Donald S Ross MA FRSE (1841-1883)

Joined the Society: 1871 (🌳 Original Member)

Portrait of Donald Ross
Photograph © The University of Edinburgh

Donald S Ross MA was born on the 4th of July 1841. In 1871, while a student at Edinburgh University, he became a founding member and one of the original Presidents of the Philosophy Society. He graduated in 1872 and backed this up with a 1st Class Honours in Philosophy in 1873. At that time, only around one in fifty students attained 1st Class Honours. In 1880, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, although it is not clear what merit qualified him for the fellowship.

In 1882, he was appointed Inspector-General of Schools in the Cape of Good Hope. He immediately set about a vast fact-finding mission to discover what the state of education in the Cape was. In a preliminary report, he found the education of the colony to be in a shocking state. Only one in six children in the colony were found to be meaningfully attending a government school. Of the colony’s white children, only half were found to be under any kind of instruction, whether that be a government school, a mission school or home schooling.

His report came at the end of a decade in which the white middle classes in South Africa increasingly worried that their colony was in the grip of an ‘education crisis’. The principal target of these worries were poor, rural, white children, who were predominantly Dutch-speaking. The Cape had high rates of illiteracy among the rural white poor compared to Europe, with 38% of adults in this group unable to read or write in 1875 (the corresponding rate for blacks in the Cape at the same time was 95%). Commentators worried that white children, especially boys, were not only failing to make the most of the opportunities of the colony’s growing economy, but were at risk of moral degeneration. There were also those concerned that too many black children were receiving a literate education (though such concerns had scant basis in fact – black children were far less literate than white children). Education was seen as a way to make the most of the colony’s economic potential, to improve the moral character of the colony’s children and to re-iterate the distinct roles members of each racial group were supposed to play in Cape society.

Education became, then, a means not only of producing a new generation of [professionals] who would exploit the Cape’s own ‘industrial revolution’ […], but also of moulding and forming white, young men into the kinds of citizens educationalists and colonial commentators believed would be beneficial to Cape society. Removed from the apparently disorganised households of their rural, white, and impoverished parents – where racial boundaries were dangerously blurred – they could be transformed into respectable, progressive, conscientious, and middle-class male citizens of the future.

Duff, SE. 2011. Saving the Child to Save the Nation: Poverty, Whiteness and Childhood in the Cape Colony, c.1870-1895. Journal of Southern African Studies 37 (2), p. 231

Ross was never able to complete his report. He died unexpectedly in April 1883 (his cause of death is not known). He is buried in Claremont, South Africa.

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