Renfrew-Collingwood Community News

News stories from the Renfrew-Collingwood community in East Vancouver

Adult education time machine: Witnessing adult education in the photos of the City of Vancouver Archives

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Originally written as an assignment for the University of BC, local resident and writer John Mendoza looks at the history of adult education in Vancouver and uncovers some East Vancouver connections.

Adult Education - Ladies driving

Ladies at driving education display in PNE B.C. building, 1954, photographer unknown, City of Vancouver Archives website

My assignment for a course in adult education at the University of British Columbia was to find photos that speak of adult education in a historical and contemporary setting. In finding photos, I wanted this challenge shaped by the desire to find something in the local community.

What would be in the City of Vancouver’s Archives that could articulate something about adult education? It was not an easy task to sift through numerous historical images, but slowly, four photos emerged. Of those four photos, two photos had definite links to the east side of Vancouver, specifically the Pacific National Exhibition.

Of the four photos, the two photos of adult learning opportunities captured after 1950 may seem unremarkable, but upon closer examination, reveal something far more complex. Both photos were created in the 1950s with only a one-year difference between them, and the name of the photographers are unknown.

Both photos were taken at the Pacific National Exhibition, affectionately known as the PNE. The PNE is an annual agricultural fair hosted at the Hastings Park site in East Vancouver, drawing both a rural audience from rural British Columbia and beyond, and an urban audience from the Lower Mainland. However, both photographic images forward the definitions of what adult education could be.

Both photos from the 1950s feature educational displays, where fairgoers could interact with the content any way they want. Also significant was the use of an agricultural fair as a place where learning could take place, transforming a popular attraction into “an agency of progress.” The driving display photo from 1954 was certainly timely; the end of the Second World War had ushered not only an emerging automobile culture, but also expanding opportunities for women.

Adult Education Totem Pole

Crowd watching Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) carver Ellen Neel working on a totem pole, 1953, photographer unknown, City of Vancouver Archives website

Most fascinating is the 1953 photo featuring Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) artist Ellen Neel, the first female totem pole carver from the Northwest Coast. Here we have a woman from a First Nations background demonstrating a centuries old skill (once largely dominated by male artists) in front of a diverse audience. Both these photos from the 1950s show that learning could occur anywhere, even in a humble agricultural exhibition setting.

Adult Education painting signs

Man and woman painting signs, likely attending School Board Night Classes, circa 1937, photograph by Stuart Thompson (1881-1960), City of Vancouver Archives website

The two other photos that I found speak of adult education in Vancouver before 1950.

The photos share some common characteristics. Both photos happen to be taken by photographer Stuart Thompson in 1937 as part of a series about the formal adult education sector. The two photos certainly reflected the realization that specialized labour was eclipsing unskilled, general labour. While both photos feature male students, one photo is especially telling with one female student featured in the sign painting class. It is a pertinent detail as the mindset concerning women and formal education had changed significantly since the end of the First World War.

Furthermore, that photo is significant in that women were not only choosing to pursue adult learning opportunities, but opportunities that might have been perceived as belonging to a masculine domain. Yet another way that the power differentials in the formal adult education class were changing is what is missing in both photos, and that is the instructor.

Adult Education Headphones

Men in Headphones Learning Technical Skills, circa 1937, photograph by Stuart Thompson (1881-1960), City of Vancouver Archives website

The authority of the teacher had been supplemented by the bulky presence of the radios and the sign painting models and templates featured respectively in each photo. Learning was going beyond “chalk and talk,” and placing the learner’s experience at the centre.

What’s poignant about the photos is the skills featured prominently within them – radio operation, sign painting – have been largely relegated to history as newer technologies have replaced them.

The photos do not offer a complete chronicle of Vancouver’s adult education history – certain stories and diverse communities are missing in its representation. But the few photos do offer a modern path of an adult education culture pushing through the walls of the formal classroom and out into the larger community.

Copyright (c) 2017 Renfrew-Collingwood Community News

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