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Robert Garth Boomer (1940–1993)

by Alan Reid

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Robert Garth Boomer (1940–1993), educationist, was born on 12 September 1940 at Mount Barker, South Australia, elder child of South Australian-born parents Charlemagne Carlyle Guilford Boomer, brickmaker, and his wife Rita Ivy, née Miels. Educated at Littlehampton Primary School, and Mount Barker and Adelaide Boys High Schools, Garth excelled at tennis and Australian Rules football and won a teaching scholarship to study at the University of Adelaide (BA Hons, 1962). He gained a Diploma of Teaching (Secondary General) in 1966 from Adelaide Teachers College. On 2 January 1965 he had married Jean Graham McNaught, a teacher, at the Albert Street Methodist Church, Brisbane. 

After graduating, Boomer taught English, mathematics, and Latin in secondary schools before being appointed as the first departmental consultant in English. From the late 1960s he authored and co-authored a number of English textbooks. In 1972 he won an Education Department scholarship to study at the Institute of Education, University of London (MEd, 1973), focusing on language and learning. Returning to South Australia, he became an education officer and then inspector of schools, before being appointed (1980) director of Wattle Park Teachers Centre which oversaw curriculum and teacher development in the State public education system. By this time he was coming to national and international prominence as a speaker and writer on language and literacy, English, and curriculum theory and practice.

Boomer moved to Canberra in 1984 to become director of the National Curriculum Development Centre. At a time of slowly expanding Commonwealth government involvement in school education, the appointment consolidated his influence on education policy. The next year he was appointed chair of the Commonwealth Schools Commission and, upon the demise of that body, interim chair of the Schools Council. In mid-1988 he returned to South Australia as associate director-general of education (curriculum), a position he held until his death.

In addition to his significant administrative career, Boomer’s intellect, scholarship, and brilliant writing and oratory marked him as one of Australia’s most influential educationists. Having the rare ability to combine the administrative and intellectual worlds of education, he adopted what he termed a ‘pragmatic-radical’ position, which acknowledged fiscal realities while continuing to advocate for social justice, equity, and educational reform (Boomer 1999, 52).  He maintained an interest in the teaching of English and literacy, intertwined with a concern for the methods and theories of teaching. Learning required a collaborative partnership with students, in classrooms that were as democratic as possible and that offered students some elements of choice. He viewed teachers as intellectuals who should have the opportunity to research their practice and to make changes to their teaching as they developed new insights. In this way he saw curriculum development as a critical and reflexive process, responsive to student needs and priorities.

Boomer’s commitment to learning and his regard for teachers led to a long involvement with the South Australian English Teachers Association, and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) of which he became a life member in 1977 and president (1981–84). He was also president of the International Federation for the Teaching of English (1983–85), and he played an important role in the establishment of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) in 1983. In 1989 he was appointed as the South Australian representative and vice-chairman (1989–93) of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. He used his creative-writing talents and his understanding of learning and teaching to contribute to the creation of Lift Off, an innovative approach to children’s television.

A larger-than-life character, Boomer was described by a friend and colleague as a ‘raconteur; scholar; derring-do; gastronome; bon vivant; connoisseur; and imbiber of quality red wine; scallywag; singer and dancer; lover of literature; proud Aussie’ (Brock 2013, 20). He was appointed OAM, and later elevated to AM (1993).  Survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, he died of brain cancer on 16 July 1993 in the Daw House Hospice, Adelaide, and was cremated. Both the AATE and ACSA perpetuate his memory through lectures which bear his name. The education faculty building at the University of South Australia is also named after him.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Boomer, Garth, Nancy Lester, Cynthia Onore, Cynthia, and Jon Cook, eds. Negotiating the Curriculum: Educating for the 21st Century. London: Falmer Press, 1992
  • Boomer, Garth, and Dale Spender. The Spitting Image: Reflections on Language, Education and Social Class. Adelaide: Rigby, 1976
  • Boomer, Garth. 'Pragmatic-Radical Teaching and the Disadvantaged Schools Program. In Designs on Learning: Essays on Curriculum and Teaching by Garth Boomer, edited by Bill Green. Canberra: Australian Curriculum Studies Association, 1999, 49–58
  • Brock, Paul. ‘In Memory of Garth Boomer: May He Not “Rust Unburnished”, but “Shine in Use”.’ English in Australia 48, no. 3 (2013): 12–20
  • Green, Bill, ed. Metaphors and Meanings: Essays on English Teaching by Garth Boomer. Norwood, SA: Australian Association for the Teaching of English, 1988
  • Green, Bill and Marion Meier, eds. ‘Garth Boomer—20 Years On?’ English in Australia 48, no. 3 (2013), 4–7.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alan Reid, 'Boomer, Robert Garth (1940–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 23 May 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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