Leonie Kramer slept here at “The Bates Motel”

Yes, this person:


Emeritus Professor Dame Leonie Kramer (1993) – Judy Cassab

This happened probably in 1979 or 1980, though it may have been 1974-1976, as she came down to Wollongong more than once, sometimes on behalf of the Department of Education, sometimes for the South Coast branch of the English Teachers Association (I was secretary or something), and sometimes accompanied by Professor Rob Eagleson. There was an occasion that she stopped overnight and I booked her in to the “Bates Motel” (where I now live) which really was a motel at the time. Back in the day when the Gong looked like this:


I do remember the motel owner asking me if the Professor needed a ground floor unit in case she was a bit feeble, you see! I told Professor Kramer afterwards and she roared with laughter.

Now to recycle Education and early breakfast from September 2005:

My good friend Graham Little (who gets a mention here) actually wrote the 1972 NSW Year 7-10 English Syllabus, the one that allegedly did away with grammar. It did do away with the assessing of knowledge about traditional grammatical terminology, as distinct from assessing what students could actually do. To use an analogy, we continued to assess how well students could walk or run, but did not give them exams on the anatomy of the leg. But it actually encouraged careful study of language, and I, and many others such as Bob Walshe, a very influential thinker in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s on the teaching of writing, continued to teach the grammar of the sentence as well as the elements of rhetoric. This was in no way a contradiction of the English syllabus of the time. The current 7-10 English Syllabus has made such study mandatory, though using an approach much influenced, and by no means for the worse, by the linguistics of Michael Halliday, and studies in language development and sociolinguistics generally. In other words, the conscientious English teacher really can be much more effective because they are much better informed and their training is much less narrow than it was in my day.

On the other hand, during the 1970s and 1980s I had perfectly amicable relations, and several interesting conversations, with that queen of conservatives Professor Dame Leonie Kramer, who was much more disinterested in her approach than the current ideologues of the right. I can cope with, if not totally endorse:

I have always been interested in, and held views on, politics. My emancipation from left-wing politics was due to Anderson. Later, in England, I became interested in the work of the English conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. I’d describe myself now as a supporter of liberal democracy, but with a definite conservative bias. In more recent years, I have come to appreciate the great importance of free markets, though recognizing that they require a moral and social underpinning that is so woefully lacking in the new Russia.

Question: What, for you, is an ideal society? An ideal university? An ideal philosophy syllabus?

Kramer: I have little sympathy with Utopian thinking, and so have little time for the notion of an ‘ideal society’, very little more time for an ‘ideal university’, and not even much time for ‘an ideal philosophy syllabus’. We start from where we are, hope for improvements, but should remain all the time aware of the law of unintended consequences, sometimes very unwelcome consequences, that so constantly attends the self-conscious attempt to make things better through some plan.

In many ways, of course, the technological triumphs that have been both causes and effects of the theoretical triumphs of the scientific revolution have made Australia and other ‘first world’ countries better places than any societies that previously existed. And the rest of the world has quite reasonable hopes of following in the same track. It is orthodoxy among environmentalists, in particular, to dispute this last point, but this orthodoxy is almost certainly mistaken. (A book for those who do not mind the questioning of conventional wisdom, and are prepared to read a long book, is A Moment in Time, by Gregg Easterbrook, which appeared in 1995. It is not, incidentally, written from a conservative viewpoint, which makes it all the more interesting.)

We can consider what is good in where we are, and hope to extend it, or at least preserve it. We can consider what is bad, and how it might be ameliorated, or at least prevented from getting worse. But we start from where we are. In Utopian thinking about society, we start with where we would like to be, and then consider how we might get there. That way of thinking has regularly led to disaster.

Thinking about universities (and also about schools), I believe that at the present time the thing we should be most anxious to preserve and extend is diversity. Let a hundred flowers bloom (as Chairman Mao deceitfully said). We don’t know very much about education, and have not been helped much by the educationists. Let different universities and different schools follow their own lights, and then we may be able, to some degree, to make an informed judgment of the strengths and weaknesses of various ways of proceeding. This, of course, suggests that the villain here is the state, with its centralizing tendencies and its desire for uniformity.

It is ironic, really, that the current Federal Government has an even stronger centralising tendency than its predecessors, while simultaneously shuffling off responsibility for actually delivering services.

Let’s back our state schools, and look rationally at what they provide, what problems they confront, and how best to improve an already excellent system.

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Back in the day: thanks Rowan Cahill

Related: Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part Three (2010), 09 — My Teachers (2007), The HSC English moanings of Miranda… (2007).

Here is a lovely photo of Dame Leonie Kramer with another great Australian with whom she would not have agreed all that often:


That is from the obituary in Honi Soit.

Dame Leonie Kramer was one of the University’s most well known, and controversial figures. For this, she was unapologetic.

Born in Melbourne, she studied at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College and the University of Melbourne. She gained a Doctorate from the University of Oxford and returned to Australia to teach English at the University of Sydney, before being appointed the first female professor of English. The Emeritus Professor of Australian literature at the University, she wrote both the Oxford History and Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature.

Dame Leonie became a household name during her time as Chancellor of the University of Sydney. A figure also deep in Sydney society, Patrick White called her “Killer Kramer” referring to his view that her style of operation was both swift and ruthless. At a later date she received a Tyrannosaurus rex toy “given to her in acknowledgment of her reputation for ferocity”. She did not shy away from this reputation. Other honours included being appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Companion of the Order of Australia….

She died on April 20 at Lulworth House, one of the many distinguished Australians to have passed away there in the past few years. Her husband, Harry Kramer, passed away in 1988. She is survived by her daughters, Jocelyn and Hilary and a legacy as one of the University’s most controversial and famous identities.

See also Obituary: Dame Leonie Kramer a celebrated academic and a potent conservative voice.