‘The important thing is to keep the tradition going’

I keep returning to a book I first read a couple of years ago after coming across this recommendation by Stephen Elliott.

The book is Stoner by John Williams. It tells the outwardly uneventful story of the life of a not particularly distinguished tutor at an American university. William Stoner, the novel tells us, was raised by poor parents on a small farm in Missouri in the early 1890s. Aged 19 he is sent away to university to study agriculture and while there discovers a love of literature, in pursuit of which he writes a book and becomes an assistant professor. Williams tells us at the start of the book that:

during the height of World War I [Stoner] received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness…

In the course of his (we are forewarned) unexceptional life, Stoner marries – unhappily – and brings into the world a beloved daughter whose childhood becomes a casualty of the warring disintegration of his marriage. A bitter common room dispute prevents him from rising higher in his career and, while an affair with a doctoral student brings him joy, it is not allowed to last.

It will be obvious from this that Stoner is not a particularly happy book. But the outward facts do not convey the power of a novel that manages, in a really profound way, to be a story of hope and transformation. It is a brilliant book, utterly compelling and written with an astonishing delicacy and intensity. Not surprisingly, it has won a small but passionate band of champions whose enthusiasm has kept a neglected work in print. Lately, the book has been getting something like the critical attention it deserves, and quite a few words of appreciation have been written about it (a few excellent pieces are available online and are well worth searching out – this is one of the best). I won’t presume to add too many more words to this list but I would like to draw out a couple of aspects of the novel which, for me, as someone working in the field of education, are particularly meaningful.

The first is the vision of the university conveyed by Williams. For all of the in-fighting and small-mindedness of campus life described (not inaccurately) by Williams, Stoner remains steadfastly committed to the idea of the university as a disinterested, safe space, free from utilitarian pressures, in which one can pursue one’s interests and curiosities and, indeed, discover what those interests and curiosities might be. This is the experience of Stoner whose life is transformed by his exposure to English literature – he experiences ‘an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words’ – and by what he finds to be the first stirrings of a lifelong love of learning. People come by their sense of who they are and what they want to do gradually and at different points in their lives. Like many of us, Stoner’s sense of identity emerges slowly. Without the space offered by university life he would never have found his vocation, and he is prepared to defend it, refusing to compromise his academic standards and allow a lazy, pretentious student to graduate his course, despite pressure from his head of department and despite knowing that his refusal will cost him his career.

Stoner sees the university as a place of ‘security and serenity’ which has to be protected against the forces which drive change through the rest of the world. He would not have understood today’s attempts to appraise what universities do in economic terms, less still the wisdom of introducing a ‘market’ in higher education. But he would, I imagine, have been sympathetic to the sort of vision set out in the Robbins Report of 1963. Universities, Robbins argued, must not simply be about ‘instruction in skills’ but must also promote the ‘general powers of the mind’ in order to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’. Stoner’s transformation could not have taken place in an institution dedicated to ‘mere’ specialism (where he would have had little choice but to follow the narrow and well-trodden path working-class youngsters continue to tread, denied the sort of rounded, general education their wealthier peers take for granted). With the notion of a liberal arts education, empowering individuals with broad knowledge and understanding as well as job-ready skills, under threat in institutions around the world, it is worth reminding ourselves of its power to transform lives – as well as of how diminished we would be without it. It should not be the preserve of the already privileged.

The second aspect of the novel I wish to mention concerns Stoner’s vocation as a teacher. In the course of the novel, Stoner comes to realise that his work, his life, for all its apparent frustration and seeming futility, has meaning and value, and that this meaning and value reside in his contribution to the civilising tradition of liberal education. The passages in which Williams describes this realisation are among the most luminous in the book. Stoner comes to love what he does, to define himself by it, and through the patient, modest application of his skill as a teacher, comes to understand both it and himself. Through his devotion to his work he finds a way of putting himself ‘into a kind of order’, of appreciating not only the significance of his work but also its place in a larger tradition, held together, Williams (in a later interview) suggests, by love:

It’s the love of the thing that’s essential. And if you love something, you’re going to understand it. And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot … you never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You’ve got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilisation.

Stoner is, perhaps above all, about a man’s love of his work, and the importance of keeping faith in that work, and the tradition of which it is a part, even when other things fall apart and the world sees no value in what you do. Though the many blows borne by Stoner in the course of the book make it, in places, a difficult read (the passages which describe the disintegration of his relationship with his daughter are terribly painful), Williams succeeds brilliantly in conveying the worth of a life lived honestly and with conviction, though, to others, it seemed a life of little or no account. In the end, Stoner emerges triumphant – though it is not a triumph everyone will recognise – his quiet integrity intact, his care for and dedication to his work vindicated.

There is much to love and admire in John Williams’ book, not least its expression of solidarity with those stoic folk who work quietly and with integrity at their jobs in spite of the indifference, even hostility, of the world. It is arguable how well the novel would work had Stoner been, say, a librarian, a nurse or a youth worker, but the choice of teacher as his profession is interesting and resonates strongly with me. Perhaps this is because many of those who now teach in higher education feel the values they bring to their work are under threat. Williams’ message, however, is broader. He tells us that, whatever the view of the wider world, by keeping on and resisting the desire to compromise or to devalue the standards of one’s profession, it’s possible to find dignity, satisfaction and meaning in one’s work. Stoner, Williams considers, is a ‘real hero’ because while his defence of the values he believes in does not make him happy, and, indeed, brings him into conflict with the world, he continues to defend them because he believes they are right.

Spaces of hope: adult education and democracy

In the Scottish Portrait Gallery, in Edinburgh, are two portraits of the philosopher David Hume by his friend Allan Ramsay. One shows Hume resplendent in red military uniform, one of the trappings of a diplomatic appointment to Paris. The Hume it depicts is kind, intelligent and humane, but a little complacent, even, dare I say, self-satisfied. It is a fine portrait, one of Ramsay’s finest, but I much prefer the other, earlier, portrait. This is the convivial, brilliant Hume, the generous, expansive, politely combative Hume of Edinburgh’s clubs and taverns, the guiding spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment.

This wonderful portrait was painted in 1754, the year that Hume and Ramsay, with Adam Smith, set up the Select Society, a weekly debating club for the great and good of Edinburgh society. Topics discussed at club meetings ranged from the treatment of women in ancient and modern society, to paper credit and poor relief (though more incendiary topics such as religion and Jacobitism were off the agenda). It was by no means the only such club in eighteenth-century Edinburgh. Debating societies proliferated about Edinburgh’s Old Town, where some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment lived cheek by jowl with some of the city’s most impoverished residents.

Old Town Edinburgh was a boozy, squalid and wildly boisterous nest of courts, wynds and closes. The poet Thomas Gray wrote that the city was at once the ‘most picturesque (at a distance) and nastiest (when near) of all capital cities’. Pigs were herded from the fields and penned in the Canongate each night. The stink was atrocious. There was no sanitation to speak of and, for the poor, life could be nasty, brutish and short. Daniel Defoe wrote of Edinburgh: ‘I believe that in no city in the world so many people have so little room’. One consequence of the overcrowding was that there was little geographical distance between rich and poor. The wealthiest often shared the same buildings as the poorest (the rich on the upper stories, the poor at the bottom). They drank in the same drinking dens, where the likes of Hume and Ramsay cut their debating teeth and where social status meant little.

Scholars have pondered the reasons for the sudden, remarkable ‘efflorescence’ of original scholarship and creative thinking that took place in Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. Scotland was more open to continental influence than England and many of the ideas of the French Enlightenment found their way into Scottish universities and into polite society (Hume described himself as an ambassador from the world of learning to the world of conversation). The Scottish education system was unusually advanced for the time. After the Reformation, reformers had worked to establish a school in every parish and, over the course of a century or so, literacy levels had improved across society. But just as important was the space offered by Edinburgh’s numerous taverns and societies for discussion. Most of the societies met in pubs where the discussion was stimulated by the generous amounts of alcohol consumed. In the wake of the Act of Union in 1707 there appears to have been a freeing up of thinking about philosophy, politics, history and economics, and a willingness to go further into first principles and the wellsprings of human social life. As Enlightenment scholar Arthur Herman notes, Edinburgh was like a ‘giant think tank’ but one that ‘was not cut off from everyday life. It was in the thick of it’.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough hear some of these issues discussed by a group of adult students in a community centre in north Edinburgh. The group was discussing the Scottish Enlightenment as part of Power to the People, a course, run jointly by Edinburgh City Council and the Workers’ Educational Association, which uses film, literature, photography and song to explore some of the Scotland’s great movements of social protest. Skilfully led by Edinburgh Community Learning and Development Worker Lynn McCabe and WEA tutor Derek Suttie, it was a vibrant and revealing session, getting to the heart of the group’s interests and concerns and effectively dissecting some of the tensions at the heart of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.

The students talked about how the divide between rich and poor was (quite literally) cemented when the wealthy professional class, who largely comprised the ‘literati’ of Edinburgh (unlike the leisured philosophes of the French Enlightenment most of Edinburgh’s thinkers made a living in one profession or another), moved to the spacious and better-planned New Town, leaving the working-class poor to the overcrowding and squalor of the Old Town. Herman argues that the move ‘opened up a new chapter in modern urban history’, by underscoring class division with physical as well as cultural distance. The group, which includes a number of veterans of community activism, was alive to the massive social and cultural cost of this divide, and to its continuing relevance.

The class discussion was wide-ranging. The students considered at length whether the ideas of the Enlightenment would have filtered down to working people, whether there was a strong desire for change in the wider population, and where working people would have gathered to discuss and debate. Lynn argued that while poverty made people angry, often the only way working people could express their feelings was through violent struggle, as in the Porteous Riots of 1736. That struggle though is inadequately recorded. Ordinary people did not have the time to reflect on their lives or on the way society is structured, often telling their stories orally through poetry and song. Even now, said community activist Anna Hutchison, the people of Edinburgh do not know the history of their own city – certainly not the real history.

Five of the students, including Anna, all of them activists, are also founder members of the North Edinburgh Social History Group, which, over the past few years, has set about capturing the history of their community. ‘In areas like ours, everything we’ve ever had we fought for. It wasn’t just handed to us,’ Anna says. For decades, she tells me, the community has had to struggle for the basic amenities others in the city take for granted, waging campaign after campaign for better housing and community conditions, better play facilities for children, and battling to keep vital local services alive. It’s an amazing story of resilience and creativity in the face of injustice and indifference. But in recent years community participation has been declining, with many older activists walking away, frustrated by an ‘engagement’ agenda which seemed designed to manage dissent and control communities. There was a need, says fellow activist Roberta Blaikie, for the community to remind itself what it was capable of achieving. ‘Local people have always had to fight for the services they have,’ she says. ‘It hasn’t always been the way it is now. People don’t realise that. We wanted to show people – including ourselves – all the things that people like ourselves have achieved, all the battles they have won, to give us the projects we have now.’

The group worked closely with Lynn to develop a project that, they hoped, would provide a lasting record of the community’s struggles, while also reinvigorating the spirit of activism, particularly among younger people. They set about researching and recording the history of community activism in the north Edinburgh communities of Pilton, Drylaw, Muirhouse, Granton, Royston and Wardieburn. Over the course of a year, they collected a vast amount of material, including press cuttings and photographs from 30 years of back issues of community paper the North Edinburgh News, campaign footage and recorded interviews. The more they gathered, the more ambitious they became, eventually bringing together material on 70 years of activism in a book, Never Give Up: A community’s fight for social justice, a short film and an exhibition of photographs.

The book’s launch, held at a community arts centre, was attended by more than 100 people, including old and new activists, and led directly to the founding of a new campaigning group, North Edinburgh Fights Back – a new critical space in which new and old activists have been able to develop a response to budget cuts and the privatisation of local services. According to group member Brian Eddington, the launch was, ‘a fantastic event, probably the biggest event there has ever been at North Edinburgh Arts’. Since the launch Roberta and Anna have spoken to schools to raise awareness among younger people of what has been achieved in the area. Scran, the Scottish online learning resource, has helped the group put the material it collected into an online exhibition so anyone can view it, and almost a thousand copies of Never Give Up have been distributed (with a reprint on the way). Eager to build on what they had learned, and to engage others in the study of social history, the group worked with Lynn McCabe to develop a new course, Power to the People, looking more widely at the history of protest in Scotland.

After the class I ask Lynn about the thinking behind the Never Give Up project. The idea, she says, was both to capture the history of community activism in north Edinburgh ‘before it was too late’, and to reinvigorate the spirit of activism in the area. It is obvious that both aims have been met, to some extent at least. Critically, though, for Lynn, it was also obvious that the activists had responded energetically to the opportunity to take stock, to reflect and to think about what next. Power to the People provided an extension of the space Never Give Up created for reflection and debate, but wider this time and more diverse. Creating that space, and giving people an opportunity to reflect on and talk politics, was critical, Lynn explains. ‘For a lot of people who have been active in groups for a while there’s less and less space for people to have the discussions about politics. This is a luxury for a lot of people who have been involved in tenants’ groups, campaign groups, all these kinds of things. It’s a luxury for people to sit back and to reflect and think and read and discuss and debate. Although this is a course I want to see something coming out of it where ideas and education are informing action. It’s also about remaking the connections in that community, which were fractured and have been fractured for years. And it’s about building the alliances again, building the bridges, building the connections, and making new ones as well.’

The availability of that sort of space, and its contribution to the ‘moderate revolution’ of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh, was one of the themes of the group’s discussion. As Lynn argues, adult education is a means of creating such spaces, of making these connections, and of cultivating the skills and capabilities necessary to work well as a group, to cooperate in effecting change and to engage effectively in democracy and civil society. Lynn’s students talked about respecting other people’s opinions more, developing better listening skills and learning to channel their anger in constructive, useful ways. Anna and Roberta both gained confidence in public speaking through sharing their work with local schools. Some felt more optimistic about the future of activism in their area and others saw great potential in the social history model they had developed. Importantly, the neutral space of the classroom (loosely construed) gave them a place in which to consider what was wrong in their community and to wonder how things might be different. It created a place in which the often confining narrowness of people’s personal, work and imaginative worlds could be challenged, and with them injustices and inequalities which, in the ordinary course of life, seem natural or inevitable. The social history group’s work is, perhaps above all, a challenge to the everyday defeatism they encounter on the streets of north Edinburgh, particularly among young people.

WEA Scotland has supported both initiatives and has undertaken a number of comparable projects of its own. Bathgate Once More looked at the story of the British Motor Corporation factory in Bathgate, for a quarter of a century the centre of Britain’s motor vehicle industry. Like Never Give Up, this project gave students a chance to draw on their own ‘real, lived experience’ and to direct their own learning, producing materials that can be used by teachers, linked to Curriculum for Excellence areas. ‘I think it’s important for children and families to be learning about Scottish history and identity,’ says Elizabeth Bryan, Edinburgh Area Tutor Organiser for the WEA. ‘Planning our programmes around learners’ interests means it can be personal, it can be to do with family, it can be to do with community and society or their work – and that’s a great strength.’

Jayne Stuart, Director of WEA Scotland, agrees. ‘As the world changes and financial models change, it is very difficult often to keep the focus on these areas that are really important in terms of community and society. It’s where we see ourselves at the forefront of social change and social movements, something we are retaining through very tough economic times, as part of contributing to democratic society. I see education as very much part of that. It’s an essential, particularly at this time in Scotland when we are on the threshold of making a major decision about our future.’

The class I attended concludes with a discussion of Robert Burns’ great political poem, A man’s a man for a’ that. The group explore some of the themes of the poem – class, poverty and equality – and the session ends with a sung rendition of the poem. I’ve always loved the poem and it seems to me as relevant now as it has ever been. I’m moved by the passion on display, and, when the song ends, a little hopeful.