Education during the Second World War

This short essay focuses on education within schools and universities during the Second World War in order to explore the relationship between war and learning. In elementary schools, high schools, and universities, the war affected enrolment, the availability of teachers and professors, lessons and curriculum, extracurricular activities, and student culture. It also brought militarized forms of student involvement and spurred patriotic fundraising, salvaging, saving, and thrift campaigns regarded as essential to the war effort at home. Through their education, children, youth, and young adults were taught lessons about the war’s meaning that allowed them to make sense of their role in this global conflict. Attention to documents and materials illustrating the war’s impact on education furthers our understanding of the Second World War.

Although the fighting was overseas, the repercussions of total war were felt in nearly all areas of the nation’s social, political, and economic life. Education was no exception. In 1943, the Protestant Board of School Commissioners for the City of Montreal (PBSCM) reported that “the War exercised the dominant role in the life and activities of the schools.” 1  The same year, the Minister of Education for Ontario, George A. Drew, stressed that the “nervous strain” of the war “continued to exert an influence on every aspect of education in the province.” 2  Similarly, the 1942 report for the National Conference of Canadian Universities (NCCU) argued that universities had an “immense responsibility” to ensure that something “great and good” resulted from “this unholy time.” It put forth that this war, more than any other, made “an urgent demand on young men with a definite standard of education.” 3   

Despite being far from the fields of battle, Canadian educational institutions were both directly and indirectly affected by the war. Thousands of students and recent graduates of high schools and universities rushed to enlist, their names carefully and proudly recorded by their alma mater. On a broader level, the conflict impacted the expansion of schooling and altered public perceptions of the role of education in society. The diversion of funds and government energies resulted in the cutting of courses, reductions in supplies and equipment, and postponed the construction of additional schools and facilities needed to accommodate increased enrolment. The war impacted practically every phase of the school curriculum and, at least for its duration, altered athletics, the activities of societies and clubs, and social events. At the same time, the manpower crisis affected teacher training and resulted in a teacher shortage.

A myriad of source materials reveal the impact of the war on education and the wartime experiences of those connected with educational institutions. Board of education reports and school board committee meeting minutes reveal the ways in which the war was a highly disruptive social experience. Curriculum guides and board of education circulars demonstrate that educators viewed the school system as one of the central mediums through which young Canadians might learn the specific details of the conflict. Boards issued pamphlets on how the war should be taught in the classroom and provided lists of recent educational books that could help with its instruction. Current events were incorporated into history and geography and the lessons in technical courses and vocational schools became based on war production needs. Newspapers, educational periodicals and journals, and various publications of university faculties of education all identified important lessons that could be learned from the war and spoke to the importance of controlling the conflict’s impact on student learning and experience. Yearbooks and student newspapers published historical narratives and creative contributions written by students that illuminate their experiences of war.

An examination of such documents provides an opportunity to understand the diverse impact of the war as well as attitudes towards schooling, higher education, and children and youth between 1939 and 1945. These sources also reveal the ways in which education and learning have been subject to external events, allowing the historian to position educational policies within the broader context of political developments, social and economic pressures, and cultural attitudes.

Numerous questions emerge from this wealth of source material, providing opportunities for research and analysis. How does looking at learning during this conflict change our understanding of its impact? What do these documents reveal about how the meaning of the war was conveyed to children and youth? Curriculum guides and educational policies provide evidence of wartime censorship and propaganda, but these sources also often articulate a commitment to a free and democratic educational system that must stand in stark contrast to the Nazis’ mobilization of German youth. How were changing perceptions of war reflected in classroom teaching? The study of these materials also offers a rich opportunity to undertake comparative studies. Through these sources the historian can compare, for example, the response of rural and urban school systems or French and English universities. Can the varying levels of participation in patriotic activities be explained by factors such as region, language, or religion?

Four patterns emerge from these sources. Each speaks to the insight that may be garnered from an examination of materials relating to learning. First, one can look at these sources for evidence of how Canadians engaged with the war effort through educational institutions. Second, an analysis of the incorporation of the war into curriculum and lessons offers evidence of how schools and universities became a primary medium through which children and youth came to understand the meaning of the war for their communities. Third, these materials demonstrate how support of the war effort gave school systems an additional sense of purpose and altered the role of education in society. And last, one can look at these sources for evidence of the home-front experience of children and youth.

The contributions of schools and universities to the war effort were considerable and varied. Facilities were turned over for the training of personnel for war industries and service. Students rallied in support of war charities and saving and thrift campaigns, salvaged for rubber, and collected scrap metal and milkweed pods. Schools and universities invited prominent community members to give public lectures and transformed virtually every school function into an effort to raise funds. By 1945, Toronto elementary schools and high schools had donated over $12,000,000 dollars in materials and funds. 4 Teachers and students organized blood drives, worked with the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and promoted the sale of Victory Bonds and War Savings Stamps. Female students organized Red Cross sewing rooms to help prepare supplies for university hospital units and sewed and knit articles for servicemen, civilians in bombed areas, and children in British War Nurseries. Through their industrial arts classes, the Protestant students of Montreal made 15,000 arm splints for the Red Cross and Military District No. 4 during the 1942-43 school year. 5  Forty thousand boys in high schools across Canada worked on the production of scale models of fighting aircraft to be used to train pilots, observers, and gunners in the British Commonwealth Air Training program. 6  Younger students wrote letters to soldiers and through school art projects made gifts to be sent overseas for Christmas.

Students received courses on war emergency and defence training, first aid, home nursing, and air raid precautions. They were also provided with military training. Most high schools made cadet training compulsory for all male students meeting physical requirements. In 1939, the Toronto board declared cadet service obligatory for upper-grade high school students and three years later Montreal’s Protestant board instituted mandatory air cadet training for all male students in grades ten to twelve. 7  The latter defended the decision, arguing that it was a result of “popular demand, the greater contribution to the war effort, the lead of the universities in setting up compulsory military courses, and the more thorough training accomplished by including the subjects in the regular curriculum.” 8  In cooperation with the Department of National Defence and the Department of War Services, Canadian universities required that all physically fit male students over eighteen undergo military training beginning in the fall of 1940. 9  Enrolment in a university Canadian Officers’ Training Corps [COTC] fulfilled this requirement, enabling universities to keep the military training of their students a university activity. 10  

Numerous documents account for the extensive wartime activities of students. Reports of ministers of education, special regulations regarding war service and work, school newspapers and yearbooks, memorial albums, and institutional histories all detail the role of educational institutions. From a pamphlet produced by the Ontario Board of Education for “Education Week” in 1943 to graduation programs and valedictorian addresses, the historian can find evidence of the pride that educational institutions took in recounting their efforts. Students wrote they had “done much to bring victory closer” and principals marvelled at the extensive contributions of the members of their schools. 11

In the elementary and high schools, these activities were supported by the formal curriculum and the incorporation of the war into classroom lessons. Texts and war-related instruction became increasingly nationalistic and emphasized Canada’s shift from colony to nation. Schools showed patriotic films from the National Film Board and students listened to the radio war reports of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  Boards of education distributed pamphlets and booklets with titles such as “Education for Victory in War and Peace” and “Canadian Democracy in Action.” History and geography lessons placed more emphasis on the development of government, the importance of Canada’s ties with the United States, and Canada’s part in the war. In 1942, the Ontario Minister of Education issued “The Way to War and the Second World War,” a booklet used to educate grade thirteen students about the war’s importance and meaning. The text blames the war on rising “economic nationalism” and the “Nazi Menace.” The coming of war was avoided at all costs, it contends, but the world “had to decide whether totalitarian barbarism or law, order and security would prevail.” It concludes with the declarations of war, noting that Canada’s independent declaration was “a significant step in her development as a nation.” 12

The promotion of war-related activities and changes to curriculum and school lessons came from inside and outside educational institutions. Pupils, teachers, principals, supervisors, and administrative staff requested that schools and universities have some role to play in the winning of the war. University presidents suggested changes to curriculum that would encourage the discussion of the “great questions of civilization that we have now upon our hands.” 13  Board publications and newspapers contained a plethora of articles, editorials, and letters to the editor that discussed the importance of properly teaching the war to students. “Education,” wrote Superintendent of Toronto Schools C.C. Goldring, “is a powerful instrument in shaping the destiny of mankind ... Rarely in the world’s history has the need for educated citizens appeared to be greater than at the present time.” 14  “They serve best who are best prepared,” wrote Principal Allin at Jarvis Collegiate Institute in Toronto. “This, for you, is an Initial Training School, and whether you join them ‘over there’ or serve your country here at home, you must be well trained.” 15  

Schools were inundated with requests from countless community organizations to collaborate in patriotic endeavours. Support for military training came from the federal government, the various branches of the Canadian forces, and national cadet leagues. The Royal Canadian Air Force and the Air Cadet League of Canada, for example, provided practical support to the air cadet movement in the schools by supplying the necessary equipment and suitable training courses for officer personnel.  “There is no doubt,” read the PBSCM’s Annual Report, “that the excellence of the Board’s cadet organization is in large part due to this enthusiastic sponsorship.” 16  Through the NCCU, universities cooperated with the wartime goals and priorities of the federal government and sought to maximize the use of their resources, including manpower, expertise, and training.

The war “provided objectives and means for splendid service by children and youths,” argued educators. 17  School activities in support of the war served two purposes. They helped demonstrate commitment to the war effort and they also provided an opportunity to teach children and youth about the values of thrift, hard work, perseverance, and the necessity of safeguarding democratic values and traditions. While lamenting the circumstances, educators recognized that the war provided an opportunity to instil in young Canadians a sense of responsibility for the future of their nation. 

The adjustment of curriculum and school activities in support of the war effort was not without controversy. Concern about education during the war became “nation-wide to an unprecedented extent” and educators and the public alike debated the role of education in society. 18  Proponents of “practical” and “utilitarian” education argued that education must adjust to meet wartime needs. Educators largely agreed that for the duration they must focus on activities in support of the war effort at home. Presidents of universities recognized, for instance, the important role the university must play in training men for war service or work in war-related industries. Some feared, however, that universities would become akin to trade schools. One president maintained that the “normal objective” of the university was “not training, but education, which is a rather different and a more important function.” 19 Another argued that while “universities necessarily adjust themselves to present emergencies, they must not abandon their fundamental functions.” He continued that they “must preserve true freedom of thought and opinion ... freedom of intellectual inquiry and research, freedom of worship and the maintenance of tolerance of creed and race, and of ‘the integrity of our cultural tradition.’” 20

The war brought education and the federal government into closer contact, situating education at the forefront of national policy. The multi-faceted use of institutions of higher education and the adaptations of schools to national emergency dramatically altered federal-academic relations. The war demanded the production of vital scientific knowledge, best exemplified in the creation of the atomic bomb. The knowledge-producing abilities of the research university convinced policy-makers and the wider public of its utility in the defence and economic development of Canada. Schooling was also viewed as vital to the reintegration of psychologically-damaged veterans to civilian life. In cooperation with the federal government, for example, the Toronto Department of Education established a centre for the rehabilitation and training of ex-service personnel. It provided a number of occupational courses and tutorial help in academic courses to prepare veterans for university and vocational training. 21  The Veterans’ Charter offered free university education, transforming the lives of the over 54,000 veterans and permanently altering public perceptions of higher education. 22   

Some of the most interesting accounts of war’s impact on schooling come from the students themselves. Yearbooks and newspapers contain editorials, articles, questionnaires, short stories, poetry, and cartoons that illustrate the war’s meaning for their lives. Stories of war as adventure remained popular and provide evidence of young boys delighting in the militarization of their schools. More senior students expressed an understanding of war that surpassed the earlier war generation. They often conveyed their personal experiences, expressing their feelings at the loss of a family member or friend. Some students displayed an ability to infuse humour into discussions of the impact of war on their day-to-day lives. A shortage of supplies inspired one student to joke that if the war kept on long enough, they would be working on slates. 23  The seriousness of the impact of war, however, dominated student publications. As youth looked to position their experiences within a broader contest, they often compared this war with the last. “This time it is different,” argued the editor of the Queen’s Journal. “Those who are giving up long-cherished plans and are preparing to do their bit in this struggle are showing the highest kind of courage, the kind that recognizes all the dangers it is going to meet and yet resolves to meet them.” 24

An examination of sources and materials concerning education and student experience during the Second World War reveals the social and cultural impact of the conflict at home. Schools and universities are an important setting for studying the dominant interpretation of the war’s causes, impact, and legacy. In addition to educational publications and reports of school boards, propaganda posters, newspapers, radio and television broadcasts all attest to the significant wartime role of educational institutions. In turn, student publications, such as yearbooks and newspapers, can be used to analyze how student understanding and experience of war were channelled and expressed. Attention to such materials enriches our understanding of the war and its effect on the lives of Canadians.

Anne Millar, University of Ottawa
Reading List

Baker, Marilyn. “The Later Years: Women Instructors at the Winnipeg School of Art inthe 1940s” in Atlantis 30/2 (2006): 50–62

Bindon, Kathryn M. Queen’s Men, Canada’s Men: The Military History of Queen’s University, Kingston (Kingston: Trustees of the Queen’s University Contingent, Canada’s Officers’ Training Corps, 1978)

Bruno-Jofre, Rosa. “Citizenship and Schooling in Manitoba, 1918-1945” in Manitoba History 36 (winter 1998): 26-36

Cameron, James D. “Part Five: The Ordeal of War and Its Aftermath, 1936-44” in For the People: A History of St. Francis Xavier University (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996)

Comacchio, Cynthia. The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of a Modern Canada, 1920-1950 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006)

Fetherstonhaugh, R.C. McGill University at War: 1914-1918, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill University, 1947)

Gibson, Frederick W. “A Knowledge of Arms: Queen’s and World War II” in Queen’s University, Volume II, 1917-1961: To Serve and Yet Be Free (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983)

Hamelin, Christine. “A Sense of Purpose: Ottawa Students and the Second World War” in Canadian Military History 6/1 (1997): 34-41

Johns, Walter H. “The Newton Years: 1941-1945” in A History of the University of Alberta 1908-1969 (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1981)

Johnston, Charles. “The Children’s War: The Mobilization of Ontario Youth during the Second World War” in Patterns of the Past: Interpreting Ontario’s History, edited by Roger Hall, William Westfall, and Laura Sefton MacDowell (Toronto: Dundurn, 1988)

Keshen, Jeff. “The Children’s War: ‘Youth Run Wild’” in Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004)

Kiefer, Nancy. “The Impact of the Second World War on Female Students at the University of Toronto, 1939-1949” (M.A. thesis, University of Toronto, 1984)

Kiefer, Nancy and Ruth Roach Pierson. “The War Effort and Women Students at the University of Toronto, 1939-45” in Youth, University, Canadian Society: Essays in the Social History of Higher Education, edited by Paul Axelrod and John G. Reid (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989)

Lemieux, Thomas. “Education, Earnings, and the ‘Canadian G.I. Bill’” in Canadian Journal of Economics 34/2 (2001): 313–344

Levi, Charles. “Student Opinion in Depression and War: The Case of Paul McGillicuddy, 1918-42” in Ontario History 87/4 (December 1995): 345-368

Lorenkowski, Barbara. “The Children’s War” in Occupied St. John’s: A Social History of a City at War 1939-1945, edited by Steven High (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010)

McLeod, Charles Roderick and Mary Anne Poutanen. “Daughters of the Empire, Soldiers of the Soil: Protestant School Boards, Patriotism, and War” in A Meeting of the People: School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801-1998, edited by Roderick McLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004)

Moritsugu, Frank. Teaching in Canadian Exile: A History of the Schools for Japanese-Canadian Children in British Columbia Detention Camps during the Second World War (Toronto: Ghost Town Teachers Historical Society, 2001)

Myers, Tamara and Mary Anne Poutanen. “Cadets, Curfews, and Compulsory Schooling: Mobilizing Anglophone Children in WWII Montreal” in Social History / Histoire Sociale 38/76 (2005): 367-98

Neary, Peter. “Canadian Universities and Canadian Veterans of World War II” in The Veteran’s Charter and Post-World War II Canada, edited by J. L. Granatstein and Peter Neary (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998)

Peterson, Robert. “Society and Education during the Wars and Their Interlude, 1914-1945” in Canadian Education: A History, edited by Donald Wilson, Robert Stamp, and Louis-Philippe Audet (Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 1970)

Reid, John G. Mount Allison University, Volume 2, 1914-1963 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984)

Sethna, Christabelle. “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home: Absent Fathers, Working Mothers, and Delinquent Daughters in Ontario during World War II” in Family Matters: Papers in Post-Confederation Canadian Family History, edited by Lori Chambers and Edgar-André Montigny (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 1998)

Stamp, Robert. The Schools of Ontario, 1876-1976 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982)

Stortz, Paul and E. Lisa Panayotidis, eds. Cultures, Communities, and Conflict: Histories of Canadian Universities and War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, in press)

Theobald, Andrew. “Western’s War: A Study of an Ontario Canadian Officers’ Training Corps Contingent, 1939-1945” in Ontario History 98/1 (spring 2006): 52-67

Thompson, W.P. Yesteryears at the University of Saskatchewan, 1939-1945 (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 1969)

Von Heyking, Amy. Creating Citizens: History and Identity in Alberta Schools (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006)

Waite, P.B. “Dalhousie, the Second World War, and the Philosopher-King, 1939-1943” in The Lives of Dalhousie, Volume 2, 1925-1980, The Old College Transformed (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994)


  • 1Protestant Board of School Commissioners of the City of Montreal (PBSCM), “The Schools’ Contribution to the War Effort,” Annual Report 1942-1943, 10.
  • 2Report of the Minister of Education, Province of Ontario for the Year 1943 (Toronto: T.E. Bowman, 1945), 1-2.
  • 3James S. Thomson, “Student Activities in the War-Time University,” Eighteenth National Conference of Canadian Universities, June 9-11, 1942, 112; H.F. McDonald, “The Re-Establishment of Ex-Service Men,” Eighteenth National Conference of Canadian Universities, June 9-11, 1942, 77.
  • 4“The Pupil War Effort,” Report of the Minister of Education, Province of Ontario for the Year 1944 (Toronto: T.E. Bowman, 1946).
  • 5PBSCM, “The Schools’ Contribution to the War Effort,” Annual Report 1942-1943, 11.
  • 6R.B. Matthews, “The Air Force Needs 50,000 Model Planes... 40,000 Schoolboys Will See It Gets Them!” Saturday Night (December 1942): 4-6, quoted in Cynthia Comacchio, The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of a Modern Canada, 1920-1950 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006), 110.
  • 7Report of the Minister of Education, Province of Ontario for the Year 1944 (Toronto: T.E. Bowman, 1946), 3; PBSCM, “Cadet Corps,” Annual Report 1942-1943, 13.
  • 8J.G. Land, “Montreal High Schools Go ‘Air Cadet.’” Educational Record 58/2 (April-June 1943): 73.
  • 9Frederick Gibson, Queen’s University Vol. II, 1917-1961 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983), 183.
  • 10C.O.T.C. recruits were trained in map reading, military law, organization, and administration and at most universities, this training counted towards an academic credit.
  • 11“Editorial,” Vox Ducum (June 1944): 1.
  • 12Ontario History of Education Collection (OHEC), Ontario Department of Education, “The Way to War and the Second World War, Topics 9 and 10, Modern World History, Grade XIII,” 21, 25.
  • 13Thomson, 112.
  • 14OHEC, Toronto Education Week Committee, “Education for Victory in War and in Peace, Canadian Education Week, November 7th to 13th, 1943.”
  • 15A.E. Allin, “The Principal and His Message,” The Magnet 24/1 (1943): 23.
  • 16PBSCM, “Cadet Corps,” Annual Report 1942-1943, 13.
  • 17PBSCM, “The School and the Community,” Annual Report 1942-1943, 9.
  • 18Charles E. Phillips, “Education in Canada, 1939-46,” History of Education Journal 3/1 (autumn 1951): 7.
  • 19James S. Thomson, “Student Activities in the War-Time University,” Eighteenth National Conference of Canadian Universities, June 9-11, 1942, 111.
  • 20“The University in The Third Year of War As Described in the President’s Annual Report,” University of Toronto Monthly 43/5 (February 1943), 145-146.
  • 21Report of the Minister of Education, Province of Ontario for the Year 1944 (Toronto: T.E. Bowman, 1946), 2.
  • 22Jeff Keshen, Saints, Sinners and Soldiers (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 275.
  • 23JCIA, News from the ‘Old School,’ June 15th, 1942, 2.
  • 24Peter Macdonnell, Journal, November 7, 1939, quoted in Gibson, 180.