Adult education as social movement – hoary myth or living dream?

All serious educational movements have in England been also social movements. They have been the expression in one sphere – the training of mind and character – of some distinctive conception of the life proper to man and of the kind of society in which he can best live it.

R. H. Tawney, 1953

Is it still meaningful to view contemporary adult education as a social movement? Sixty years after Tawney’s lecture to mark the half-centenary of the Workers’ Educational Association, can we still claim that we have a distinctive conception of the good life, and the kind of society in which it can be achieved?

Tawney was, of course, writing as a Christian and a Socialist. His involvement with the WEA formed one wing of a wider platform of relationships with what he saw as the forces of progressive change. Organisationally this platform underpinned a web of adult education organisations, from the Women’s Co-operative Guild to the educational activities of labour movement organisations. Tawney was at the centre of this dense web of institutions and individual inter-connections.

Tawney’s understanding of adult education was also broadly Christian in nature. He encountered the WEA while living in the Toynbee Hall university settlement fellowship (William Beveridge was another resident at the same time). He favoured a broad view of education which would underpin the fellowship of equals that, in Tawney’s mind, allowed all to make a common contribution based on their abilities rather than their ascribed status, and represented in living form the equality of all before God.

In emphasising Tawney’s Christian and Socialist thinking, I also want to emphasise the importance of a whole stratum of intellectuals and thinkers from the middle and upper classes who believed that the working class movement was a critical element in any progressive alliance, and that the duty of an educated person was to share their learning with the future leaders of that movement.

And this is where the contrast with our present situation is striking. Let’s take it as given that the working class movement is not what it was. But equally important, there is no longer a significant body of intellectuals who sees the education of the workers as a crucial way of empowering progressive forces for change.

This must have implications for the world of adult learning. In Canada, a number of adult educators have been debating the future of our field. Mark and Gordon Selman argued in 2009 that contemporary adult education is no longer a social movement in any meaningful way, and we should get over that fact. The last two decades, they argue, have witnessed the demise of many established organisations at national and provincial levels, and a wider ‘retreat from collective action’ across society as a whole, as well as an instrumentalisation of the training of adult education workers, and a fragmentation of the field through the discourse of lifelong learning.

The opposing case was put by Tom Nesbit and Budd Hall, veteran adult educators, who noted that:

  • ‘levels of social action and protest are increasing’, and adult educators continue to engage with and support a variety of such movements.
  • University involvement in training adult educators has continued to promote debate about ideas, while new forms of university outreach are fostering innovative types of community engagement.
  • The language of lifelong learning has done little to unsettle and interrupt the basic principles by which most adult educators design their work.

Hall and Nesbit’s defence of the traditional view of adult education as a social movement has my sympathy, at least in principle. But I do think that they underestimate the extent of change, both in the wider context of social movements, and in the relatively narrower world of education. In countries like Britain, for instance, higher education is now part of the normal life course for young people, and adult participation is well-established in many institutions.

We can see this development in higher education as part of a wider process by which lifelong learning has become part of the everyday experience of adult life. And this generalisation of lifelong learning is intersecting with other forces to create and entrench divisions between the good learning citizen and the non-participant ‘knowledge poor’.

I think it likely that the adoption of digital technologies through open educational resources and large scale open online learning will strengthen these trends. The rhetoric of ‘open-ness’ ignores obvious inequalities in the creation of and control over knowledge and the provision of spaces and options for thinking about and acting on that knowledge. More broadly, recent economic and socio-cultural changes have severely eroded the spaces for public civic action. In so far as people do engage in civic action, it all too often represents a retreat into what Linden West calls the ‘collective solipsism’ of fundamental identities, of the kind that we can see across Europe in the electoral success of populist nationalist parties.

On the other hand, Nesbit and Hall are clearly right to detect newer movements that represent looser coalitions of activists who represent a potential resource for adult learning. These newer movements often embrace adult learning as a conscious challenge to the dominant forms of knowledge distribution. In his report from Tent City University, Paul Stanistreet conveyed a sense of the wider attempt to redefine and renew the idea of the public university. But the Tent City University, like the Occupy movement of which it was part, was fundamentally short-lived – not merely ephemeral, but very much experienced and lived as ‘of the moment’. And it appears to have been a movement of the highly educated.

While older understandings of adult education as social movement are no longer sustainable, then, it is possible to discern new and emerging practices of learning by social movement activists alongside a continuing fertilisation of adult education by social movement ideas. There are also important human goals to strive for in our society, though perhaps they will not be pursued by the type of organised mass movements that Tawney sought to engage with. Rather, there are newer movements to which those concerned with adult learning have a lot to offer, and which in turn have a lot to offer our field.

A PDF of this paper is available at:

A learned society for research on adult learning

I fell ill in the middle of this year’s SCUTREA conference, and missed the annual general meeting. In recent years, these have provided a forum for soul-searching, and anxiety about the future of the organisation. In this, SCUTREA mirrors the wider field of practice, where concerns about the condition and direction of adult learning are widespread.

Yet in some ways, SCUTREA is in good shape. Nearly 80 people attended this year’s SCUTREA in Glasgow, up on last year, and enough to generate a sense of buzz and energy. Of course this is fewer than attended a decade ago, when well over a hundred people turned up.

That in turn reflected the surge of appointments in areas like widening participation, which were largely practice-driven, and generated a lot of often small scale reflections on one’s own work. This is an entirely legitimate area of scholarship, and one very much in SCUTREA’s tradition (the “T”, after all, stands for “Teaching”). But it probably inflated our expectations.

Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ or ‘right size’ for a learned society. I have on my desk a copy of the proceedings of SCUTREA’s twelfth conference, which comprises a grand sum of eleven papers, three of them authored by non-academics, and all bar one from the UK. Two more contributions were excluded, one because it was already published elsewhere, and one because the author hadn’t finished it.

So there were thirteen papers in 1982, compared with 55 or so at Glasgow last week. It looks as though we will go through a period when SCUTREA is smaller than in the recent past, but larger than for much of its history. That is unwelcome, but not critical.

What is more of a problem, I hear, is finding people willing to do the work. As old office holders shuffle away, presumably to go and run their local U3A and lobby the local adult education organiser, new volunteers are notable by their absence. I wonder why this is, and two explanations spring to mind.

First, it may be that the emerging generation of researchers into adult learning do not see SCUTREA as their ‘scholarly home’. Much of the best new work is being undertaken by people whose primary academic identity is in disciplines such as history, geography, sociology or mainstream education.

Second, there might be something of  value change as a new generation replaces the old. If it is true that younger academics are more instrumental and individualistic in their values, then presumably they look at the range of learned societies on offer, and engage with those that present the best ways of optimising their careers. Given how competitive it is now to climb the greasy academic pole, I wouldn’t blame them.

Still, I think that SCUTREA has a role. This lies, for me, in bringing people together to exchange ideas and information (which it does very well), representing our collective interests to the outside world (which it does rather badly), and building capacity for the future (which it may not see as its job). Perhaps a clearer and more strategic focus would help to attract new people in to take on the tasks of making SCUTREA run.

Life in an early twentieth century lunatic colony

Just off the M8, to the north of Livingston, a cluster of buildings stretches out across acres of meadow. Some of the yellow stone buildings are remarkably beautiful, even in their run-down state, with arched windows, turrets, gables and other decorative features; it comes as little surprise to learn that they are listed as fine examples of ‘Scots Renaissance’ architecture.

A group of villas

A group of villas

Bangour village is worth a visit. You can’t enter the buildings, which are derelict, but locals clearly treat the site as a kind of country park, somewhere to have a nice stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Most know something of its history, and are torn between preserving a nice open space and seeing the site rescued for development.

What few of the dog walkers will know is just how revolutionary Bangour was. It was designed as Britain’s first village asylum, opening in spring 1904 as part of the poor relief system operated by Edinburgh parish council.

Previously, the parish had paid to send its pauper lunatics to the city’s Royal Asylum. Now, they took a train to the west of the city, there to be classified into different disorders, accommodated in well-equipped villas (five for men, four for women), with fine views across the valley.

By 1907, Bangour had over 700 patients, over half of whom were women. If judged fit enough, they were given ‘real work’ on the 900 acre estate, though of course the men were to be found labouring on the farm and gardens, while the women sewed, washed and cooked.

In contrast with the old city asylum, the Bangour patients were mostly allowed their freedom, and some promptly escaped. The village’s reputation for work-based therapies attracted the attention of the armed forces in the Great War, and between 1915 and 1923 it became a centre for occupational therapy as well as mental nursing.

The cricket pavilion

The cricket pavilion

As late as 1924, the British Medical Journal judged that Bangour ‘remains one of the best examples of the more enlightened methods of caring for the subjects of mental disease’. But hoever humane, it was also, of course, an experiment – and one conducted on patients who came largely from poor and working class backgrounds.