Public Education: It’s Not Just About Schools

Mildura Carnegie Lirary

Mildura’s Carnegie Library with WWI memorial tower.
Photo by Mattinbgn (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

When we talk about public education we immediately think of schools. Increasingly we are recognising that education is a life-long endeavour and with the explosion of the internet learning outside of the classroom and formal education systems is gaining increasing prominence.  Last week at the Buildings, Books and Blackboards conference in Melbourne we were encouraged to recognise that ‘public education’ throughout the last two hundred years has always encompassed more than the activities conducted in a school classroom.

This conference was about public education in the true sense of the word ‘public’.  Schools and libraries were considered important sites of learning. The libraries of the mechanics institutes played an important part in the education of many people.  This conference covered it all; the history of schools, libraries and mechanics institutes.

A highlight of the conference was the session about the Carnegie Corporation in the Antipodes.  Andrew Carnegie founded the corporation in order to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.”  Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin observed, “[t]he corporation will take from the shoulders of its founder the task of personally attending to his pet hobby of founding libraries here, there, and everywhere.”  The Morning Bulletin went on to note that the Corporation would also fund “technical schools, institutions of higher learning” etc. (Morning Bulletin, 23/12/1911, p. 6).

At the conference, Logan Moss from the University of Waikato, shared how the Carnegie Corporation helped to establish the Country Library Service.  Moss drew our attention to the care the Corporation took to establish strong relationships with key people in various countries.  Sir James Allen, the influential member of the upper house and minister of education, was the principal contact for the Carnegie Corporation in New Zealand.  The Carnegie Corporation funded the production of the influential Munn-Barr report which was a blueprint for the development of library services in New Zealand for the next fifty years.

I had become aware of the significance of the Carnegie Corporation in the development of education while working on the Teaching Reading in Australia project.  I spent some time researching in the library of the Australian Council of Education Research (ACER) which was an organisation established in Melbourne in 1930 with funding from the Carnegie Corporation.  The retired director of education in Victoria, Frank Tate, was the president of ACER during the 1930s. He helped to secure funding from the Carnegie Corporation to fund the Munn-Pitt report into Australia’s libraries.  Yes, this was the same Ralph Munn who wrote co-wrote the report into New Zealand libraries mentioned earlier.  Larry Amey describes the Munn-Pitt Report as the “Excalibur in the fight for library reform” and Frank Tate, “its King Arthur” in an interesting article published in the The Australian Library Journal

One of the chief researchers who I worked under for the Teaching Reading in Australia project, Bill Green, discussed the Carnegie Corporation, Australian education and the development of the English curriculum.  Green said we need to rethink what we understand by the term “public education” noting that in Australia debate surrounding public education is focussed on schools but we need to think broader than that.

Green endorsed the following comment made by Frank Tate in 1937:

Let us recognize that education is a life-long process that does not end with schooling and that one of the chief means of self-education is reading suitable books.  I say that one of the greatest assets a boy or girl can take from school is the ability to read in the full sense of the term and the desire to read worthwhile books.

Frank Tate, 1937

Green is interested in the privileged place of English in the school curriculum and asks, “why English”?  Today it is just accepted by most people that English should be the only compulsory subject to year 12 level, so much so that if we think about it at all we probably think that its status is natural.  During the 1930s when the Carnegie Corporation started to fund education research in Australia, the White Australia Policy was a firmly entrenched government policy and harmful notions of race, which led to some dark episodes in western history, were commonly held.  Green ended his presentation by arguing for the need for more research into how issues of race impacted the development of the English curriculum.

Julie McLeod, of the University of Melbourne, picked up the discussion from Bill Green in her paper on ‘Progressive education, race and Carnegie in the Pacific’.  She examined a number of Carnegie conferences on education in the Pacific. In a conference held in 1937 adolescence was seen as a ‘blossoming’ of the young person where that person reaches out from the home and explores new possibilities.  McLeod contrasted this with discussion about indigenous adolescents who were regarded as people who could no longer change, who became tied to the tradition of their local community.  Instead of questions about education for citizenship and worldliness, the question of education for indigenous teenagers was presented as a problem tied to issues of the difficulties of educating them.

In the final presentation of the Carnegie session, Kate Darian-Smith from the University of Melbourne took a different approach to the history of the Carnegie Corporation in Australia.  She used a broader conception of public education to include museums and art galleries in her discussion and focussed on learning and ‘cultural taste’.  During the interwar period there was much interest in what was regarded as ‘good taste’ in culture.  I was interested to hear Darian-Smith’s discussion about the role of art galleries and museums in shaping ‘good taste’ in her discussion of Carnegie Corporation’s funding of museums.

Darian-Smith warned that we run the risk of over-emphasising the influence of the Carnegie Corporation if we focus our research solely on the work of that organisation.  We need to look at the broader context.  There were other philanthropic organisations and individuals at the time.  Darian-Smith argued that a feature of the Carnegie Organisation was the fact that it did not work with local philanthropic organisations.

The account I have given thus far is of the activities of powerful white men.  Yet women have always had a significant role in public education.  In another session David J Jones drew our attention to the large numbers of women working in libraries throughout much of the twentieth century.  Despite the numbers of professional librarians who were women, there were significant barriers to them achieving the highest positions in their professions.  This was exposed in a controversial survey of librarians in New South Wales.  In 1972 Sol Encel, C G Bullard and Michael Cass delivered a survey of the profession in which they highlighted the inequities faced by women.  Women were a welcome source of cheap labour but it was only men who could enter the upper echelons.  Men were groomed for these positions through personal mentoring by their senior male colleagues.

Cathy Milward-Bason shared with us the career of librarian Margery C Ramsay.  After Ramsay became qualified she worked in the Ballarat library service before moving to Tasmania where she helped to establish a library in every region of Tasmania.  She then gained a position at the State Library of Victoria becoming the principal librarian between 1974 and 1981.  Those who worked with her described her as ‘formidable’, possibly a quality that kept her in good stead when confronting barriers concerning her gender.

Through these presentations and others conference participants were able to explore the history of public education in a more wholistic sense.  During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation reflected the attitudes of many in recognising that learning was a lifetime endeavour and was not simply restricted to that taking place in school buildings.  Both men and women were immersed in delivering public education albeit women faced many barriers.  Underlying public education were the ‘problems’ of race.   We can look forward to some interesting research emerging in the future on race and public education.

I share these observations of the conference with a caveat that applies to all my posts about conferences.  My observations of this conference have been filtered by my personal interests.  Another person sitting in the same sessions in all likelihood would give a different perspective.  I am also unable to comment on the many sessions that I was unable to attend.  It is so frustrating when several interesting papers are delivered at the same time in different rooms!

The Buildings, Books and Blackboard conference was stimulating. Over the coming week I will write about some of the other presentations I heard.

Further Reading

There are some great resources on the web for those interested in exploring the topics touched on in this post.  Aside from those already mentioned above, you may be interested in reading the following:

  • Library History of New Zealand

Some of the history discussed by Logan Moss is addressed in a biography of a significant figure in the development of the library system in New Zealand, Geoffrey Alley.  The biography of another key figure in the history told by Logan Moss, Alister McIntosh can also be found online.  New Zealand History online has an article about the Carnegie libraries in New Zealand.

  • Public Education: Schools and Libraries

Alan Bundy discusses the landmark reports about Australian libraries and the connections between schools and libraries in his article, ‘Essential connections: school and public libraries for lifelong learning’.

  • Teaching Reading in Australia

Led by Phil Cormack, Bill Green and Annette Patterson, this project examined the history of teaching reading skills to beginner readers in Australia from settlement to the outbreak of WWII.  For more information see the ‘Teaching Reading in Australia‘ page on this blog and the various blogposts I have written about this history.

  • Inequality Faced by Women in the Librarian Profession

Irene Bonella gives an interesting overview of the issues in her article, ‘A century of pay inequity: is the end in sight?’.  This includes an overview of the report written by Encel, Bullard and Cass in 1972.

  • More Information About the Conference

Visit the conference website for further details.

  • And for a Bit of Fun…

Read about the Carnegie library in a small settlement in Northern Territory that was overflowing with three thousand books. Or was it? Did it really receive a Carnegie Grant?  Read about the myth of the Boorooloola library.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.