Philosophy clubs and the rise of informal learning: an interview with Derek Tatton

Last weekend, at the Philosophy In Pubs annual conference in Liverpool, I met Derek Tatton, who is director of the Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) and someone who’s worked in and supported adult education - including philosophy in pubs - for over 40 years.  I interviewed him about adult education, its catastrophic decline from the 1970s to the 1990s, and how it is now reviving through informal learning groups like PIPs and the London Philosophy Club. 

JE: Thanks for your time Derek. I've recently come across the work of Raymond Williams, the cultural critic, and his New Left comrades in promoting adult education in the 1940s - 1960s. How did you meet Williams?

DT: I was a student of his at Cambridge University, studying English Literature in the early 1960s.

JE: What was he like as a tutor and person?

DT: There’s disagreement over his quality as a teacher. The playwright David Hare has claimed he didn’t really like teaching and just wanted to write. That’s not my view. I found him very approachable, helpful and quietly inspiring. He liked being challenged - and I think he found that more in his adult students than in undergraduates. That’s a common experience with academics.

JE: What was his experience in adult education?

DT: Williams was actively involved in adult education from 1945 to 1961, when he was employed by Oxford’s extra-mural department to teach students provided by the Worker’s Education Association. At that time, universities worked in partnership with the WEA, who recruited the students. Williams had a high opinion of their work.

JE: The New Left, of course, had at that stage high hopes for adult education and its role in political development.

DT: Yes, Williams and others like Stuart Hall and Edward Thompson thought it could play a critical role in political development - though the WEA was non-party-affiliated and non-sectarian. It wasn’t a political movement, necessarily so, as it got funding from public sources. But Williams saw it as a vehicle for extending educated and participatory democracy.

At the time when Williams was involved in the WEA, its courses in politics, economics and international affairs were very popular. In 1944, social studies made up 68% of WEA courses, and international affairs made up 22%. But by the 1970s, courses in international affairs made up just 2% of the WEA’s courses, and by 2000 it was only something like 0.1%. Today, in what remains of the WEA branches, most of its courses are in arts and crafts or IT. Though it also continues to do some government-funded work with disadvantaged groups or ethnic minorities in literacy and numeracy.

JE: So did the New Left’s vision for the role of adult education in political development fail?

DT: In some ways, it wasn’t a success. The New Left book clubs, set up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, didn’t continue for long. 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 [I’m trying to get precise figures on this from NIACE, the main UK organisation representing and researching adult learning in the UK].

JE: Why the decline?

DT: Governments, both national and local, are very rarely interested in education for its own sake, or in social / political or citizenship education. It’s not a priority, and when it was, it was primarily because of pressure from below, from the WEA, or through influential insiders like the social historian RH Tawney, who was very influential in the Labour Party.

There was a lack of government support and funding, and people voted with their feet - from the 1970s onwards, there was less demand for courses in economics, politics or philosophy. So it slid down the popularity stakes.

JE: Are there still residential adult learning colleges?

DT: Many were set up in the 1940s, including Wedgewood Memorial College in Staffordshire which offered affordable short-term residential courses [where Derek was principal from 1980 to 2003]. But from the 1970s onwards, these colleges were under increasing financial pressure, and they started to close. All Local Education Authority-fundec colleges that I know of have either closed or are threatened with closure, including Wedgewood. We’re actually having an Occupy day tomorrow to try and keep it open. [You can read more about that here].

JE: How about university extra-mural departments?

DT: That’s also declined steeply. Universities in general are up against it in trying to justify education for its own sake. Adult education fell victim to that 30 years ago. If you compare what universities provide in the way of extra-mural education to 20-30 years ago, it’s a drop in the ocean. Keele University had a whole host of courses running back then. Now it has nothing.

JE: Oxford and Cambridge still seem to have healthy extra-mural departments?

DT: Yes, Kellogg College at Oxford and Madingley Hall at Cambridge offer a broad range of courses. But the fees are quite high, so they’re only accessible to a narrower range of relatively wealthy people.

JE: So from one perspective the picture for adult learning is pretty negative. But I know we’re both quite optimistic about the picture for ‘informal learning’...

DT: Yes, my vision for the movement is quite positive. 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. Nobody knows how many of these organisations there are - they’re quite difficult to map.

JE: You’re involved in this movement yourself aren’t you?

DT: Yes. When I retired in 2005, I decided to re-found the Williams Morris Labour Church, which he’d set up there as a secular form for ideas and issues. I knew that if I had tried to set up a WEA course to discuss current affairs issues, it would have failed, because there wouldn’t be enough people willing to pay fees to justify the WEA running a course. So I started an informal and free discussion circle, in the Blue Mugge pub.

JE: How has the internet helped such organisations to grow?

DT: It’s allowed us to access and ‘raid’ expert knowledge. For example, in the Blue Mugge discussion circle, we’ll often use Radio 4’s In Our Time as a starting point, drawing on the extraordinary riches in their archive. We’ll also be able to access expert debates on the internet, like the recent debate between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The New Left couldn’t draw on those technologies. So it’s quite exciting.

And you saw at the PIPs conference in Liverpool that you can now draw together a lot of people interested in lively and well-informed discussions. I think the Occupy movement also showed people using new media and new methods to gather together and to educate themselves [NIACE's journal had an interesting piece on Occupy and adult learning, here.] I was interested to see that Occupy St Paul’s had a Tent City University, although I was surprised they had ‘lectures’ there, which seems a very passive and ineffective way of learning to me. At the Blue Mugge discussion circle, we go straight into discussions. People retain knowledge much better when they’re discussing it.

JE: Although you still also draw on expertise, I guess, through In Our Time etc.

DT: Yes, that’s true. Though not everyone in the circle necessarily listens to it before the discussion.

JE: And the internet helps to connect these groups too, doesn’t it? That’s what I’m trying to do by setting up, which is due to launch in September. It’s a hub to allow informal ideas groups to connect with each other and to attract new members.

DT: Yes. We had an email from Sydney, from a University of the Third Age group who found some notes I put on the internet about Schopenhauer. They thought I was an expert in Schopenhauer, although I’d just taken some notes from Wikipedia and In Our Time for one of our sessions. But we kept in touch. I think networking is key to this era of adult learning.

JE: So how do you think self-help, in a therapeutic sense, fits into the story of adult learning. Did it supplant a more political vision for adult learning in the 1970s, creating a more narcissistic ‘developing the inner me’ culture? Or is it possible to bring the two together? I think of the New Left’s idea that ‘the personal is political’.

DT: I think feminism was more instrumental in that than the New Left. There was a feminist literature group at Wedgewood Memorial College, and since the College has been closed, they’ve set up independently. It’s self-help in the sense that they’re doing it themselves. They’re paying a professional tutor to come and help them learn.

JE: That sounds like Ivan Illich’s concept of peer-led de-schooled learning.

DT: Yes. These ideas go back centuries. What’s new is the technology, which is enabling this sort of informal learning to flourishing. It’s exciting and unpredictable.

JE: The rise of informal learning now reminds me of adult education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was more informal and more funded by charitable organisations like the Carnegie Fund, which did so much to establish libraries in the US and UK.

DT: Yes, the period now is very similar to the 1890s. The Raymond Williams Foundation, for example, has money to subsidise adult learning courses to make it more affordable and accessible. We’ve booked the Adelphi hotel in Liverpool for a weekend in November, to do a weekend course inspired by Raymond Williams’ Communications. We’re only charging £80 for the full weekend, including the room. Compare that to a weekend course at Madingley Hall in Cambridge, which could cost between £300 and £400.

JE: Thanks Derek, really interesting to talk to you.

DT: Thank you too.