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:

7 thoughts on “Adult education as social movement – hoary myth or living dream?

  1. It is a fascinating subject – and for all the reasons cited by Roger Fieldhouse in the 90’s: if the WEA ever was a movement (let’s not even get into whether it was a working class movement) it certainly stopped being one then, as market forces and contracts increasingly forced it to behave like a service provider. Indeed, as I found out from some of the longest serving wea members who took part in my research – many feel that the wea is in fact no different from any other provider. However, despite this there still exists a very strong notion of what the wea should be about and what its distinctive style of education should look like. Yet, for a movement to function as one it must be structured as one – attracting and nurturing the potential activists that will aid the desire harboured by many to see the wea remain a movement. Of course the big question is a movement for what? and by whom…From where I’m sitting.. there’s no shortage of things to get angry about .. but particularly the return to a position reminiscent of early 20th century England that is once again excluding working class people from a real education, access to higher learning and decent jobs that pay!
    Another question of course is what are we doing to bring this about? What is the role of the adult educator here? Discuss.

  2. Thanks for inviting me to comment John. You’re aware that this strikes a chord with the WEA as well as with a growing number of people who are exchanging views via social media.

    I admire Budd Hall’s work greatly and his personal experience from working directly with Paulo Freire to more recent awareness raising of the “Idle No More” movement in Canada continues to inspire. His views are always well worth reading.

    A Google search for “education for social purpose” shows the WEA’s revitalised commitment to our traditional values and your blog complements others such as Pete Caldwell’s at:, where there has been some follow-up debate. A few of our recent WEA tutor events have focused on social purpose, building on a new online CPD module, and Prof. John Holford’s challenge last week at the WEA Eastern Region’s Centenary tutor conference was, “What would Mansbridge (the WEA’s founder) think?”

    Internationally, ICAE’s current call for action at is highly relevant.

    There’s evidence of some collective action in post-16 education and a new momentum but I take your point about the comparatively limited scale of alliances against a backdrop of a fast-changing society with significant inequalities.

    Perhaps, the answer your question is that adult education as social movement is a living dream but there is a massive amount of energy and work needed to realise it?

  3. John, I too like the idea of adult education as a social movement but have to question to what extent it holds such potential. The reasons for becoming involved in adult education programmes seem to have changed dramatically since the 1970s and this is perhaps even reflected in how we now look upon various programmes of study. This might be very simplistic, but is there an increased tendency to view/describe offerings as either vocational or “recreational”? Is there a significance in the usage of this latter term?

  4. Slightly tangentially John, have you ever come across Fircroft College in Birmingham in your research? It was originally a Quaker-run residential educational establishment ‘for working men’, but now, of course, it necessarily includes women. My grand uncle, who was a Socialist at the time, had a connection with it in the 1920s, but I don’t yet know if that extended to lecturing there.

    • I have a book about Fircroft in my study, Jon. You’re more than welcome to borrow it. It’s quite old, but that might suit your purposes. I’m not sure whether their records are in a single archive, but it would be easy enough to find out.

  5. Thanks for asking me to contribute. You are right that RT on twitter is only the start of a collaborative venture. Its taken me some time to engage with this piece, mainly because I work outside the WEA and have little in-depth knowledge of the history of adult education (I am trying to rectify this). I teach teachers how to teach in this field, running a PGCE/Cert.Ed for those teaching in “Lifelong Learning”. I share the feelings of dismay at the rise of this seemingly innocuous term and have been influenced greatly by Biesta’s work:
    as he unpicks the language of learning and reclaims ‘teaching’.
    I used to send over half my group of pre-service student teachers into adult education for their placement. I also would set up a shadowing day for the whole group so that they could appreciate the valuable work that is being done in adult basic skills. Sadly I have noticed since 2007 a gradual reduction in placement offers in adult education. The reasons given are usually that they haven’t got the time to support them, that they are due an ‘Ofsted’, or that my well-qualified students lacked some basic qualification with which to contribute to their provision. Reading your piece caused me to speculate on the underlying reasons for the lack of placement support. Perhaps the drive to maximise funding (perfectly reasonable when the alternative is closure), and to accommodate inappropriate Ofsted criteria into their teaching and learning has led to a new wave of managers who fail to grasp that the real value of the work that is done in adult education lies outside performance regimes.

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