Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2021

‘Our Schools and the War (2012), by Rosalie Triolo (Chapter Two)

For Remembrance Day, commemorating the armistice on November 11th, 1918, I’ve revisited Rosalie Triolo’s ‘Our Schools and the War’. This time, because its discussion of ‘duty’ seemed relevant to Victoria’s experience with the pandemic, I read Chapter Two ‘Going without’ in its entirety.

(It’s been three years since I shared my initial thoughts about this book, so you may wish to visit my review of Chapter One.)

‘Going without’ traces the way in which the Department of Education fostered attitudes of self-denial, duty and thrift, framing these qualities as beneficial to Australian men at the front in WW1.  In May 1916, for example, a memo was sent to teachers of cooking, exhorting them to promote the use of apples because there was a glut of them due to the impact of the shortage of shipping on the export trade.  Gestures such as this were part of an ongoing patriotic campaign and schools were instrumental in getting the message out into homes and communities.  The consumption of luxuries and wasteful behaviour was considered shameful when soldiers were enduring the misery of the trenches.

Self-denial was framed as a way for children to serve their country since they were too young to go to war, and cultivating attitudes of patience, endurance, steadfastness and optimism was part of a teacher’s duty.  Through the School Paper and the Gazette, there were appeals such as this:

‘We should buy no unnecessary things, no luxuries, remembering that production is limited, and that labour spent on producing luxuries is lost for the production of necessaries…. We should reduce our consumption of such articles as tea, sugar and imported apparel.’ (p.39)

‘Thrift’ editions were varied according to the age of the intended audience.

Grade V-VI readers encountered an American schoolboy’s definition: ‘It means being industrious in whatever you undertake, wasting nothing, be it time, money or materials.’  Elsewhere readers read articles such as ‘Do it Now’, ‘Take Care of the Minutes’ and ‘Frugal Family’, while articles for Grade VII-VIII readers included ‘Thrift: the National Necessity’, ‘Abraham Lincoln’s Advice to a Thriftless Step-Brother’, and ‘Making Use of Waste Products’.

Children were told about schools in Britain who donated the cost of a foregone excursion to refugee children in Belgium, and it was suggested that during war time, there should be no prizes or treats so that the money could go to returned solders.

Though the proposed 2½ per cent cut to teachers’ salaries for the War Relief Fund was never implemented, teachers were under heavy pressure to raise funds for the War Savings Movement. Inspectors’ conducting school visits were advised that they were expected to include a report covering these activities:

  1. The school’s War Savings Group.  (If no group, why not?)
  2. The children’s campaign. (Is the teacher keeping statistics?)
  3. Sale of War Stamps. (Has the teacher applied for them?)
  4. War Relief figures.
  5. Number of members in Young Workers’ Patriotic Guild.  (Is the teacher inspiring pupils to become members?)

Conclude with some pointed remarks as to whether the teacher is a genuine ‘war worker’.  On your recommendation there will be sent to the school from this office either a congratulatory letter or one of another type. (p.42)

Frank Tate was Victoria’s first Director of Education from 1902 to 1928.  As Dr Triolo acknowledges, he and his colleague Charles Long, the foundation editor of The School Paper and the Gazette, were products of their culture, educational background and era and they were imperialist.  For them there were no ethical issues to consider in promoting patriotism and Empire, and they thought it was legitimate to use educational directives and student reading materials to achieve it.  Tate’s view was that:

The school is the laboratory of good citizenship.  No lesson children can receive is more important than the lesson that when our country needs our strenuous help, every one, old and young, strong and weak, rich and poor must do his part or stand condemned.  (p.43)

Reading these words in the context of a pointless war in which millions died for no good reason, makes me think that it might have been a good thing if teachers and schools had been less conformist. Learning that children were explicitly taught that it was their duty to support the war makes me feel uneasy. The primary school children that I taught were too young to debate any of Australia’s wars, but we were instructed by departmental regulations that we were to offer a balanced point-of-view on any controversial issues, which meant putting the case for both sides of any argument without giving any indication of our own opinions.  In practice it meant that discussion took the form of ‘some people say this’… ‘and other people say that’…

But in ‘Our Schools and the War’, Triolo makes it clear that teachers had no option but to obey the departmental rules.  What’s more, it seems that there is almost no record of any attempt to reject the school’s role in supporting the war and encouraging the future enlistment of boys and men.

There were surely members who opposed Australia’s involvement in the war, the pressure on men to enlist and the calls for conscription, but they were either a minority, did not commit their views to paper, or such records have been lost or destroyed, the latter perhaps motivated by Departmental resolve to impress with unanimity. (p.65)

There is also almost no acknowledgement of the crucial role played by women teachers replacing enlisted men, and thus playing a role in these propaganda and fund-raising activities. And even during the conscription debate, teachers appear to have kept out of it, staying under the radar if they intended to vote No.  Triolo suggests that most members of the profession were conservative in their views, and that they knew what was expected of them and accepted it.

Most people attracted to the teaching profession in the early twentieth century were prepared to endure its tight regulation and were aware of the consequences if they did not.  They were compelled to teach much that they had encountered in their own schooling and with which, in any case, they mostly agreed.  The teachers were more often than not uncritically patriotic, conservative and loyal to authority—or wise enough to be careful.  (p.65)

But reading Tate’s words about the laboratory of good citizenship during a pandemic puts a different gloss on it.  While alternative points of view about WW1 were and are valid, and contemporary schools have no role to play in enlisting schools in any war effort, this enemy is different, and there is no question that people need protection from the harm that Covid_19 causes.  ‘Duty’ seems like an old-fashioned word, but Tate’s words calling for schools to teach good citizenship seem apt, because the need for mutual cooperation to defeat the virus is essential.   We have seen that in the 21st century not everyone shares the view that individuals have a duty to work together for the common good.  We have seen the harm done by the free media and an irresponsible Opposition in encouraging dissent and a lack of cooperation with health orders.  (We have also seen that not everyone understands the basic principles of science which is a compulsory subject in Australian schools, but that’s a whole other story!)

I wonder when they write the history of the pandemic, how the story of individual choice v. public responsibility will be framed.

Dr Rosalie Triolo is the History Method lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, and this book, ‘Our Schools and the War’ is derived from her doctorate.

For a review of the book in its entirety, see Yvonne’s at Stumbling Through the Past. 

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Rosalie Triolo
Title: ‘Our Schools and the War’
Publisher: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012, 364 pages (of which 70 pages are the bibliography, index and notes).
ISBN: 9781921875564
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the author

Available direct from the publisher.


  1. I was in primary school in Victoria in the 1950s, so in the years a decade or so after WWII. My memory is that teaching materials were still very much as described here – pro-Empire and pro-War effort.
    Of course this was particularly dishonest in the context of the WWI and exacerbated probably by the Protestant/Catholic divide which had the Irish Catholics firmly on the anti-War side (unsurprisingly since the Irish were still an unwilling British colony).


    • What’s so interesting about the current battle against Covid, is that governments have had to get their messaging out without schools. Everybody knows that you get more bang for your campaign buck — whether it’s anti-smoking campaigns or Sun Smart or Responsible Pet Ownership or Federation celebrations or recycling — if you can get the campaign into schools. It’s the cheapest, most effective form of social campaigns and it has the greatest longevity too. It’s because schools are as much about socialisation as they are about education. (The Mining Industry has been providing ‘education kits’ free to schools for ages, and so do various agricultural enterprises such as the Dairy Corporation).

      However, I’m not sure that you are entirely right about the Irish. On the other side of the world, the Irish enlisted in droves in WW1, my own (southern) Irish family among them. There were about 200,000 of them and though some of them were already serving at the outbreak of war, most of them were volunteers.


  2. Astonishing to think pupils/teachers were being pressured into taking actions connected to a war happening thousands of miles away. Ive not heard of any similar directions given to teachers in Britain or the pressure they were put under to toe the party line about the war


    • There probably wasn’t the same need, with the enemy only 22 k across the Channel…


  3. […] Rosalie Triolo | Our Schools and the War (non-fiction) (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]


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