Adult educators and the UK honours system

Alan Tuckett

Arise, Sir Alan

I’ve been quietly celebrating the award of a knighthood to Alan Tuckett, a lifelong adult educator who is probably best known for his leadership of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. Celebrating because the award acknowledges the way in which Alan didn’t simply ‘do his job’, but used his position to provide leadership and visibility for the wider field of adult learning, so that the knighthood can be understood as a public recognition of an important but often overlooked field.

All of this said, I don’t approve of the UK honours system on principle. The system rests on patronage and has been thoroughly tainted by cronyism and rewards for people – notably civil servants – who simply have ‘done their job’. It perpetuates the language of Empire and aristocratic rule, so I find it hard to see how it sits with the egalitarian and meritocratic world of adult education.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Alan, who will no doubt exploit the platform afforded by his knighthood to argue the case for adult learners and those who work with them. Disagreeing with your friends’ decisions is just a part of life. But I now wonder about other leading British adult educators in the past: how many were offered honours, and how many accepted?

Answering these questions proved harder than I’d expected, but here is what I’ve found so far – thanks partly to a Twitter exchange with John Holford and Alan, and partly to a largely frustrating trawl online.

Albert Mansbridge, co-founder of the Workers’ Educational Association and its first secretary, became a Companion of Honour in 1931.

William Emrys Williams, secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1925 and director of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during WW2, was awarded a CBE and a knighthood. While his CBE was awarded in 1946, his knighthood came as a result of his work at the Arts Council and as Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Books.

Basil Yeaxlee, secretary to the much-discussed 1919 Report on Adult Education and secretary of the Educational Settlements Association, and author of a doctoral thesis on spiritual values in adult education, received his CBE in the same year as Williams. Like Williams, he received this honour in recognition of his contribution to services education and welfare during WW2.

More recently, Bob Fryer – Principal of Northern College and chief executive of the NHS University – was made a Companion of the British Empire in 1999. I assume there are other recent cases that I’ve either forgotten about or didn’t hear about in the first place.

Then there are those who refused, or weren’t offered in the first place. EP Thompson, Raymond Williams, Michael Barratt Brown, Raphael Samuel and Sheila Rowbotham were all associated with what would today probably be called the ‘hard Left’, and I very much doubt whether it entered anyone’s mind to offer them an honour.

Elizabeth Monkhouse, a leading figure in the Workers’ Educational Association and a prominent acdemic who served on the Russell Committee, does not seem to have taken an honour. Given her eminent record of public service, I find it hard to believe that she did not receive – and therefore reject – the offer of an honour.

Richard Hoggart, on the other hand, refused offers of both a knighthood and peerage. Like Williams and Thompson, Hoggart was shaped by a career in extra-mural teaching, who served as assistant director of UNESCO and as warden of Goldsmiths College.

Robert Peers, the UK’s first professor of adult education, does not appear to have been offered an honour; neither does Sydney Raybould, pre-eminent amoung the post-war adult education academics.

Others might be counted as adult educators depending on how you define that rather loose term. Sir Richard Livingstone, for example, did much to champion residential adult education, but was knighted for his role in university management.

And then there are the ‘genuine’ aristocrats who actively promoted adult learning. Trudie Pearson, first national chair of the Women’s Institutes in Britain, and later director of the Women’s Land Army, became Lady Denman on her marriage to the third Baron. The WI’s residential adult college is named after her.

My list of adult educators with honours is regreattably brief. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.  Meanwhile, arise Sir Alan, and more power to your elbow!

George Orwell and adult learning

Plaça de George Orwell, Barcelona

Plaça de George Orwell, Barcelona

George Orwell is well known as a novelist and journalist, and as a democratic socialist. I’ve never given much thought to his involvement in adult education until recently, when I picked up a copy of his diaries, in which he tells of lectures he gave at Morley College and the Working Men’s College during the Second World War.

So far as I can find out, Orwell initially showed an interest in adult education during his 1936 journey through the north of England. While researching poverty and unemployment for The Road to Wigan Pier, he visited unemployment centres run by local Councils of Social Services, and he attended two radio discussion circles in Leeds.

On balance, Orwell took a rather dim view of these types of adult education. He suspected that the unemployed centres were mainly intended to ‘keep unemployed men quiet by giving them the illusion of being busy; also to keep them out of the pubs’.

After listing the classes offered by the Barnsley Centre, he added a handwritten note to his typescript, regretting that facilities for the more valuable courses such as carpentry ‘cannot be in the genuinely pro-working class movements such as the NUWM’. He was less than impressed with what he heard in the radio circles, and was disappointed by the degree of sympathy expressed for Nazi Germany.

Presumably Orwell had a more positive view of the educational activities of socialist groups, at least at first. He was certainly impressed by the political literacy of the working class men that he encountered on his travels on the north. And he took part in the Independent Labour Party’s summer schools and lectured at a summer school organized by the Adelphi magazine. Although he famously used the experience to parody some of the ‘cranks’ who attended, his biographer noted that in practice Orwell rather enjoyed their company.

He also lectured for the Left Book Club, which also reported that The Road to Wigan Pier was one of its best products for generating discussion among its local reading groups. After Orwell’s experiences in Spain, he turned against the LBC for its silence on Communist atrocities, and duly satirised one of its lectures in his 1939 novel Coming up for Air.

In June 1940, Orwell joined the predecessor of the Home Guard, immediately becoming a sergeant whose first major task was to train his section of ten men. Our view of the Home Guard has been coloured by the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army, but at the time it was a very serious movement, and along with the civil defence organisations it included many men who – like Orwell – had tried to join the armed forces but had been rejected on grounds of health. It also took guts: the Nazis had announced that they would treat captured members of the Home Guard as partisans and execute them without ceremony.

Orwell took it very seriously, attending the quasi-insurrectionary college at Osterley Park run by Spanish veterans like Tom Wintringham. Bernard Crick tells us that his unpublished papers include ‘fourteen pages of tightly-written, detailed notes for lectures that he gave either to Home Guard units or to other audiences on the theme of the Home Guard’. These include two lectures, which he gave on several occasions, calling for compulsory ‘political instruction’ on war aims for all Home Guard members, as well as making the case for developing the Home Guard into a popular militia, an argument he continued to explore after retiring on health grounds in 1943.

There’s also a case for seeing Orwell’s own wartime role at the BBC as an educational intervention, though one that he viewed as too close to propaganda for comfort. And I’d be interested to know what Orwell made of the educational materials published for members of the armed forces, under the auspices of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs or the British Way and Purpose scheme.

Adult education played a rather important role during the Second World War. While Orwell almost certainly never thought of himself as an adult educator, a role he only took on as an adjunct to other activities, it comes no surprise that someone as engaged in home defence and political debate had connections with some of its institutions.