Two publications have been sent to me in recent weeks that relate to adult education. Reading both was like watching an old movie in which smoking is romantic and ever present, rather than being consigned to pariahs huddled against the cold. They took me back to what now seems like a distant age, though in reality it was not long ago at all. This was the time when Adult Education was a great cause of the left.
The first was Mike Tyldesley's 2002 paper on Watson Thomson, from the British Journal of Canadian Studies. Thomson was a Scots Canadian communitarian thinker and activist and was a follower of Dimitrije Mitrinovic, whose ideas are kept alive through the New Atlantis Foundation. Andrew Rigby's recent biography of Mitrinovic is a good starting point for anyone who would like to know more. My interest was aroused by the fact that Thompson was the Director of Adult Education for Saskatchewan between 1944-1945. The backdrop to his appointment was the election of an avowedly socialist provincial government.
Mike reckons that Adult Education was part of Thomson's radical project to move towards a "participatory and self-reliant society". It was a short-lived experiment. He lost his position as a result of suspected Communist sympathies, though this was far from the case.
Thomson's radical utopianism may have been distinctive, but the second pamphlet reflects the same belief in the significance of Adult Education in creating a just society, this time from a democratic socialist perspective. Published by the Educational Centres Association, Mabel Tylecote: Champion of Adult Education celebrates the life of Mabel Tylecote, an educationalist, socialist, active internationalist, and formidable Labour Councillor in Manchester. She also wrote and published on the history of the Mechanics' Institutes and on women's education. This is more personal for me as Tylecote was the person who championed the building of an Adult Education college at the heart of Manchester's educational campus at All Saints, where I worked for several happy years until it closed. The pamphlet was sent to me by the former principal, William Tyler. Tylecote was still on the governing body when I started there as a part-time tutor, but had retired before I got my full-time job. She died shortly before it closed.
Adult Education was her greatest cause and integral to her political commitment. At one time she had been an Assistant Lecturer at Manchester University and could have had a comfortable and complacent academic career. This didn't fit with the person. On gaining her first degree, she worked at Huddersfield Technical College between 1920 and 1926. As a woman, she got offered the post at a lower salary than a male lecturer and refused to accept unless she got equal pay. They gave it to her. She left her job at Manchester University in 1930, after only two years, to work in Adult Education amongst the miners of the Kent coal field. Marriage returned her to Manchester where she was active in pressuring the government to assist Jewish and socialist refugees escape from Eastern Europe as the Second World War loomed. After the War she worked in Austria and Germany developing adult education as an integral part of the de-Nazification and reconstruction processes.
This was the legacy of activism behind our College building, itself built on a long history of working class voluntary self-education and adult learning. As the Poll Tax hit local government, the cuts forced the College to close in 1990, despite the fact that it was thriving. The building was sold to what was to become Manchester Metropolitan University.
Today, Adult Education is once again under threat. This time it is a Labour Government that is delivering the blow. Where is the socialist idealism of Tylecote and the radical fervour of Thomson today? Why are we under threat from a left party? It is too easy to blame the depressing acceptance of the Neo-liberal consensus, instead parts of Adult Education had become a target for some on the left.
Tylecote herself warned in a 1960 Fabian pamphlet of the danger of a takeover of Adult Education by "a new elite, to the disadvantage of the educationally deprived". In part, that is precisely what happened, especially in the Universities. However, the perception of educational elitism far exceeded the reality and, especially given the enormous changes of recent years, this view is today a gross distortion. Nevertheless, there is a pseudo-leftist posturing that grabbed at this misrepresentation and sneered at Adult Education as elitist, patronisingly saying that what that working classes need are employment skills. Even more tellingly, the talk is all of meeting the needs of employers and the national economy and rarely of meeting the needs, desires and rights of employees.
In her pamphlet, The Future of Adult Education, Tylecote decried the separation of "vocational" and "liberal learning" and argued for the centrality of social equality, adequate funding, and links with trade unions and voluntary organisations. Instead, vocationalism is now being promoted to the exclusion of liberal learning and a tradition is dying. Reading back, Tylecote was right. We need both.
When our building was sold, the University asked the permission of Mabel Tylecote's family to name it after her as a tribute. They readily agreed and the pamphlet has many references to it as her monument. I can never see it like that. Instead, I see the bitter irony of the destruction of her life's work being named after her. It is the sanitisation of an act of betrayal.
A proper tribute to Tylecote and all the other dedicated radicals who saw the struggle for a better life embodied in the Adult Education movement would not be name plates, but a resurrection of their dream and the rebuilding of properly funded Adult Education colleges and centres in every town and city. The prospect seems more distant with every passing year.