Simply the Soul?
Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. (Chesterton, 1924)
In this our celebratory week of 135 years of educating young women, Chesterton’s words have particular resonance. They readily conjure images of generations of Grammar girls passing through our white picket fence to take responsible and often distinguished roles in society. Casting education as the ‘soul of society’ privileges its role in reflecting society’s values and improving life chances for the young. ‘Simply’, however, is just too simple. ‘Simply’ minimises the complexity of challenges faced by any society and the importance of leadership, vision, mentoring and tenacity in education. It is that human agency in education that fires students’ passion for particular fields, inspires compassion and mentors professional practice. It is human agency that catalyses refinements to ‘the soul of a society’ rather than merely passing education from one generation to the next. With these thoughts in mind, a reflection on Grammar’s connections to education as society’s generational soul-builders follows.
In last week’s article, Miss Hatton presented vignettes of Miss Annie Mackay, Miss Kathleen Lilley and the many challenges that faced our early leaders. This article showed how our School’s values were nurtured, cherished and promoted across time, in visionary ways. My focus involves two Grammar-inspired individuals, linked across generations, who became their society’s soul-builders through education.
As a School community, we are indebted to Sir Charles Lilley for his active campaigning to establish our School on March 15, 1875. His concern that ‘the great mass of women had been left in complete darkness’ (1873) shaped his encouragement of our girls to become the very best that they could be, in whatever field that they desired. This was foundational for our history, our present and our future. Yet this particular concern was only part of Lilley’s conviction that every person had the fundamental right to education, regardless of gender, religion, or disability—all at a time when educating the masses, especially women, was considered unnecessary.
Through his work as Premier (1868–1870) and Leader of the Opposition, Sir Charles pressed for revolutionary educational reform at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. He supported the development of special education for children with disabilities and is generally regarded as the architect of the State Education Act of 1875 that led the world in social justice. This Act created a system of free, compulsory and secular education under a single authority. It also provided travelling teachers to reach far-flung areas in ‘half-time schools’, so helping achieve widespread basic literacy by 1900. In 1891, he chaired a Royal Commission that led to the establishment of The University of Queensland. Thus Lilley’s contribution to society’s soul-building through education extended well beyond our picket fence.
Behind our picket fence, the Lilley legacy has lived on in curricular choices and family connections, and through mentoring, vision and compassion. Lilley argued that English, Latin, Modern Languages and classical subjects were foundational for academic achievement and an equitable society. Two generations later, Miss Kathleen Lilley (alumna 1907), came to exemplify her grandfather’s educational philosophy and build her own legendary role in the history of this School, first as schoolgirl, later as Headmistress (1925–1952).
Miss Lilley, a student prizewinner in French, took an Honours degree in French at Sydney University in 1911 and her Masters in English in 1922. She was an early role model for tertiary education and lifelong learning. Her love of language is perpetuated in the annual Speech Day Award for the most proficient student of English in Year 12, the Kathleen Mitford Lilley Prize for English. These details acknowledge her influence on countless Grammar girls across the years, and serve to introduce one of her students—Mrs Edna Hopkins (née Leven, alumna 1936).
Schoolgirl Edna won prizes for English, Latin, History, Ancient History, Mathematics, Work and Sport—and the prestigious Lady Lilley Silver Medal. She completed her Bachelor of Arts at The University of Queensland and teaching qualifications at the Teachers’ Training College. In 1939, Ms Leven volunteered to teach English to refugees escaping war-torn Europe. This helped define her future career and life’s work—assisting refugees in the Middle East, West Indies, Indonesia, Thailand and Canberra over forty years. Her sensitivity to being a stranger in another land fired her passion for cultural respect and the power of language, adding Arabic, French, Indonesian and Thai to her English and Latin. Mrs Hopkins became an innovator of English teaching to migrants, supportive mentor to her students and her English as a Second Language (ESL) colleagues in Canberra, and parliamentary lobbyist for multicultural inclusion. In 1976, she received an Australian Schools Commission Innovations Grant to establish the Secondary Introductory English Centre in Canberra. Four years later, she was named ‘Canberran of the Year’:
Without her experience, vision, courage and tenacity, the Introductory English Centre simply wouldn’t exist. This lady is a community builder, a respected expert. (The Canberra Times, March 8, 1980, p.1)
This ‘community builder’ was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993 for her ‘outstanding record as leader and innovator in ESL teaching and multicultural education’. Eleven years later, in 2004, the Queensland Government endorsed a policy of equal rights for all Queenslanders, regardless of culture, ethnicity, religious background or gender—Multicultural Queensland-making a world of difference. Sir Charles Lilley would have been proud that a Grammar girl had pioneered legislation like this. Both Lilley and Hopkins had recognised imperfections in their society’s souls and lobbied state and national parliaments to implement radical legislative changes. Perhaps in the future, Grammar connections might engineer significant improvements in literacy standards for indigenous students and the ninety million girls in the world destined to lives of poverty and ignorance (Wensley, 2009).
Finally, both Miss Lilley and Mrs Hopkins were inspirational mentors, not just to their students, but also to their fellow teachers. When interviewed at the age of seventy-three, Mrs Hopkins described Miss Lilley and her other female teachers as ‘women of standards and integrity’ who were ‘wonderful role models’. An ESL colleague described Mrs Hopkins as ‘the Guru of ESL… an influential teacher, a revered mentor’ (Gourley, 1997). Today, the School’s Centre for Professional Practice promotes quality mentoring of our pre-service teachers on their practicum experience at our School. Our teachers commit to ongoing professional learning, hone their classroom pedagogy, and develop their mentoring capacities. In all these ways, they pass their passion for their subjects, their expertise, and the mantle of responsibility for educating youth to the next generation of educators.
Was Chesterton correct? From my perspective, visionary leadership, tenacity in meeting challenges, empathetic mentoring and compassion for humanity all play their part in shaping the soul of education and society. All these are far from simple—but infinitely inspiring.
Dr K Kimber