Walter James Scott was born at Hilton, near Temuka, on 23 December 1902, the son of Christina McKay and her farmer husband, James Scott. His father died when he was 11, causing a crisis in the family’s fortunes, and it was only on the urging of William Thomas, rector of Timaru Boys’ High School, where Walter became a boarder, that his mother let him complete his secondary schooling. By winning a university entrance scholarship he was able to go on to the University of Otago, where he continued to distinguish himself as a gifted all-rounder. He was a boxing champion and vice captain of his high school First XV, a university blue in athletics, and president of the Otago branch of the New Zealand Student Christian Movement and of the Knox College Students’ Club. He graduated with honours in Latin and a pass in English, and was Otago’s nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship in 1924.
Scott began teaching, first at Waitaki Boys’ High School (1927–30), then at Timaru Boys’ High School (1930–36). He was dismayed by the heavy use of corporal punishment at Waitaki and found ways of teaching without it at Timaru. While there he also began his long involvement as a WEA lecturer. He married Hectorina Jessie Macdonald on 27 December 1928 at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Invercargill. She had been a fellow student and was also an MA from Otago. They would have three sons and a daughter.
Scott’s appointment in 1936 as lecturer in English at Wellington Teachers’ Training College began an active involvement in the intellectual and cultural life of the city that continued until his death. From the early 1930s he had been influenced by the literary criticism of I. A. Richards and by F. R. and Q. D. Leavis and other members of the Scrutiny group, and he was the first in New Zealand to teach cultural studies: analyses of the mass media of newspapers, magazines, comics, films and radio. He replaced the conventional survey course of lectures in ‘Eng lit’ with reading, analysis, and discussion of poems, novels and criticism selected to sharpen the critical responses of his students. By including short stories by Frank Sargeson and poems by Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn, he taught a generation of students that writing could be about the experience of living in their own country. His concern for contemporary cultural values was of a piece with his liberal (left-wing, but politically independent) stance that was as troubled by threats of capitalism as of fascism. By assisting students to think clearly about issues, he had an indelible influence on them.
One of Scott’s tasks at the college was to direct the drama club’s annual production, and the first three of these – Waiting for Lefty , Judgment day , and The ascent of F6 – were powerful dramatisations of urgent social and political issues. In a city whose staple theatre fare was comedy and farce, these were sensational events. Waiting for Lefty caused such a stir in 1937 that the controlling authority of the college insisted that it be taken off after its first night. The 17-year-old Bruce Mason was overwhelmed by F6 and later considered this and Scott’s other pre-war productions to be the first portent of an emerging New Zealand theatre.
Scott was active in the wider educational community. He attended the New Education Fellowship conference in 1937, and was honorary secretary of the Wellington branch of the NEF when it was formed the next year. He was for many years a member of the Wellington Institute for Educational Research. In 1938 he gave the first of many radio talks on current affairs. He was a founder member of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society, which ran Modern Books bookshop and initiated a short but impressive venture into the publication of New Zealand authors. During the war years he researched and wrote Reading, film and radio tastes of high school boys and girls , a landmark survey of teenagers’ leisure-time preferences. In 1955 he published a pamphlet on corporal punishment that was influential in the campaign for its abolition in schools. He represented New Zealand at the NEF conference held in the main Australian cities in 1946, and made a study tour of the United States under a Carnegie fellowship in 1948–49.
From 1938 primary teachers had become aware of Scott through a long-running series of his articles in National Education on standards in the teaching of English. He was a member of the committee that produced the 1945 revised primary school syllabuses in oral and written expression, and was seconded to the Department of Education to write the first set of New Zealand-based textbooks for use in primary schools. The three bulletins he wrote for post-primary students and adult education classes – How words work , The uses of persuasive language , and The danger of words – were models of exposition. He chaired the committee that did the groundwork for the 1961 language syllabus for primary schools.
In 1948 he was appointed vice principal (he became principal in 1958) of Wellington Teachers’ Training College, and was thus deeply involved in leading the college through the difficult years of overcrowding on the Kelburn site. He was influential in the reorganisation of the college programme during the 1950s, in the introduction of a three-year course of training, and in planning the replacement college that opened at Karori five years after his retirement at the end of 1965. As principal, he left his own distinctive mark on the processes of consultative decision making initiated by his predecessors F. C. Lopdell and A. J. Waghorn, and the college under his leadership was a stimulating, innovative place for students and staff. He had long cultivated good working relations with Victoria University College, many of whose senior teachers were friends of long standing: he was a member of its council (1947–51), and a council member (1963–79) and pro-chancellor (1976–79) of Victoria University of Wellington.
Walter Scott did not think of himself as a particularly creative person – his talent was for critical commentary – but he was fascinated by the wellsprings of creativity in others, and over the years many students and other budding writers benefited from his judicious comments on their scripts. During the early 1950s, in particular, with poet Anton Vogt (a member of staff) and James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson, Barry Mitcalfe and other poets and writers among the students, the college was a nest of singing birds.
Among his public activities during the 1950s and 1960s, Scott championed causes that made him unpopular in a national community largely intolerant of opinions that challenged prevailing views. He was outraged by the threat to democratic rights contained in the draconian Police Offences Amendment Bill, which was introduced to Parliament after the 1951 waterfront dispute, and, with J. C. Beaglehole, Shirley Smith and a few others, spoke out against it. From their protest emerged in 1952 the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties. Scott chaired the council from 1952 to 1972 and remained an active member for the rest of his life. He was a staunch critic of the Police Special Branch and, later, of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service on the grounds that their methods violated privacy and involved undue secrecy. He played leading roles in the campaigns to remove legal restrictions against homosexuals and to reform the law on indecent publications. He accepted the need for laws against sedition and indecent publications, but wanted them to be liberal and censorship decisions to be made only after informed debate.
Other, less controversial interests included the Wellington Marriage Guidance Council and the formation of the New Zealand Film Institute. He was a member of the National Advisory Council on the Training of Teachers (1963–64), the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (1965–73), the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee (1968–74), and the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1959–61). He was appointed a CBE in 1974. Among other honours he was elected a fellow of the New Zealand Educational Institute, and Victoria University of Wellington conferred on him its honorary LittD in 1980. He died at Wellington on 19 February 1985. Hectorina Scott died on 15 June 1991.
By nature gregarious, although reticent, Walter Scott was also a man of nagging principle and a tireless crusader for causes. He was one of the country’s leading authorities on the teaching of English language and literature, an early champion of New Zealand writing and publication, and an outspoken defender of freedom of thought and expression. His friend and fellow civil libertarian, John Beaglehole, thought him ‘a sort of standard; a point of reference for decency’.