Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Classical Studies in Canada


[This article was published in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the text.]

Classical Studies. Primary education in New France originally made no specific provision for the instruction of the mass of elementary students in the rudiments of Latin and Greek grammar; consequently attempts in this direction were sporadic. The foundation of the Jesuit college at Quebec, in 1635, inaugurated the systematic study of Latin in its classical curriculum. Daring the entire period of the French régime this was the only complete classical course. In time, however, to serve the needs of those who did not live in convenient proximity to Quebec, new schools were opened in which the students received instruction in Latin grammar as well as in reading, writing, and arithmetic. These Latin schools also served as preparatory institutions to the Jesuit college in Quebec. Towards the end of the seventeenth century the Sulpicians began to teach Latin in Montreal, and by 1694 the Jesuits had followed their example. In 1735 the bishop of Quebec, in a pastoral letter, urged upon his parish priests the importance of teaching Latin to those youths who demonstrated any special bent towards the ecclesiastical life. The syllabus employed at Quebec was closely modelled upon that which had already been developed by the Jesuits in France. Cicero was the favourite Latin author; in addition, Virgil, Seneca, Ovid, Quintus Curtius, and Nepos were studied. From the grammar course the pupils proceeded to a course in the humanities, and philosophy, notably that of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, was taught in Latin. Prizes were given for Latin translation and Latin composition, and there is evidence to show that Greek had some place in the curriculum. Notes were taken in Latin, and Latin verse was obligatory. The English conquest occasioned a temporary setback to the cause of education in French-speaking Lower Canada, but the devotion of the clergy soon led to the foundation of numerous Latin schools, which in time grew into fully developed classical colleges. To-day these colleges, many of them more than one hundred years old, offer a course in Latin and Greek extending over a period of eight years.


In contrast to this firmly-established classical tradition fostered under the aegis of the Church, Upper Canada presented an entirely different picture. The colonial population was a heterogeneous mass, and this fact militated against the development of any definite trend in education for some years. The gentry, composed for the most part of retired British officers, would have been satisfied with schools fashioned after the model of the great public schools of England, with their classical curricula, which would have provided for the education of the few. This class, however, was not sufficiently numerous to exercise any dominant influence in shaping the course of events. The Loyalists, on the other hand, lately come from a country already well supplied with common schools affording instruction of a popular type, were destined to view with disfavour any system which did not provide facilities for the masses. Pioneer conditions also, and the comparatively late date of the foundation of the various settlements, discouraged the establishment of an exclusive type of education. The Duncombe Report of 1836 stressed the fact that education should be practical rather than classical. Egerton Ryerson also was opposed to an excessive emphasis upon classical studies. In Upper Canada College the students received a good, if somewhat mechanical, training in Latin and Greek; and with the development of secondary education Latin was made obligatory for university matriculation, but Greek was optional.


In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick early provision was made for the teaching of Latin and Greek in the county grammar schools, which later developed into the modern high schools. At the present time students in the Maritimes begin their Latin studies about one year earlier than those in the other provinces.


The late formation of the Prairie provinces and British Columbia and the exigencies of early conditions precluded the possibility of Latin playing any major rôle in the educational programme of these districts. Latin has been, as in Ontario, compulsory for university matriculation. In 1917 Latin was made optional for admission to the arts and science faculties of the University of Manitoba ; however, owing to the reduction of the language requirements for matriculation from two to one, the number of those electing Latin has shown a considerable increase.


In the field of university education classical studies have had a long and honourable history. Even in a pioneer country the Renaissance tradition, with its insistence upon a knowledge of the humanities as an essential part of the intellectual training of the university man, was sufficiently strong to exercise a wide and far-reaching influence. At the time of their inception the majority of the older universities were religious foundations intended to provide training for the clergy; consequently Greek occupied a prominent place. With the growth and expansion of higher education, honour courses in Classics were developed for those entering the university with matriculation in Latin and Greek. At first the curriculum was rather formal and rigid, requiring an exclusive devotion to the exegesis of standard classical authors. Within recent years, however, there has been an increasing tendency to study the content of Greek and Roman civilisation, a tendency to which augmented interest in archaeological research has given a vigorous impetus. Notable advances have also been made in the field of classical philology. During the last years of the nineteenth century the change from the English method to the so-called Roman method of Latin pronunciation was instituted. Since that time the movement has become universal despite the fact that it met with some opposition from the older professors.


Originally a large number of undergraduates followed the course in classics, not because they intended to teach the subject, but generally to secure a superior basic training for the law, the ministry, or medicine. Although this trend toward classical studies is much less pronounced at the present time, there are still some who seek to acquire a thorough classical background before proceeding to a vocation. For those who propose to become professional classical scholars suitable graduate courses are offered in Canada, although the majority prefer to study abroad in Great Britain, in Europe, or in the more recently established postgraduate institutions of the United States; where the soundness of Canadian undergraduate classical training has won for Canadian colleges and universities an enviable reputation


The utilitarian trend of the times, the recent establishment of many technical and commercial schools, the emphasis upon the study of modern languages, the agitation for optional Latin, and the virtual disappearance of Greek from the secondary schools, have aroused fears that Latin will become an esoteric study for the very few. Canadian educators, however, would do well to glance at the experience of the United States, where conditions so nearly approximate those existing here. The recent American classical investigation demonstrated that optional Latin has held its own, even when arrayed against a host of subjects with a so-called practical appeal. "Latin is definite, teachable, and hard"; these three merits ensure it against eclipse.

[A good many of Quebec's old classical colleges were transformed into CEGEPs in the late 1960's.]

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 77-79.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College