The Vetting of Wisdom

 Full disclosure: I was a student at PLC during the events discussed in this book. Joan Montgomery was my headmistress; she left the school the year after I did. Kim Rubenstein, the author of The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the Fight for PLC, is also a former student. She was my school captain in 1982, a couple of years older than me.

The Vetting of Wisdom is an unashamedly partial account of the furore that enveloped the school in the 1980s, after PLC was awarded to the Continuing Presbyterian church (after the split in the Presbyterians that followed the formation of the Uniting Church) and a campaign began to oust Joan Montgomery as Head. Despite the support of staff, parents, students, Old Collegians and the educational establishment as a whole, a stubborn rump of Continuing Presbyterian men were determined to get rid of 'Monty' and ultimately succeeded.

I was absolutely riveted by this book. It's astonishing to me how little I knew about the controversy that unfolded while I was a student at the school. My parents weren't involved in school affairs and Miss Montgomery and the staff succeeded in shielding the students from the fuss to a remarkable degree. I was aware that Joan Montgomery was going to leave at the end of 1985, but I didn't understand why. I was vaguely outraged when it was announced that she was to be replaced by a man, and not even an Australian man, but did I realise why it was happening? I don't think I did. I certainly didn't appreciate the degree to which a stacked School Council had been hijacked by conservative, narrowly religious forces hostile to the ideals that Joan Montgomery represented -- a liberal, expansive, humane education for young women, equal in quality to that available to boys. These men wanted to see a more 'Bible-centred' approach to education, and they were deeply agitated about courses like Liberal Studies or Human Relations (the course I did in Year 10). They wanted to send representatives to sit in on the Human Relations classes -- I can only imagine the chilling effect that observers would have had on classes about sex and relationships filled with 16 year old girls who were all embarrassed enough as it was! Luckily that idea was scotched.

'Monty' was a wonderful principal. She's been described as 'a woman who embodies an exceptional combination of intelligence, perception, energy, loyalty and common sense.' I would add compassion, dignity and humour to that list. We all revered Miss Montgomery -- we respected her more than the Queen, and she moved through the school with an air of unassailable grace and serenity. But at the same time, she was never intimidating. If she spoke to you, you'd be awed but not overwhelmed. She turned up at my last school reunion to our absolute delight, and she is still going strong at 97. What an incredible waste of talent, and what a terrible shame for the young women of PLC, that she was forced to retire at the young age of 60, instead of having her term extended at least until she was 65.

I accept that for someone who doesn't know the setting or the characters involved, this book's detailed account of school meetings and political intrigue might be drier reading than it was for me, but I found it utterly compelling, outrageous and shocking. To see this remarkable educator torn down, despite a massive outcry of protest, is thoroughly dispiriting. It's almost a 'Me Too' story, albeit without the sexual element, but it is still an account of a gifted, respected women brought down by a conspiracy of men, and there's no other way to spin it.

What a waste. The deepest irony of all is that the Presbyterians were convinced that Joan Montgomery was neglecting the religious education of the girls under her care. In fact, her thoughtful addresses at daily assemblies sank deep, certainly into my consciousness, and probably did more to awaken my spirituality than any other influence in my life. We were encouraged to question, to doubt, to think for ourselves, to pray, to reflect, to sing, to be grateful, to consider how we could help others. It might have taken years for that gentle encouragement to bear fruit, but I know that ultimately it did.


  1. That is so very interesting, Kate. And I agree with you; what a waste! Similar, but different - my mother was the Assistant Regional Director of Education for the Loddon Mallee district from 1977 to 1985. She was acting Director for a number of years - not months, years - during that time, but when the position was declared vacant, she didn't get the job. A man did. I'm not sure if he had a higher qualification; he certainly didn't have any more experience at that level. She appealed, and the appeal failed. Conspiracy of men? Glass ceiling? When I came to write about her professional life in her eulogy, one of the most moving aspects was the cache of letters from members of country school communities and ex-students. They all remarked on her warmth, her approachability, her genuine desire to listen, her ability to inspire. Your 'Monty' sounds like a wonderful woman.

  2. That's an appalling story, I'm outraged on your mother's behalf. To do the job for so many years and still be overlooked -- it would be farcical if it wasn't so upsetting.
    Monty is indeed a wonderful woman and we were so fortunate to benefit form her example.