03 January 2010

Education and the New State of New England

James Belshaw has posted to his New England, Australia blog on 2 January an item entitled New England story – new states, archives and the preservation of our past.

It contains some interesting history of the establishment of the Armidale Teachers’ College, the movement to establish a new state in the New England region of New South Wales, and the connection between the two. James’s grandfather The Hon. D.H. (“Davy”) Drummond, who to this day remains NSW’s longest serving Minister for Education, played a central role in both.

In the last year or so I have heard political commentators, including academics who ought to know better, describe the National Party and its predecessor, the Country Party, as an “agrarian populist party”. That might be an apt description of the Nationals today – a party that has seriously lost its way, but it does not begin to do justice to the glory days of its predecessor, for  which the word “Country” denoted the towns and villages of rural and regional Australia, not just – or even primarily – its farmers. This is entirely consistent with the fact that in my youth “the country”, rather than “the bush” was the normal expression for non-metropolitan Australia – no-one who grew up in Armidale, Tamworth or Wagga would describe themselves as coming from “the bush”.

At state level, men like Davy Drummond and Sir Michael Bruxner were not running around chasing hand-outs for farmers, and the farmers were not exactly waiting at the farm gate for the handouts to arrive. They were all concerned with the strategic issues for the communities they served, issues like education and infrastructure – passenger rail in the days before widespread car ownership, the rail services that would shift the wool and the wheat to market, and the establishment of scheduled air services to places like Armidale.

Their strongest supporters in the establishment of the education infrastructure which characterises Armidale were farmers who were contributing rather than receiving – people like T.R Forster, who donated Booloominbah for the establishment of the New England University College, and Philip Arundel Wright, who was a supporter of the movement to establish the University College and a generous benefactor, and who ultimately served as the University’s Chancellor after the retirement of Sir Earle Page.

Earlier, in the 1890s, The Armidale School had been established on purely private initiative as the New England Proprietary School, led by campaigners such as F.R. White, a leading landowner and builder of Booloominbah.

Many of the key figures, including Drummond and F.R. White, had limited formal education, but they understood the benefits that it could bring. How wise they were. In my view the University of New England, with its innovative Faculties of Rural Science (which trained its students to see farming in “whole of system” terms) and Agricultural Economics, transformed the fortunes of northern New South Wales  - there was a close connection between the academics and the farming community, and in the  summer schools which filled the university colleges during the long vacations researchers communicated their knowledge direct to the farmers who came from far and wide. Those farmers in turn diffused their new knowledge to those of their neighbours who were a bit coy about “goin’ back to school”.

And people like the legendary Bill McClymont, who founded the Faculty of Rural Science, had a way of roping others in to the research activities of his faculty. My father’s skills in electroencephalography, for example, were harnessed for the purposes of some interesting joint research on pregnancy toxaemia in sheep.

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