Class prejudice, social surveys and adult education: a WW2 example

In 1946, a 27-year-old lieutenant colonel published an article in the Sociological Review on the educational values of ‘Local Survey Courses’.The aim of these courses was ‘to stimulate human interests and arouse awareness of the locality and its social problems’ among women members of the armed forces.

The background, reported Lt-Col Hardiman, was the discovery that the British Army discussion materials designed to give the troops a better idea of what they were fighting for proved completely unsuitable for the women: ‘On account of the profound ignorance of many of the recruits, talks were incomprehensible to them and discussions desultory’.

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The solution to this problem, Lt-Col Hardiman wrote, was to replace talks by study visits to places of local interest such as the town hall or a housing scheme. But because the students were unable to interpret what they saww, they were ‘passive’ and ‘acquired little or no positive knowledge’.

Only by providing a structured questionnaire, and training study group leaders in how best to prompt the subsequent discussions, would the students produce ‘practically useful results’. And because the courses produced practical results, and involved active learning in co-operative groups, they were ‘more productive of social attitudes and social skills needed in modern affairs than the orthodox methods of schooling’.

Clearly, the article is riddled with upper class condescension, and even contempt, for the working class women (mostly young) who joined the women’s services. But should we dismiss it as nothing more than an expression of unthinking class prejudice, of a kind that no serious sociology journal could contemplate publishing today?

Or should we see class relations in past times as a product of context, even as part of a history of socialisation? Margaret Hardiman, born in India to a businessman father and privately educated, was the product of an exclusive social milieu. Before the Second World War, a bright young woman from such a background would have had very little personal contact with working class women. Interaction with shop assistants, maid servants or waitresses was bounded by clear rules and reinforced by training and disciplinary measures.

What the War did was to push the classes together –  and this could be a shock for all those involved. I’ve written elsewhere about some aspects of adult education during the Second World War ( if you’re interested, you can read more here), and what is clear to me is how far the main adult education movements in the War were shaped by these gendered personal encounters between the classes.

In Hardiman’s case, we can also see the interplay of elite background with higher education and career: she graduated from the LSE in 1939 and then joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service before serving under the army veteran and socialist educationalist George Wigg in the Army Education Corps.

After the War she went on to become an anthropologist at the LSE and the University of Ghana. She seems to have been highly regarded in developing countries as well as at home. While some of her youthful social attitudes will strike us as dated and patronising, I’m still pleased to come across an article that helps us understand better the role of women in army education during WW2.


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