The Midsomer work camp

You might realise by now that I enjoy a bit of crime fiction, and that includes a taste for Midsomer Murders, even though it is way past its peak as a more or less gentle mockery of middle class manners. Midsomer doesn’t exist, of course, but its county capital, Cawston, is largely filmed in the Thames Valley market town of Wallingford. And Wallingford, as well as being the fictional home of many a murderous snob with status anxieties, has a history.

walingford

In 1911, the Christian Social Union, effectively the social service arm of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian Churches, purchased a farm near Wallingford for use as a labour colony. The Congregationalists viewed social service as a form of missionary work, a view articulated particularly by the Nottingham minister John Brown Paton, who helped popularise in Britain the ideas of the Lutheran Pastor von Bodelschwingh, who had launched an elaborate system of social service agencies, including Arbeiterkolonien, in Bielefeld.

Interestingly, Brown Paton described himself as a socialist. He was alluding here to the idea of socialised support for the weaker members of society, but it is worth noting that more radical Christian socialists like George Lansbury were equally enthusiastic advocates of labour colonies as a way of both tackling unemployment and helping train urban Britons for a life on the land.

The Christian Union for Social Service ran its Wallingford Colony as a training farm. As in the German Lutheran colonies, the staff were described as Brothers, and subsequently when women started to work in the residential colonies they were known as Sisters.  The main recruits were young men, including those they took from the Foundling Hospital.

It housed conscientious objectors during the First World War, who worked the land as an alterntive to military service, before returning to its original purpose of retraining unemployed young men, with most of the costs paid by local boards of guardians, but by the 1920s – by which time the colony could take 270 trainees – the noble aim of repopulating rural Britain had been replaced by the more practicable goal of shipping the trainees off to the Dominions. It changed again during the Second World War, when it housed child emigrants who had fled the Nazis, and was subsequently used as a therapeutic reform community for young offenders.

Throughout these shifts several factors did not change. First and foremost, the colony was a residential community. Second, with few exceptions, its inmates were male. Third, it reformed character and body alike through exposure to hard work on the land. I’ve eplored the interplay between these features in a wider study of work camp movements in Britain and Ireland, and there’s also a very good short account of Turner’s Court, apparently still available, for those who would like more detail.

The reformatory closed in 1991, and of the earlier buildings only the clock tower remains. The site now houses upmarket homes for commuters and the affluent retired, so it’s clearly only a matter of time before Inspector Barnaby receives a call…

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:  http://www.niace.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/adults-learning/AL-Summer-2013-Vol24-Final-LR-pg34-35.pdf