Richard Joseph Wheeler SELLECK (1934 - 2022)

Professor of Education (1972 - 1996)

The University is saddened to hear of the death of Professor Richard “Dick” Selleck, who died on October 2, aged 88 years.

Dick was born into a devout Catholic family and initially felt a calling to the priesthood. But he lost his religious vocation after spending time in the seminary as a teenager and went on to become a teacher, historian and writer instead. It was a wise career change for a man who, to the end of his life, was an enduring sceptic.

Education was his Elysium. Dick’s major biographies on leading educationalists and higher education considerably broadened the social and cultural dimension of Australia’s educational history, through his prolific penmanship and rigorous scholarship.

Professor Selleck was Chair of Education for 25 years (1972-1997) where he built on the faculty’s international reputation, turning it into an outstanding centre for the study of educational history. Whilst not a natural-born administrator, he took his academic duties very seriously and was much admired as a mentor who set very high standards. An honourable man, he was renowned throughout the faculty for his steadfast loyalty which was always returned.

Richard Joseph Wheeler Selleck was born in East St Kilda in the autumn of 1934 (the novelist, Robert Drewe, is a second cousin). The eldest of six, he did very well at school, but needed to work to help his father support the family. He embarked on the Trained Primary Teacher’s Certificate and got a job teaching in Melbourne’s western suburbs before moving to the Curriculum and Research Branch for the Victorian Education Department. This enabled him to return to study and in 1959, he completed an arts degree at Melbourne University, majoring in English and history, but was “underwhelmed” by the experience. A year later he undertook a Bachelor of Education and in 1963, began a PhD, researching educational theory in Victoria from 1870-1914. In doing so, Dick strove to go beyond the conventional study of education institutions and grapple with the political, social and intellectual pressures that influenced reformers.

In 1962, he was appointed lecturer in education at University of Melbourne. A Nuffield Fellowship allowed him to spend 1968 at the Institute of Education in London, which only intensified his intellectual hunger.

As a scholar, Dick wanted to see and think it all. He breathed life into the history of education so that it was not merely an institutional study of organisation and policy but a thoughtful exploration of the assumptions people held and their origins.  He eschewed the typical sociological approach and mistrusted grand theory, instead illuminating hidden facets of his topic in a way that no other Australian had. The historian, Stuart Forbes Macintyre, AO, with whom he collaborated on A Short History of the University of Melbourne, published in 2003, said “Dick worked on a large canvas. There wasn’t much happening that he didn’t take an interest in.”

He possessed, in abundance, the historian’s most under-rated tool; empathy. His approach involved not only the metabolising of diverse information, but a conscious effort to see the world through another person’s eyes. His purpose, as he outlined in his book, The New Education, was not to test the logical status of theories but to obtain from them an “understanding of the educational purposes of a particular society.” This method had ramifications for Australian educational history as a whole. He never claimed that history could offer ready-made solutions; rather, it could be used as a guide by those wishing to make change.

Part of Dick’s rich legacy of published work includes compelling biographies of the Australian educationalist, Frank Tate, whom he revealed to be a tough-minded pragmatist and fervent idealist who embodied both the strengths and weaknesses of government schooling, and of the British pioneer and outsider, James Kay-Shuttleworth, whose beliefs and opinions had a far-reaching influence in Australia. His historical account of the University of Melbourne, The Shop, published in 2003, was noted for its acuity as well as being a “brilliantly sustained” and delightful story. Whilst Monash was the university Dick loved, he had a deep interest in Melbourne’s origins and enjoyed observing it from an outsider’s perspective.

An accomplished and charismatic teacher, Dick had a restless intelligence, a love of literature and a desire to explore and explain. He was known for his mastery of context, as well as his alchemist’s ability to distil complex ideas into readable prose. Whilst extraordinarily modest, unpretentious, and humble, he was intolerant of cant. He was not a demonstrative person; he had a distinctive manner in which he spoke in a low voice and listened very intently. What he said was always considered, yet when a principle was in question he could be uncompromisingly steely. Those in conversation with him basked in the glow of his powerful yet subtle intellect.

Professor Selleck headed the School of Graduate Studies from 1994-1995 but stepped down to return to his chief loves; writing and research. He was made a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (FASSA) in 1978 and was awarded the title Emeritus Professor in 1997.

A father of five, he married twice; his second wife being the novelist and researcher, Dr Vivienne Kelly. Three of his children carved out careers in education, which perhaps is not surprising given that he remained throughout his life, both an instinctive student and committed teacher.

Published October 7, 2022.