Why were Schools of Arts founded?

Q&A #5

Dr Roger Morris, AM

President, AMISA

The earlier Schools in both Britain and Australia placed a heavy emphasis on intellectual and educational goals. They saw themselves as providing for the scientific and technological education of the artisan class.  Some of their more self-righteous middle class supporters also saw them as providing opportunities for the moral redemption of the working class.

The stated purpose of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, when it was founded in 1833, was the diffusion of scientific and other useful knowledge as extensively as possible throughout the colony of New South Wales. The intended means for achieving this objective were to be the establishment of a library containing books of scientific and useful knowledge for the use of members, the delivery of lectures on the various branches of science and art, the formation of classes for mutual instruction, and the purchase of apparatus and models for illustrating the principles of physical and mechanical philosophy.

In their attempts to meet these goals, the early Schools only achieved partial success although some did evolve into, or became parts of, universities , e.g. Glasgow [Strathclyde University], Edinburgh [Heriot-Watt University], London [Birkbeck College of London University], and Ohio [Cincinnati University]. The Sydney Mechanics School of Arts itself can be regarded as the parent of the New South Wales technical and further education system, and the grandparent of the University of New South Wales [UNSW], and the University of Technology Sydney [UTS].

Later on, especially in Australia, the Schools began to take a more pragmatic view of their aims and roles. So by about 1900, their goals had been widened to encompass more recreational pursuits. This can be seen in the statement of goals of the New Lambton Mechanics’ and Miners’ Institute written in 1902:

“The mental and moral improvement and the rational recreation of the members through the establishment of a library and reading room, and by the provision of lectures, the formation of classes, the maintenance of recreational facilities, and by such other means that seem desirable to the committee.”

These Schools of Arts had little to do with the scientific/technological education of the artisan or mechanic. They, however, had a lot to do with providing, in the towns and suburbs of Australia, a local home, no matter how modest, for reading, learning, culture, civic action, recreation, and entertainment, often long before there was any effective local or municipal government. In the minds of many older Australians, events held in the School of Arts hall and books borrowed from the School of Arts Library were seen as shaping their lives.