Reverend Henry Carmichael (1796-1862) is widely regarded as the founding father of Australian adult education and, more generally, as a leading pioneer colonial educator. He had matriculated to St Andrew's University in 1814 and had graduated M.A. in 1820. Although he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he had pursued a career in education. An advocate always ready to articulate a strong philosophical defense of education, Carmichael remained a tireless champion of the twin causes of public schooling and adult education.
Carmichael’s single greatest contribution to the field was his role in founding Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts (SMSA), Australia’s premier adult education institution. While travelling by ship from London to Australia in 1831, Carmichael formed a small class to study those aspects of arithmetic and geometry useful to the trades of the mechanics on board the ship. This class, together with a smaller political economy class, were most successful and must rank as the earliest examples of formal adult education in Australia. Carmichael was the administrative and managerial leader of the SMSA, as well as its principal lecturer in the early days. The school was a great success. In the 1830s lectures covered subjects ranging from chemistry, electricity and steam to how to choose a horse, phrenology, vulgarities in conversation, and more. Membership increased from 91 to 609 in only five years.
Later, Carmichael made further contributions to education including public schooling, teacher training and agricultural education, the foundation of the wine industry, and community affairs generally from his base in the Hunter Valley. As the government surveyor for the Hunter District, Carmichael surveyed a number of public roads and was responsible for many rural subdivisions. Moreover, he often tutored mathematics, especially in relation to surveying and navigation. His Porphyry vineyard was the longest lived of all the vineyards in the area, surviving into the early 1900s. Carmichael and his fellow pioneers of the wine industry demonstrated great foresight. Like true adult educators, these pioneers were generous in sharing information and experience with others and greatly assisted the growth of the wine industry. Carmichael continued to promote community life in the Hunter Valley: he was instrumental in establishing a National (public) School at Seaham in 1849 and took an active role in local adult education, often speaking at the Maitland Mechanics' Institute through the 1850s, and regularly returning to his beloved SMSA to present major addresses on questions of educational import.
Carmichael's principal achievement was his dissemination of advanced educational ideas. His university awarded him a doctorate (LL. D) honoris causa in 1860 in recognition of his significant lifelong contributions to education in the colony of NSW. To Carmichael, education was the great moral solution by which all man's affections, social and moral, could be developed. The cultivation of the intellectual and hence the moral faculties would aid the true understanding of any question, and thus foster true morality rather than narrow sectarian opinions. Carmichael died at sea on 28 June 1862 while travelling to the United Kingdom.
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