Thomson, Watson (1899-69)

Watson Thomson’s appointment as Saskatchewan’s director of Adult Education by Premier T.C. Douglas on June 15, 1944, was the zenith of his career. Here was Thomson’s chance to implement a province-wide program of community-based learning according to his communitarian socialist commitments. His mandate was to develop the “biggest adult education program in the country.”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1899, Thomson came to Saskatchewan following experience as an adult educator in Alberta and Manitoba. He was co-founder of the Prairie School for Social Advance (PSSA) for which Douglas promised support. In his first radio address entitled “Power to the People,” delivered just six weeks after he arrived in Saskatchewan, Thomson had this to say: “The knowledge we want to convey is not knowledge for its own sake but for the sake of changing and recreating our human world nearer to the heart’s desire of ordinary, decent people everywhere.”

The new director moved quickly to put his action-oriented community-based adult education program into effect throughout Saskatchewan. His pedagogical emphasis was “not [on] study alone, but [on] study that leads to action.” Against “solitary education for private ends,” Thomson advocated “public education for social ends, for building, co-operatively, a new and more truly human society.”

Thomson’s agenda to organize adult education for social change by creating study-action groups in every rural community and town was well under way when he was dismissed in January 1946. False allegations had spread within the CCF and elsewhere that Thomson was affiliated with the Communist Party. He became politically suspect in an era when “red-baiting” was gaining momentum. He would go on to become a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Thomson died in Vancouver on November 25, 1969. His Saskatchewan legacy of learning in community remains a touchstone for opponents of tendencies to commercialize education as a private rather than public good.

Michael Collins