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.