Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Alfred Fitzpatrick, founder of Frontier College, publishes The University in Overalls

This year, Alfred Fitzpatrick, the founder of Frontier College, published The University in Overalls. Canada's oldest Adult Education Institute. Frontier College was created in 1899 in order to provide labourers working in Canada's frontier with education. An immigrant himself, Fitzpatrick encouraged university students to travel out to the frontier and work side by side with men working in the lumber, mining and railroad camps. After the work day ended the students would run classes that were held in tents in the camps. Since they would have spent many hours with the men during the work day the students would be able to understand issues concerning the worker and could then develop classes based on these issues. Fitzpatrick uses The University in Overalls to put forth these ideas and the main mandate of Frontier College. This mandate is learner-centred and contains the message that education ought to travel to the people, no matter where they might be.

Fitzpatrick introduces important points about Adult Education in the preface to the book.  He states that every one has a right to an education and that educators must go to the student.  He also writes that the education must be individualized and relevant to the student's life, and that instructors should have a close personal association with their students.  These ideas are still exciting and useful today.  While the rest of the book spends some time reinforcing these ideas, Fitzpatrick devotes a great deal of time to praising the benefits of physical labour and discussing how education can be used to Canadianise and assimilate immigrants.  Fitzpatrick sees education as a right that all people should be able to access.  He also sees it as a tool that will ensure that British values and ideas are dominant in Canada.

In this book, Fitzpatrick idealizes the frontier man.  He recognizes the unhealthy living conditions of the labour camps, but believes that the actual tasks of the labourers contribute to a wonderful education of the body.  This, Fitzpatrick believes, is just as important as the education of the mind.  He thinks that sending university students to the Frontier would prove beneficial to both the labourer and the students, for each lack what the other has.  Fitzpatrick writes that the labourer is "debauched by doing too much of the drudgery", while the (male) student is "spoiled by being satiated and made effeminate with a one sided education that he has not earned (66)."  Fitzpatrick believes that there must be a balance between education and labour.  Labourers should have access to education while at work and students should be required to participate in manual labour as a part of their program requirements.  Fitzpatrick writes:

There should be more studies involving physical exercise.  It is too bad that students are forced to resort to dancing and hazing for sufficient exercise to keep them in health.  Why waste such physical exuberance, when the muskegs of the north need draining, and millions of acres must be cleared (97).

Here Fitzpatrick's background as a clergyman as well as the time period in which he writes is evident.  I cannot imaging that students feel forced to resort to dancing, or that their 'physical exuberance' would last as long if they were required to trade dancing for draining muskegs. However, because Fitzpatrick's language is so dated, this and other ideas sometimes are put forward in a way that seems strange today. His idea of balancing the mental and the physical is one that is encouraged by most educators and health professionals today.

In addition to providing for the education of the body, Fitzpatrick thinks that the frontier can end Canada's unemployment.  He suggests that the unemployed be moved to the frontier camps. Here they would be given land and be able to develop the physical side of their nature. It is important to note that Fitzpatrick believes that women should be given the same allotment of land as men and on the same terms, an idea that was very progressive at the time.  Much of Fitzpatrick's writing talks of doing things for and to people.  There is no mention of the choice or agency of the unemployed person, or of personal freedom.

This paternalist attitude continues in the final chapter of the book where Fitzpatrick discusses the role of the instructor as a Canadianiser.  Fitzpatrick believes education can help in what he describes as the necessary work of assimilating foreigners.  While Fitzpatrick notes that education can improve the safety of workers and inform new immigrants of their rights, he also mentions that it can be used to bring new Canadians to "our standards" (139).  In order to ensure that teachers are helping the immigrant become a 'healthy Canadian' Fitzpatrick suggests that only those who are British subjects by birth be granted permanent teachers' licenses.  A teacher who is foreign born, states Fitzpatrick, has likely not entirely eliminated their "foreign traits" (145).  Fitzpatrick finds it natural and proper that Canada force the English culture and beliefs on people entering Canada.

Fitzpatrick's book is an interesting read.  Ideas about popularizing education and creating individualized learning are surround by dated ideas about using education to assimilate new immigrants and to vanquish the 'red agitators'. Today Frontier College continues to be based on Fitzpatrick's original idea of taking education wherever the student is.  Programs are run still run in labour camps, as well as in schools and prisons.  Frontier College is currently national in scope, and has groups in almost every university in Canada. Students can still become involved in the summer labourer-teacher program that now operates primarily in agricultural settings. Fitzpatrick's main messages, such as the balance between mental and physical labour, the idea that the educator must go where the learners are, and that education should be relevant to the learner, are still as insightful today as they were almost a century ago. In summary, this book provides a look into the thinking of an educator living in the early twentieth century .

For more information about Frontier college, please go to the following website:



Fitzpatrick, Alfred (1999, 1920). The University in Overalls: A Plea for Part-Time Study. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing Inc.

Prepared by Becky Evans (OISE/UT)

March 2001

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