Egerton Ryerson: The Father of Education in Ontario
Egerton Ryerson was born in the Township of Charlotteville a short distance south of the village of Vittoria, once capital of the London District, on the 24th of March 1803. He was a son of one of the pioneer United Empire Loyalist families, which settled in Norfolk County just before the turn of the l9th century.
His Dutch foreparents had been in the new world since the early 1600s. When New Amsterdam fell to the British in 1664 and was renamed New York, they anglicized the spelling of "Reyerzoon." Upon the outbreak of the American Revolution their descendants declared their loyalty to the crown and, together with thousands of other United Empire Loyalists, migrated to what remained of British North America.
His father Colonel Joseph Ryerson, a native of the State of New Jersey, distinguished himself for his bravery during the American Revolutionary War, having entered the ranks of the Loyalists when a mere lad of fifteen years and having taken part in many battles.
When hostilities came to an end, he and his brother, Samuel, who had also fought as a Colonel on the British side during the war, joined the trek of Loyalists to the province of New Brunswick. Here Colonel Joseph Ryerson married Mehetabel Stickney, said to have been the first child of English stock born in the colony.
In 1794, Colonel Samuel removed to Upper Canada and settled at the mouth of Young's Creek, where Port Ryerse stands today. Five years later he was followed by Colonel Joseph Ryerson and his family, who endured great hardships during the journey, as well as during the early years of their pioneer life in this province. He received a grant of 2,500 acres of land lying between Vittoria and Port Ryerse, as well as a deed of the island now known as Ryerson's Island, adjoining Long Point Island.
Colonel Joseph fathered six sons, five of whom became ministers of the gospel. Egerton was the fifth son. The three older boys took an active part in repelling the American invaders in the War of 1812. Egerton, although only ten years of age at the time, was fully imbued with the patriotic ardour of his brothers and regretted that his tender years did not permit him to share their experiences.
Young Egerton was bred to farming pursuits and expected to do a man's work long before he was man's age. He was always given to study however, and even when busy in the fields, he would find odd moments in which to acquire useful knowledge from his books.
He also attended the District Grammar School near Vittoria at intervals. Judge James Mitchell was the able teacher of this school and he afterwards married a younger sister of Egerton. He fostered in him a love of learning and a facility with the English language. He also exposed Ryerson to the surge of world-occurrence and all it boded for actors and spectators alike.
The educational vista soon complemented a religious vision, for the teenager had apprehended Jesus approaching him. Eager to refute the scornful who sneered at religion as an excuse for laziness, Ryerson prepared himself for the ministry by arising daily at 3:00 a.m. in order to study until 6:00, when he commenced the 14-hour day's work required of all farm labour.
At an early age, Egerton was strongly drawn towards that militant Christianity preached by the early Methodist Society. This fact created an estrangement between him and his father. Colonel Ryerson was an Anglican, though he already had two sons in the Methodist ministry, which he evidently considered enough. He viewed Methodists as near-American (the first Methodist Circuit in Upper Canada, established by the American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1791, was part of the District of Genesee, New York State) and near-anarchic, assuming republicanism and revolution to imply each other.
He gave Egerton the choice of leaving the church or quitting his house. The young man revealed his independence of spirit by choosing the latter alternative.
He obtained a position as usher and assistant teacher in the District Grammar School, which he filled successfully for two years. Then his father capitulated and requested him to come home again and devote his energies to the task of farming. Egerton was proud of the fact that he could do more farm work in a day than any hired man his father ever had.
Complying with his father's request, he returned to the farm where he remained until he attained his majority. Then the urge for learning was too great and he enrolled in the Gore District School at Hamilton, where he placed himself under a talented classical master.
So diligently did he apply himself to his new studies that after six months a breakdown in his health occurred and for a time his life was despaired of. He decided at this time that if he recovered, he would devote his abilities to the Methodist ministry.
Ryerson was a religious man, and he had his first religious experience known as "Conversion" which is essential for anyone teaching Methodism. after this experience, Egerton remained teaching Methodism for several years.
Ryerson became the itinerant preacher on the Yonge Street Circuit. Its boundaries were Pickering, Weston and Lake Simcoe. He needed a month to visit the people in his charge, delivering scores of sermons in scattered settlements. Always concerned to enhance human well-being, he ministered in the First Nation community on the Credit River where Peter Jones, an aboriginal Methodist, had evangelized the Mississauga natives. Here he slept in a wigwam, learned the language and set about erecting a multi-purpose building to serve as church and school. He supplemented the natives' gifts with monies garnered from friends and former members of his Yonge Street circuit -- none of whom was affluent. He had the structure paid for in six weeks.
The challenge in this regard, however, was nothing compared to that posed by his most formidable foe. Bishop John Strachan, of Scottish Presbyterian background, had emigrated to Canada in 1799. Rejected as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, he had joined the Anglicans, soon becoming the episcopal power-broker and the implacable foe of all who threatened the grip of the wealthy, oligarchic "Family Compact." The latter was a handful of rich families whose stranglehold on business, finance and education sought to petrify the social stratification it exploited. Newly admitted to the Compact, Strachan spoke for it and speared any who opposed it.
Twenty-five years older than Ryerson, Strachan denounced Methodists as poorly-educated, irresponsible and traitorous (conveniently forgetting that they were descendants of United Empire Loyalists.) Already denied the right to own land for churches and parsonages, as well as the right to baptize and solemnize marriages, Methodist people were outraged. It fell to the 23-year old "David" to confront "Goliath." Ryerson penned a riposte brilliant and effective in equal measure. In four years the Methodists were granted what they had long been refused.
Notorious now, in 1829 Ryerson was appointed editor of a brand new Christian Guardian, soon the most widely read newspaper in the province, superseding many times over the official Upper Canada Gazette. The Guardian followed up with a bookstore, and this in turn metamorphosed into Ryerson Press, at one point the largest printing and publishing enterprise in Canada. Operating until 1970, it did much to shape the Canadian identity through the novelists, poets, biographers and historians whose works it disseminated.
In 1836 the Methodists built Upper Canada College at Cobourg, Ontario, expanding it into Victoria College (1841) and Victoria University (1865, when faculties of law and medicine were added.) Named its first principal, Ryerson announced a curriculum as broad as it was deep. In addition to Classics (a mainstay at any university at this time), he added a science department offering courses in chemistry, mineralogy and geography, as well as new departments of philosophy, rhetoric and modern languages (French and German.) Always eschewing one-sidedness anywhere in life, he insisted that each student pursue a balanced programme of the arts and the sciences.
Yet Ryerson's monumental victory soon eclipsed the achievements that had already made him a household name. Dismayed to see one-half of school-aged children with no formal education and the remaining half averaging only a year's, he knew himself handed unparalleled opportunity the day he was appointed Chief Superintendent of Common Schools for Canada West in 1844. (A "common" school was the social opposite of the elitist private schools.) Only forty-three, Ryerson persuaded the provincial government to assume responsibility for education. Soon common schools, aided by government grants, appeared wherever twenty students could be gathered. The arrangement was a quantitative leap over the log cabin schoolhouses whose instructors were frequently minimally literate themselves.
Thinking ill of a British school system that perpetuated the worst class divisiveness in Europe, Ryerson visited Continental common schools in Holland, Italy and France, "bookending" his trip with visits to Germany where he could observe the education system that Philip Melanchthon had implemented 300 years earlier. Upon his return to Canada he wooed the provincial government into marrying education and tax revenues, thereby providing free education for all. Of course the rich objected, arguing that they shouldn't have to support the schooling of their social inferiors. Ryerson triumphed. His free education was soon compulsory as well. In it all he elevated teaching from a miserable job to a calling akin to that of the ordained ministry.
George Brown, editor of Toronto's Globe newspaper, ranted that Ryerson had imported "Prussian" education into Ontario. Ryerson, cultured where Brown was crude, quietly immersed himself in French literature, having taught himself the language so well that he and the pope had conversed in it during his visit to Italy.
His educational programme quickly spread to other provinces, thereby magnifying his contribution to public life in Canada. The Methodist people, who for several decades hadn't always appreciated what he was coaxing into place for all Canadians, realized his accomplishment. In 1874 they honoured the seventy-four year old giant by electing him the first president of the General Conference of the newly-amalgamated Methodist Church of Canada.
April 4, 1906 Mr. J. B. Fairbairn, writes: "About 1844 Egerton Ryerson one of the greatest men Canada has produced, took up the school question and after investigation into the best methods then employed both in Europe and America, he submitted the result of the inquiry to Parliament. His recommendations were embodied in a bill which, on submission to the House, passed and became the School Law of Ontario. Thus the rapidly growing and important Province of Ontario obtained what is on all hands conceded to be the best public school system in the world. Mr. Ryerson was appointed Chief Superintendent and saw the law brought into practical use. He lived many years afterwards and aided by the best educationalists then employed in the work, succeeded in bringing those primary seats of learning to a high pitch of perfection."
Ryerson's Love Life
Although Ryerson led a very busy life, he still found time for love. Egerton first thought about marriage in 1824. This is after he became Romantic involved with a young woman named Hannah Aikman. He first met Hannah in 1821 when he went to her father's while studying. it was not until 1824 however that their relationship intensified, but both of there prospects of marriage were poor, and so their marriage was delayed. It is not known for sure, but it is said that Hannah had a small affair with one of Ryerson's brothers. Not long before 1828 Ryerson was transferred to Cobourg, but soon returned to York.
In midlife, Egerton Ryerson shifted from Methodist minister to civil servant and established a system of public education in Ontario that became a model for other English-speaking provinces. By the age of forty-one, he had served as a revivalist preacher, acted as the chief debater for the Methodists, learned five languages, been the editor of a prominent newspaper, received an honourary doctorate, and been appointed the superintendent of education for Upper Canada.
Egerton Ryerson died in February 1882 in Toronto. Ontario and is buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery (Potter's Field), York Co.
United in Methodism in honouring his life and work. His conviction was that he had tried, "however imperfectly," to serve God. as a minister, polemicist, writer, and tireless civil servant, he had sought tenaciously to inculcate in his community a fuller understanding of the import of its political, cultural, and religious traditions and a firm commitment to perpetuate them through its school and colleges. In so doing, he was faithful to the spirit of Methodism and exemplified the authority and the meaning of Christian commitment.
Hamilton Spectator December 23, 1846 Marriage: Peck-Prior In Brantford, on the 8th ultimo, by the Rev. E. Ryerson, Leonard Peck, Esq., at London, C.W., to Mary Margaret, third daughter of Mrs. Prior of Brantford.
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Last Updated July 14, 2004