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

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

College born in conflict

The second in my new series exploring the early days of tertiary education in New England. Alexander Mackie at Sydney University. Mackie had "that type of mind", Smith said, "usually associated with the Scottish metaphysician." 
In some ways, there is something just so 2017 about events surrounding the establishment of the Armidale Teachers’ College in 1928.

Then, as now, there was conflict over the balance between academic and vocational education. Then, as now, there were problems in attracting teachers to go to the bush, a belief that a country college would help overcome this.

There were also concerns about the extent to which students would wish to study in Armidale as compared to Sydney. A new building was required. There were arguments over the costs and value of the proposal compared to the cheaper expansion of existing facilities at Sydney Teachers’ College..

The NSW State elections held on 9 October 1927 had seen the election of a Nationalist/Country Party coalition government. David Drummond, the 37 year old Country Party member for Armidale and new Minister for Public Instruction, saw the establishment of a teachers’ college as the creation of a country college for country kids. He also saw a possible Northern college as one key building block in the creation of the infrastructure required to support a new Northern State.

Drummond found a ready ally in his department head, S H Smith, who saw the college as a chance to put his own ideas into practice. Then in his early sixties, Smith was (to use Drummond’s words) handsome and intelligent, with a commanding presence and a beautiful speaking voice. He was also shy, fussy, sensitive and vulnerable to personal attack.
The member and the Under Secretary. Drummond wanted a country college for country kids. Smith wanted a college that would reflect his view in the importance of vocational education. It was a powerful combination. 
Smith had started as a pupil teacher and then worked his way though the ranks, becoming Under-Secretary in 1922 upon the retirement of the famous Peter Board. Smith knew that there were those who affected to despise him because of his lack of formal education and was deeply wounded by it. Drummond who had left school at twelve was sensitive to Smith’s feelings and the two men became close.

Smith clashed with Professor Alexander Mackie, the head of Sydney Teachers, College. Mackie, a brilliant Scottish-born academic, had come to Sydney in 1906 to head the newly established Sydney Teachers’ College. He was a man of strong views who believed that that the main emphasis in teacher training should be academic, that the independence of Sydney Teachers’ College must be preserved, and who had little time for financial or other constraints on his activities.

Smith took a very different view. Bound up in the day-to-day problems of State education, he regarded the College’s job as training those teachers the Department required in the way the Department required. Smith also disagreed with Mackie as to the most desirable form of teacher training: Smith thought that Mackie’s academic bias meant ill-trained teachers and wanted more vocationally-oriented training.

These differences in approach would have made for difficulties anyway, but their personalities compounded problems. Smith and Drummond therefore combined.

In December 1927 came the announcement that a new College would be established in Armidale with teaching to commence in 1928. The rush was on. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29  March 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.  

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