Who pays for education? Private or public, secular or religious? Should it be funded by federal or state governments? We’ve been here many times before.
There are so many aspects to this debate, but one that gets forgotten now, when Australians are all – or are alleged to be – functionally literate, is the basic relationship between education and democracy. When everyone gets to vote, then everyone needs to be able to read and write, and compulsory education came close on the heels of manhood suffrage.
In small towns and tribes, people can choose their leaders by direct personal experience. It worked in Athens, or the Italian city-states, which is why rhetoric was once such an important university subject, and why I find the American process of town hall rallies and caucuses so fascinating, even though most of the candidates seem to have lost their voices by now.
Once the community grows too large for public speeches, though, we rely on gossip and hearsay – or on newspapers – to choose our politicians. This basic link isn’t as important these days, when radio and TV mean that voters can decide about their politicians by listening to or watching them. There is a functioning democracy in India, where illiteracy remains a problem, but radios and mobile phones are everywhere.
Once, though, literacy was essential if democracy was to work, so when most white working men got the vote (roughly from 1858 in New South Wales and Victoria, the 1860s in the United States, 1867 in Britain) it became important that they learned to make an educated decision on how to use it. Or, as one conservative politician put it at the time, ‘We must educate our masters’*.
Robert Lowe led opposition to the Second Reform Bill in the British Parliament. In 1866, Lowe and his associates defeated the bill, but the following year the Conservative Party led by Benjamin Disraeli passed a modified Reform Act that gave the vote to most male heads of households.
Once that battle was lost, though, Lowe threw himself into the business of bringing schooling to the masses. He wasn’t worried about an agile workforce, or training the rising generation to adapt to new technologies, or the economic advantages of more STEM-trained graduates. He just thought that voters needed sufficient education to make up their minds for themselves without being swayed by demagogues. By 1870, all children had to attend school until the age of 10.
Robert Lowe reached his conservative political position in reaction to his experiences as a young man in Australia during the 1840s. He arrived in New South Wales in 1842, planning to make money in the colony as a lawyer, so that he could later fund a comfortable retirement back in England. His need was more urgent than most, though, for his doctors had warned him (wrongly, as it turned out) that he might go blind within a few years.
Robert Lowe was an albino. Portraits show a very fair man, with pale eyes squinting in the light. After grey old England, the harsh bright light of Sydney must have been a misery to him. With the rough charm of people who wouldn’t know political correctness if they tripped over it, the colonists called him ‘Pink-eyed Bob’.
Lowe was well connected and well educated, at Winchester and Oxford, and he arrived in New South Wales with letters of introduction to Governor Gipps. The Governor quickly nominated him to the newly formed Legislative Council, expecting him to back him, but Lowe soon went feral. There was constant argument between Gipps and the squatters during the early 1840s, and Lowe took their side. He also started an opposition newspaper, The Atlas, to pursue his vendetta against the Governor.
Then, in 1848, after nearly 10 years without convicts being sent to New South Wales, the British government decided to send another boatload of convicts on the Hashemy to test the water. The pastoralists liked the idea of cheap labour, but everyone else was furious. The respectable middle class were appalled at the prospect, just when they were putting ‘the convict stain’ behind them, while the working class were horrified that they might have to compete for jobs with an unfree labour force.
The result was that when the Hashemy arrived at Circular Quay in early 1849, a demonstration – or a riot, depending on your point of view – was there to meet it. The Sydney Morning Herald says there were four or five thousand protestors there. The Hashemy was initially unable to unload its cargo of convicts, who were eventually re-directed to Moreton Bay instead. Robert Lowe addressed the crowd from the back of a horse-drawn omnibus:
Let them send across the Pacific their emphatic declaration that they would not be slaves – that they would be free. Let them exercise the right that every English subject had – to assert his freedom. (Cheers.) He could see from that meeting the time was not far distant when they would assert their freedom not by words alone. As in America, oppression was the parent of independence, so would it be in this colony. The tea which the Americans flung into the water rather than pay the tax upon it, was not the cause of the revolt of the American States; it was the unrighteousness of the tax – it was the degradation of submission to an unrighteous demand. And so sure as the seed will grow into the plant, and the plant to the tree, in all times, and in all nations, so will injustice and tyranny ripen into rebellion, and rebellion into independence. (Immense cheering.) [Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1849]
It was stirring – and faintly seditious – stuff. Without a megaphone, most people probably couldn’t hear him anyway, but his distinctive appearance meant that he stood out, and the presence of Robert Lowe, MLC, was a bit of a coup for the organizers.
But Lowe seems to have panicked after his experience of getting up close and personal with the hoi polloi. Mobs aren’t rational, even (perhaps especially) when they think their cause is just. The reality of popular democracy unnerved him. A few months later, Lowe and his wife returned to England, with a comfortable fortune from his years as a colonial lawyer. He took a job as leader writer for The Times, and entered Parliament.
As he grew older, he grew more conservative, even reactionary, opposing any change that might give more political power to the working class – the same people who had cheered him on at Circular Quay, and had threatened violence to the convicts aboard the Hashemy. His suspicion of the mob must have been reinforced when he was stoned by drunken workers during a political rally in 1857, and ended up with a broken skull.
Robert Lowe was on the wrong side of history. During the 1850s, members of the Anti-Transportation League like Henry Parkes were elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, and brought in universal male suffrage by 1858. In Britain, the Second Reform Act passed in 1867, and male householders gained the vote.
But Lowe was also on the right side of history when he threw his weight behind a universal system of compulsory education. As we again debate the costs and benefits of education, to the country and the individual, it’s worth remembering how basic it is to a functioning democracy. Otherwise decisions are made on the basis of emotion or brute force, and politics becomes the plaything of populists.
*According to Parry, Lowe’s exact words were: ‘I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail on our future masters to learn their letters’ (Hansard 3, 188, 15 July 1867, col. 1549)
Ruth Knight, Illiberal Liberal: Robert Lowe in New South Wales, 1842-1850 (1966)
Jonathan Parry, ‘Lowe, Robert, Viscount Sherbrooke (1811–1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/view/article/17088, accessed 7 April 2016]
The Atlas has not yet been digitised on Trove, and unless the National Library of Australia receives more money, it may never be – #FundTrove
Correction: Lisa Hill’s comment below sent me back to look further at this event. The Hashemy convicts were sent on to Moreton Bay, not Port Phillip, as I initially had said. I’ve corrected the post accordingly. According to Douglas Wilkie, ‘The Convict ship Hashemy at Port Phillip: a Case Study in Historical Error’, Victorian Historical Journal, 2014 – here – historians have been getting muddled up about this affair ever since the 1850s.