Adult education is a process by which adults make a deliberate effort to learn, either on their own or in groups. It is often seen as a second chance for adults, allowing them to gain skills they missed out on during their schooling. Courses are offered by a range of providers, from community organisations to universities. They may be formal and lead to qualifications, or be informal and done for personal enrichment and enjoyment.
What is adult education?
The Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning defines adult education as ‘the entire body of ongoing learning processes, formal or otherwise, whereby people regarded as adults by the society to which they belong develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge, and improve their technical or professional qualifications or turn them in a new direction to meet their own needs and those of their society.’1
In traditional Māori societies the type of adult learning varied depending on social status and gender. For men of chiefly status, lifelong learning through the whare wānanga (house of learning) was of great importance. Adults also learned on the marae by participating in or listening to oratory. After European missionaries settled in New Zealand in the early 19th century Māori adults were taught to read and write and learned new agricultural techniques.
Adult education was available from the earliest days of European settlement, at least to those who lived in the fledgling new towns. Mechanics’ institutes (founded in Britain in the 1820s as adult education establishments for skilled working men) were open in Auckland, Nelson and Wellington by 1842 and there were over 100 throughout the country by the mid-19th century.
In New Zealand, mechanics’ institutes offered a broad range of classes and lectures, as well as libraries and reading rooms. The libraries were the most popular part of the institutes and by the 1860s most had stopped offering courses. After 1869 public libraries received government funding, which encouraged mechanics’ institutes to evolve into libraries.
Mutual improvement societies
Mutual improvement societies were groups of people who met to discuss essays written by members. They emerged when mechanics’ institutes stopped running classes. Most were connected with churches, and meetings were held there. Religious groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YWCA) had an education component.
Some mutual improvement societies were secular groups whose members discussed topics frowned upon by churchmen, such as spiritualism and socialism. Members of debating societies argued over the important questions of the day, in doing so learning the techniques of formal argument.
James Hector, public lecturer
James Hector, the leading government scientist of the 19th century, was a great giver of public lectures. People paid to attend these lectures in the expectation of learning something new. Hector also spoke at mechanics’ institutes and YMCAs.
Women participated in these groups, but not to any great extent. Women’s organisations like the Women’s Social and Political League of Wellington (founded in 1894), which promoted women’s social and political education, provided better learning opportunities. Women were also at the forefront of temperance (anti-alcohol) groups. Participation in this movement spurred women to expand their reading and take part in group discussions and public speaking.
Technical schools, the precursor to institutes of technology, started in the 1880s. The first was the Wellington School of Design in 1886. This institution was initially geared towards teachers but also provided other adults with evening tuition in various subjects. Later technical institutes were similarly focused.