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Percy Herbert Partridge (1910–1988)

by Grant Harman

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Percy Partridge, n.d.

Percy Partridge, n.d.

photo provided by family

Percy Herbert Partridge (1910-1988), social philosopher and educationist, was born on 1 January 1910 at Hornsby, Sydney, son of New South Wales-born parents Percy Henry Herbert Partridge, railway employee, and his wife Amelia, née Byrnes.  Perc was educated at Yass Public and Fort Street Boys’ High schools and the University of Sydney (BA, 1930; MA, 1937), which he attended on a teachers’ college scholarship.  He studied philosophy under John Anderson and graduated with first-class honours.  After a teacher-training course, he had a stint of secondary-school teaching.  Returning to university, he completed a master’s degree, gaining a university medal in philosophy, and in 1934-43 lectured in philosophy.  On 25 March 1937 at the district registrar’s office, Chatswood, he married Wilba Myse Bronger.  In 1939 he travelled to Britain and studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Oxford, broadening his interests to include the study of political institutions and theory.

Lecturer in political theory (1943-47) at Sydney, Partridge then moved to the University of Melbourne, where in 1947 he was senior lecturer in political science in charge of the department.  He reorganised the course’s content and teaching.  In 1948 he returned to Sydney as chair of what was to become the department of government and public administration, and was that year also dean of the faculty of economics.  Appointed in 1952 foundation professor of social philosophy at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, he viewed his subject as ‘the examination of the more general and fundamental conceptions . . . assumptions and principles, which are employed both in the several social sciences and in the thinking of ordinary men about the organisation of political and social life’.  His main publications included Social Science for the Secondary School (1969) and Consent and Consensus (1971).

Succeeding Sir Keith Hancock as director of ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences in 1961, Partridge brought cohesion and added breadth to the school.  He increased staff numbers and established multidisciplinary units concerned with urban research and the history of ideas.  Dedicated to education research, his 1966 Australian College of Education Buntine oration addressed ‘Some Problems of Educational Policy in Democratic Societies’.  He also acted as an adviser on education policy to Sir Hugh Ennor, who was appointed the first head of the Commonwealth Department of Education and Science in 1967.  Partridge stepped down as director of RSSS in 1968, leaving it on a firm foundation, and located himself in the final years of his ANU career with the newly established education research unit.

Between 1968 and his retirement in 1975 Partridge became increasingly interested in the problems raised by the growth of tertiary student numbers and the foundation of new universities and separate colleges of advanced education.  His major contribution was in the field of higher education and education policy.  He led debate on such topics as what influences should determine the rate of expansion, the optimum size of tertiary institutions and the development of university research schools.  His insightful Society, Schools and Progress in Australia (1968) provided an original interpretation of education management in the Australian context.  He was concerned that universities were oriented too much toward professional training and were lacking in ‘intellectual leadership and original thinking’.  He argued that they were particularly weak in the social sciences and needed to encourage social criticism.  Undertaking a range of committee assignments, after retiring he chaired major inquiries into future directions for post-secondary education in Western Australia (1976) and Victoria (1978).  He was a member of the planning committee and first council (1963-67), and chancellor (1978-84), of Macquarie University, Sydney.

A fellow and chairman (1967-69) of the Social Science Research Council of Australia (Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia), Partridge was also elected a fellow (1969) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.  He was president (1969-73) of the Australian Council for Educational Research and an honorary life member of the Australian Association for Research in Education.  In 1969 he won the Mackie medal, awarded to outstanding Australian educators by the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.  Chairman (1970-73) of the Australian Advisory Committee on Research and Development in Education, he was a member (1970-77) of the Australian Universities Commission and a public representative (1977-82) on the Australian Press Council.  Appointed AC (1978), he was awarded honorary doctorates by ANU and Macquarie University.

An inspiring teacher with formidable knowledge, Partridge influenced a generation of scholars and educational leaders less by his writing than through his teaching, seminars, committee work and personal discussions.  He was a quiet and effective leader and an outstanding administrator, respected for his practical and intellectual judgment and for his integrity, fair-mindedness and sense of social justice.  Calm, patient and good-humoured, he had a dry wit.  W. D. Borrie, who followed him as director of RSSS, observed that, ‘There was not a trace of flamboyance in this man, who despised cant and denigration, and who always spoke and wrote as logical thinking and conclusions directed him to do’.  Predeceased by his wife, Partridge died on 31 December 1988 in Canberra and was cremated.  His daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. G. Foster and Margaret Varghese, The Making of The Australian National University 1946-1996 (1996)
  • Research School of Social Sciences, ANU, Annual Report, 1988, p 13
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1988-89, p 49
  • Australian Academy of the Humanities, Proceedings, 1987-89, p 69
  • ANU Reporter, 12 December 1975, p 2
  • Political Theory Newsletter, March 1989, p 54
  • Canberra Times, 11 January 1989, p 11

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Citation details

Grant Harman, 'Partridge, Percy Herbert (1910–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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