Page 1: Biography
Teacher, university professor, educationalist
This biography, written by David McKenzie, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Richard Lawson was born in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia, on 16 June 1875, the fifth child of Thomas Lawson and his wife, Susan Sides. His parents had emigrated from Ireland to Warrnambool, where his father established a thriving drapery business. Richard attended the local secondary school after winning a scholarship. He later graduated MA and DipEd from the University of Melbourne, and received a LittD for a thesis on the development of classical translation. He played cricket, and claimed to have once made 89 not out against the MCC. In Melbourne he played Australian Rules football.
Lawson served as a tutor on a sheep station and as an assistant in a grammar school before being appointed principal of Warrnambool college, a private secondary school. He also worked as a lecturer and, later, senior lecturer in teaching method at the Melbourne Teachers' College. Lawson eventually became vice principal of the teachers' college and also lectured on method at the School of Education, University of Melbourne.
Meanwhile he had married Ida Marion McMaster in Auckland on 30 June 1909, but in 1912 she died six days after giving birth to a daughter. On 2 June 1915, at Toorak, Melbourne, he married Ida's sister, Nellie Elizabeth; they were to have no children.
In 1923 Lawson was appointed foundation professor of education at the University of Otago. He was an experienced educator and had an enviable reputation as a wide-ranging scholar with a special interest in Classics. Lawson elaborated on his views on secondary education in an essay published shortly after he arrived in Dunedin. In it he argued that the provision of universal secondary schooling must be a priority if a society were to progress as a civilised entity. He also strongly endorsed the development of experimental teaching in the sciences, pleaded for a greater provision of foreign-language teaching (especially German), and advocated a policy which would vest more responsibility in schools to develop their own syllabus objectives. In this credo, Lawson exhibited much of the optimism of the nineteenth century. He held it to be self-evident that 'Secondary schools should…impress the conviction in their older pupils that the British Empire is something unique in history, and that the welfare of the human race is bound up with our fortunes.'
Although never attaining the high public profile of James Shelley, his professorial counterpart at Canterbury College, Lawson exercised some influence over the shaping of future educational policy in New Zealand. In 1926 he was appointed by the government to chair a large committee of representatives from educational and commercial interest groups. They were invited to investigate the national school syllabus and the existing public schooling provision. Lawson wrote most of their report, which was presented to Parliament in 1928 and described by Peter Fraser, a future minister of education, as the most authoritative document on education ever to be placed before the House. Many of its recommendations related to a need to broaden the quality and increase the quantity of secondary school provision; they were repeated in the Atmore Report (1930), and were finally enacted after the publication of the Thomas Report (1944).
Lawson's professional duties included acting as chairman of the professorial board between 1941 and 1945. He made little progress, however, with implementing his own more radical ideas for conducting teacher education within the university. In 1925 he argued before the Royal Commission on University Education that it was ridiculous to expect one professor of education to manage 'the whole syllabus efficiently'. In his view, education departments should instead concentrate on training teachers through a diploma qualification. It was to take another 70 years before teacher training finally began to be incorporated into New Zealand universities. Lawson was also convinced that the education department at the University of Otago needed to provide teaching in experimental psychology; this objective was achieved. In the 1930s Lawson established a child guidance clinic attached to the department; it was still in existence some 60 years later.
Lawson retired in 1945. He served as president of the Otago branch of the New Education Fellowship from 1937 to 1944, was a member of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research for 11 years, and served as president of the Otago Philosophical Association. Lawson was the author or co-author of a number of English literature and grammar textbooks for secondary schools which were published in Australia. Although he claimed to be an agnostic, he also expressed a faith that the universe has a meaning and that man has a soul, and he even attended the Presbyterian church. He published a number of texts on religious education and was a strong supporter of Bible reading in schools. He also published, under the title Fragmenta animi, two compilations of his own talks, articles and poems; many of these had first been published in the Otago Daily Times, for which he also wrote the 'Passing Notes' column for some years.
In later years Lawson enjoyed playing bowls. He retained his mental alertness well into old age, reading in his favourite Greek authors until he was over 90. Nellie Lawson died in 1964; Richard Lawson died at Dunedin on 29 October 1971, aged 96; he was survived by his daughter.