2. Bring back radical adult education
According to an article on “infed” (who appear to be a genuinely not-for-profit site trying to articlualte an open history/encyclopedia of education) called Adult Schools and the Making of Adult Education, adult education began with the need for the Church of Enlgand to teach people how to read the Bible. This inititative caught on more in Scotland and Wales than in England, with some 3000 schools opened by 1737 – 1761 in Wales alone. Adults were allowed to attend the evening classes and Sunday schools, but these free schools were mainly aimed at children.
The first proper adult school is said to have begun in 1798 in Nottingham. This was followed by others in London: Southwark in 1814 and another at the New London Tavern, Cheapside in 1815. These first adult schools were still very much linked to religion, with a strong involvement from Quaker societies. In Birmingham, two Quakers Joseph Sturge and William White formed the Serven Street school in 1850, which broadened its curriculum to include evening classes in arithmetic, geography and grammar. They also emphasised widening and retaining participation, helping to foster such co-operative mutual aid activities such as book and library clubs, savings banks, sick funds and temperence societies. Eventually a National Council of Adult Schools was founded in 1899 to promote and federate these existing adult schools.
These adult education provisions peaked in number leading up to the First World War. By 1910 there were something like 1900 schools with about 114,000 adults attending classes. These schools were still closely associated with religion, and the two educational principles set out in a 1907 statement for these schools were 1) The reverent study of the Bible as the central feature, and 2) Democratic, unsectarian and non-party methods of working.
So this was far from a radical (socialist) political project, and there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in maintaining that the schools should be ideologically informed by the Bible and not by sectarian politics. But anyway…The reasons for the decline of this type of adult education are, according to “infed”: the War, which obviously reduced the numbers of participants and teachers; the creation of the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA); and ‘the mood of the time’, which seems to be that men, the ratio of men to women being 2:1, were put off by the religious nature of the schools (women stayed longer).
After this we pick up the history of adult education again with the WEA, which nowadays offers the same kind of flaccid education as Further Education evening classes: pattern cutting, art, back to work skills, literacy, numeracy. I’m not putting these course down in principle, especially not numeracy, literacy and back to work training (ask me about my experiences with the jobcentre and New Deal!). It’s just that I expect a little more from the WEA, an organisation linked to the working class as a political class with expectations beyond the hobbies allotted to them by the ruling class. In fact, there is current course on the WEA website that made me pay attention, called Understanding Politics. The course aims to ‘break down barriers to increase women’s participation in public life; provide tailor made training for women at grassroots level; strengthen the voice of women in Balsall Heath (in Birmingham); etc. Strong stuff, excellent work! Much more like the kind of educational provision to encourage political consciousness.
On the WEA website we get a Brief History of the WEA, written by Trudy Jackson. The WEA started as a collaboration between itself and the University “extension classes” that had already existed, which the WEA’s co-founder (along with his wife) Albert Mansbridge had been attending for years. So you know what I’m going to say: the WEA started out as an organisation subjugated to the already elitist system of University education.
However, the WEA’s emphasis on “tutorials” rather than lectures marked an attempt to make further education more relevant for workers, and not just a way for the University to feel like they are making an effort. There was also an emphasis on social and economic studies in the early part of the association, which makes sense considering the strong links with the unions. Nationally, WEA were organised as a branching system, with regional groups of students. By 1945, there were over 800 branches across the country, a figure that hasn’t really changed since. It is also worth noting that Raymond Williams was a WEA tutor for many years, someone whom I respect a lot. (Karl Marx also ran some community workshops for the working classes in Soho, in the early days of his involvement in the Communist League).
At the UfSO, we have been giving the University a lot of shit, and rightly so. It is a racist, elitist, sexist, bourgeios institution. The adult education movement was something different to this middle class fortress of “culture”, even though it eventually became absorbed and neutralised by the status quo, it was nevertheless an invaluable resource for the emerging political consciousness of the working class. The international working class achieved real victories in the 20th century. Although no revolution happened in Britain, they won (and we still have) state funded primary and secondary education for all, a nationalised communications and transportation infrastructure, welfare and a free national health service.
We need to create a network of radical community adult education groups within our immediate areas, running workshops on critical thinking (non-reified philosophy), cultural and media studies, Marxist economic theories, political history, etc. Basically all subjects that will help open minds and lever out some of the ideology and other bullshit that has been sedimented in the popular/public consciousness. This will not be a matter of academics lowering themselves to “the masses”. It will be a collaborative learning experience, tutor and students learning from each other and working towards the production of a piece of writing, or a film, or a political party, or whatever. Along with the destruction of the mainstream corrupted media, the growth of a radically non-institutional education network will be a very powerful weapon against hegemony and neo-liberal capitalism. A new proletariat will need to have the critical powers and vision to sustain a global socialist (or whatever you want to call it, true democratic, anarcho-sydicalist – just not fucking capitalism, or fascism!) movement