What to call women: another language dilemma from the past

Here is another dilemma for those who write about the past: by what name should we refer to prominent women?

For much of history, middle and upper class women were routinely known by their husband’s names. I don’t just mean that they took their husband’s surname, but in public they often used his first name as well.

Lady Henry Somerset is one such. She was Lady Isabella – sometimes spelt as Isobel – Caroline Somers-Cocks before her marriage to Lord Henry Somerset. Elected President of the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1890, she was one of the principal founders of Duxhurst farm colony, which opened its doors in 1895 as a centre for ‘inebriate women’. She separated from her husband shortly after discovering that he was a homosexual, and famously won custody of their son.

By which name should we refer to her today? I’ve used both ‘Lady Henry Somerset’, which was how she was often referred to in the contemporary press, and under which she published; but I have also used plain ‘Isobel Somerset’. Is this a weaselly compromise, or – as I hope – a sensible solution which reflects modern sensibilities without sanitising the past?

A last point: my modern solution would have greatly offended Lady Somerset, who insisted throughout her life on using her title, which she held by birth as well as marriage.

Using offensive language – a user’s guide

How should we treat language and attitudes that once were common, and which we now find unacceptable? I’m facing up to this problem when describing labour colonies for people with disabilities. These colonies were fairly widespread in Britain before 1939, and a variety of terms were used by their founders and managers to describe their inmates.

I’m feeling slightly sensitive about this issue, as I recently walked into a language skirmish largely of my own making. In a presentation on higher education, I referred to Joan Bakewell’s commendable campaigning on behalf of part-time higher education. As most of the audience came from a generation who are unlikely to remember her, I briefly said who she was, and also referred to a derogatory way in which she was described by many in my own generation. At least one person was offended by this, and said so (though not to me at the time).

Language skirmishes are frequent, and easily survived, but this one made me think. How should we handle the problem in academic writing? My own research has produced many examples of terms and ideas that we would now find deeply offensive, and I hesitated long and hard about whether I should include those that referred to people with learning disabilities or who suffered from mental ill-health.

In the end, I used the terms that contemporaries used. For the most part, I was using direct quotes, so it should be pretty clear to a reader that this is the case, but I also added a very short footnote to make it explicit and ambiguous. While I added no such explanation to justify the inclusion of language that expresses anti-Semitic views, fear of the Chinese, loathing for the Irish, and racial hatred in general, I think it is clear that I am quoting, and not approving, these contemporary perspectives.

Will that stop someone getting offended when they read this material? Probably not, but at least my intention is clear. And I don’t like the alternatives. One is for me to interject on every occasion that this particular term or view is unacceptable to me; that seems utterly ahistorical. The other is to ignore completely any scheme that was developed by people who used a language for their inmates that people like me now find offensive; that seems to me utterly dishonest.

Am I entirely comfortable with my compromise? Not really, but I can live with it (and the occasional complaint that I expect to receive). I’d love to hear from anyone who has a better solution. But thinking about it today made me aware of the one body of objectionable language that I haven’t really thought about: namely, how people used to talk about people from the working class.

I’ve written about the period between 1880 and 1939, then the powerful and comfortable thought nothing of describing unemployed men in the most disparaging terms. They took it for granted that they could attack and undermine the standing and respect of those whom they saw as their moral and social, and not just economic, inferiors. The language they used about people’s bodies and dignity was just what Pierre Bourdieu was talking about when he spoke of ‘symbolic violence’.

Why didn’t I reflect on this before starting today’s blog? Is it that we once more live in a similar culture, where mockery and disdain colour so many conversations about ‘neds’ or ‘chavs’, and where the unemployed are again portrayed casually as layabouts and slobs who deserve nothing from the rest of us but contempt?

I’ve been fired! The daft side of higher education (4)

I’ve just been fired. Without any notice, the payroll and pensions section of the University’s HR department has sent me my P45, along with a polite note of thanks ‘for the work which you have done for the University’, and an account of my total pay and tax to date.

This would be very depressing news, except for one thing. The letter and P45 came from the University of Surrey. So far as I am aware, my own institution has no plans to dismiss me, at least not yet. But why on earth would an organisation that doesn’t employ me decide to give me the boot?

 The answer is that three years ago, I examined a doctorate at Surrey. Since then, nothing. As the P45 puts it, my salary since then comes to £0.00, and the University solmenly records that it paid £0.00 in tax on my behalf.

So why on earth is a rational HR specialist spending their employer’s time on this nonsense? In the words of the payroll and pensions section, ‘In accordance with HMRC and sector-wide best practice we are required formally to cease the post when the contract ends’. Anyone want to put a cost on this particular bit of ‘best practice’?

As university heads of HR hunt in packs, I suppose that I and my colleagues can now expect to be fired by quite a few universities who have asked us to serve as external examiners. But like the equally pointless practice of asking externals to show passports even when they are already employed in another university, it suggests that we are drifting towards a redefinition of the role of external examiner, as an employee.

What’s happening in workplace learning?

French labour market researchers at the CEGOS Observatory have just released their annual survey of training in Europe. It involves a reasonable size sample (2,470 workers in six countries) and the findings suggest that participation is holding up reasonably well in the recession, though the authors speak of ‘a French and Spanish sickness’. They also confirm the integration of new technologies and social media into workplace learning is increasing apace, and that those who are already highly educated continue to receive the most training.

So far as Britain is concerned, the findings broadly support those who argue that our workplace learning system is comparatively strong. Workers in Britain were most likely to:

  • report participation in distance learning and blended learning
  • receive information about training from their manager
  • say that they have benefited from training.

They were least likely to claim that training had been imposed on them, though not by much. In Italy, 38% said they generally had training imposed on them by their employer, as against 35% in Germany, 32% in France and 31% in Britain. Even though most workers said that they were able to suggest training activities for themselves, the survey finds that more training results from employer instructions than from dialogue and negotiation. This is more surprising for countries like France and Germany, where work councils are well established, than it is in Britain, whose labour market is less tightly regulated.

A summary of the CEGOS findings can be downloaded at: http://www.cegos.fr/actualites/Pages/enquete-formation-professionnelle-en-europe-2013.aspx

Aging societies: lifelong learning, immigration, and social cohesion

Japan’s population has fallen by 284,000 in a single year. And it is fast aging: as of October, the proportion of over-65s stood at 24.1%, while the under-14s accounted for 13%.

Social aging is common across much of the world, as a result of rising longevity and falling fertility rates. But these figures confirm that Japan is unusually vulnerable to demographic aging, largely as a result of the country’s stance on immigration.

While the number of foreigners living in Japan has increased in the last decade, they still comprise below 3% of the population, and they are largely treated as temporary workers, who must pass a demanding certification test that relies on high-level Japanese language skills if they wish to stay on. Fewer than one in a hundred pass, and the result is short term movement by people who are therefore poorly integrated into their host society.

Little wonder, then, that Japanese policy makers have been pondering the importance of adult learning in recent years. But what is particularly interesting for me is that policy makers have developed polifices for lifelong learning that are primarily aimed at promoting social integration, volunteering and networking, in a process that Makino Atsushi has called “community development through lifelong learning”.

Countries like the UK have relatively high levels of immigration, and are therefore relatively immune from the sharp skills shortages that would affect a more insular and protected labour market, but they have not treated social cohesion as such a priority.

Japanese society, on the other hand, is strengthening its internal social ties and continuing to make it difficult for migrants to settle. I will be very interested to see whether the Japanese way can continue to survive if, as I expect, it is faced with even greater pressures as a result of social aging.

Atsushi Makino’s very helpful description of lifelong learning policy in Japan after the 2006 reforms is available at http://pie.pascalobservatory.org/sites/default/files/Japan_MAKINO_%20Local%20Communities_0.pdf

Fun with the Great British Class calculator, and serious lessons for education

Last night, I asked my students to look at the BBC Class Survey. It was ideal for the course, as we had scheduled a session on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of inequality. The Class Survey uses Bourdieu’s three-part model of capitals – economic, cultural and social – as the basis for its model of stratification.

It was a fun way of getting across the basics of Bourdieu’s concepts. We particularly enjoyed playing with the two-minute Class Calculator, a much shortened version of the survey that was used to inform the stratification model. The full survey also used Bourdieu’s basic concepts and the design was led by sociologists that I greatly admire, including Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine and Mike Savage.

The findings have generated huge popular debate, and are already provoking discussion among academics as well. Some are angry that we are still talking about class at all, or interested in the existence of a ‘precariat’, or comment on the restructuring of the working and middle classes. One group has so far attracted less attention: the elite, which comes out on all three dimensions as ‘the most advantaged and privileged group in the UK’, estimated at 6% of the population.

Of course, we have always had elites in Britain. What is striking about the survey results is the degree of social closure surrounding the elite. It is the least ethnically mixed group in the survey, its origins are geographically concentrated (parts of south-east England, and to a lesser extent rural/suburban settlements like East Lothian), and over half come from families where the main earner was a senior manager or professional.

Today’s elite, in short, neatly fit Bourdieu’s original model, based on data from 1960s France, of a group that successfully excludes outsiders and is immune from social mobility. Speculating for a moment, I would add that this class is probably characterised by a weakening sense of social solidarity.

Older mechanisms of cohesion – religion, nation, civic identity – don’t much matter to people whose assets are highly mobile, and highly institutionalised through remote interests in global corporations, and whose lifestyles may be highly cosmopolitan. But if they spend their lives in ethnically homogeneous enclaves, perhaps their last remaining bonds are those of perceived race.

As I say, this is speculation. The survey is a fascinating exercise, and we can learn a great deal from the results – particularly if we remember that the seven social classes are, in the best Weberian tradition, ‘ideal types’. And among many practical lessons, here are two for education:

  • Growing social advantage at the top of our society demands that we look again at the relationship between education and social mobility. At the moment, I conclude that education is reducing levels of mobility into the elite.
  • The identification of a distinctive precariat – 15% of the population – with limited economic, social or cultural capital suggests that schools are simply not doing enough to improve the life chances of the most excluded and stigmatised, and that our lifelong learning system is too weak to provide effective second chances.

And yes,  I took the test, and found myself in the ‘technical middle class’.  The most worrying thing about this group is that while we may have lots of connections, they are mostly with people from very similar backgrounds. I’ve said this before – academics need to get out a lot more!

Here’s a link to the class calculator: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973

Here’s a link to the article in Sociology: http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/12/0038038513481128.full.pdf+html

We’re so good at switching people off learning

The Matthew effect is well-known among adult educators: the already well-educated get more, and the least well educated get none. So I was interested to read a recent piece of research examining the learning intentions of low-qualified workers (a link is below).

The researchers surveyed 673 workers in 39 organisations, who had few if any school-leaving qualifications. The results were analysed using methods that allowed the researchers to control for a range of variables, so that they could isolate the factors that predict intentions to learn. They also interviewed 14 workers to provide greater depth.

Two factors were clearly linked with intentions to learn in the future. The first was what they called ‘self-directedness’ in their views of work. People who had a high degree of self-directedness placed a higher value on learning. This is an interesting finding, but of course self-directedness is not an abstract and free-floating personal quality – it develops over time as a result of being involved in work and workplace relations that make you feel there is a point to positive planning.

This is why researchers like Lorna Unwin and Alan Felstead have placed so much emphasis in their recent writing on what they call ‘expansive workplaces’ that promote high levels of autonomous learning. And interestingly, one reason why some of the low-qualified workers rejected learning was that they thought it would lead them into more stressful and unpleasant roles.

The second factor was people’s earlier experiences of education.  It wasn’t just that school learning had switched people off, though that was certainly one of the findings. The researchers also reported that learning intentions were higher among those who had learned during working hours, gone on study tours, or had taken part in an innovation project or a study group. For other activities – including self-tuition through online learning and after hours taught classes – there was no positive effect on learning intentions.

In other words, bad memories of schooling are overcome by positive experiences of adult learning. The question is then how we get people back into learning – particularly if they are on the margin of the labour market, in precarious work, or on a fixed-term contract.


‘Examining the learning intentions of low-qualified employees: a mixed method study’, by E. Kyndt, N. Govaerts, L. Keunen and F. Dochy, Journal of Workplace Learning, 25, 3, 2003 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=1366-5626&volume=25&issue=3&articleid=17085193&show=abstract

Race and work camps: interwar Scottish nationalist perspectives

All nationalist movements view themselves as guardians of their country’s heritage, and woe betide those who point to anything that does not chime with the “true” history of the land. Scotland is no exception, as we can see from the storm over Gavin Bowd’s newspaper article about Scottish fascism. I’ve not yet seen his book on this subject, but Bowd is a professional historian, and I expect to see him set out his evidence and name his source material.

Some of that evidence is well known. Indeed, I have stumbled across some of it while looking at the various work camp systems that were scattered across these islands before the 1940s. Nationalist campaigners in Scotland tended to see the main ‘other’ as the Irish, and they found a broad audience for their views. This complicated their views on work camps, which could be seen as vehicles for emigration of fine Scots (bad) or as training schemes to prepare Scots for jobs at home or life on the land (good).

The Reverend Duncan Cameron, chief author of a report for the Kirk on The menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality, made himself available for speeches and lectures. Among other organisations who invited him was the City Business Club in Glasgow, who in 1926 heard him call for ‘drastic measures’ to ‘safeguard the Scottish race in their native land’ from the Irish.

A decade later, Charles Davidson spoke to the National Party in Elgin of the racial deterioration caused by government training policy: ‘The finest went overseas’, he said, and were replaced by immigrants ‘not of the same stock, class or quality’. Meanwhile, a National Party delegation to the Scottish Office complained that ‘the flower of the race’ was being encouraged to leave home in search of work, while the government’s work camps were filled with inferior migrant stock.

So it isn’t hard to find plenty of examples of nationalist movements in Scotland that were bigoted, racist and sympathetic to the radical right. We can also find similar movements in England (part of my book is devoted to the work camps associated with Rolf Gardiner, who was profoundly anti-Semitic and thought the people of Cleveland and North Yorkshire were to be admired for being of ‘robust Scandinavian stock’. And of course we can find such people across much of Europe – just as we can also find Scottish, English and indeed German and Italian anti-fascists.

Details of Gavin Bowd’s book are at: http://www.birlinn.co.uk/Fascist-Scotland.html

Teaching machines and Mrs Thatcher

I’m finishing off a conference paper on the history of industrial trainers in Britain. You might not find this a thrilling topic, though I’d argue that it contributes to our understanding of educational practices in the wider context of social and economic change. But as always in historical research, you find some intriguing odds and ends along the way.

I was distracted by an exchange in the House of Commons in 1971 between a Yorkshire MP and the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Here it is, in full:

Mr. Proudfoot asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what advice is available from her Department to education authorities on the subject of teaching machines.

Mrs. Thatcher Responsibility for the selection and purchase of equipment and materials rests with the local education authorities. It is open to them to seek advice from members of HM Inspectorate, and they frequently do so.

As Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher was notable mainly for ending the much-beloved policy of supplying free milk to school children. She also signed off the Russell Report on Adult Education, though she carefully delayed its implementation until after the following election.

But who was Mr Proudfoot, and what was his interest in teaching machines? Wilf Proudfoot was a Scarborough-based businessman, whose main interest was his chain of supermarkets, though he also branched out into commercial radio. He was elected MP for a West Yorkshire constituency in 1970 by a margin of 59, and lost the seat in 1974.

Proudfoot used his parliamentary status to lobby noisily and persistently for the interests of retailing and commercial broadcasting, earning him the nickname of ‘Radio Proudfoot’. For those who love an obscure anecdote, he also appointed a certain Christine Holman as his secretary – now the D-list celeb and ex-MP’s wife Christine Hamilton.

Proudfoot’s interest in teaching machines was straightforward. Like a lot of business owners, he saw training as a cost, and was keen to reduce it as far as possible. He was impressed by the claims made for teaching machines, which had been developed – with government support – on the basis of behaviourist theories of learning.

Basically, behaviourists based their approach to learning on a simple stimulus-response model of behaviour change. In short, you do not need to know what happens inside the brain during learning; what matters – and can be measured – are the changes in behaviour that result. New skills and knowledge can be taught piecemeal, in small linked sequences, with immediate feedback at every stage; progress to the next stage depends on the correct response.

Where there was large scale demand, these sequenced learning packages could be, and were, mechanised. It was widely believed that teaching machines were cheaper than humans, particularly for mass training, and they were also introduced into schools in areas such as language learning. Similar principles still underly some approaches to computer based learning today.

Meanwhile, you have to admire Thatcher’s ability to dodge a question – a skill she continued to exploit for some years. Wilf Proudfoot, meanwhile, trained as a hypnotherapist and went on to run his own practice in Scarborough.

For more on the history of behaviourism and training in Britain, see my paper at: http://www.academia.edu/1062180/Behaviourism_and_training_the_programmed_instruction_movement_in_Britain_1950-1975

How to index your book – perhaps

I’ve just finished the index for my new book. It’s taken me pretty much all week to produce the index, and even then I am still not satisfied. Partly this is because I’m genuinely not sure what to select, which you might see as a mainly technical challenge. But indexing also provokes reflection on the nature of knowledge.

The technical task is straightforward enough. The proofs are currently 270 pages long; the publisher tells me that the index must take up a maximum of ten more pages, which apparently amounts to some 900 lines. My word count software tells me that I am well within this limit, but it has taken some hard choices to get there.

This is a book about work camp systems in Britain before 1939. I’ve taken a broadly sociological approach to the history of what I see as a residential pedagogic community, which means that the book contains a lot of factual information about people, institutions and movements; but it also contains ideas and interpretations, as well as references to sociologists and historians.

I set out by reading through the page proofs, and noting down each proper name or idea that I encountered. Then I put these in alphabetical order, and searched the PDF, noting the page number each time the term or a synonym occurred. While I was doing this, I kept finding new ideas or people or institutions, and I also found that some of the entries could be grouped together. And I kept finding reasons to meddle with things.

Then I set about pruning my very long first complete draft. Quite a few proper names, it turned out, featured only once. Some of them are famous people – Charles Dickens, for example – so I thought at first that I’d keep them, and ditch the others. Some were sociologists or historians, so I thought I’d ditch them too. That left the less well-known actors in the work camp field, but some of those made a considerable contribution, so I kept those even if they were only discussed once. Similarly with institutions.

That is one irritation. I’m likely to end up with an index dominated by the well-known and the successful; the Salvation Army will get a lengthy list if I proceed along these lines, and the English Home Colonisation Society will get none; Dickens will get his mention, but Dr Helen Wilson – a Sheffield doctor and suffragette who founded the Women’s Training Colony – will not.

Sometimes the more neglected the person, the more important it is to draw attention to them. But if I include Helen Wilson, I’ll feel better – but will anyone ever look her up? And one topic on which I have relatively little to say – namely sexual relations inside work camps – will still appear in the index. I don’t have much to say on the topic because nobody wrote much about it at the time, and I was too embarrassed to ask my elderly interviewees about it. But what I have found out is still worth pointing out for the reader.

But there is no single reader. In fact, at the moment there are only imagined readers, and they might include historians, social policy specialists, educationalists, and people who mistake this for a book about concentration camps. And it isn’t only the physical or digital reader that I have to think about while I’m indexing. And apparently the index influences how other people discover the book through online searching.

So I need to bear in mind the online user as well as the virtual and physical readers. And I have focused on two main groups of people, social historians and educationalists, with the aim of thinking about how best to signpost these readers towards the parts of the book that will most interest them.  

Then we come to what some might see as the wider epistemological questions. Let’s leave aside the curious convention by which fiction and poetry aren’t indexed, but ‘non-fiction’ (what a category) usually is. You could imagine an index for any book that is wildly different from the actual index before you. In my case, I might play with the idea of index entries for ‘silence’, ‘toilets’ or ‘cake’, each of which features in the book.

In fact, none of these three will be in the index that I send the publisher. But indexing is not just a technical task, it is also about how we think about the world, and how we try to share our meanings and understandings. And because it has this wider dimension, it is a great way of providing your own feedback on your writing – it provides you with a set of possible index entries that help you grasp the shape and focus of what you have written from the standpoint of a reader.

Or  you can pay someone else to do it, whether a graduate student or a professional. It’d save you a week.