Humanism’s Triumph Over Ontario Education (1957-1971): Part 1 by David Herbert

In 1983, John Dunphy, a university graduate, entered a writing contest sponsored by The Humanist magazine. Dunphy, being one of three hundred contestants, placed third. His article was titled “A Religion for a New Age.” Regarding the importance of teachers in the emergence of this new religion, namely Humanism, he wrote: “I am convinced that the battle for mankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith, a religion of humanity . . . .”1

Historically speaking, the first decisive step in the realization of Dunphy’s dream began in 1957. It was set in motion by The Toronto Star’s large headline on Saturday, 5 October of that year: “REDS LAUNCH ‘MOON’ TO CIRCLE WORLD.” Russia had just launched Sputnik I; the world was awestruck! Five years later, the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man to travel into space. These startling technological advances sent the West, especially the United States, reeling.

Some Americans felt that these scientific setbacks were a direct result of the failure of the science curriculum to keep pace with the changing times. Hermann Muller, Professor of Biology at Indiana University and the recipient of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Medicine, wrote in 1959 that he was delighted to see that the Russian sputnik program had awakened “the realization we must put new life into our science teaching.”2 Furthermore, he stated that the mandatory inclusion of evolutionary instruction should be foremost, especially in the science textbooks.

Within two years, the Biological Science Curriculum (BSCS) was established at the University of Colorado. Provided with a federal grant of $7 million dollars, Dr. Bentley Glass, professor at Johns Hopkins University,3 chaired the steering committee that wrote and published the three BSCS textbooks in cellular biology, ecology and molecular biology. Dr. Glass, a geneticist, ensured that evolutionism was a cornerstone doctrine within the new science curriculum.

Similarly, Dr. Jerome Bruner, a Harvard psychologist, was called upon to give leadership to MACOS—Man: A Course of Study. A federal grant of $4.8 million dollars was to fund this curriculum initiative in social studies for either grades five or six. There was to be no prescribed textbook but an inquiry approach, using a variety of teaching tools, would investigate human evolutionary development.

It is highly significant that two university professors were appointed to chair these two programs. Since the teaching of evolutionism on the university level had played an integral role for almost half a century, it only seemed logical that university professors would provide leadership in developing curricula for the secondary and elementary schools.

In the early 1960s, the secondary schools of Ontario followed their American counterpart by introducing evolutionism both in the science and history textbooks.4 Thus, from the early 60s until the present, the teaching of evolutionism has become foundational for all secondary school curricula both in the United States and Canada.

Concurrently, with the adoption of evolutionary instruction in the Ontario secondary schools, there was a debate concerning the role of religious education within the curricula. Some feared that a greater encroachment of secularization warranted more emphasis on religious training, particularly from a Christian perspective. Others, wanting a more humanistic approach, wanted Christianity to be studied historically and sociologically rather than religiously. “In 1966, in response to these pressures, the government appointed a commission headed by the Honorable Keiller Mackay to inquire into the state of religious education in schools and to clarify the responsibilities of schools in this area.”5

He advocated two major recommendations. First, “Secondary school history departments should offer a formal course of study dealing with the world’s principal religions.”6 Second, all secondary school students should receive moral education which would focus on character-building.

In 1971, the Ministry of Education implemented the first recommendation of the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (1957-1963) by introducing a course on World Religions. The rationale was that students should learn about all religions. Viewing Christianity as the ultimate truth was considered intolerable. It should be noted that at the same time universities across Canada were establishing departments of religious studies, apart from divinity schools, to offer a variety of courses on religious studies.

His second recommendation concerning moral and values education (or more commonly known as values clarification) was referred to the local schools who would, in turn, initiate the proper in-service training for teachers. After having received this instruction, a teacher would provide students with the appropriate moral exercises. Usually, students were placed within a group setting to discuss and evaluate these stories always within a relativistic framework.

The implementation of the Mackay report by the Ontario Ministry of Education—a decade before John Dunphy’s article—signaled, once for all, the marginalization of Christianity within the secondary school system. A humanistic approach had truly supplanted any reference to a biblically-based understanding of either the origins of humankind or morality. Now, Humanism—as the only permissible worldview—had an open door to mould the minds of these young people unhindered!


1. J. Dunphy, “A Religion for a New Age,” The Humanist 43 (Jan/Feb 1983), 26.

2. H. Muller, “One Hundred Years Without Darwinism Are Enough.” The Humanist 19 (July 1959), 143.

3. P. Dow, Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 30.

4. For a detailed account of the growth of evolutionary content in history textbooks, see the author’s doctoral thesis, “The Question of Human Origins: The Changing Context of Approved Ancient History Textbooks in Ontario 1846-1992,” Ed.D dissertation, 1992, University of Toronto.

5. Ontario Ministry of Education, “Part A: Introduction—History of Religious Education in Ontario Schools” in “Education About Religion in Ontario Public Elementary Schools (2007),” at (accessed 4 February 2012).

6. Ibid.

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