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Desmond William Crowley (1920–1984)

by Frank Farrell

This article was published:

Desmond William Crowley (1920-1984), adult educator, was born on 11 October 1920 at Invercargill, New Zealand, third surviving child of William Gladstone Crowley, cabinet-maker, and his wife Eva, née Murdoch, both born in New Zealand. Desmond was educated at Southland Boys’ High School, the University of Otago (BA, NZ, 1941; MA, 1947; Dip.Ed., 1948) and Dunedin Training College. He married Jessie Nora Gertrude Gibson on 1 February 1941 at the Church of Christ, North East Valley, Dunedin. In 1941-45 he served at home with the New Zealand Military Forces, rising to staff sergeant. He was appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Otago in 1947. As a Leverhulme research student, he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science (Ph.D., 1952). He became assistant lecturer (1951-54) in history at the University of Aberdeen and lecturer (1954-58) in adult education and extra-mural studies at the University of Leeds.

While in Britain Crowley had written a history of the development of the New Zealand labour movement from 1894 to 1913 (Historical Studies, 1951). His book The Background to Current Affairs (1958) derived from his teaching at Leeds. He sought to identify the main historical forces operating in contemporary affairs, beginning with Britain and the postwar world, and including descriptions of the Commonwealth. The book covered issues such as racial divisions, the emergence of new nations and power blocs, and the existence and spread of nuclear weapons.

Moving to Australia in 1959, Crowley worked as assistant-director in adult education at the University of Adelaide. In 1964 he was appointed director of the department of adult education at the University of Sydney. The boom in higher education under the Menzies government had led to new universities and colleges supplanting the University of Sydney’s outreach. Crowley concentrated on developing tutorial classes in Sydney, and took up the challenge of infusing Aboriginal adult education with a new vigour. In 1966 the Australian Universities Commission submitted a proposal (later rejected by the Gorton government) to divert funding for adult education from the universities to the new colleges of advanced education after the 1967-69 triennium. Crowley printed ten thousand copies of a pamphlet, `The Challenge to University Adult Education’, and posted them to adult students and parliamentarians. In 1968 he spoke on `The Role of Colleges of Advanced Education in Australian Adult Education’. He again emphasised the gravity of the triennium crisis in a chapter in Derek Whitelock (ed.), Adult Education in Australia (1970).

Abreast of developments in educational technology, Crowley sought new modes of communication for adult education. He contributed to radio programs and television and became a regular contributor to the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s `Notes on the News’. He was `Guest of Honour’ on the ABC in 1972, and the following year he endorsed a proposal for the creation of a new Australian open university. After speaking at a conference on lifelong education, he edited the proceedings, Educating the Whole Person (1975). In his paper entitled `Progressive Alternatives to Trendyism’, he argued that the question of standards in academic subjects confronted both progressive and conservative educationists.

As editor (1964-82) of the Current Affairs Bulletin, Crowley coaxed academic authors to write incisive accounts of issues of interest to serious readers of the news. An increasing number of subjects were opened up for discussion, and changes in style and format gave the bulletin a modern appearance. When Crowley retired as editor, Sir Hermann Black commended him for having adhered to the `academic faith’ that `all issues are open to scrutiny’ and that `reasonable discourse’ could be sustained by adults through the printed page. This achievement, he added, was simply one facet of Crowley’s long period of devotion to the cause of adult education. He had been founding secretary (1960-63), editor (1963-65) and chairman (1965-67) of the Australian Association of Adult Education, a trustee (1968-80) of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and a member (from 1974) and deputy chairman (from 1979) of the New South Wales Board of Adult Education. He was admitted as a fellow of the Australian College of Education in 1975.

After his retirement from the university in 1982, Crowley lived quietly at his home in Willoughby. His recreations were camping and writing and, despite declining health, he worked on a history of adult education. Survived by his wife and their two sons and daughter, he died of a cerebrovascular accident on 7 January 1984 at Cammeray and was cremated. He had known before he died that he was about to be appointed AM.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1967, p 20, 31 Jan 1972, p 16
  • Current Affairs Bulletin, Oct 1982, p 17
  • Australian Journal of Adult Education, Apr 1984, p 4
  • Crowley papers (University of Sydney).

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Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Crowley, Desmond William (1920–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 October, 1920
Invercargill, New Zealand


7 January, 1984 (aged 63)
Cammeray, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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