Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Painter's View - School Boards; The New Syndics of Education

Every portrait painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter... it is the painter, who on the colourless canvas reveals himself.
Oscar Wilde

A Meeting of the School Trustees, Robert Harris, 1885, National Gallery of Canada 

“In and for each Province the legislature may exclusively make law as in relation to education.” 
Constitution Act 1867

Raising two children who attend public school is in itself a joy and a challenge. Each day brings with it small victories, and at times concerns for the big picture. The Welsh born Canadian painter Robert Harris must of had some concerns too. What would he have thought of the problems looming over one of our most important democratic rights today? That is, the role of the Public School Trustee and Local School Board Democracy. In Nova Scotia, where I live, much has changed with that basic right. School board members are still elected, but that may be where the process and involvement ends for students, parents, and taxpayers.

 It may also be that Robert Harris pondered similar inequalities when he painted his now famous genre scene of a meeting of the trustees back in 1885. But one thing stands out for certain. His central character, a school teacher known as Kate Henderson, is engaged in debate with the trustees on an issue unknown to us, yet vitally important enough to provoke differing emotions on the faces of the trustees - her employers. Was she successful in convincing the trustees of her argument? Better yet, how did the trustees determine to deal with the teachers opinion? Was there an open discussion and assessment of the facts prior to a vote - if it even got to that point? Did they side with the teacher or did status quo prevail? We may never know because the point of the narrative is not the answer to these questions, but rather the exercise of democracy.

In Harris' time, the challenges were somewhat different. These were the days of the country school house and the slate. It is a back settlement school in Canada, with a school teacher 'talking them over' (a phrase  part of the original title).   Note the trustees are all men. Local guys with a roost to rule. The man in the back left is a farmer and uncle to the painter. The model for the teacher is Harris' wife. They are a cast of farmers and trades people in a very young country. There was no teachers union, and no cybrebullying. There were no long school bus rides to thirty million dollar facilities requiring passwords to navigate the school. The big issue of the time was probably literacy. So what possessed Harris to paint this picture? A portrait of two worlds - the educator on one hand, and  the anatomy of a school board on the other. Without a doubt, it is a political picture - and a poignant one at that; packing a  punch that today sheds light on the crisis facing local democracy in contemporary public education in Nova Scotia.

The philosophy of school board governance is that government is most effective when it is close to the people being governed.

Alberta School Board Association Trustee Handbook 

The painting is a homage to the educator. The figure of Kate Henderson reveals both the composure of reason and the passion for knowledge. Check out her left hand. It's not the hand of a supplicant, it is gesturing the opinion of openness and democracy at its most basic level. Now check out the hand of the trustee next to Kate's hand. It's located at the axis of the picture and is clenched and protective. Unwilling to open up, even more so, it may be the hand of power, hiding its true intention - the solidification of control over the democratic process. In this case, the engagement of the teacher's vision and its potential impact on board policies. Kate's right hand is significant also. It leads us to a pot of ink, a slate, and a weathered note book, possibly symbolic of the three R's. Harris deploys the hand as an educator of human emotion and intellect, a messenger for human discourse - and he does it beautifully.

 Harris was no stranger to these artistic concepts. During his tour of Europe he would undoubtedly have encountered the work of Rembrandt. But it is the painting called The Syndics, that Dutch version of our modern day corporate business agent, which may have influenced Harris, and handed him a concept he could apply to local life and his motive for A Meeting of School Trustees.

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Cloth Guild, 1662, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

No trustee can act alone – the school board is a corporate entity. The school board is a corporation. If the school board chooses, it may delegate a trustee to perform specific duties as an individual; but only as an agent of the board and only as prescribed by the board, by board motion. In other words, the school board is ultimately responsible for the individual’s action. With this exception, a trustee acting on his or her
own has only the authority and privileges of an ordinary citizen.

The Alberta School Board Association Trustee Handbook

No doubt Harris would have been some what acquainted with the history of Guilds in Holland. In the Syndics of the Cloth Guild, the individuals of which are known from contemporary documents, were board appointees by the Mayor of Amsterdam - a kind of quality control board for cloth sold in the city. Their purpose was to regulate an important trade, in effect a public service.  There is still much debate as to who the phantom guest is that enters the room of the Syndics of the Cloth Guild, encouraging one of them to rise from his seat. Historian Henri van de Waal, argued that the draper's guild never met in front of public audiences. Unlike Harris' painting, the opulence of this room is much more in keeping with administrative meeting rooms of our contemporary public education system.

Times have changed since Harris created his master work. Nowadays, school boards are made up of both women and men. In Nova Scotia, they have a Minister, a Department of Education, a Superintendent, and an army of administrators above them. There is a teachers union and a plethora of associations advocating for the sustainability of the corporate model. Although they are democratically elected, trustees are predominately kept in check by policy governance similar to the contemporary corporation; policies that are highly centralised and restrictive to community interests and strategic planning. School closure policies for example, have probably exacerbated rural decline as much if not more than declining enrolment, and the school board Syndics have more or less been restricted to oppose this trend even if they wished to. As citizens and taxpayers, we now  have the lessening of  School Board effectiveness to contend with. Boards seem to be charged with simply rubber stamping Department initiatives. They, like Rembrandt's Cloth Guild Board, have their master to answer to. This may very well be the phantom guest entering Rembrandt's meeting of the Syndics.


Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS


  1. You have done it again, Steven.

    The Robert Harris 1885 classic, "The Meeting of School Trustees," has always been one of my favourite paintings and I particularly like the Historica Heritage Minute bringing it back to life. I never would have seen the connection between Harris's painting and Rembrandt's The Syndics of the Cloth Guild.

    Thanks for providing us with another set of eyes. It may help to get the message across to those with artistic sensibilities.

  2. Kate Henderson did convince the trustees. https://www.historica-dominion.ca/content/heritage-minutes/rural-teacher

  3. Public School Board As “Corporate Entity”, “Business”, “Industry”, “Syndicate” . . .

    Have you seen a public school board meeting lately? At the appointed hour, after the visitors have gathered in the gallery, the trustees file in, from another room, from their pre-meeting. All is programmed ahead. It’s a mockery of democracy. I’ve run for school board, not winning. I’ve seen the most caring persons turned into automatons, rubber stampers. We may complain about our kids going through some meat-grinder process in schools. What’s this training new trustees undergo to be turned into such corporate honchos?

    The artist, Steven Rhude, does us a great service to connect the two art pictures — “A Meeting of School Trustees” (1885) and “The Syndics of the Cloth Guild” (1662). The circumstances are similar— these are middlemen who mediate between their own interests and the publics’.

    “Syndicalism” is a further extension of this concept and I do see it as the prevailing model in most of our school boards. I do see that the labor unions, particularly teacher unions, through direct action such as elections, strikes and sabotage, have captured our public school boards. The public is still left out in the cold and wanting.

    What ominous painting can some current artist render of our new reality?

    Or is the centralized system disintegrating before our very eyes in view of the centrifugal forces now accruing — home education, online learning, the Moore Case challenge and dedicated specialty private schools, the New Zealand model of one board for each school, etc.?

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