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  • The Grand Regulator: The Miseducation of Nova Scotia’s Teachers, 1838–1997 by George D. Perry
  • Paul Axelrod
The Grand Regulator: The Miseducation of Nova Scotia’s Teachers, 1838–1997. George D. Perry. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. Pp. 384, $100.00 cloth, $34.95 paper

New historical scholarship on the under-researched area of teacher education is to be welcomed, and this study of the Nova Scotian experience adds substantially, though peculiarly, to the literature. Part historical research and part sermon on the enduring shortcomings of teacher preparation, the book merits the critical scrutiny of scholars and practitioners in the field.

It tracks the history of Nova Scotia’s Provincial Normal School in 1855 to the closing of the Nova Scotia Teachers College in 1997. Its most interesting sections explore the thoughts and writings of nineteenth-century educators Alexander Forrester, James B. Calkin, and John William Dawson, each of whom left his mark on “normal” school education by attempting to raise training standards and enhance the professionalism of elementary and secondary school teachers. But like all of their successors, according to the author, they were confounded by short-sighted governments, uninspired teacher candidates, and educational fads that diluted the quality of teacher education programs. It is hardly an uplifting story.

Yet it is a story told through only one perspective. The author’s approach seems to be both reductionist and essentialist. Whatever the era, the same issue emerges, time and again. What the short teacher education program lacked throughout the century-and-a-half covered by the author is adequate depth in the subjects that students (mostly female) would be teaching, though the book perplexingly makes very few distinctions between the preparation of elementary and secondary teachers. Instead of enriching students’ knowledge of their teaching subjects, the college focused on the methodology of teaching and throughout most of this period was enraptured by “scientific pedagogy” and “child psychology” – theories that stressed how children should be taught rather than what they should learn. The voice of Hilda Neatby, whose 1953 bestseller So Little for the Mind, a scorching critique of “progressive education,” lurks in the background of this study.

Like the author, I believe that teacher education should be infused with more academic breadth and depth, but his sweeping dismissal of the teaching of pedagogy (past and present) is extreme. While school-teachers may not typically have been scholars, neither is it the case [End Page 109] that scholars would have made good teachers without any attention to “technique,” which the author scorns. There is a vast literature on child development, and while its early version was admittedly questionable, rooted as it was in the cultural and social prejudices of the day, this field of study surely has something to offer contemporary teacher education. Indeed, college educators’ efforts to incorporate it into their programs were often impressive – and challenged by those who thought that teacher candidates need only mimic mentor teachers in order to learn their vocation. Notwithstanding the myriad obstacles they faced, even the nineteenth-century founders and leaders of the Normal School were swimming against the tide in asserting that not just anyone could teach well.

As well as exploring archival sources, the author interviewed former students of the Nova Scotia Normal School / Teachers College, but curiously he chooses to dispute their generally positive recollections. He believes they didn’t learn very much; instead they were guilefully conditioned and rendered compliant (in Foucault’s terms) to the system and values proffered by the “Grand Regulators” who ran the schools and the social order. They learned to reproduce, not question the dominant pedagogy. One of the former students who appreciated his teacher education program was renowned Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod, who went on to teach and earn a PhD. He appears to have embraced liberal education in spite of (or perhaps because of ?) his formative learning. In any event, the author admits that he is in no position to judge how effective the college graduates were in the classroom, though he is confident that, from day one, they were egregiously under-prepared. The education they did receive was not dramatically different from that...


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