Date of Passing: 17/08/2001
In the early 1950s, when Bill Connell was appointed senior lecturer, and subsequently professor in education at the University of Sydney, systematic research and scholarship as a basis for educational studies, the training of teachers and policy making and practice was in its infancy in Australia. He was a national leader among a small band of pioneers in universities, teachers' colleges and research institutions across the country who created education as a major academic discipline and earned research and scholarship in education the high international reputation it enjoys today.
Emeritus Professor William Fraser Connell died in Mornington on August 17 at the age of 85. Born in Lockhart, New South Wales on 28 June 1916, Bill spent his formative years of school and initial university education in Melbourne. After completing a BA Honours degree in history and Latin at the University of Melbourne, he enrolled in the postgraduate Bachelor of Education course where he developed a lasting interest in the history of education which, together with comparative and international studies, became the major field of his research and writing.
After four years as a history teacher and headmaster in independent schools in New South Wales, Bill joined the Australian Navy during World War II, but simultaneously wrote an MEd thesis which earned him the Cohen Prize at the University of Melbourne. In 1946, with the assistance of the John and Eric Smyth Travelling Scholarship, he proceeded to England with a young family to pursue a PhD at the University of London. His thesis on Matthew Arnold's views on education, published as The Educational Thought and Influence of Matthew Arnold, was widely acclaimed.
In 1948, Bill took up a teaching post in the School of Education at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Stimulated by the intellectual life there, he maintained a strong association with the university over a long period, sending good education honours graduates there on a regular basis. A Connell Scholarship scheme established by the University of Illinois maintained a flow of Australian students to higher degree programs in education. Bill's experience in London and Illinois was brought to bear in the University of Sydney, where with colleagues he laid the foundations of programs of graduate and undergraduate studies.
Bill's achievements during his 25 years at the University of Sydney are impressive. He built up a large and diversified Department of Education. He carried out a landmark study of nearly 9000 adolescents in Sydney, leading to the publication in 1957 of the book Growing Up in an Australian City. A later more comprehensive study of Sydney teenagers undertaken with other staff members was published in 1975 as 12 to 20: Studies of City Youth. As chair of the Australian UNESCO Education Committee from 1964 to 1973, and subsequently of the National Committee on Social Science Teaching, he was instrumental in organising seminars to produce useful materials for Australian schools, particularly on the teaching of social science. He organised pioneering study tours to China in 1972 and 1976 and to educational institutions in the USSR. From the foundation of the Australian Journal of Education in 1957, he was its editor for sixteen years.
Bill retired in 1976, moving to Mornington, where he concentrated on his writing, while holding a fellowship in Monash University's Faculty of Education. By 1980, he produced a comprehensive and critical history of the Australian Council for Educational Research to mark its golden jubilee year, and a mammoth History of Education in the Twentieth Century World. This book is without peer for its scholarly and perceptive interpretation of global developments in education. A critical analysis of the changes which had occurred in Australian education was published under the title Reshaping Australian Education 1960-1985. He was also responsible for the general editing and wrote several chapters for the second volume of the two-volume history of the University of Sydney. In many projects his wife, Margaret, was a most supportive honorary research assistant. His outstanding record in research and publication was recognised by the award of the degree of Doctor of Literature in Education by the University of London, and by the award of an honorary Doctor of Letters in Education from the University of Sydney.
Through his many significant and thoughtful publications, Bill has left a mark on educational thinking in Australia which few can match. Generations of students will benefit from the perceptive and critical analyses of Australian education in the 20th century by this original and influential thinker. He has had a lasting influence on the teaching of social sciences and in promoting education for international understanding in Australian schools. His colleagues and students have been fortunate in their associations with a true scholar, and a person of exceptional humanity. Bill is survived by his wife, three children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.