Tuesday, February 05, 2013


If there is one book that I will never cease to recommend it is the wonderful study of working class self-education by Jonathan Rose with the somewhat awkward title of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. You will find in it the history of popular enthusiasm for literature and learning and the organisations it spawned. In time, these organisations formed the basis for our system of adult education, both inside and outside universities. Their incorporation into the state education system provided security of funding, nationwide access and public investment, until it began to be taken away again.

The thing is that when institutions closed and buildings were sold off, it was not just the public funding that was lost, but the legacy of centuries of private, voluntary contribution was also disposed of. It was an act of theft from previous generations. But the demand for adult education remains. People are still passionate about learning and so we are seeing a new system emerging in embryo. It is like being back in the late nineteenth century. The latest is the free university movement, where more enlightened institutions have allied with voluntary effort to begin to reproduce a new version of the old university extension movement.

This is greatly to be welcomed, but I hope I can be forgiven a churlish thought; wouldn't it have been better not to have done away with the original system in the first place?

1 comment:

Anton Deque said...

Of course, you are correct. The closing of Life Long Learning by the academics turned business managers represents the destruction of an asset, if one borrows for a moment an expression from the boardrooms. (The history of British management since 1945 is a long record of similar short term thinking.) Yet, it also creates the potential to return to the foundation of learning for its own sake.

My friend the late Keith Crombie (1938-2012) used to discuss aspects of arts provision in the north east; Crombie remembered how improvised (and financially impoverished) the Newcastle 'scene' had once been before the era of regional and council funding, now collapsed, leaving a trail of buildings without a purpose apart from the obligatory café. Then, it was penniless or self financed ventures in collaboration with or taking advantage of, local circumstances as needs be. An essentially loose and temporary series of arts events or venues, created an important legacy in terms of people's experience. He and I felt something like this could both be possible again and refreshingly, operate outside the bureaucratic sphere – and an awfully long way from 'mission statements'. Instead of campaigning for the return of a failed and, frankly, self serving, arts establishment, creative people might look back to an era when the arts were an enthusiasm rather than step on the ladder of 'getting on'.