Watered down

A History of Modern British Adult Education
February 21, 1997

British adult education has flowed for two centuries in a wide and deep river, from its source in various voluntary initiatives through to the complicated, even muddled, voluntary-plus-official forms of the late 20th century.

It has always been a river with violent and criss-crossing undercurrents. There were those who suspected from the start that the provision was meant to pacify the restless working classes, as opposed to those who saw it as a means to their liberation; there were those who wanted the work to be politically focused as against those who wanted it to be above all a civilising force for people of any class; and (especially nowadays) there were those who wish it to be predominantly vocational against those who put the humanities, "for their own sake", at the centre.

Roger Fieldhouse has become one of the best informed of today's historians of the movement. Of the 16 chapters here, he wrote or was directly involved in eight. The field is already fairly well trodden but this book is a valuable addition to it; well nourished, broad, and sound most of the time.

Yet, no matter how much we try and for how long we have been writing about a favourite subject, we all tend to swerve to left or right under pressures whose force we hardly recognise. So it is with Fieldhouse. As here: "(Adult education) can only operate within the existing cultural and ideological parameters of society. It can contribute to changing the hegemonic culture and ideology but in practice it is much more likely to be incorporated into the oppressive structures of society and used to divert people's attention away from the causes and symptoms of inequality; or to identify repression within a narrow, paternalistic and reductionist social class paradigm. It will then offer solutions within that paradigm."

That kind of writing does not dominate but occurs often enough to indicate limitations. It is full of conventional jargon; more important, it and similar passages stress first, too unqualifiedly, only one aspect of adult education at any time.

Here are some examples from my own direct experience which make such passages questionable. First, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs pamphlets during the war were not "politically safe" bromides for the troops. The formidable W. E. Williams would not have tolerated that. Nor did most of the officers who regularly presented them to the troops do so in a biased and orthodox way. There is a whiff of conspiracy theory here. We presented them critically, which helped make so many other ranks feel, usually for the first time, that they had a right to be consulted and that their opinions might matter.

Second, it is reductive to use, apropos the old-style tutorial classes, words such as "idealised"; and to sneer about "scintillating" essays. Roy Shaw, the late Walter Stein, I and many another know better than that.

Third, those of us who entered university adult education after the war, those above plus such as John Harrison, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, were not in any way subject to Ministry of Education political scrutiny and would have rejected it.

Fourth, I met attempted political interference only once, many years later, in the early days of the current series of Conservative governments, as chairman of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education. A junior minister, acting as Keith Joseph's puppet, questioned one of our proposed subjects for research, on why the study of politics had declined in adult classes. Surely that was a euphemism for left-wing indoctrination? We ignored him.

As for ACACE being "naive" and an "abetter . . . of government's efforts to divert adult education" from its liberal tradition, that is nonsense. ACACE lasted for six years before the Tory government killed it. I wrote six annual reports to the secretary of state for education, all uncompromising. The last was particularly hard-hitting. No secretary of state, except the last Labour minister of the 1970s, gave more than a two-line formal acknowledgement.

For the rest, this book has many good parts whether by Fieldhouse or others. The chapters on the Open University and on broadcasting are especially helpful, perhaps because they do not have to carry the scars of old battles. Most other chapters are well detailed. The editing is good but the proof-reading poor.

There is a fairly general fear of statements of committed purpose. They are called "flowery", or worse, "consensual and universalistic rhetoric". That is a phrase straight from the nervously relativistic 1990s. This is not a period when adult education could have been launched. Thank heaven for those early "idealists".

There is more than once a lack of edge; institutions are described uncritically. I have had experience of one proposed set of subject aims put forward by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. They were so ludicrous that a colleague and I walked out before the end of the "presentation". Were they unique in their preposterousness? Similarly, the strengths and weaknesses of the university of the third age as it has developed over here are not tackled.

There are touches of easy patronage towards former adult educators, especially if they were "inspirational". Their authors should reread Chesterton on the respect due to "the democracy of the dead".

Finally, the last paragraph of the book is plummy rather than incisive: "They (adult educators of all kinds) must engage with a wide variety of social movements and ultimately be committed to a democratic social purpose embracing equality and social justice". There is "rhetoric" of a kind with which no one could disagree; it says only the unexceptionable.

Meanwhile, there is evidence all around of the urgent need for critical literacy across all classes, in a society which is rapidly becoming populist rather than democratic. This the challenge today, but few in adult education have taken its measure.

Richard Hoggart was chairman, Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education, 1977-83.

A History of Modern British Adult Education

Author - Roger Fieldhouse
ISBN - 1 872941 66 4
Publisher - National Organisation for Adult Learning
Price - £20.00
Pages - 434

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