Performing masculinity: teaching the haka to the unemployed

I have just 21 weeks to wait before the start of the Rugby World Cup. To while away the time, I want to remember a rugby-playing Marxist from New Zealand who in 1934 taught the haka at a summer camp for unemployed men.

Bertram in China in 1937

Bertram in China in 1937

James Munro Bertram was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when he volunteered to spend his summer with the Universities Council for Unemployed Camps (UCUC). Born in Auckland on 11 August 1910 to a Presbyterian family, he came to England with left-wing views and a training in journalism. He graduated in 1934 with a first in English, then took a second class degree in modern languages in the following year.

UCUC, though based in Cambridge, drew support from a number of English and Scottish universities, and is best understood as part of the broader tradition of student social service, sharpened by the political and economic divisions of the 1930s. Its founders came from a broadly Christian milieu, as did Bertram.

Launched in 1933, UCUC organised some ten work camps during the long summer vacation in the following year. One camp was in Eynsham, on the estate of the fabulously-named Col. Raymond ffenell, a former gold mine owner who used his estate at at Wytham Abbey to promote charitable causes. As was typical in UCUC camps, it involved a small group of around a dozen student leaders and some 60 unemployed men, who worked together to prepare a camp site for the Girl Guides, including digging out an area for use as a swimming pool.

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

The camp leaders also organised a visitors’ night, inviting Col. ffenell and other local inhabitants for an evening’s entertainment. Such events were quite common in UCUC camps, and had a number of different functions; the organisers certainly hoped that they might help reduce local suspicions of the unemployed; they also aimed to build bonds between the unemployed and the students; and they provided an opportunity to raise funds from the audience.

The high point of the Eynsham visitors’ night was Noah’s Flood, a medieval miracle play, performed on Pinkhill Lock and lit by car headlamps. The play was directed by the leading Chaucerian scholar Nevil Coghill, who also featured earlier on the programme as a violinist. The acts also included songs, humour (stand-up), animal mimicry, and a ‘Maori dance and war cry’ performed by the men of Tent 9.

First half of the Visitors' Night programme

First half of the Visitors’ Night programme

James Bertram was leader of Tent 9 (in keeping with the UCUC principle of allocating one student to each tent as its leader). The decision to teach the men to perform the haka reflected his keen interest in rugby, while presumably it was his political beliefs that led Coghill to cast him in Noah’s Flood as a somewhat ahistorical ‘Red Shirt’.

What was a New Zealander, studying English, doing at an unemployed camp? Bertram was a Christian and a convinced socialist, and he reportedly decided to join UCUC after supporting the Hunger Marchers as they paraded through Oxford. As a democratic Marxist he opted to join the Independent Labour Party rather than the Communist Party, starting an ILP branch at the University. After leaving Oxford he worked as a journalist, becoming a foreign correspondent in China before eventually being imprisoned by the Japanese. Subsequently he obtained a senior lectureship in English at Victoria University College, Wellington, where he taught until his retirement.

Bertram died in 1993, and I’m sorry that I never met him. He probably wouldn’t have agreed with my view of the work camps as a form of intervention on the male body – but he sounds as though the discussions would have been interesting and informative.

Is Germany’s dual system faltering?

German apprenticeships have long served as a global model for vocational training systems. The German system has an enviable reputation for combining quality with volume, and for balancing a continued academic education with systematic on-the-job learning. It remains a source of pride nationally, and continues to attract a steady flow of foreign visitors in search of a solution to their own skills problems.

Of course, no vocational training system is perfect, particularly when seen from close up. At different times the system has been criticised for embedding gender divisions, and its rigidity is often seen as incompatible with the shift towards more flexible regimes of labour. Some have cautiously expressed concerns over reported variations between standards in the different Länder.

What is causing particular concern within Germany at the moment is that apprenticeships appear to be losing their attraction to school-leavers. In 2014, German employers signed on 522,200 new apprentices – the lowest figure since unification in 1990, representing a fall of over 40,000 young people. And while some of this may be caused by demographic changes, this is not the only explanation.bibb

What many foreign observers often miss, or ignore, is that well-qualified school leavers in Germany often entered an apprenticeship in the past, but now prefer to enter higher education. . As I’ve said before, the point at which the number of undergraduates overtakes the number of apprentices is bound to have symbolic significance in a country that has made its apprenticeship system a gold standard.

Adapting the dual system is complex and can be slow. One of the system’s great strengths is that it is supported actively and well understood by a range of stakeholders – employers and their associations, different levels of government, trade unions, parents and the wider public. But involving all these stakeholders in reform is unlikely to produce quick and easy solutions, and so it has proven.

Several measures have nonetheless been agreed. Part-time pathways were opened up in 2005, but ten years on they still have the temporary-sounding status of a project. Apprentices are being recruited in other EU member states, particularly those with high youth unemployment like Portugal and Spain. Selected school-leavers can combine work-based-learning with a higher education qualification, a pattern known as “duales Studium”. The government is urging employers to lower the entry qualifications for apprenticeship contracts, and is funding coaching to help make up the gap.

There are also discussions over opening the scheme up to refugees, though this is likely to prove politically controversial. And so far the question of adult entry into apprenticeships remains off the agenda – in contrast to the UK, of course.

I dounbt whether the measures taken so far are enough to stem what has been a steady and long-term process of erosion. The remorseless rise in higher education participation rates is a global phenomenon, and its effects on the German apprenticeship system are unlikely to diminish any time soon.

What do populisms of Left and Right have in common? Armin Nassehi on the attraction of simple solutions


During the Scottish referendum, and during recent visits to Germany and Sweden, I’ve been pondering the rise of radical populist movements. I know much less about the Front National in France or Syriza in Greece than I do about Pegida, UKIP and the SNP, of course. Still, I am impressed by the levels of support that these diverse movements are attracting. And in different ways, they both present and express a significant challenge to the established political order. What does this all mean for active citizenship in modern European countries like our own?


Armin Nassehi is a German sociologist whose work deals with what ‘society’ might mean in contemporary conditions. He has published fifteen books and who knows how many articles, and he was co-editor (with Ulrich Beck) of the leading journal Soziale Welt. He is particularly interested in the relationship between social science and political activity, and has been recognised for his contribution to intercultural dialogue.

Nassehi’s work, unlike Beck’s, is not yet available in English, but his concerns are hardly limited to the borders of Germany. This week he gave an interview to a German newspaper on the electoral success of populist parties, Left and Right, in a number of European countries (oddly, Germany was been the main exception to this trend – until the recent rise of the largely non-electoral Pegida movement).

Given the wider relevance of the topic, I thought I’d share at least a few extracts. After all, the number of people who do not feel themselves represented by the established political parties seems to be large, and growing in many countries. Is Nasshi right that populism appeals to those who feel baffled and powerless in the face of modern social complexity?

Asked why voters appear so fascinated with parties who reject established political structures, Nassehi agreed that these parties claim that:

everything in society is going wrong. But there is also a constructive element: it is suggested that there are simple ways of changing the world. On the Right there is the idea that a more ethnically homogeneous society will create more solidarity and more cohesive governance. On the Left there is the idea that societies can be governed and rebuilt centrally.

For Nassehi, this implies that while there are differences between Left and Right populisms, there are also similarities:

Modern societies are complex. Many citizens don’t want to deal with that. That’s why parties promise simple solutions – from Left and Right. The Left is generally more attractive because it works with universalistic arguments and demands for justice. But the new Left parties deny the complexity of society as much as the Right. They persuade us that there are simple levers with which one can change things. But modern societies are not made in such a one-dimensional way.

Nassehi’s proposal is that the traditional concerns of the political parties must be transformed into what he calls ‘new complexity challenges’. Precisely what that means in practice is not clear – but perhaps that is his point.

And while the established media seem incapable of investigating and debating ‘complexity challenges’, more and more people are drawn towards digital communications to express their views and exchange information and ideas. Spaces for active digital citizenship really start to matter.

Learned societies and social media: historians on Twitter

royal hist soc

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ways in which learned societies in education were using social media, and Twitter in particular. Twitter matters because it is a way of engaging with a broad public audience while making often unexpected connections between researchers who have something to say to each other.

Education researchers, I thought, seemed to be finding Twitter a bit of a struggle. Some big societies didn’t have a Twitter account, some accounts were dormant, and none had a particularly impressive number of followers. Some people thought this was a bit unfair, so I decided to look at historians, to see how they compare. I picked historians partly because some of my own interests like in the history of education and training, and partly because they are a small (compared with education) but well organised research community.

learned soc hist I expected that historians would come out of the exercise looking good – or at least better than educationists – and so it seems. The peak societies are well-represented on Twitter, attracting much larger follower numbers than are their equivalents in educational research.

Specialist societies are also generally active, with the rather surprising exception of the Economic History Society. While only one education society had over 2,000 followers, and only two had more than 1,000, the table shows that such levels of support are common for learned societies in history.

So my main finding is that historians seem to be much more successful at network-building through social media than educationists. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the peak learned societies for historians have been around for much longer than – say – the British Educational Research Association. It’s still interesting, though, that the historians have taken so readily to Twitter to maintain and build their networks.

I am also aware that historians have, over time, developed very close connections with a wider public that is keenly interested in historical issues, and social media are an obvious extension of this. My list reflects this with the example of History West Midlands, a local group with more Twitter followers than any educational society apart from BERA. It seems rather odd that education scholars, with their natural constituencies of teachers and learners, have so far failed to do the same.

What I haven’t done, of course, is look here at the ways in which different societies use Twitter. That would be an interesting exercise, and of course the simple numbers can only be a rough guide to the level of engagement that is involved. And the table also suggests that while historians as a group punch above their weight on Twitter, there are also gaps and unmet potential; some of the smaller accounts seem to be dormant. Scholarly engagement through social media remains in its early days.