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Schools and War October 16, 1942

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Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies categorizes education as an essential though non-military need of the Australian nation in a time of war.

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Demands for man power and woman power in the war are increasing and pressing. They represent a problem on which the Government must be the ultimate judge and which must cause any Government the greatest anxiety. Such demands are in any circumstances hard to criticize or to resist, for the safety of the people is the supreme law, and nobody is in so good a position to estimate what safety requires as the Government of the country.

But demands should always be related to supply and to real needs. So far as we can we must have in mind, even while the war is raging, the essential non-military needs of the nation, including those things that we must have if we are successfully to encounter the vast, complex and menacing problems of the peace which is to come.

One of the most important of these things, easily overlooked at a time like this, is an educated community. We of our generation have been neither particularly clever nor particularly wise, for our record is strewn with want of foresight, want of preparation, selfishness, lack of understanding of the economic forces which can play so much havoc in the world, want of recognition of those greater moral forces which mould the relation of man to man.

And so war has come with its crises, its grim dangers, its dreadful price exacted for past neglects, its false material prosperity masking the fact that savings, accumulated resources, are being eaten up, and that immense problems of rebuilding are round the corner.

Do you ever, even in a fleeting moment, think of the enormous questions which will confront both us and the world when the war is over - questions international, economic and moral? I am sure you do. I do, and with some apprehension. For I doubt whether they can be solved either sensibly or safely unless we are much better and more intelligent people after the war than we were before it. Above all, we shall need clear minds, honest minds, courageous minds, well-informed minds; in a word, educated minds. For the simple and unpalatable truth is that our democratic system cannot continue if its motive power is to be a mixture of class selfishness, materialism, disregard of minorities, and a somewhat lazy indifference to the future.

Apart from the winning of the war, the greatest because the most fundamental task in front of us is to educate a new generation, not for mere money-making or to comply with the law, but for an enlightened citizenship based upon honest thinking and human understanding.

That brings me to the position of the schools. They are even at this moment, and in the jargon of the moment, an "essential industry". It is their great privilege and sublime duty to prepare the minds of the post-war adult generation - the real founders of the post-war order - the generation which will either build a lasting and a just peace or go lightly and blindly down "the primrose path which leads to the everlasting bonfire". So often the present seems to us the absorbing problem. We live in it. We often hate to look beyond it. But over the entrance to every school might well be written in letters of gold the words, "Here we deal with the future". And so it is that the present position of our schools is important. I believe that we should endeavour to do to the best of our capacity at least two things:

First, we should as far as possible retain the services of our teachers, both male and female. Some schools in Australia are, I believe, suffering greatly from a drain upon their teaching staffs. These include many girls' schools, where natural and patriotic instincts take younger teachers away from their school-teaching and into work which has, to them, a more obvious war significance and value. One of my purposes tonight is to endeavour to make it clear that the training of the new generation is war work and peace work of the supremest importance.

Second, we should do our best to preserve the concentration of schoolboys and schoolgirls on those matters which relate to their training and education. The post-war problems are, to my mind, so enormous and their solution will call for a so much higher standard of public intelligence than we have been prone to exhibit in the past that it is essential that the generation now coming into flower should be a sound and competent and well-balanced one, and not a war-racked, nervy and uneducated one. This would be singularly like a counsel of perfection in a country subject to almost daily bombing, but in Australia we are so fortunately placed that we should well decide that the younger children of our nation are to suffer as little of the impairment of war as determination on our part can ensure.

I hope you will not think me merely peevish if I say that in the past, in public affairs, too may of us have distrusted the educated mind. Indeed, I think it would be not inaccurate to say that on the whole we have given inadequate recognition to the expert, trained mind. I was forcibly struck recently, when reading the estimates at Canberra, by the fact that in one scientific department we pay highly trained scientific research workers with university degrees only 4 a week more than we pay to the labourers about the premises. I am the last to underrate the man who has, in a phrase once heard in the Federal Parliament, "graduated with honours in the University of Life". I know that it may be no particular credit to a man to be the holder of a university degree , which in any event maybe no more than a licence to practice some special profession for a good fee. But, other things being equal, the educated mind should be more apt to be detached and balanced; to see both sides of a question; to understand the opponent. It should be more apt to take the long view, which is so commonly right, and disregard the short view, which is so commonly wrong.

Our ablest men must be attracted to political service, not the most fluent or the best-advertised. To the civil service must go more and more of the products of universities. Into the world of business must go better and better educated recruits, so that business may learn that there is a second profit and loss account which collates the credit and debit entries of the particular business in relation to its industrial and social obligations. Higher education for women must come to be regarded as normal, and not as the eccentricity of a potential "blue stocking". For the blunt fact is that the equality of the sexes cannot be maintained if a slapdash training in a few minor ornamental accomplishments is considered an adequate education for the daughter of the house.

And so I come back to the basic truth of this matter, which is that we must constantly look forward. The generation which is now in charge was at school just before or during the last war. The German schools, more than anything else, produced this Nazi generation which has blazed its trail of savagery across Europe.

What will our schools produce? On the answer to that question will depend the future of Australia.

Courtesy of Menzies Foundation
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Schools and War- October 16, 1942

- Robert Menzies
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