DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

DÉGRÈS, IRÈNE-MATHILDE, named Saint-Paul – Volume XV (1921-1930)

d. 27 Sept. 1921 in Limoilou ward, Quebec City


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

MILLAR, JOHN, educator, author, and public servant; b. 27 Feb. 1842 in Adare (Republic of Ireland), son of Henry Millar and Jane Piper; m. first 1864 Susan Dingle of Barton Township, Upper Canada, and they had one daughter; m. secondly 25 Sept. 1890 Katie McCallum in North Dorchester Township, Ont., and they had two daughters and one son; d. 3 Oct. 1905 in Toronto.

John Millar moved with his family to Upper Canada when he was an infant. His father cleared a home for them in Brock Township, near Uxbridge, but after a short time was killed while felling a tree. His mother was left to bring up John and two other small children.

John was educated in the township and in 1859 taught at the public school there. In 1862 he attended the Toronto Normal School, and he was subsequently employed as a teacher in Barton and then, from 1864 to 1869, in London. During this time he began extramural studies at the University of Toronto, from which he would receive a ba in 1872. In 1869 Millar started to teach at St Thomas High School; by 1874 he had become principal and he simultaneously held the principalship of the public school. He remained at St Thomas until May 1890, when the government of Oliver Mowat appointed him deputy minister of education for Ontario, a position he occupied until his death.

While in St Thomas, he was active in the Ontario Educational Association and began to contribute articles on educational and religious matters to the Canada Educational Monthly (Toronto) and the Methodist Magazine (Toronto and Halifax). He also annotated works of English literature, The deserted village, The task, and Sir Roger de Coverlet (Toronto, 1881) and Scott’sMarmion” and Burke’sReflections on the revolution in France” (1882), for use in the high schools. Appointed a senator of the University of Toronto, he served for two terms, from 1884 to 1888, representing high school teachers. He was elected vice-president of the Dominion Educational Association in 1895 and president in 1904, but he did not live to complete his presidential term.

Millar’s pedagogical style and his early success as a schoolmaster are indicated by his achievements at St Thomas. Under the provincial school act of 1871, high schools were opened to a wider range of students: girls were admitted and the classics became optional. As a result, a public perception emerged that academic standards were being eroded. The new act allowed for the conversion of high schools to collegiate institutes, which were popularly viewed as being a direct route to a university education. Millar’s standards of scholarship and the teaching masters he selected were credited with making possible such a conversion at St Thomas. By it, the school obtained the elevated status of a collegiate institute and an additional grant from the provincial government; a curriculum emphasizing the classics and advanced mathematics was preserved. Although the establishment of collegiate institutes often suggested to the public mind the availability of an élite means to higher education, Millar’s efforts were intended to foster scholarship, not privilege.

His career coincided with a period when economic and social changes in Ontario were beginning to place new demands on the schools and when new ideas originating in Europe and the United States were starting to raise questions about the aims and methods of education. The pattern of his pedagogy affirmed the premises upon which Egerton Ryerson* had founded the Ontario school system. Millar saw the schools as an agency of the state, stressed progressive development of self-discipline among pupils, and decidedly rejected rote learning. But he also advocated reform. His intellectual sources included John Stuart Mill, Alexander Bain, and Herbert Spencer in England, and John Dewey, James Mark Baldwin, and William Torrey Harris in the United States. His educational philosophy thus had a democratic aspect. He wanted to draw the attention of public servants and teachers to individual differences among pupils and to broaden the curriculum to meet varying needs. Although some pupils might cease their education at the end of high school, and others pursue a university degree, all, he insisted, should have the benefit of an education designed to develop the whole person. The enhancement of individual abilities was best achieved through a comprehensive, not a specialized, curriculum. A course of study which concentrated on technical education, or music, or even the classics developed limited skills and narrow interests, and served only the instrumental needs of a future occupation. A more holistic approach would cover a range of intellectual and technical subjects and thereby furnish “rules for all times and all occupations.” Through such a comprehensive schooling the pupil could develop the self-motivation, intelligence, and discernment which Millar and other educators of his day viewed as pillars of moral character.

Millar discredited partial indicators of educational success, such as examinations, which were increasingly being used. At best, examinations illuminated only a narrow range of knowledge; on the other hand, they often had psychologically harmful effects on pupils and were a source of stress for teachers as well. Further, he felt that the reliance on them disarmed the professional inspectorate in Ontario whose job it was to ensure high standards of teaching and achievement; it also implicitly undermined the scholarship and commitment of the province’s teachers and forced them to narrow the range of learning. Demonstrating his confidence in the standards exhibited by the profession, he argued that promotion of pupils through the school system should be based on the teachers’ knowledge of their whole character.

Millar wanted educational opportunities to be as available in rural areas as they were in urban ones. He advocated the equalization of taxes, the establishment of a school library in every community, and the elimination of all school fees, as much to encourage the “unity of all classes” as to promote the principle of free and equal access to education.

In the matter of religion Millar, a Methodist, believed that although Christianity was the foundation of a civilized nation, in the long term a country could survive only if it had a progressive and democratic government unfettered by an official church or doctrine. He therefore urged indirect moral education to replace the direct teaching of religion in public schools. Advocated by most educators in the province by the mid 1890s, the policy had a twofold aim: to reinforce the traditional values of a predominantly English and Christian culture for the purpose of improving morality and participation in matters of citizenship, and to avoid denominational conflict by exploiting the common ground of Protestant churches. “Those who believe in the principles upon which [public schools] are conducted, generally hold that moral training . . . requires religious sanctions, but not religious instruction,” he wrote.

One of Millar’s progressive efforts was to help eliminate the most unwarranted differences between boys’ and girls’ education, manifested in separate classes and curricula that reflected customary distinctions in gender roles. In an essay of 1879, he argued that progressive and Christian societies were “fast acknowledging the justice of woman’s claims,” among which was the right to education on the same basis as men. Millar supported this right and the practical integration of the sexes. He maintained that the health of girls was beyond injury by mental exertion, that a new curriculum for them should go beyond drawing and music, and that a co-educational environment would give boys and girls “better opportunities for observing the development of different minds.” As to the common objection that morality would be undermined, Millar stressed that a morally sound schooling developed intellectual powers which turned pupils’ attention to industrious school work and mutual respect. In his time Millar witnessed a broadening of the curriculum for girls to include the sciences, mathematics, languages, and a scientifically based domestic and manual training. However, their levels of participation in these subjects, and the substance of their practical education, continued to reflect traditional gender roles.

John Millar’s most visible work as a public servant was his promotion and assessment of Ontario’s educational system. For the provincial exhibit at the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago, he prepared The educational system of the province of Ontario, Canada, which outlined virtually every organizational aspect of the ministry of education, its curriculum requirements, and its instructional practices. He carried out two comparative studies for the ministry, The school system of the state of New York (as viewed by a Canadian) (1898) and Technical education, report of a visit to the schools of Massachusetts . . . (1899). Millar’s purpose in the former was to detail features of the New York school system and evaluate them alongside those of Ontario. Among the superior characteristics of the Ontario one were its centralized administration, its grants to rural schools which had brought about a geographically even distribution of education (and improved attendance), its uniform course of instruction, and its more qualified school inspectors.

      Technical education dealt with a subject of much controversy, the problem of turning out workers for an increasingly industrialized province. In Massachusetts some high schools specialized in technical training while retaining mathematics, languages, and the sciences. Millar agreed that such specialization would be appropriate for a few high schools in Ontario and would provide some students with “ready access to the industries of a large manufacturing city.” His pedagogical preference, however, was for the diffusion of manual training to all levels of schooling with an emphasis on skills such as woodworking, which could be taught by competent teachers, men and women. He was against the recruitment of technically experienced specialists with no teaching credentials. Manual training was, for Millar, a component of a holistic education which recognized the “value of intelligence in Mechanical operations” and allowed students to “receive those educating influences which will be of service to them in whatever occupation they may follow.”

Millar consolidated his ideas into two of his most influential texts. School management and the principles and practice of teaching . . . (Toronto and Montreal, 1896) was the first successful book on teacher training written by a Canadian and was authorized for use in Ontario normal schools from 1897 to 1915. Like much of Millar’s other work, it struck a balance between a stress on schooling as successive achievements in character formation, and an emphasis on the formal management of authority and decision-making in political and classroom jurisdictions. The importance of moral character and the need for conformity to political authority are the themes again in his Canadian citizenship (Toronto and Montreal, [1899?]). Subtitled “a treatise on civil government,” it outlines for high school pupils the practical character of citizenship as a gradual development of the government of self, family, school, and nation.

Millar was part of a movement through which the educational tradition in Ontario became more democratic while continuing to prize moral training, education for citizenship, centralization of authority, and development of professional expertise. His attempts to reform and consolidate the system were confined to the professional and administrative sphere. Like many other Ontario educators he disdained politics. Real and lasting social and individual improvement would, he believed, emanate from the thorough education and self-discipline of each person, and not from legislation.

Robert Lanning

In addition to the works mentioned in the biography, Millar’s publications include “The co-education of the sexes” and “The conflict between education and knowledge,” Canada Educational Monthly (Toronto), 1 (1879): 288–94 and 22 (1900): 285–89, respectively; The educational demands of democracy (Ottawa, 1901); The place of religion in the public school (Toronto, [1903]); “The educational system of Ontario: its excellencies and its defects,” Dominion Educational Assoc., Proc. of the convention (Toronto), 1904: 120–34; and “Rural school libraries,” Ontario Educational Assoc., Proc. of the annual convention (Toronto), 1904: 326–31.

AO, RG 22, ser.305, no.18299. NA, RG 31, C1, 1851, Brock. Globe, 3–4 Oct. 1905. Canada Educational Monthly, 4 (1882): 458. Commemorative biog. record, county York. Dominion Educational Assoc., Proc. of the convention, 1907: 239. E. C. Guillet, In the cause of education; centennial history of the Ontario Educational Association, 1861–1960 (Toronto, 1960), 202–4. R. D. Lanning, “Moral character: John Millar and the educational system in Ontario, 1890–1905” (ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1986).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert Lanning, “MILLAR, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/millar_john_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/millar_john_13E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Lanning
Title of Article:   MILLAR, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 27, 2023