Ways of making sense: Adult education and democracy

What would Britain be like if the governing principle of policy-making was to ensure the maintenance of a well-functioning democracy in which everyone had an equal opportunity to belong, have a say and be successful? Clearly, it would be a radically different society to the one in which we live now. For one thing, it would be a society with a clearly defined and well-understood social contract, a wide consensus that adequate public funds should be collected to support a range of basic services essential to human flourishing, and that they should be supported at a decent level. This would mean a clear-headed and informed commitment from those with the most to give up a greater share of what they have in order to maintain good-quality schools, hospitals, libraries, infrastructure, etc. And it would imply a political culture in which it was possible to propose increased investment in public services without being told that your plans will bankrupt the country or lead to communism. This imagined Britain would probably also be a place where economic considerations did not overrule all others and where leaders who espouse views inimical to our own commitment to democracy and decency would be challenged rather than courted. Finally, and importantly, it would be a society in which a far wider value was attached to education and where adult education, widely conceived, was recognized as essential to the successful functioning of democratic society, and supported appropriately.

I was thinking about these issues in relation to Brexit and the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the EU. The referendum was a hugely flawed democratic exercise, notable for the well-documented interference of a foreign power bent on undermining European unity, obscure and extremely shady funding arrangements, the breaking of electoral law (by the Vote Leave campaign), the misuse of private data, the complete absence of any programme for delivering a workable Brexit, and the outright lies and distortions of senior politicians and press supporters, mostly in the cause of leaving the EU. It also managed to deliver perhaps the worst possible result, from a democratic perspective: a 52/48 per cent split in the vote. This made the genuine will of the people impossible to discern, particularly as a very substantial majority either voted against leaving the EU or did not feel sufficiently exercised by the matter to vote at all. It was not helpful either that the question presented to the British public was simplistic to the point of being purposefully stupid. In such circumstances, perhaps the worst thing a government could do would be simply and uncritically to take that verdict as the will of the people and ignore the concerns of close to half of those who bothered to vote. Yet not only has the government resolutely pursued this line, making zero attempt to find a compromise or a way of addressing the will of the 48 per cent, still less to launch a national conversation on the matter, it seems now set on a course that will deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with the Prime Minister unable to command support within her party for a deal that would be acceptable to the EU and reduced to putting forward a plan she doesn’t believe in, in full knowledge that it will be rejected.

The referendum was called by David Cameron in order to bring peace among warring factions of the British Conservative Party. Instead, it gave extremists within the party the opportunity to take their fight to a larger stage, where it is the future of the country, rather than just a political party, that is at stake. Still more troublingly, that struggle has been effectively hijacked by Putin’s Russia and other interests determined to break up the EU. As he has in America, Putin has supported and forged links with racist politicians and other populist forces at national level in the UK to challenge and undermine national and international democratic institutions and structures. While the extent of Russian influence is unclear, there can be no doubt that Putin will be delighted with the outcomes both of the last US presidential election and the UK EU referendum, as well as with the chaos that has ensued from both. The remarkable spectacle of a US president, fresh from humiliating a feeble and flailing UK Prime Minister determined to forge a trade deal at any cost (including to her dignity and that of her office), publicly taking the word of a corrupt and murderous autocrat above that of his own intelligence service, was perhaps the most notable milestone to date in the decline of western liberal democracy.

Democracy is being challenged by new forms of autocratic government, abetted by a foolish, disreputable and reckless US president and a feckless and divided UK government (and opposition), which is drifting away from Europe without map or rudder at a time when democracies (if that is what they are and want to be) desperately need to stand together and defend their values. All of this is symptomatic not only of the rise of populism around the world but of the failure of western democracies to defend their values adequately at home. The UK is a case in point. Over the past decade, the language of fascism has been allowed to creep back into British political discourse, while dangerous, ill-founded and racist views have been given a platform in the mainstream media without sufficient critical challenge. This is perhaps no big surprise when it comes to much of the right-learning press, which has pumped out xenophobic and anti-EU bile for decades (and, of course, the Daily Mail has form when it comes to backing fascists). But the BBC too must take a large share of the blame for its uncritical, evidence-free presentation of opposing views and for the repeated exposure it has given to the likes of Nigel Farage, without challenging their views or credibility, or asking where their funding and support comes from. Perhaps more importantly, though, most politicians and most of the media have been prepared to quietly write off the hopes of communities around the country and the people who live in them. It is ironic that these neglected communities in voting to leave the EU have invested their faith in people who very largely see their lives and futures as wholly acceptable collateral damage in their efforts to stick it to the EU, cut workers’ rights, dismantle the NHS, keep their party together, avoid EU tax scrutiny or further their desire for power (please select as appropriate).

Watching all of this unfold can be an incredibly disempowering and isolating experience. This is particularly so if you are poorly informed or lack the capacity or opportunity to really engage critically with what is going on. For far too long, as a society, we have failed to take seriously the notion that an engaged and well-informed citizenry is the best route to a flourishing, resilient democracy and the best defence against its erosion by malign internal and external forces. This came home to me while reading about the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), a remarkable experiment in education and democracy that developed – under the inspired guidance of social entrepreneur W.E. Williams – during the Second World War. It was established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions for service people, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. These sessions included discussion of alternative ways of organising society and were supplemented by a scheme to provide military personnel with three hours of compulsory education per week, one hour for military training, one for general subjects and personal interest, and one for education in citizenship. Williams felt strongly that serving men and women should not only have access to basic information about the war, but also have the opportunity to take part in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. This was, in the words of General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education, ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’. It demonstrated both a remarkable trust in the capacity of ordinary people to contribute to the future shape of post-war Britain (through Churchill personally intervened to block a paper on the Beveridge Report being published) and a lived commitment to raising political awareness to stimulate democratic engagement.

This understanding of education as a vital support to participatory democracy has been part and parcel of the adult education movement in Britain since the 1919 Report and earlier, in the commitment of the Workers’ Educational Association to ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’. This has been intermittently recognised by government across the decades but this recognition has become increasingly rhetorical, as funding has been systematically redirected to adult education for basic skills and employability, and education for wider purposes has been cut, ruthlessly, by successive governments, but particularly under the austerity-themed governments of Cameron and May. Adult participation in further and higher education has been in freefall while many of the spaces in which non-formal adult education has traditionally taken place, such as public libraries and community centres, have disappeared with the savage reductions in public support for local government. We often hear about the public’s diminishing faith in politicians and the political process, but little is said of the corresponding decline in politicians’ faith in the public: to make decisions about their country’s future, to decide what is best for them educationally, to exercise meaningful, informed choice at elections or to engage meaningfully with political decision-making within their own communities. Both these trends nourish and support each other, creating a downward spiral in mutual esteem and respect that is (as we have found) extremely harmful to democracy and the political process. I spoke recently to a Swedish academic who expressed surprise that in the run-up to the EU referendum there had been no attempt to stimulate engagement through adult education – this, he said, had been the case in Sweden in the run-up to the 2003 referendum on membership of the Euro. It was also characteristic of the lively build up to the referendum on Scottish independence, where local authorities, adult education providers and civil society groups took the initiative in creating spaces in which discussion on key issues could take place. Instead of promoting this kind of meaningful engagement, both leave and remain campaigns plumped for a mixture of lies, fear-mongering and mud-slinging, with a spot of Nazi-inspired, racist propagandising thrown in for good measure. What should have been an opportunity to stimulate a genuine national debate was squandered in the cause of jingoism and complacency.

The loss of critical and creative adult education spaces has never been more keenly felt. With much of the adult education infrastructure systematically dismantled we face a long, upward struggle to reconceptualise adult education as something more than a source of basic and workplace skills. We are some way from the Swedish example, where the links between adult education and democracy are acknowledged and the infrastructure for a campaign of mass adult education exists. But perhaps the current vacuum in British politics created by Brexit, in which the government does not govern and the opposition no longer opposes, also creates a space for other alternative ways of doing democracy. The Swedish study circle model, in which adult learners come together to share views on a particular topic and to learn from one another, is an excellent example, fostering both democratic engagement and inclusion. If we are serious about education for active citizenship, then education must go beyond simply describing what democratic citizenship is about – it must give people the opportunity to participate in democratic deliberation, recognising this as a signifier of inclusion in a democratic society, while acknowledging that democracy’s mutable nature requires continuous engagement, as well as constant vigilance. Adult education can create spaces for attentiveness and remembering, where cynicism can be challenged, hope fostered and preconceptions overturned. It encourages agency, critical thinking and respect for others and their opinions. In times when democratic values and institutions are under attack and ‘alternative facts’ vie with the truth for airtime, learning can be the basis of resistance and simple connection with others can be a revolutionary act. As the wartime pioneers of adult education realised, when darkness is closing in around us, education is the bright hope that can guide us to another place.

Learning, talking, thinking, dreaming: Some thoughts on International Democracy Day

Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence, the referendum has given rise to a notable resurgence in grassroots democratic activism north of the border, with a corresponding increase both in people’s intentions to vote and in the blustering resistance of those in power who see increased democratic engagement as a threat. For once, people have a sense that what they think matters.

What could have been a dry, cynical and negative campaign – and, indeed, started out that way – has been transformed by a combination of community engagement, education, social media and the bullish refusal of Scottish voters to be cowed by the intimidation of parts of the establishment – all that and a very evident passion for democracy and political debate. The result of all this is that the people of Scotland have had the debate they wanted, not the one most mainstream politicians and the media wanted them to have.

I went up to Edinburgh a year ago to hear from some of the projects adult educators had set up in response to the referendum. Frustration at the quality and integrity of debate and the prevalence of negative campaigning was obvious. It was also clear that the debate the adult students I met wanted to have was not one primarily about economics – though everyone agreed that mattered – but one about identity. They wanted to know more – the lines of partiality driving the campaigning meant reliable information was in short supply – and they also wanted spaces in which to think about the kind of Scotland they wanted. Adult educators, through projects like the Workers’ Educational Association’s Talk Scotland programme, and the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group’s series of public seminars, have been at the forefront of creating such spaces – filling a real gap and making a real difference to the quality and purpose of what has been, by and large, a remarkably civilized debate.

Time will tell whether this results in a real, long-term democratic shift in Scotland, with greater, wider political engagement from all sections of society and more power in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians and the unelected moguls, corporations and markets whose influence comes at the expense of ordinary people. Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that the grassroots debate and argument the referendum has unleashed continues, and spreads to other parts of the UK. However, if that is to happen, I think we need two things: more political education and more spaces in which to discuss things that matter to people. Adult education is key to both. But we need to think about adult education as being about more than preparing people for work – and find ways to realise its contribution to wider democracy in creating spaces in which people can learn, talk, think and dream.

Many adult educators across the UK still see themselves as working within this social-purpose tradition, but most will acknowledge too that they are swimming against the tide. Social purpose adult education – which has its roots in the (middle-class) idea that working-class people need opportunities to engage fully in culture and democracy – has been in decline for decades, replaced by a crude but utterly pervasive kind of economic utilitarianism, which makes it difficult for us even to talk about the things we think are most valuable about what we do. Increasingly, the fruits of a liberal education – among them, an appreciation of the arts and culture, an understanding of science, history and politics and an ability to think critically and question norms – are the preserve of the privileged few. For the vast majority of everybody else, education, at its heart, means not much more than preparation for work. Adult education’s role is to correct the failings of the school system, to support people in acquiring new skills for work or to help them update old ones.

This is all hugely important, of course, and, for many, this sort of intervention can be transformational. I don’t mean to disparage it. But if we are serious about developing a genuinely democratic society, we need adult education to be about more than vocational training and basic skills. We need more than employability skills to turn around foundering lives and failing communities. We need imagination, creativity, bravery, resilience, mental toughness, as well as a range of practical skills about engaging with the democratic process, starting up businesses, building up networks, and so on. There is more to empowerment than giving people the skills and know-how to get a job.

The Scottish independence debate has shown, among other things, that people are not necessarily disengaged from politics – at least, not as long as they feel that what they think, and the things they want to talk about, matter. As any adult educator will tell you, with the right sort of opportunity and encouragement, people will set their own agendas. Yet one result of our highly stratified education system is a democratic deficit, in which the vast majority of people feel politically disengaged, powerless to effect change. Party politics is peopled by ‘experts’ who, in such a vacuum, are able to make policy without democratic mandate, justified by empty rhetoric and half-truths. This is some way from the kind of democracy for which adult educators sought to prepare the first waves of Labour MPs, many of whom were former students of the WEA. Genuine democracy is dependent on continuing, lifelong education – the sort that opens up possibility rather than closing it down. It’s all well and good knowing the right answers, but we need to be able to question too.

Reading, culture and citizenship

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens quotes a description, by one of Dickens’ early biographers, of a visit to a Liverpool locksmith around the time of the publication of The Pickwick Papers: ‘I found him reading Pickwick … to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children.’ The novel had been hired by the group, whose members could not afford a shilling for the monthly number (and who were, in all likelihood, mostly illiterate), ‘for twopence a day, from the circulating library’. The story is indicative not only of the tremendously broad appeal of Dickens’ novels – and the excitement with which they were anticipated, by people of all classes and ages – but also of the role shared reading can play in stimulating enthusiasm for books, and for culture more generally, introducing the world of literature to people who might not feel comfortable with books or who might, perhaps for good reasons, think they are not for them.

It seems appropriate that this locksmith’s story should be set in Liverpool as the city is the home of Jane Davis’s Reader Organisation, which, over the past decade or so, has pioneered shared reading, facilitating reading groups in an array of settings (in Liverpool and beyond) in which people do not have ready access to literature, such as care homes, hospitals, prisons, mental health centres and hostels. ‘We teach being with books,’ was how Jane explained the work when I first interviewed her five or six years ago. The Reader Organisation was recently chosen as official partner in Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson’s campaign to transform Liverpool into ‘the foremost reading city in the country’. The project, which follows a report from the Liverpool Education Committee on improving school attainment, will aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure among all the city’s primary school children – a hugely important objective, as the OECD recently recognised when it concluded that reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining social mobility.

The locksmith’s reading circle also put me in mind of a story Richard Hoggart told about the funeral of Byron, when I interviewed him a few years ago. Working people queued for days to pay their respects and lined the streets for the funeral procession, he told me, because serious literature mattered to them, because they felt it was something that did not just belong to other people. ‘People felt bereft,’ he said. ‘And I’m talking about the man in the street’. Great literature is for everyone. There is an amazing tradition of working people engaging with books and other forms of culture, from self-help and mutual improvement groups to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the university extension movement. It was documented wonderfully well in Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which, tellingly, has been a significant inspiration to Jane Davis. Rose’s book remains a challenge, as well as an inspiration, to all those who work in the broad tradition of adult education, in what we used to term ‘this great movement of ours’. When the WEA was formed at the start of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin headed students’ reading lists – an indication, Richard Hoggart suggests, not only of educational ambition but of the ‘spirit of the age’.

The Reader Organisation sees itself as contributing to this tradition. Jane Davis believes not only that reading matters, but that what you read matters. The reading groups do not simply encourage engagement with books but engagement with books that open up to readers, in Jane’s words, ‘a world of powerful ideas, tremendous vocabulary, social visions, ideals, personal knowledge’. Members of the groups are encouraged to discuss, to relate what they read to their own lives and experiences – no one is pressured to contribute and all contributions are treated equally. The aim is to encourage debate, not to close it down – to give people confidence with books and with ‘big learning’ and big themes. Richard Hoggart talks about ‘a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working-class life’, and, in a way, this approach cultivates that, giving people the resources they need to take charge of their own learning, to make up their own minds, to assert their ownership. There is a parallel with the teaching of history. Where it works best it is about creating debate, contesting ‘facts’, disrupting the established narrative, finding relevance in one’s own times and experiences – as Richard J Evans argues, it is about ‘myth-busting’ rather than ‘myth-making’ (the idea of a single cogent – and, presumably, closed – narrative is not only bad, it is likely to be a huge turn-off to most students). Critically, it is also about citizenship.

The Workers’ Education Association grew up, in part, as a result of attempts to redefine citizenship in a moment in history when the franchise was being extended – the early reading lists reflect this. Matthew Arnold’s prominence on them is particularly significant. Arnold’s own attempts to find out ‘what culture really is, what good it can do, what is our own special need of it’ coincided both with a period of rapid social change and with the widening of the franchise to include more members of the middle classes. For him, culture – by which he understood ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (he had a very literary perspective on culture, and took a rather narrow view of the cultural claims of science) – represented a way of preparing people for citizenship. It was important, Arnold felt, that citizens be able to challenge received ideas, to think more and in a more organised way, to develop principles of action and to act cooperatively and collectively, putting sectional interests aside for the good of society. It was to culture that he looked for the development of these capabilities.

As in Matthew Arnold’s time, and in the early decades of the WEA’s existence, these are challenging times for democracy, and rethinking citizenship is again on the agenda. With national fates increasingly determined by forces seemingly beyond political control, democracy is under threat and extremism is on the rise (particularly in southern Europe where the seeming powerlessness of national governments is most exposed). In the UK, with referenda on both Scottish independence and EU membership in the offing, we face major choices about the future shape of our polity. Yet the quality of political debate here is shamingly poor. Despite an economic crisis unprecedented in the lifetimes of many citizens – a crisis caused by the financial sector – the focus of debate has been overwhelmingly on public-sector cuts and the benefits provided for the most vulnerable in society. At the same time, there is a political consensus among all main parties – and the mainstream media – about the amount of tax that should be raised from the very wealthy which ensures that issue is never seriously discussed. With political debate so constrained, and politicians seemingly unable to talk straightforwardly about what they believe (unsurprising, perhaps, when the repetition of a half-truth so often trumps fact and evidence, and goes largely unchallenged by the media), it is hardly startling to find that people are turned off by conventional politics – and are increasingly looking beyond the mainstream parties for change.

Some of the problems Matthew Arnold was responding to are still relevant but the sort of thinking he did about education and citizenship is no longer fashionable. Adult education with a social purpose has been in retreat for many decades, out of step, perhaps fatally, with the ‘spirit of the age’. Yet it seems to me that now, more than ever, we need education that is, in the words of Jane Davis, ‘personal, creative, demanding and filled, as literature is, with useful equipment for the inner life’. The history of this ‘great movement of ours’ tells us that education can change things, and that there is a clear link between the sort of education we offer and the sort of citizens we get. Initiatives like those pioneered by The Reader Organisation are encouraging. They show the appetite many people have for learning that is imaginative, ambitious and socially purposeful. As Arnold too understood, education is not simply about preparing people for work – it is about giving people the resources they need to realise themselves fully, as individuals and as citizens.

My recent article on the work of The Reader Organisation, published in Adults Learning, is available here

Why social history matters

The past, writes poet Michael Donaghy, ‘falls open anywhere’, and it’s important that, when it does, we recognise and understand it. History is important not only to our sense of who we are but also to our capacity to engage actively and intelligently as citizens in democratic society. History and political literacy are intimately linked, which is why we ought to treat sceptically any politician’s attempt to reframe the way history is taught.

The ‘great men’ model which, until relatively recently, dominated the way in which history was taught in UK schools – and which education secretary Michael Gove is, by all accounts, keen to revive – failed most of us because it did not give us an adequate understanding the forces and events that have shaped the communities in which most of us live. When I left school aged 16, I knew a lot about the Second World War, a little about the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, and a few key dates regarding kings and queens and the battles waged on their behalf, but I knew next to nothing about the English Civil War and the extraordinary debates and ideas that ran through it, or about the impact of the Acts of Enclosure, the slave trade, the Suffragette movement or the Peasants’ Revolt. I knew still less about the events and actions, the tensions and struggles, that shaped the town I grew up in.

The fact that our perception of the past changes and is contested makes it all the more important that we are able to make informed judgments about it and defend, if only to ourselves, our own sense of who we are against those who would deny, dismiss or marginalise it. History and, in particular, social history – history that acknowledges the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people and their ways of recording and transmitting them – is a critical part of active citizenship in a democratic society. Growing up in poor or marginalised communities – communities which are, for the most part, off the radar of the mainstream media and whose stories are rarely told, and are, in some cases, in danger of being forgotten – it can be difficult to develop a sense of pride in where you come from and who you are, still less the sense of agency and possibility necessary to make the most of one’s talents and aptitudes and change things for the better.

This was brought home to me really powerfully when I visited a social history project in Edinburgh a few weeks before Christmas (I wrote about it in more depth in a previous post). The members of the Edinburgh Social History Group I spoke to all expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which they were taught history at school. Their sense of having been short-changed grew stronger the more they discovered about the ‘real’ history of their country – from the Porteous riots to Red Clydeside, the stuff that didn’t make it onto the curriculum – and the history of their own community, which, over decades, had waged a series of creative and determined campaigns for better housing and community conditions and better local services. Their response was to develop a project which would provide a lasting record of their community’s campaigning history while reinvigorating, they hoped, the spirit of community activism, particularly among young people. One of the group’s founders, Anna Hutchison, explained:

We encourage them to be proud of where they come from. It’s not all bad. It’s changing slowly. We’ve got a lot more people involved in campaigns and activism now, and that’s through local people going into their schools, into youth clubs, and telling them how it’s done.

The Workers’ Educational Association in Scotland, which supported the group’s social history project, has really grasped the nettle on this, developing a number of similar schemes giving students a chance to draw on the ‘real, lived experience’ of their communities. The flexibility in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence means the resources produced by these projects are now finding their ways into schools, giving young people a chance to gain a real understanding of where they come from and what forces shaped the neighbourhoods in which they live. Seeing for myself how much more meaningful history taught in this way can be, and the difference it can make to people’s sense of agency, I feel uneasy when I read of plans to remove ‘social reformers’ such as Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum in England in favour of the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. You have to wonder what sort of historical role models will be available to girls or to children from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, in particular, under this reformed curriculum – and what impact this is likely to have on social mobility.

Social history is an important component of an education capable of producing the sort of citizens who can revive and sustain our democracy. We need to be able to think critically about our traditions (I mean all our traditions) and to understand that historical interpretation is contested. History, understood in this way, can provide a good grounding in political literacy, helping us develop the skills we need to critically deliberate, and to examine and see through the simplistic rhetoric of politicians, much of which is intended to obscure and mislead (‘the mess we inherited from the last government’, to take a currently near ubiquitous phrase as an example, masks a host of ambiguities and distortions). Just as importantly, social history can give us a sense of ourselves as stakeholders in an ongoing narrative, with as much of a right to a say and as much of a chance of making a difference as anyone else. It can also remind us that other perspectives matter, help us see the world from other people’s points of view, and give us a better sense of our connections to others (all common outcomes, incidentally, of much adult education). The unpleasant and divisive language used by politicians of all parties to vilify and stigmatise the poorest (and least able to answer back) in society suggests that the development of this important imaginative capacity is urgently required.

We badly need a history fit for purpose in twenty-first century democracy, poorly served as it is (in general) both by its politicians and its mainstream media. And we need a history that is inclusive and representative; that tells the stories of all of us, not just a privileged minority; and that gives us a sense of the possibilities concealed in the official narrative of British history (history like political debate is artificially constructed and it’s useful to understand what is being excluded and why). Learning to think historically and to see ourselves as responsible, democratic citizens with a stake in society and a role to play, are crucial skills for active democracy. They are also skills that need to be cultivated across a lifetime. Political education is a lifelong necessity. Understandings change and it’s important that adults can find spaces in which to learn about, debate and, if necessary, challenge these new understandings. Projects like the North Edinburgh Social History Group show just what can be achieved and how transformative this sort of approach can be for adults and, indeed, for whole communities, providing a vital intellectual foothold in a society – a world – that is changing frighteningly fast. If we lose our sense of who we are and where we have come from, we are unlikely to have much of a sense of where we are going.

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.