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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter V — Early Problems in Education

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Chapter V
Early Problems in Education

"I look back on the share I had in promoting a national system of education with more pride than on any other part of my public life"



In his Provincial days, Rolleston constantly preached that three things were necessary to create a happy social order, namely, close land settlement, a flow of well-selected immigrants, and a sound system of education. He thought if these, three tasks were well carried out the State had fairly done its duty and the citizen was reasonably equipped for the battle of life.

His first public activity was in the sphere of education. In 1863 he was appointed as member of a Commission to investigate the condition of education in Canterbury. The other Commissioners were H. J. Tancred (Chairman), Dr Lillie (of the Presbyterian Church), and Mr Saunders (of the Wesleyan Church). At that time the control of education was in the hands of the religious denominations. The reason for this was that the first settlers looked to the churches to carry on the schools as they had done under the parish system in the Old Country. Hence, under the first Education Ordinance of 1857, funds were paid to the churches—£1100 to the Anglicans, £250 to the Wesleyans, and £250 to the Presbyterians. Before that, temporary appropriations had been made "until experience should have shown what might be devised as most appropriate to the conditions of the Province".

As these church schools charged fees and taught religion, we may say the system was neither free nor secular, and page 44probably not very compulsory. In fact, on all points, it was the reverse of our present system.

The members of the Education Commission of 1863 visited the various schools scattered through the Province. Rolleston, as the youngest member, was allotted all the roughest travelling. In his old age he still recalled his toilsome journey to various parts of Banks Peninsula.

The Commissioners recommended great changes, which were quickly adopted. An Education Board was established to which the Commissioners were appointed to take the place of the churches. Education districts and school committees were soon created. Tancred and Rolleston prepared and passed the legislation through the Provincial Council—without abolishing denominational schools the legislation fostered the establishment of national schools.

Under the proposals of the Report, the teachers were not called on to give religious instruction further than that the schools were to be opened daily with prayer and Bible reading. If any denominational instruction were given, it was to be by approved ministers under special arrangements. "The Education Board", said the Commission, "should be, in short, an administrator, so to speak, of temporalities, not a director of consciences."

In later years further changes were made, but the three main steps in the system may be summarised as follows:

(1)Church control.
(2)State control with uncontroversial religious teaching.
(3)State control with no religious instruction except in so far as the committees allowed the use of the school rooms.1

Rolleston gave high praise to Tancred. "He was second to none", he said, "of New Zealand's public men in learning, knowledge of literature, and administrative capacity…. He showed the same soundness of judgment page 45as in every other office which he filled in the Provincial Council, in the General Assembly, and in the Senate of the University, apparently without effort and with no superficial display. Serving under him was my first introduction to public life."

1 Education in Canterbury by Rolleston, Press, 15 December 1900.


By these means was taken the first step in Canterbury towards the fostering of our national system of education. But in 1875, shortly before the abolition of the Provinces, the Provincial Council, on the plea of economy, set back the clock. They abolished the Education Board, and increased school fees and taxation for educational purposes.

Rolleston vigorously protested against this reactionary step. In a long message to the Council he urged that the objects to be kept in view were:

First, continuity of administration unaffected by political changes but closely connected with the Government of the country.

Secondly, a certainty in the financial arrangements which should render the system as little as possible subject to alternations of parsimony and extravagance. Dependence on a fluctuating revenue from the sale or lease of Crown Lands must sooner or later lead to an enforced economy very prejudicial to education. "The stoppage of a road or bridge", said Rolleston, "may only temporarily stay the progress of a district, but you cannot neglect or impede the progress of education and take it up subsequently at the point of hindrance in the same condition as it was previously. Not to go forward is to go backward."

Thirdly, he urged that "our best policy would be to make education free in all Government schools, and such a result is but a corollary upon the adoption of any responsibility by the State in the matter".

It was this need for adequate and permanent finance and the inability of the rest of the Colony to create educational page 46reserves on the Canterbury model that helped to bring about the abolition of the Provinces and Bowen's Education Act of 1877. Rolleston described that Act as "a monument of industry in its compilation and of judgment and tact on the part of Bowen in steering its course through the Legislature". Bowen had been Chairman of the Canterbury Education Board, and, in framing his Education Act, he drew largely on his experience in working the Provincial system.


Before the establishment of a training school for teachers in 1872, Rolleston arranged with Lord Lyttelton and Mr Selfe to select teachers in, England with a view to maintaining a high standard. One of those selected was Mr H. Hill, who later became a school inspector in Hawkes Bay. Rolleston's letters to Mr Hill discuss many educational problems, but his most constant cry, even as late as 1884, is against false economy.

Rolleston to Hill 7 May 1884:

As to the educational system generally, what is coming? Are the propertied classes going to combine with the churches—the former to save their pockets, the latter in the vain idea that they will increase their power and importance—to pull down the national system? I hope the people will not be led away under the influence of temporary pecuniary difficulties, or at the instance of any class of politicians or financiers to abandon what they have built up at so much cost of "toil of heart and knees and hands".

He goes on to argue that education must be maintained out of the General Fund in the same way as the Army, Navy, and Police. At all costs education must be kept efficient.


In University education, the part played by Rolleston has been fully recorded by various writers.1

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At the time when he was invited by the Prime Minister to become a member of the first University Senate, Rolleston evidently had good grounds to question the financial integrity of some of his proposed colleagues. For, after some inquiries, he sent the following startling and almost blasphemous reply to the Prime Minister: "Let this cup pass from me—why should I be hanged between two thieves?" However, the matter was smoothed over, and Rolleston became one of the most useful members of the Senate.

It is a curious fact that, while Canterbury in its early days had in her midst a large number of graduates from British Universities, it was in the Scotch settlement of Otago that a University was first established.

The Otago Provincial Council in 1869 passed the University of Otago Ordinance, and created endowments to supplement the funds set aside by the Presbyterian Church for the same purpose.

This practical action by Otago forced the hand of Parliament, which had been for some years debating the problem of higher education. A storm of controversy arose, and, in the long debates that ensued, Rolleston and other men who had been trained in English Universities denounced the creation of the Otago University root and branch. "To them a University was purely an examining degree-giving body under which were ranked training colleges." At an earlier date, they had argued that New Zealand was not yet ripe for a University. They had favoured a system of granting scholarships to New Zealand students to be held in English Universities. When legislation created a New Zealand University, it provided for amalgamation with the existing University in Otago. But lengthy negotiations proved futile, and, in the final result, the New Zealand University was created as a purely examining body on the lines urged by Rolleston and his colleagues, and the Otago University became one of its affiliated colleges.

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It was owing to Rolleston's enthusiasm for education that many rich endowments were set aside by the Provincial Council for the maintenance of primary and secondary education. His name is closely associated with Canterbury College, the School of Agriculture, the Library, the Technical School of Science and the Museum. It was he who caused to be engraved over the entrance to the Museum the words: "Lo, these are parts of His ways: but how little a portion is heard of Him?"

All through his career Rolleston was frequently called on to speak on educational questions and in his speeches he dealt with every aspect of the subject. Sometimes he emphasised the need for technical training and showed a remarkable knowledge of all that was being done in other countries. At other times he dwelt on the great value of the Classics. For example, at the Jubilee of Christ College he said:

There are two great books without a knowledge of which the rising generation will be very different from their fathers—the one is Homer and the other the Psalms of David. I think these two books are typical of the classical education which I hope will always prevail in Christ College. The time is coming when the public will realise that it is monstrous that people should grow up without the equipment furnished by a knowledge of Latin and Greek.

1 G. E. Thompson, History of the Otago University, and J. C. Beaglehole, History of the New Zealand University.


Enough has been said to show that Rolleston was one of the pioneers in bringing about our present system of free, secular, and compulsory education.

To conclude this chapter, I will quote extracts from a remarkable letter written by Sir Frederick Weld, a former Prime Minister, in which he sets out his views on education. Weld came of an old English Roman Catholic family, and his views are naturally coloured by this circumstance.

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Sir Frederick Weld (Government House, Tasmania) to Rlleston, 24 July 1875:

I quite go with you in thinking that railroads and national prosperity are not the main things in a nation's life, though they are valuable accessories. My opinion of the highest national life is public spirit, patriotism, self-sacrifice, justice—all that can raise mankind in this world and prepare it for the next. The union of the State with true religious principle; the Statesman and the Churchman walking hand in hand and not interfering with each other's province. This was the ideal of the Christian brotherhood of nations rudely shattered by the Reformation. This was the ideal of Alfred the Great and Charlemagne and of the greatest Popes and of such men as St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventura, whose wonderful intellects seem to have solved so many problems that are still disputed over by those who scorn to refer to any but 18th century lights, and reverence only the infallibility of doubt, uncertainty, and their own crude theories.

Now you would remedy this by "Education". So would I, but my education would not mean teaching the mass of the people to read and write (good things in themselves) and a smattering of "ologies", which is the very most that the people as a mass can be possibly taught; but in civilising them and making them know that there is something higher than money and worldly advancement, making them good Christians with a knowledge of their duty to God and to the State as constituted by God, and a sense that the dignity and happiness of man is not to be measured by wealth and position, but by fulfilling duties, respecting superiors, equals and inferiors—as being placed in their respective positions by God—as being part of the order He has established—as all being equal in His eyes—as being, if they worthily fulfil their duty in this world from proper motives, all alike called to a reward in that world in which a poor beggar's state may be greater than that of "Solomon in all his glory".

You will never do this by dissociating religion from education, or by any State panacea—no secular education can properly do it—no theoretical moral axioms can do it—only faith can. It is quite true that my ideal—the Christian Catholic ideal—is impossible at this moment. We must accept facts, and, accepting them honestly and loyally, work out the best honest compromise page 50we can But bureaucratic secular education is to my mind not at all the best compromise. It handicaps the religion of the majority for the benefit of the doubters, the irreligious, and the unbelievers—the minority, I hope.

The family is the basis of society and the State. By the law of divorce and repudiation of marriage as a sacrament, and by ignoring the authority of the parents in education and confounding instruction with education, States are uprooting day by day the very foundations on which they rest. Surely men must be blind who look around and do not see this.

Sir Frederick Weld goes on in words that might have been written to-day instead of in 1875:

Europe applauds the spoliation of the Pope, that is the attempted deposition of the representative of moral power—it condemns his utterances unread or misconstrued, utterances which are really the exponents of the principles of moral power. Treaties and guarantees are logically enough of no value, and millions and millions of armed men—Europe converted into a barrack of slaves torn from their families—attest the triumph of modern "civilisation" and the substitution of might for right, of doctrinaire theories for Christianity…. Can anybody believe that State schools and teachers, machines with colourless souls, will remedy this?