Alexander Robinson (1863-1952)
Provincial Superintendent of Education, 1899-1919
Ministers of Education came and went, School Inspector Alexander Lord later said of his influence, but Robinson was the Department of Education.
There was never any doubt about that.
During a tenure in which he served eight premiers and 16 ministers of education and acted also as Civil Service Commissioner for three years (1912-1915) Robinson presided over the greatest institution-building movement in provincial school history.
Like many of British Columbia’s early school leaders, the path Robinson followed to the Superintendent’s Office began more than 2000 miles way in Atlantic Canada. Robinson was born in St. John, New Brunswick in 1863 of Scottish immigrant stock.
He attended Fredericton Normal School where he received the Lorne medal for prowess in teaching before completing a degree in Greek and Latin at Dalhousie, where he again distinguished himself by earning the Governor General’s medal for academic excellence.
After stints as a small-town schoolmaster and, later, principal of Upper Sussex and Campbellton High School in New Brunswick, he decided, like others of his generation, to venture West in search of professional opportunity. Robinson came to Vancouver in 1891 to become principal of Vancouver High School, the city’s first high school, which then consisted of one room in Central School on Pender Street.
At this time, the school served as the only institution for secondary education in a city that now numbered close to 14,000 people. For the next eight years, according to Lemuel Robertson, Greek master at Vancouver High, he ruled the growing school with a rod of iron, but with a marvelous talent for developing character and scholarship.
Here, too, Robinson first began to acquire a reputation for being a little bit obstinate and a shade intolerant. A tall figure, courtly in manner, he was perceived by teachers as a man of very definite views . . . who, if somewhat dogmatic, was fully convinced that, when he had stated his case, the last word had been spoken.
Nevertheless, despite an imposing presence and strong opinions, Robinson was also recognized by teachers, students, the public, and his colleagues in government as a scholar, a brilliant conversationalist, and someone capable of commanding great loyalty and affection.
Referred to as “The Chief” by his lieutenants in the Education Office, he was popularly known to the province’s teachers and administrators as “Sandy”, the diminutive of his Christian name.
In the words of one contemporary, Robinson was a schoolmaster of the “old school” with an abiding faith in Greek and Latin as the foundation of a liberal education. Yet Robinson was also a man of practical affairs and appeared, on occasion, surprisingly modern in his behavior. He was a devout outdoorsman, trout fisherman, and gardener, and proudly admitted to pioneering the moving picture business in Vancouver with his friend, Queen’s Counselor W. C. Brown, by showing early films in rented premises on Westminster Avenue (now Main Street).
In character and outlook, Robinson was similar to many late-nineteenth century school leaders in Canada and the United States.
He was male, upper-middle class at least in terms of educational attainments and intellectual interests Protestant, and embodied, in many respects, the culture and values of his class at this time. Patriarchal in manner, he was morally earnest, conscientious about civic duties, and convinced that an educational vocation would assist the great causes of nation building and social progress.
But Robinson’s interest in education was also more calculated. He had entered teaching when the continent-wide movement to professionalize educational study and practice was ascendant and, like many others of his time, saw in public education’s expansion an opportunity for a career, as well as the promise of social stature and geographic mobility.
Ryerson, of course, had shown the way: it was possible for men with sound classical educations and a little practical experience usually as principals, teachers, or professors to find careers for themselves in government as school inspectors, or even to scale the heights of the provincial superintendent’s office. The idea of government service was appealing to Robinson and to other liberal-minded schoolmen of his time who had come to believe that state provision of schooling was essential for the general welfare.
Confederation had assigned responsibility for schooling to the provinces and, like many of his contemporaries, Robinson saw no basis to question this constitutional arrangement. After all, reform-spirited Victorians had come to accept that strong central governments could best provide the regulatory structures necessary to harmonize the great social and economic developments taking place across the Dominion.
Moreover, by the closing days of the nineteenth century, battles to establish publicly-supported schools had been fought and won by the first generation of public school crusaders, and provincial authorities had emerged as the dominant actors in the educational realm.
To those of Robinson’s generation, the challenge now at hand was to construct on behalf of such authorities the governance and administrative systems necessary to sustain, organize, and advance public education. This involved various things building schools, creating new districts, certifying teachers, standardizing instructional methods, making pupil attendance compulsory, and enforcing provincial school laws and regulations.
Efforts to build the educational institutions of state therefore assumed a practical cast to Robinson and other aspiring school leaders of his time.
Although commonplace today, formal training in administration was unknown to these men, and remained so to many of their successors even into the mid-twentieth century. They were generalists rather than specialists in their abilities.
Managing organizations was something that took place “on the ground”. Administration was something they did in common sense ways, blissfully unaware of organizational theories and paradigms yet to come.
To many of them, a public career was an occupation grounded in the idea of service whether military, religious, or civic in nature an undertaking supported by their faith in the efficacy of government and a belief that some things, notably schooling and the civil service, should ideally remain beyond politics.
Commonly, such men held that educational policy was best formulated in government bureaus far removed from the influence of narrow-thinking town and village politicians, however, this is not to say that they were always apolitical themselves.
Even the most ardent advocates of professionalism understood that few individuals could rise to the most senior positions within government on the basis of professional competence alone: the patronage system characterizing public life in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century made such promotions unlikely. In the case of British Columbia, it was generally recognized that the Superintendent’s Office was a prize awarded and held principally on the basis of political loyalty.
Certainly, this was true prior to 1920: each of Robinson’s predecessors in the superintendency John Jessop, Colin Campbell MacKenzie, and Stephen Pope had used political connections to unlock the doors to this office. In hopes of gaining what he described as this most tempting position, offering power, prestige, and, for those times, a respectable salary, Jessop, lobbied his friend, Provincial Secretary Rocke Robertson, for the position.
In Jessop’s case, a change of government signaled the end of his civil service career: newly-elected Premier George Walkem, one of Jessop’s old adversaries in the Legislature, charged him with being “unfit in point of education for the position he held” and, shortly after, discharged him from this post.
In his place, Walkem nominated MacKenzie, a friend of the new government and principal of the High School in Victoria. In turn, MacKenzie was removed from office six years later when the Robson Administration came to power and, in his stead, Pope was given the position.
Although Pope survived as superintendent for 15 years, the 1898 Liberal victory led to the appointment of Joseph Martin as Acting Minister of Education. “Fighting Joe” Martin had received “strong support” from Robinson during his election campaign.
As School Inspector Alexander Lord later explained: “Martin was elected and became Minister of Education for eleven months which was long enough to dismiss Superintendent S. D. Pope and install Robinson in his place.”
The government’s action in this regard prompted the editor of the conservative-minded paper, The Victoria Daily Colonist, arguably the most important paper in the province at that time, to write: “There is nothing that can be defended in such treatment of a tried and proved public servant. Dr. Pope has served so long and so faithfully that he had every reason to suppose that he would not be interfered with, but this did not suit Mr. Martin’s views and we have the result.”
The capital city’s liberal press, The Victoria Daily Times, similarly questioned Martin’s selection of Robinson whom they mistakenly referred to as Robertson for this “high and honorable post,” preferring instead, by virtue of his allegedly superior credentials, H. M. Stramberg, principal of New Westminster High School. Despite this public outcry, the government refused to rescind Robinson’s appointment and, for the next 20 years, he ruled with czar-like authority over the provincial system.
Problems of Control:
In fact, when Robinson took charge, the educational civil service was powerless to address many serious problems besetting provincial schools.
Children’s attendance was still irregular in most small communities and the physical conditions of rural schools were, in the main, appalling. Classrooms in more than a few Vancouver and New Westminster schools were unable to house their swelling populations.
Textbooks in all but urban areas were in short supply and varied greatly in their contents, as did the quality of teaching throughout the province.
Like the Home Office in the midst of Britain’s industrial revolution, the Education Office found that its legislative mandate far outstripped its administrative reach, or its ability to manage growth at a time of extraordinary social and economic change.
Part of the problem was due to the size of the Education Office itself. In 1899, Robinson’s staff consisted only of three school inspectors David Wilson, William Burns, and S. B. Netherby along with Chief Clerk George Cruickshank, and Assistant Clerk Alice Nicholson.
With the three inspectors assigned to “the field” for much of the year, where they were charged with monitoring and reporting on the state of more than 300 schools, the instructional proficiency of some 500 teachers, and the attendance and progress of over 21,000 pupils, the Education Office was administered, in effect, by one school officer the superintendent himself.
In law, the superintendent was responsible only to the Minister or Provincial Secretary, to the cabinet officials who informally comprised the Council of Public Instruction (for whom the superintendent acted as secretary), and to the legislature to whom the superintendent was obliged to report annually in writing on the state of the schools.
Legislation also made the superintendent chief advocate for the provincial system and directed the superintendent to secure the sound education of the young,â€ as well as to do all in his power to persuade and animate parents, guardians, trustees, and teachers to improve the character and efficiency of the Public Schools.
To these ends, the superintendent was empowered to: examine and certify teachers; assist their development by establishing teachers institutes; open and close schools where required; supervise the government’s inspectors; oversee elections of local school trustees; and, finally, account for all expenditures of public monies.
Under his care, as Robinson summarized it, fell all matters connected with the educational welfare of the Province.
A Lost World of School Administration:
To read Alexander Robinson’s letters is to visit a lost world in school administration. This was an administrative world in which the gentlemen scholars who presided over the senior ranks of the civil service seemed to enjoy immense political and public confidence, in which the formal study of school administration was foreign to educational leaders, and in which management by committee and consensual decision making was unknown. Within this world, the superintendent of education was universally regarded as chief defender of the educational faith – a faith made manifest at this time in the construction of great educational cathedrals in Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminster, as well as in the simple log and frame-built one-room schools that became the first places of learning for many rural British Columbians. It was a world in which teachers, trustees, principals, and the government’s education officers generally saw themselves as members of a community, a time before the politicization of schooling, before the public clamored for participation in policy making, and before government saw fit to convene commissions of experts to reform schools. It was a world in which the structures of educational government were scarcely more complicated than those found in the principal’s offices of urban schools.
But Robinson’s educational world was one also in transition. Although still bound to the nineteenth century in its social formality and pedagogical classicism, it looked with a progressive eye to the twentieth century that lay ahead. Like the age in which he lived, Robinson, too, was something of a contradiction. In personal manner and leadership style, he was quintessentially Victorian and traditional, at times running the system as if it were his own feudal domain. In his work within the Education Office notably the enormous expansion of public schooling he engineered and the bureaucracy he create Robinson proved to be an administrative progressive, a member of the first generation of professional educators in British Columbia who devoted all their lives to schools and the civil service. Unlike his predecessors, who drifted between public and private sectors as fate and opportunity allowed, the arc of Robinson’s career remained within school and government corridors.
Robinson was also a transitional figure in another respect. He was the last superintendent to rule the provincial system single handedly and the last superintendent to be directly connected to individual teachers, trustees, and schools. At the same time, he was the first superintendent to work within the growing complexities of twentieth-century government and the first superintendent faced with aligning the purposes of schooling with the practical demands of an emerging industrial and urban society. During Robinson’s time, the school’s role as handmaiden to the state became more visible than ever before.
On November 3, 1919, after 20 years of service, Alexander Robinson was dismissed from his position as British Columbia’s Superintendent of Education by J. D. MacLean, Minister of Education. His dismissal had been sought by MacLean, a teacher-turned-physician from the interior community of Greenwood, who, Lord recollected, held “definite ideas as to what education should be,” ideas that Robinson had sometimes disregarded or resisted since 1916 when MacLean and the Liberal Government assumed power.
Although unanticipated, Robinson’s removal from office was not unusual considering the cycle of appointments and dismissals that had characterized the superintendency since its establishment nearly a half century earlier. Robinson’s three predecessors Jessop, McKenzie, and Pope had been swept in and out of office on the changing tides of political fortune and, like them, Robinson’s luck had eventually run out. Two years later Department of Education officials would report privately that Robinson’s removal was principally due to his autocratic administrative style and his unwillingness to delegate responsibility to subordinates within the growing civil service.
The letter of termination laid on Robinson’s desk was “brief and to the point,” graciousness perhaps not possible given the circumstances. He was directed to vacate his office in the west wing of the Legislative Buildings by the following day and, for his compliance, granted a retirement allowance of $140 per month and “three months salary in lieu of notice.” This he reluctantly accepted. Following a brief and unhappy assignment as principal of Victoria High School, Robinson finished his career as an English and Classics teacher in Oak Bay.
Written by Thomas Fleming, Professor of Educational History, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria. See also Thomas Fleming, Letters from Headquarters: Alexander Robinson and the British Columbia Education Office, 1899-1919, in Thomas Fleming (ed.), School Leadership: Essays on the British Columbia Experience, 1872-1995 (Mill Bay, B. C.: Bendall Books, 2001).