Undoubted achievements, Ivan Snook

The Biography of an Idea: Beeby on Education,
C E Beeby,
NZCER, $39.00 Pbk, $49.00 Hbk

The Beeby Fascicles,
G McDonald and R Benton (eds),
Te Aro Press, $45.00

For over twenty years, from 1939 to 1960, C E Beeby was Director of Education in New Zealand. Subsequently, he was New Zealand’s ambassador to France, Assistant Director General of UNESCO, and consultant to several developing countries. In June 1992, he celebrated his ninetieth birthday.

As part of the celebrations, his own book and the commemorative Fascicles were launched. The Biography is a kind of autobiography: we learn a great deal about his early life from his arrival in New Zealand at the age of four, his early schooling in Christchurch, through his university days to his appointment to the highest position in educational administration.

From then on Beeby, the man, is replaced by his consuming passion: the search for equality in education. Even in the fascinating early years, the emphasis is on the semination and maturing of his idea of equality, so the book is not an autobiography of Beeby but a biography of his major commitment.

It begins when Beeby starts school, focused on learning to read so that he can move through Grimm’s Fairy Tales faster than by listening to his mother read them to him. In that first year he won a prize, learning (as he said) that education is competitive but demonstrating too (even if he did not notice it) that the desire to use some learning is a wonderful motivator.

Through his two friends, Max Bickerton, a professor’s son. and Alfie Brown, son of a local labourer, Beeby recognised the different cultural backgrounds which children bring to school and the advantages some have from the outset. Even at Christchurch Boys High School, the library was virtually non-existent: it was assumed, he later reflected, that boys at that school would have libraries in their homes.

After trying Law, this brilliant student (to be offered a professorial chair in his thirties) decided to become a primary school teacher. He attributes this perhaps surprising choice to his declining religious faith; as it waned, an alternative passion took over: education.

By 1938 he was Assistant Director of Education, chosen by Peter Fraser to clarify Labour’s educational policy and put it into practice. One of his first tasks was to redraft overnight the Minister’s annual report: and so the famous statement on equality of opportunity was written ‑ in great haste.

For fifty years, this vision (Beeby calls it a Myth but not in any pejorative sense) held sway. Fittingly, the book finishes in 1987, the year in which that vision was effectively replaced by a new Myth: of market forces in education. Beeb, true to his early promise, makes no comment on the past few years.

After 1940 comes the implementation of the vision: longer teacher training, the growth of the advisory services, a broader curriculum in secondary schools, the explosion of tertiary education, the painstakingly thorough review of the syllabuses of primary education.

Later, we see his idea being critically examined in the light of his experiences in developing countries, where the need to form an elite had to take precedence over the education of the masses, and when a low-level primary education for all was seen to be more pressing than good secondary education for many.

There is much more in the book, of course. There are some delightful comments on figures well known in educational history: C E Bevan Browne, Professors Shelley and Salmond (in New Zealand) and Spearman and Burt (in Britain). There are also some interesting omissions: there is no mention of any Minister under whom he worked, other than Fraser and Mason; nor is there any discussion of changed emphases after National replaced Labour in 1949. The idea rather than the person dominates discussion.

This man of enormous distinction is – a rare event – very ready to acknowledge blind spots, in particular his lack of awareness of gender (recall all those masculine pronouns in the famous statement), race and social class. Educated as a psychologist, with intelligence viewed as an inherited trait, he did not see until much later the enormous contribution which class makes to Scholastic Ability and achievement in schools.

The Biography of an Idea is a fine book, beautifully written, truthful about successes (there are many), humble about failures, (there are, actually, few). Inevitably the idea of equality is little clearer at the end of the book than at the beginning. This is not the fault of Beeby who pursues it relentlessly, but of all important abstractions. The modern terms freedom and choice will suffer the same fate. They are what philosophers call ‘essentially contested concepts’ which achieve their power not from their clarity but from the political programmes in which they figure.

But Beeby was unerring about the general direction to which equality committed the system. For some fifty years, New Zealand was similarly staunch. A society must move on and, as Beeby says, new myths must take over. But, as a society, we may be the poorer for the demise of the idea of equality.

The Fascicles (a part of a work published by instalments) consist of six small books published on recycled paper with an attractive cover incorporating a stylised version of a photo of Beeby. Each book contains articles written by friends, associates, or colleagues of Beeb. Some of these elaborate and contextualise aspects of his work: Bill Renwick’s contribution is superb and David McKenzie’s very thought-provoking (especially in relation to current reforms). Others are illustrative of Beeb’s concerns and achievements: Doreen Blumhardt on Art and Craft, Bob Stothart on Physical Education, Noeline Alcorn on NZCER. All of these are well worth reading.

Clive Whitehead provides a scholarly, informative, and timely account of the perennial conflict between educational planners (concerned about national needs) and parents interested in the future of a particular child). Llewelyn Richards assembles some memoirs of people associated with School Publications – a fine reminder of this unique institution and those associated with it. John Watson writes – somewhat obscurely – about the role of science, and William Taylor about the evaluation of educational systems. Bryce Harland reflects on the diplomatic life, and Keith Pickens and Colleen Shipley provide a full bibliography of Beeby’s writings.

The latter should provide an entree for scholars in the future who wish to analyse in an historical context the life and times of C E Beeby. Clearly, there will be much to do for Beeby worked at a critical stage of our educational history and brought to bear unique and spectacular attributes. The age he represents, and the people who made it up, will (inevitably) be assessed in relation to that which followed in the 1980s, while in turn the ‘Monetarist’ period will be judged in relation to the earlier Equality period.

For the time being, we honour Dr C E Beeby for his undoubted achievements. Reading his account of the past fifty years, of those others who lived through it, will inform and inspire. The book and the fascicles are recommended to all those who are interested in the educational system in New Zealand, who appreciate its achievements and look to an even better future.


Ivan Snook is Professor of Education at Massey University.



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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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