- A Century of Excellence: Prince of Wales College, 1860-1969
Marian Bruce, a journalist, has produced a superb book on an important subject in Prince Edward Island history that professional historians have failed to treat adequately. Prince of Wales, a junior college, stood at the apex of the Island's public educational system for more than [End Page 274] a century. A secular institution in an environment with fierce religious loyalties, it had no pressure groups working in its interest. Moreover, the Roman Catholic clergy, under ultramontane leadership, refused to accept that it was neutral and insisted upon referring to 'the Protestant college.' Whether they ever believed in this characterization is doubtful (unless they truly equated Protestantism with lack of any religious content), but they used it as a political device for arguing that a diocesan college, St Dunstan's, be granted equivalent funding. Yet Prince of Wales became one of the few places where Protestant and Catholic Islanders met and worked together on a basis of equality. Until 1939 it was the only Island institution where Catholic females could receive higher education.
Relations with the provincial government were another problem, for it was reluctant to provide adequate funding. Furthermore, from 1879 until 1965 the college lacked an independent board of governors, which left it open to political interference and effectively unable to raise funds privately.
Yet Prince of Wales survived and became known for its academic excellence, which meant that those who did well there gained entrance to the best institutions elsewhere, and, over several generations, they consistently found their preparation to be of the highest quality. How was the college able to thrive in the way that it did? Bruce makes a convincing case that the second principal, Alexander Anderson, a Scot, was absolutely crucial. From 1868 until 1901 he was an ingenious leader of boundless energy and commitment who left his students, no matter how eminent they subsequently became, in awe of his erudition and pedagogical skills.
Bruce paints compelling portraits of the major actors, particularly Anderson and Frank MacKinnon, the final principal, who served from 1949 until 1968. MacKinnon is probably the most interesting figure to emerge in Island public life in the middle decades of the twentieth century. A distinguished political scientist, he returned to his native province as principal of Prince of Wales at age thirty, an inspired choice by an autocratic premier, J. Walter Jones. He soon established himself as a force to be reckoned with, as both educator and advocate for the arts. The winner of a Governor General's literary award for his book, The Government of Prince Edward Island, he was regarded with both interest and suspicion by local practitioners of politics. But Bruce's book is much more than an account of the great men who led the institution. The author also deals with the quality of student life, the relations between faculty and students, and how they changed over time.
In response to the increasing demand for higher education, the college was granted degree-granting status through legislation passed in 1964 . But continued political pressure led to its forced amalgamation with St Dunstan's five years later on terms that were anything but equal. [End Page 275] A key ingredient in the drama was an alliance of fundamentalist Protestants with the traditional enemies of the college among the Catholic elite, driven by the spectre of freethinking, a 'moral panic' factor that Bruce might have expanded upon. Prince of Wales simply disappeared – a tragedy for the Island, given its distinguished history and a brilliantly managed transition to degree status. This meant nothing to politicians. Bruce gives an excellent account of the process, the best to date.
The merits of this book are legion. Well-researched and exceptionally well-written, it deserves a wide readership among those interested in education and in Prince Edward Island, one of the best books on any aspect of Island history. The college's fate as a secular institution faced with visceral criticism is...