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Robert Colin Badger (1906–1993)

by Peter Rushbrook

This article was published:

Robert Colin Henry Badger (1906–1993), adult educator, was born on 4 December 1906 at Petersburg (later Peterborough), South Australia, eighth of ten children of locally born parents Herbert James Badger, draper, and his wife Angelina, née Nichols. Colin’s Scottish-born paternal grandfather, David, was a pioneering Baptist minister in South Australia. The Badger children grew up on a diet of thrift, a strong work ethic, the poetry of Robert Burns, and lessons from a ‘tattered Bible’ (Badger 1984, 10).

In 1916 the family moved to Adelaide after drought and a related lack of trade forced the closure of the haberdashery. They lived in modest circumstances and Colin later recalled the failure of his father’s schemes to make money. He was educated at North Adelaide and Mitcham public schools before attending Unley High School, where he was expelled for stealing science supplies to conduct experiments at home. The city’s library and second-hand bookshops fed his growing interest in literature. In 1923 he secured a position as a laboratory assistant and later as a librarian at the University of Adelaide; he used the opportunity to undertake classes as a non-graduating student. Three years later his commitment to the Baptist Church led to his call to the ministry and he enrolled in the State’s Baptist College. In between pastoral obligations, he studied for a degree in history and philosophy at the university (BA, 1936; MA, 1938), winning the Tinline scholarship for history in 1931. He was taught by the historian (Sir) Keith Hancock, who became a close friend and strong influence. In 1929, through the church, he had met Adelaide Estella Slade, a nurse. They married on 9 November that year at Parkside.

Realising a clerical life was not for him, Badger transferred his zeal to adult education, as a lecturer at the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) of South Australia. He found its encouragement of ‘second chance’ adult learning through the arts and voluntary education appealing. His work was less a job than a ‘fervent desire to save souls, so to speak’ (Badger 1984, 36) by enabling self-improvement. Still academically restless, on Hancock’s advice, he studied Italian before travelling to London in 1934 to commence a thesis on nineteenth-century Italian politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. While in London he continued his interest in adult education and met R. H. Tawney, a powerful advocate of the WEA. Unable to secure sufficient employment, Badger’s savings were soon expended and he returned to South Australia, leaving the thesis uncompleted.

In 1936 Badger was appointed as readers’ counsellor and later director of adult education at the University of Western Australia. Assisted by Carnegie Corporation of New York grants, he conducted experiments in adult learning through reading and discussing books. His success led to an engagement as director of university extension at the University of Melbourne, a post supported by Victoria’s WEA. He arrived early in 1939 to find the extension program in disrepair, with acrimony between the university and the WEA, and between the WEA and some members of the trade union movement—who considered the association subversive of workers’ interests.

Quietly but firmly, during the war years Badger transformed the WEA curriculum to include creative arts as well as traditional academic fare, making it ‘a much more cultural outfit’ (Badger 1988). In July 1940 he joined the broadcasting division of the Department of Information. He presented talks on radio locally and, in Italian, for transmission in Europe. Returning to his university post in 1941, he continued to assist the national effort in World War II as a member of the Australian Services Education Council and by writing and lecturing for the Australian Army Education Service. In 1945 he was granted special admission to the degree of master of arts at the University of Melbourne.

Badger became convinced of the need for an independent adult education board, responsible to government and not to a university. In 1946, following the election of the reformist Cain Labor government, he seized the opportunity to reinvent and transform Victorian adult education by establishing the Council of Adult Education (CAE). Appointed as the council’s director, he worked closely with the foundation chairman Frank Crean, then an Australian Labor Party member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Badger promoted education for city-based adults by employing such academic luminaries as Manning Clark and (Sir) Zelman Cowen. For rural adult learners, he drew on his experience in Western Australia and reshaped the innovative ‘Box Scheme,’ under which reading groups were sent sets of books with accompanying questions and notes to prompt discussion. Across the State he promoted creative arts through such novelties as an arts train and travelling theatre. He also supported complementary endeavours such as the literary journal Meanjin Papers, the Union Theatre Repertory (later Melbourne Theatre) Company, and the Charles Strong (Australian Church) Memorial Trust. Although Badger was regarded by some of his colleagues as Machiavellian, he considered his achievements to be the result of a ‘clear head and a good deal of luck’ (Badger 1991, 20).

After retiring in 1971, Badger continued to be an active writer and researcher. Among his publications was a biography of the religious and social worker Rev. Charles Strong (1971) and his autobiography, Who Was Badger? (1984). On 8 August 1993 he died at South Caulfield and was cremated. Predeceased by his daughter, he was survived by his wife and their two sons. From 1994 the CAE presented Colin Badger awards for leadership in adult education.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Badger, Adelaide Estella. Growing Up at the Summit: A Little Chronicle of Family Life. Melbourne: [A. E. Badger], 1989
  • Badger, Colin. Interview by Katherine Johnson, 7 January 1988. NSW WEA Oral History Project. Council of Adult Education
  • Badger, C. R. Occasional Papers on Adult Education and Other Matters. Melbourne: Council of Adult Education, 1991
  • Badger, Colin R. Who Was Badger? Aspects of the Life and Work of Colin Robert Badger, Director of Adult Education, Victoria, 1947-1971. Melbourne: Council of Adult Education, 1984
  • Badger, Colin, and Frank Crean. Interview by Peter Rushbrook, 21 May 1993, South Yarra, Vic. Council of Adult Education
  • Council of Adult Education. A Remembrance of the Achievements and Life of Colin Robert Badger, 22 August 1993
  • Stephan, Deborah. A Great Many Volunteers of All Kinds: The Adult Education Association of Victoria, 19481989. Melbourne: Adult Education Association of Victoria, 1992

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Citation details

Peter Rushbrook, 'Badger, Robert Colin (1906–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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