Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Generational Change and the 1970s

Neil Whitfield had a rather wonderful photo from Cronulla High School (Sydney) supplied by Marilyn Markham (Berriman)that I am going to take the liberty of reproducing in a moment. An explanation first.

One of the things that interests me as an analyst and historian is the process of social change and the way this moves in generational waves. Sometimes the process is slow, then at other times you can get sudden shifts.

One way of understanding the process is to look at particular individuals or groups from different points in time and then compare.

Cronulla High 1968 This photo shows the 1968 English class from Cronulla High School in 1968. They all look very prim and proper.

I am guessing ages, but I suspect that they are around  eighteen, so born in 1950.

Keith Leopold was born on 30 July 1920, completed the NSW Leaving Certificate in 1937, then entered the newly established New England University College in 1938 as a seventeen year old. His Came to Booloominbah: a country scholar's progress 1938-1942 (University of New England Press, Armidale 1988) provides a picture of school and especially university life at the start of and during the early Second World War period.

I am not sure when Professor Don Aitkin was born, probably 1936, given that he did the Leaving Certificate at Armidale High School in 1953. His What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia. (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005) is a social history exploring social change in Australia through the eyes of the Armidale High School Leaving Certificate class of 1953.

Now how does this all fit with the Cronulla High School Class of 1968? Well, this class was right on the tip point of the changes that would make the 1970s such a significant decade from the viewpoint of Australian social history, the ending of a more formal era that had began in Australia around the middle of the nineteenth century.

John Ferry's Colonial Armidale (Queensland University Press, 1999) provides a picture of social life in one locality. In doing so, he traces the rise of respectability, the establishment of social order to replace the disorder of the previous pioneer, frontier society. This creation of what are now called Victorian values was not unique to Armidale, nor to Australia.

The big shocks of the first part of the Twentieth Century - the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War - shook that respectability, but it re-asserted itself. Part of the reason for this lay in the size and timing of the shocks themselves.

An Australian born in 1890 immediately experienced the 1890s' depression including a great drought, twelve years later came the First World War, ten years after that the Great Depression, a depression that was just easing as the Second World War began. By the end of the Second World War, our now fifty five year old Australian would have experienced some eleven years of full scale war, twenty plus years of depression or recession and, at best, twenty four years of economic growth. While each major shock brought about changes, there was also a conscious desire among many to return to a preserve stability.

I recognise that I am generalising, and that there were always groups within Australia that had different views. However, if you look at John Ferry's history of colonial Armidale, at Keith Leopold, at Don Aitkin, you can see what I mean. It wasn't just attitudes towards sex or gender roles, but the very formalities of manners themselves.

To the eighteen year olds of the Cronulla High School Class of 1968, the world was a far more prosperous and peaceful place than that their parents had known. There had been periodic downturns and crashes including that of 1961, but they had never known a period of severe unemployment, while the increased supply of, and reduced real price for, consumer goods made for a previously unparalleled material wealth. They still lived in a world where the old formalities of manners applied including gloves for girls, but the world was already changing.

When I did the Leaving Certificate some years after Don, the secondary school I went to in Armidale (THe Armidale School) still had structures, formalities and manners that would have been familiar to the various generations of boys that had gone there since its establishment in 1894. The University of New England, too, when I became a student in 1963 would have seemed familiar in many ways to that Keith Leopold found in 1938 or Don Aitkin in 1954. Yet the University I found in 1963 was already in transition.

Don Beer was a lecturer in history at UNE when I was there as an undergraduate. The abstract to his The Holiest Campus', its Decline and Transformation: The University of New England, 1946–79 (Journal of Religious History, Volume 21 Issue 3, Pages 318 - 336) summarises one aspect of then UNE life in this way:

In the mid-1960s and possibly earlier the University of New England (UNE), located at Armidale in rural New South Wales, was reputed to be 'the holiest campus' in Australia. The article finds a considerable body of evidence to give credibility to this view. It argues that UNE was relatively religious because it drew more of its students from the most devout social groups in Australia than other universities and because those students were then proselytized by religious societies that operated effectively and with strong clerical support in a small, cohesive institution. The ethos of UNE was broadly Christian, perhaps more so than that of metropolitan universities.

This fits with my own experience. I was a member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship and Student Christian Movement and had friends involved with the Evangelical Union and with the Roman Catholic student group. Yet change processes were already clear along a number of dimensions: within religious groups themselves, there was much debate about new theological ideas; students wanted less formality, less rigid rules; while in practice most girls were to follow the traditional routes of marriage and family, there was considerable discussion about gender roles; while attitudes towards sex and sexuality were clearly changing.

These changing attitudes affected the broader community. 

Kenneth Dempsey's Conflict and Decline: Ministers and laymen in an Australian country town (Methuen Australia, North Ryde, 1983) is a sociological study of the changing relationships between ministers and lay people in a Methodist community (Uralla near Armidale) in New England from 1905 to mid 1967, written by a man who lived in the community to carry out the study. The 1967 end date is significant because it predates the very big changes that were to come.

The period after 1950 was one of growing conflict and decline in the Uralla Methodist Circuit directly associated with broader cultural change that affected the ministry.     

Increasingly, minister's wives were no longer prepared to play the traditional pastoral roles expected of them. Increasingly, the ministers themselves came to Uralla in part to advance their studies at the nearby University of New England, creating conflict with their much older and less well educated senior laity who were suspicious that their circuit (and financial contributions) was being used simply as a means to the end.

Perhaps most important of all, the new ministers were affected by and reflected the waves of intellectual and theological change sweeping the Church. An aging, conservative, country congregation found themselves dealing with younger ministers who wanted to substitute reading from the newspapers for bible readings, who wanted to debate the moral issues of the Vietnam war, who wanted to energise their congregation to go out and convert.

The results were a disaster on both sides.

Of the ten ministers who served in Uralla between 1950 and 1967, no less than six resigned from the ministry immediately or soon after leaving Uralla. This disaster for the Church was finally matched by the abolition of Uralla circuit, leaving the Uralla laity as part of an Armidale circuit whose whole tone was set by its proximity to the nearby university.

The overall pace of change accelerated from the late sixties.

At The Armidale School, the headmaster (Alan Cash) found himself dealing with a rebellious student body who challenged school rules and dress codes. Cousin Will who was at the school then has some fairly graphic tales of the conflicts that took place. The old uniform was abolished and rules altered.

Similar events took place at UNE. Some of the issues and tensions are recorded in Mathew Jordon's A spirit of true learning: The Jubliee History of the University of New England (University of New South Wales Press, 2004 pp 180ff). One small side-effect was the abolition of student gowns.

A more telling statistic is provided by Don Beer: whereas in the first half of the 1960s over half of the student body was highly religious, by the late 1970s the proportion had fallen to one-fifth to one-quarter. Associated with this, was a transformation of religious activity marked by the reassertion of Christian denominationalism and the emergence of a non-Christian spiritual sensibility.

Nimbin domes73 In some ways the 1973 Aquarius Festival held at the small Northern Rivers village of Nimbin marked the symbolic height of the 1970s' change process.

In 1972, scouts from the Australian Union of Students came to the village and persuaded the Nimbin Progress Association to allow a festival to be held there. The result in 1973 was a ten day festival -  a celebration of the dawning of the `Consciousness' and `Protest' movements in the heady days of the Vietnam war, free love and marijuana - a festival of discovery. The photo shows domes at the Festival.

Nimbin entered Australian popular culture as a potent symbolic marker. Yet I think of it as the peak because of changed economic conditions.

In 1973, the same year as Nimbin, the first oil shock marked the start of a period of economic turmoil that led to radically changed conditions. For the first time in almost thirty years, young people faced real unemployment. By 1979, undergraduate students on the campus at the University of New England had largely withdrawn not just from political activities, but indeed from most student activities other than the social.

However, they left a changed world. 


Winton Bates said...

That post brought back some memories, Jim.
I also learned something. I had never previously thought of the UNE as the holiest campus in Australia. I had always suspected that it might hold the record for average consumption of alcohol per student. But, I suppose those two observations are not necessarily in conflict.
When I think back to the time when I was at UNE as an undergraduate I am amazed that we wore gowns to lectures - and I don't think we complained much about it either. Things certainly have changed.

Jim Belshaw said...

Beer (or sherry) and religion indeed, Winton. It took me back too. Did you know that as Winston Bates you appear in Jordan's history of the university?

I don't think that any of us really objected to gowns or, indeed, to many of the notional rules beyond room visiting restrictions. Why object when you actually have all the real freedom you need? Indeed, we had much more real freedom than students do today.

While in Armidale last I walked past the old sublodge, then the Neucleus student newspaper office and now the International Students Association Office. Remember Bed, Bool and Gardeners?

Sad that Neucleus appears to have died with the abolition of student fees. After all, the neuc part stood for New England University College. So we lost another part of our shared history.

Neil said...

Trust you enjoyed the sequel -- and Marilyn's comment on the original post.

Winton Bates said...

I'm not sure whether or not I should be pleased that Matthew (whose name is also easy to mis-spell) Jordan referred to Winston rather than Winton. I found the reference on google books, but no preview was available of the relevant page.
Perhaps I should buy the book.

Winton Bates said...

Sorry about 'barefic'! For reasons I don't understand the word verification got mixed up with the post.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Neil. Marilyn's comment was not up when I wote. I had to laugh. I can think of equivalent examples from Armidale. Yes, I did enjoy the second post. In the small world class, I knew Geoffrey Borny when he was at UNE.

Jim Belshaw said...

Winton, you should buy the book, but I will put the quote up for you. Ouch re my mis-spelling of Matthew!