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Christopher Ralph McRae (1901–1976)

by Brian Williams

This article was published:

Christopher Ralph McRae (1901-1976), university professor and educationist, was born on 25 February 1901 at Glenpatrick, near Avoca, Victoria, second of four children of Victorian-born parents James McRae, schoolteacher, and his first wife Margaret Louisa, née Tuck. Educated at Melbourne High School, Chris proceeded to Melbourne Teachers' College and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1922; Dip.Ed., 1923; M.A., 1924), graduating with first-class honours in Latin and French. Before he had the chance to teach in schools, he was seconded by the college principal John Smyth to work as an assistant to Kenneth Cunningham in the newly established 'psychological laboratory'. In 1923 McRae went abroad and gained a 'Diplôme de Français' from the University of Dijon. That year he enrolled at the London Day Training College, University of London (Ph.D., 1925), under (Sir) Percy Nunn, and worked with the internationally known psychologists Charles Spearman and (Sir) Cyril Burt. McRae's doctoral thesis investigated the effects of educational and social opportunity on intelligence tests. Spearman cited McRae's results at length in his own publications, but, much to McRae's chagrin, always spelt his name incorrectly.

Having returned to Melbourne, McRae lectured (1925-27) at the teachers' college. On 15 July 1926 at St John's Anglican Church, East Malvern, he married Lydia Frances Trembath. At this time he espoused his most controversial views on intelligence and social status. He compared the test results obtained in 'poor' industrial areas with those of 'good' residential areas and found scores to be generally higher in the better neighbourhoods. This work led him to conclude that genetics were the main factor in achievement, and he suggested that schools in industrial areas should only follow a modified curriculum specializing in vocational work. His conclusions accorded with those of other academics of the day (particularly Burt), but gave little consideration to environmental factors.

McRae was appointed lecturer in educational psychology at Teachers' College, Sydney, in February 1928. His major publication, Psychology and Education (Melbourne, 1929), outlined a number of psychological theories and showed ways of applying them to education. He visited North America on a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1932 and in the following year published An Australian Looks at American Schools (Melbourne). Concerning You and Me (Melbourne, 1934) was a study of human instinct and the psychology of humour. After serving in 1939 as an inspector of schools in the Albury district, in May 1940 McRae obtained the joint position of professor of education at the University of Sydney and principal of Teachers' College. Throughout his career he emphasized the need for college students to develop intellectual interests in addition to teaching skills. Despite the shortage of paper in 1942, he revived the college journal as the Forum of Education, and remained its chief editor until 1948. He developed the faculty of education and introduced a new master of education degree, open to all teachers, whatever their academic background. Promoted full-time professor of education in February 1948, he chaired the professorial board in 1952.

In July 1955 McRae became the first deputy vice-chancellor of the university, responsible for academic matters and liaising with the professorial board and staff. He again visited North America on a Carnegie grant in 1957, and in 1960 chaired a State government committee of inquiry into the need for a fourth university in New South Wales. Among his other endeavours, McRae was an active member (1940-64) and president (1959-60) of the Australian Council for Educational Research, and associate-editor (1957-64) of its Australian Journal of Education. He was considered a fine lecturer, with a keen sense of humour, a sharp mind and an incisive style. 'No one used the limerick more effectively as a teaching aid or bettered his collection of limericks'.

The weight of his responsibilities, however, undermined McRae's health and forced him to retire in 1961. He lived at Newport Beach. For many years his chief relaxation had been playing tennis. He served (1961-62) on the Commonwealth government's committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia, chaired by Sir Leslie Martin. McRae died on 21 July 1976 at Manly and was cremated; his wife, daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • B. Williams, Education with its Eyes Open (Melb, 1994)
  • Education Gazette and Teacher's Aid, 27 Apr 1926, p 129, 20 July 1926, p 241
  • Australian Council for Educational Research, Annual Report, 1976, p 1
  • Forum of Education, 25, no 3, Sept 1976, p 1
  • Australian Journal of Education, 1976, 20, no 3, p 325
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Feb 1977, p 21
  • staff record, Department of Education (New South Wales) Archives, Sydney.

Citation details

Brian Williams, 'McRae, Christopher Ralph (1901–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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