Tom Lovett, 1936-2012

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.