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.


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