Secularism, Democracy, and Education: The Informed Australian Citizen

“It is education — and education only — that is capable of making the masses acquainted

with their rights, and mindful of their duties. Equally hostile to anarchy and to despotism

it alone has the power to awaken the humble classes to a true sense of the dignity of

humanity and to inspire them with that love of equality and of order combined, which is

the true foundation of freedom.”

Henry Parkes.

The historian Geoffrey Stokes once wrote that the history of Australia could not be properly understood without first understanding the history of Australian democracy. I would argue that an understanding of Australian democracy (and in turn, Australian history) would be incomplete without understand the underpinning ideas that comprise democracy in the Australian context; namely liberalism, secularism and rationalism. I chose to undertake a study of this history by examining the history of education in the colonies of Australia.

Why did I choose this route?

I chose to focus on education because, for much of early Australian history, it forms the battleground around which so many other ideas and ideologies are discussed and debated and through which important statements concerning the nature of the governments of Australia (and, in time, the government of the Australian nation) are made. To better present the role education has played in the history of Australia, I will highlight what I consider to be the three main periods of this progression towards secularism and democracy through education.

First Period: Church Schools

Australia were not easy places to live, especially not in the early days of colonisation. The resources of the state were largely tied up ensuring the new arrivals to this “new” land could and would survive in this strange place. Education was, very firmly, placed on the back seat where priorities were concerned. The Western Australian colonies suffered the worst in this regard; The Swan River colony, for example, was the result of the British believing the French were en route to colonise the western side of this new southern continent in 1828. The expedition to colonise was (relatively) hastily thrown together; there was little planning and little forethought. The colony would suffer from poor growth and progress compared to its contemporary eastern colonies, such as New South Wales.

Education, then, was not a priority. Governments were unable, or unwilling, to dedicate large amounts of resources to any official schooling project. Education, however, was required. The burden fell squarely on the shoulders of religious groups who set up schools and institutes to teach the children of the colonists. The problem was that these Church Schools (as we shall call them) were very heavily influenced by the denomination that founded them. The schools became focussed on teaching religious morality and heavily class based. In 1831 New South Wales turned down an attempted educational monopoly by members of the Anglican Church. For the first time the government of New South Wales took a somewhat active role in education; it began to fund schools of many denominations in an attempt to prevent further sectarian division in the colony. Church Schools still dominated education.

Second Period: Questioning Education

1831 would prove to be an important year in the history of Australia. New South Wales had taken a stance on education and this stance began discussions and debates in the political sphere of the colony about the purpose and form that education should take. The other colonies would follow similar series of events and began to ask the same questions, though some took longer than others – the debate was gaining attention.

The dominance of denominational schools caused some concern and raised questions. The important questions being asked revolved around the purpose of education; many believed that education was about imparting proper religious moral instruction. This was what schools were doing and would continue to do for some time. However, questions, as always, raised more questions; which denomination should be taught, then? How should religion be handled? Would it be simpler to not teach religion in schools at all? Perhaps the most important question of all, however, revolved around what the actual purpose of an education was.

Secularism, while not yet a popular view point, was beginning to gain traction; liberalism was now exerting an influence over educational theories.

These debates would last through until the 1870’s, producing a number of pieces of legislation across the colonies. What would become apparent, and an important tipping point in the debate,  around this time was that the demand for education was beginning to exceed the supply.

Third Period: The Rise of the National School 

By 1880 every colonial government had issued legislation that provided for a system of state schools. These schools were to be non-denominational institutes that were modelled around four hours of secular instruction per day. Religion was still taught, of course, it was just no longer the main focus of an education as it had been earlier. The idea that an education should prepare someone to become an informed and active participant in democracy had come to the political fore front. Secularism had risen to a place of ideological significance in the colonies.

Education, by this point, served as a sort of ‘statement of intent’ for later legislation; governments had given their support to state schools and abolished aid to Church schools (by 1893). This action had cemented the liberalist and secular orientation of the colonies and, as reflected in Article 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution, the new Australian nation.

It must be stated, however, that these ideologies did not go without problems; implementation was difficult and was not uniform. A myth exists about the egalitarianism of the Australian education system that, from what my research has shown me, is simply not true. Sectarian disputes between denominations remained a problem in the colonies and the nation.

The education system had, however, begun the debate and had become a part of the foundation of modern Australia.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Primary Sources:

Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, ‘Public Instruction Act of 1880 No, 9a’, 16th April, 1880, published online by Australasian Legal Information Institute, 2010,  <;

Legislative Assembly of Victoria, ‘Education Act 1872’, Section 12, pp.3 and Legislative Assembly of New South Wales ‘Public Instruction Act 1880’, published online by Founding Documents, <;


Secondary Sources:

Barcan, Alan, ‘The aims of education in New South Wales, 1788-1867’, Melbourne Studies in Education, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp.137-153

Bessant, B., ‘Free, Compulsory, and Secular Education: the 1872 Education Act, Victoria, Australia’ (1984), Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, Vol. 24: No. 1, (Victoria, 2006) pp.5-25

Fischer, Gerard., ‘A great independent Australian Reich and nation: Carl Muecke and the forty-eighters of the German-Australian community of South Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 13, No. 25, pp.85-100

Jowle, Derek., ‘The General Board of Education in Western Australia 1847 – 1871: Its Establishment and Performance’, (Ph. D., thesis, Edith Cowan University, 2000)

Orr, Kirsten, ‘Empire, Education and Nationalism; The School Architecture of William Edmund Kemp, 1880-1896’, Fabrications, Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand, Vol. 20, No. 2 (December, 2011), pp.60-85

Stokes, Geoffrey., ‘The “Australian Settlement” and Australian political thought’, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 39, No.1 (2004), pp.5-22


One comment on “Secularism, Democracy, and Education: The Informed Australian Citizen

  1. This was quite easy to read and very interesting too. The early period of Australia is an area I really don’t think about much, particularly the educational side of Early Colonial Australia. I had never really considered the educational system to be an ideological battleground, despite how obvious it now seems. We can even still see this today, with the modern government calling for more of a focus on Liberal-Party Prime Ministers, if I recall correctly. I find the slow shift to a more secular education system interesting too, and the fact that even after this ‘secularization’ of the education system, there were still denominational conflicts and tensions. Clearly then people viewed education as extremely important, though it seems as if for the wrong reasons (i.e. to control the discourse on religion, rather to to legitimately broaden understandings of all religions). This also tangentially relates to my topic too – in the Netherlands right now, there is a heated debate regarding religious-based schools (particularly Islamic ones), as some believe they only promote one understanding of the world at the expense of others. Overall a good read!

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