I’ve been participating in a lively email debate recently about the way in which adult learners and providers ought to be represented. The debate was triggered by the Learning and Work Institute’s announcement that it had appointed Stephen Evans as its new director, someone with considerable experience in the areas of employment and skills, but less well versed in some other areas of adult education.
Around 80 people gathered yesterday at Golders Green to say goodbye to Michael Barratt Brown. Michael was an extraordinary man: born in 1918, he made his mark as an economist, political activist, gardener, peace campaigner, free trade pioneer, Quaker and above all as an adult educator. Oh – and as a runner.
Yesterday’s gathering brought together people from all his life worlds, as well as members of his family. It may seem heartless to say so, but it was a lovely occasion, marked more by celebration of a life than by mourning, and enlivened by fine violin music. And as Robin Murray said in his tribute, the baton passes on to us who remain very much alive.
I’ve already written of my own memories of Michael on this blog. Recently, Harry Barnes – Derbyshire miner, adult educator and MP – shared his recollections of a beloved friend, colleague and comrade. So let me just add one final thing: the last message I had from him.
It is typical of Michael that in his 90s he had no fear of social media. We were in touch through LinkedIn, and he wrote about my review of his autobiography:
Good to hear from you, John. I am glad you liked “Seekers”. It has had a mixed reception. Some of my family and friends thought I was too open about my love life.You would undertand the problem. I have often thought of you at Stirling, because I used to visit there regularly with Kenneth ALexander. You mention my UNRRA experience, but, apart from Northern College and Fair Trade, I think my most important work was with the Humanities Committee of the EU, with Ben Bella and others and trying to save a Yugoslavia. What are you going to do in retirement? We need a major defence of adult education.Best wishes, Michael
So his last sentence to me was about the need to campaign for adult education. Though I have cheated a little, and changed one word: I’ve put Stirling, in place of Strathclyde. It isn’t often that I could correct Michael, and it gives me great pleasure to have this last opportunity.
Michael Barratt Brown was the first Principal of Northern College, a residential college for adults which opened in September 1978. I was lucky enough to take one of the first jobs at the College, and taught there from 1978 to 1985. Working with Michael was a baptism of fire for a young and inexperienced lecturer, particularly as he had no patience with the belief that you could learn anything about teaching from books or training courses.
I already knew of Michael before joining the College. His political work in the peace movement and in the campaign for industrial democracy were well known; he often co-authored with Ken Coates, another adult educator who like Michael had left the Communist Party in 1956, and who became quite a high profile figure in the Labour Left. I had also met Michael, through my Warwick mentor Royden Harrison, the historian and an old friend and political comrade of Michael’s (Royden also wrote a reference that was, I suspect, instrumental in getting me the job).
Michael was an inspirational figure who was capable of haranguing the College staff – and students – when things didn’t go entirely to his liking. My first experience of Michael in rant mode was when the Deputy Principal, in Michael’s absence, declared the College closed during a snowy cold snap; Michael was furious, spluttering that if he could get in to the College then there was no reason to close it down. He then went out skiing.
To be honest, his harangues tended to cause more amusement than anxiety. Yet, as you might expect of someone with his wartime experiences, there was real toughness in the man – and indeed there had to be. For the first few years of its life, the College battled to survive. The Sheffield Conservative Party was particularly virulent in its attacks, both through its one local MP Irvine Patnick, a nasty piece of work who fed misinformation to the media in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster), and through the local Chamber of Commerce. And all this during the Thatcher years.
Michael was robust in his defence of the College, and disarmingly charming with its critics. He was also capable of puncturing others’ self-importance, usually employing his sly sense of humour. I remember him one chairing a disciplinary hearing involving two students, both activists in the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had been involved in a fight. It was a tense and difficult occasion, with claim and counter-claim over the origins of the dispute, which Michael defused by asking “And what exactly is a pillock?” To this day I’m uncertain whether he genuinely didn’t known what the word meant, but it brought us all back to our senses.
He worked hard and expected others to do the same. He was an enormously productive writer while contributing a full teaching load and doing all the networking and admin that came with the job. He also drank hard: the College then expected all its teaching staff to serve as residential tutors once a week, and occasionally I’d find him in his study at night, polishing off a bottle of red wine while writing an article or a pamphlet.
He was capable of enormous generosity, supporting students in terrible hardship with ‘loans’ (rarely repaid) from his own pocket. As some students never tired of pointing out, he could well afford to be generous, though much of his wealth came from canny investments. I did once ask him about the ethics of a Quaker Marxist gambling on the stock market; his response, with a grin, was “Why be an economist if you don’t use it?”
In many ways Michael became an adult educator almost by accident – or at most through planned happenstance – as I did. His formal education had been richly supplemented by a lifetime of political activity, but he had taught for the WEA before joining the Extra-Mural Department at Sheffield University, where he was drawn into teaching on the miners’ day release programme. He thought that adult educators were made through experience; when I asked about financial support to undertake an OU course called Education for Adults, he snapped at me: “Why on earth would anyone want to study adult education?” I paid for the course myself (and thoroughly enjoyed it).
Robin Murray has written a beautifully worded obituary of Michael for the Guardian. And there is plenty more detail in Michael’s autobiography for anyone who is interested in his remarkably varied and influential life. There is much more to be said, and critiqued, about his life and work, and what it tells us about the turbulent trajectory of British adult education. But now is a time for mourning and celebrating, and sharing personal memories of someone who contributed so much to the lives of those around him.
Ann Walker, a prominent British adult educator, has been providing a wonderful resource for anyone interested in educational ideas. The Educational Thinkers Hall of Fame has covered such eminent figures as Paulo Freire, John Dewey and Mary Wollstonecraft, summarising their main contribution and indicating why they matter today.
After a few of us retweeted her most recent post, on the American radical Myles Horton, Ann replied with the question: “Who can compare with Horton & Freire today?” Others weighed in with similar questions, asking where the younger passionate voices are, and why there is so much more effort invested in writing and speaking but so little in action? These are good questions, promoting me to wonder whether a truly heroic period of innovation and passion ever existed, and if it has, whether it has now come to a close.
There probably is less institutional and theoretical innovation now than when I started my professional career, in the late 1970s. Recently, I reviewed the memoirs of Michael Barratt Brown, and was struck by how many organisations he had helped to found, from the Institute for Workers’ Control through a successful fair trade company to Northern College (where I was lucky enough to work from 1978 to 1984).
But the context has changed. The social movements that inspired Michael, as well as other originators such as Freire and Horton, are now a shadow of their former selves. I ended my review by reflecting on the number of Michael’s creations that no longer exist, while the movements that nurtured them have either vanished or have changed beyond recognition. Radical educational organisations like Northern College have had to adapt to survive.
Much the same is true for the wider intellectual climate. Michael was one of many left-leaning academics who saw the labour movement as a natural ally, Freire found a mass readership at a time when liberation theology (which he greatly admired) spoke to and for mass struggles for land and liberty. Today, radical academics may be powerfully attracted to ideas of ‘transgression’, but these are largely personal and unconnected with and irrelevant to wider social movements.
Historians are always suspicious of any notion of a ‘golden age’ – a scepticism summarised neatly in the title of a book by Gwyn Alf Williams, When was Wales? But I do think that some periods are generally propitious for social inventors, and other periods favour people who are good at maintaining and defending what we have rather than building new structures and ideas. We are now in the second type of period.
That said, we still have our educational heroes – people who are creating great new institutions, and developing new ideas about knowledge and learning. In the last year or so, I have been mightily impressed by the spread of the Men’s Shed movement, a remarkable bunch of quiet revolutionaries who are changing the ways in which men promote their sociability and wellbeing.
Then there are such collaborative movements as citizen science and citizen journalism, often exploiting new social media, in which knowledge creation itself is the basis of socio-cultural action. Not to mention the flourishing self-help world of older adults, exemplfied in the Universities of the Third Age.
This list could go on, but these are enough to give us grounds for supposing that we are living in at least a silver age of educational creativity. What strikes me is that these seem to be generally collective and collaborative ventures, that generally have few outstanding leadership figures. And that seems to me better suited to the bottom-up, somewhat dislocated and at times inchoate world of social and political anaction that we now inhabit.
I’ve been thinking recently about community and learning in hard times. These reflections are partly triggered by the way in which many organisations are now talking about ‘community engagement’ in their core mission. But they are also prompted by the death in May of Tom Lovett, one of those inspirational figures whose ideas and interests spanned adult learning, community development and radical thinking more generally. And Tom was not a mere writer; he also created things, including a whole bundle of courses and events around community learning and development, and of course the Ulster People’s College, of which he was a founder and director.
And Tom’s death was also a personal loss. I met and liked him while I was still working at Northern College in Barnsley; then I worked alongside him for four years at the University of Ulster, where he held a chair in adult education. But he had influenced me much earlier.
Adult Education, Community Development and the Working Class was the first book I had ever read about adult learning that made any impression. Before that I had read two other books in our field, both of which I found insufferably self-satisfied and smug. And I discovered that many senior adult educators couldn’t understand why I thought a book about their profession actually mattered – they worked in the field, but they saw all the interesting debates as happening elsewhere, in economics or history or cultural studies.
Published in 1975, Tom’s first book was a seminal work which combined reflection on earlier traditions of radical adult education with an attempt to theorise a progressive practice for today. He wrote not only about Paulo Freire but also about Moses Coady and the Antigonish movement in Canada, Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) in Tennessee. For people like me, this was an extraordinary moment of illumination, lighting up the invisible ties between my everyday teaching and the wider world of civil rights, community organising, and radical social change. Tom published several other books, and continued to write until ill health made it impossible. Much to my joy, he asked me to contribute a chapter to a collection inspired by R H Tawney’s dictum that all successful adult education movements are also social movements.
As well as writing, Tom also taught and worked in the field. He was involved in the Home Office-funded Community Development Project in Liverpool in the early 1970s, and much of his early writing was influenced by the healthy debate among the CDPs over their role and purpose. He then moved to the University of Ulster, first in Derry and than at Jordanstown, where he developed a number of programmes in community development and community relations that brought together working class men and women from across Northern Ireland’s different communities.
Firmly on the political Left, and deeply marked by his Belfast upbringing, Tom developed an argument for adult learning as a core element in community development; he also urged practitioners to become involved in community action, particularly where it involved action by local people themselves, acting to advance their own interests. After retiring he continued his involvement in community development in North Belfast.
I learned a great deal from Tom, and admired him personally. Apart from anything else, he came into adult education the hard way. He grew up in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, then trained as an aircraft fitter at Shorts, then worked on the buses. His formal experience of education came through the Workers’ Educational Association, followed in 1962 by a year at Ruskin College and then an Oxford degree. He faced considerable hostility during the Troubles, with neither side able (or willing) to accept that he respected and trusted people with very different views from theirs. Most of us come from comparatively cosy backgrounds; Tom came through the flames.
So my first reflection is that these are indeed hard times, but we’ve been through worse. Second, there is a large and open agenda for adult learning linked to community development and community action. Third, what we mean and understand by community development and action have changed over the last two decades, and we need to adjust and adapt adult learning accordingly. Fourth, we need to think about digital technologies in this context, not only as tools for learning but as tools for new types of community and civic action. And fifth, I now find it very difficult to imagine a bright working class lad getting himself into university at the age of 26 and subsequently becoming a professor, but I hope I am wrong.