The Australian National University
Emeritus Faculty Oral History

Interview with Emeritus Professor Richard Johnson classicist and educational philosopher

Interviews conducted 29 October 2010, at Emeritus Faculty
Producer, Interviewer and Editor - Peter Stewart
Engineer - Nik Fominas

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Biographical introduction: Dick Johnson joined ANU as Professor of Classics in the Faculty of Arts in 1962. In 1984 he was appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Education and Youth Affairs, in Canberra. In 1989 he returned to ANU as a visiting fellow at the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE), then joined the Centre for Education and Academic Methods (CEDAM). He retired altogether from the University at the end of 2011.

Interview Synopsis: Dick Johnson was born in 1929 in Singapore of Australian parents; his father worked for many years in the insurance industry in Asia. Dick’s parents, though not university educated, held a great respect for learning. In 1936, they moved Dick and one of his brothers (of two, plus a sister) to primary school at Manly’s Christian Brothers College, then on to secondary schooling at the Jesuit Riverview College. From his later school years, Dick’s interests and skills naturally revealed themselves as Greek and Latin, literature and history.

In 1946, Dick considered enrolling in a history and English major in Sydney University, but his great facility with Greek and Latin soon took him, abetted by Professor Dale Trendall, into a double honours degree in those subjects and thus into the mainstream of classics. Trendall would become an enduring influence on Dick’s later life and career, continuing for more than thirty years, including Trendall’s time in ANU as Master of University House.

In 1950, on Trendall’s initiative, Dick was appointed temporary junior lecturer at Auckland University College, an experience which further confirmed Dick’s commitment to classics scholarship. However he had an earlier ambition, to become a Jesuit priest and scholar and in 1951-52 spent almost two years in the novitiate, but minor medical troubles, related probably to the stress induced by his commitment to that vocation, decided Dick (compassionately aided by his Jesuit superiors) against the priestly life.

Then, jobless, Dick became a clerical worker with Shell Oil for a time, before enrolling in 1953 as a bonded Diploma of Education candidate in the NSW Education Department, intending to become a school teacher. Dick enjoyed the exposure to educational philosophy which that course provided, but his practical teaching encounters were less persuasive (the waywardness of the boys at a Sydney high school, even if in contrast to the earnest dedication of the country kids at Penrith High). Serendipitously, Dick had news of a vacancy in a lectureship in classics at the University of Western Australia. Inevitably, Professor Trendall’s influence again came to the fore, and Dick successfully made the application. Importantly, it renewed Dick’s enthusiasm, latent from his Auckland year, for classics scholarship. At UWA he enrolled for an honours MA at Sydney University. He embarked on what would become a continuing interest in Greek and Roman education and its later influence on European education.

In 1955, still in Perth, Dick married Mary McAleer and they began their family. Shortly after, Dick accepted a lectureship in classics at Melbourne University. While this was a move in the right academic direction for Dick, it began for him and Mary a sometimes difficult period in their family, beset with the practical difficulties of living in an outer Melbourne suburb with rudimentary facilities, a steadily growing family, and the financial challenges presented by a single salary.
After a few years, the family’s fortunes began to look up. In 1959, once more with the support of Professor Trendall, Dick won a year of study leave, and a Nuffield Fellowship to support it, at the Warburg Institute in the University of London. While there, Dick had news of a small classics department, headed by Kay Masterman, forming in the newly emergent School of General Studies at ANU and shepherded by Trendall from University House, On Masterman’s retirement at the end of 1961 Dick was appointed professor and head of the new department. Dick counts it his great fortune to have inherited that able, albeit small, group of classicists at ANU.

Over the next decade and more, with the inevitable organizational challenges presented by a new department, itself set in the novel undergraduate teaching structure which was the SGS, Dick Johnson set to in making his mark on the teaching and research capabilities of his own department, and more broadly the direction of the Faculty of Arts and its lively and sometimes fractious professors. Dick continued his research, now directed at translating from the Latin the writings of Martianus Capella – two books of introduction plus seven books on the liberal arts. Dick was fortunate to find as collaborator in this considerable challenge a colleague from his Melbourne University days – the American Bill Stahl. Unfortunately, Stahl would die before their opus was complete, and his loss, together with the growing and bewildering complexity of evolving university management and student politics at ANU, meant that Dick would not complete Martianus until two decades on.

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In the two decades following his appointment to ANU, Dick Johnson’s career became, above all, integral with the evolving management and increasing complexity of the binary (IAS and The Faculties) ANU. Up to 1984, he took part in more than twenty reviews of university departments and faculties, mostly within ANU. The rapid expansion of undergraduate teaching, both in student numbers and academic programs, the political tensions and student demonstrations (sometimes abetted by staff), and misjudgements on the part of some senior academics and managers, complicated the normal functioning of the university and its Council. Dick was called on to develop new management strategies and meliorations.

Over this period, Dick was at various times Dean of Arts, Dean of Students, Chairman of the Board of the Faculties, Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, and special projects manager for the Vice Chancellor. The breadth of his engagement is a measure of the confidence that senior members of the university had in him.

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For several years in the early 1980s Dick was also Chair of the Commonwealth Advanced Education Accrediting Committee. This, together with his acknowledged expertise as a university manager, provided good reason for him to be asked in 1984 by the then Federal Minister for Education Susan Ryan to become Secretary of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs in the Hawke Government. Dick moved to the government bureaucracy accordingly, but unfortunately his tenure there was not uncomplicated. That is another story, separate from Dick’s ANU years, and therefore not taken up further here. Even so, he continued in senior advisory roles in national tertiary education, distance and continuing education, and educational policy and technology.

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Following his retirement from the Federal Government in 1989, Dick returned to ANU as a visiting fellow in the Centre for Continuing Education (encouraged by Geoff Caldwell, then Director of CCE, and joining Don Anderson, Bruce Milligan, and Colin Plowman, each education experts in their own right) to form a small, informal ‘think tank’ to formulate and evaluate education policy. The group, and its members individually, attracted great interest and considerable resources, measures of the skills of Dick and his colleagues, and of the extent to which the government had stripped the public service of policy skills. The group generated many reports and reviews on tertiary, open and distance education, educational technology, modelling and evaluation until the CCE itself was overtaken by resource depletion, and the ‘think tank’ wound down as an entity. These days, Dick Johnson, Don Anderson, and Colin Plowman maintain a presence in ANU’s Centre for Education and Academic Methods (CEDAM), though now as mentors rather than as activists. Individually and corporately they continue to provide a sense of wisdom and possibilities in education policy and philosophy for CEDAM and ANU.

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Dick and his wife Mary and their three daughters and three sons lived most of their ANU years in the family home they created in Curtin, in the inner south of Canberra. A decade ago, befitting their simpler needs, Dick and Mary moved to a smaller home in Ainslie, in the inner north of the city.
Their children have created professional careers reflecting the educational values which their parents, and their grandparents, always professed: Katherine (born 1956) in languages and computing; Peter (1957) in welfare rights and policy; Clare (1959) in biochemistry and biotechnology; Terry (1960) in Asian Studies and the law; James (1961) in field geology; and Judith (1964) in anthropology and Indigenous rights. They remain a close-knit family, even if physically separated.