Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Transmission of ideas and the New Zealand Workers Educational Association

Photo: John Bell Condliffe, 1891 - 1981, New Zealand Dictionary of Biography.

I thought it appropriate in this, my first substantive post on this blog, to start with a New Zealand story, one that links two of my interests.

The first is the mechanisms, the channels, through which ideas are transmitted, a process that changes their form.

The second is the reason why such a small country as New Zealand generated so many international academics in fields such as economics and anthropology.

These two are linked. Part of the link lies in the nature of educational development in New Zealand. Part lies in the the New Zealand Branch of the Workers Educational Association.

The comments that follow are personal and do not pretend to be definitive or even rigorous. They are personal impressions, marking a starting point for further discussion.

Growing up in an academic family in New England with New Zealand connections, I knew about the WEA.

My father had been an active member of the WEA. His sister and Vic Fisher, her husband to be, had met at a WEA camp in Auckland. My Uncle Horace had been persuaded by Professor Condliffe to give up a secure position as a school teacher, something that distressed his parents to become a WEA tutor in Westland, the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Professor Condliffe was actually born at Footscray in Melbourne 0n 23 December 1981, moving to New Zealand with his family in 1904. At the age of 16 Condliffe took up a cadetship with the Customs Department in Christchurch, but continued to study part time at Canterbury College.

Now here it is helpful to look at some basic demographics.

In 1907, New Zealand's population was less than a million. New South Wales, by contrast, had a population of between 1.5 and 1.6 million of which something under 39 per cent lived in Sydney.

NSW had just one teacher's college and one university, both located in Sydney. New Zealand, by contrast, already had a number of teacher's colleges and universities spread across the country. It was simply much easier to get educated in New Zealand.

Further, and I am not sure when this began, New Zealand had distance education years before Australia. By the early 1930s, my father as a teacher at a one teacher school did two Master's degrees by distance education, with books coming by train north from Auckland.

During his undergraduate years John Condliffe first met James Hight, the professor of constitutional history and political economy. Hight encouraged Condliffe to study economics, and in 1915 he graduated MA in economics and won a senior university prize. His thesis, published that year in the New Zealand Official Year-book , was the first systematic account of New Zealand's economic history using trade statistics.

The war years were eventful for Condliffe. He was actively involved with Hight in the establishment of the WEA in Christchurch and began the first economics course by lecturing on his thesis topic. During the early years of the WEA in Christchurch and Wellington, he tutored many future Labour leaders: Walter Nash, Peter Fraser, Tim Armstrong, Ted Howard and Harry Holland.

The WEA seems to have filled a real gap in a way not seen in Australia, satisfying a thirst for adult education. So it became a mechanism for the transmission of information and ideas.

In 1915 Condliffe was transferred to the Census and Statistics Office in Wellington as part of an experiment to bring economists into the public service. Now I found this interesting. It would be many years, I think, before Australia had any equivalent.

In 1916 Condliffe was enticed back to Canterbury to a lectureship in economics under Hight, and for the next year he taught a variety of courses: statistics, economic geography, constitutional history, economic theory and economic history, as well as WEA classes.

After a period of war service, in 1919 Condliffe was awarded the Sir Thomas Gresham scholarship at Cambridge University. This was Condliffe's first real taste of university life and it impressed him greatly. Contact with leading British economists, especially J. M. Keynes, reinforced Hight's early teaching that economics should be used for solving economic and social problems.

Here I would add one point to the story drawn from the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography. Scholarships were a key mechanism by which those in the dominions - and they seem to have been especially important in New Zealand - were drawn into broader intellectual life.

At this point I will stop this story and this post, coming back to Professor Condliffe's story in a later post.

Next post in series.


Fleming, Grant. 'Condliffe, John Bell 1891 - 1981'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL:

For a history of the WEA in New Zealand see.

Statistical data is drawn from various web searches.


Rafe said...

In addition to home-grown heroes like Rutherfoed NZ had a significant guest when Karl Popper fled from Austria in 1937 and stayed at Canterbury College until 1945. During that time he wrote The Open Society and its Enemies and the articles that became The Poverty of Historicism. He described that as his war work. In addition he worked with a committee to find places for other refugees.

He also made a significan input to the intellectual life of the time because he attracted a circle of scientists and others who feasted on his insights. John Eccles invited him to Otago where he filled a large hall for a short series of lectures.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's fascinating, Rafe. I will pick this up in a post. There are some interesting cross-linkages here.