In search of obscure Judes

Dons and Workers
April 26, 1996

It was high time for a history of Oxford University's record in extramural work to appear. A little younger than Cambridge's sister department, but by now also well over a century old, Oxford's has an equally distinguished record.

In the 1870s both places had, unsurprisingly, many members who did not wish to go outside the walls. The surprise is that anyone prompted such a course; little in their previous traditions suggested it. The spirit of the time did, and both places had their full share of people who embodied that spirit: powerful and deeply committed Christians, democratic, humane proselytisers such as Jowett, Stuart, Acland, Toynbee, Sadler and so on to Temple, Lindsay and Tawney and through to at least the publication of the great 1919 report.

So the evangelicals won. Incidentally, it irks one to read some modern writers (not Lawrence Goldman) who are dismissive about the aspirations of these great originals, whom they accuse of creating "Extramural departments [with] a literature full of folk heroes advocating narrow and often misguided philosophies". That is typical of our own age, to mock the do-gooders who wished to help their underprivileged brothers. My own language there is deliberately old-fashioned.

Goldman shows how the two universities, except in sharing those high inspirations, founded quite dissimilar departments. How could it be otherwise, given that the two institutions had and have such different complexions? Even in the late 1940s those of us who had come freshly into extramural work, at newer and less top-drawer places such as Hull, soon became acquainted with the conventional wisdom of the North. That ran as follows: Oxford's external practice verged on the effete. This was puzzling since Oxford's tutors, as one met them on the national executive of the Tutors' Association at that time, were a strong, deeply committed group, anything but effete.

Our myth, and it may have been little more than a myth though it had some supporting circumstantial evidence, rested on the story that during the 1930s an Oxford extramural lecturer used to tour the provinces giving extension lecture courses on the 1920s; which he executed chiefly by playing Noel Coward lyrics on any handy piano. I met the alleged guilty party years later. He was by then a Labour minister of the crown. The Noel Coward story did not seem unlikely.

Cambridge was habitually more serious than Oxford - so the popular belief ran - though my own subsequent experience did not support this. After seven or eight years trailing a pike across east Yorkshire, I applied for an extramural post at Cambridge. As I was waiting to be called before the interviewing board I heard the head of department warning the members that it would be unwise to appoint me since I was - in my insistence on regular attendance, reading and written work from my students - an upholder of the northern puritan, Tawneyesque tradition then being promoted vigorously by Sidney Raybould of Leeds, the Savonarola of the Great Tradition. I did not go to Cambridge.

So far as an outsider who is neither a historian nor a graduate of Oxford can judge, Goldman gives a thorough and fair account from those early days right up to the 1950s. Judicious, measured and well-written, one can first say. He does well by the early great men and women, notes their differences of emphasis and indeed disagreements, but insists on that common bedrock of principles which some writers today try to shake off as an incubus.

Goldman is at his best when he deals with the troubles of the Oxford department in the late 1940s. At that time it was accused of being loaded with proselytising Marxists. Some were certainly Marxists and did not pretend otherwise; one met them in those Tutors' Association meetings; they were very bright. Whether some of them proselytised in their classes is still an open question, as Goldman makes plain. He lays out the issues in full, and in this he is more balanced than the only other account I know.

The story of adult education from the 1950s onwards takes up the final third of the book and has to discuss university adult education as a whole, not simply Oxford's part in it. By that time most universities had their own extramural departments and they plotted their own routes. The pressures to move out and away from the Great Tradition increased. The debate about all this became heated, confused and on the whole unimpressive. If Goldman is less sure-footed here than in the earlier parts of his book, he is no different from almost all of us who took the field.

The effort was to decide just what were one's purposes and who were one's audiences. Raybould attracted so much hostility because he knew exactly where he was going and to whom he was speaking. He was seeking, above all, to equip working-class students to operate better in a democracy. In that he was rather narrow-minded. He thought economics a "hard" subject and literature a "soft" option. But that was not the main reason why he met such fierce objections. They came because he believed university adult education should not be primarily vocational or certificate-gaining; that it demanded consistent hard work, even though it did not dangle either of those carrots.

Since Raybould's day the movement towards vocational and public-credit-bearing work has gathered pace. This was inevitable and is not in itself regrettable. What is lacking is adequate thought on the justification for the old style of work, what used to be called simply "adult education" but had best now be called "liberal adult education". Some heads of university adult education departments have seen a more secure future in the new emphases and done little to preserve the old sort.

We can fairly say "continuing education" or even "life-long education", to indicate that education should be a process throughout life, whether for vocational or any other purposes; something whose support can clearly be demanded from governments of any complexion.

Such a title should obviously include what can look like the remnants of the old approach, but which are not remnants at all. This is precisely the tradition which emerged from Oxford and Cambridge and which says that all those who so wish have a right to a kind of education after school that will strengthen their ability to act as citizens in a democracy; which will broaden and deepen their sense of personal worth.

To argue the case for public funding of liberal adult education is very much harder than it used to be; these are vocational-training-obsessed days, obsessed also with the belief that "liberal adult education" is an evasive description for left-wing proselytising. In any case, these critics add, there are no Judes the Obscure nowadays; they have all gone on to some sort of further education.

There is some truth in this; most latter-day Judes were bright enough to seize further education when it was offered. What, though, about all the other working-class people? There are many, whether in the "underclass" or among those more secure, who still badly need liberal education, and there are still Judes; I hear from them every week. It is simply much harder to offer people critical ideas today. Too many other voices tell them they are in a state of grace.

Which brings us to a very much wider issue. Who can look squarely at our society without a sinking of the heart? Greater prosperity for most people and so more leisure, better food, better clothes, more holidays, all are to hand. But all those gains are qualified, are "of a sort" - all are offered in adulterated forms which best suit the commercial persuaders' books. We have had well over 100 years of universal education, but our popular newspapers and much of our broadcasting surround us with trash. Did all those well-intentioned efforts over a couple of centuries have to end in this, at these levels of rubbish? How can a nation which absorbs so much of this kind of thing live up to the demands of a democracy, let alone those of a wide-open commercial democracy? One would not expect this government to greet such an analysis with a glad cry. And that is part of the problem. Now, more than ever, we need liberal adult education; as something which will help prevent the slide from almost-democracy to virtually-certain populism.

We will not be helped by some of the heads of university extra-mural departments, as Goldman finds them. They see the old aims as something we should have grown out of: "The original axioms and ideals I in their emphasis on the timeless and universal worth of guided intellectual enquiry as the road to personal development and civic maturity I embody a strong conservative tendency." There's relativism and valuelessness for you - and typical of our times.

Richard Hoggart's latest book is The Way We Live Now (1995).

Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education since 1850

Author - Lawrence Goldman
ISBN - 0 19 820575 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 363

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