A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education

Addressing a Parents and Citizens Association conference in 1964, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, declared:

Our great function when we approach the problem of education is to equalise opportunity to see that every boy and girl has a chance to develop whatever faculties he or she may have, because this will be a tremendous contribution to the good life for the nation.

Whilst Menzies is justifiably remembered most as a champion of liberal capitalism who shepherded Australia through an unprecedented period of economic growth and prosperity, he also warrants the reputation as one of Australia’s pre-eminent education prime ministers. He not only resolved the long-running, acrimonious debate on government aid to church schools but also significantly expanded the nation’s post-war university system.Menzies’s contribution to education was such that it has since been acknowledged even by his Labor successors. Julia Gillard credited Menzies for understanding “the power of education as a force for good, a force for equity and a force for change”.


Menzies’s educational background

Born in the small Victorian town of Jeparit on December 20, 1894, the son of a storekeeper and a dressmaker, Menzies imbibed his love of learning from an early age. While his parents, James and Kate Menzies, had received little formal education, they were both “great readers” and were said to have spoken “educated English”. In his boyhood, Menzies absorbed what he described as a “fascinating melange of books” that included Henry Drummond for evangelistic theology, Jerome K. Jerome for humour, and the “Scottish Chiefs” for historical fervour. This diet of reading no doubt furnished the young Menzies with his lifelong interest in English literature, theology, history and humour, which frequently coloured the speeches he gave. In addition to instilling their son with a penchant for reading and learning, James and Kate firmly believed in the value of formal education and were resolved to provide young Robert with the educational opportunities they had not enjoyed themselves. Excelling academically, Menzies won scholarships to Ballarat’s Grenville College and Melbourne’s Wesley College where his love of learning and English literature continued to flourish.

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In an age when Australian universities were still the preserve of a tiny minority, chiefly of free-scholarship awardees and students from prosperous families, Menzies entered the University of Melbourne on a scholarship in 1913 to study law. He appreciated first-hand both the vocational and the civilising value of a university education as he shone in his studies and extra-curricular activities. His academic record reflected not only his dedication to mastering his chosen profession of law but also his love of what he would call “pure learning” in the humanities, most notably history and English literature. Far from being distractions from his study of law, Menzies regarded his humanities studies as an adornment to his vocational training, equipping him to be a more rounded lawyer with a deeper understanding of human nature.

Menzies maintained that the purpose of education was to inculcate every student with a “general knowledge of the world” as well as the “specialist knowledge” of their chosen vocation. In his early career in Victorian state politics from 1928 to 1934, Menzies advocated an education system that provided a broad, liberal education rather than a specialised, vocational training for students up to the ages of fourteen or fifteen.In 1929 he told the Victorian parliament, “If we regard education as a preparation for life, as a preparation for citizenship, then I am all in favour of an unspecialised education to the age of fifteen years, and, if we can afford it, to the age of sixteen years.”As with education at the tertiary level, Menzies regarded the function of schooling as not merely to inculcate “a technical efficiency that will enable them to earn a living”, but to produce in every citizen “some kind of a broad and enlightened intelligence”.

Even after the austerity of the depression years, with lingering public concerns about education costs, Menzies’s emphasis on both the vocational and civilising mission of education remained unshaken and he brought this outlook to federal politics after his election to the seat of Kooyong in 1936. Speaking on a motion in 1945 to debate the future reform of education, Menzies told parliament that, “The first function of education is to produce a ‘good man and a good citizen’. Its second function is to produce a ‘good carpenter or a good lawyer’.”He went on to say that the “good carpenter” or “good lawyer” would be all the better at their respective crafts if a humanities education could furnish them with a “civilised point of view”.

According to Menzies, this would help such tradespeople or professionals to “become aware of the problems of the world, acquire some quality of intellectual criticism, and develop that comparative sense which produces detachment of judgment and tends always to moderate passion and prejudice”. Whilst conceding that the old classical notion of education had its shortcomings, most notably its neglect of modern factors, Menzies rejected the notion that disciplines such as English literature, history or philosophy could be discarded as “useless learning”. On the contrary, they were indispensable to building well-rounded and cultured citizens if such disciplines could complement the necessary training for the trades and professions.


Education and liberalism

Menzies’s faith in education was augmented by a liberal philosophy that esteemed education as one of the great driving forces of modern civilisation. In one of his early speeches, he explained how education and learning could act as a catalyst for greater human freedom: “No society can confer the benefit of mental or spiritual freedom upon its members unless at the same time it encourages the search for truth and the fearless facing of the problems of the intellect.” Appraising the progress of human civilisation over the previous century, Menzies welcomed all the tremendous advances in science, technology and nutrition “directed towards the attainment of a higher degree of bodily wellbeing” but at the same time reminded his audience that the modern “conception of a liberated body inhabited by a stunted mind and a poor spirit is not a noble one”. Accordingly, Menzies believed future investment in education was essential if human civilisation was to flourish with free minds inhabiting free bodies.

For Menzies and other liberals, the power of education lay in its capacity to improve individuals, thereby allowing them to bring a better world into being. Liberals saw education as having the potential to furnish individuals with the great faculties of reasoning, wisdom, sound judgment, moral character and religious faith which would equip them to become eminently better citizens. Menzies extolled the merits, especially, of a humanities-based education which provided the indispensable intellectual foundation for the liberal ideal of human freedom to flourish.

For Menzies, an education steeped in the humanities disciplines would ensure the survival of democracy in Australia. The humanities would help inculcate the virtues of moderation, decency and selflessness amongst Australia’s citizenry, providing a healthy counter-weight to the vices of greed, selfishness and prejudice that could all too readily stem from an emphasis on material progress alone.

Menzies’s affirmation of learning in the humanities stemmed from his commitment to a liberal, humanist philosophy that affirmed the primacy of human dignity. His was a Christian-inspired humanism that emphasised the relationship of people to each other as well as their relationship to their God. In a 1961 address to the Australian College of Education, Menzies articulated his humanist philosophy when he told his audience:

I have stressed the point of ethics because I believe that the most important thing to consider and learn in this world is the nature of man, his duties and rights, his place in society, his relationship to his Creator.  

Quoting approvingly from Sir Richard Livingstone’s The Rainbow Bridge (1959), Menzies affirmed that “history and literature must enter into any education; for they are our chief record of man and his ways”. With their focus on the human condition, disciplines such as history, literature, sociology, philosophy and religious studies provided students with essential insights into human character and human relationships.

Amid a conflict-ridden twentieth century, Menzies believed that a humanist dimension to education was more important than ever. Speaking of the challenge of education, he declared in 1961:

We must recapture our desire to know more, and feel more, about our fellowmen; to have a philosophy of living; to elevate the dignity of man, a dignity which, in our Christian concept, arises from our belief that he is made in the image of his Maker.

Affirming of both the human and the divine, the philosophy Menzies brought to education was informed by both his Scottish Presbyterian upbringing and his indebtedness to the liberal Enlightenment tradition of John Locke. His liberalism was not a narrow creed about the freedom for individuals to accrue as much wealth as they desired, but one that affirmed the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings.


Menzies and higher education

The educational focus of Menzies was chiefly on universities with their long tradition of cultivating civilised minds. In his landmark 1942 Forgotten People speech, widely interpreted as the blueprint to the resurgent liberal movement he would eventually lead back to power in 1949, Menzies articulated his post-war vision for Australian higher education:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly—the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.

Far from functioning merely as utilitarian “degree factories” to churn out the greatest volume of graduates, Menzies esteemed universities as the great nurseries of civilisation. In addition to equipping undergraduates with essential training and vocational skills, the university would serve to cultivate the character of students and encourage them to seek truth and beauty in their chosen discipline. Rather than standing aloof from the world, the university would bridge the gulf between the “academician” and the “good practical man”. In so doing, it would be in a position to contribute to the common good by producing an educated generation who understood the practicalities, values and aspirations of ordinary citizens.

In a 1939 address to the Canberra University College,Menzies outlined what he saw as the sevenfold mission of the university. First, the university was to be the “home of pure culture and learning” which was indeed its “original medieval function”.A university education would serve as a check on utilitarianism with its tendency to undervalue the classical disciplines for want of profitability. Second, a university would fulfil its vocational function as a “training school for the professions”, in what Menzies identified as the academy’s “great and relatively modern function”.Third, the university would “serve as a liaison between the academician and the good practical man”, by fostering the “mutuality between the theory and the practice” of one’s vocation.Fourth, the university “must be the home of research” where its pursuit required “infinite patience, precise observation, an objective mind, and unclouded honesty”.Fifth, the university needed to “be a trainer of character” where the quest for higher learning would not only enlarge the mind but enrich the character of the individual.Sixth, the university had to “be a training ground for leaders” where the riches of a higher education imbued students with an obligation to serve the public.Finally, a university needed to be the “custodian of mental liberty and the unfettered search for truth”.For Menzies, “a rugged honesty of mind” that did not shrink from the truth when it came upon it in its path was one of the “noblest of virtues”.

Menzies as Prime Minister was committed to advancing both the stature and scope of Australia’s universities in the 1950s. He envisaged these institutions preparing educated individuals to become the future leaders of Australian democracy. To facilitate the greater participation of Australian citizens in higher education, Menzies took steps towards the Commonwealth funding of universities, beginning with a scheme of undergraduate university scholarships inaugurated from the early 1950s. This initiative was followed by his instigation in 1956 of the Prime Minister’s Committee on Australian Universities chaired by the British academic Sir Keith Murray. The 1957 Murray Report recommended a tripling of federal government funding for universities, emergency grants, significant increases in academic salaries, extra funding for buildings, and the establishment from 1959 of a permanent committee to oversee and make recommendations concerning higher education.

Within days of the Report’s release, Menzies announced that he would implement its recommendations.Under his leadership, the government supported an unprecedented expansion of higher education. New universities including the University of New England (1954), Monash University (1958), Macquarie University (1964), La Trobe University (1964), the University of Newcastle (1965) and Flinders University (1966) were established, placing tertiary education within reach of those who could not otherwise have had ready access.The expansion of universities in Australia was matched by sharp increases in student enrolments, from 53,700 in 1960 to 88,230 in 1966.With Menzies insisting back in 1942 that “Higher education for women must come to be regarded as normal”, the proportion of female university students rose from 19.7 per cent in 1952 to 25.9 per cent by 1964. In the press conference immediately after his retirement as Prime Minister in January 1966, Menzies cited his support for universities as one of his government’s greatest achievements.


Menzies and school education

Menzies held that the role of schools was not simply to impart knowledge, develop discipline and train character in the narrow sense, but to “be places where the mind is enriched by the right visions and where the ends of life are learned”. In his vision for school education at all levels, Menzies envisaged an extremely important role for teachers, not as indoctrinators or as mere child-minders, but as professional educators responsible for moulding the mind and character of the rising generation. Despite the fact that the teaching profession in recent decades has tended to lean towards the progressive side of politics, it found a firm advocate and ally in Menzies. In his July 1945 education motion, he had called for attention to be directed to “the problem of the qualifications, status and remuneration of teachers”. Menzies told the House of Representatives:

The task of the teacher is one which brings him for hours every day, for many days, and for a number of years, into close contact with his pupils during their most formative years. It is a task which, if well performed, can do more to produce good citizens than all the acts of Parliament ever passed.  

Together with parents, teachers held a massive stake in determining the character of the next generation. According to Menzies, their potential power of influence surpassed that of other leading professionals such as lawyers, doctors and engineers.

While Menzies was committed to both a strong public and private education sector, he had a special commitment to Commonwealth support for non-government schools which he esteemed as the great incubators of moral character and classic liberal values more broadly, particularly those of initiative, independence, free-enterprise, self-sacrifice and citizenship. Far from private schools merely representing bastions of class privilege drawn from inherited wealth, Menzies appreciated that these institutions often had humble beginnings where the enterprise, industry and self-sacrifice of parents made it eventually possible for children to receive an alternative education to a state school. For Menzies, the establishment of independent schools could also provide parents with a degree of variety and choice for their children’s education. In contrast to the homogeneity of the socialist state, this free exercise of educational choice was part of the free, liberal society Menzies envisioned.

While he believed in the equality of all human beings, with their souls standing “equal in the sight of God”, it was manifest to Menzies that individual pupils varied in their interests, personalities and intellectual capacities, and the approach of teachers needed to reflect this:

The good teacher is not the one who sees a class as a mass or his own work as a job controlled by routine or rules, but the one who sees his pupils as individuals. They are not to be forced into one mould, but to be encouraged to expand and grow.  

One of Menzies’s chief objections to the socialist philosophy was its insistence on uniformity and the stifling of human individuality. Just as it was wrongheaded for the state to conform its citizens to one mould, Menzies saw the school as having no business to do likewise with its pupils. Thus, while the objective of school education was to equalise opportunity for all boys and girls, it could not guarantee a uniform pathway and outcome for all, given the natural disparity in individual talents and abilities.

The other attribute of independent schools that Menzies valued was the religious dimension they typically brought to education, given that the vast majority of these schools had a church foundation. Historically, most private schools in Australia were founded by the leading Christian denominations, together with a small number of Jewish schools. Menzies viewed religious education, of whatever background, as conducive to good character and good citizenship and was therefore keen for his government to financially support these institutions. In his address to the House of Representatives on the education motion, Menzies argued that the religious element to education was indispensable:

I have no hesitation in saying, and I have said it many times before in the course of my life, that I believe that religion gives to people a sensitive understanding of their obligations, and that is something which the world sadly needs at the present time …

Having witnessed the barbarism of two world wars in the first half of the twentieth-century, and what he perceived to be a decline of traditional moral standards since, Menzies maintained a steadfast faith in the value of a religiously-informed education.

Appreciating the need to substantiate his support for independent schools with concrete government assistance, Menzies as Prime Minister took the first initiative to provide state aid to independent schools, particularly those in the Catholic system. His understanding of the dire funding needs for independent schools, however, was evident long before the 1963 state aid decision. In 1943 he had said that “it is unlikely that the church schools can in the post-war period efficiently survive unless there is some measure of State assistance to them”.

After returning to the prime ministership in December 1949, the first practical measure Menzies introduced to assist independent schools was a 1952 amendment to income tax laws to allow a parent to claim up to £60 for school tuition fees as an allowable deduction. Given that the parents of state school pupils paid little in school fees, the tax concession was of most benefit to private school parents.In 1956, the Menzies government gave the first direct aid to private schools in Canberra, whereby the Commonwealth undertook to reimburse the interest paid on loans raised to finance new schools or extensions.Menzies regarded this last decision as the precursor to what he would describe as “a quite revolutionary change in Government education policy” with the announcement of state aid in November 1963.

Providing extra funding for school science blocks, technical education and a Commonwealth scholarship scheme for secondary students, the state aid package was particularly welcomed by Australia’s Catholic community that had long been aggrieved by the lack of financial help from governments. As a mark of appreciation, the Catholic Church hosted the Presbyterian Prime Minister as guest of honour at its 1964 Cardinal’s Dinner.According to John Howard, the historic decision of Menzies on state aid not only rectified the injustice felt by Australia’s Catholics for over a century but helped to reduce the sectarian divisions in Australian society that persisted into the 1960s.

As Greg Melleuish has observed, there was a consistency in Menzies’s philosophy and approach to education from his days as a young Victorian state MP in the late 1920s to his retirement years as an elder statesman in the 1970s. The consistency of his thought on the essential character-building role of education, the primacy of “pure learning” in the humanities, the importance of both humanist and religious values, and the mission of education to produce good citizens could be attributed to a sustained liberal philosophy that affirmed human dignity and the mutual obligations of citizens in civil society. Indeed Menzies regarded education and an authentic liberalism as symbiotic whereby an education, particularly in the humanities, would serve to inculcate citizens with the liberal values of individual enterprise, free inquiry, moral character and human understanding that, in turn, provided the optimal climate for education to flourish.

The reforms inspired by the Murray Report led to a burgeoning higher education sector of new public universities, while state aid to Catholic and private schools opened the gate to the proliferation of new independent schools in Australian towns and suburbs. Although Menzies would have no doubt being gratified by this ensuing growth of education, the evolution of the universities, especially, into large vocational training centres reliant on revenue would have been at odds with his vision for universities as seats of humane learning and civilised ideals.

The approach of Menzies to education reveals that he was both a traditionalist and a moderniser who strove to make education accessible to more citizens, especially women, yet at the same time, desired educational establishments to remain true to their founding character and purpose. The Australia in which Menzies brought his philosophy and approach to education was a vastly different society from that of today. Nevertheless, his vision for educational institutions to produce erudite, cultured and well-rounded graduates, with a humane understanding of their obligations, is a salutary reminder to the academy that the education business is infinitely more than just a commercial enterprise.

David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre. His book on Lord Shaftesbury, The Making of a Tory Evangelical, was published by Pickwick Publications in March.


6 thoughts on “A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education

  • Julian says:

    Fantastic essay.

    The sight of a place like RMIT (among others) in Swanston St, Melbourne is emblematic of our failure r.e. education: brand-new shiny campus buildings, a hive of activity; but, majority foreign-born student cohort, studying something like business or post-modern theory, with a complete rejection, marginalization or elimination of the Western classics.

    So much short-sighted crass commercialism and rank opportunism and profiteering via the folks in university admin, the government, the construction sector and the foreign student racket at the expense of humanistic learning, social cohesion, and educating our own people is profoundly disappointing and sad.

  • Salome says:

    There were days when computer businesses preferred a graduate in classical languages over a graduate in the newly developed discipline of computer science. I used to view Arts faculties as the home of the keepers of the stories of the people, where you might find, if you looked hard enough, the one person in Australia, if not the world, who was conversant with (if not in) a lost ancient language such as Oscan or Umbrian. Somehow I liked the idea that the human population as a whole still had that knowledge, even if in only one or two of its members. Scholars once knew literature and read it on its own terms. Now anything rigorous like an ancient language is cast aside and scholars (if you can call them that) reinterpret or deconstruct literature according to the latest fashionable theory, of which its author would have had no idea. And given what the latest fashionable theories are all about, I’m afraid that the best service that could be done to academic freedom would be to close down all the Arts faculties and start again from scratch. The only problem is that the people who could restart them are probably no longer alive now. Menzies is lucky he never lived to see it.

  • Julian says:


    Brilliant and wise comments 🙂 – there is a book called ‘The Halls of Uselessness’ by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) r.e. this whole failure of the university sector than you might find interesting. Keep up the good work!

  • Salome says:

    Thanks, Julian. I’m on the cusp of retirement, so good book recommendations are always welcome.

  • whitelaughter says:

    the first universities started on bridges, where people could meet – now it is easy to meet others. Don’t worry, once the universities have been abolished, those seeking an education will have no difficulty finding one another, and will start the process of building new institutions of learning.

  • Julian says:

    No problem Salome – impressive comments ( I was surprised that someone in Australia knows that Umbrian or Oscan were languages :))

    Keep up the good work.

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