Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What Next for the WEA?

The name ‘Workers Education Association’ (WEA) was formally adopted in 1905, three centuries on from the publication in 1605 of Francis Bacon’s epochal ‘The Advancement of Learning’. The historical trajectory is a significant one.

Against widespread scholastic dogmas and common superstitions, Bacon championed the idea that human understanding could only truly progress if social institutions and educators systematically supported the development of open and cooperative enquiry in relation to all subject matters. Instead of telling people that they must remain ignorant or blindly accept the words of venerated figures, he outlined the vision for an alternative where learning would steadily advance through collective efforts in experimenting, sharing and critically revising ideas and practices.

By the second half of the 17th century, Bacon’s philosophy had inspired the founding of the Royal Society which played a crucial role in embedding the scientific approach in the acquisition of new knowledge. In the 18th century, his ideas, along with those of John Locke, a member of the Royal Society and pioneering educationalist, fuelled the Enlightenment movement, which insisted that since none should be excluded from the process of deciding what was to be believed, how society was run should no longer be left to a powerful elite. Following the democratic revolutions in America and France, momentum grew in the 19th century for all men and women to be given equal respect in learning and deciding matters of interest to them. Social reformists, trade unionists, cooperative activists dedicated themselves to opening opportunities for all citizens to have more control over their lives.

At the dawn of the 20th century the founding of the WEA took up the Enlightenment challenge of empowering all citizens to participate in the quest for knowledge and power to shape their own lives. Indeed according to the Baconian insight, knowledge is power. The more people understand what causes natural and social problems, the more able they are to pick out the most promising solutions. As learning spread in the 20th century, income inequalities declined, public services improved, and exploitation by private interests was curbed. But all these trends were threatened by the rise of market fundamentalism in the 1970s. The Thatcherite gospel preached that the rich and powerful should be free to rig the market as they saw fit.

After decades of upside-down democracy with society increasingly made to serve the rich, the vast majority are now left with lower pay, job insecurity, public service cuts, and fear before the might of corporate juggernauts. What are people learning about this turn of event? What lifelong education is equipping them with the knowledge to find a better future? Where can they get help with unmasking plutocratic propaganda that disguises the hijacking of public policies for private gains?

These questions are of course particularly pertinent for the WEA. Now a century old, with the tide of inequalities sweeping back with a vengeance, threatening to wipe away the social progress made in the post-war years, what is the WEA to do? In this context, I’m greatly heartened to read a paper by Greg Coyne, WEA’s Regional Director (North West), written to stimulate discussions about the role of the WEA.

Greg’s paper, proposing a radical, action learning oriented educational approach for the WEA to deal with old challenges in new times, should be widely read by WEA members and all supporters of lifelong learning. In this age of hierarchical markets, where people are just mass commodities to inflate profits for the few, it reminds us that “contrary to the assertion about a high skills economy, we are actually preparing masses of young people to work in and accept low paid, low skilled, insecure employment in the service sector rather than the knowledge economy.”

In short, citizens are now being deprived of sufficient capacity and opportunity to attain the knowledge to function as equal members of a democratic society, and thus disempowered from recognising what changes are really necessary to pursue to counter injustice and exploitation. Greg’s proposed approach has five elements, each of which merits serious consideration. First, we are urged to shift “from the ‘sage on the stage’ towards the ‘guide at the side’.” Instead of presenting knowledge as a fixed package to be revealed to the uninitiated, people are to be engaged as active participants in exploring their shared concerns, and working with the help of a guide in discovering what should and could be done.

This leads to the second element which is to ensure the engagement of citizens in raising critical questions. Greg illustrates his point with the example of asking in a flower arranging class why flowers were being flown in from Africa with all the implications of pollution, and distortion of farming priorities. I would certainly like to see WEA classes raise questions in relation to economic issues such as why certain politicians are called ‘technocrats’, suggesting that they are somehow better equipped than ‘ordinary’ representatives of the people in solving problems, when in fact a key qualification for such an appellation seems to be their conformity to the market orthodoxy which has brought about financial instability across the world.

Linking classroom discussions to wider socio-economic issues is indeed the third element of Greg’s proposed approach. There are subject matters which lend themselves to being studied as an end in itself – and the Open University and other institutions cater well for such interests, but if learning is to serve the purpose of enhancing our ability to deal with social problems, then the WEA has a vital part to play in helping people connect what they learn to the broader challenges facing them and their communities. Exploitation of the masses depends on keeping citizens ignorant. To counter it, we need more socially aware learning.

Moreover, awareness is only superficial if it is not tested and strengthened through exploratory action. The fourth element of Greg’s proposal rightly maintains that action learning can help participants understand better the issues they are studying and also reinforce their comprehension by applying it to practical activities. There can be no detailed blueprint for how this will roll out, but it is essential for there to be constant review and refinement of course activities in the light of their impact on participant’s lives. This last element completes the proposed reorientation of WEA into a dedicated champion of active citizenship and community involvement.

The difference would be between a WEA that runs a motley collection of courses of interest to individuals without necessarily addressing the knowledge/power gap that is undermining our social cohesion; and a WEA that, to use Greg’s words, “brings the social and political into whatever we teach and develops an emancipatory, involved style of learning that fits with our ethos and mission.”

As corporate forces continue to expand their influence through their political acolytes, mass media outlets, and ‘research’ centres funded by them to undermine beliefs in inconvenient truths, it is more important than ever that the advancement of learning for all resumes its true course with the help of social educators. It is fitting that R H Tawney, one of the most outstanding social educators of the 20th century, eloquent defender of the cause of equality, was for many years President of the WEA. What better way to commemorate next year (2012) the fiftieth anniversary of his passing than to see WEA declare itself as the hub for radical action learning in the UK. It’s time we, workers and citizens, expand our shared learning and reclaim our power.


Greg Coyne said...

Thanks Henry for these supportive comments. The WEA really welcomes your contribution to the debate and we hope others join in too. Below a link to a WEA site where my essay that you discuss can be downloaded


Anonymous said...

Great piece Henry and I certainly share your view that the WEA needs to put social purpose at the centre of its being! We can draw a lot of inspiration from Tawney and what he stood for whilst also learning from contemporary thinkers as well. On Saturday we had the Yorkshire and Humber Regional AGM and were addressed by Professor Danny Dorling. He spoke about child poverty in Britain and we were left in absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the situation is dire and getting worse for far too many people. It's this that the WEA cannot evade, for to do so would surely be an abrogation of responsibility. The dialogue continues and more and more staff, tutors and volunteers are engaging in it. Your contribution will help. Please keep challenging our thinking and practice. Jol Miskin WEA Yorkshire and Humber Region

Joe Taylor said...

A great piece Henry and you are so right: "the WEA has a vital part to play in helping people connect what they learn to the broader challenges facing them and their communities. Exploitation of the masses depends on keeping citizens ignorant."

How true! If we don't develop a vision that fundamentally questions the anti-social logic of capitalism, and build collective capacities that can challenge corporate power, things won't just stay the same, they are likely to get worse. It will need the more than union action, it will need everyone below financial elite level (the 99%) to stand in solidarity and refuse to accept this madness whereby governments are giving ours and future generations tax revenue away to the very same people who caused this catastrophe by greed and the blatant corruption of the entire financial/political system. They are taking control of democratically elected governments now as if it was par for the course. People are waking up - note the occupy movement - and they need to know the facts behind the media spin. The WEA is vital to that process

Dave Egan said...

In assessing the importance and urgency of a re-invigorated social purpose for a wider and more critical approach to adult learning you note that

'As corporate forces continue to expand their influence through their political acolytes, mass media outlets, and ‘research’ centres funded by them to undermine beliefs in inconvenient truths, it is more important than ever that the advancement of learning for all resumes its true course with the help of social educators.'

The work of Tom Slater at Edinburgh has come to my attention and I think he is helping to explore the 'cultural production of ignorance' that is at the heart of much of this. It is worth taking a look at his recent piece on 'agnotology' in which he argues that a

'familiar litany of social pathologies is repeatedly invoked in a strategic deployment of ignorance with respect to alternative ways of addressing poverty and social injustice'.

For me exploration of this could fit extremely well as a follow-on and enrichment to some of the steps we have taken to integrate ideas and propositions emerging from the 'Spirit Level' into learning programmes.
We need people to start questioning the 'givens' in all of this.
'How Broken is Britain?' and/or 'how is Britain Broken?'. We might not come up with the same anodyne answers as the Centre for Social Justice.


Henry Benedict Tam said...

The 'cultural production of ignorance' neatly sums up the strategy of the new exploiters. The old exploiters relied on force and dogmas to subdue the masses. They dismissed the quest for knowledge as futile. Then they saw the challenge it posed to their authority and tried to suppress it. But now they seek to subvert it by flooding the media with their false claims, diversions and distortions. The WEA has a major role to play in rolling back the frontiers of plutocratically promoted ignorance.

Take Part Network said...

Henry, thanks for this piece emphasising the crucial role of the social educator in supporting social transformation. The Take Part Network has written a collective comment building on this and emphasising the importance of dialogue in active learning for active citizenship.

Please see http://www.takepart.org/manageContent.aspx?object.id=11105&mhtm=read_more_news_article&param.1=13587 for more.

Take Part Network said...

Apologies for the broken URL in our last comment. The correct URL for the Take Part Network's response to Henry's post is:

Alternatively, click on the hyperlink for 'Take Part Network', above.