Recovering the Origins of Convent Education in Australia

Article excerpt

Convent 'high' schools and private ladies" colleges in nineteenth century Australia emerged from one distinctive educational tradition of European origin. Histories such as Marjorie Theobald's illuminating work, Knowing Women, suggest that this particular style of education could have originated from the end of the eighteenth century in England. (1) However it was well predated by the Catholic female teaching orders in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In nineteenth century Australia, convent 'high' schools predated non-Catholic denominational colleges and grammar schools for girls. (2) Ronald Fogarty, historian of Catholic education in Australia, concludes that for a span of over fifty years, embracing the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, 'convent high schools constituted practically the only organised system of secondary education for girls that Australia possessed'. (3) These convent establishments have been stereotyped as 'accomplishment' schools and their curriculum trivialised. (4) Yet the educational objectives of nineteenth century convent 'high' schools in Australia reveal a Jesuit academic tradition, which had been adapted much earlier by European women educators for the intellectual development and education of girls. The three strands in the convent 'high' school syllabus in Australia comprised vocational, academic and accomplishment subjects. Students experienced this distinctive syllabus as a broad and rigorously taught curriculum.

Similarities in the syllabi of private and church schools for young women in nineteenth centure Australia denote a common European origin that merits close attention. One object of this article is to examine the defining influences on convent education in Australia up to 1920. A second object is to explore the extent to which women educators in the past took ready advantage of opportunities available to them. Moreover the article endeavours to ascertain what credence the academic and feminist tradition of European convent education has been given in historical narratives and the rhetoric of the Australian Church hierarchy.

Post Reformation women and the convent 'high' school initiative

Australian convent education evolved from Ursuline and Jesuit origins in Europe. The first carefully planned convent 'high' school for girls, for which there were few, if any, precedents, was pioneered during the Counter-Reformation era by Jeanne de Lestonnac in France. Within a short time, Ursuline communities in France readily adopted Jeanne's innovative model. Over the next two centuries, the 1652 Ursuline Reglements of Paris were the exemplar of religious life for women educators. Ursuline methods and pedagogy profoundly influenced the development of girls' education in Western Europe. Girls' 'high' schools in England in the late eighteenth century followed a similar programme to the French convent school, but were more utilitarian in approach, as Theobald's work suggests. (5)

In the early sixteenth century, the wider demand for higher levels of literacy among the general population of Europe was mainly due to the spread of printing and the Protestant Reformation. The Church's response to the need to reform gathered cohesion and direction from the Council of Trent (1545-63). Widespread disaffection with the Church impelled the Council to concentrate on the religious formation of girls. The Church naturally turned to women whose sphere of influence was obligated to the home and to the education of their children. The Council's resolution to improve the provision of girls' education created immediate opportunities for religious communities of women to enter the public sphere of teaching. These women readily responded to requests from reforming bishops to conduct elementary Schools of Christian Doctrine. In Brescia, Italy, Angela Merici's (1472-1540) charitable organisation, the Company of St Ursula, provided a complete programme of social and religious formation for girls within their home environment. …