Uniting a nation through education

While the OU has been associated with the construction and reconstruction of national identities, the idea of educational broadcasting helping to cement a notion of national identity did not originate with the OU. This note about Canadian broadcasts considers some of the precedents. There are some clips here. 

As radio’s popularity spread across Canada between the wars, interest in using broadcasts for education purposes grew. One approach was to echo the existing rural discussion groups and encourage people to listen together and then discuss the programmes. The University of Alberta university extension department, headed by E A Corbett, had its own travelling lecture circuit with slides, texts and later films and this was extended when it used its own radio station for broadcasts. In 1936, after a decade of experience in radio broadcasting, Corbett became head of the Canadian Association for Adult Education. This body formed a partnership with the government’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to produce a number of projects, including the National Farm Radio Forums, which started in 1938. During the war the government sought to promote national unity and increase agricultural production. The National Farm Radio Forums (slogan ‘Read-Listen-Discuss-Act’) provided a reason for farmers to meet and study their problems together on Monday evenings during November to March when there was relatively little to do on the farm. Printed study material was available and discussion conclusions noted and submitted to a provincial office. One-way transmission fostered two-way communication for it gave farmers a voice at national level. Topics included rural electrification, ‘should we encourage immigration?’ and co-operative medical services and stores. There were sometimes dramatizations and opportunities for summaries from previous discussions to be presented. This mass education allowed problems to be resolved at local level, best practices to be shared and the voices of individuals to be heard. By 1944 there were over 1,000 listening groups and by 1950 there were over 1,600 groups consisting of almost 21,000 participants. A more general Citizens Forum was started during the war but it was not as successful and there were accusations of left-wing bias against Corbett and others. As interest in television grew, interest in the forums fell and they were no longer broadcast from the mid-50s. The government saw radio as a tool for national unity and citizenship education but, Romanow argued, ‘this tool was to be used only of its own messages and ends, which were usually in concert with those of big business’ (Paula Romanow, ‘”The picture of democracy we are seeking”: CBC Radio Forums and the search for a Canadian identity, 1930-1950’, Journal of Radio Studies, May 2005, 12, 1, pp. 104-119, (p. 117). While the perceived need for the Canadians to assert their national pride in the face of its dominat neighbour to the south may be greater than the need felt by the Wilson government to strengthen identity with the British nation, parallels with the role of the OU might be drawn.

Farm and community leaders claimed that the give-and-take of these discussions provided useful training for later public life. In 1952, UNESCO commissioned research into Farm Forum techniques. Its report was published in 1954, and consequently India and Ghana began using Canadian Farm Forum models while in France, teleclubs were formed in 1951. See John Nicol, Albert A. Shea, G.J.P. Simmins; R. Alex Sim, editor, Canada’s farm radio forums, Unesco Paris 1954; W F Coleman et al, An African experiment in radio forums for rural development, Unesco 1968 and Henry R. Cassirer, ‘Audience Participation, New Style’, Public Opinion Quarterly 23, 4, 1959 pp 529-536.

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