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Duncan, Walter George Keith (1903–1987)

by Hugh Stretton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Walter George Keith Duncan (1903-1987), adult educator and political philosopher, was born on 11 July 1903 at Leichhardt, Sydney, youngest of four children of New Zealand-born parents George Henry Duncan, plumber’s clerk, and his wife Clara, née Walton. A boy from a working-class neighbourhood, Keith was educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1924; MA, 1926). While an undergraduate he gave some extramural tutorials in psychology. He graduated with first-class honours and university medals in both history and philosophy, then took his master’s degree in philosophy, again gaining first-class honours and a medal. Awarded a James King of Irrawang travelling scholarship in 1926, he set off for the London School of Economics and Political Science (Ph.D., 1930), where he heard lectures by Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee, Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw. His thesis, supervised by Harold Laski, was on `Liberalism in England 1880-1914’. As a Commonwealth Fund fellow he spent two years in the United States of America, visiting the universities of Chicago, North Carolina, and California at Berkeley, and undertaking a study of population and migration.

Returning to the University of Sydney, Duncan became assistant-director (1932-34) and director (1935-51) of the department of tutorial classes. He wrote and edited works on immigration, social services and the Workers’ Educational Association. A founding director (1932) of the Australian Institute of Political Science, and the first editor (1942-50) of the Current Affairs Bulletin, he helped to develop the Australian Army Education Service during World War II. Contemporaries knew him as a left-wing liberal; although not a communist, he was impressed by the Soviet regime, and was a hostile critic of capitalism, imperialism and religion.

Duncan was seconded in 1944 to the Universities Commission to investigate adult education in Australia. He believed that lifelong learning `should cater for all the interests and problems of adult life’. His report recommended that `adult education … should be organised as a nation-wide service; and that responsibility for it (both moral and financial) should be accepted and shared by Commonwealth, State and Local Governments’. The report was neither adopted nor published. Duncan was told that Ben Chifley, prime minister from 1945, did not wish `to buy into a fight with the States’ about it. In 1973 the University of Adelaide’s department of adult education published the main text, with fifteen commentaries, as The Vision Splendid. The editor, Derek Whitelock, introduced it as `the Magna Carta of Australian adult education’, and asserted that it was `the most substantial, comprehensive and thoughtful document on adult education in this country’.

In 1951 Duncan moved, by invitation, to the chair of history and political science at the University of Adelaide. The department was to be divided and, when the professor of history arrived in 1954, Duncan became head of politics, but without change of title for some years because the premier, (Sir) Thomas Playford, forbade the university to have a professor of politics. Besides his departmental work and teaching, he chaired (195765 and 1967-68) the university’s board of adult education. He gave the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s 1962 Boyer lectures, published as In Defence of the Common Man. He retired in 1968, but in 1973 completed a commissioned centenary history of the University of Adelaide that had been left unfinished by R. A. Leonard.

As a child, Duncan had thought that his mother dominated and diminished his father, and that he should beware of `bossy’ women. Christina Stead, a fellow student at the University of Sydney, fell in love with him. He wrote regularly to her from London, but when in 1928 she arrived, uninvited, he did not make her welcome. She wrote to her sister: `He has a thorough-going indignation for (what he conceives to be) all forms of oppression, depression, impression, repression, suppression, compression and (irrational self-) expression, in short for all forms of everything which does not represent (what he conceives to be) Liberty and Justice’. Long afterwards she published a savage portrait of him as Jonathan Crow in For Love Alone (1944). Duncan thought it a misrepresentation that confirmed his worst expectations of women.

Despite those expectations, on 27 September 1934 at the district registrar’s office, Chatswood, Sydney, Duncan had married Dorothy Mary Anderson, a lecturer whom he had met in England. Dorothy was a submissive partner in their marriage. They were quietly and intelligently helpful to colleagues whom they liked or admired. Duncan died on 18 December 1987 in North Adelaide and was cremated. Having no children, the Duncans bequeathed their estates to a trust fund for needy students. Bequests of $87,000 in 1987, and $255,000 at Dorothy’s death in 1990, grew to $1,163,500 in 2003, with the fund’s income helping a hundred or more distressed students every year.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Rowley, Christina Stead (1993)
  • Adult Ed News, May 1988, p 19
  • NLA News, Aug 2003, p 7
  • N. K. Meaney, taped interview with G. W. K. Duncan (1986, National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Hugh Stretton, 'Duncan, Walter George Keith (1903–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/duncan-walter-george-keith-12443/text22375, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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