Theory & Struggle

Really useful’ knowledge and 19th century adult worker education – what lessons for today?

Theory & Struggle (2016), 117, (1), 67–74.


Richard Clarke Really useful’ knowledge and 19th century adult worker education – what lessons for today? :Richard Clarke Visiting scholar at University of Westminster, previously Director of the Centre for European Protected Area Research, Birkbeck, University of London In the last issue of theory & struggle Pete Caldwell and Peter Templeton draw attention to the collapse of the ‘Great Tradition’ of liberal adult education as embodied in the provision of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and of associated university extra-mural departments.1 At the same time most trades union education (including the TUC’s own UnionLearn programme) has focused increasingly on issues such as workplace representation, trades union law, health and safety, equality, communication skills and professional development. In both cases the space for political education has become progressively smaller. Education has always been contested terrain. This is especially true of adult worker education where conflicts over curriculum, constituency and control what it should contain, who should receive it and who decides - characterised the establishment of Mechanics’ Institutes (MIs) some two centuries ago. MIs were not the first attempts to extend adult education beyond the limited confines of the seven medieval English, Scots and Irish universities but they were the first systematic movement to do so for the working class. Eighteenth century precursors ranged from dissenting academies though literary and philosophical societies and subscription libraries for the more privileged, to penny circulating libraries, local discussion groups and radical corresponding societies. But none of these (except perhaps for the corresponding societies, suppressed by the 1799 Corresponding Societies Act within a decade of the founding of the first, London society in 17922) constituted an enduring movement in terms of the number of institutions and individuals involved. By mid-century the MI movement had spread throughout Britain3 – and beyond. Estimates vary from c. 7004 to1,0005 institutes in Britain alone. Almost every sizeable town as well as many villages had its MI or like institution, often (as in Yorkshire and Lancashire) linked in unions for mutual support including provision of books and lecturers.6 The form that MIs took varied considerably, according to local circumstances. All were initially for men, even in areas where women (and children) formed a significant part (and sometimes the majority) of the working population. Women were only gradually admitted from the 1830s, at first only as associates and to certain categories of provision, such as public lectures. Most were established ‘top down’ by local manufacturers and merchants or by Liberal philanthropists and politicians, motivated variously by the need to provide a technically literate workforce in a rapidly changing industrial scene or by a wider vision of social progress in which education was a key element. Some however were initiated ‘bottom-up’, controlled by working men themselves. These often claimed inspiration from a mechanics’ class established in Glasgow by students who in 1822 seceded from Anderson’s Institution (established in 1796 for the education of the ‘unacademic classes’ and where George Birkbeck had taught from 1799 until 1804, when he moved to London) following disputes over control. Selfadvancement was a feature all the institutes but whilst it sometimes included collective advancement (of workers, or rather certain categories of working men) it rarely extended to any vision of the transformation of society or of relations of power and class. One Institute that did begin with such a vision was the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI). Its formation was particularly high profile at the time and was subsequently recognised7 (as it is today)8 as an early milestone in the provision of adult education for the ‘lower classes’ and the model for a movement which spread rapidly, not just in Britain but beyond, particularly in Australia and North America. It was also hugely contentious. The call for an MI in London was made on 11 October 1823 in the Mechanics’ Magazine, which had been launched that August. Aimed at the literate working class under the slogan ‘knowledge is power’, this cheap scientific weekly was the first of its kind and was highly successful. Its editors, J C Robertson and Thomas Hodgskin had met in Edinburgh where they had been politically active. Committed to popular science (and to a successful publishing venture) Robertson wanted to break into the ‘closed shop’ of London patent agents and perhaps also to forestall a proposal to create a new institution under the control of the rival London Journal of Arts and Sciences.9 Hodgskin’s aspiration was more ambitious; no less theory&struggle 67

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Author details

Clarke, Richard