‘New education is primarily a thing of spirit’: Progressive ideals, coloniality and the making of educable subjects

Year: 2021

Author: McLeod, Julie

Type of paper: Symposium

This paper considers the ambivalent registers and legacies of progressive education in the interwar period and beyond. It looks to the ideas espoused by international networks and organisations, such as the International Bureau of Education, the League of Nations and the New Education Fellowship [NEF], and their reach and interaction with related initiatives in Australia and New Zealand. Across these various activities, questions of educational purposes and what it meant to be an educated person loomed large. Such questions also animated, but with different inflections, a 1936 congress held in Hawaii on ‘Education in the Pacific’, convened by the New Zealand anthropologist Felix Keesing and which addressed how to approach what they described as the education of native peoples in the region. At this event, questions of educability, adaptation, the interiority of subjects and forms of knowledge were debated in the shadow of educational progressivism. I examine the concerns and ideas raised in papers presented by Australian delegates to the 1936 conference, drawing out arguments on the promise and pragmatics of educational provision, and debates over specialized or adapted versus common forms of education; these inevitably touch on types of educable subjects. The delegates were William Groves, former head teacher of government native schools, Territory of New Guinea, and then a Research Fellow in New Guinea for the Australian National Research Council; Francis Williams, government anthropologist, Territory of Papua; Norman Tindale, ethnologist, South Australian Museum. The anthropologist A.P Elkin was also a prominent contributor, and his role is discussed in Paper 2. Arguments regarding adapted education, vocational pathways and educational capacity were in tension with concerns raised more explicitly by other delegates. A New Zealand delegate D. G. Ball, (Senior Inspector of Native Schools) described the powerful influence of Dewey’s philosophy and the NEF on the administrators of Maori education in New Zealand, and spoke of educational changes that “strove to reach the emotional life of Maori”, bringing to the fore fundamental questions on the interiority of the educable subject as one of the key axes for educational and colonial reform during this period, the legacies of which continue to  reverberate in the present.