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Percival Richard Cole (1879–1948)

by I. S. Turner

This article was published:

Percival Richard Cole (1879-1948), scholar and educationist, was born on 18 May 1879 at Muswellbrook, New South Wales, son of John Cole, an Irish-born schoolteacher, and his Tasmanian-born wife Mary Jane, née Teeson. Educated at Granville North (Rosehill) Public School in 1885-91 and Sydney Boys' High School in 1892-95, he became a pupil-teacher at Glebe Superior Public School in 1896. In 1900 he went to the Fort Street Training School where, in his last year, he won the Jones medal; and in 1901 was awarded a three-year scholarship to the University of Sydney. He graduated B.A. in 1903 with first-class honours in history and philosophy, winning the Frazer scholarship in history and the University Medal in philosophy, and M.A. in 1905 with first-class honours in modern history and the Woolley travelling scholarship for study overseas.

In England Cole attended the London Day Training College, and in 1906 was awarded the University of London Diploma of Education with first-class honours; he was elected a fellow of the College of Preceptors, London. Next year he went to the Teachers' College, Columbia University, New York (Ph.D., 1907), where he taught the history of education in 1908-09. He was an organizer and first president of the Cosmopolitan Club, New York.

In 1910 Cole returned to Sydney and became vice-principal and lecturer in education at the Teachers' College, Sydney, and, next year, lecturer in the history of education at the university; he held both appointments until he retired on 11 February 1944. He became one of a trio of educationists of whom it was said that Peter Board, director of education, was the architect, Alexander Mackie, the first principal of the college, the builder, and Cole the writer and poet of a new era in education and teacher-training in New South Wales.

One of the earliest and best-equipped among Australians in the history and philosophy of education, Cole published widely, culminating in his History of Educational Thought (London, 1931). His comprehensive view of education and the catholicity of his interests helped him to contribute many valuable articles, mainly to the college journals, Schooling (1910-35) and its successor, the Forum of Education (1940-), on such aspects as classroom practice, the curriculum, early childhood education, and the relation of the school to society and employment. 'Their significance lay in that the teaching profession had previously had to rely almost entirely on overseas publications for reading and stimulation. With Mackie, Cole wrote Studies in the Theory of Education (Sydney, 1925), the first book of its kind published in Australia. He also assembled the contributors for, and edited comprehensive discussions of educational problems in The Primary School Curriculum in Australia (Melbourne, 1932), The Education of the Adolescent in Australia (Melbourne, 1935) and The Rural School in Australia (Melbourne, 1937). Meanwhile, in a less obvious fashion, Cole, by his own scholarship and personal influence, reinforced Mackie's determination that a teachers' college should be an institution where professional practice was taught in an atmosphere of recognizable scholarship.

Fresh opportunities for him to use his wider knowledge and experience came in the late 1920s and 1930s—Cole was a foundation member of the Australian Council for Educational Research in 1930-33, and Australian representative for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1928-47. In 1929 and in 1936-37 he visited the United States of America, the second time as visiting Carnegie professor of international relations. He was honoured with the award of the prized Columbia University Medal in 1929 and King George V's Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935, and by membership of the American fraternity Phi Beta Kappa in 1936 and a fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts, London, in 1937.

Cole was fundamentally shy, and few of his contemporaries were aware of his interest in poetry and literary criticism. He published privately a volume of Poems in 1930. However he was a clubbable man, a life member of the Sydney University Union and a high-ranking tennis player, who later enjoyed golf. Dr Charles Currey praised the quality of Cole's scholarship, his outstanding success as a seminar-leader and the encouragement he gave his students. About two metres tall and large in proportion, he was tone-deaf and spoke almost in a monotone. Cole himself wrote that in 'the course of his own travels, the writer regarded himself as a communicating cell within the educational organism of modern civilization. At every opportunity he has received and transmitted educational ideas; but … he did not originate many of those ideas'.

A diabetic, Cole died of pneumonia on 7 August 1948 at his Manly home and was buried in the Church of England section of the Frenchs Forest cemetery. He was survived by his wife Ida Jane Louisa, née Skinner, whom he had married at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, on 26 April 1911. His portrait by Arthur Murch is held by the Teachers' College, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 23 Sept 1948
  • K. D. Williams, The Educational Writings of P. R. Cole (B.Ed. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1967)
  • P. R. Cole papers (MS 1355, State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

I. S. Turner, 'Cole, Percival Richard (1879–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 May, 1879
Muswellbrook, New South Wales, Australia


7 August, 1948 (aged 69)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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