Skip to content

Neo-Aristotelian Watch

PoW: The rise of the mass intelligentsia

What I love about being a freelance blogger (besides the loneliness, economic insecurity and gnawing sense of irrelevance) is the ability to roam wherever you fancy to discover new ideas. You don’t have to write what your editor tells you. It’s just a great feeling, sometimes, the ability to follow a new trail wherever it leads you.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been following the trail of the New Left, a group of left-wing thinkers who coalesced at Oxford in the 1950s, including Stuart Hall, Charles Taylor, Raymond Williams, EP Thompson and others.I first came across them when I read EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class a couple of months ago, as part of my research into philosophy groups. Thompson wrote brilliantly on 19th century adult education clubs like the London Corresponding Society and Mechanics Institutes, and the role they played in the development of a working class political consciousness. The word ‘pub philosopher’ came from the early 19th century, as a term of abuse for working class artisans getting together in pubs to read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (itself written in a London pub).

I also realised, through my research into adult education (particularly the work of Roger Fieldhouse), that many modern universities grew out of informal learning clubs like Mechanics Institutes. Birkbeck College began as the London Mechanics Institute, meeting in the Crown and Anchor tavern on the Strand, while Queen Mary, University of London, where I work today, began as the New Philosophic Institute (later re-named the People’s Palace) in the East End.

What I then discovered (and wrote about on Monday) was that this history of grassroots ideas clubs fed into a vision among New Left thinkers (and particularly Edward Thompson) for citizen education in the 1960s. Thompson hoped to start a network of New Left clubs around the country, where the working class could debate, discuss, learn and self-organise. New Left figures including Raymond Williams and Eric Hobsawm were also actively involved with the Workers Education Association (the WEA), and taught WEA extra-mural courses at Oxford and other universities. As the first issue of the New Left Review put it: ‘We have to go into towns and cities, universities and technical colleges, youth clubs and Trade Union branches and–as William Morris said–make socialists there.’

Well, that failed, sadly. The New Left clubs didn’t last long – as Stuart Hall wrote in the NLR, a division grew up between the clubs and the journal, and between the intellectuals at the centre and the grassroots periphery. Formal adult education through the WEA, extra-mural courses and residential colleges like Toynbee Hall also declined steeply from the 1970s to the 1990s. This morning, I interviewed Derek Tatton, director of the Raymond Williams Foundation, who painted quite a bleak picture of the state of formal adult education:

The kind of adult education we’re talking about – in politics, philosophy and so on – declined quite catastrophically. And in general, the number of adult learning courses provided by the WEA or universities or local education authorities has declined steeply, and the number of adults involved with adult education courses has declined by several million people in the last few years. All Local Education Authority-funded residential colleges that I know of have either closed or are threatened with closure. And most universities provide no extra-mural courses anymore. [The one ray of sunshine in this rather dismal scene is, of course, the Open University…]

However, the picture for informal learning is rather more optimistic. Derek says:

In one sense, adult education as Raymond Williams thought of it is virtually dead, because of political and social changes and the rise of a rampant capitalism not interested in education for its own sake. But we are seeing the rise of informal learning, partly through the rise of new technologies like the internet. By informal I mean it’s not publicly-funded, and is often self-run by volunteers. In that sector, there’s a lot of activity. We’ve seen the rise of informal, grassroots organisations like the University of the Third Age, Philosophy In Pubs, Cafe Philosophique or Socrates Cafes, book groups and so on, which are doing for free what funded organisations like the WEA were doing in the 1960s.

Derek rightly points to the internet as one of the factors helping the rise of informal learning. His discussion circle in Staffordshire, for example, uses In Our Time as a learning resource for its talks. Melvyn Bragg has, in fact, spoken of the rise of ‘the mass intelligentsia’, which I think is a great and inspiring description for what’s going on.

I’d love to explore the ways that universities and academia can be freed from their prison of managerial paperwork and REF reports to genuinely have connect with their communities. Why is the present Higher Education framework so inhospitable to adult learning and extra-mural activities? How can we help connect academics to adults who want to learn? How can we help academics get more pleasure and sense of purpose from their work? As Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton says in this interview, “most academics I know are desperate to get out”.

Here, by the way, is a piece by the National Institute for Advanced and Community Education (NIACE) on the Occupy movement’s Tent City University and other alternative forms of learning that are springing up at the moment.

One of the philosophers who came to talk at Tent City University was Lord Robert Skidelsky, who I saw speak at Hay a fortnight ago. He and his son Ed have a new book out calling for a new politics and economics rooted in a vision of the good life. They outline that vision in this article.

The rise of informal learning is one of the topics being discussed at EdgeRyders, an EU project that’s hosting an online and offline conference at the moment in Strasbourg. It’s connecting young social entrepreneurs trying to figure out how to improve the world (while also making a living). You can follow their discussions on Twitter at #LOTE.

I’m speaking at a similar sort of event this coming Monday, called A Good Week. Come along if you’re free – I’m doing the opening talk (gulp!). I think I’ll be talking about combining inner work on the self with outer work on society.

The BBC’s ‘New Elizabethans’ series, celebrating the lives of great modern Brits, had a programme on pioneering social entrepreneur Michael Young, who did a lot for adult education by setting up the Open University. You can hear it here. Interesting highlights: he wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto when he was 29, and at the end of his life he was working on plans for a colony on Mars!

Here’s a great example of an informal learning model that draws on new technology: Think Cafe, from South Korea.

I gave a lunchtime talk on the politics of well-being at the London think-tank IPPR yesterday. You can read the notes for it here. Thanks to everyone who came – it was a real boost that more experienced experts in the field like James O’Shaughnessy and the new economics foundation’s Juliet Michaelson come along and contributed to the discussion. James is working with Wellington College and speaking at their Festival on Education next weekend, which promises to be a great event. I’ll be there on Saturday, not speaking, just mooching around.

Juliet works at the new economics foundation’s well-being centre, which yesterday brought out its annual Happy Planet Index report, measuring nations’ well-being and ecological footprint, asking which countries’ achieve happiness most efficiently, from an environmental point of view. Central America seems to do best.

The economist and social historian Deirdre McCloskey poured scorn on happiness economics in a New Republic cover story this week. She argues that there are some areas of human life into which social policy should not intrude. I critiqued her critique here, arguing that she simplified the movement and that she espoused a naive belief in a bourgeois liberty somehow independent of social policy. She replies briefly in the comments.

I was sorry to hear of the death of Alan Saunders, a British philosopher who presented ABC’s philosophy show on Australian radio. Sounds like he did a great deal to bring philosophy into everyday life.

Finally, some wise advice:

See you next week,


James O’Shaughnessy on how the Tories get the well-being bug

One of the interesting things about the politics of well-being is how, in the UK, it began as a movement on the Left, through figures like Geoff Mulgan (the head of Blair’s policy unit), and Richard Layard, but then managed to cross over and become a cross-party consensus, both in the Lib Dems (through people like Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s policy advisor) and even more surprisingly in the Conservative Party.

Who would have thought David Cameron would push forward ‘national well-being measurements’, create a National Citizens Service, inaugurate parenting classes, and double the funding for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

As I’ve discussed over the last couple of days, there is a Neo-Aristotelian consensus now, of politicians, policy wonks and even civil servants who believe that humans can achieve flourishing, and governments and civil society can help them in that journey. This includes Neo-Aristotelian Tories such as David Willetts, Ferdinand Mount, and Oliver Letwin – who wrote his thesis on Aristotelian ethics and the emotions (I reviewed it here).

This week, I met one of the Neo-Aristotelians on the Right: James O’Shaughnessy, formerly head of Cameron’s Number 10 policy unit, which Cameron sadly scrapped last year and replaced with a civil service-run unit  (a mistake, I fear). James left government to become a ‘social entrepreneur’ with a particular focus on integrating Positive Psychology into education – Positive Psychology is very influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and was described by one of its founders as ‘the social science equivalent of virtue ethics’.

We met in the RSA, and James told me how the Conservatives got into the ‘well-being agenda’, how he became a convert to Positive Psychology, and why he thinks the future of well-being education is not nation-wide programmes designed in Whitehall like Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL),  but rather smaller independently-designed experiments. The interview will hopefully be used in an article but I thought blog-readers would enjoy the full transcript.

The politics of well-being  arguably began as a New Labour phenomenon, through people like Geoff Mulgan and Richard Layard. So how did it get taken up by the Conservative Party? 

It was particularly taken up by Steve Hilton, who came to government from his Good Business consultancy; and by Oliver Letwin, who wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotle and the idea of eudaimonia. It’s also something David Cameron believes in, and for him it’s a way of demonstrating that Tories are not people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, which is one of the stereotypes he is trying to dispel. There’s also the sense that you can’t talk about things like family values or a broken society entirely from an economic point of view, as the Fabians do.

Some dry Tories were dismissive of it, and there was a lot of scepticism – but that’s part of the point, for Cameron to show he’s different. Personally, I think the politics of well-being is deeply conservative – the idea that life is about more than money. Some on the right are sceptical about the idea of using well-being measurements to guide policy, partly because they say the data is so aggregated its meaningless, and partly because the idea that government should promote a particular philosophy of happiness is seen as dangerous socialism.

What do you think of those criticisms? 

Well, it’s true that if you aggregate well-being measurements up to the national level, it becomes so aggregated its basically flat over time, and never seems to go up or down. But the data can still tell you interesting things at the regional or local level. And it’s a start. In politics you can’t go straight from A to Z. Policy changes take time.

Tell me why you decided to leave government and become a social entrepreneur in education. 

I have a sceptical nature, so don’t believe politicians are always the best at running things. It’s about giving people the choice over how to do things. So the idea in many areas of social policy is to let social entrepreneurs provide a range of services and then people can choose for themselves. ‘Progressive ends, conservative means’ is the mantra. In education, that means things like free schools and academies. When you pursue policies like that, the more interesting stuff is actually happening outside of policy, at the grassroots level of services delivery. So I decided to leave government and become an education entrepreneur. There’s now a flowering of opportunity in that field which I wanted to be part of.

Some people think there’s a paradox in Conservative well-being policy. On the one hand, the government has pushed forward things like national well-being measurements. But in education policy, Michael Gove has scrapped Ofsted well-being measurements, and seems to be about to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.  

I’ll explain why that’s not a paradox. It’s an epistemic point, about who can claim to possess knowledge. The disposition of Tories is that government is a really bad place to claim epistemic hegemony superiority because of things like the lessons of public choice theory, and the power of vested interests and of Whitehall. If you are too top-down, the programmes you put forward are quickly out of date, and create worse results than if you give institutions the opportunity to experiment and choose programmes that work. As long as they properly track the outcomes of those programmes and share the information, then the market improves.

I’m a big believer in evidence-based education policy, and in the work of people like the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, who announced a £200 million project last year to explore evidence-based interventions for disadvantaged children. If you empower independent institutions to choose their programmes, and parents to choose their schools, then you get a much richer ecosystem than if the Department of Education creates one well-being programme for the entire country.

But in this new evidence-based ecosystem, how would schools discover which programmes worked? Would there be like a site? 

Good question. At the moment we’re lacking a free market in information. There are a few university departments, it’s quite a small community, everyone seems to know each other. We need a repository of evidence for well-being education.

So it sounds like the government is going to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, which was an example of that sort of centralised top-down policy.  

[SEAL, as many blog-readers will know, was inspired by Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence, and was enthusiastically taken up by New Labour and introduced it into the national curriculum in 2002. The government only got round to testing if it actually worked a decade later…and found it didn’t.]

The evidence for it was fairly patchy. The position of the government is that they’re all for schools trying well-being interventions out, but the government’s responsibility is to make sure kids learn and can get jobs at the end of school. They’re open-minded about how schools get there.

Some people, including me, expected SEAL to be replaced by the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP) – a three-year pilot scheme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology [that’s him on the right]. It was supposed to be a careful, rigorous, evidence-based intervention to improve young people’s well-being and academic performance. But the evidence after the three-year pilot was not a home run, was it? 

The results were pretty good but you need to keep repeating the intervention for it to work. I’m now working with Richard Layard to try and get funding for a four-year pilot of an intervention that combines the Penn Resiliency Project with other evidence-based interventions.

How does Positive Psychology fit into your model of education? 

I didn’t want to be providing any old education, but rather a particular vision of it, that’s deeply informed by Positive Psychology. I’d spent a reasonable amount of time talking to Martin Seligman. What’s so appealing is the growth model rather than the disease model, and the idea there’s a continuum from ill to well to flourishing. I buy into that philosophically, but it also has a strong evidence base. And what’s fascinating is the interplay with ancient philosophy and virtue ethics. The cutting edge science ties into the best that’s been thought in the ancient world, by philosophers like Aristotle. So Positive Psychology is as much about character development as well-being. It’s part of a developing view that education should be about developing character, rather than merely passing exams.

So my idea was to build a ‘whole school’ approach to building character, that stretches across the whole curriculum and extra-curricular activities, even down to the dining room and how meals are conducted and what pupils eat. Martin Seligman, for example, has talked of extending Positive Psychology into English classes.

I was organising a round-table with Marty Seligman and some others to try and create a framework for a whole curriculum that people could apply in different schools. My career plan was to build on that framework, which would be freely available to anyone to use, to create services to sell into schools. Then Anthony Seldon [headmaster of Wellington] called and asked if I wanted to come on board with the Wellington academies trust. I agreed, and started a fortnight ago. The idea is to take the DNA of Wellington, and export it into different contexts – academies, prep schools and international schools.

Wellington is clearly a pioneer when it comes to ‘character education’ – the first British school to integrate Positive Psychology into its curriculum. But how easy will it be to export that DNA? To what extent does Wellington’s ‘character factory’ depend on its financial resources, and physical assets like the grounds, the facilities, the beauty of the place? Can you export that into an inner-city academy? 

Well, we’re trying to find out. Look at KIPP charter schools in the US, which are explicitly about creating character, and which work in some pretty rough neighbourhoods. Or look at the success of the Ark academies. As a social entrepreneur you want to create the most impact, and you could argue that Wellington has less impact on its pupils because they already have a lot going for them. The Penn Resiliency Project had the most impact on the more challenged kids. But of course, a private school costs £30,000 a year for a pupil, and a state school around £5,000. So we need to find what that buys you. I would also like to try to build find elite partners for the schools, like the Royal Shakespeare Companies or Wasps rugby clubs of this world, for example, so we can try to replicate some of the College’s breadth and excellence across the group.

But the aim is not to create a new programme and introduce it into the national curriculum as a nation-wide subject? 

No. The reason SEAL didn’t succeed, why it didn’t have any longevity, was it was too centralised, it was just telling people what to do. [James’ boss at the Policy Exchange, Neil O’Brien, wrote an interesting blog this month about how the Tories hope best-practice will naturally spread through the education ‘eco-system’ through things like chains of academies – you can read it here.]

There’s a lot I like about the idea of teaching Positive Psychology in schools, but my concern is that it becomes a form of rigid indoctrination, where if you disagree with the prescribed route, you are deemed unwell, sick even. If done badly, it could easily suppress creative or critical thinking, and attempt to create happiness by rote-learning or drill-training. That’s not going to work, is it? 

Well, I think you can encourage different routes to excellence. Wellington, for example, encourages people to ‘be the best you can be’. It’s the Aristotelian idea of virtue in excellence. And you can try lots of things to try and find out what you’re best at. That’s what really encourages self-esteem: walking into a room and knowing that, of everyone there, you’re the best at some particular activity. In general, though, I don’t have a problem with indoctrination! If you’ve grown up without structures and boundaries, it’s actually a relief to have them. I think we’ve learnt what’s wrong with progressive education, with the child-centred model where educationalists felt ‘who are adults to pressure children to learn?’ The result of that was a generation with high levels of illiteracy and a massive increase in educational inequality. Free creative thinking is fine for a small group who are already quite naturally talented. But it’s really bad for those students unable to cope with it.

I’m also wary of extending the Positive Psychology dogma into every subject, so that you have positive economics, positive physics, positive history.  Shouldn’t English Literature at its best explore the dark side as well as the positive? I remember my first term in English A-Level I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Lectures on Hysteria. And I loved it!  

Yes, you have to be careful about the ‘positive’ label, it can be too narrow. It’s important not to be too blinkered, you can’t simply think positive and ignore objective facts.

Finally, is there a risk you could be criticised as creating a new free market in education when you were in office, and then profiting from it once you’re out of office? 

It’s not a privatised market, that’s important. It’s not for profit. The academies are run as charities, and any profits they make have to go back into the charitable purposes of the group. The board of the charity can set my salary, but that’s the only remuneration I get from my work with Wellington.

Thanks very much, James, and good luck. 

Thank you too.