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:

Can we rebuild the Plebs League tradition?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Plebs League, a socialist adult education movement formed in 1908 by dissident students at Ruskin College. It’s not surprising that we’re all taking an interest in the word ‘pleb’, as used – or not – by a disgruntled government minister. Then the Guardian picked up on a suggestion by the shadow Welsh Secretary that we consider reviving the Plebs League. And now I receive an email inviting me to a conference on rebuilding the Plebs League tradition in a new century.

Is it possible to repeat the success of Noah Ablett, George Hodgkinson and Arthur Cook in developing a living programme of what they called ‘independent working class education’? Capitalism isn’t looking too clever right now, and there’s certainly a renewed interest in Marxist ideas out there, with new editions of the Communist Manifesto and Capital proudly on display in the high street.

And the conference, organised by a group calling itself Independent Working Class Education, looks interesting. As well as discussions of contemporary union based learning, there are also presentations on radical approaches to family history and self-education in pre-1914 socialist groups, as well as a debate about building popular universities. But how realistic are the prospects of a Plebs League for the iPhone generation?

The portents are not all grim. The original Plebs set out to promote an education in revolutionary socialism, drawing on Marxist theoretical principles, informed by experience in trade unionism, and aiming to build a revolutionary movement based in the unions. And we could argue reasonably that organised labour in general, and the trade unions in particular, are in far better shape than they were in 1908. But is this a basis for a continuing, organised movement for independent working class education?

The main obstacles are pretty obvious. While the unions are larger and stronger than in 1908 in some respects, the meaning of membership has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Branch meetings are rarely ‘spaces for learning’; they are either sparsely attended or more often have disappeared altogether. Members pay their subscriptions by credit card or standing order, rather than in person to their shop steward. The revival of union learning is a real credit to those involved (including the much-maligned New Labour government), but it isn’t often concerned with building a new social order.

And this reflects much wider trends in popular culture, which has shifted dramatically from the world of chapel, co-operative, working men’s club and trade union that working people built as shelters from the worst ravages of unregulated capitalism. I see these shifts as irreversible, at least in our life time. And none of the newer social movements has yet emerged with the strength and sustainability to carry a similarly convincing narrative of independent radical education. Nor at present is there a group of intellectuals who believe that a new and desirable social order can be built through organised labour or any other social movement.

So I reckon the prospects are poor. And I would also remind you of the fate of the original Plebs League. It openly denounced other adult education movements, such as the Workers Educational Association, as class collaborators. It despised universities and academics as bourgeois lackeys (worth remembering given that my invitation to attend this conference came from a fellow professor). And the labour college movement that they inspired and often worked in was brought to its knees, not by the malign forces of capitalism and the state, but by the corruption of its leading officials, who embezzled its funds.  So we shouldn’t idealise the Plebs, but rather see them as sometimes admirable, sometimes foolish, and sometimes plain wrong.

But the ideal of a new movement for radical adult learning retains its appeal. There is plenty to organise against, and plenty to hope for. We’re unlikely to find a comforting and inspirational unifying narrative of the kind that drove Noah Ablett and his comrades in the early twentieth century. Rather, we need to build our own narratives and interweave different radical movements that demand new and possibly tricky forms of knowledge and capability, and therefore new forms of learning.  And given the political climate, there is something appealingly cheeky about calling it after the Plebs!

For details of the conference on 24 November see: