Liberal Arts Flow Chart
The Growth of Workers Adult Liberal Education

Adult Liberal Education – Other Countries support this for personal/citizenship development

Why doesn’t Canada?

If a Canadian adult, not from Ontario as education is a provincial responsibility, went to live in a country like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and was looking around for adult education, they would find a key provider to be the Workers’ Educational Association. Many are over 100 years old, are well known major providers of what Toronto adults call general interest programs, like the TDSB Learn4 Life program or some of the Toronto Public Library’s What’s On program. But the WEA’s also offer university like liberal arts programs, the humanities, and some political education.


Given our North American cold war mindset, the term ‘workers’ and political education might cause you to suspect such an organization. But then they are publically funded to do what they call adult liberal education, and they are also funded to do literacy training (reading writing, computers, math) and some skills training. They look like a community-based training centre back in Toronto but they also offer university like liberal arts courses.


Say you had moved to Sydney, at the New South Wales WEA you could chose courses in Ancient History, Film Studies, Fine Arts, Literature, Medieval History, Modern History, Philosophy and Religion, Politics and Social Sciences, Psychology, and Science – 8 session courses for about $200. To study any of these in Ontario, you would need to be admitted to a university program, pay tuition fees of close to $1,600, and sit with hundreds of youth focused mostly on getting a good mark. In Sydney. at the local WEA you would learn with those interested in learning for learning’s sake in small group study circles organized like a tutorial- lots of time to get your questions looked at. 

The Swedish WEA, (ABF) web page notes that ‘Modern society is flooded with information, but to convert this information into knowledge requires understanding, a view of he big picture, and processing.” I think we would agree with this given today’s political climate, a citizen’s need to understand, get the big picture and process events is important. But would we pay more taxes for such an education, an “adult liberal education,” as the Nordics call liberal arts learning for adults, especially for those lacking a good basic education.


If you look at the New Zealand WEA program you see “Workers’ Rights in a Global Economy”, and at the WEA in Scotland, “Talk Scotland Political Studies.” They are political courses but ones where you can learn all aspects, and question each one, a liberal education model. You learn with a professor who has studied the big picture and is there to answer your questions, to help you understand. Not push a point of view but help you see all sides.


Canadians supported such at one time, in fact it was dominant in adult education. In 1935 Peter Sandiford, WEA tutor and Professor of Educational Psychology and Director of the Department of Educational Research in the Ontario College of Education at the University of Toronto, lead a study on Adult Education in Canada. He noted that “adult education should not be limited to cultural subjects but may properly include vocational subjects.” Today we would have to turn around to say: adult education should not be limited to vocational subjects but may properly include cultural subjects. 


One of Sandiford’s study leaders was Drummond Wren, General Secretary of the Canadian WEA which was founded in 1918 with the support of the University of Toronto and trade unions. Wren was a WEA student, who had a Grade 7 education, a typographer He grew to be the leader of the WEA and spread the WEA across Canada. In 1945 the WEA had 52 branches in Canada, over 15,000 students and in 1942 had over 100,000 listeners for the WEA National Labour Forum which was broadcast on the CBC from Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax. So why did liberal arts learning not continue to be part of adult education in Canada? 


If you look at the chart to the top The Growth of Workers’ Education you see that the WEA’s continued to grow in other countries and are still a major educational provider today but in Canada today the WEA runs one class in Toronto, University in the Community. 


The decline of liberal arts learning in the community for those who would have the least access to a university education, the working class, can be understood by studying how Canadians dealt with the cold war debates about capitalism, socialism, communism and comparing this to how the Swedes handled this. For one, in 1949 the Canadian Labour Congress adopted a resolution to ‘cleanse’ it ranks of all communist-lead affiliates in keeping with the Congress of Industrial Organizations measures taken in the USA. Then their was the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) who kept files on Canadians leaders like Tommy Douglas, known as the founder of health care in Canada, and yes Drummond Wren. The CLC and the RCMP are were only two that felt that workers’ getting a university-like education would lead to radicalism. In comparison the Swedes supported workers education. For example in 1942 they held 6,138 study circles. They wanted citizens to understand all points of view put forward by capitalism, socialism, communism - to move towards reform models rather than radical or reactionary ones. 

 Jenny Jansson,of Uppsala University wrote a book Manufacturing Consensus, The Making of the Swedish Reformist Working Class, where she describes how the Swedish labour organization used workers’ education to resolve these debates. 


Jansson’ was referred to me by Henry Milner, professor at the University of Montreal who wrote, Civic Literacy, How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work. In a Chapter titled “ Promoting Civic Literacy through Adult Education” he notes… “when it comes to civic literacy, the content of what is learned as an adult is more important than that learned in school in one’s youth. “ True. Adults make the world today, long before their children will; they are their children’s first teachers, long before kids go to school So why does Canadian adult education ignore adult liberal education, its history in Canada, its role in other countries that foster active citizenship?


Could adult liberal education come back in Canada? Not as the WEA as its time has past here but in University Community partnerships that reach out to the community with liberal arts programs. See for links to a dozen programs that have emerged in the past 15 years in Canada. They will be meeting in Toronto in May as the Summer Institute of Canadian Directors of Humanities 101 type Programs. We are committed to foster adult liberal education. 


This article is a based on a presentation to the WEA University in the Community class at Innis College February 1.


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