William Ochter Lonie's ideas on education

William Ochter Lonie spent most of his career as a mathematics master at Madras College, St Andrews. He is seen as an educational reformer and his views are given in a number of places. We give below a number of extracts from sources where he explained his views.

Education Scotland, Session 1867-68

First we present extracts from Reports from the Commissioners, Education Scotland, Session 1867-68 where an interview with Lonie is recorded in the Appendix to Report of Assistant-Commissioners on the State of Education in the Burgh and Middle-Class Schools in Scotland.


Asked about whether the burgh school system meets the needs of the whole community, Lonie answered:-


The Madras College meets the wants of our whole burgh community and more; but the theory of a burgh school should, in my opinion, embrace ... the idea of a distinct demarcation between the department for reading, writing, and arithmetic, as the instruments of a further education, and such further training by classics and mathematics as the most fitting known means to prepare pupils for universities, service examinations, and all middle-class occupations.

Do all the classes avail themselves of it?


Here, in St Andrews, all classes do avail themselves of it, the above-mentioned demarcation being sufficiently distinct, and each of these departments being again divided to meet our needs.

Does its mixed character operate against it compared with private academies, proprietary schools, boarding schools at a distance, or other schools?


To some extent it does; there being many competing schools around us, and several well-conducted proprietary schools within the burgh itself; but this, on attentive consideration of the latter, is mainly traceable to other causes than that of our non-provision for the whole wants of the community, such as parental desires for a stronger home-control over the boy, and for an individual responsibility on the part of the master, greater confidence in such masters, and knowledge of the Shelley-like sensibilities of their children.

Is the burgh-school instruction sufficient, without supplementary aid, to prepare a boy of good ability for success in the competitive examinations at the universities, and for the civil, military, and East Indian services?


No; but several of the best middle-class schools of Scotland are sufficiently equipped at present to prepare for all but the East Indian Service Examinations. As a rule, competitive examinations are only to be met by special schools or private tuition.

It is understood that generally in Scotland the parents are free to choose the classes which their children shall attend. State your views as to the advantages of this system compared with that by which pupils are obliged to follow a prescribed course of study.

My experience in the Madras College and otherwise has impressed me with a very decided conviction that in the stage above the three R's it were best that the burgh, or rather the middle-class department of the burgh schools, had an imperative curriculum of two branches, viz., classics and mathematics, and all other optional. One advantage in the present free choice should not be overlooked, that children, who are, perhaps more frequently than parents, the choosers, are gratified with less irksome work; while this, I believe, is mainly due to our modes of teaching classics and mathematics being, so to speak, too didactic and authoritative; the master being too forgetful of the necessity of inductive teaching towards rules of language and propositions of mathematics, and likewise too forgetful of the constant necessity of deductive applications to matters of universal interest and prospective advantage.

In England and elsewhere the practice is for a pupil to be promoted from the class of one master to that of another master, according to the proficiency of the pupil as ascertained by examination. But in Scotland it is understood to be the practice for the same master to conduct his pupils through the whole course of instruction in the same subject furnished by the school. State your views upon the advantages and disadvantages of those rival systems.

I understand the former practice as that of classical or grammar schools in England; but the latter has, in my opinion, the advantages of enabling a master the better to study both the moral and intellectual development of his pupil, and that of inducing him to gain the merit while taking the responsibility of his pupil's subsequent success in examinations.

What subjects do you believe to be the best fitted for the education of the majority of scholars attending the burgh schools?


Such permanent and fundamental studies as those of classics and mathematics; from my own experience, I am inclined to add the study of natural history, but there we are very deficient in suitable textbooks. Looking at scholastic education as a means of - 1st, training and developing mental power, and 2nd, imparting the most useful knowledge, I have no difficulty in pointing to a judicious classical training as our best means of developing all the mental faculties equably, and as the best foundation for the acquirement of all other languages, English inclusive, and in pointing to mathematics as the means of developing logical power, accuracy of thought, and continuous reasoning, while best serving to all further acquisitions of natural knowledge and mechanical applications.

What subjects do you believe to be preferred by the parents?


Parents are too much inclined, in matters of education, to prefer the more immediate results of knowledge in the shape of such so-called practical subjects as practical mathematics, book-keeping, etc., and accomplishments such as drawing, painting, music, etc. Few appear to believe in training at all, or believe that all knowledge, however disjoined, is, in the acquisition, good training.

Would it, in your opinion, be an advantage or otherwise, if the burgh schools were examined annually, and publicly reported on by independent examiners?


Undoubtedly an advantage. As already stated, I consider it very desirable that our middle-class education should be guided by the best qualified examiners. The universities can and ought to furnish them, and their examinations will form the best guide to direct the teachers of middle-class schools in future modifications in tuition. At the same time, it were desirable to have annual commemoration-days in all public schools, where prizes might be awarded to pupils and other exhibitions made; the propriety and management thereof being, however, entirely in the power of the local boards.

If such examiners are desirable, how should they be appointed?


By the Senates of the four Universities respectively, and remunerated at least in part by the several boards of education in burghs. Rectors should be empowered to admit pupils to the higher branches only after an oral and written examination, conducted by one university examiner; and two examiners, conjoined with the rector, should be satisfied as to the fitness of pupils for entering universities.

State your views as to the relation which should exist between the burgh schools and the universities.


The terminal examinations of the burgh schools, so conducted, should suffice to gain admittance to universities. The proposed functions of the universities as examiners of teachers-elect, and of advanced school pupils, would secure a link between them and the burgh schools of sufficient power to raise and direct the teaching of the latter.

Have you any suggestions or remarks to make upon the Burgh School of St Andrews, or generally on the burgh school system?

I would remark that the Burgh School of St Andrews, and, I believe, the former Grammar School, were merged, by agreement between the late Dr Andrew Bell and the Town Council (in 1832), in the present Madras College, which Dr Bell munificently endowed with a sum of $50,000, and that, being managed by three only of the four trustees he appointed, of whom by his will only three were to form a quorum to manage pressing matters of detail.

Have you any suggestions to make upon middle-class education in Scotland?


I would respectfully suggest that at least all the rectors of our middle-class schools should be university graduates, and that, in supplement of the above sketch scheme I have ventured to make, it were desirable that all teachers of such schools should have previously served in a Normal School (or in such an institutions as madras College, which was, about ten years ago, pointed out by Inspector Woodford to the Privy Council Committee as well fitted for such service), and passed a licensing examination in paideutics by said examiners, in addition to that for his university degree, even should he attain it; to which latter, the scheme should in time lead, as already exemplified in the schools of Aberdeenshire, etc.

Letter to the Commissioners, Education Scotland

Lonie subsequently communicated with the Commissioners on other matters. An extract from one of his letters was published by the Commissioners in their report:-


Will you kindly permit me to take the opportunity it presents of respectfully urging on your consideration the view which I had the honour of sketching as to the best mode of licensing the higher or middle-class teachers of Scotland, and this I now do after a close perusal of the evidence lately published by the Royal Commissioners on the state of education generally. That view mainly consisted in a recommendation;
1st, That at least all burgh and parish schools should, in any statutory enactment, be as closely as possible affiliated with the four Universities;
2nd, That, with that in view, inspectors of such schools should at least be nominated to the Central Education Board in immediate connection with the Privy Council and Government, if not wholly appointed by the respective University Senates, and should serve over the schools within the respective districts laid out by the recent Parish School Act;
3rd, That the present denominational Normal Schools be changed into other four undenominational, located in the respective University seats, and so closely affiliated with these universities as to form a professional school for such teachers, and that boards be instituted to confer teaching license, with or without a title (such as that of B.A. revived), on those who pass its examination, - the Senatus of each University, with the rector of the Normal School, to form the Licensing Board, and two sessions at the school, with one or two at specified university classes, as the curriculum.

Dr Bell meant the Madras College to be a training college for the teachers of the other schools he instituted.

I regret to perceive so strong evidence, or rather denominational urgency, for preserving the present denominationalism of the Normal Schools, while witnesses are generally willing to do away with it in other schools, and no counter evidence.

I am writing in so much haste to secure a post, that I may not have stated the latter views so clearly as I could wish.

Lonie honoured at dinner in 1881

The following information and quotations are extracted from the St Andrews Citizen, 23 April 1881. On Friday 22 April 1881 a dinner was held in the Royal Hotel, St Andrews, to honour Lonie and present him with a silver salver and casket containing a cheque for 500 guineas (£525). A subscription list had been set up in 1878 and quickly reached £400:-

After this there came a lull, caused mainly by the commercial depression both at home and abroad, during which little progress was made.

A revival set in and again subscribers registered until £581 was reached. John Birrell, the Professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages, presided and Peter Scott Lang, the regius Professor of Mathematics and dean of the Faculty of Arts, was also present. About 40 other subscribers attended:-

Many of them were the Doctor's older pupils, a few his former assistants, and all cordial friends, warmly appreciative of his wonderful power to awaken youthful enthusiasm in what is too often regarded as a "dry as dust" study. Dr Lonie may be regarded as a pioneer reformer in his own walk of life. He has no faith in the "tawse" as an educator, and, notwithstanding the lack of order and authority many would suppose this would entail, no one could take even a cursory glance through Dr Lonie's classroom without being struck with its joyous air of freedom, its remarkable absence of what he himself terms "boy-repression" and the manifold indications of vigorous hard work. Accepted notions of teaching by dint of rigid military discipline are unceremoniously discarded, and the Doctor fearlessly works out his own propositions that a boy should be as much at liberty to walk up and down in his classroom as the tradesman is in his workshop. Herein lies largely the secret of this teacher's success, and the explanation of the fact that his name is still fondly cherished by many old pupils scattered all over the globe.

Many tributes to Lonie from former pupils not able to be present were read by Professor Birrell. For example, the Rev James Robertson, Whittingham, Northumberland, had written:-

He was and remains to my mind an example of an ideal teacher, one of the rare few by whom their pupils are both inspired with enthusiasm at the time, and of whose eminence in teaching they have an undiminished sense when they look back on it with the experience of years.

John Tulloch, the Principal of the University, had written:

I do not know any teacher more deserving of honour than Dr Lonie. His long career of unselfish devotion to duty has excited respect of all who know anything of him or his work.

Lonie spoke of his hopes for the future:-

I would have you bear in mind that it is a hard thing for these little boys to sit 6 or 7 hours a day on a bench, and begin again to a task of 2 or 3 hours at night, while the great sun is calling on them all the while to enjoy themselves, and the birds are singing and all nature alive and inviting them to her great temple rather than to the mall confined temple of the classroom. I hope that the day is not distant when every scholar will have free scope for his young powers, and the liberty to stand up and put questions inviting discussion.



JOC/EFR April 2010

The URL of this page is:
http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/Lonie_education.html