Book Review: Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past…

by Eric Damer

Review of Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: A Short History of Adult Education by Michael Welton (Thompson Publishing, 2013).

Ours is a learning society that goes well beyond schooling for youth. Historian Michael Welton adds that all societies are learning societies and always have been. Adults have always learned new job skills, cultivated leisure interests and even tried to change their society to make it a bit more fair, inclusive and democratic. This last activity—learning for progressive social change—interests Welton the most in this accessible account of adult education in Canada over several hundred years. Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: A Short History of Adult Education invites the reader to consider not only how adults have learned to adjust to their world but also how they have learned to change it. Welton has a special plea for adult educators to “keep faith with our emancipatory traditions” (p. 229) to tackle some of the pressing problems of our current age.

In the preface, Welton introduces the reader to some concepts taken from the German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, mostly notably his concept of the “lifeworld.” The lifeworld, Welton explains, is the part of us that seeks to make personal and collective meaning of our situation using culturally transmitted values and symbols. It gives our lives value. Because the lifeworld is constructed through language and can be reconstructed if found lacking, Welton suggests that adult educators in the past who sought social betterment were in fact defending our personal meaning-making against the impersonal, instrumental logic of economic and administrative systems. To a great extent, this history is Welton’s effort to illustrate a Canadian tradition of adult educators “defending the lifeworld” of everyday people struggling for a better and more satisfying life. To do so, he presents a series of historical examples.

Welton’s examples are contextualized within familiar historical eras. The second chapter (following an introduction) outlines early contact between Indigenous Peoples and Europeans, and how these encounters had an educational dimension even though the newcomers had begun a long period of colonization. The establishment of New France presented new challenges of learning to live in a harsh, foreign world and within a rigid, imported social hierarchy. The third chapter outlines the nineteenth-century rise of agriculture, industrialism and liberalism, and a range of efforts to use education for social improvement. These included mechanics institutes, agricultural education, museums and zoological gardens, and early efforts by non-Europeans to secure civil rights. Chapter four takes the reader into the “progressive” era of the early twentieth-century and the well-known educational initiative of Frontier College, early peace and feminist movements, the birth of university extension in Canada and many other examples of adult education for social change. The mid-century crises engendered by the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Cold War, as discussed in chapter five, present the reader with discussions of the famed Antigonish Movement in rural Nova Scotia and the radical democratic education of several activists, including leaders of the new Canadian Association for Adult Education. The final section summarizes Canadian developments since the 1960s, an era marked by a new set of political tensions and educational practices in Canada and across the globe.

However, readers with editorial sensibilities should be warned: the choice of historical examples (and the historical emphasis for that matter) appear a little idiosyncratic. The author could have chosen many other examples, but he has a point to make about an “emancipatory tradition” in Canadian adult education. The reader may question whether a string of loosely connected examples constitutes a tradition and whether organizing the manuscript differently would have served the author better. The level of analysis is not consistent; sometimes actors appear warts and all, but sometimes they take on a less complex, heroic guise. This inconsistency, however, probably reflects the current level of scholarship on the topic. Most notably, the final document suffers from a range of copy editing problems, from gratuitous punctuation and faulty parallelism to misplaced modifiers and excessive passive voice. The book also lacks an index, giving the impression that the publisher rushed it to press a little early.

Nonetheless, Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: A Short History of Adult Education provides a broad sweep of Canadian history with an emphasis on a topic not often considered in standard histories. Read simply to fill this historical oversight, the book is quite interesting. However, we might also heed Welton’s more serious point—that we face today immense social, political and environmental challenges, and adult education can, as it always has, help to address these challenges.


Eric Damer is a historian, author, editor and sometime blacksmith.

Image taken from publisher’s website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s