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Cunningham, Kenneth Stewart (1890–1976)

by Brian Williams

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Kenneth Stewart Cunningham (1890-1976), by unknown photographer, 1914-19

Kenneth Stewart Cunningham (1890-1976), by unknown photographer, 1914-19

Australian War Memorial, P04765.001

Kenneth Stewart Cunningham (1890-1976), educationist, was born on 3 February 1890 at Sebastopol, Victoria, second of twelve children of native-born parents Rev. William Richard Cunningham and his wife Amy, née Stephenson. William was a Methodist minister who was later received into the Presbyterian Church. Owing to the peripatetic nature of his father's calling, Kenneth attended at least seven different schools in Tasmania and Victoria before completing his matriculation in 1907 at St Andrew's College, Bendigo.

When Cunningham's ambition to study medicine was frustrated by his parents' inability to afford the fees, he turned to schoolteaching. Because of the shortage of teachers, he qualified as a junior teacher in 1909 after only six-months training at a local primary school. In the next two years he took charge of schools in five remote locations, ranging from the Murray River district to the Gippsland hills. Gaining varied experience, the young teacher carted a tin trunk full of books around the countryside and studied at length each evening. At the competitive examination in 1912 he won a studentship to the Melbourne Training College (Melbourne Teachers' College from 1913).

In the course of his three-year stint at M.T.C., Cunningham displayed a spark of high academic potential. On being exposed to the theories of the 'new education' movement and intelligence testing, he developed a voracious appetite for reading about overseas trends. He also came under the influence of the principal Dr John Smyth who permitted him to transfer to secondary teacher training during his second year and to study at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1919; M.A., Dip.Ed., 1922). Late in 1914 Smyth also persuaded him to accept an appointment at the Bell Street Special School for mentally handicapped children, which had opened in 1913 at Fitzroy under the headmastership of Stanley Porteus. Cunningham taught there for eight months, during which he assisted Porteus with research and testing programmes.

On 6 August 1915 Cunningham enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He trained with the Australian Army Medical Corps before embarking in April 1916 for the Western Front where he served with the 5th Field Ambulance as a stretcher-bearer. His extensive diaries recorded his observations of conditions in the trenches and highlighted his belief in the futility of war. Commissioned on 23 November 1918, he returned to Australia next May and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 1 January 1920.

At the Presbyterian Church, South St Kilda, on 3 January 1920 Cunningham married a fellow schoolteacher Ella Myrtle Tuck; they were to have three children. He resumed his university course, completing both his bachelor's and master's degrees, and his diploma of education, with first-class honours, and winning the Dwight prize. Accepting Smyth's offer of a lectureship, Cunningham taught courses in educational psychology and experimental education at the college and the university. Throughout the 1920s he directed the work of a 'psychological laboratory' at M.T.C. where he devised intelligence tests suitable for local use and conducted clinical work with 'problem' children. After receiving a Macy scholarship, he studied at the Teachers' College, Columbia University, New York, in 1925-27 under such leading educationists as John Dewey and Edward Thorndike. His doctoral thesis (1926) was published as The Measurement of Early Levels of Intelligence (New York, 1927).

In 1930 Cunningham was appointed foundation chief executive officer (director from 1939) of the Australian Council for Educational Research. In this post he exerted a significant influence on the development of Australian educational research for almost a quarter of a century. He supervised the construction of standardized tests for Australian schools, took chief responsibility for the distribution of research and travel grants, selected material for the A.C.E.R.'s vigorous publication programme and organized a successful New Education Fellowship conference in 1937.

A voluminous writer on educational subjects, Cunningham made considerable contributions to the development of Australian libraries and the social sciences in general, and championed the use of tests for vocational purposes during World War II. He was a member of the Australian National Research Council and chaired (1943-52) its social science research committee. In addition, he was a founder of the Australian branch of the British Psychological Society and a postwar president of the Eugenics Society of Victoria.

Cunningham's working life spanned an era when psychology was being applied more readily to the problems of education. The study of individual differences and mental measurement became fashionable in Australian schools. With other advocates of the testing movement, he shared a vision that education would eventually be elevated to the status of a science. Objective testing—although controversial—was seen as a means of eliminating much of the educational wastage caused by outdated teaching methods based on tradition or mere opinion.

Undemonstrative, cautious and diplomatic, Cunningham steered the A.C.E.R. to institutional permanence by carrying out the continuing negotiations throughout the 1940s which secured the grants needed for its survival. His insistence on high academic standards established the council's credibility as a research authority and enabled him to elicit the necessary co-operation from Australia's centralized systems of educational administration.

Following his retirement in 1954, Cunningham remained actively devoted to education. He accepted an invitation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to work in Indonesia in 1955-56 as a consultant on teacher-training and he continued to publish widely. He remained in excellent health until 1973, when a stroke left him partly paralysed. Survived by his son and a daughter, he died on 27 June 1976 at Fairfield, Melbourne, and was cremated. In 1965 Monash University had named a chair of education after him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Connell, The Australian Council for Educational Research (Melb, 1980)
  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • Australian Library Journal, 25, Oct 1976, p 349
  • Australian Psychologist, 12, July 1977, p 204
  • Journal of Australian Studies, 31, 1991
  • Cunningham personal papers (privately held)
  • Cunningham's war diaries (Australian War Memorial)
  • ACER Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne.

Citation details

Brian Williams, 'Cunningham, Kenneth Stewart (1890–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cunningham-kenneth-stewart-9878/text17481, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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