Egerton Ryerson

Egerton Ryerson


Adolphus Egerton Ryerson isthe most celebrated educationist and church minister in the historyof education in Canada. He had numerous contributions in theeducation sector especially in the development of a centralizedregulation of schools in Canada. He drafted several legislationswhich transformed the education sector in the mid 19thcentury. Ryerson wasborn in the year 1803 to Joseph Ryerson, a United Empire Loyalist.Ryerson became attracted to the church at an early age. When he wasa teenager, he became a member of the Methodist Episcopal Churchagainst his father’s will. His father preferred that he join theAnglican Church, where he worshiped (Jessica, 2012). Despite theyoung age, he opted to leave his father’s house due their differentreligious ideologies. He secured a job at a London Grammar Schoolwhere he worked as an usher. Later, his father pleaded with him toreturn home. He stayed at his father’s home for sometime before hemoved to Hamilton to further his education. He studied Latin andGreek in the Gore Grammar School in Hamilton. His enthusiasm in thestudy almost claimed his life when he suffered a severe fever. Afterschool, Ryerson became a missionary in the Methodist church. He wasposted at the York region as a circuit rider, a circuit that took aone month to complete either riding a horse or on foot. The regionhad poor road and accessibility was limited by the terrain.Nonetheless, this experience had a huge impact on his life as achurch minister and an educator (Doug, 2009).

Ryerson’s father being aUnited Empire Loyalist, he attracted a lot of attention when his sonbecame a missionary in the Methodist church. It was expected thatsons of loyalists would also become loyalists. In Upper Canada, itwas assumed that the Anglican Church was the established church ofthe loyalists due to its ties with Great Britain. The law dictatedthat loyalists be members of the Anglican Church. The Methodistchurch was considered an American church and therefore a church ofdisloyal people (Lindsay, 2006). Therefore, senior ministers in theAnglican Church were uncomfortable with the move by Ryerson andreferred to it as a form of abomination. However, this did notprevent Ryerson from becoming the most articulate Methodist ministerand a defender of Methodism in Upper Canada and beyond throughpublished articles and books. For example, he challenged the familycompact, more specifically John Strachan, who was the most importantcritic of Methodism in the 18thcentury. Due to his publications on religious issues affecting theUpper Canada in the early 19thcentury, Ryerson founded the Christian Guardian a weekly Methodismnewspaper. The newspaper was the first Christian major publicationand newspaper in Upper Canada (Mark, 2005). As the founding editor,Ryerson used the newspaper to strongly advocate for the rights ofMethodist Christians in York region and Upper Canada in general.

Early influences andphilosophies

Although Ryerson was anexcellent church minister and a representative of the Methodistchurch, his major career was in the education sector. While workingas an editor in the Christian Guardian newspaper, Ryerson expressedhis desire to transform the education system. This became a realitywhen he later joined the education sector where he initiated andoversaw numerous reforms in the education sector in Upper Canada. Inone editorial note in the newspaper, he argued that education wasvery essential in the society. He stated that education should be asfree as air and as common as water. He saw the increasedaccessibility to education as the only way the people could accessliberty and good governance (Jessica, 2012).

In 1844, Ryerson wasappointed the superintendent of education for Upper Canada. He actedas a senior education officer in Upper Canada until his retirement in1876. During his reign in the education sector, he implemented majorreforms some of which have impacts on the modern education system. Inhis career as an educator, he was greatly influenced by his Methodistmissionary background. Additionally, most of his bills wereinfluenced by education systems in the United States and Europe. Ryerson took a lot of time to study the education systems ofdifferent parts of the world. His three school legislations werebased on what he observed in other education systems. This includesthe role of libraries in education, training of teachers, freeschools, school textbooks, school buildings and furniture. Forexample, he observed that the most successful education systems inthe world had centrally controlled and regulated education systems asopposed to the locally controlled systems. Although it was difficultto implement the system in Upper Canada due to politics and societyinterests in schools, he succeeded in creating a centralizededucation system in Upper Canada. However, to appreciate theimportant contribution of Ryerson in the Canadian education systemand his philosophies, it is important to look at the major events inthe development of the education system during the reign of Ryersonas superintendent of schools (Mervyn, 2005).

Ryerson education philosophywas that education should be free and compulsory. He dreamed of asociety were the masses was educated through a public educationsystem funded by the government. However, the education system inUpper Canada could not provide adequate education. According toRyerson, education protects liberty of the citizens and supports agood government. Thus, educating the masses is an important priorityfor any prudent government. Ryerson also argued that even a littleeducation in the society is better that ignorance, since littleknowledge lessens the wickedness he associated with total ignorance.However, it is important to note that Ryerson made these observationsbefore he joined the education sector. Some of his thoughts about therole of education were prompted by his observations especially inEngland. For example, in 1843, he stayed in England for more thatone and half years where he negotiated with the colonial governmentin various issues affecting the Canadian society including religionand education. His first major contribution in the education sectorwas the founding of the Upper Canada Academy in the year 1930. Theacademy which was located in Cobourg was later renamed VictoriaCollege. In the modern day Canada, the college is part of theUniversity of Toronto (Doug, 2009).

Career as an educationist

There are several aspects ofRyerson career as an educationist, which makes him one of one of thecelebrated heroes in the history of education. This is mainly due tothe bills and legislations he proposed, which transformed theeducation sector in Upper Canada. The most memorable year in thedevelopment of education in Upper Canada was 1846. In the previousyears, there was no substantial legislation related to educationapart from the Act of 1843 which was a total failure because therewere no adequate facilities required for the implementation of thelegislation (Jessica, 2012). In 1845, one year after being appointedthe superintendent of education in Upper Canada, Ryerson proposed thecommon school Act of 1846. The act provided the foundation ofsubsequent legislations in the education sector. The most importantaspect of the Common School Act of 1846 was defining the duties andresponsibilities of the “superintendent of schools”. After theenactment of the new law, the superintendent of schools assumed therole of the chief executive officer. He was expected to oversee allmatters related to school and education in the Canadian government.The executive had the mandate of distributing to the differentcouncils in the districts the funds allocated to the common schoolsby the legislature (Houston, 1988).The money was to be distributedaccording to the school population. In addition to overseeing themanagement of the funds, Ryerson had the responsibility of ensuringthat the use of unsuitable books in learning was discouraged as wellas recommending school uniform in all common schools. Otherresponsibilities of the executive included preparing recommendationfor school buildings and furniture, oversee the building andequipping of school libraries and share general information on theeducation sector through an annual report. These provisions of thelegislation had a huge impact in the development of common schools inUpper Canada and the development of the modern Canadian educationsystem. The legislation was based on a well researched report byRyerson, who also drafted the legislation (Houston, 1988).

Another important provision ofAct of 1846 was the creation of a district superintendent. Because ofchallenges of getting professions in the education sector, Ryersondid not propose minimum qualification of the district superintendent.However, the council had the responsibility of ensuring that they hadthe best man for the job. In the subsequent years, the role ofdistrict superintendents was very critical in the education systemsince the success or failure of schools depended on his integrity andenthusiasm (Sara, 2012). The responsibilities of the chief executiveofficer of education were delegated to the superintendent at thedistrict level. For example, they had the responsibility ofapportioning the funds at the district level, access the generalsituations of schools and hand in an annual report to the ChiefSuperintendent. Ryerson structure in the administration of theeducation system had immediate impact on the quality andaccessibility of education. It enabled effective monitoring of theeducation system at the school level and in elimination of theincompetent teachers and unauthorized books in the education system(Neil &amp Alf, 1978).

The Ryerson bill of 1846 hadhuge impacts on Upper Canada education system, especially in Torontoand Kingston. The bill made education facilities difficult to manageand coordinate. This was due to the complexity of the educationsystem which had made it wasteful, ineffective and impractical insome districts. Due to a number of challenges faced by Ryersonsystem, he faced numerous criticisms, including the argument that hewas trying to impose a Prussian despotism. However, he argued that hehad only borrowed some of the effective aspects of the Prussiansystem mainly the schoolroom instruction methods. To defend the act,Ryerson informed his critics that the bill was a transcription of theNew York state system (YodelOut, nd). Despite the challenges, thereis no doubt that Ryerson was advocating and fighting for free schoolsin Upper Canada. Before his interventions, children, especially inmajor towns such as Toronto were growing up into ignorant citizens.For example, in 1846, there were about 4500 children of school goingage but only about 1000 children were registered in common school.Although a good number were enrolled in church schools, more thanhalf of the children were not registered in any formal school (Neil &ampAlf, 1978).

By the time Ryerson became thesuperintendent of education, there were grammar schools which hadbeen established in Upper Canada. However, he made a hugecontribution in ensuring that grammar schools were able to deliver ontheir mandate. Grammar schools in Upper Canada were established evenbefore the establishment of common schools, some of them in the late18thcentury. The schools were mainly structured according to the GreatEnglish Public Schools. However, the schools provided substandardquality of education since majority of the students were unable toread and write. This was due to the old fashioned model with noqualified staff or equipment and no course of study (Putman, 2008).Despite the fact that these schools were meant to be free, parentswere charged fees. When Ryerson became the superintendent ofeducation, the grammar schools were not under any government control,although they were managed by trustees. The schools used to makerules for themselves among other handicaps. Thus, there were noelementary schools from which secondary schools would get pupils.Additionally, grammar school graduates could not access collegeeducation for professional training. Ryerson noted that there was aneed to develop a more robust grammar school system within anestablished system of education (Jessica, 2012).

According to Ryerson, goodgrammar schools required good qualified teachers. However, they werenot available in Upper Canada in the mid 19thcentury. People who are educated found other professions such asmedicine and law more attractive compared to teaching. Additionally,trade was well paying due to increased mobility and interaction ofdifferent societies in Upper Canada. Therefore, grammar schools weremanaged by incompetent and unqualified teachers. When Ryerson becamethe superintendent of education, he did not have control over thegrammar schools (Putman, 2008). When he prepared his 1846 report, heproposed a unified system of education from the common school touniversity education. He argued that the grammar schools were meantto serve a special function, but taught the contents of commonschools. In 1849, Ryerson suggested an inquiry on the state ofgrammar schools in Upper Canada, noting that out of about fortygrammar schools only eight students proceeded to universityeducation. He proposed a system of education where the grammarschools would be able to compete favorably with common schools. Thisrequired a fixed and regulated course of study and thus inspection bygovernment officials and minimum entry qualifications (Bruce, 1994).

As a missionary educationist,Ryerson did not only concentrate on the welfare of pupils in schoolsbut also the general society. In the 1940s, majority of the people inUpper Canada were illiterate and had no basic education. Thus, theiropinions and reasoning was based on misinformation. Individuals whowere illiterate were also less informed on effective and efficientmanagement of the education systems. To shape the public opinion onthe weakness and issues affecting the Canadian education systems,Ryerson saw the need to educate the general public. A more educatedand informed society was as important as raising an educatedgeneration in schools. The need to awaken people who shaped theopinion in the society was necessary if the educational reformsproposed by Ryerson were to be realized. Thus, he prepared and sentcirculars to all the stakeholders in the education sector, includingthe school visitors, teachers, councils and superintendents in thedistricts (YodelOut, nd). Using his own funds, Ryerson established aneducational journal as a means through which important communicationin the education system could reach the stakeholders and the generalpublic. Ryerson also took time to meet education stakeholders indifferent district to discuss the provisions of the act of 1846, thechallenges and opportunities. For example, Ryerson lecture in 1847,titled “The advantage of education to an agricultural people” hada huge impact on the public opinion on the proposed reforms in theeducation sector in Upper Canada (Bruce, 1994).

Retirement and death

Having made an indelible markin the history of Upper Canada education system, Ryerson retired fromthe position of chief superintendent in 1976. After his retirement,he moved to England where he stayed at the library of the Britishmuseum. Although he was relatively aged, Ryerson enjoyed a goodhealth until the final months of his death. He died on 19thFebruary 1882. He was buried in “Mount Pleasant Cemetery” inToronto. There are several ways through which his immensecontribution in the education has been appreciated in the Canadianeducation system. Ryerson University, Ryerson press and RyersonTownship are named after Ryerson (YodelOut, nd).

Impacts on the Canadianeducation system

Ryerson had unmatched impactson the education system in Canada. Some of the characteristics of hiseducation system in Upper Canada are evident in the modern Canadianeducation system. For example, he proposed the idea of a free andcompulsory basic education, which is a major characteristic of themodern Canadian education system. Ryerson is considered the founderof Ontario school system in the modern Canada. Additionally, otherprovinces in Canada have borrowed significantly from his system ofeducation, which has been improved significantly through emergingtrends and development in education. Ryerson introduced a governmentfunded education system in Canada, which was a bold and radical breakfrom the traditions. In his own understanding, he viewed educationfor the young people as means through which the government couldreduce social problems such as crime. This is because througheducation, the youths would become more productive members of thesociety and have no time to engage in antisocial behaviors. Togetherwith other leading educators in the 19thcentury, proposed a public education system in Upper Canada.Initially, education was accessible to particular social classes,mainly the loyalists. However, the idea of educating the masses wasappropriate since education was used to instill morals and acceptablebehaviors to children. In Ryerson mind, although acquisition ofknowledge was essential, it was not the primary role of massschooling. Solving the problem of poverty and idleness were importantthemes in of mass schooling. These have evolved into important themesof education in Canada and other parts of the modern world (Robert,1990).

The society plays an importantrole in the education sector in Canada. Although this was evidentbefore Ryerson introduced his system, he brought new ideas on therole of the immediate society in education. Ryerson gave theimmediate society the responsibility of ensuring that the schoolswere run professionally and according to the law. The elites andindividuals with interest in the society were considered as visitorsin the schools. The visitors of interest included clergymen, wardensand judges in the district courts. The visitors of interests hadexclusive right to visit all district schools and seek explanationsor give advice to teachers and pupils. They could also make reportson the general education system in the district or a particularschool and present it to the district superintendent. Ryersonreasoning was that the district could be large geographically, whichmakes it difficult for the district superintendent to take actions incases of emergencies. It was important since during that period,there were no advanced means of communication in cases of emergencies(Putman, 2008). Therefore, the flow of information took time and thusthe district superintendent would not be able to take time boundactions. Educationists have argued that it is idle to argue orpretend that other people in the education sector did not recognizethe challenges in the Upper Canada education system. However,Ryerson was able to emerge as a reformist in the education sectorsince he was able to recognize the challenges that faced theeducation sector as well as propose a system that worked (Neil &ampAlf, 1978). In the modern Canadian system, the role of the immediatesociety in the education sector has changed significantly, Ryersonreasoning remains valid. For example, local district boards andschool boards play an important role in the management of schools inCanada. The ease in flow of information has however negated the roleof other visitors in the management of schools.


Ryerson major motivation inthe education reforms was to attain compulsory, free and universaleducation funded by the government. Ryerson also believed thatprogress in the society as well as religion and morality would thrivein a society if the individuals in the society were not ignorant(YodelOut, nd). By the time Ryerson joined the education system, ithas been argued that there was no education system in Upper Canada.However, by the time he left the education sector in the mid 1870, hehad implemented education reforms with highly rated primary andsecondary levels. The School Act of 1871, commonly known as Ryersonschool bill of 1871 was among the most important laws implemented byRyerson. It introduced a government funded education system inCanada. It played a major role in provision of free schools to theunderprivileged members of the society. Ryerson viewed theaccessibility of education to the less privileged as the onlyopportunities they had to improve their lives. He argued that freeeducation was the “only effectual remedy for the pernicious andpauperizing system which is at present” noting that a good numberof students were out of school because their parents were poor andcould not afford basic education (Marian Press, 2011).

The subsequent debate that wasinitiated by his arguments led to the enactment of the comprehensiveschool act of 1871, commonly known as Ryerson school bill of 1871.Although there were legislations in the 1850s and 1860s that allowedthe trustee boards to establish free schools, there were no allinclusive. The act of 1871 abolished all the bills that parents wereexpected to pay. The main rationale of the free school, according tothe act of 1871, was to ensure that school attendance was compulsory.The new legislation imposed punitive penalties on parents andguardians whose children were out of school for whatever reason. Inthe 19thcentury, the public opinion about children education especially inthe rural areas and among the illiterate and semi illiterate societywas low. Therefore, the compulsory attendance law had a huge impacton the education sector since majority of parents and guardians senttheir children to school because of fear of the law (Ontario Dept ofEducation, 2010).

As mentioned earlier,Ryerson’s early career was a missionary and a minister in theMethodist church. This is despite his father being a loyalist, andthus he was expected to serve in the Anglican Church. From a youngage, Ryerson was determined to break away from the status quo.Therefore, his convictions and philosophies about free school andequality in education could have been influenced by his work as amissionary. His missionary background enabled him to see beyond theinterest of the elites and social classes. Being a child from theprivileged loyalists, he had access to education. However, he wasconcerned over the fate of children from underprivileged families andsocial classes. There is no doubt that Ryerson’s legislations hada huge influence in the establishment of a public education system inUpper Canada. Ryerson was not concerned about maintaining the statusquo, but bringing about changes in the society, some of which wereunpopular. For example, individuals with interest were opposed to theestablishment of a centrally controlled system of education. However,his legislations cannot be considered to be original thoughts.Ryerson took time to study the education systems in Europe and theUnited States and adopted the aspects of the systems that fitted inthe Upper Canada context (Albert, 1975). Although this is cannot be adistraction from the greatness of Ryerson contribution in theeducation sector, his determination to break from the status quo wasmotivated by the success he observed in other education systems.


In conclusion, Ryerson iscredited for establishing a public education system in Upper Canada.This had an influence in the establishment of the modern educationsystem in Canada. Ryerson worked as a Methodist minister and aneducator in the 19thcentury when the education system in Upper Canada was less developed.His innovations and changes that he implemented in the educationsystem between the 1840s and 1870s were far reaching this has earnedhim the recognition of being among the most influential educators inhistory. Some of his most important contributions include theestablishment of a centrally controlled system of education under theleadership of a chief superintendent, a defined curriculum,supervision and inspection of schools, training of teachers, use ofstandard textbooks and establishment of school libraries. He alsoestablished a system that improved the management of funds in theeducation sector. Ryerson was also determined to increase theaccessibility of education especially among the poor through free andcompulsory school. Ryerson education reforms were influenced bysuccessful educations systems especially those in Europe and theUnited States.


Albert, F. (1975). Thephilosophical roots of Egerton Ryerson`s idea of education aselaborated in his writings preceding and including the report of1846. Toronto:Macmillan of Canada

Bruce, L. (1994). Freebooks for all: the public library movement in Ontario,1850-1930. Toronto Niagra Falls : Dundurn Press.

Doug, L. (2009). Nowyou know Canada`s heroes,Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Houston, S. (1988). Schoolingand scholars in nineteenth-century Ontario,Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Jessica, E. (2012). EgertonRyerson and educational policy borrowing: aspects of the developmentof Ontario`s system of public instruction, 1844-1876.Great Britain: University of Oxford.

Lindsay, K. (2006). Betweencaring &amp counting,Toronto Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, cop.

Marian Press (2011). Educationand Ontario family history,Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Mark, G. (2005). MichaelPower: the struggle to build the Catholic Church on the Canadianfrontier, Montréal: McGill-Queen`s University Press.

Mervyn, R. (2005). Historiesof art and design education: collected essays,Bristol Portland, Or. Intellect.

Neil, M. &amp Alf, C. (1978). Egerton Ryerson andhis times: essays on the history of education.Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.

Ontario Dept of Education(2010). DocumentaryHistory of Education in Upper Canada, from the Documentary History ofEducation in Upper Canada, from the Passing of the Constitutional, ISBN 1152813471, General Books LLC.

Putman, H. (2008). EgertonRyerson and Education in Upper Canada(1912), ISBN 1436520541, Kessinger Publishing.

Robert, G. (1990). Inventingsecondary education: the rise of the High School inNineteenth-century Ontario,Montreal : McGill-Queen`s Univ. Pr.

Sara, Z. B. (2012). Schoolingin transition: readings in Canadian history education, Toronto:University of Toronto Press.

YodelOut, (nd). EgertonRyerson and Education in Upper Canada,Web,