I recall interviewing the historian of adult education John Harrison a decade or so ago. Looking back on his own career and those of his contemporaries, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, he reflected that their aim, as adult educators, had been to “change the world without recourse to a revolution”. His remark, for me, neatly encapsulated the radical aims of the British adult education movement for much of the twentieth century – as well as its rejection of the more incendiary aims of the Marxist left accurately described by Hoggart as “middle class”. As Hoggart realised, Marxism never really caught the imagination of the British working class, whose radicalism took a more moderate, less violent form (Hoggart could make reading poetry seem a radical act – which, of course, it can be).
Those aspirations have fallen away somewhat as adult education has become to a large extent depoliticized and increasingly a tool of economic strategy, with adult educators chasing funding intended to support economic growth and promote employability, usually rather narrowly conceived. There is a tradition in the movement of interpreting these aims rather loosely in order to preserve at least part of its social purpose intent but this has become difficult to sustain in the face of the mass institutional vandalism of several generations of politicians (or both colours) who know the price of everything but see the value of nothing. The cultural infrastructure that enabled Britain to become a global leader in social purpose adult education with a focus on second-chance learners – the libraries, the departments of continuing education, the specialist institutions, the residential colleges, the programmes of part-time higher education, the local authority, adult education services – took many decades to build up and will not be reconstituted in many, many more.
These traditions are often in my mind these days, both because of the decline in the quality and subtlety of thought and ideas among what these days I suppose we might call the moderate left and because of the near-contempt shown by many current left-leaning thinkers and commentators (most of whom would, I guess, place themselves on the radical left) for the people whose interests they claim to have at heart but who, in reality, they appear to blame for most of the things they think are wrong in society: the working class (a similar contempt, I should add, is in evidence in the rhetoric of the right, though it is expressed more in its naked distortion of intent and its use of Orwellian double think, which reached its apogee under David Cameron and is being cheerfully continued by his unelected successor, Theresa May). It is as far as you could imagine from the thoughtful, compassionate and informed ideas of those radical left thinkers who cut their teeth in the adult education movement and knew first-hand the people and communities they wrote about and taught in. Most so-called progressive thinking now takes place in a rarefied space most working people know nothing about and which means absolutely nothing to them.
I read an interview with Alan Tuckett in which he drew a contrast between the significant role played by adult education in the build up to the 1975 referendum on entering the common market and the negligible role it played in the run-up to Britain’s decision to leave the EU – the result, he said, of a gradual shift in focus from political and social education and towards finance and administration. He remained, however, typically hopeful that adult education would find another way to push its roots through the cracks in our broken social and educational infrastructure. I suppose he is right to argue that we cannot go back to the past. Perhaps new and emerging social movements, many of which have used and reshaped traditional approaches to adult education, offer some hope. What troubles me, I suppose, is the huge divide that has opened up between working-class communities and progressive social and political movements and thinking. It is a gap that will not be bridged by any amount of name-calling or finger-pointing.
While I agree with Alan that adult education must, if it is to survive, find new ways to be relevant and useful, I think its traditions still have something important to teach us about how to bridge this divide. The Hoggarts, Williams and Harrisons of this world were, for me, genuinely radical because they took their ideas into the heart of working-class communities (communities, quite often, very like the ones in which they grew up) and saw themselves not as imparters of a gift but rather as learners themselves who took as much, if not more, from the students with whom they opened up a dialogue. We often hear about teachers who inspired students to be the people they became. But I have been just as struck over the years by the stories teachers have told me about their inspirational students. The important thing about the kinds of classes taught by Hoggart and Williams, and the Workers’ Educational Association approach more generally, is that they were seen as a kind of platform for negotiation or co-creation. The curriculum was not enforced, it was agreed. What the tutor brought to the classroom was just the start – the students took it somewhere else. That is what makes them so radical and still today, very often, such incredibly exciting places to be. It wouldn’t hurt the left to try listening for a change.
More than that, in our divided, post-trust society, I see in adult education a chance to span all kinds of divides; social, economic, cultural, religious or linguistic. It creates spaces in which prejudices are challenged, ideas are changed and wounds healed. That seems to me so very relevant to the issues we face today. We may not be able to rekindle “this great movement of ours” from the ashes in which it currently smolders, but its vision of slow, grassroots change, fueled by education with an unabashed social and civic purpose, remains, to my mind, our best hope of achieving something different to and better than the austere, unequal and socially disjointed vision that is the best that our politicians can offer.