The forgotten founder

Speech by the Master, Rufus Black, from the Founders and Benefactors dinner

Tonight I want to say a word about our forgotten founder. Unlike Ormond, Morrison or MacFarland or early Council members like Balfour or MacBain, this is a founder with no portrait and whose name is rarely, if ever, mentioned. His own entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography makes no mention of his association with Ormond.

Yet he shaped the foundation of the College as much as anyone. He didn’t do it through position or money but with the power of ideas and the persistence to make the case for them. His ideas are deep in the cultural DNA of Ormond. Fortunately, thanks to the work of the historian Don Chambers, we do know a little about his role and I have taken Don’s work as a starting point.

Our forgotten founder is Herbert Augustus Strong. When the Ormond College Council first met on 1 December 1877 he was the sole Anglican Englishman sitting alongside 5 Presbyterians of Scottish origin. Clearly there was something unique here.

To understand why he was there we need to begin with the deep suspicion of Scottish Presbyterians of what they saw as the very English idea of Colleges. That scepticism ran so deep that many had supported the campaign against the affiliation of Trinity College with the University that was waged by The Age. They disliked its sectarian character, its elite pretentions and they doubted its educational value. Education for them was non-sectarian, open to all and lecture based. Two models of education collided.

Herbert August Strong could see a new synthesis between the Scottish and English models. Something truly Australian. It was his personal history that made this possible.

He was born in 1841 in Devon England, the son of an Anglican clergyman. Academically able, he went on to read classics at Corpus Christi College Oxford. Then, in a career development of great moment for his future role in Melbourne, he was appointed in 1866 as assistant to the Professor of Humanity at the University of Glasgow. There he came to appreciate the Scottish model of education, embrace its progressive agenda and understand the ways of the Scottish community. During that time, he was brie y Warden of Glasgow’s University Hall and came to acquaint himself with communal student living that was not collegiate in the Oxbridge way.

He shaped the foundation of the College as much as anyone. He didn’t do it through position or money but with the power of ideas and the persistence to make the case for them.

Strong came on to The University of Melbourne in 1871 as the Professor of Classical and Comparative Philology and Logic. Not long into Strong’s time the debate erupted about the affiliation of Trinity College. He was particularly close to the debate and to colleges as he collaborated with Trinity’s Warden Alexander Leeper on a translation of Juvenal.

With experience across both systems he could see and, in time would come to advocate, a new synthesis that would become Ormond College.

His own liberal Christianity and experience in Scotland convinced him that education should never be sectarian in the ways of Oxford and Cambridge. He saw the power of the lecture based system he had been involved with at Glasgow. Equally, he thought his Scottish students had missed out by not being exposed to peer based education and personal tuition. At an institutional level, he experienced and worried that the lecture-based system placed unrealistic demands on the lecturers because teaching at that scale meant they could never adequately respond to individual student needs – something he thought central to education. He imagined a Melbourne College could bring both traditions together.

More than that he also imagined it could bring together two approaches to the curricula of universities. The English system placed great weight on the classics, implying that to study anything else was a lesser educational project. The Scots had a far greater focus on the contemporary world, with modern philosophy, European languages and sciences being actively promoted. For Strong, this didn’t need to be a choice. Both could be central.

As he sought to find that balance he was enormously prescient because he worried that these exciting modern subjects could in time eclipse the classics. This was a topic that so concerned him that in 1909 he translated from Russian an extraordinary book entitled Our Debt to Antiquity, which makes a powerful case for a contemporary relevance of an education in the classical world. Remarkably this book was republished in 2011, a mark of the enduring relevance of this idea not just to Ormond but to the general world of education.

Finally, Strong believed in students and scholars being active members of the same community. This was a notion that he had grown up with since he went to school at Winchester College where scholars and students lived in the same community and then that he found in Oxford. He led by example in this regard, playing football for the University alongside students and actively encouraging athletics and debating. In time, he would be one of the earliest tutors to live in residence.

Connected and respected in the Scottish community thanks to his time in Glasgow, he saw the project of a Presbyterian College as just the vehicle for this vision. Through the 1870s amongst those not opposed to Colleges there was another vision for a Presbyterian college emerging from the Scottish community where primacy was given to it as a place for training Presbyterian ministers. We know little of the way Strong made his case but when the Scottish Presbyterian community were galvanised into creating a college because of the threat of losing the land, the idea for the sort of college that emerged was Strong’s and he was one of six founding members of the College’s Council.

Strong’s legacy is extraordinary. His vision of that synthesis of Scottish and English systems was genius. It guided us then and it guides us now. Our commitment today to diversity, access, a progressive education equally committed to a liberal arts and sciences agenda and to being a single college community of students and scholars are all ideas that have their foundations in Strong’s vision.

This vision was a conscious project and one that was to be explicitly recognised and honoured at the time. When MacFarland received an honorary doctorate in law from the Royal University of Ireland, the supporting documentation, which was signed by leading figures at the University of Melbourne, explained:

In these affiliated colleges the problem of uniting the class lecture system of the Irish, Scottish and German Universities with the tutorial system and social advantages of residence found in Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin has been successfully solved.

While many had done much to deliver that vision, it is to Strong that we owe its fullest articulation and who was its keenest advocate.

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