The World Conference on Adult Education, 1929

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Times, 23 August 1929

I’m writing a discussion paper on comparative studies in adult education, an area of academic research that seems to me in trouble. As so often is the case, I have been side-tracked, thanks to a discussion with a German colleague and friend who mentioned the 1929 World Conference on Adult Education. This was the first event of its kind, so I wanted to find out more.

Google took me straight to a report in a Tasmanian newspaper, which focused on why Australia wasn’t represented on the council of the newly-created World Association of Adult Education (details here). As you can see, the Times on the other hand took a rather British-centred and colonial perspective.

Since then I’ve searched the digital archive of the Times, which covered the conference in remarkable detail: as well as a preview on 12 August, it reported daily on the proceedings from the 23rd to the 30th. On the first day, the Times reported on the welcoming speech by Sir Charles Trevelyan, President of the Board of Education (the post normally known as minister for education) and one of a lengthy queue of prominent opening speakers.

Trevelyan, reassuringly for the affluent readers of the Times, particularly emphasised the role on adult education in making the labour movement respectable. Whether he believed this, or simply used it as a persuasive argument to appeal to the wealthy and powerful, is for you to decide.

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From the report of Treevelyan’s welcoming speech

This is a rich resource, and I will no doubt return to it in future posts. Let me finish with a question: can you imagine the Times of today reporting from the conference of the International Council for Adult Education, successor body of the World Association?

In praise of Trove: an Australian reports on the World Association for Adult Education

In 1929, a Tasmanian school teacher attended the conference in Cambridge of the World Association for Adult Education. In early 1931, Mr G. W. Knight spoke of his visit, which had also encompassed a teachers’ conference in Geneva, at a public meeting in Hobart Library.

The Mercury, Hobart’s local paper, duly reported what he had to say. If their account is reliable, Knight’s main preoccupation was with levels of drop-out in adult education, which he thought high. He also reported that the Association adopted a constitution, and appointed a Council representing seven international regions, which he described as ‘Teutonic, Slav, English, Scandinavian, USA, and Latin and the Orient’. However, he failed to secure separate representation for Australia.

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The Mercury, 3 February 1931

This snippet adds just a little to what we already know about the World Association specifically, and early attempts to internationalise adult education more generally. The otherwise largely unknown Mr Knight (briefly famous for dying in an air crash in 1946) does give us some idea of how an Australian educator viewed the London-based, WEA-led World Association.

Founded in 1919, but unable to survive WW2, the Association’s archives are well represented in the Albert Mansbridge Papers in the British Library. This snippet from Hobart adds to our understanding of the Association’s history, if only at the margins. In its way, then, it is a nice example of the way in which digitised records can make the past accessible to historians, amateur and professional, who cannot possibly travel to view the originals.

The Hobart Mercury is one of many records – diaries, letters, archives and newspapers – that have been made available through the National Library of Australia, through its Trove repository. I found Trove invaluable in researching my book on work camps, and many other historians will echo this praise. In return, I continue to do bits of editing for Trove, improving the accessibility and accuracy of this wonderful resource, as do many other historians.

The Australian Government has slashed the NLA’s budget, and Trove is now at risk. It is a world class resource, and we shouldn’t let it go without a world class fight.