From University Extension to the Workers' Educational Association

The public to which Lubbock addressed his list had become much more accustomed to the idea of widespread provision of adult education in the 1870s, partly because British universities and their academics were beginning to change their attitudes to wider society. Several educational ‘movements’ with marginally different approaches arose. The existing activities of Mutual Improvement Societies and the Mechanics’ Institutes were increasingly channelled into larger national projects, including the University Settlement Movement mentioned above, the University Extension Movement, and the WEA. There was significant overlap and collaboration between their activities.

The University Extension Movement (in which Sidgwick was an exceptionally active teacher, as were classicists at Newnham College and in the universities of Leeds, Durham and Belfast72) promoted extramural higher education nationwide. It was started at Cambridge in 1873 by a radical young scientist from Fife, James Stuart (whose first childhood Latin teacher ‘was probably the worst teacher who ever existed’73) and spread to Oxford in 1878.74 It was a popular, if relatively short-lived movement, although the terminology often clung to what universities now call ‘outreach’ activities, long after extension had been subsumed into Albert Mansbridge’s brainchild, the WEA, conceived in discussion at Toynbee Hall and founded in 1903 as the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men. It soon achieved branches in Reading, Rochdale, Ilford, Yorkshire and the Midlands, and received ‘public recognition from the representatives of nearly all the Universities and a large number of labour organisations’ at a meeting in the Examination Schools of Oxford University on 25th August 1908.7’ Mansbridge (Figure 9.2) was considered by some of his Oxford WEA tutors as a radical champion of the oppressed, to the extent that they jokingly referred to themselves as ‘conspirators’ and the ‘Catiline Club’.76 The revolutionary syndicalists of the Plebs League, however, felt it was a dilettante organisation attempting to distract workers from class warfare.

Mansbridge (1876-1952), a carpenter’s son who had left school at 14 but benefited from Extension classes at King’s College London, believed the Mechanics’ Institutes had failed because they ‘were largely the result of philanthropic effort, set on foot by some local magnate ... rather than upon the initiative of the mechanics themselves’.77 His solution, the ‘tutorial class’, was a development along the lines of the Mutual Improvement model, built on the ideal of people learning together rather than listening to an omniscient lecturer. As a former Co-operative Movement activist, Mansbridge knew the value of collaborative learning: ‘Each student is a teacher, each teacher is a student’.78 He had benefitted from the tutorial technique between 1891 and 1901 when he attended University

Albert Mansbridge by Howard Coster 1945, reproduced by courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London

FIGURE 9.2 Albert Mansbridge by Howard Coster 1945, reproduced by courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Extension classes (including chemistry, economics and Greek) at Toynbee Hall,79 as did other working-class intellectuals such as J.M. Dent and Ben Tillett.80

The emergence of the WE A was inseparable from the debate on University reform at Oxford, launched in 1906, which was perceived by many workers as trying to take over the administration of Ruskin College and defuse its students’ politics. It had been founded as Ruskin Hall in Oxford in 1899 as the first residential college specifically for working-class men; they came to study for a year or two on scholarships funded by an American philanthropic couple named Walter and Amne Vrooman, and were taught science by another American, Charles Beard.81 Some middle-class and public-school educated Oxford critics of the status quo, who wanted to see their university opened to a much wider social range and its wealth redistributed, involved themselves, not always tactfully, in Ruskin’s affairs.82 Every single one had studied or was teaching Classics at Oxford: R.H. Tawney, William Temple, Alfred Zimmern, Richard Livingstone, J.L. Myres and William Beveridge.83 This may lie behind Barbara Goff’s perception that ‘classics was a persistent, if minor, part of activities’ in the first two decades of the WEA’s history.84 She identifies ‘a contrast between the modest presence of classics as a taught subject and the rhetorical force whichreference to classics could wield in the various discourses of the WEA, such as its magazine The Hig/twy’.85 Goff argues that the humanist Hellenism of some of the leading lights of the WEA, absorbed from these Oxford dons, offered a quasi-spiritual substitute for organised religion.86 But many working-class autodidacts still began their intellectual journeys as Nonconformist theological rebels. She is correct that WEA rhetoric probably overstates the importance or prominence of the Classics in its courses, and that this may reflect the agency of the Classics dons, whose subject was beginning to lose the battle to remain central to the university curriculum.87

As a distinct subject, Classics was marginalised by the WEA,88 although it proved a useful symbol of ‘high’ culture when rhetorically characterising the culturally impoverished worker. And classical authors were taught ‘indirectly’ by WEA tutors by inclusion on non-Classics courses. Plato, for example, looms large in the WEA archive, frequently appearing in Philosophy and Social Sciences courses.89 The Greek dramatists were often read in English translation (often Gilbert Murray’s),90 especially the tragedians, in Literature classes; Ancient History and Archaeology were commonly offered as part of courses nationwide.91 Goff’s most arresting example of indirect access to Classics is that of a self-styled ‘Manchester Socialist’, who at his first WEA class met the scholar and tutor R.H. Tawney, a classicist alumnus of Rugby and Balliol who had discovered socialism and volunteered at Toynbee Hall.92 Tawney introduced him to Greek civilisation at the Oxford WEA. This experience constituted ‘the new-birth of my intellectual life’.93 The anonymous Mancunian had signed up to an economics class and came away with an obsession with the Greeks. The passion ignited in the Manchester socialist surely could not fail to infect others in his family and wider community when he went back home after his sojourn in Oxford. Workers often use words such as ‘revelation’ to express their joy on being introduced to the classical world.94 The combination of a tutor’s guidance and good, modern translations created a cultural confidence attested in a review of Livingstone’s A Defence of Classical Education in the WEA organ The Highway in 1917:

Most of us know enough about the Greeks to want to know a great deal more ... Plato is used as a text book in some tutorial classes; and if few WEA members can read him in the original, many understand some of the problems he handles better perhaps than the general run of those who can.95

Mansbridge’s personal encounter with ancient Greek led him to believe that classical authors offered the best instruments to develop ‘a larger view of life’.96 In 1923, Charles Knapp published an extract from a letter Mansbridge had written to him on the subject of‘On the Classics and the Workers’ in the American journal Classical Weekly. In it Mansbridge explains that the WEA teachers who best succeeded ‘in awakening an interest’ or ‘in satisfying the interest when it is awakened’ had themselves been students of Classics.97 Moreover, the evidence presented to the Governmental Educational Commission in which he had participated unanimously showed, he claimed, that ‘whether for the purpose of high business or for the actual study and teaching of modern languages, that man was best who had had a preliminary classical training’.98

Mansbridge was intervening in the heated 1920s debate on adult education. Sciences, Mathematics, Economics, Politics and Modern Languages were now deemed to be of at least equal importance to Classics. Mansbridge was ‘no shallow paternalist’,99 but he had been wooed by Oxbridge dons and absorbed some of their conservative values. His radical critics saw the (now state-funded) WEA as an extension of the existing instruments of capitalism constituted by the ancient universities. But the students were split on the question of the purpose and content of workers’ education, and on Ruskin’s relationships with the Trade Unions and above all Oxford University,"’0 as shown in this cartoon (Figure 9.3).

■ >« TH 8 "H.F.BS7


Oxford (Jnivcoify (toRuskin College) — And duvll with mt, my bay —And fcwyyt all adxrut ruwty thing/» like w-sxyA and class . 'Tluy are so sordid ! *

FIGURE 93 ‘A Fool’s Paradise’, a cartoon in Plcbs Magazine vol.VI, July 1914, no. 6, p. 126. Reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

The militant faction founded the Plebs League and began to provide their own education in a breakaway Central Labour College, which found a permanent home in Earl’s Court, London, in 1911. These men wanted an education in Marxist sociology and revolutionary economics. They repudiated Mansbridge’s dream of a liberal education for all.1'" With union support, they produced a twopenny monthly journal entitled Plebs. It objected to the influence of Oxford dons shouting to the workers, ‘Back to Plato! Back to Aristotle’,102 but—perhaps surprisingly—wrote Roman history into its name and first editorial:

Enter the Plebs, not from above but from below, not to fight a sham battle among the shadows but the order and for the interest of our masters, but to fight a real battle in the full light and with a clear knowledge of the issue before us ... if the education of the workers is to square with the ultimate object of the workers—social emancipation—then it is necessary that the control of such an educational institution must be in the hands of the workers ... Inability to recognize the class cleavage clearly was the downfall of the Plebs of old Rome. Let the Plebs of the 20th century be not so deluded.103

The magazine also featured serialised articles on ancient history from an economic perspective, by prolific socialist historian and railway worker Will White Craik,104 a ‘Free Rendering from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses’” (Book X, the story of Pygmalion),105 and a report on the discovery of a Sumerian tablet with an account of the flood.106

The Plebs League was never large, but its influence was out of proportion to its size.107 The words of this editorial, probably the work of Plebs editor George Sims, a carpenter from Bermondsey, Social Democratic Federation (SDF) member and former Ruskin student, reveal the influence of the Marxist-Syndicalist Daniel De Leon (1852-1914). He had delivered two extemporaneous lectures on Roman history to the comrades of the Greater New York Section of the Socialist Labor Party. In Manhattan Lyceum, New York, on Wednesday April 16th, 1902, his evening lectures opened with ‘Plebs’ Leaders and Labour Leaders’ and closed with ‘The Warning of the Gracchi’. The Party stenographically recorded them and circulated them as pamphlets, which were also printed by the Socialist Labour Party (UK) in Glasgow and Edinburgh (1908-1913).

De Leon was born in Curasao (a Caribbean island, then Dutch-ruled) (Figure 9.4), the son ofDutch Jewish parents. He was educated at the Hildesheim classical gymnasium and then studied medicine at Leiden University. He emigrated to New York in the early 1870s. On arrival, he taught Latin, Greek and Mathematics in a school before enrolling at Columbia College as a Law student.108 In his first Roman lecture, De Leon insisted that there was ‘a ruling class and a ruled class’ in ancient Rome’.109 The ‘class cleavage’ along economic lines was obscured by the leader or ‘Tribune’ of the Plebs, who in reality worked

Daniel De Leon (1852—1914). Public Domain, reproduced courtesy of Library of Congress

FIGURE 9.4 Daniel De Leon (1852—1914). Public Domain, reproduced courtesy of Library of Congress.

against the interests of the people he was supposed to represent.110 He was the ancient equivalent of the modern

Labour leader, picked out and placed to-day by the grace of the capitalist class in the legislative bodies of America, Canada, England or Australia ... where his vanity may be gratified with the hollow honours of his prototype, the Plebs Leader, dumb appendage of the Roman Senate.111

Sims echoes these words in his editorial: ‘Let the Plebs of the 20th century be not so deluded’. His term ‘social emancipation’ is also derived from De Leon, who prominently glossed the term ‘Socialist Republic’ as ‘the emancipation of the working class’.112 In his second Roman History lecture, ‘The Warning of the Gracchi’, De Leon proposed a new radical reading in which the Gracchi, on whom he quotes Plutarch extensively, are portrayed as making ‘a series of blunders’ in their reforms, which his contemporary working-class activists should avoid.113 He emphasised the socio-economic chaos of their time, against the background of the slave revolt led by Ennus in Sicily, to which the Chartist Ernest Jones had drawn attention (see below pp. 396-7),1,4 and which the (by no means radical) Prussian scholar Francis Lieber had discussed in connection with antebellum slave plantations while working at South Carolina College during the American Civil War.115

His major emphasis, however, is on the obfuscation of the class cleavage in the Roman world, where even ‘the ragged Roman proletarian came to consider himself a limb of the ruling power, held together with the Roman landlord-plutocrat by a common bond of political superiority’ over the rest of Italy.116 The situation was beyond reform.117 The only option ‘in such emergencies’ is revolution. ‘We of to-day, in the Rome of to-day, should take warning’.118 The ‘Gracchian tactics’ appear to De Leon ‘as a bell-buoy to warn the Socialist Movement of this generation of sunken rocks in its course’.11’ Each ‘blunder’, especially the Sempronian Law, informs his ten ‘Canons of the Proletarian Revolution’, a rousing check-list for the creation of the Socialist Republic:12" ‘Rough-hewn in the quarry of 500 bc to 400 bc, the proletariat of Rome was 300 years later shaped into final shape in the smithy of the Gracchian tactics’, a fate De Leon’s followers must at all costs avoid.121

De Leon’s British followers were no advocates of traditional classical education, yet their identification with the Roman poor helped them formulate strategies in their struggle. Their classical education did not stop there. Mark Starr’s A Worker Looks at History, published by the Plebs League in 1918 (Figure 9.5), was written explicitly for Labour College Plebs classes; it details the influence of ‘Greek thought’ on the world and explains the slave economies of ancient Greece and Rome as well as the impact on Britain of the Roman invasion.122 Starr (1894-1985), a miner in the South Wales coal fields and member of the Miners’ Federation and the Independent Labour Party, began his higher education in WE A classes, before winning a scholarship in 1915 to attend the Central Labour College.123 A year later he returned to the South Wales Coalfield, where he began to lecture in ‘Social Science’ for the Aberdare District Miners’ Federation.124

A conscientious objector in World War I, after a spell in prison, Starr was sent to work the land in Northumberland, where he would meet Plebs League members in the North-East Coal Field. Along with many leading members, Starr joined the CPGB, and even visited the USSR for an Esperanto conference in 1926.125 But when the Plebs’ League was absorbed into the National Council of Labour Colleges in 1927, Starr emigrated to the US, where he became an instructor in Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York.126

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, adult working-class education flourished. While there were factious divisions between educationalist ideologues, working-class self-learners were often indifferent to them. L.C. Stone wrote in the WEA organ Highway (1925), that the ‘average worker-student does not care twopence about the WEA and NCLC squabble’.127 Many were nevertheless conscious and engaged political agents. Starr himself argued that when it comes to acquiring education, which was still a challenge for the working-class people, especially in rural areas, ‘expediency and opportunism’ are culpable only if ‘based upon false fundamental principles’.128


The book YOU’ve been waiting for!

One SKiUixig


Reduced facsimile of cover design

We are now dispatching parcels as fast as wc get copies from the binders. If wc have not had your order, send it at ■once (with cash).

Il/- per 12; ¿1 2s. 6d. per 25; ¿2 4s. Od. per 50;

¿4 7s. 6d. per 100.


FIGURE 9.5 Advertisement for Mark Starrs A JVorker Looks at History in Plebs Magazine vol IX January 1918, no 12. Courtesy of British Library.

The presence of classical material in adult education therefore changes substantially during the period under investigation. In the 18th century, little education for the worker existed, and then in anomalous clusters surrounding a religious enterprise or the opportunities encountered by workers in specific trades. In the 19th century significant progress was made thanks to the availability of affordable learning materials and through the establishment of the educational initiatives we have discussed. During the same period, classical scholarship began to be displaced from the centre of formal Higher Education even as it became professionalised and increasingly specialised.129 But this transformation hardly impacted on the working-class autodidact. At the dawn of the 20th century, adult learners experienced a classical Indian summer in the educational offerings made by university teachers via Extension activities and the WEA, briefly committed to the symbolic act of extending the once monumental but now crumbling franchise of a classical education to those who had previously been excluded from it by their class.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >