Worker's Education in Australia and Canada: A Comparative Approach to Labour's Cultural History

By Friesen, Gerald; Taksa, Lucy | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Worker's Education in Australia and Canada: A Comparative Approach to Labour's Cultural History


Friesen, Gerald, Taksa, Lucy, Labour/Le Travail


HOW EFFECTIVE were Canadian working people, when compared with their Australian counterparts, in producing alternatives to the broader norms that can be described as the dominant cultures in the two countries? Such a general question requires some limits. This paper takes adult education and workers' education as representative examples of the cultural expression of working people in Canada and Australia. By examining the history of these specialized educational enterprises, it compares the paths taken by Canadian and Australian workers as they sought to achieve their intellectual, social, and material aspirations.

This approach to adult education and labour culture focuses on the relations between two types of formal educational enterprise, those that profess a community-wide mandate and those created within the labour movement exclusively for the development of its members. These relations were fundamentally influenced by informal collective activities within working people's communities. The nature of these informal relations distinguishes Australia's labour culture from that of Canada.

The complexity and range of cultural phenomena make the study of "labour culture" problematic. Some scholars have acknowledged that this is an elusive field, others have circumvented it by concentrating on formalized industrial and political activities and institutions. (1) It is empirically easier, of course, to study the latter phenomena because they offer clear divisions and quantifiable data. Certainly, by contrast, labour culture is hard to delineate. Nevertheless, this very amorphous nature provides an important field for exploring the nexus between the labour and living conditions experienced by rank-and-file workers and their families, on the hand, and the formal labour institutions that they establish to represent themselves in industrial and political arenas, on the other. Our approach thus concentrates on both the institutional channels and the informal networks of interaction through which working-class people have communicated and reproduced their values, experiences, and knowledge. (2)

In the case of modern Canada and Australia, a considerable body of historical literature attests to the emergence in the 19th and 20th century of an assertive workers' perspective. (3) Some of these workers espoused a class identity in terms familiar from the writings of Marx. Others declared that their primary identification was shaped mainly by a church or an ethnic group or language rather than an occupation or income level or neighbourhood. Regardless of such distinctions, a large proportion increasingly subscribed to a picture of the world based on "us and them," or "workers and bosses," or "the common people and the establishment." It was a perspective that helped to shape workers' activities and expressions in both countries. (4)

A cultural approach to the history of working people can therefore be described as a study of alternative cultures. Alternative to what? The usual response is alternative to a "dominant culture." A considerable scholarly debate surrounds these labels, (5) though it is sufficient for the present to define our approach as cultural, and our subject as working people, without entering further into its intricacies. (6) Rather, by focusing on the specific cultural sphere constituted by the institutions and programmes associated with adult worker education during the 20th century, this paper shall proceed to a different question: how effective were Canadian and Australian working peoples' activities and expressions in producing alternatives to the broader country-wide norm that can be described as the dominant culture? In exploring this cultural sphere, this paper compares the extent to which Canadian and Australian working people accommodated and resisted efforts made by organizations that professed a community-wide mandate, to fulfil working-class intellectual, social, and material needs. …

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