Ian Fraser's 1983 interview with Clarence Beeby: an excerpt


FRASER: 1935 is a watershed in New Zealand education. It marks the beginning of a long period of Labour government, a government with a very different education policy from its predecessors. By 1935 as well, we’d started to move out of the Great Depression. How would you describe the education landscape before 1935?

BEEBY: I can describe it when I began school if you like, and that was in 1908. I remember the first day I went to my primary school. I must have gone a bit late in the term. I was six and a half. I went into a room, and there were children sitting in tiers – I suppose there’d be sixty, or more, it seemed to me 600 – and they were chanting a magical incantation I’d never heard. I now know it was twice 1 are two, twice two are four. They sat me in the front, and the headmistress, fine woman, but with 60 kids, in tiers going right up pretty well to the roof. I sat in the front and I [miming action] and got away with it. My arithmetic never recovered. I discovered guile and arithmetic on the same day.

Well that poor woman had sixty youngsters, very different backgrounds. Her total equipment was one blackboard, one beadboard for numberwork, a box of smelly plasticine, and some paper…, and we had our slates, and our pencils, and a bottle of water to clean the slates, and using spit if we didn’t. That was my first impression of a school.

I was quite happy. But, as you went, at that stage, one thought constantly of the proficiency examination at the end. I didn’t immediately, but very shortly, three times a year, you had examinations.

FRASER: Was there any place for individual creativity within that system, or was it mostly formal, mostly rote learning, and the recitation of these magic incantations?

BEEBY: Well it wasn’t necessarily rote learning, some people understood it. For some it was rote learning, for some it was mechanical learning. But there was no place, no place whatever within the classroom for that.

There was a proficiency examination at the end of standard six, which would now be form 2. The school got its reputation from the number of kids, the percentage of the youngsters who got at that stage. Now the school then tended – before I came into school, at the end of last century, no child got from one class to another without being examined by an inspector who came round and examined the class. The final great examination was for the proficiency, and the school got its reputation on that. So the school held back those who wouldn’t get proficiency. There were even stories that they kept youngsters at home on the day – so you put your percentage up.

So there wasn’t much time. The poor [teachers], they had no equipment, they had a pretty poor training, very little training. Many of the teachers had no more than a primary education themselves and then what little additional education they got as a pupil teacher.

FRASER: Would you describe is as an authoritarian system?

BEEBY: Yea, it was essentially authoritarian. But, there were some good teachers, there were some kindly teachers, but the system you see was against them. The whole system, originally, was intended for two purposes. One, to instruct (I’m talking of primary education now). And the other was, to select the youngsters who could then go on to the higher stages. So the whole system was based on selection. Now if your system is based on selection you haven’t got much time, and the parents don’t want you to have much time, for things that would later be called ‘frills’, that can’t be tested.

FRASER: It sounds like a system of what we’d call now Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest.

BEEBY: I suppose it was, yes. You see, after all when our system was started, that was about twenty years after Darwin’s Origin of Species came out. And that was the way that thinking went.

When Bowen – there was no minister of education in 1876, he had to propose the bill that created an education department. And Bowen, somebody asked him why the Education Act had nothing to do with secondary education. He said, that the business of education, under the Act, is “to place the key of knowledge in the hands of every boy and girl. But, it is not the intention of the bill,” he said, “to encourage children whose vocation is that of honest labour, to waste in the higher schools, time which might be better devoted to learning a trade, when they have not yet got the special talent by which that higher education might be made immediately useful.”

Even by 1933, there was a Committee of the Chamber of Commerce – this was during the Depression, and there was angst to save money everywhere – they kept the five-year-olds out of school. And the Chamber of Commerce, and I won’t mention it, and I wouldn’t take this as typical, certainly not of Chambers of Commerce, certainly not now, certainly not then. And not of the country as a whole. But here’s a group of men, frightened by the Depression, worried by it, and anxious to save money somewhere.

They said this. “Speaking generally, the children of unenlightened parents would not gain benefit from a longer period at school, and it was a matter for serious consideration whether, after passing the fourth standard, children of but moderate mental development should not be definitely prepared for the type of work for which their mental capacity and natural ability make them best suited. It might be that further education along general lines would not fit them for the modest role nature intended them to play in life.”

That’s a classic statement, it could have been said in the middle of the twentieth century, industrial revolution or it could have been said in South Africa today. Ut I don’t think that was the general opinion of the country at that time, but it was possible to say that, at that particular time, and not be lynched.

FRASER: So it was a system that was consciously selective, and that philosophy was made explicit.

BEEBY: And it did its job, in a way, and it did give us a basic kind of education, and of course I liked it. I had no complaints. Like you, I probably came somewhere near the top. It was my kind of jungle, I didn’t mind it.

FRASER: It was a fiercely competitive system, wasn’t it.

BEEBY: Very competitive, essentially competitive.

FRASER: And that sense of competition that probably a great many children have, did the education system exploit that competitiveness?

BEEBY: Oh yes it did, it obviously did. The amazing thing is that teachers managed to give something better than that and of course over the years, although the system itself remained very much the same, teachers did manage to modify it. But they were always working against that particular system

FRASER: One has the feeling that this is a system based on not just selection, where the academically able would somehow fight their way to the top of the heap, no matter what their background was, but it was also a system which had something to do with privilege. In other words, if you were wealthy, you stood a better chance of going through the education system before 1935, then if you came from a poor background and had only average ability.

BEEBY: Yes, but it wasn’t thought of that way, you see. It was thought of: if you didn’t do well, you’re lazy, or you’re a dunce. A term which fortunately has entirely disappeared. And what else could they have done? Have you ever thought was a curious institution the school is at any rate. There’s no other human institution, no other mammalian institution, which divides children up by years of age, for twelve years of their lives, and segregates them, for five hours a day, from every other age group.

It would be amazing if some people didn’t find it impossible to learn in those circumstances, you know the beasts of the field don’t. In fact they grow up with their older brothers and their younger sisters, they grow up in that particular way and that’s the way the whole of the mammalian species has learned. And I can’t think of any other institution but the school that devised that curious and highly artificial system of organising beings. But if you had that purpose of selecting them…


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