“All of the disasters have been useful; I’ve decided that I will now have to go onto Facebook.”
Educator and Flinders University donor Erica Jolly has been talking about the “complete failure” of her book Challenging the Divide to break down the barrier between science and literature.
Another useful disaster, she says – but she’s not giving up; she just needs a new strategy.
Ms Jolly, a former Deputy Principal at Mawson and Marion High Schools, and a respected writer and poet, is a formidable 70-something with a passion for educating young people.
Sitting in her Adelaide home, which is filled with magazines, books and newspaper clippings, she radiates determination as she explains the importance of education.
“You must understand there is a difference between education and schooling,” she says.
“The power of schooling is in setting people up to do what you want them to do, but the power of education is something very different.
“Education allows people to discover what they want to do for themselves. It allows them to change their minds, to understand the truth that an error is not a sign of failure, and that it is just a part of the process of learning and developing.
“I believe in the power of schooling, but it is the power of education that stops us from descending into barbarism.”
They are strong words, but the right words, because as Ms Jolly speaks, it becomes clear that they accurately reflect the strength of her views.
What also becomes clear is that through her own qualifications and experience as a practitioner and champion of education over many decades, she is better placed to pass comment than most educators alive today.
Those comments are not flattering for the current system, which she feels is regressing through an increasing refocus on schooling at the expense of education.
A veteran of the old ‘Techs’, and a pioneer of the teaching methods and aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s which saw social barriers knocked down and a new spirit of aspiration discovered by the working class, she has firsthand experience of what many, somewhat euphemistically, refer to as the ‘good old days’.
“When I first began teaching in ‘Tech’ schools, girls were, at best, being prepared for temporary occupations before going on to become mothers,” she says.
“Boys were taught how to work with metal and wood and expected to become tradesmen.
“I learnt about the terrible nuances that boys were being taught. They were being taught not to worry about English and literature because it wouldn’t get them a job, and were being actively discouraged from aspiring to be anything else.”
In spite of challenges from other educators, and sometimes even the children, Ms Jolly and many other teachers set out to change a status quo they saw as unacceptable.
One of her great inspirations is the late Brian Hannaford, who was the Principal of Marion High School and employed Ms Jolly as his Deputy Principal of Curriculum.
“Hannaford was thirty years ahead of his time,” she says. “He set up a structure that allowed every child the opportunity to make it through to a fifth year of study, and the school was academically excellent.”
For many educators, Hannaford’s approach went against the grain in ways they found uncomfortable – and sometimes openly resisted.
It also made him unpopular with some of his own top teachers, who Ms Jolly says would sometimes be forced to take on the ‘lower status’ role of teaching the younger students.
Some left, she says, but those who stayed became just as focused as Hannaford was on what he saw as the most important thing in his school … his students.
“For him, it was all about the children, and he understood that he had to help the children to help themselves,” she says.
“He really opened up the atmosphere in the school and had a system where, if a child had mastered something, they could go and do something else.
“The tennis player, Mark Woodforde, would often be found practising his tennis after he had mastered something at Marion High School.
“Hannaford even wrote down exactly how he did it in a book called A Risky Business: Changing a secondary School.
“He made it work because he was powerful, strong and determined – and he knew exactly where he was going.”
Ms Jolly’s memberships and achievements would fill her own book, but highlights include being a stalwart of the Australian Federation of Graduate Women (formerly Australian Federation of University Women), a founding member of the History Teachers’ Association and serving as a Member of University Council and then on Academic Senate at Flinders University for 12 years.
Two of her great concerns have been for the education of women and of Indigenous Australians.
“I was often asking for the latest developments in the interest of the advancement of girls and young women,” she said.
“I was assisted in that work by Dr Daphne Elliott and Margaret Messenger, both of whom were very significant in advancing the cause of women in higher education.
“During my time serving at Flinders, the Yunggorendi First Nations Centre for Higher Education and Research was also established. I had taught Aboriginal girls in Tech schools from 1957-1969, so this was especially important to me.”
Ironically, her relationship with Flinders, of which she was made a Companion in 1997, only came about because of another useful disaster.
“My connection with Flinders began in 1969,” Ms Jolly said. “The University of Adelaide had decided not to allow me to cross disciplines from History, in which I had an Honours degree, to English Literature as the precursor to an MA in that discipline.
“I was advised to see what they might do for me ‘up the hill’; so I did, and in 1969 I was accepted by the Flinders University English Department to study a number of courses to ascertain whether I could cross disciplines.
“After I was finally ‘deemed’ able to study for it, I gained my Master’s degree in English Literature in 1978.”
Ms Jolly, who had been allowed to teach English at a grammar school in England from 1967-68, before being refused the chance to cross disciplines at the University of Adelaide, believes that refusal was one of the best things that could have happened to her.
Her list of accomplishments at Flinders is long. She helped establish the Australian Science and Mathematics School; was one of the drivers for the School of Education to become part of the Faculty of Education, Humanities, Law and Theology; pushed for the university to focus on teaching as well as research; and in 1994 was asked by Chancellor Sister Deirdre Jordan to help organise a seminar for girls to celebrate the Women’s Suffrage Centenary.
“Looking at the information in the booklet we produced, I see how much of an effort Flinders University and the cooperating schools made to help young women become aware of how many changes had occurred and how many more would be facing them,” she says.
Ms Jolly also supported the development of the University’s Oasis, which has brought a more inclusive approach to the spiritual and personal needs of students and staff.
She has the longest unbroken record of giving to the University, and currently supports a bursary for an Aboriginal or Islander student in the School of Education or Special education.
Asked why she provides this support, and what difference she believes it makes, she is remarkably frank.
“To be honest, I don’t know if it makes any difference,” she says. “What I do know is that for an Indigenous person to become involved in education requires a great deal of courage, and I want to support them if they do.
“It is my hope that it may work to allow them to improve our understanding of one another.”
In spite of her remarkable record as an educator, Ms Jolly’s own record as a student got off to a rocky start.
Her uncle, Norman Jolly, was the first Rhodes Scholar of South Australia, but her family hit hard times when her father died in 1937, leaving her mother to raise two children alone.
A printing error at her local newspaper, which saw a two-year scholarship at St Peter’s Collegiate Girls School advertised as a three-year scholarship, was perhaps the first useful disaster to benefit her.
“I was lucky because I got a scholarship by default, not by merit,” she says. “And I was even luckier because The Anglican sisters at St Peter’s honoured that error in the newspaper and then turned it into a five-year scholarship.
“They obviously thought I might do something worthwhile, although I was rarely to be found when double maths was on.”
Ms Jolly has an enduring love for literature which began while she was teaching in England from 1967-1968.
“The English thought I couldn’t teach history so they made me into an English teacher,” she says. “It was there that I discovered Australian writing, in particular Patrick White and Judith Wright. Judith Wright’s poem, The Bora Ring, was especially inspiring for me.”
She is also inspired by the Romantic and Victorian poets, and counts William Wordsworth as her favourite.
Her own book of poems, titled Pomegranates, addresses contemporary social concerns, such as economic and political equity, women’s issues and Indigenous rights.
Through her words and actions – but especially her words – Ms Jolly says she will continue to fight for a quality education for all children.
She writes, she says, because words are, and have always been, her most potent weapon.
Her vision of a quality education remains the same. It is a vision of an education that blends history, literature and science in a way that teaches children not just ‘the how’, but also ‘the why’; one that shows them not just how to ‘do’, but also how to think.
Towards the end of our interview, she becomes emotional. Her eyes fill up, and she takes a long, deep breath.
“I’ve often been accused of being too emotional about education,” she says.
“It was Humphrey Tranter at Flinders University who told me never to let anyone tell me that I couldn’t think because of it.”
“Flinders has been very good to me,” she adds.