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Reel Schools

Schooling and the Nation in Australian Cinema

Josephine May

Reel Schools takes a fresh look at the history of Australian schooling through the lens of Australian cinema from the silent era until 2010. In exploring the relationship between cinematic representation and educational history, Josephine May shows how numerous Australian feature and documentary films offer access to powerful vernacular imaginings about school education in Australia.
May argues that the cinematic school is a pervasive metaphor for the Australian nation. She demonstrates that, while Australian films about schooling have consistently commented on the relationship of schooling to the Australian class structure, they also increasingly explored gender, race and ethnicity at school, especially after the 1970s. From then on the egalitarian dream of school education and the nation’s capacity to generate meaningful futures for the young became increasingly contested.


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CHAPTER 10 – Conclusion 243


243 CHAPTER 10 Conclusion Every new thought about education has to fight against a viscous thickness of stories that already tell us what we are looking at.1 The Australian nation state officially came into being in January 1901 at almost the same time as cinema arrived, and shortly after mass school- ing systems were established in all colonies. This nation state was ani- mated by a national identity crystallised in the cultural labours of its artists, writers and poets in the 1890s as the egalitarian bush ethos, with Australia posited as a land of the ‘fair go for all’. This egalitarian social imaginary, essentially white, patriarchal and working class, provided the conceptual framework within which Australians sought to conduct their lives and shape their institutions. It gave the nation its normative power and in turn generated its historical life. As products of modernity, the mass systems of schooling and the mass entertainment of the cinema provided pivotal means by which the conversation about Australian national identity could be carried on, each having the capacity to affirm or question its incorporation into the popular consciousness. The argument in Reel Schools rested on three contentions: that schools are important institutions in the national imaginary; that schooling carries significant symbolic freight concerning the fitness and prospects of the nation; and that cinema has reflected these issues over time, if not comprehensively, then always in interesting and illu- minating ways. The work has sought to demonstrate how the histories of the nation, of schooling,...

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