out twice; spelling, grammar, and bad writing to be considered.
It is sad to learn that literacy and numeracy in Newfoundland fell substantially short of the standards prevailing elsewhere in the modern world in the same time frame, from the second half of the nineteenth century to the early part of the twentieth century. Both McCann and Alexander (1980) reach the same conclusion that a critical mass of well educated people is a requirement for the transformation and liberation of the individual from the stultifying traditions of the past, and that this critical mass was not present in Newfoundland. Its absence represented a barrier to both individual accomplishment and to economic progress. Indeed, it perpetuated a form of internal colonialism of a kind constituting double deprivation for the outport regions.
It should be clear by now that the two volume work is much more than "a commentary on the tables". In addition to the above mentioned issues he presents the basic history of denominational schooling, again leaving most of the details to cited journal articles by leading Newfoundland historians. He deals with developments toward a professional corps of teachers; to gender differences in recruitment to teaching and the related issue of gender differences in salaries; to regional differences in school attendance and school achievement; and to differences in educational emphases between the denominations. Following the standards of the Manchester school the arguments are meticulously documented in statistical tables from several dozen sources. Thus, at long last there is a worthy social history of Newfoundland education; thereby justifying its incorporation in the university curriculum. One would assume that it would deserve a place on the teacher education curriculum in the Faculty of Education. In the short term, given the politics of the curriculum, this is unlikely. For a quarter of a century the history of education has had a minor role, that of an elective, on the teacher education program of studies. Yet, in this reviewer's judgment, Schooling in a Fishing Society sheds more light on Newfoundland education than any other single work of his acquaintance.
In conclusion a comment is in order about the nature of statistics, and its role in the humanities, including education. One entire volume of Schooling in a Fishing Society is devoted to statistical tables. These are structured into four historical periods: (i) 1836-1856, the granting of Representative Government to the achievement of Responsible Government; (ii) 1861-1916, the era of Responsible Government to the First World War; (iii) 1921-1949, the period covering the creation of a Department of Education to the imposition of Commission Government; and (iv) education under Confederation. Within each period the data are organized on a quinquennial basis, every five years; and within each quinquennium (where available) statistics on four stratifying variables are presented -- gender differences, regional differences, religious differences, and economic conditions. Comparisons are made, for example, between seven regions on the number of schools, teachers, enrolment, attendance, and standards of achievement. Where the data permit, comparisons on these variables are made as between Newfoundland, England and Ireland. Economic conditions generally refer to National Product, or Gross Domestic Product, but concepts such as standard of living and average wages are also used. At best, however, the statistics used are means and proportions. No attempt is made to correlate variables in the time series data base; and, similarly, differences between means using the t-test, analysis of variance or simple regression are not used, though in some instances could have been. The economic data is not adjusted for inflation or (in the 1921-49 period) for deflation. Gender differences in teachers' salaries are not adjusted for years of service, qualifications, or whether the teacher was an administrator or not, hence entitled to extra responsibility allowances. The net result is that in the absence of various statistical transformations and controls the inferences from data to common language meanings have to be exercised with caution.
Statistics call for reasoning from imprecise empirical data, for the use of inference based on a knowledge of probability theory. Thus, statistics enables the initiated to deal with the all pervasive role of chance in everyday life. This is the logic of hypothesis testing, the logic underlying the formulation of models, and the verification of hypotheses. As such it is the very foundation of human reasoning. Such reasoning is ubiquitous in everyday life. Statistics are words. They are written in the logically same prose in which the historical narrative is written. And given its ubiquity statistics has surely as great a claim to being a humanities discipline as history, or philosophy, or religion.
Despite its lack of a list of tables, bibliography and index in volume 1, and despite this reviewer's reservations about the causal ordering of the education and economic growth relationship, this view of Newfoundland education is history at its most challenging and thought provoking. Schooling in a Fishing Society is a fine example of revisionist social history, in which schooling is examined as a mirror reflecting the economic circumstances, government policies and denominational rivalries of the day. These three institutions, often in partnership, have dictated the conditions of schooling from colonial times to the present day. The massive documentation accompanying this work provides substantial support for Professor McCann's critical stance which in the opening sentence to this review was stated to be definitive. Given this perspective it will come as no surprise to the reader to find that McCann is just as critical of present day schooling policies and practices as he was of those of the past. Thus, he is sceptical about whether current educational policies proposed as a panacea for economic decline will succeed given the "long standing" deficiencies of a constitutionally mandated denominational system.
Alexander, D. (1980). "Literacy and economic development in nineteenth century Newfoundland." Acadiensis, X:1, 28-29.
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, (1992). Change and Challenge: A Strategic Economic Plan for Newfoundland & Labrador. St. John's, Newfoundland: Queen's Printer.
Hobsbawm, E.J. (1968). Industry and Empire: The Making of Modern English Society. New York: Pantheon Books.
McCann, P. (1987). "The educational policy of the Commission of Government." Newfoundland Studies, 3:2, 201-215.
McCann, P. & Young, F.A. (1982). Samuel Wilderspin and the Infant School Movement. London: Croom Helm.
McCann, P. (1982). Blackboards and Briefcases: Personal Stories by Newfoundland Teachers, Educators and Administrators. St. John's, Newfoundland: Jesperson Press.
Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Delivery of Programs and Services in Primary, Elementary, Secondary Education (1992). Our Children Our Future. St. John's, Newfoundland: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Smelser, N.J. (1991). Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Russell Sage.
Stewart, W.A.C. & McCann, W.P. (1967). The Educational Innovators 1750-1880. London: Macmillan.