Sharing the Treasure of Knowledge: Nineteenth-Century Nordic Adult Education Initiatives and Their Outcomes

Kirsi Ahonen

Tutkimustuotos: VäitöskirjaMonograph


This study explores three adult education initiatives originating in Sweden and Finland during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Their significance is analysed by scrutinizing the initiators and their ideas, the processes whereby the ideas became established practices, the nature of these practices or institutions and their role in the local community at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century. These analyses shed light on why the adult education at issue became important and what changes in social patterns of education the new practices brought about.

The study focuses on the formative period of adult education prior to the era of governmental adult education policies. This period was characterized by private and local initiatives and thus the setting of the study is the local level, the Swedish city of Gothenburg and the Finnish city of Tampere. The new practices of adult education are regarded as social innovations and explored from the perspective of the innovation process, extending from the ideas, motives and models to the outcomes. The emergence and formation of the activities are examined in the social, political and cultural context of the period and the approach of the study is comparative. The sources consist of various archive materials, reports, newspapers and other publications.

These three initiatives represented liberal adult education offering general, non-vocational education. Free Academy in Gothenburg was an adult education plan introduced in 1864. It was never implemented as envisaged but ultimately resulted in a practice whereby Gothenburg University College committed itself to organizing public lectures. The idea of Free Academy and the lecturing activities have not earlier been discussed in terms of adult education. The Gothenburg Workers’ Institute was founded in 1883 to cater for workers’ education in the form of popular scientific lectures and the initiative for the Tampere Workers’ Institute was taken at the beginning of the 1890s. Although the workers’ institutes are well-known institutions of adult education, very little scholarly research has been conducted on them, on the Swedish institutes in particular.

Promoting the education of adults implied changes in contemporary thinking. It was recognized that children and adolescents were not the only ones needing education just as it was recognized that those outside the education system or those to whom this system had little to offer also needed education. In addition, the initiators raised an embryonic idea of continuing or lifelong education.

Thus, the plans for Free Academy and the workers’ institutes were not developed solely to compensate for the inadequacies of the education system but also to create entirely new educational practices and offer something the existing institutions could not.

The initiatives originated in a period of transition and exemplified different aspects of modernization: the changing role of the citizen, the emerging questions of women’s and workers’ rights, the pursuit of religious freedom and the increasing importance of knowledge in the lives of individuals and society. The initiators attempted to meet the needs of expanding urban societies by means of education although the needs met and the solutions offered differed according to social class. Reasons arising from such transitions, different in each case, motivated the initiators but they also had more particular interests and expectations. Their motives and goals shaped their ideas and influenced their choices of models for their plans.

This study also reveals how the processes whereby the adult education practices emerged and became institutionalized reflect the attitudes towards the initiatives and the esteem in which they were held. The outcomes were not self-evident as there were also other models, the plans and new institutions faced challenges and the original ideas were adapted to suit local conditions. The initiatives taken by private citizens to create institutions in their home towns and the essential role of local funding and other support indicate the significance of the action on local level for the formation of early adult education.

The new practices influenced the social patterns of education by increasing educational opportunities and by extending the sphere of influence of education. They offered opportunities for more regular study, albeit not producing any qualifications, and attracted considerable numbers of townspeople. They extended the sphere of education to people who had short earlier schooling and offered further education to people who had previously lacked the opportunities for the kind of education the new institutions now offered. Women were both a target and an actual audience. Participants were not only adults; the workers’ institutes with their evening courses also attracted young people in an adult-like position with regard to schooling due to their daily work. The ability of the educational institutions aimed at workers to reach their target group has sometimes been questioned but it is obvious that the Gothenburg and Tampere Workers’ Institutes succeeded in this. The plan for Free Academy and the subsequent lecturing activities show that not all early adult education was intended for workers and the common people as in this case the target group was the local bourgeoisie.

As regards the effects of adult education, the case of the Tampere Workers’ Institute reveals that it contributed to active citizenship by preparing its students to act in civic society and in local government. Drawing on the ideas of human and social capital, the resources the institute could generate for them can be divided into knowledge and skills resources on the one hand, and social resources on the other. The former could be accumulated by attending lectures and practically oriented courses, the latter with the help of planned teaching arrangements but also as a by-product of educational and social activities.
ISBN (elektroninen)978-952-03-2322-6
TilaJulkaistu - 2022
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG4 Monografiaväitöskirja


NimiTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (painettu)2489-9860
ISSN (elektroninen)2490-0028


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