Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sharon Sullivan remembers UNE

I found this speech while searching for some material on St Ursula's College, Armidale. No speaker is given, but I am sure that it is Sharon Sullivan. Sharon was three years in front of me, but we overlapped because we were both involved in the work of Isabel McBryde that Sharon describes in her speech.

I have written myself of the world that Sharon describes, but its nice to have another version coming from a different perspective. 

I am publishing it to ensure that I can find it again!

As an aside,  I hadn't realised until I did the St Ursula's search that Justice Mary Gaudron went to the same school. From the dates, it looks as though she was in the same class as Sharon.      

Good evening

Good evening, it's a great honour to receive this award, and to be here this evening speaking to you, standing where so long ago I sat so many times at Mary White formal dinners!

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land on which we stand.

This is more a chatette than an after-dinner address! There will be many occasions during the celebration to recall UNE’s official great moments and to remember all its achievements. This is really just the recollections of New England of one young student and what UNE meant to her and to her generation of women.

It's March 1960. Delivered to the UNE by my parents, wearing a pink linen dress, a pink straw hat and a pair of white gloves and clutching a handbag. 16 years old -- the first member of my extended family ever to go to university.

How did I , and my generation of women get there? All over New England that summer and in the little struggling dairy farms of the North Coast, in the little towns with central schools, girls' (and boys') parents were puzzling over letters from that nice Bob Menzies' government and from the Education Department in New South Wales telling them their son or daughter had won a Commonwealth and/or a teacher's college scholarship to university. I am focusing on the daughters . Parents were reading this letter with a mixture of apprehension and pleasure. Often there had been no thought of University in their or their children's planning for the future. But faced with this new opportunity, you can imagine the conversation:

' Well dear, it seems like quite a lot of money for her to live on, and she has always been bright At that UNE they are carefully looked after. It's not like that Sydney University where they let them get up to all sorts of mischief………… and she might meet a nice grazier's son. '

This is a bit of an exaggeration of course . My parents were actually keen that we attend university though neither of them had finished high school -- but still it was a great adventure for us all, and not without some trepidation (justifiably so) on the part of good Catholic parents.

So our lives were changed dramatically. Some of us found husbands -- but more importantly we found the potential within ourselves which a good university education supplies.

What were some of the aspects of that change?

My educational background was rather limited. I was educated by the Ursuline nuns at St Ursula's College here in Armidale,. Despite five years in the town I had never once visited the University -- not part of the school' s curriculum. University was viewed with some suspicion and we were constantly warned of its dangers -- ' losing the faith ‘.

I did Honours English for the Leaving Certificate, but we were never allowed to read the 18th-century novels prescribed for the course such as Pamela or Joseph Andrews because they were considered too dangerous. Instead Sister Campion used to read from her own university notes on these authors. She always said that the big advantage going to university for her had been the lecture notes which she faithfully preserved and used.

I loved history at school. It was to become my major at university -- but I didn't get a very good start at school in objective methodology. I vividly recall an old nun -- our relief history teacher -- asking us to notice that if you look at history carefully all the catholic monarchs were good, while the Protestants monarchs tended to be rather evil.! Even in those days I and my fellow students had the temerity to question this version of the world, deeply offending sister Alexis and being told we were ourselves a ' ' bunch of Protestants'. My all-round education and my knowledge of the world was coming from a rather low base.

So I arrived at New England to a room of my own, to Mary White College, to an interview for my parents and myself with the college principal Mary Bagnall , to formal dinner in academic gowns five nights a week, sherry and cheese beforehand if you were on high table, served more or less where we now are -- in a formal dining room with waitresses and silver service. There were formal balls and cabarets, a complex and carefully enforced system of rules for being out at night and entertaining visitors, Oxbridge accents and rural science boys in moleskins everywhere. Academic gowns worn by students and staff to all lectures tutorials and formal occasions (and very useful they were too especially when you climbed sleepily out of bed so as not to miss your tutorial and could throw on the first piece of clothing to hand, secure in the fact that you could cover it all with a dark green warm gown coming to mid calf, which kept out the New England winter and preserved your dignity.)

A community in short with gravitas and a solemn sense of purpose as well as a whole new social milieu.

And above all there was a whole new world of learning. Almost every one in arts did history, English, economics and psychology in their first year -- not much other choice unless you were doing classics or languages. Since I had never had the patience or application for languages, I was not.

Good history teaching -- cause, affect, accuracy , objectivity -- what a revelation and an intellectual excitement.

Reading original, previously forbidden books in English and having them treated in an adult way.

(We as students may have suffered culture shock, but I guarantee that our lecturers were equally shellshocked by the unplumbed depths of ignorance displayed by their students.. You tell do this by the delicate pause which occurred before you're more naive questions were tactfully answered)

Above all, I will never forget the effects of psychology 1 on a naive Catholic schoolgirl -- revealing causes for human behaviour not limited to concepts of sin and grace.

So in our university career, as well as learning a lot of facts which I have long forgotten we absorbed intellectual riches, ideas of tolerance, we learnt about politics, about social justice.

I discovered early on that the sole aim of communism was not to invade Australia and kill all the nuns.

I should not be having a go at the nuns really -- they gave me a very best education they could, they cared deeply for me, and they gave me a strong sense of social justice and a need to attempt, for Christ's sake, to make the world better place.

But intellectually, the world widened for us when we reached university -- and gave us the foundation for the lives we have been able to live and the achievements of so many of us

Dr Katz of the psychology department, in our orientation week persuaded the university to allow us all -- the entire intake – to spend most of the week doing all the known social, intelligence, aptitude and temperament tests then available. We thought this was a normal part of University and I don't remember one person objecting. However this seminal study gave him a very good picture of the views and beliefs of the first year as students of 1960 -- and enabled him three years later to conduct further surveys (with permission by then) which illustrated the amazing contrast in our outlook and understanding which three years of university had produced. There had been a 90° turnaround .

Why was the university able to make such a profound change in our lives?

To begin with, the university was in our midst, geographically and conceptually reachable -- within our world -- our ' far away rustic setting ' as John Ryan has described it in: High Lean Country: Land People and Memory in New England. (Alan Atkinson, J. S. Ryan, Ian Davidson and Andrew Parker (eds) Allen and Unwin 2006.) John points out that there was a passionate wish within the New State Movement to found a university in New England, since at least 1921.

The founding pastoral families, some of whom had attained a quasi- aristocratic status by the 20th century strongly desired education for their children and the children of the region. They had a deep-seated distrust of ' all devouring Sydney '. And they loomed large in the foundation of the university and its history. As ignorant undergraduates we slightly resented the fact that our Chancellor -- P A Wright -- was a New England grazier, and not someone whom we regarded as a distinguished academic or a public figure. We really didn't understand the immense contribution of families such as the Whites and the Wrights to the foundation of New England, or indeed that these families through their gifted children such as Judith Wright and Patrick White were in the process of making a major contribution to Australian intellectual life as well as the development of pastoral New England.

A second reason why so many of us were changed by New England was that many people who had never thought of going to university were caught up in the generous scholarship scheme available to anyone with ability. The farsightedness and post-war idealism of our politicians ensured that many many people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity of going to university could do so. It was also important that the university was a small, safe university which took the responsibility of being in loco parentis to its students very seriously. We often heard about in loco parentis -- especially when we were involved in under age drinking, staying out too late at the men's colleges, or sitting up at 3 a.m. writing an essay -- Mary Bagnall in her famous red dressing gown would be seen in the halls of the college enforcing bed on despairing students. Both English and history essays had to be delivered by the evening of the required day to the Milton building -- fortunately, lecturers rarely locked their swing out windows, easily openable with a ruler, and never their doors, so it was common to see a procession of students, newly arisen after Mary Bagnall's departure, just on dawn, crawling in the nearest open window to deliver their essays to the secretary's desk so they would be there and ticked off when she arrived in the morning.

The university was of course completely residential -- if you wanted to live independently in town you had to be a town resident or have special permission. This residential system based on the Oxbridge model was considered to be very important. We all had what were called moral tutors -- women members of staff or wives of members of staff who took four or five women students under their wing, got to know them, counselled them, invited them to dinner, and were supposed to keep a general eye on their well-being, happiness and progress. In my own case, I had the great good fortune to be assigned to Jenny Crew, tutor in the history department (and , as very much part of the package her husband Neville Crew, lecturer in adult education.) This was the beginning of an extremely valuable and close association which has lasted to this day. I learned to drink safely, I became part of their family, I baby sat, I absorbed new ideas -- they were a sounding board and coach in all the ups and downs of university life. I owe them a great deal.

The history and English departments was full of passionate teachers and inspiring people as well as its intriguing mixture of eccentrics -- some of them sort of remittance men from Oxbridge. I (I remember having to explain to a more naive fellow student why one of our learned associate professors swayed from side to side of the corridor as he staggered down it at 10 a.m. on the way to deliver his incomprehensible his lecture)

But I believe to this day that the history department which greeted me at New England was unsurpassed in its range of skills and dedication to its students. Many had a profound effect on me and it was here that I met Isabel McBryde, then a young lecturer in ancient history but with a pioneering research project into Australian archaeology. The project began very modestly with voluntary assistance from her colleagues and a bunch of ignorant students as field assistants , with her own Land Rover and some very modest funding -- I remember one for 75 pounds from the Nuffield foundation . Skilfully deploying these resources Isabel did pioneering work in archaeological and ethnographic work in New England and the North Coast. We also ventured into the Western division -- quite remote in those days. I remember Professor Ian Turner, one of whose fields was military history , thoughtfully looking up the rations for the British Army in Mesopotamia in World War I to assist Isabel in catering for this big trip.

This work was my first contact with Aboriginal people -- itself an unusual research practice for an archaeologist in those days . My honours thesis was the first look at the early settler sources chronicling the traditional life of the Aborigines of the Richmond Tweed. I have written elsewhere about the radical nature of Isabel's modest and low-key work, and how it has come to influence cultural heritage management in Australia generally. In that paper I called her the Ginger Rogers of Australian archaeology for obvious reasons. (Dances as beautifully as Fred Astaire backwards, in a long dress and high-heeled shoes, but doesn't get the same kudos .) Anyway, this work was the beginning of my life long interest in cultural heritage.

It sounds like a Golden age -- of course it wasn't. Looking back one can see that some of the staff were second-rate and patronising, feeling slightly aggrieved at having to teach at what they regarded as a second-rate university. The student body tended to be cosy and to some extent complacent -- more concerned about social life than traditional radical student causes. University and town hierarchies were accepted with little questioning, and some of our guardians were rather stuffy and po-faced.

However I guess my point in all of this is that for many of us -- with a minimal background and profound provincial ignorance of the world -- the University of New England was a perfect staging ground . -- providing a challenging but nurturing environment in which we could flourish. This I think has been one of the great achievements of the university though by no means its only claim to fame. The other pioneering work which I recall, in rural science and natural resources, in external studies, and in adult education have all had a profound effect on the region and more generally.

My life, thanks to the university has been in heritage management and conservation. At the university we were quite ignorant of heritage which in fact really hadn't been invented as a common term in the sense in which we use it today. We didn't realise the heritage riches in which we lived. The interior of Boolimbah was white, and the stately old houses we lived in in town in our second year -- still part of the College each with its housekeeper,- were universally believed by the students to have been condemned and to be being used by the university because they could get them cheaply and because no else would let them. They are still there, have appreciated greatly in value, and are regarded as one of the glories of Armidale.

Perceptions of heritage have changed so much in my life.

No one really thought about heritage in those days, because we had a strong sense of certainty, of ordered progress. The need for heritage professionals arose, ironically, because of the pace of change which engulfed us all and the danger this brought to the things which had seemed to us so unchangeable, so inevitable and so stable.

I have been privileged to be involved in the development of heritage conservation methodology and practice, and I have seen Australia, in my working life, take a leading role in best practice in this area. We have reworked the rubrics of European heritage conservation, best expressed in the Venice Charter, so that they suit our heritage and our system of values. Our own heritage conservation practice has been deeply influenced by some of the ideas which early practitioners like Isabel McBryde pioneered at this university. In particular, growing consciousness of the significance of our Aboriginal heritage -- concepts of a sacred landscape and of an integrated approach to all the values of heritage, have made our conservation practice in Australia unique and highly valued.

In Australia we have faced the necessity of confronting different aspects of the significance of sites to different groups in the community. Paramount here is the political and ethical issue of Aboriginal custodianship of Aboriginal heritage places and the questions this has raised.

Aboriginal heritage is ancient, subtle, complex and contemporary. It incorporates concepts such as cultural continuity and change, the significance of whole landscapes, the inseparability of natural and cultural aspects of heritage and the often paramount importance of the intangible value of places including knowledge, tradition, stories, appropriate behaviour, and restricted sacred information which can all be essential elements of the significance of an Aboriginal place or landscape. This understanding of the subtleties of our Aboriginal heritage has meant that in Australia we have also come to see that the significant monuments and landmarks relating to our colonial and postcolonial experience also have values not acknowledged by the Venice Charter. They are not just static monuments or museums. Their value does not relate only to the past. They include intangible values such as traditional use and contemporary community association which need to be taken into account in the practice of heritage conservation and management. In Australia key elements in cultural heritage conservation are the themes of continuity and contemporary value.

These issues together have brought about a sea change in cultural heritage management in Australia. This has become central to Australian conservation practice -- the Burra Charter.

And, coming back tonight to Boolamimbah, it is of course very gratifying to see the Burra Charter principles in place here. I have heard a story that when the slightly tattered original and magnificent paintwork of Boolamimbah’s interior was painted over with white 33paint sometime after the University College was established, there was a protest by the women students who lived here. I like to think of course that this is true.

In any case, it is great to see Boolamimbah, with its heritage restored in such a way as it honours both its original pastoral heritage and its great contribution as the founding centre of the university. It's very beautiful now, but most satisfyingly to me it's not just a monument, it is vital living centre for the university and it speaks of the university's traditions, its respect for its roots, and its pride in this heritage as an essential part of its present image. It is also very good to see that other great Armidale institution which also changed so many lives -- the Armidale teachers College -- is part of a university campus, and we hope can be similarly honoured and restored.

I congratulate the University on its anniversary. It was an honour and a life changing experience to be a student here -- and I hope that the regional traditions and heritage that inspired its foundation continued to give it life, vitality, and prosperity.

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