Author's abstract: The books from which Victorian children learned to read last century held a variety of implicit social and moral values. To many children in isolated, pioneering districts of Victoria, the secular Reader was the principal source of information and ideas. The more advanced of the Irish and British Readers contained a huge variety of factual knowledge in combination with extracts from the best of English literature. Although these imported Readers underwent exclusions, adaptations and revisions, the content remained essentially foreign to colonial Australia, with a pervading moral stance originating in the high-minded intellectual and cultural traditions of Europe.
Throughout the nineteenth century, there was undue emphasis on the mechanical aspects of grammar in the elementary school curriculum. In the minds of Victorian educators, the study of grammar was firmly linked with the cultivation of high ideals and an intellectual understanding of life. In reality, the grammar books were sensible and straightforward, but badly used by the poorly-educated teachers. The popularity and cheapness of the Irish and British grammar books prevented the adoption of a number of locally-produced texts.
This thesis examines the changing content and use of school books during three distinct periods: the Irish monopoly, 1848-1877, the British phase, 1877-1896 and a National phase, 1896-1948. During the first phases, there were impressive local text-book publications, reflecting a desire for more local, relevant knowledge for Australian school children and a developing independence from the Home country. Most failed to secure official patronage and had limited circulation. The more successful ones attempted to meet the needs of new curriculum programmes, emphasising local knowledge relevant to colonial children.
In 1896 Charles Long produced the monthly School papers which were eminently Australian and less literary than the Readers, but which continued to support conservative social values and the concepts of British imperialism. Long's Victorian readers from 1928 were set in the same mould of Victorian morality, but with an Australian theme: a rural romantic dream of the Australian bush. This series was to dominate Victorian schools for another thirty years. During this period many successful and impressive Australian text-books were written and adopted by the Education Department to meet the needs of a changing curriculum. Centralised control of the school curriculum, from the formation of a Board of Examiners, coincided with a period of enormous colonial expansion and major administrative changes in colonial education. A 'uniform supply' of text-books gave some stability to the school curriculum, establishing set standards of work and a range of graded reading material. The scantily-educated teachers depended on the books, and teaching involved excessive drill and learning by rote. The aim was not to entertain, but to develop skills in reading and writing. Inspectors' reports suggest that much depended on the manner in which the books were used, and there is evidence of successful teaching.
The books were comprehensive and cheap, but there were problems of supply and distribution which went unresolved, despite brisk local trading and the establishment of book depositories. Isolated rural schools suffered most from inadequate resources and support. The gradual Australianisation of texts and inclusion of items of quality Australian literature gave a sounder basis for learning and stronger cultural identity for young Australians. But even the best of the Australian texts maintained conservative assumptions on class, race, religion, work and morals. The selections from all the principal, nineteenth-century British and American writers suggest that the "cultural cringe" in Australia was alive and well throughout the period and that the curriculum was set to maintain the conservative social order, within the structure of a liberal education.