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Educating New Zealand


page 172
The history of organised non-vocational adult education is older than that of the University.* In the early days of the settlements there were an astonishing number of Athenaeums, Mechanics' Institutes, and Scientific and Mutual Improvement Societies. Most of them were founded by the men of 'light and leading', partly because they wanted them for themselves, partly because they shared the belief of their class in the corrective influence of education among the masses, but in some instances the initiative came from the workers. The voice of the Chartists can be heard in the Manifesto of the Wellington Working Men's Association, published in 1841. 'It has been deemed advisable', says the Manifesto, 'to establish a society among the working classes for the purpose of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge by means of a library, discussions, lectures etc. . . . The limited means, and few hours of relaxation at the disposal of mechanics and labourers, wholly precludes them from acquiring or diffusing useful knowledge, excepting during the evening when the jealousy of many employers . . . prevents the poor man improving his social, moral, or intellectual condition. . . .' The general purpose of the Association is said to be that 'of raising the hard-working man in the scale of being, and placing him in that situation among the Lords of the earth, which as a member of the human family

* For some of the facts in this section I am indebted to an article by H. C. D. Somerset in the Educational Yearbook 1940 and to unpublished material collected by A. B. Thompson.

page 173is his natural inheritance.' With the aid of private subscriptions and grants from the provincial governments, it was usual to erect a building, establish a library and arrange for lectures. In the bigger centres there was no lack of talent and the lectures covered almost every subject under the sun. By the seventies, however, the movement had lost much of its vigour, the Institutes tending more and more to become merely libraries and Working Men's clubs. As Somerset remarks, it was not until the Workers' Educational Association was established in 1915 that the spirit which animated the early Institutes was revived. The collapse is highly significant. Some of the energy behind the original movement went, it is true, into semi-educational, semi-propagandist activities connected with religion and politics and social reform, but there can be little doubt that the change marked a real diminution in the thirst for education in and for itself. The fact that it coincided with the universalising of schooling helps to explain a good deal in our educational history.

The Workers' Educational Association was founded in England early in the century to meet the demand of the intellectual élite of the working classes for opportunities for intensive study and discussion of subjects such as economics and social history that bore directly on the problem of the emancipation of their fellow workers. The Association worked through tutorial classes committees, that jointly represented page 174the university and working-class organisations, and that provided classes which aimed at, and frequently achieved, the high standard of university honours in courses continuing over a period of three years. The movement came to New Zealand in 1915 by way of Australia. The English form of organisation was adopted and much of the English philosophy, and for a short time the work of the Association closely approximated that of the parent body. Students enrolled for three-year courses and were required to do written work; socio-economic studies held pride of place; and the classes attracted many of the recognised labour leaders. All three of the recent leaders of the parliamentary Labour party, as well as many others who have represented Labour in Parliament, were at one time or another W.E.A. students.

In England itself it was soon found that this form of adult education was too bookish, too exacting, and too limited in scope to appeal to more than an extremely small proportion of industrial workers, let alone to the rural wage-earning population; and although the tutorial class remains as the hard core of adult education, there has been a remarkable development, both inside and outside of the W. E. A., of less academic activities designed to attract the ordinary citizen. The New Zealand Association was forced to make similar modifications, the more so because the Dominion, with its very much broader educational ladder, possessed relatively fewer natural page 175students who had been denied access to post-primary and higher education. The three-year tutorial class, with written work, has disappeared and been replaced by one-year courses and short courses. In some of the classes the intellectual level of the discussions is very high, and there is a sense of the importance of ideas that is rarely present among comparable groups of university students, but the Association now caters for large numbers of men and women who have no intention of undertaking prolonged or intensive study. Not unconnected with this was the growing popularity, up to 1930, of literature and drama as compared with the specifically socio-economic studies; since then, as the result of the great depression, the drift to war, and the war itself, there has been a swing back in the other direction.

The W.E.A. has always been 'non-political and non-sectarian', its classes have been open to all, and it has had among its tutors men and women representing very varied points of view. Many of its leaders have, nevertheless, tried very hard to make it a workers' movement, and up to a point they have succeeded. Contact with the trade unions has never been completely lost, and there have been some classes in which wage-earners have predominated. The effort has been justified if only for the reason that it has saved the movement from degenerating into genteelism. Nevertheless, the achievement has fallen a good deal short of what was hoped. There page 176are many contributing factors, among them the suspicion with which the W.E.A. has often been regarded on the extreme Left as well as on the Right, the absorption of the more active-minded trade unionists in union and political affairs, the indifference of many among the rank-and-file to any form of workers' education, and the grave difficulty the academically-trained tutor has in putting himself inside the skin of the manual worker. The fact that so many of the keenest of the W.E.A. worker-students have not been colonial-born cannot be without significance.* It means, perhaps, that difficult as conditions for wage-earners in New Zealand have often been, they have rarely been bad enough to create the sense of personal deprivation and social injustice that was the driving force behind the English movement. In short, adult education has been affected, together with the rest of the education system, by the fact that we have a petty bourgeoisie rather than a working class.

A voluntary organisation that offers nothing to material ambition must adapt itself or perish; and the New Zealand W. E. A. has had in addition to adjust its ideal of a nation-wide service to the exigencies of inadequate and uncertain finances. These hard necessities, combined with the ability and enthusiasm of those who have worked for it, have made the W.E.A.

* I have no figures on this point; but the observation is based on a fairly extensive acquaintance with the W.E.A.

page 177one of the most flexible, experimental, and self-critical of all our educational agencies. This has been particularly evident in the Association's country work. The Canterbury centre, for example, evolved in 1926 what has come to be known as the 'box scheme'. Each 'box' contained copies of a lecture, some illustrative material, or material for simple experiments, and formed one of a series of twelve or twenty-four covering such subjects as 'Music, Art and Literature', 'Drama and Opera', 'Practical Psychology', etc. The boxes were made available to any group that undertook to appoint a leader and meet regularly. The scheme made possible a wide spread of material through districts which could be only rarely visited by a tutor, and it had the advantage of demanding the active participation of the students themselves. Meanwhile there was experimentation in other districts with correspondence course techniques, the general object being not so much to convey information as to stimulate thought and discussion and encourage further reading. Through such methods, some of which have made their way overseas, much valuable work has been done with very limited resources.

In addition to the W.E.A., which exists wholly and solely for the purpose of adult education, there are a bewildering number of other agencies and organisations which are directly or indirectly concerned with it. These range from learned societies to bodies with but the merest tincture of educational purpose. page 178Especially remarkable has been the expansion of organised activities for country women through the efforts of the Women's Institutes and the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union. The development of the work of these two bodies shows in a very interesting way how a demand for intellectual fare can grow out of pursuits that are at first almost purely social, practical, and recreative. Brought together by the need for companionship and the desire to work in co-operation for various causes of common interest, the groups went on to develop studies and activities connected with the domestic arts. They are now asking—or were, before much of their energy was diverted into war work—for courses in drama, world affairs, art, and elementary science. Working in co-operation with these and other groups, is the home science extension service of the School of Home Science of the University of Otago and a smaller scheme of a similar nature run from Victoria University College. Another point of interest is that the beneficent activities of the Country Library Service are an off-shoot of the adult education movement. They had their origin in the Canterbury Adult Rural Scheme, established some years ago with the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A healthy adult education movement can never be a tidy growth, but there is no point in untidiness that has no relation to educational needs or that gets in the way of further expansion. For various reasons page 179there has been in New Zealand some overlapping of effort and much lack of co-ordination. In part we have to thank our administrative system: if, as in England, the local education authorities had been charged with a responsibility for education at all stages we might have escaped some of our present difficulties. This chapter can therefore fittingly conclude with reference to two moves towards co-ordination—one local, the other central.

In 1938 H. C. D. Somerset and his wife, whose work in the field of adult education had already attracted attention both here and abroad, were appointed, on the initiative of the Education Department, to the Feilding Agricultural High School for the purpose of co-ordinating and developing the adult education activities of the town and the surrounding district. As a result there is growing up a 'Community Centre for Further Education and Recreation'. Somerset has indicated his approach in these words: 'The educational work has been built on a preliminary survey of the needs of the town and has been quite unhindered by any preconceived ideas about adult education. An attempt is being made to know the people first of all and to make conscious their unexpressed desires for learning. Classes develop only after a great deal of individual work has been done by the two full-time tutors.' Classes and study groups have been formed in child psychology for mothers of pre-school children (a two-day nursery class is run page 180every week for demonstration purposes); in the drama; in physical education; in foreign languages; and in a variety of other subjects ranging from home decoration to world affairs. The work is still in some respects at the experimental stage, but it is possible that it will have a far-reaching influence on future developments.

In the same year that this local experiment was begun the government made provision for a National Council of Adult Education, consisting of the Directors of Education and Broadcasting, two representatives of the Senate of the University of New Zealand, one representative of the W.E.A., and two nominees of the Minister of Education, and also for the creation of local Adult Education Advisory Committees in each of the four university college districts. Here also it is too early to judge of the probable effects of the move. Its immediate significance lies in the clear evidence it provides of the interest of the State in the orderly development of adult education on a national scale.