Oxford University and working-class education

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2010 - 4:56 Author: Colin Waugh

Under the pressure of rising working-class self assertion across the country, the University extension movement accepted Albert Mansbridge’s scheme for tutorial classes and committed study (as opposed to more “popular” bigger lecture classes). This acceptance was spearheaded by a group of young, socialistic Oxford tutors. Supported by prominent figures in the church, civil service and ruling class generally, members of this group worked with Mansbridge himself and the other main Workers’ Educational Association activist, J MacTavish, to produce a report, Oxford and Working-Class Education.

In 1907, after years of leftwing lobbying, the TUC Congress made a more high profile appeal to unions to give financial support to Ruskin. This triggered a drive by the WEA/extension alliance to seize control of Ruskin before it could become irreversibly a labour college.

During April and May 1907, The Times published several articles by Catiline Club members [Oxford tutors associated with the movement]. On 27 July, in the climate of upper class opinion formed by these articles, [WEA backer] Charles Gore started a debate in the House of Lords about the development of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. This in turn set the scene for the WEA annual conference in August, which was held under the title “What Oxford can do for Working People”, again in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Oxford Extension Delegacy.

At this joint event, MacTavish, who would later succeed Mansbridge as general secretary of the WEA, made a demagogic speech in which he said: “I am not here as a suppliant for my class… I claim for my class all the best that Oxford has to give. I claim it as a right wrongfully withheld… What is the true function of a University? Is it to train the nation's best men, or to sell its gifts to the rich?… To Oxford I say: Open wide your doors and take us in; we need you; you need us”.

On 10 August the WEA meeting set up a committee. Seven members of this committee were nominated by the vice-chancellor of Oxford University and were prominent figures in the University, as well as Catiline Club member Alfred Zimmern and HB Lees Smith. The other seven were nominated by the WEA. These included Mansbridge and MacTavish, along with Ruskin governor David Shackleton [from the TUC]. The committee produced a report on 28 November 1907.

Oxford and Working Class Education was the manifesto in which the WEA/extension alliance announced its project to the political class, to the middle class public, and to sympathetic trade union leaders. Specific plans for Ruskin College were also included.

Its main recommendations were as follows. Tutorial-type classes should be set up all over the country for working class adults. The tutors for these classes should be supplied by the universities. The funding should come mainly from LEAs. The running of the classes should be controlled by the students themselves, organised through the WEA.

These classes should have three main purposes. First, they would make life more enjoyable for the people who took them.

Second, they should counter bias, and help working-class people, especially those involved in unions and/or the Labour Party, to make objective judgements about the world.

Third, they should provide a route by which a minority of this group could become students at Oxford University itself. (Here they would do either a special two year diploma in Economics, based on one that already existed, or another, to be introduced, in Political Science. It was expected that many if not most of those following this route would then become union leaders and/or MPs.)

Among other recommendations, criteria for selection to the university should include: “the character and influence of the students, and in particular of any probability which may exist that they will be asked to hold places of trust and responsibility”. The last point here was important because “it is one of the objects of the scheme which we recommend to give the broad general training needed to qualify workpeople for public positions”.

It was envisaged that students should “come up [i.e. go to Oxford] either as members of an ordinary College, or as Non-collegiate students, or as members of Ruskin College”. The first year at Ruskin should become a route to entering the university as a diploma student. Those doing such a diploma could do it either via a second year at Ruskin or by one of the other routes cited above.

If adopted, these proposals would gear teaching at Ruskin to diploma course entry, and transfer virtually all decision-making about what was taught and learnt there to the university.

Alongside administrative proposals, anxiety about Marxist ideas was reflected in the model curricula attached as appendices to the report, as well as in the notes about how lecturers should handle such topics.

For instance in the recommended unit on “Economics” the text says that “If many members of the class have socialistic views, it would be well to preface this part of the subject [ie the transition to economic theory] by reading Marx’s Capital… The first nine chapters of Book I contain the essence of the whole. The style is rather difficult, but a simplified statement is to be found in Hyndman’s Economics of Socialism… The teacher who adopts this course must, however, be very sure that the criticism of Marx, implicit in the ordinary textbook, is equally carefully explained … “

Oxford and Working-Class Education emphasised the need to foster “harmony” between the classes by giving workers a “broad outlook” and a “synoptic mind”. Its tone was liberal and progressive. Despite this, it assumed throughout that the existing distribution of wealth and power in society would stay the same. In the end, it was an attempt by one section of the ruling class to convince other sections, including within Oxford University itself, that the growth of working class power could not be ignored or simply repressed, and that tutorial classes leading to university entrance via Ruskin were the best weapon for combating it.

The students’ concept of education

In the early years of the twentieth century, in trying to educate themselves about socialism, activists like those at Ruskin began to solve for themselves the problems about lack of socialist texts by Marx, Engels and others, and of support from radicalised intellectuals as was more typical in continental Europe. Against the model proposed in Oxford and Working-Class Education they were able to set at least the beginnings of a coherent approach to socialist adult education from below. In developing this they brought back to life educational content and methods that had been developed by working-class organisations in the past.

By 1908 there existed amongst at least some of those who were students at Ruskin a fairly precise conception of what should be taught and learnt. This conception was incompatible with Oxford and Working-Class Education. It revolved round three elements: Marxist economics; industrial history; and philosophy.

Activists who adopted this model focused mainly on Marx’s version of the labour theory of value, which they saw as the key to understanding the capitalist social order. They wanted to explain this to as many workers as possible, and they saw the study of economics as a way in which they could equip themselves to do this. In this, they were continuing an approach pioneered by the SDF and HH Hyndman and William Morris. Knowingly or otherwise, however, they were also revisiting the struggle over “really useful knowledge” of eighty years before. (In that struggle, activists had tried to defend the economic ideas of people like Thomas Hodgskin against the London bourgeoisie’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.)

Second, they knew from experience that the best way to convince other workers that Marx was right was by connecting his analyses to their working lives. This was a step towards socialism from below, because it was about finding things in workers’ experience which would help them understand underlying forces, rather than simply announcing the law of value from above as the key to everything. They saw study of industrial history as the best preparation for activists planning to use this approach.

Third, they based their approach on points made by both Marx and Engels about dialectics. Marx and Engels believed that workers could use dialectical thought to cut through ruling class ideology. The Ruskin students focused on the version of dialectics that was accessible to them. This was Josef Dietzgen’s The Positive Outcome of Philosophy as published by Charles Kerr, which included the essay The Nature of Human Brainwork.

Although Dietzgen‘s approach was rather limited, this too represented a turn towards socialism from below, because it was about activists equipping themselves — and helping as many other workers as possible to equip themselves — with a capacity for reasoning, viewed both as a process inside each person’s mind and as a tool for use in discussion and debate.

The Ruskin students also had a method by which teaching and learning could best be conducted. This method was arguably the key contribution made specifically by the Socialist Labour Party to the development of independent working-class education. The education historian Brian Simon was later to claim, convincingly, that it was similar to a method developed in the late 1700s by the [political reform group] London Corresponding Society.

Many of the 54 students at Ruskin College in 1908-09 were either in or close to the ILP or SDF. However, in June 1908, one of the first year students, George Harvey, left the ILP and joined the small branch of the SLP in Oxford.

When he came to Ruskin, Harvey, born in 1885, was a checkweighman at Follonsby colliery in County Durham. Harvey was recruited to Ruskin via the Ruskin Hall Scheme. The SLP branch in Oxford was in existence by July 1905 and in 1910, after a period of growth, was still one of only 13 in England. Its most prominent member was Leonard Cotton. Cotton had been a founder member of the SLP. From 1910 to 1919 he was its national secretary. Between 1910 and 1912, Harvey would edit the SLP’s main publication, The Socialist.

There are grounds for thinking that it was through Harvey that a teaching and learning method developed mainly by the SLP came to influence the students then at Ruskin. However, other factors too bolstered this influence.

First, several key items of socialist literature were available to working class people in Britain at this time only through cheap translations produced by the SLP.

Second, the SLP in Britain, partly as result of Daniel De Leon’s influence, had a more rigorous approach to the ideological side of socialist activity than the SDF or ILP.

Third, this was the case not only at the level of the ideas which members held, but also in the means by which they equipped themselves to argue for those ideas. The overwhelmingly working class composition of the SLP may well have meant that, even more than other groups, it had to produce for itself, from amongst its own ranks, people who could conduct struggles about ideas.

Tom Bell, later prominent in the Communist Party, described the SLP method as follows: “Our method in the classes was to open with an inaugural survey of the whole field we proposed to traverse, and to make the workers familiar with the subject as a whole; the textbooks etc, which included Wage Labour and Capital; Value, Price and Profit; Capital… Each student was given a series of definitions of terms used by Marx. These had to be studied, memorised and discussed thoroughly, for perhaps the first four weeks. The student would study Wage Labour and Capital at home. At the class we would read it over paragraph by paragraph, round the class. This practice aimed at helping students to speak fluently and grammatically. At the following class meetings questions would be put and answered, and the points raised thoroughly understood by everyone, the results of each lesson being summarised by the leader. This method was applied in the same way to industrial history. Later on, simple lessons in historical materialism and formal logic were added. So that, after six months of this, every worker who went through the entire session came out a potential tutor for other classes.”

Bell also described the classes held in Glasgow on Sunday afternoons: “We had two and a half hours tuition; reading out aloud; questions and answers to last week's lessons; short discussions and examination of home-work; after which tea was made and for another hour we talked and discussed freely on all manner of political and educational subjects. An hour's respite and we would repair to Buchanan Street … or to Glasgow Green, to hold forth on socialist propaganda to large audiences who collected there every Sunday night.”

It seems likely that this method was devised before the split with the SDF by one of the founders of the SLP, George Yates. Yates was an engineering worker, who at the time was employed as a draughtsperson but who had also worked as a lab technician at Edinburgh University.

This method would have been attractive to students at Ruskin because many activists then, especially in England or Wales rather than Scotland, would have had only a basic primary schooling, learning by rote in classes of up to 100, under the threat of physical punishment. Many would have left at an early age, and any text-related education they had beyond that would usually have taken the form of private reading.

The SLP method was rather rigid. However, it did involve discussion, it did emphasise understanding and it did produce workers who could argue with confidence in more or less any company. In fact, when he talks about the lectures on Marx’s economics given from 1906 by the SDF/BSP member John Maclean, Bell claims that: “MacLean's method had the merit of popularising economic study amongst large numbers of the workers, but had the defect of becoming a propaganda lecture. The SLP method was more intensive and produced a crop of competent class tutors, who led classes inside the factories. No such tutors came from MacLean's classes in this period…”

Commenting later on equivalent classes organised amongst SDF members in London in the same period, Jackson described a similar approach: “It was our practice, then, to form classes for the study of Marx’s economics. In Scotland, these classes were usually promoted and conducted by the SDF branch, officially — and were often attended (more or less under obligation) by every member of the branch. In England, and especially in London, they were formed by the members individually…”

He added: “I have noted . . . a difference between Scottish and English practice in the matter of economics classes. This difference turned upon . . . the fact that the ‘traditional distrust of theory’ which Engels notes … in England, was nothing like so evident in Scotland … the level of education in the public elementary schools was definitely higher in Scotland than in England: and in addition, for historical reasons, there was in Scotland a popular respect for learning that had no counterpart in England. I fancy — though this is only my guess — that an early drilling in the Shorter Catechism had something to do with giving our Scottish comrades their taste for, and respect of logic.”

The SLP method, then, produced articulate activists, people who would be confident enough, for example, to challenge the Oxford University graduates employed to lecture on economics at Ruskin.

Some Ruskin students and ex-students also began to develop a critique of the dominant higher education curriculum, which they referred to as “orthodox” education. This critique went much further than a narrow demand for training in Marxist economics or techniques for winning debates.

That there was an urgent need for a kind of training was expressed well by a delegate to the Rhondda No. 1 District of the SWMF, when he said: “We have to contend with the masters, who have men thoroughly versed in the laws of supply and demand, and we want to bring into our ranks young men educated in these matters at Ruskin College, able to hold their own against all comers”. In line with this, an article in The Plebs Magazine issue 2 by the Western Valleys miner Ted Gill (at Ruskin in 1907-08), titled “The function of a Labour College”, integrated this need within a broader framework.

Gill argued that “What he [the working class student] requires is a knowledge of the social forces operating in society, and how best they can be utilized for the benefit of the people. While it may be as well for him to know the other side of the case in the field of Political Economy, it is essential that he should know his own side. The theories of men, who dedicated their lives to the Workers’ cause, should be interpreted to him in a sympathetic and efficient manner. He should be made conversant with the origin, and growth of all working-class organisations in the manner which would enable him to comprehend both their possibilities and shortcomings. The workings of his own organisation should be his special interest in order to detect possible defects, the removal of which would lead to greater unity”.

Gill’s formulation, like the poems by activists in the early issues of The Plebs' Magazine, testifies that what they wanted was anything but narrow training or crude agitation. Rather, there was a tradition which encouraged them to be critical of academia.

We can see this in, for example, the section of the Communist Manifesto which discusses “the ruling ideas”, in Morris’s description of capitalist intellectuals as “the crowd of useless, draggle-tailed knaves and fools who, under the pretentious title of the intellectual part of the middle classes, have in their turn taken the place of the mediaeval jester”, in Engels’s description of Oxford and Cambridge as “protestant monasticism”, or in Josef Dietzgen’s characterisation of academics as “graduated flunkeys” — which encouraged them to be critical of academia. Walter Vrooman himself had described Oxford tutors as “giants of understanding” who were “walking cyclopaedias crushed like the miser beneath the weight of their possessions”.

In line with these views, the editorial in The Plebs' Magazine issue 3 (April 1909) would argue that: “University life is the breeding ground of re-action. It incites by its very nature toward breaking away from working-class aspirations and cleaving unto the ideals of the class above. The knowledge that is to be of any service to the Labour Movement is not to be gained in that quarter. The problem of the workshop, the mine and the factory, is not to be solved in the University. All that the latter can do for the Labour leader is to intellectually enslave him, and through his enslavement to clog and confuse the working-class movement…”

In the polemical struggle against the WEA, which was still going on in Plebs in the 1960s, one of the key charges was that the WEA’s emphasis on tutorial classes required students to accept “orthodox” education rather than challenge it. It is therefore not surprising that the Ruskin students rejected the WEA's central assumption: that all true education is class neutral.

Thus in The Plebs Magazine issue 3, the author of an unsigned article about ‘Our critics’ would address the claim that “Education is not a class question” in the following way. “Is this true? To a large extent it may be true of the physical sciences, but it is not true of social science, i.e., history and economics. To the working-class the present form of Society is a temporary stage, and a painful one at that, in social evolution; one whose exit must be hastened as speedily as possible. To the other class on the contrary, it is the natural form of Society, just and eternal: ‘everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’.

Needless to state these different views result in different interpretations of history and economics. In history, progress will be due to the activities of the ruled or the rulers: in economics, the owners or employers will be either benefactors or parasites. In short, in the world of education there is reproduced the antagonism which prevails in the world of production. That all workers do not recognize this no more disposes of the fact, than is the value of industrial organization discounted, because so many workers remain unorganized. Indeed, there is a curious resemblance between unorganised labour and uncontrolled [ie by the working-class] education, and in both cases the capitalist class stands to benefit”.

In the period leading up to the Ruskin strike, Ruskin students began to teach one another, using the method described here. There existed in the College, then, on the one hand, the official programme of lectures, the majority of which increasingly came to conform to the model set out in Oxford and Working-Class Education, and, on the other, an alternative model introduced by the students from below.

Describing his arrival at Ruskin as a student in 1908, the former South Wales railway-worker Will Craik would later say: “We new arrivals had little or no knowledge of what had been taking place at Ruskin before we got there. Most of us were socialists of one party shade or another… We were, however, soon made aware that the socialism of the second-year men was hewn from more solid and durable stone than ours. Very soon, too, they were urging us and helping us to dig with them in the same quarry. They had been quarrying in the works of Karl Marx… Still earlier students had begun to do the same thing by conducting among themselves study classes”. He went on: “… it was the practice in those self-service classes for each member to be given one of the more difficult sections of the first volume of Capital… to explain to the class what he understood it to mean. Through these classes and the individual study which they involved we gradually gained a knowledge which was simply unobtainable from the resident lecture staff, with the exception of the Principal.'”

The activists concentrated at Ruskin College in 1907-09, then, understood the need for the working class to produce from within its own ranks people who, as well as being practical organisers, could also think for themselves as socialists, and spread the capacity to do this to an expanding circle of people. Between October 1908 and the strike in March/April 1909, their approach and that of the Extension delegacy/WEA, as set out in Oxford and Working-Class Education, squared up to one another within the college.

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