Source: Melvin Baker and Hans Rollmann, eds., Looking Forward: Smallwood's Labour Utopia - What Newfoundland might be 50 Years Hence! (forthcoming publication).
"What is the population of St. John's?" I stopped a passerby to ask. "St. John's?" he asked. "Why, eighty thousand, I think, I'm not sure. Possibly a little more."
So the town had grown, as I had expected. I walked on and presently came to a beautiful white marble building -- at least, it had marble finishings, altho the building itself was of granite. It was a spreading building, surrounded with beautiful green swards. Set back several hundred feet from the asphalted road over which I was walking, this place looked a veritable gem indeed. Another passerby assured me that it was the pride of the city -- of the country, for that matter, he added.
"That is the Newfoundland University, sir," he told me.
"Well, well, well," I exclaimed, more delighted now that I have been at any time since landing from the steamer. "The Newfoundland University!"
The man looked with polite curiosity at me, and, I explained that it was a great many years since I have been in the country, and this university was "news" to me.
"It was founded about thirty or thirty-five years ago," he explained. "Before that we had to send our young men and women who wished to get university courses to Canada and England. There used to be a big number go away like that. Many others couldn't afford, it altho just as anxious to get the benefits of the education. So they founded this one. It was done partly by the state and partly by private gifts. Whenever a well-to-do man dies now, he is sure to endow a chair or professorship. The university is everybody's gift."
"Then it has been a success?" I asked him. "It is availed of. How about our outport young men and women -- do they come here too."
"Why, of course. There are students there from all over the country. Not only that -- but many grown men -- some of them married men -- take courses there I go there myself," he admitted.
"Indeed," I remarked with interest. "What are you taking, if I may ask?"
"Well, just now I'm following up the lectures on Biology. I have taken two other courses there -- Economics and World History. I am interested in Sociology."
"Shake hands, friend," I exclaimed. "We're birds of a feather."
From that we got into quite a conversation -- trust two students of Sociology to do that whenever and wherever they meet! I learned a great deal about education in Newfoundland, and much of it astonished me I can assure you.
In the first place, education now was undenominational, free, compulsory. That is to say, there were no three or four separate systems as there had been in the old days. The Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Salvation Army schools had been consolidated as one country-wide system. Denominational religion was not taught in the schools, now. The result had been, my acquaintance told me, a growth in Sunday Schools, Bible Classes, etc., where the religious teaching of each denomination was taught the children of each denomination. Also, he said, there were certain hours in the schools when clergymen and other denominational teachers would take children of the respective denominations and instruct them in the tenets of the denominations. The result had been to smash down most of the oldtime bigotry anti-sectarian hatred, by bringing children of all classes and denominations together in fraternity. The wiping out of misunderstanding had also been the wiping out of hatred.
The educational system was now paid for and maintained by the state -- the government. A special school tax was levied on the people to enable the country to do this. Of course, any denomination who wished to have their own separate schools were at liberty to do so -- only, of course, the state did not pay them. The children at schools did not pay fees, education being free in that sense. Of course it wasn't really free, as the people as a whole paid for the upkeep of the system, whether they had children or not, or were married or not (provided they were adults, of course). And school attendance was compulsory, under certain conditions. In the outports, for instance, there were certain months when parents could obtain exemption for their children by putting their application before the school board in each place. Every effort was made, however, to make the compulsory part binding. The state was very keen, I learned, on having every child in the country given an elementary education, and providing the opportunity of following it up even to the university if they wished.
There was a school in every place in Newfoundland, I also learned. The wiping out of the old system had meant that where there had been two or three wretchedly-maintained schools with miserably-paid, untrained, ungraded teachers, now there was one fine school building with the best equipment and one or two well-paid teachers, well-trained and strictly graded. The people of Newfoundland had, I learned, actually elevated the teacher to a pedestal, and now regarded him as one of the most important persons in the community, instead of the lackey he used of old to be.
The teaching and training of its youth had become at last, regarded in its true light by the people of Newfoundland. In many places, my sidewalk acquaintance informed me, where the settlement was more or less scattered, and the school-children lived at some distance from the school, there was a community horse and wagon which went around and carried them to the schoolhouse! By Jove, I was astonished! This was some change, eh? I thought of the conditions which obtained in the old days, and in sheer joy I exclaimed aloud:
"At last! at last! they see at last!" My companion startled, but quickly I told him of conditions as they had been. He nodded sympathetically.
Suddenly I remembered.
"Why, I know," I exclaimed. "Of course. The man who is responsible for all this, I'll bet my hat, was Barnes -- Dr. Arthur Barnes, our first Minister of Education. Am I right?"
For answer my companion pointed without a word to a life size statue over the handsome gate leading to the university campus. We walked over to the gate and I saw that the figure was of my friend. Dr. Barnes! I was deeply moved. This was recognition. This proved that the people of Newfoundland appreciated a great thing when they saw it.
"The name Barnes is an honored one in this country," I was informed by the man who had so kindly informed me on these matters. "He is one of the national figures of Newfoundland."
My eye fell on another statue farther in.
"That is Burke,' my companion told me.
"Of course!" I agreed delightedly. "Vincent Burke. I cannot tell countrymen who came after them appreciate their work -- I well know what they did and the fight they waged in the face of indifference and -- perhaps what was less serious, really -- even ridicule and calumny from miserable, brainless creatures who were not fit to lick their boots!" We regarded the two statues in silence for a moment, and I took off my hat and exclaimed:
"I am proud to pay my tribute to the men who found twenty five per cent of my countrymen illiterate and reduced the number to five before they died!"
History | The 20's | 1922