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Alexander Mackie (1876–1955)

by L. A. Mandelson

This article was published:

Alexander Mackie (1876-1955), educationist, was born on 25 May 1876 in Edinburgh, son of William Mackie, master grocer, and his wife Margaret, née Davidson. He was educated at Daniel Stewart's College, and in 1893 became a pupil-teacher at Canonmills Public School. In 1897 he entered the Edinburgh Training College, Moray House, on a two-year scholarship and concurrently attended the University of Edinburgh under Professor Simon Somerville Laurie. Graduating M.A. with first-class honours in philosophy in 1900, he spent only two years as a schoolteacher before, in December 1902, he became an assistant lecturer in education at University College of North Wales, Bangor.

In 1906 Mackie was appointed principal of the new Teachers' College, Sydney, which had been established by the Department of Public Instruction in response to widespread critical review of the education system and the decision to abolish pupil-teachers. At the request of Professor (Sir) Francis Anderson, he acted in 1908 as professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney while the former was on leave. In 1910 Mackie was appointed professor of education, while remaining Teachers' College principal. Despite the difficulties of the years to 1920 it was a time of development, achievement, promise and personal satisfaction. He married Annie Burnett Duncan, a young Australian teacher, on 4 June 1913 at North Sydney, forged his college into a tertiary institution with well-qualified staff, including his vice-principal Percival Cole, and saw some progress towards his ideal of the teacher as a well-educated professional. He was fully supported by Peter Board, director of education in 1905-22.

By 1912, after the establishment of a state system of secondary education, the Intermediate and Leaving certificates became the examinations for the award of teacher-education scholarships and for entrance to the college for the one-year 'short course' and two-year 'long course'. Initially the short course was a major step forward, doubling the previous training of entrants seeking appointments to small rural schools. However, the one-year course was thrust upon many students by the department and, despite Mackie's protests, was not finally abandoned by a department often desperately short of teachers until 1937. The Leaving certificate gradually became the necessary requirement to secure a scholarship and hence gain admission. Under arrangements fostered by Mackie and approved by Board, those students who qualified for admission to the university could take Mackie's courses in the history and theory of education, and later experimental education, as second or third-year B.A. subjects and proceed to the graduate diploma in education.

During Mackie's training the educational world was enlivened by the 'New Education'. His own stance, as evidenced in his addresses and publications, was in essence a well-considered although not especially distinctive or distinguished expression of the 'New Education', which incorporated as an obviously influential component some of the views expressed by Plato; there is considerable compatibility between Mackie's views and those of John Dewey. In Groundwork of Teaching (1919) and Studies in Education (1932) Mackie expounded his view that the function of schooling was 'to secure and promote the welfare and happiness of children' to prepare them for the future and for community life, but also to be critical of the social order in a context where schooling was 'enjoyable and absorbing'. Equally important was his concept of teachers as well-educated professionals who should be accorded professional freedom in the exercise of their responsibilities.

Under Mackie, the Teachers' College soon became a centre of educational activity and discussion and a college distinguished for the quality of its academic staff, where men and women who were to become eminent in Australian education began their careers. In his first year Mackie organized the Education Society, which was to produce over forty monographs. In 1917 Mackie established the journal Schooling, a publication he was forced to abandon in 1933 for financial reasons. He himself wrote fairly extensively, often with members of the college staff as co-authors and these publications in education, if not always significant in themselves, were important as Australian ventures into this field. He also encouraged research and experiment by members of his staff and the staff of nearby demonstration schools. Mackie encouraged students to accept responsibility for their own affairs, instigating the establishment of a student representative council, and organizing the timetable to provide for student clubs and activities. He also tried to create a physical environment appropriate to a tertiary institution, placing considerable emphasis upon the library and the acquisition of works of art.

In 1920 the college moved at last to its new building in the university grounds. In 1922 Board retired and was replaced by Henry Smith as director; and almost immediately there was a shift to educational conservatism. Ignoring Mackie's protests, Smith insisted upon impressing his will upon the college. Thus in 1923 its courses were revised by a departmental committee to ensure that during their course primary students studied the content of the primary school subjects. Mackie and Smith also held very different views on the value of a university education for teachers. Smith imposed severe restrictions upon the number of students granted university scholarships. In 1927 Mackie was required to assist in implementing an emergency scheme whereby a group of students were placed for continuous practice in school for a year to alleviate a teacher shortage. Mackie even protested directly to the minister against Smith's actions and attitude. Their antagonism culminated in a clash which resulted in Mackie being suspended by Smith from 9 to 15 November 1927 until an objectionable letter was withdrawn. Further disappointments followed. The university's professorial board rejected Mackie's proposal that he parallel college courses with university courses and that college students be permitted to sit for university examinations; the reciprocal arrangements between the university and the college remained confined to candidates for the university's diploma in education. In 1927 the State Superannuation Board excluded Mackie from participating in the State Superannuation Fund on a technicality related to his professorial status when this could have been simply overcome as it was for his successor in 1940.

During the Depression, student intake to the college was reduced; college staff were sent back to the schools, and supplies and equipment were curtailed. Never a man to be silent on issues affecting his college, Mackie several times publicly criticized government and departmental policies and both G. R. Thomas, who in 1930 replaced Smith, and David Drummond, minister for education, reprimanded him for such utterances. However, amid all the difficulties of the 1920s and 1930s Mackie continued his efforts on behalf of the college and of Australian education generally. Much of his writing was done at this time. With Professor Tasman Lovell and Frank Tate, he helped to found the Australian Council for Educational Research in 1928 and was a member of its executive until 1940. In 1933 he was a member of the committee appointed to inquire into the system of examinations and the secondary school course.

Mackie became ill suddenly and his career concluded abruptly in 1940. He then faced a long period of illness and depression during which he made only a few visits to the college which had been his life for so long. He died of cerebral haemorrhage on 23 October 1955, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife, son and daughter, both of whom followed careers in tertiary education, survived him.

The Sydney Morning Herald linked Mackie with Board and Francis Anderson in its obituary, describing their influence upon Australian education as lasting and profound. Mackie was specifically identified by the Herald as an outstanding educator who had effectively raised the status of teacher education. To his colleagues he had become almost a legendary figure for his insistence that teaching be accorded the status of a profession, that teachers must have both a sound general and a sound professional education, and his insistence that his staff be accorded academic freedom, especially from any arbitrary and inappropriate restraints by the Public Service Board or the department.

A fine portrait painted by George Lambert in 1926, funded by public subscription, hangs in the Alexander Mackie library of the Sydney Institute of Education, Sydney College of Advanced Education. The Mackie medal was established for award to outstanding Australian educators by the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.

Select Bibliography

  • L. A. Mandelson, ‘Alexander Mackie’, in C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • Kookaburra, 18 Dec 1926
  • Forum of Education, 14, no 3, Apr 1956
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1926, 25 Oct 1950
  • A. J. Baillie, Alexander Mackie (M.Ed. thesis, University of Sydney, 1968).

Citation details

L. A. Mandelson, 'Mackie, Alexander (1876–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 May, 1876
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


23 October, 1955 (aged 79)

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