The annual conference of Adult and Community Education (ACE) began with a traditional Maori welcome powhiri. As the ancestors were invoked to bless the deliberations with open mind and open hearts, it became evident that the gathering in Wellington (New Zealand) held last week was more than an intellectual debate. For the Maori indigenous knowledge system, learning is a process that simultaneously engages the intellect, the heart and the spirit. This is indeed more so when ‘learning democracy’ is not merely a course in comparative politics or international relations. Democracy is a set of attitudes, values, principles, ethics and behaviours—yes institutions too—that is learnt in everyday life at home, community, school and work places.
As the deliberations on learning democracy progressed further in the conference, the ‘launch’ of a new book ‘The People’s University’ was celebrated. This book captures one hundred years of the history of Workers’ Educational Association (1915-2015) in New Zealand. It portrays in stimulating stories how learning workplace democracy formed a unique part of the working class in the country. What is especially interesting is how the struggles of workers were organically linked to struggles for gender justice and Maori call for authentic implementation of Treaty of Waitangi.
In today’s world of higher education, race for global rankings tends to obfuscate the possibilities of linking learning in the classroom with learning in the real world. Students and scholars alike in the conference passionately talked about the urgent need to provide practical steps for moving from the secondary to tertiary levels of education. An interesting innovation is the Manukara School that works with Maori youth to identify their aspirations and fears as a stepping stone towards designing an educational programme that connects with those dreams. In partnership with Massey University, the Manukara School enables such youth to enhance their learning opportunities at tertiary levels. It demonstrates that culture and relationships in secondary and higher educational pedagogy are critical for success by such students.
As the world today comes to terms with planetary survival, and the push for knowledge economy gives universities greater pressure to compete, the Maori pedagogy and People’s University have some interesting lessons to contribute. Learning democracy in everyday life and work is learning with open mind, heart and spirit. Universities have been crucibles of revolutionary struggles in the past; can they reclaim those possibilities in the future?
Rajesh Tandon UNESCO Co-Chair
June 22, 2015