About thelearningprofessor

I'm an academic, interested in lifelong learning. Right now I am learning Brazilian Portuguese, more slowly than I'd like; and writing two books, one on British work camps 1880-1939 and one on intergenerational learning.

The hidden trials of a work camp manager: placating local residents

There’s an exciting new research project going on into the Landscapes of the Depression. A team of archeologists is investigating physical traces of the Great Depression in four sites in north-east England. One of the sites is the former Ministry of Labour’s work camp at Hamsterley, which is now a visitor centre for the Forestry Commission.

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Visitor Centre, Hamsterley Forest

As with most of its sites, the Ministry chose Hamsterley because it was remote and because it was on land acquired by the Forestry Commission. This provided an opportunity to recruit young unemployed men from Cleveland (including Whitby) and the Durham coalfield, and set them to heavy manual labour preparing the land for afforestation. A group of ‘pioneers’ was recruited from Newcastle to build the camp, which opened in spring 1934.

In most respects, Hamsterley followed the same pattern as other British government work camps in the 1930s. As described in my book, the Ministry of Labour used the camps – known as Instructional Centres – to ‘recondition’ young males who had ‘gone soft’ through prolonged unemployment. Hamsterley, though, was distinctive in the number of protests by its inmates, as well as in the fact that Eve Rendle, who grew up in the camp where her father was manager, has written a valuable account of it.

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Hamsterley Instructional Centre: huts and the Union flag

Hamsterley also nicely illustrates one of the less well-known features of the work camps: complaints from local residents. Whether this is simply an accident of surviving archives is unclear to me, but we have two files of documents in the Minstry of Labour archives which include letters from or about complainants.

The complaints started well before the camp opened. An internal memo in November 1933 proposed that “There has been so much trouble in connexion with Hamsterley that I think it would be of real value to us if a letter of thanks could go to the Vicar of Hamsterley as from the Minister”. Whether such a letter was ever posted is unclear, but a senior Ministry official visited the Rev. G. H.Linnell to thank him personally for his kindness to the pioneers building the camp. The trouble arose, it seems, from trespassing pioneers.

Next off the mark was a Major Wormald, who held a shooting tenancy in the area and lived two miles from the camp. He complained to the Forestry Commission before the camp opened, claiming that it would breach the terms of his lease. The Commission organised a meeting between the Major and the Ministry’s director of training, after which the trail goes cold (National Archives LAB 2 2035 1871 Part II).

Rather more persistently, a Mrs Fogg-Elliot of Bedburn Old Hall made a number of complaints (National Archives LAB2/2041/ET1871, LAB2/2041/ET598). Walter Workman, the camp manager, reported to his superiors in London that “You are doubtless aware of the type of lady we have to contend with, and it may be sufficient to say she is always ‘full of trouble’”. His correspondent at the Ministry in turn wrote in an internal memo in May 1934 that “Mrs Fogg-Elliott appears to be what a Negro porter on a Canadian train described as ‘A Constant Ticker!’”

Mrs Fogg-Elliott’s grievances were multiple. She complained about a side gate at the camp which allowed trainees to access a public footpath to Bedburn village that crossed her land; she alleged that trainees were trespassing on her tenant’s property, and “they have spoillen the land”; she complained about “visiters” to the camp, adding that “I saw girls go to the camp on Sunday”. She was also angry about the use of Scandinavian pines on the woodland, as it was “very annoying for the English Government to bring so much foreign timber into Bedburn when we have sold some of our woods to pay death duties”.

The Ministry tried hard to placate this ‘constant ticker’. During the construction phase, the supervisor called on Mrs Fogg-Elliott in November 1933; the recently widowed lady was out, but he spoke to her son-in-law, who apparently spoke highly of the pioneers. He subsequently reported that he had discussed her with the Vicar, who apparently also found her “difficult”.

Once the camp was open, the Ministry then urged Workman to meet Fogg-Elliott, as “you may find it possible to persuade her to take an interest in the Centre instead of criticising us all the time”. Workman reported in May 1934 that “I know Mrs Fogg-Elliott quite well and pay occasional visits to her house; she, in turn, visits the Centre and brings books.” While he tried to discourage trainees from using the footpath, he insisted that as a public right of way there were limits to his powers; he also fought off attempts by the Forestry Commission to have his trainees disciplined.

What happened afterwards, if anything, is not in any of the files I’ve seen. Still, these cases do tell a story, which shows the seriousness with which the Ministry of Labour treated its local critics, even those whom its staff regarded as cranks. This in turn meant that camp managers had to try to placate those critics, and it seems in the case of Mrs Fogg-Elliott that Walter Workman had some success.

It would also interesting to explore in depth the relationship between trainees and the local community. I have some reminiscences which allude to this, mostly fairly briefly, and some archival records also mention it. I might return to this topic for a future post.

 

Should we start boycotting research conferences in the USA?

News that a Welsh maths teacher was denied entry to the USA while leading a school trip ought to sharpen our thinking about that country – the USA, that is, not Wales. Juhel Miah had a valid visa and was not given a reason for his exclusion, but he reasonably concluded that it was because he is a Muslim.

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Demonstrators in Los Angeles (from aljazeera.com)

Juhel isn’t the first person to be refused entry to the USA because he is (a) brown and (b) has a Muslim name, and he won’t be the last. Further, the President’s policy of a selective ban on travellers from some mainly Muslim nations (limited to those countries with which the USA has negligible trade links) is widely supported by the American population.

Given the importance that most of us attach to inclusivity and fairness, it seems a good time to ask whether the European research community might start refusing to attend academic events in the US. The case for doing so is simple: by participating in an event from which Muslim scholars – and only Muslims – are barred, we are condoning racist and Islamophobic policies, and benefiting from an exclusionary order which will inflict real harm on the careers of our Muslim colleagues. And it is at least a gesture of solidarity with all those – teachers, researchers, whatever – who are denied entry.

Further, participating in an exclusionary seminar or conference is clearly at odds with the very idea and tradition of open science. But I recognise the case for rejecting a boycott. Refusing to take part in research events will mainly hurt US scientists, who are hardly core supporters of the Muslim ban. It won’t make any difference to those who support the ban, who probably regard researchers as the progenitors of ‘fake news’, and it will pass unnoticed by the rest of the US public. Less convincingly, some may say that as the flights and fees have already been paid, I might as well . . .

Other options are available, of course. European researchers could schedule a fringe demonstration of some sort, protesting the exclusion of their Muslim colleagues from the event they are attending. They could demand that the event organisers make a public statement condemning the policy. Or they could wear badges disassociating themselves from the policy (good luck getting past immigration with one of those).

My hunch, though, is that most European researchers will carry on as though nothing has happened. I will soon find out, as the American Educational Research Association holds its conference  in San Antonio at the end of April. Ironically, its theme is Knowledge to Action: Achieving the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, which in other circumstances would be quite amusing. European scholars are likely to be there in numbers – possibly including some who have petitioned against allowing the US President to visit their country.

On balance, then, the idea of joining a meeting from which fellow researchers have been excluded on grounds of their race and religion just doesn’t sit well with me. It seems particularly hypocritical coming from people who sign anti-Trump petitions from the safety of their swivel chair, and I very much hope that fellow European researchers think carefully before deciding to attend scholarly events in the States.

 

 

The challenges facing Irish higher education: taking a long view

Mary Daly is a distinguished historian and the first female President of the Royal Irish Academy. It was a great pleasure to hear her Presidential Discourse, held in Academy House last night, on the topic of Higher Education and Irish Society: From Independence to today.

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The audience waits (I’m the grey-haired one in the bottom right)

Daly’s aim was to give a historical perspective on where we – the Irish higher education system – are today. I found it a fascinating account which helped me make sense of much that I have observed over the years; the RIA will certainly publish the talk, so I won’t reproduce it here, but it is worth singling out a few of the highlights.

Looked at over the past century, Daly identified two challenges that had long term roots. The first is a tendency for the sector to continue expanding without securing additional funding, a pattern that she traced back to the founding of the new state. There was little public provision for research funding until the 1990s, and the system’s role was primarily concerned with teaching. The modern research university in Ireland is, she said, a mere twenty years old. Socially, participation rates are deeply unequal; but she believed that any serious attempt to remedy deep-rooted inequalities would be at odds with the meritocratic principles of selection that have dominated hitherto.

Second, the sector lacks a strong and unified voice. Since the 1970s, Daly noted that much of the expansion had taken place in new HEIs rather than the established universities, and this institutional diversity has accentuated the levels of competition and further weakened the sector’s ability to articulate its place in Irish society, and make a case for investment. From a policy perspective, moreover, the funding model has been very effective in delivering growth for limited costs, so why change now?

As well as these two long term challenges, Daly identified an emerging and significant threat in contemporary attitudes towards science and expertise. Those working in higher education need to engage with the wider public and make the case for the relevance of their disciplines to people’s lives, while keeping sight of the importance of pure research.

Daly’s research hasn’t been centrally concerned with the history of education, but for me it was valuable and stimulating to hear someone speaking on this topic who has a strong grasp of the wider social and political history, and who has a well-developed capacity for analysing evidence of long term change. The RIA took its time in electing its first female President, and in this sense it was a privilege to hear history being made.

I only got to attend in my capacity as adjunct professor at Dublin City University, representing my colleague Maria Slowey who was on her way home from California. All in all, then, I had an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening while Maria sat in some god-forsaken airport.

Asking for passports: dafter – and more worrying – than I’d thought

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Last November, the University of Hertfordshire hit the headlines when it asked guest seminar speakers to produce a passport before giving their seminar. I suggested that this was rather over the top, but I didn’t know the half of it.

After thinking about Hertfordshire’s policy for a bit, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University asking for further details. You can see their response below, but a number of things stand out.

The first is that their reply referred me to the University’s policy for Freedom of Speech. My initial reaction was that this wasn’t really relevant, but I was wrong. Among other things the policy requires all University staff, before organising any event on University premises,  to submit

a written request, giving full details of the proposed event, is provided to the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) not less than ten (10) working days before the date of the proposed event
I just love that clarification of the word “ten”! More to the point, though, the policy then states that the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) will assess the likely risk of the event. It then offers rather broad grounds for banning events, which “include but are not necessarily limited to” events that may give rise to incitements to crime, express views that are contrary to the law, promote the interests of illegal organisations, or “could reasonably be expected to draw individuals into terrorism”. The VC (or nominee) will also consider other factors such as “the good name of the University”.
The second worrying feature is the extension of the requirement to show a passport to new categories of individual. It includes not only employees but those undertaking unpaid work and volunteering. As you can see below, this specifically refers to guest speakers – who must also be told clearly that they are not employees of the University!
And the end result of this policy, in the months since its introduction? Not one individual has yet been discovered who is an illegal immigrant. In short, it seems to have been a waste of time. Unless, that is, the University’s main aim was to increase its control over academic events such as seminars…..
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The University of Hertforshire’s response, dated 19 January 2017

An adult residential college for Nazi leaders

Aerial view, from http://www.vogelsang-in.de


I recently enjoyed a very pleasant few days walking in the North Eifel, an area of Germany that seems virtually unknown to British tourists. Situated between the major cities of the Rheinland and the borders with Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, it is enchantingly beautiful with its mixture of forests, hills, rivers, lakes and valleys. And it is bursting with historical remains, from the stunning valley bottom former weaving town of Monschau to the bunkers and tank traps of the Westwall (better known to my parents as the Siegfried Line).

On of the more curious remnants is Vogelsang, built by the Nazi Party after seizing power with the aim of producing a new leadership cadre. I’d not really given the issue much thought, but after 1933 the Nazis suddenly had to fill hundreds of positions of power at all administrative and political levels. And they simply couldn’t get the staff. 

Work began in 1934, and the first intake started their course in 1936. This was a serious long-term programme, intended to take four years, and comprising a mix of physical training (including fencing and gymnastics), studies of such key Nazi fields as history and racial science, and basic training in public administration. There were sports fields and a swimming pool, as well as a faux-medieval dining hall with chivalric statues of blonde, strapping knights on horseback. 

The location itself, as well as the buildings and statuary, had a pedagogic aim: standing outside the main buildings, looking down on the valley and river below, was meant to imbue the students with pride in and love for their Heimat – an untranslatable word that can be rendered, weakly, as homeland. The college’s official name – Ordensburg Vogelsang – is also hard to translate, but loosely means the fortress of the order (as in order of knights).

Cast for statuary, from the Vogelsang exhibition


The aim was to recruit young men, but in practice most of the students were in their thirties, with some years of party activity behind them. None ever finished the course. When war broke out, Vogelsang was handed over to the army as a training centre, then turned into an Adolf Hitler School. The students went straight to work, many of them finding administrative posts in the occupied territories in the east.

After the US Army duly occupied it, bored American and British soldiers passed away the hours by firing at the genitals on the imposing statues that littered the site. It later became part of a training ground for the Belgian Army, before being handed back to the German government in 2005.

Vogelsang (the name means birdsong) is now a museum and educational centre, run by a voluntary organisation. The site itself is huge, and the buildings for the most part are remarkably well preserved. There are changing exhibitions as well as standing displays of materials from the past, mainly dealing with the National Socialist period. If you get th chance to visit, snap it up: as well as seeing a remarkable example of Nazi adult education, with the corresponding architecture and design, you will find yourself in one of the loveliest regions of western Germany.

Tackling loneliness: a role for policy?

I’ve long seen loneliness as a neglected dimension in the social capital debate.A furry of recent media reports about loneliness and the young, as well as loneliness and the elderly, has made me revisit this issue

At its simplest, the example of loneliness and its damaging effects always seems to me a good reason for ignoring those who say social capital is not worth researching. If loneliness can be so harmful, it follows that decent social connections are a positive resource, at least potentially. So I’ve often wondered why social capital researchers don’t at present have much to say on the topic.

I tried to remedy this in a little way in my social capital textbook. The final chapter considers policy interventions in the area of social capital, and in the third edition I introduced a few ideas about tackling loneliness. Like any intervention in social capital, there are risks and problems, but not acting to prevent loneliness is also an intervention – and one with damaging consequences.

My own view is that thinking of loneliness in the context of social capital is helpful, but you can make up your own mind about that.

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From Social Capital (p 84)

It’s worth adding that fostering public debate over loneliness in itself makes a valuable contribution. I’ve been impressed by the Yorkshire Post‘s long-running campaign over loneliness, for example. Simply hiding the problem is, it seems to me, a recipe for making things much worse.

Mine’s an espresso! Learning with the Popup College

I’m a fanatical coffee drinker, so it was inevitable that I’d get excited about adult education classes in Costa. The courses are the brainchild of PopUp College, founded in Cambridge in 2015 by Jason Elsom as a response to the collapse in publicly funded adult learning, and which now claims to be providing 240 courses in 55 locations across the country.

So far as I can tell, most of the courses are provided through public bodies, mainly colleges. PopUp’s website lists seven partner colleges or college groups. Local Costa stores provide the space; presumably the coffee chain, which is owned by Whitbread, benefits from favourable publicity. 

Courses aren’t cheap: ten sessions of holiday Spanish at the Greenwich branch of Costa will set you back £120, while you’ll pay £75 for Art History & Appreciation at the Altrincham branch. Compare this with the £80 for a local authority ten week Spanish course in Scarborough, or £94 for Art Appreciation with the WEA in Reading, and you’ll see that the prices are broadly comparable. Unlike the WEA or local government provision, there is no pressure for accreditation or assessment. 

The topics and prices suggest that the initiative is aimed at the traditional adult education market, albeit one that has embraced the ‘cappuccino culture’ that now permeates large parts of the urban middle class socio-cultural milieu. It is obvious that the PopUp concept will appeal less to those who find ‘cappuccino culture’ a bit posh and poncy, or who simply can’t afford the fees.

It is also geographically limited. Perhaps predictably, the vast majority of PopUp courses are in London, with smaller clusters elsewhere. At present there are none at all in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales.

Will the PopUp concept endure, or is it a brief fad? I rather hope it lasts: it seems to me an imaginative attempt to keep part of the adult education system alive and well, and I will watch its development with interest. I’d love to know what others make of this