Refounding working-class education

Submitted by Matthew on 14 March, 2012 - 9:20

Colin Waugh, further education activist and author of Plebs: The Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education, spoke to Solidarity.


Q: What sort of deal do working-class people get from further and higher education?

A: Further education was transformed by the Thatcherite “de-industrialisation”of the economy. This undermined the clear-cut rationale that existed for further education (FE) prior to the middle 1980s. It’s never really recovered from that. It now consists mainly of vocational courses related to service sector employment in such fields as IT, health and social care, automotive, building crafts, etc. The other big element in FE now is ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). And this has become important because of the globalisation of the labour force.

The previous model of FE was based on apprentices on day- or block-release from industry — for example, mechanical engineering, mining, shipbuilding, etc — into technical colleges. They were normally in unionised employment. The lecturers were drawn from the same fields. Students generally could be certain of continued employment at the end of their course and apprenticeship. That is no longer the case, except in a few niche areas.

The majority of 16-19-year-olds in FE are on nominally full time courses, although some will be trying to sustain themselves by working in precarious, casual employment.

On these old-style technical courses there was a small, contrasting element of “liberal studies”. It was mainly because of this that people like myself — i.e. arts or social science graduates — were able to get jobs as lecturers.

Further education also traditionally provided a “second chance” route for people who hadn’t been successful at so-called academic subjects in school to redo these subjects and/or progress to A-levels. But because of the competition with sixth form colleges and school sixth forms, many FE colleges have stopped providing this.

These changes to FE reflect a ruling class drive to restructure production, create a more flexible labour force, and weaken unions.

Unions had a large degree of say in the old apprentice training/education, but that came to an end. Lecturers’ conditions were also undermined. Relatively good conditions for lecturers had been related to the fact that colleges needed to draw skilled craftspeople from industry into these jobs.

However, the development of higher education may offer a better key than FE does to thinking about the “deal” working-class people get and the possible relation of independent working-class education to this.

At the time of the Ruskin strike (1909) a section of the ruling class were interested in picking out and “sandpapering” working-class activists in order to produce compliance. Some of the expansion of higher education (HE), especially in the humanities and social sciences, has arguably been driven by a similar desire.

Between the late 1950s and the election of the Cameron government there was a drive by the ruling class to “cream off” from working-class backgrounds people who otherwise might have become thinkers and organisers for the workers’ movement, and give them a route through higher education into professional or para-professional jobs. In short, a strategy similar to the one tried out at Ruskin College in 1909 was reproduced on a larger and larger scale. However, the Cameron Government’s decision to cut all the funding for teaching humanities and social sciences in HE suggests that decision-makers judge that this method of producing compliance is no longer needed — at least in the UK.

This decision must lead to many working-class people being pushed either into vocational subjects or out of HE altogether. The university sector is likely to shrink, and parts of it will become more like further education, claiming to offer preparation for — or progression in — service sector jobs. At the same time, the 20 or so largest, richest and most exclusive universities, which attract the overwhelming bulk of research funding, will market themselves as global brands. However, the same decision may also both reawaken a demand for independent working-class education and create opportunities for socialists to rebuild it.

The creaming-off process blunted the edge of working-class demands for access to higher education by appearing to make it available. It is arguable that this is the single most important reason why upsurges of working-class activism since World War Two have not been accompanied by from-below education movements of the Plebs League type. But it is becoming increasingly clear that much of what was offered was bogus.

While there is always a struggle in HE in which some lecturers try against the grain to design good courses and teach in ways that are valid from a working-class standpoint, the overall thrust has always been, as the Ruskin strikers recognised, to miseducate.

The state has offered humanities and social science HE to some sections of workers, but more often than not in a limiting and/or distorted form. But the need for valid education — i.e. education which tends to reverse rather than to reinforce the “division of labour” between those who take strategic decisions and those who can only implement those decisions — is stronger than ever, especially in those fields.

Socialists need to recognise this and organise themselves to fight in a sustained fashion for valid provision and for increased control both by working-class students and by those lecturers who want to provide them with worthwhile teaching and learning.

We also need to press for valid education to be available for people who are at work, including in routine and supposedly unskilled jobs. One way in which we can do this is to struggle for valid general education at all levels — including in vocational courses. This would involve rebuilding something akin to the Liberal Studies that used to exist in technical colleges, but this time thinking it through more rigorously and organising ourselves more systematically to provide it.

Q: When/how did you start thinking about independent working-class education?

A: It started for me soon after I became employed as a Liberal Studies lecturer with industrial release students from 1969 onwards, first at Brixton (now Lambeth) College, then from 1970 at Tottenham College (now CHENEL).

At Tottenham between 1972 and 1974 a colleague called Lauri Say showed the Liberal Studies lecturers there — about 14 of us — how the job could be worth doing. Lauri had in his childhood been to a Socialist Sunday School, i.e. to an institution that was part of the tradition of independent working-class education. Later, when attempts to narrow and crush Liberal Studies, along with FE more generally, occurred (from about 1977 to the mid 1980s), because I had been inspired by Lauri, I tried, with others, to organise a struggle to defend it, in that college, across London and nationally. While that was going on and a movement had been created amongst those lecturers, a discussion took place amongst us at Tottenham that had a big effect on me.

A part-time Liberal Studies lecturer called Jock Shanley — I didn’t know him well except that he had been a leading trade unionist in the furniture trade — posed an extremely searching question about what we were trying to do. He just said “Yes, but what is it [i.e. Liberal Studies etc] for?” I realised that I did not have a satisfactory answer to this question. (I found out later that Shanley had been a student at the Central Labour College in the 1920s. And much more recently I found out that when the TUC suppressed the National Council of Labour Colleges in 1964, he had been one of the tutor organisers who tried to rebuild it.)

The point is that I hadn’t connected what we were doing — defending Liberal Studies — to the history of independent working-class education, the Plebs League and so on. I did think in a general way that Liberal Studies had been under-theorised, but I hadn’t made this specific connection. Nor did I fully understand the class basis of our struggle to defend it — for instance that the existence of apprenticeships, day-release FE, etc, was dependent on the strength of union organisation, built up over years, in industry.

I also didn’t really understand that the shape of Liberal Studies and liberal education as it existed then in FE owed a lot to the WEA (Workers’ Education Association) i.e. to the organisation that the Ruskin strikers were fighting most directly against.

For example, it was modelled at least partly on the education for soldiers organised by the army during World War Two, which consisted largely of discussions about current affairs, topics supposedly intended to “broaden the mind”. This was under the control of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), which in turn was shaped by people from the WEA .

Within the industrial release courses for apprentices in FE from the 1950s to the 1980s, liberal education took the form of General Studies, i.e. an hour once a day, or a couple of hours per week. There were guidelines for content, but nothing strict was laid down. It could be very free-flowing. Often it developed as discussion of social issues, something in the media, or a philosophical discussion. I also did activities aimed at developing students’ capacity for logical thinking or reasoning, because they seemed to want and enjoy this. Despite many problems, General Studies was often reasonably successful, and serious discussion did take place, especially if you as a lecturer came from a background which enabled you to connect with the students.

Liberal Studies was pushed out, but some lecturers like myself have continued to devise ways to introduce what we would see as valid material into the curricular elements which have succeeded it. The most recent such element is called Functional Skills. Of course this is very much more restricted than Liberal Studies, and most of the people teaching it have had little or no chance to become aware of the history which lies behind it, and therefore do not consciously contest the basic skills ethos which dominates it.

Q: What historical experiences should we look to in relation to independent working-class education?

A: For me the Plebs League was unique, and the most valid model of practice that we have.

There have been other examples which anyone trying to rebuild that tradition can learn from. One was the Scottish Labour College. Another was the SPD set-up in Germany, which included a trade union school, a WEA-style programme — with singing clubs, cycling clubs, etc — and the party school founded in 1906 in which Rosa Luxemburg taught. Another example was Brookwood College in New York State — where people around A. J. Muste tried to take on AFL domination and were eventually shut down by them.

But to my knowledge the Ruskin strike and Plebs League are the only example of workers themselves opposing the educational arm of the ruling class — in their case, Oxford University in alliance with the WEA — directly in the way that they did.

Some of the initiatives which people tend to connect with working-class self-education were probably not much good. For instance, on the basis of the one in Turin, Gramsci criticised the Popular Universities, which existed in many parts of Europe including pre-revolutionary Russia, essentially on the grounds that they offered workers a substandard curriculum made up of dumbed-down fragments. He maintained that workers entered them with a genuine appetite for education but, because big-name philosophers like Benedetto Croce refused to become involved, they were, in his view, dominated and rendered worthless by a positivist ideology.

To assess such initiatives we need an independent conception of what education aimed at activists is for, and a model of how it can be conducted. For me such a conception would focus on workers trying to inform themselves about what really happened on occasions in the past when “the instrumental classes” — i.e. industrial workers but also pre-industrial artisans, peasants, etc — have taken action collectively for themselves, including about the strategies that they created and the ideas that went with this.

And this model needs to be centred on “reciprocal” or “mutual” education between, on the one hand, people who have undergone mainstream higher education and have attached themselves seriously to the socialist and working-class movement, and, on the other, working-class activists, who have often been autodidacts.

This kind of educational exchange is something Gramsci wrote about. Eventually he arrived at the idea that those two groups of people could come together and work on a project of educating wider layers of people both within and beyond the core industrial working-class. They would be simultaneously educating one another, and connecting with peasants, artisans and impoverished intellectuals who, in the Italy of his day, would otherwise by mobilised by the fascists. I think that, like the activities of the Ruskin strikers, this model has a lot to tell us about what we should try to do now and in the future.

Q: Do you think there is any scope for students in higher education today to “rebel” against the kind of education they get?

A: When I was at Sussex University in the early 1960s the education I received looked superficially quite innovatory, but the more I reflect on it, the more conservative I think it was. I did rebel against it at the time, and I did come from a background that should have equipped me to do that effectively, in that both my parents were autodidacts, and my father became a socialist by conviction while serving in World War One.

But, as with Liberal Studies, I think I would have been much better able to formulate a coherent critique of the curriculum at Sussex if I had known about the tradition of working-class self-education. So I think that rebuilding the IWCE tradition could play a big part in helping present-day university students who are questioning the value of their courses to think their way through to valid alternatives.

Q: What else do we need to think about when talking about IWCE today?

A: I think it’s not catastrophist to say that all three sectors of state-provided post-compulsory education — FE, HE and adult education — are undergoing a crisis in which they are very close to becoming dysfunctional. But every attempt to resist this from below is hampered by the lack of a positive, concrete alternative.

With regard to FE, for example, the attempt to propose alternatives often starts from a crudified anti-vocationalism. But you can’t talk to young working-class people if you don’t relate to their need or desire to work and earn a wage and therefore to get on a course which they think might help them do that — especially at a time when life has been made so difficult for young people. If we had a vibrant IWCE system, or at least a reasonably high profile attempt to build one, a model for such an alternative would be much more readily available than it is now. But at the same time, any attempt to rebuild IWCE in isolation from struggles to defend and rebuild the state-provided system is also likely to fail. So there needs to be a constant and dialectical exchange between these two areas of activity.

Q: And what kind of projects now?

A: The project which we have developed from the unexpected level of interest generated by the pamphlet on the Ruskin strike which I put out in 2009 has had some success in drawing together a constituency of people who are interested in these concepts and historical experiences. It has held meetings in Sheffield, at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, at Northern College and in London, and I have spoken about the Plebs League to a range of audiences.

Just explaining the background to the strike and giving a narrative of what the Ruskin students did seems to inspire people.

Ruskin College

Ruskin College was established by American philanthropists in 1899 for working-class men who lacked formal education.

In 1909 a group of students committed to Marxism and/or a better education at Ruskin, went on strike for their own educational goals and in defence of their Principal who had been sacked.

Students and ex-students at Ruskin had already established the Plebs League, which stood for independent working-class education.

Ruskin strikers set up the Central Labour College, which would work closely with the Plebs League.

A long article by Colin Waugh on these events can be found here.

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