History and Practice of Community Education. CET No. 1.

February 16, 2022
“Many educators and administrators feel that university public service programming will assume an even larger role in the university community due to declining enrollment and public demands for relevance.” Robert Sellers. Methodology for Evaluating University Public Service Outreach to State and Local Government, in State & Local Government Review, May 1979, Vol. 11, No. 2 […]

“Many educators and administrators feel that university public service programming will assume an even larger role in the university community due to declining enrollment and public demands for relevance.” Robert Sellers. Methodology for Evaluating University Public Service Outreach to State and Local Government, in State & Local Government Review, May 1979, Vol. 11, No. 2 (May, 1979), pp. 64-69 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4354649).


So was said in 1979. Community education is a public service, substantially.  However, the article of the past is very revealing in how we have not progressed in community education as a public service. “For example, said Robert Sellers, “it might be established that a public service unit with less than two full-time professionals would rank below standard for that characteristic.”


A global conversation needs to open up on the community education, and include the many visions of community education, and which would embrace differences.


More than that the practice in the new community education model(s) need to become formative. My thinking here is informed by the knowledge of how the histories have shaped community education. There are several examples I can give, but here is one.


In the early 20th century community education, across Commonwealth countries, was substantive in the form of Technical Colleges, Schools of Art, Mechanic Institutes, royal societies, and ideological associations – Freethinkers, Rationalists, and Church lecture series. By the mid-century that momentum is eroded, and community education is largely reduced to technical arts at the tech colleges. In Australia there was never a history of the American state community colleges, and the liberal arts colleges which emerged in the mid-West. The early 21st century ‘global’ has changed the dynamics with the emergence of online educative communities. However, it struggles in the 1990s-created neo-liberal economy and institutional constant habits, where the talk is generally innovation but without structural change. An example of innovation with structural change is the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Model (2005-2015).


Where we need to look to examine the challenges, is in the relationship between the universities and community education. The informal history of community education goes back a long way – catechisms, political meetings in the public square, Sunday schools, and so forth. To different measures, these gatherings were popular movements. The universities ebbed and flowed through these popular movements, and the academy was both influenced popular movements and was influenced by such movements. In the 20th century the universities took a larger leadership role in community education. This was particularly seen in the organisation of the Workers Educational Association. However, the momentum withered in the last quarter of the century. This coincided with the development of university’s correspondence courses, with community members obtaining degrees through programs in mail packages, radio, and television. This process was replaced, in this century, by the online collaborative university educational programs, such as Open University. In this case the degrees are badged as generic across the university partners. Where does that leave community education?


In a neo-liberal economy, it means that many community members are still left out of the university’s ‘open’ offerings. That means that many communities members look to community education as a free hobby, a plaything with no educative concern. In such an environment, lifelong learning is significantly diminished.


That is the current challenge for community educators and facilitators, as well as for corporate owners of the platforms that operated to run community education programs.




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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
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