Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bernard (Joseph) McKenna (1870–1937)

by G. N. Logan

This article was published:

Bernard (Joseph) McKenna (1870-1937), educationist, was born on 6 June 1870 at Warwick, Queensland, son of Patrick McKenna, labourer and later farmer, and his wife Ellen, née Minton, both Irish. 'Barney' enrolled, about 1876, at Warwick West State School under head-teacher J. A. Canny, and in 1884 he began four years pupil-teacher training at Allora State School under head-teacher C. L. Fox; both Canny and Fox became district inspectors. On 5 July 1894 McKenna married Edith Kezia Warwick in the Baptist Tabernacle, Brisbane.

While he was teacher and head-teacher at six south-east Queensland schools in 1889-1908, his teaching aptitude and excellent early training bore fruit and inspectors described him as industrious, skilful and progressive. He easily accommodated to the utilitarian, child-centred 'New Education' trends in the 1900s. Following service as head-teacher at Enoggera (1909-10) and Sandgate (1911-13) in Brisbane, he became district inspector (1914-21) in north and central Queensland, where his sympathy for the isolated deepened his conviction of the need for a utilitarian (especially rural) orientation in education. In 1917 he travelled some 10,000 miles (16,093 km) and inspected 109 schools. McKenna became the Department of Public Instruction's acting chief inspector (January 1922) and acting under secretary (January 1923).

McKenna's choice as under secretary (April 1923) was judicious. Conscientious, determined and basically progressive, but not an original thinker and still less a rebel, he could be trusted to extend the initiatives of J. D. Story, a close friend and former under secretary, who retained a powerful influence on education. In common with Story, and the then Labor governments, his educational philosophy emphasized egalitarianism, utilitarianism and agrarianism. He saw good (socially efficient) citizens as the basic goal of education, but recognized equal opportunities for individuals of all aptitudes and skills, and responsiveness to current socio-economic needs, as prerequisites. Consequently, he attacked excessively academic syllabuses which disadvantaged 'different' children and obscured the basic socio-economic need, highlighted by the 1930s Depression, for 'a sturdy and intelligent rural peasantry'.

This philosophy permeated the initiatives personally associated with McKenna—the Primary Correspondence School (1922), intermediate schools (introduced in 1928 as a cautious step in reorganizing post-primary education) and, together with L. D. Edwards, the new primary syllabus (1930). Additionally, he extended his predecessor's initiatives, including vocational railway schools, rural schools, the home project club scheme, opportunity schools and reorganization of the Gatton Agricultural College. Departmental medical services, especially ophthalmic services for rural children, were another special interest. A full-time ophthalmic surgeon was appointed in 1927 and Wilson Ophthalmic Hostel for bush children opened in 1929.

Under McKenna the education system remained centralized and authoritarian, largely untempered by personal warmth from the system's head. A big man with large, strong features, he had a stern, sometimes abrupt, administrative style. He demanded loyalty and could be obstinate and defensive, equating criticism with disloyalty and dismissing outside criticism as interference. Though he regularly attended conferences of State directors of education, and accepted the Australian Council for Educational Research established in 1930, his attitude to such groups was guarded. This parochialism was highlighted in 1936 in his opposition to the planned New Education Fellowship conference.

McKenna retired officially on 31 December 1936, but was retained to rewrite syllabuses and associated textbooks for primary, intermediate and rural schools. This task was incomplete at his death at Eagle Junction, following a stroke, on 2 June 1937. Survived by his wife and two sons, he was buried in Toowong cemetery with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Men of Queensland (Brisb, 1929)
  • Secretary for Public Instruction, Annual Report, 1914, 1921, 1923, 1933
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 9 Oct, 9, 31 Dec 1936, 3 June 1937
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 9 Oct 1936, 2 June 1937
  • B. J. McKenna staff card (Dept of Education Archives, Brisbane)
  • register of teachers (Queensland State Archives)
  • St Helen's State School file (Queensland State Archives)
  • Public Service Board, staff file no 2629 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. N. Logan, 'McKenna, Bernard (Joseph) (1870–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 June 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]


6 June, 1870
Warwick, Queensland, Australia


2 June, 1937 (aged 66)
Eagle Junction, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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