Thursday, 23 September 2021

Adult Education and Democracy

One of the world's many best-kept secrets of recent times is the extent and vigour of the working class self-help education movement. Supported by all classes, that movement dates way back to the early decades of the 19th century, if not earlier. Many key political and literary figures, such as Nye Bevan (the politician behind the introduction of the National Health Service) and Sue Townsend (novelist, Adrian Mole and social commentator), came from the poor working class families. Like so many who left school at the minimum leaving age, they set about their own self-education, study-reading leading authorities on literature, history, politics, economics, philosophy, psychology and so on, and attending classes on the wide variety of subjects made available though the adult education movement.

The 1928 Report on The Tutor in Adult Education: An Inquiry into the Problems of Supply and Training observed, a century ago:

"It is a commonplace that democratic institutions can only work successfully where there is a genuine public opinion as opposed to mere mass-suggestion. But such a public opinion is only possible in a community in which a large number of persons have formed the habit of considering and weighing different points of view before reaching a decision. This habit of mind is more readily acquired from adult education than from any other form of training."

Personal and group study was integral to the development of the Welfare State. Study took place in the trade union movement, in socialist political associations, amongst paternalistic capitalists, in the Co-operative movement, in universities and colleges, and in student organisation and associations of many types. Debate took many forms, in various locations. It took place in local chapels, working men's clubs, mechanics institutes, University Extension courses, Women's Institutes, Allotment Associations, the Workers' Educational Association, the trade union movement, and so forth. The NHS and the provisions of the welfare state flowed from those studies, debates and discussions. Far from being irrelevant to the world of economics and politics, non-vocational adult education provides the only route to a truly sane and sustainable future.

Sadly, in the aftermath of World War II, the forces of materialism and 'sound finance' were allowed to rampage across the world. They declared that it was all very well having fancy ideas about abolishing the five giants of Poverty, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. But, realistically, where was the money to come from?

The battle cry was for economic growth, for ever-escalating mass production of material goods, of weapons of massive destructive power, of agribusiness and Big Pharm products. According to departments of economics across the world, the financial show had to be kept on the road regardless of the cost to the real, embedded economy of nature and community. For lack of informed public debate, the "plunder of the commons" has continued unabated through the two decades of the 21st century. (See Guy Standing (2019) The Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth)

By the 21st century the terms 'education' and 'training' have become hopelessly muddled. We seem to have lost the ability to see that you may train your horse to do your bidding, but you cannot make it think. Similarly, the 'powers that be can insist that waged and salaried slaves follow their orders. But you must educate yourself to serve the community.

Presently, educational systems are all too often training highly skilled technicians to maintain a political economy by following orders. 'What's in it for me? What can I get out of it? is the guiding principle.' And the end result is very like that so uncannily predicted by E.M Forster and others.

All the predictions are that humanity is fast heading towards a combination of all the dystopias predicted by Forster in The Machine Stops, Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, George Orwell in Nineteen-eighty Four, Ray Bradbury in Fahreneit 451 and so on. If that is not to happen, it is essential for local community groups to come together and seek to understand how the corporate world, through the financial system, controls economics, politics and learning. Only in that way will it become possible to move beyond pleading protests and to take effective action by building communities.

There are precedents. See, for example, how, faced with economic ruin during the Depression years, the farmers of Alberta fought to educate themselves in order to minimise the power of finance. In 1935, the evolving story of the Alberta Experiment was followed by communities all over the world. News of their first electoral victory, relayed by radio, was greeted with uproarious cheers in Town Hall Square, Keighley. (I was told this by people who were there.) The story is told in full in Understanding the Financial System, available in hard copy and free download on .

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