A Secondary School From the 1970s

Obviously, “school behaviour” is being very much discussed these days, and I recently posted on the absurdity of the idea that a “behaviour curriculum” might be a meaningful way to address this. Pondering while writing the post, and then pondering the many very interesting comments in response, I’ve thought some about my own school education in the 60 and 70s, and the culture of my schools at the time. My primary school education, at the local Macleod State School, was in the main pretty traditional, which was both bad and, mostly, good. There were no straps although in the early years there were still “rulers” and some other needlessly authoritarian impulses, but mostly it was sensible and meaningful, disciplined in the good sense, and human; I have written a little about Macleod State, here and here and here. My secondary education, however, was different in important ways. By the 70s, the cultural revolution of the time, which I touched upon in this post, had begun to significantly affect schools. So here, for whatever it is worth, is some of my ponderings of that time of change (all with the caveat that these are fifty year old memories). It is simply reminiscing. There may be a moral in there but, if there is, I’m not sure what it is.

Macleod High School, now Macleod College, was, I presume, a more or less typical suburban Melbourne school.1 It was somewhat rough in the way middle-working class Melbourne was at the time, but nothing too extreme. It was also, as it happened, a designated music school, meaning some musically inclined kids selected the school for that reason; that gave rise to opportunities and to an active and healthy subculture, from which I benefited greatly.2 In the main, though, it was probably just another school.

The school when I began was pretty traditional, as suggested by the class photo above. Boys had short hair, and wore ties and proper leather shoes. Lessons seemed pretty standard, although Form 1 did have General Studies, held with multiple classes at a time in a big, big open classroom. I don’t remember doing much studying in General Studies, but I do remember spending a lot of time at the blackboards, playing 3D noughts and crosses (4 x 4 x 4). Other classes seemed unexceptional. The teachers were mostly friendly and very hard working, excepting the occasional slug or grumpface, classes were orderly and work was done.

When I arrived, the Principal was Athol Jones, who was kind of a big shot as far as principals go, presumably because of his book on politics. None of the students liked Jones and he was invariably referred to as “Athol”, uttered with an exaggerated lisp. I don’t think Athol was really an athol, but he was proud of himself and unfriendly and distant, leaving the day to day running, and yelling, to the detestable 43 Degrees. There was also a more human Deputy, whose name I can’t quite remember – Mrs. Daniels, maybe? – but she was still pretty stern. In sum, the school leadership was cold and authoritative, seemingly concerned for rules and not much else, while the teachers, who were younger of course, were friendlier, while still clearly in control.

From my time there, the school changed quickly. 43 Degrees soon left, replaced by the intelligent and kindly Mr. Parry. Then Athol retired in the mid 70s, replaced by the intelligent and kindly Mr. Callinan. The school became significantly less strict.

Although there were still school uniforms, ties disappeared and what constituted compliance with the uniform rules became hilariously lax. The guy in the top left of the photo is an example, although he was a member of a crime family and so perhaps wasn’t typical.3 This laxity, as I remember, extended generally: less formality, fewer assemblies and rituals, and so on.

I honestly don’t know if this easing up was, in sum, good or bad. Personally, I benefited from it. I was (and am) a slob, happy to wear whatever was considered marginally acceptable.4 But it also felt disorienting, that once there were clear rules and it was not apparent what had replaced them.

The loosening of the rules at the top undoubtedly permitted more humanness within the classroom, and more individuality. Jamie Bradbeer, my crazy and wonderful English teacher in part of Forms 4 and 5, seemed unconcerned for even the vague and loose boundaries of the 70s. Mr. Bradbeer loved Bod Dylan and Gerard Manly Hopkins and he wanted us to love them, too. He played us Masters of War and read us God’s Grandeur, and he desperately tried to have us appreciate them as great works. He failed on me, and I think on the entire class, but his passion was a great lesson in itself.

Mr. Bradbeer told us about his being drafted for the Vietnam War. He was naked for some inspection and he told the examining officer about a Greek writer or someone, who had declared that with the advent of clothes it was no longer natural to be naked. Mr. Bradbeer was then declared mentally unfit for the army.

Mr. Bradbeer’s lessons were like that. Part of our homework for Mr. Bradbeer was to keep a diary. Which we would hand in for him to read each week. In my Form 5 Report, Mr. Bradbeer wrote,

No complaints. Marty is less cynical than last year and more elusive: it’s taken an edge off some of his work, but I always enjoy correcting his writing!

Mr. Bradbeer was like that with all of us. He wanted us to understand art and the importance of honest, thoughtful and heartfelt expression. It was just natural for him to try to teach this by expressing himself openly about his thoughts and fears, and by calling on us to try to do the same. Mr. Bradbeer taught us about the vulnerability that comes from and the value of nakedness.

Mr. Bradbeer was sufficiently unorthodox that a few of the bluenose students, concerned for next year’s looming HSC, complained to the Principal about Mr. Bradbeer not teaching us the proper stuff. I don’t remember that the complaint had much effect, except that Mr. Bradbeer was deeply hurt and he told us so. As I remember, the clear majority of students were strongly on Mr. Bradbeer’s side.

If Mr. Bradbeer was the most extremely unorthodox and personal teacher, he was far from alone. There developed a freeness in the school, a permeability of boundaries that permitted the possibility for a great education and the possibility for students who so wished to run riot. For the academic subworld that I was in, it was great; we nerdy guys and music guys were older and independently focussed, and the flexibility and humanness was only natural and beneficial. The solid importance and meaningfulness of HSC held it all together. But for the less academic students, the younger students, and the students in the years to come, I’m not so sure.

As I wrote, this is simply reminiscing. I have no idea of its sum. Perhaps everyone looks back at their era and imagines it was special. But it really seems that the 70s was a short, strange time for Victorian education, when the liberalisation of society made the education radically, recklessly human, while still being held together by solid academic standards. And then it all began to turn to mush.

Mr. Bradbeer, of course, wouldn’t last a day in today’s schools. He also wouldn’t want to last a day. Few of the great teachers I had in the 70s would, or would.

 

1. The school just recently made the news, for a sex abuse case from the 70s, in the years just before I began there.

2. I became the world’s worst bassoonist, but I loved the music stuff and it was hugely rewarding.

3. I’m not joking and joking and joking. Russell was closely related to Graeme Jensen, famously gunned down by the police. But Russell was a great guy, and a great friend, a remarkably gentle fellow who somehow emerged from an incredibly troubled and turbulent family. And, Russell’s school attire was not that atypical; if a student’s dress contained a nod to the school uniform, that usually sufficed.

4. My mother exasperatingly-lovingly referred to me as Marty the Grime, after a cartoon from a 60s detergent commercial.

3 Replies to “A Secondary School From the 1970s”

  1. A former Macleod Primary Principal lives near me – a very lovely lady.

    As for the past, I recently caught up with my Physics Methods lecturer from mid 80s Monash Science Dip Ed. That was another example of the loosening up permitting great things – not possible these days for many reasons. It was an excellent Science Dip Ed and definitely not orthodox. I know he was a great teacher as the questions he posed and his approaches still prompt my teacher development.

    1. Thanks, JJ. Things have changed. Professionalism always has its costs, and “professionalism” is a wasteland.

      I presume your friend was Principal of Macleod State long after I’d left, but before Kennett razed the original school and amalgamated it with Macleod High. I don’t remember the Principal when I was there. There was a Mr. Pascoe who was a Deputy, I think a pretty gruff but ok guy, but I don’t remember any of the other leaders.

      1. “Professionalism” is an interesting concept in education. On one side there are teachers and others who constantly want to describe the teaching “profession” and without prompting will say “teachers are professionals” with not much consideration about exactly what that means now. I certainly don’t know.

        I don’t know what the answer is but do hope that, somehow and more than likely a long way in the future, the professionalism I saw in my own high school teachers will return to schools en masse. The alternative is a rather bleak picture indeed.

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