For Social Betterment

Jane Miller

For Social Betterment
Monash University Publishing
1 February 2024

For Social Betterment

Jane Miller

A history of those working to help society's most vulnerable.

Australia introduced professional education for social workers thirty years later than much of the developed world. It joined an international movement to set up the new profession and was helped by the well-established American and British social workers. As Australian social work education approaches its centenary in 2029, it is clear that much of the history of the profession has been forgotten or is merely shadowy memory, layered with gossip, cliché and stereotypes rather than facts.

Verl Lewis, social work educator and historian, was right when he said that understanding their own history is essential for social workers’ self-understanding and self-awareness. Who are the social workers today, and where have they come from? Are they doctors’ handmaidens, because of their origins in almoning, or do their connections to the Settlement movement make them radical drivers of change? Perhaps their origins in the Charity Organisation Society mean that they are agents of social control. There is some truth in all these assertions, but the story of Australian social work education is both more complex and more nuanced than this.

For Social Betterment tells, for the first time, the history of Australian social work — a story of a fight for standards and the tenacity of a group of women (and a few men) who were determined to improve care and conditions for those most vulnerable in our community. It also reflects on why the rights of women and First Nations peoples were overlooked for so long, and examines the future challenges for social work in Australia.

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