When 'ippies didn't wear Bede

July 14, 2000

Sheila Rowbotham on what it was like to be a student in the 1960s and why the era's educational vision is still valid today.

One of the great mysteries is how people get hooked on education. It was by no means my automatic destiny. No one in my family had gone to university, and it was considered odd for girls to stay on and do A levels. Secretarial college or Leeds's "pudding school", which taught domestic science, was the norm.

I was not a particularly clever child. "Talks too much" declared early reports or occasionally, "shows imagination"; akin to "highly strung", this was a dubious accolade. I inclined towards English and history and, one day, amid the tales of kings, queens and heroes, came a startling revelation. The Phoenicians, the teacher told us, had invented purple. I was overwhelmed with wonder at a world without purple. Something taken for granted had once not been there. I knew no one who spoke about such ideas. It was an incongruous thought I kept to myself.

My secondary schooling was decided by a tendency for snuffly ailments. Defined as "bronchial", I was sent to a Methodist school on the East Yorkshire coast called Hunmanby Hall, where the sea air was supposed to clear my chest. At home I had read because I was lonely. At school I read to escape the unrelenting regime: war books, George Eliot, Thackeray, Reader's Digest, John Wesley's journal. At 14 I graduated from True Romances to Havelock Ellis's Psychology of Sex, sold in Hunmanby village as a "dirty book". Information on sex was hard to come by and I moved on to Rousseau's Confessions. Finding The Social Contract in the school library I read that in the hope of more revelations, but was puzzled by abstract political thought. Nonetheless, when a boy at a party declared: "Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains," I felt smugly iconoclastic.

Connections and resonances intrigued me, but trying to fit ideas together was like laying down crazy-paving stones - a piece always seemed to be missing. Exasperated, my friend Lindsay and I, aged 16, announced to our history teacher, Olga Wilkinson, that we were giving up on being intellectuals. She smiled wryly and told us that once bitten, you can never give up.

Moreover, the culture of the early 1960s gave "being an intellectual" a certain kudos as an alternative way of life. Unlike parents, "intellectuals" dressed in black, drank strong coffee and spoke only when they had profound existential things to say. Carrying an alluring whiff of degeneracy, they were to be found in locations such as Paris. Going to university was the only viable way of finding them.

It was Olga's idea that I try for Oxford. Offered a place at St Hilda's, I was convinced it was a fluke. In retrospect, the bad thing about Oxford was the snobbish superiority, the good things were writing essays every week and a lot of individual contact with a range of tutors. If this kind of attention was devoted to everyone from secondary school we would not need an "elite". And what resources we would save by making all those dreary government directives unnecessary!

My first year was academically disastrous. Bemused by the Venerable Bede, Gibbon and Macauley, I nearly gave up on history. In 1961, it was inconceivable to question what you were told to study. Nor did I possess the language to explain I was interested in social history.

Again it was people I liked who reawakened my interest. I encountered an undogmatic humanistic Marxism through my contemporaries Bob Rowthorn and Gareth Stedman Jones as well as from an older generation: Christopher and Bridget Hill and Dorothy and E. P. Thompson. I met the last through my tutor Richard Cobb, who taught me 18th and 19th-century French history with an infectious anarchical delight. From my medieval history tutor, Beryl Smalley, came excellent advice: "Read Marx; not people on Marx."

I left university in 1964 - the year Labour came to power. After a long era of Tory rule, it seemed as if the establishment was about to be given its cards. There was a feeling that change was imminent. Indeed, many of the ideas that surfaced in 1968 were already around. Taking space through direct action, creating alternative visible symbols and linking subjectivity with politics had been part of the American civil rights movement and the campaign for nuclear disarmament well before they passed into the student movement and women's liberation.

Ideas about democratising education through workshop structures were pioneered in art schools, and a preoccupation with fluidity and process was evident in the arts before it reached the student left - "living" theatre, "living" sculpture, the Arts Lab.

In 1964, I settled in a flat near Hackney Downs station, which shook whenever the trains came in. I was doing a thesis at Chelsea College on 19th-century adult education. Hackney (where I remained for 32 years) educated me in profound ways. There was the No 22 bus journey to Chelsea for a start, a sobering sociological object lesson in class stratification. Then I applied for part-time teaching at Bethnal Green College of Education. "Have you heard of Blanqui?" inquired the principal Bill Fishman over the phone. Of course I had - thanks to Richard Cobb. Bill, who was to become a professor at Queen Mary College, introduced me to the history of his beloved East End anarchists; Rudolf Rocker, Rose Witcop and many more.

From my further education day-release students came another kind of education. These East End typists, hairdressers, engineering students, dock messenger boys and tube workers patiently taught me how to teach. They had all failed the 11 plus, but, when educated in small groups began to write poetry, read psychology and wonder about philosophy. Those liberal studies classes were living demonstrations of the inadequacy of measuring intelligence.

My skinhead apprentices were not impressed by the news in May 1968 that the students in Paris had erected barricades. But, when reports came over of young workers joining the revolt, their attitude changed dramatically. That spring I had been arguing with them about Enoch Powell's racism. By autumn, some of them were demonstrating against the Vietnam war. A key factor was the policing of tenants' movement marches. Their anger with the police was greater than their hatred of the "ippies".

The 1960s marked me in many ways. I never believe police accounts of demonstrations and I bounce in my seat in rage when the television cameras move in on a little group smashing windows. "What about all the other marchers?" I shout at the screen.

However, being formed by a decade does not mean you cannot view it critically. The initial mood of 1968 was anti-intellectual. Theorising was suspect as a form of hierarchy. But movements are always contradictory, and intense activism generated an equally passionate desire to learn.

My approach to education has been influenced by the 1960s critiques of universities as "knowledge factories", as well as by the labour movement debates I discovered while writing my thesis. Radical workers argued for broad highways of education for everyone throughout life rather than narrow ladders with self-important elites at the top. Instead of education geared to exams and the "economy", in the early 1900s the socialist R. H. Tawney advocated education for "enlightened discontent". In the early 2000s his vision remains apposite.

Sheila Rowbotham is a research fellow in the sociology department at Manchester University. Her memoir Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties is published by Penguin, Pounds 18.99

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