I was sad to read of the death of the great historian of adult education, John Fletcher Clews (J.F.C.) Harrison, on 8 January 2018, aged 96. John was one of the generation of ‘extra mural’ adult educators that included E.P Thompson and Raymond Williams. He saw in adult education a catalyst for social change and his writing – marked, Thompson wrote, by its clarity and ‘unhurried, authoritative, economical style’ – was notable also for striving to reach beyond a narrow audience of academics to an ‘informed general public’.
For John, as for his contemporaries, adult education was a desperately serious business, with a clear social, political and civic purpose, in which learning ‘for leisure’ had no place. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview John for Adults Learning, in 2004, I think. He was an extremely kind, affable and gracious interviewee. I asked him what he thought were the prospects for the radical tradition of working class education. Much of what he had to say is still acutely relevant. The interview is reproduced below as it appeared in Adults Learning.
In his book, Learning and Living, John Harrison charted the history of adult learning understood ‘in terms of social purpose rather than institutional form’, a radical movement instrumental in the growth – and forever at the frontiers – of democracy. The work demonstrated how, within this largely voluntary tradition, adult education strove for liberation ‘personal and social’. As tutor for the University of Leeds’ extra-mural department in the 1950s, Harrison crossed great swathes of West and North Yorkshire to give tutorial classes to the region’s agricultural, steel and textile workers. However, the social changes that he hoped adult education would produce failed to materialise and nothing, he thinks, in the present political climate suggests a reverse. With universities ‘dumbing down’ their courses and the traditional subjects of the radical movement increasingly marginalised, the time, he thinks, is ripe for adult education to reconsider and build on its roots within a broader, popular movement.
Learning and Living, 1790-1960: A Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement (1961) stemmed directly from Harrison’s experiences as an extra-mural lecturer in Yorkshire. He joined the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of Leeds in September 1947. Harrison mostly taught WEA-organised evening classes in the towns and villages of the North Riding, sometimes travelling 70 miles to give a class on social history or international relations, then 70 miles back. He taught steel workers just off the night shift over breakfast in a Teeside Working Men’s Institute, hard-worked and poorly paid agricultural workers in the vale of York, textile workers in the West Riding. Driven on by its forceful and persuasive architect, Sidney Raybould, the department emphasised classes for manual workers. ‘Raybould would be very disappointed if we could only get a class of housewives, however worthy,’ says Harrison.
‘We took our lead from the famous sayings of Tawney, the great pioneer of adult education and the WEA. He said that he had learned a great deal about economic and social history from his students, that it was not just a one-way process, where the tutor gave out to the students, but that the students would give back from their experience and the tutor learn as much as he gave out.’ Tutors, Harrison says, did their best to honour this. ‘It didn’t always work. They didn’t always have a great deal to give back, just as we were often very tongue-tied with the questions they put to us. But it was very worthwhile. When I talked to steelworkers in Teeside about Beveridge and explained what it was, what it was looking for, I felt I was doing something worthwhile. It wasn’t just academic. It was helping people understand where they were and, insofar as they were active in their unions and other organisations, where they were going. And that, of course, is what they wanted and where the questioning came in. In a tutorial class it was partly presentation by the tutor and partly discussion by the students. The idea that you lectured for an hour and then had discussion for an hour was abandoned early on. We would talk for perhaps 10 minutes and then throw it open. And from the discussion you would get the next clue and then you would take it up and go on from there.
‘As a teaching method this, of course, was very exacting, but very useful indeed. When I became an internal lecturer I found very few of my contemporaries appreciated this, but the students did. This two-way exchange, which Tawney always talked about and which Raybould always said should be there, was a very real thing. If you didn’t get that, and in some classes you didn’t, it used to be sticky going. A two-hour session if there’s no comeback can be pretty horrific. You really must know your subject. You can’t prepare for something and then just put it across like you can if you are giving a 50-minute lecture in a university. That’s not how adult education was conceived, not how it went on. It was give-and-take. It was very exacting. That’s why adult tutors tended to be very good tutors. Those who weren’t fell by the wayside.’
The department Harrison joined already had a reputation as one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the country. Its policy was guided by the ideas and personality of Sidney Raybould. Born and bred in the Cleveland district of Yorkshire, Raybould led a team of outstanding teachers and academics, including Harrison, Roy Shaw and E.P. Thompson. The inheritor of the tutorial class tradition built up in Yorkshire by former WEA District Secretary George Thompson, Raybould was driven by the idea that an extra-mural department should do work of genuine university quality. Yet, often, Harrison confides, it was work that failed to meet this criterion that turned out to be the most valuable. ‘These were some of the most worthwhile classes. The agricultural workers I taught were some of the best students I had. Not because they achieved great academic prominence, they certainly didn’t, but because of what I helped them to do. Against the farmers, it was really the only thing they had ever come across that gave them any strength. The union was difficult to organise in that area, besides, as I discovered, agricultural workers are a very conservative bunch.’
Harrison’s teaching was mostly confined to history, modern history or ‘international relations’ at first, but, increasingly, as interest among students grew, social history – ‘the history of ordinary people’. This was in line with the vision of education Raybould inherited from George Thompson, who insisted that the subjects taught should reflect the seriousness of the educators’ intent. ‘George Thompson didn’t have much time for the arts,’ Harrison says, ‘he thought they were all really peripheral. Literature and certainly music, things like that, were alright for those with leisure, but for the workers it had to be economics, and a certain amount of social history, basically what Tawney had taught. ‘Learning for leisure’ wasn’t the way we were going. It seemed to be deflecting us from the very serious intent of adult education.’
Such an approach, Harrison concedes, is unlikely to attract mass participation. ‘There was a problem here after a while with getting programmes running sufficient to keep a large staff of extra-mural tutors in business. This is where the WEA had great difficulties, in recruiting enough students who were prepared to commit themselves for three years to do work of a university standard, but if we couldn’t do that it meant that some of our staff tutors didn’t have classes, which was a tragedy for the university. The WEA had a missionary motive always. They were convinced that it was not enough to provide adult education; you had to stimulate people to want it. We always said that you have got to convince people of the need to come to the classes. Whether you did it through the earnestness of your approach or you did it by other things, you had to convince them.
‘All the students, of course, were voluntary, unlike internal students who had to attend their lectures, or who were supposed to. If people wanted to leave they could. And it was up to the tutor to hold the class together. It wasn’t just a matter of giving something out, it was a question of creating the class as it went along. The students were not prepared to accept everything you said as being necessarily so. They had all got inquisitive minds, otherwise they wouldn’t have come in the first place.’
Nevertheless, while Harrison and his colleagues saw themselves as part of a tradition that was genuinely popular, in the sense of being of the people, they were aware that they were reaching only a minority. ‘We tried very hard to get over this and to get beyond it. But, being honest, we knew very well that this was almost impossible. We didn’t look on adult education as being a fun thing. Raybould would have been shocked to think it was just something you did in your leisure. You had to give up precious time in order to take up study. This is a very old tradition in England, this idea that study isn’t something to do when you’ve got nothing better to do. You do it because it is worthwhile and will improve your whole life and not only because you are making yourself more socially effective, but in your personal relationships as well. That’s part of the English tradition that we inherited. The great triumph of the WEA was when, as a result of a class, some of the students went on to other forms of local action, becoming local councillors or trade union activists. This was what made it worth while.’
‘We talked a lot about voluntary bodies,’ Harrison says, ‘this was the great phrase that you don’t hear much now. The WEA was one of the great examples of that. But there were others and we tried to work with them as well, all kinds of bodies which, at the time, we thought of as, theoretically, being the basis of democracy. There were various arguments being put forward that this was the essence of western democracy, that there are centres other than government with which people can identify and only when you have got these bodies can you have a really functioning democracy. When the Second World War finally ended, there was enormous relief and, at the same time, a great grasping to go forward, which was why Beveridge was so well received. Adult education was part of that and adult learning, in all its forms, benefited from this. It wasn’t just the people who came out of the forces who wanted this, everybody did.’
Much of that impetus, Harrison thinks, has now evaporated. The biggest disappointment of all, he says, is the Labour Party. ‘All that we worked for in the past seems to be dependent on a very liberal government, which we always supposed would be a Labour government. That doesn’t seem to have worked out. New labour is really the new Toryism. The old labour politics have been ditched. And most of the things that I had hoped for from adult education have been lost as a result of that. My own conviction is that English society is extremely conservative. It’s very difficult to get change in this society. I knew that a long time ago. I had hoped that in the future things would get better. But they really haven’t.’
What changes would he like to see? ‘I think real support for the universities instead of multiplying them. What we need is something in the way of training in vocational subjects for people who want to be craftsmen and technicians and so on.’ He is suspicious of the Government’s 50 per cent participation target for 18–30-year-olds in higher education and of the likelihood that resources will be made available to make it work. ‘It seems to be a bit of a political ploy, quite frankly’. Universities – especially new universities – have been forced into competition, he says, ‘and competition, in our type of society, means dumbing down, offering things which, academically, don’t stand up in the way the old subjects used to do.
‘Of course, the context is so utterly different now from 50 years ago. Television was a social influence we didn’t have to deal with. Whether we could have coped with that, I don’t know. I look back now and see us as the last of the old tradition of adult education, beginning with the WEA and the universities. I put so much faith in education as a young man. I thought it would solve all these problems. When I went up to Teeside to talk to steel workers I didn’t see them as potential agents of the revolution. I thought that through education we could help people move forward without a revolution.’