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Useful And Fantastic: Goldfield Teacher - 5

…The goldfields teacher represented the Victorian pedagogue at his most enlightened. He was so enthusiastic about his belief that education could produce a civilised society, and that knowledge distinguished civilisation from the savage…

VaL Yule concludes her account of a remarkable man who taught at a school in the New South Wales goldfields in the 19th Century.

Policeman Brennan himself appears remarkably learned in these memoirs. He was liable to improve any situation with a classical allusion, such as consoling a deserted wife with the similar emotions felt by Dido when Aeneas sailed from Carthage. He put Latin quotations into the mouths of an improbable number of his characters. This erudition and Brennan’s delight in it is explained in the last chapter, which is “an article giving a summary of the noble deeds performed by Doctor Badham, the renowned Professor of Classics and Logic at the Sydney University “, and headed with “Rari quipppe bon. JUVENAL, Sat. xiii.26 “.

The Reverend Charles Badham, D.D., Cambridge; M.A., Oxford; Doctor Literarum Honoris Causa, Leyden, was “a man of dignified clerical appearance, full of vivacity and earnestness, and had as it were, an inspiration in his look, his carriage, and even his gesture. “ When he took his Chair of Classics at the University of Sydney in May 1867, Badham toured the colony as a fundraiser and propagandist, and was instrumental in setting up examination systems so that large numbers could proceed to the University.

“In 1869, Professor Badham promulgated a remarkable scheme for teaching gratuitously the Greek, Latin, German and French languages, through the medium of the Post Office, to all persons in town or country desirous of acquiring them. Many hundreds of persons became his pupils, and sent their exercises to him for correction at stated intervals.This self--imposed labour which the philanthropic Professor undertook was of a Herculean character, nevertheless he accomplished it with extraordinary success. “

Dr Badham’s “lectures were clear, and abounded with instructive and interesting explanations.“ Brennan gave an impressive list of his works, remarking “with what rapturous enthusiasm he perused the thundering orations of Demosthenes, the sublime strains of the immortal Homer . . “

“Badham . .. has bequeathed to the residents of this Austral clime a monument of good deeds and noble performances, more lasting, to use the expressions of Horace, than brazen statues and higher than Royal pyramids, a monument which shall not be destroyed...by a countless series of years or the flight of ages. “

Now the puzzle of Brennan’s writing is explained.

“I was his first pupil in Latin under this scheme, and for seven years sent him my papers for correction from Smith’s Principia, Ihne’s Syntax, etc. If any idiomatic difficulty presented itself in the language he invariably furnished an explanation, or attached an appendix. He strongly impressed on his students who desired to become familiar with Latin, the necessity for thoroughly mastering the verb ago, which like do in the English, has the widest signification, being applicable to any state of action, external or internal, whether of the mind or of the body, and used to give sentences exemplifying its application, from Ovid, Horace, Livy, Tacitus, Plautus, Sallust, Cicero, Gallius, Virgil, Varro, Caesar, Pliny, and the great epigrammatist Martial. As indicating the importance of the verb agere, I give one extract from Martial (which he then does.) Martial illustrated the important difference between agere and facere as well as gerere, the last named being especially employed in matters relating to the administration of a government. “

“Apart from his multitudinous duties, the great professor found time to assist any person desiring it in the laudable pursuit of mental cultivation. “ Brennan printed verbatim correspondence of 1872, including an occasion when he himself came out corrected. Brennan had written from the Braidwood Goldfields, Araluen, “I do myself the honour to state that I have had a difference of opinion with an Officer in the Education Department regarding the grammatical accuracy of a sentence . . . The sentence in dispute is ‘he is gone for many years’ “ and at some length Brennan explained why he thought it was incorrect. Badham ‘s reply disagreed with Brennan, comparing the “constant practices “ of Germanic and romance languages - rather, it would seem, like Germanic common law, with the “conventional signs of Latin inflexions, where logical arguments can better avail “.

Superintendent Brennan represents a high point in the ideal of a universally educated general public, with his thirst and zeal for learning and his high value for all knowledge, as well as his innocent displays of pedantry. Like the Scottish plowman who read at the plow, and the shepherds who knew the Bible by heart, this learned policeman riding beside the gold convoys on the Australian diggings was part of an optimistic culture that believed that it would eventually embrace the populace. It prefaced the burgeoning period for Workers Education associations, Harmsworth Weekly Popular Philosophers, Popular Mechanics, and How to Teach Yourself - anything.

The goldfields teacher portrayed by Brennan represented the Victorian pedagogue at his most enlightened. He was so enthusiastic about his belief that education could produce a civilised society, and that knowledge distinguished civilisation from the savage, that he taught seven days in the week - Religious Knowledge on Sundays. His educational mobility was such that he reportedly could come from Trinity College, Dublin, to Kangaroo Flat, Australia, to the Philosophy Department of the Sorbonne.

He taught “knowledge “ partly in the traditional way, dishing it out in deep draughts and teaching from the blackboard, but he also taught from what his pupils could find in the environment around. Good memory was essential for his definition of a good scholar. Grammar had a high importance as the medium of classical learning, though not, as it so often did, taking over from the content of classical teaching. He believed the future had a foundation in the past, and in what can be learnt from it and he shared the common belief of the time that moral and spiritual progress must eventually overcome the evils that were still blatant around them.

McCombe would still be an enlightened and innovatory teacher today. How delightrul and how inspiring to be in a fifth form class out under the trees in Kangaroo Flat, in a grove named after the philosophers of Athens. It is not surprising that some goldfields children were successful at Sydney University. What happened to the others? They had had an education grounded on where they were - with their geometrical gardens, classification of any insects that dropped in, explanation of the granite boulders around them, practical demonstration of courtesy and respect to all, and extended promise of universalist knowledge about current events, great men, natural history, natural philosophy, and whatever followed a pupil’s own intellectual bent. The smallest pupil was offered a key to the whole world, as it were. The world was learnable - an early belief that is useful for young children , which, like early trust in god-like parents, may be later outgrown, but at the time gives confidence to a child on setting out.

The Victorians at their best were unfairly lampooned by Dickens’ Gradgrind school with its force-feeding of “facts “. “What is a horse? “ “A horse is a quadruped.. “ and must therefore not be depicted galloping fancifully over wallpaper. But together with academic and scientific learning, McCombe valued practical learning that was useful for the affairs of life and society, and more highly still “ornamental knowledge “ which “makes a greater demand on the intellect “ - and acquaintance with the arts as well as the sciences and the “abstract enquiries “ of science and metaphysics. McCombe may have been being realistic, not just class-conscious, in seeking to train the faculties of each child according to what the “position of the child in society may justify or require “, since the child’s ability, rather than social origin seem to have been his criterion for what that position should be.

Children were not treated as mere passive receptacles - they had to learn to think, and to stand up and explain ideas, as well as having the typical Victorian experience of standing up in public to recite, sing or speechify. This practice could have a downside that parents and shy children may be glad has passed away, but its training in presentation of self and in taking a public place and receiving public confirmation of self--esteem had a value for future public life and assertion of rights.

McCombe’s educational philosophy contrasts with some modern assumptions that “knowledge “ is only accumulations of “undigested facts “ 6 that are more efficiently kept in a computer than the mind, so children do not need to acquire knowledge as a basis for their thinking, planning and behaviour. Undigested facts can be obtained at the touch of a button. Educare may mean simply to encourage the unfolding of a child’s potential, but McCombe saw it as included leading it out and developing it. What is within the child has been put in there somehow, sometime..

McCombe was a model to his pupils of seeking learning, and gladly teaching. He was clearly an enthusiast for “discovery learning “ in which the child “discovered “ from the direct teaching of the teacher as well as from the rest of the world around her.

Schooling does not make the whole adult, but different types of schooling do have different outcomes for adult life. What sort of ex--pupils came from McCombe’s school, who did not go on to University Honours? Were the children rote-learning what they did not understand? At least they would leave school able to read, write, speak, enumerate, sketch, sing, understand what is going on around them, enjoy their natural surroundings, live honorably and courteously, and carry examples from the past to help them withstand frustration in life. Learning, according to McCombe, led to thinking, reflection and problem-solving. Could all teachers then be like McCombe? Even as an optimistic Victorian, Brennan thought not. “There must be an inborn talent . . for as Cicero relates, Nemo vir magnus sine afflatu aliquo divino unquam fuit. “Yes, the divine inspiration is the indispensable factor.”

In order to understand the present, we need to know more of our past. Brennan himself and McCombe, whether as Brennan’s creation or a real figure in history, are not a well-known part of our Australian historical mythology of the outback, to be honoured along with Ned Kelly, Burke & Wills and other boys of the bush. What might happen to us if they were?


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