PoW: The rise of the mass intelligentsia

What I love about being a freelance blogger (besides the loneliness, economic insecurity and gnawing sense of irrelevance) is the ability to roam wherever you fancy to discover new ideas. You don’t have to write what your editor tells you. It’s just a great feeling, sometimes, the ability to follow a new trail wherever it leads you.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been following the trail of the New Left, a group of left-wing thinkers who coalesced at Oxford in the 1950s, including Stuart Hall, Charles Taylor, Raymond Williams, EP Thompson and others.I first came across them when I read EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class a couple of months ago, as part of my research into philosophy groups. Thompson wrote brilliantly on 19th century adult education clubs like the London Corresponding Society and Mechanics Institutes, and the role they played in the development of a working class political consciousness. The word ‘pub philosopher’ came from the early 19th century, as a term of abuse for working class artisans getting together in pubs to read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (itself written in a London pub).

I also realised, through my research into adult education (particularly the work of Roger Fieldhouse), that many modern universities grew out of informal learning clubs like Mechanics Institutes. Birkbeck College began as the London Mechanics Institute, meeting in the Crown and Anchor tavern on the Strand, while Queen Mary, University of London, where I work today, began as the New Philosophic Institute (later re-named the People’s Palace) in the East End.

What I then discovered (and wrote about on Monday) was that this history of grassroots ideas clubs fed into a vision among New Left thinkers (and particularly Edward Thompson) for citizen education in the 1960s. Thompson hoped to start a network of New Left clubs around the country, where the working class could debate, discuss, learn and self-organise. New Left figures including Raymond Williams and Eric Hobsawm were also actively involved with the Workers Education Association (the WEA), and taught WEA extra-mural courses at Oxford and other universities. As the first issue of the New Left Review put it: ‘We have to go into towns and cities, universities and technical colleges, youth clubs and Trade Union branches and–as William Morris said–make socialists there.’

Well, that failed, sadly. The New Left clubs didn’t last long – as Stuart Hall wrote in the NLR, a division grew up between the clubs and the journal, and between the intellectuals at the centre and the grassroots periphery. Formal adult education through the WEA, extra-mural courses and residential colleges like Toynbee Hall also declined steeply from the 1970s to the 1990s. This morning, I interviewed Derek Tatton, director of the Raymond Williams Foundation, who painted quite a bleak picture of the state of formal adult education:

The kind of adult education we’re talking about – in politics, philosophy and so on – declined quite catastrophically. And in general, the number of adult learning courses provided by the WEA or universities or local education authorities has declined steeply, and the number of adults involved with adult education courses has declined by several million people in the last few years. All Local Education Authority-funded residential colleges that I know of have either closed or are threatened with closure. And most universities provide no extra-mural courses anymore. [The one ray of sunshine in this rather dismal scene is, of course, the Open University...]

However, the picture for informal learning is rather more optimistic. Derek says:

In one sense, adult education as Raymond Williams thought of it is virtually dead, because of political and social changes and the rise of a rampant capitalism not interested in education for its own sake. But we are seeing the rise of informal learning, partly through the rise of new technologies like the internet. By informal I mean it’s not publicly-funded, and is often self-run by volunteers. In that sector, there’s a lot of activity. We’ve seen the rise of informal, grassroots organisations like the University of the Third Age, Philosophy In Pubs, Cafe Philosophique or Socrates Cafes, book groups and so on, which are doing for free what funded organisations like the WEA were doing in the 1960s.

Derek rightly points to the internet as one of the factors helping the rise of informal learning. His discussion circle in Staffordshire, for example, uses In Our Time as a learning resource for its talks. Melvyn Bragg has, in fact, spoken of the rise of ‘the mass intelligentsia’, which I think is a great and inspiring description for what’s going on.

I’d love to explore the ways that universities and academia can be freed from their prison of managerial paperwork and REF reports to genuinely have connect with their communities. Why is the present Higher Education framework so inhospitable to adult learning and extra-mural activities? How can we help connect academics to adults who want to learn? How can we help academics get more pleasure and sense of purpose from their work? As Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton says in this interview, “most academics I know are desperate to get out”.

Here, by the way, is a piece by the National Institute for Advanced and Community Education (NIACE) on the Occupy movement’s Tent City University and other alternative forms of learning that are springing up at the moment.

One of the philosophers who came to talk at Tent City University was Lord Robert Skidelsky, who I saw speak at Hay a fortnight ago. He and his son Ed have a new book out calling for a new politics and economics rooted in a vision of the good life. They outline that vision in this article.

The rise of informal learning is one of the topics being discussed at EdgeRyders, an EU project that’s hosting an online and offline conference at the moment in Strasbourg. It’s connecting young social entrepreneurs trying to figure out how to improve the world (while also making a living). You can follow their discussions on Twitter at #LOTE.

I’m speaking at a similar sort of event this coming Monday, called A Good Week. Come along if you’re free – I’m doing the opening talk (gulp!). I think I’ll be talking about combining inner work on the self with outer work on society.

The BBC’s ‘New Elizabethans’ series, celebrating the lives of great modern Brits, had a programme on pioneering social entrepreneur Michael Young, who did a lot for adult education by setting up the Open University. You can hear it here. Interesting highlights: he wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto when he was 29, and at the end of his life he was working on plans for a colony on Mars!

Here’s a great example of an informal learning model that draws on new technology: Think Cafe, from South Korea.

I gave a lunchtime talk on the politics of well-being at the London think-tank IPPR yesterday. You can read the notes for it here. Thanks to everyone who came – it was a real boost that more experienced experts in the field like James O’Shaughnessy and the new economics foundation’s Juliet Michaelson come along and contributed to the discussion. James is working with Wellington College and speaking at their Festival on Education next weekend, which promises to be a great event. I’ll be there on Saturday, not speaking, just mooching around.

Juliet works at the new economics foundation’s well-being centre, which yesterday brought out its annual Happy Planet Index report, measuring nations’ well-being and ecological footprint, asking which countries’ achieve happiness most efficiently, from an environmental point of view. Central America seems to do best.

The economist and social historian Deirdre McCloskey poured scorn on happiness economics in a New Republic cover story this week. She argues that there are some areas of human life into which social policy should not intrude. I critiqued her critique here, arguing that she simplified the movement and that she espoused a naive belief in a bourgeois liberty somehow independent of social policy. She replies briefly in the comments.

I was sorry to hear of the death of Alan Saunders, a British philosopher who presented ABC’s philosophy show on Australian radio. Sounds like he did a great deal to bring philosophy into everyday life.

Finally, some wise advice:

See you next week,

Jules

Comments:

  • sumitjha says:

    I was completely entranced by your blog:it makes me think about issues like open learning and mass intelligensia which we seldom think about in our so called “busy life”.I never understand one thing:what are we all chasing?Are we chasing our competitors or probably ourselves.Your blog mandates me to think about these issues.Good luck for your future works!!

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