Countrymindedness and the Democratic Intellect: Permutations and Combinations in a Victorian Country State School, 1853 to 2007

Article excerpt

'Countrymindedness' is a resonant but perhaps manufactured term, given wide currency in a 1985 article by political scientist and historian Don Aitkin in the Annual, Australian Cultural History. (1) Political ideology was his focus, as he charted the rise and fall--from the late nineteenth century to around the 1970s--of some ideological preconceptions of the Australian Country Party. These were physiocratic, populist, and decentralist--physiocratic meaning, broadly, the rural way is best. Aitkin claimed the word was used in Country Party circles in the 1920s and 1930s, but gave no examples. Since the word is in no dictionary of Australian usage, or the Oxford Dictionary, coinage may be more recent. No matter. Countrymindedness is a richly evocative word, useful in analysing rural populism during the last Australian century. I suggest it can usefully be extended to analyzing aspects of the inner history of Euro-settlement in recent centuries. (2)

'The Democratic Intellect' is a phrase of George Davie in his 1961, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect. His subject was the civic and utilitarian ethos of the five Scottish universities. This ethos accommodated meritocratic privilege in civil society, sacralising the Calvinistic principle that civic privilege was not inherited but earned, including by the 'lad (occasionally lass) o' parts'. In the second half of the nineteenth century, this ethos was increasingly challenged in Scotland by elitist Oxbridge modalities, although it had strong defenders. (3)

In the wake of the 1867 Report of the Argyle Commission, and the 1872 Scottish Education Act, the idea of the democratic intellect', and meritocratic preconceptions, were energised or confirmed in many erstwhile parish schools. There were exceptions. In many lowland industrial areas, for instance, and parts of the Highlands and Islands, little scope existed for the democratic intellect' in either pupils or dominies. (4)

'Countrymindedness', applied to Australian settlement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, denotes an enduring sense of both belonging to a place and owning it. That place might be town, region, or city, but in this study is part of a valley--the Plenty Valley in Victoria. But as foreshadowed, the term is extended in two ways. First, it is extended to hopes anteriorto the process of settlement. These were aspirations of economic man (and woman) moving from a metropole, in which labour and capital tended to be abundant relative to land and raw materials, to colonies in which the converse was the case. Second, this objective structural imbalance made reasonable the colonist's hope of securing proprietorial and financial independence, and a new family home, as rewards for supplying skills, services and capital in a resource-rich colonial settlement (and, of course, the United States). In Australia, doing well' was usually more likely in colonial capitals and large towns than rural hinterlands, but there were spectacular exceptions. Most Scottish immigrants eventually settled on the coastal fringe, and some, seeing better prospects elsewhere, re-migrated--for instance to New Zealand.

In 1853, when the Victorian school in question was founded, one of the chief propagandists of the National System of which it formed a part, George Rusden, declared that this system would foster 'a very high degree of enlightenment', which would lay 'a firm foundation' for a life of mental action, virtue, wisdom, reflection and ingenuity', (5)--just what young colonies soon to gain substantial self-government needed. Educational historian, Geoffrey Sherington, recently stated that the Scottish influence on education was most evident [in primary education] when, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonies adopted the model of state-directed schooling'. Echoing Davie's democratic intellect' theme, Sherington added that, despite damage to the Scottish parish school system in the nineteenth century through demographic, industrial and urban changes, Scottish migrants brought to the colonies the ideal of a democratic national education'. …