Self-help and workers' education

Here's an interesting excerpt from a talk given today by Neil Hopkins of the Institute of Education, called The Self-Help Tradition in Adult Education. It made me think of the Philosophy In Pubs movement which I wrote about yesterday. Here, he talks about Thomas Paine [pictured] and the London Corresponding Society - an early grass roots philosophy club in the late 18th century:

What we term as ‘adult education’ in the modern sense began in the late eighteenth century when, as Roger Fieldhouse has described, a variety of literary, philosophical and scientific societies sprang up in many provincial towns to meet the growing demand of the middle classes for scientific and philosophical knowledge, intellectual stimulation and a fuller cultural life.

This reflected the growing power of the middle classes (in terms of mercantile and industrial wealth) to demand its participation in general adult education when entrance to university was still largely restricted to a tiny elite training in law, academia or the Anglican church at Cambridge or Oxford. This demand for education grew in the nineteenth century when the working class began to agitate for similar opportunities. This doesn’t detract from significant developments in working class education formulated prior to this period.

E. P. Thompson has written of the profound impact of the London Corresponding Society during the ferment leading up to and including the Napoleonic Wars with revolutionary France where it contributed to ‘the first stages in the political self-education of a class [encompassing] silk-weavers, watchmakers, cordwainers, cabinet-makers, carpenters, tailors [and various other trades and crafts]’. The LCS’s main activities were centred on political discussion and agitation. For instance, Thompson has noted that: "in the first month of its existence [January 1792] the society debated for five nights in succession the question – ‘Have we, who are Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, and Mechanics, any right to obtain a Parliamentary Reform?’ – turning it over ‘in every point of view in which we were capable of presenting the subject to our minds.’ They decided that they had."

It was integral to the Society to correspond with other societies across the country to exchange ideas and opinions around self-education and political action (hence the use of the term ‘corresponding’ in the Society’s title). Sheffield contained an important Corresponding Society of its own and maintained important communication links with the LCS. The LCS also corresponded with societies in Derby, Stockport, Manchester, Nottingham and Coventry (amongst others). One of the key texts read and debated in this period was Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1792) where the author linked ‘political and economic demands’ in an appeal for democratic, republican government. According to Thompson, The Rights of Man was ‘found in Cornish tin-mines, in Mendip villages, in the Scottish Highlands, and, a little later, in most parts of Ireland’ as a political manual, almost, for the self-determination and empowerment of working class people. However, it was during the nineteenth century that these embryonic movements and developments hardened into associations with genuine mass collective force through the onset of trade unionism, Chartism and the early Reform Acts.
Fieldhouse has remarked that ‘employers generally were making very little provision for workers’ education’ and it was this vacuum into which the self-help societies formed and flourished in order to provide working class people with the education they weren’t able to obtain elsewhere. Again, according to Fieldhouse, ‘[t]he collective form of this self-education was the mutual improvement society, which promoted “friends educating each other” amongst the working class’. The themes of self-help and self-improvement were, to some extent at least, indicative of the dominant strains in nineteenth-century society where emphasis was often placed on civil society as a means of addressing or alleviating noticeable gaps left by the state in terms of education provision (in fact, until the Education Act of 1870 there was little evidence of educational provision at state level at all in England with civil society largely assuming the role of primary organiser of local education through a variety of voluntary and philanthropic organisations). Where the self-help tradition in adult education differed from the orthodoxy was due to the fact that working class people took control of such associations rather than being simply the recipients of such services (in the form of charity).