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The Young Tawney and Workers’ Education

April 13, 2014

R.H.Tawney was a big contributor to the development of workers’ education in the first half of the last century as well as an important and influential social historian and left-wing political figure. I’ve just finished reading an excellent new biography of him by Lawrence Goldman and strongly recommend it.

Particularly interesting to me are Tawney’s early years and his innovative work in developing tutorial classes for working class students in the early part of the 20th century, a formative period for the labour movement and workers’ education. Tawney was appointed by Oxford University as tutorial class tutor in 1908 when he was in his late twenties and charged with teaching classes in Stoke and Rochdale, summer schools in Oxford and writing a book on early modern history.

Tutorial classes were a major initiative arising as part of the drive by some Oxford academics, the newly formed Workers’ Educational Association  (WEA) (Tawney joined the WEA in 1905 and was soon on the Executive), along with labour movement and church figures to ‘widen participation’ in university education, particularly Oxford. They comprised a course of sustained and purposeful education undertaken over three years of weekly classes. They benefited from some public funding subject to minimum numbers of students attending at least two-thirds of the meetings and ‘doing such written work as may be required by the tutor’  This was the beginning of the ‘golden stream’ of public funding for adult education, fortunately still extant today.

Tawney had already knowledge and experience of adult education through the work of the Settlements and University Extension lectures. However tutorial classes allowed for more thorough and systematic work and to engage with organised workers as opposed to the disorganised urban poor or the middle class.

‘The genius of English workmen for organisation has covered some of the districts of northern England (for example Lancashire) with a network of institutions, industrial, social, political and religious…There are certain towns in which almost every adult appears to a stranger to be connected with half a dozen different associations. It is obvious that the common atmosphere thus created is favourable, like that of an Oxford college, to the dissemination of ideas.’ (Tawney, quoted in Goldman p 54) The WEA was part of this network of labour and co-operative organisations; they provided the students and were able to select the subject and – to an extent – influence the curriculum.

At the same time, Tawney’s vision was a predominately male one. In his largely sympathetic assessment and review of Tawney and his critics, Goldman concludes ‘Tawney’s signal weakness was…a particular type of insensitivity or blindness with regard to women and their place in society’. For example, Tawney, relating an evening’s class to his wife reported, ‘…there’s enthusiasm for you. But I’m afraid the ladies, mainly school teachers, felt rather left out in the cold, as the discussion after the class is usually dominated by enthusiastic socialists’. In the iconography of tutorial classes manual workers play a predominant part but elementary school teachers and routine white-collar workers were also important participants.

Tutorial class became associated with a particular teaching method based on an hour’s lecture followed by an hour’s discussion. A student described Tawney’s approach as being to begin with ‘the presentation of the factual detail’, then ‘give you the case for and against’ and then sum up. Wherever he could, he taught from the sources. Then followed an hour’s discussion in which class members, that would include young members of the Independent Labour Party and Social Democratic Federation, would ‘go for Tawney like a bull at a gate’. He though refused to be drawn on his interpretation of events. This notion of ‘balance’ was integral to the WEA’s idea of liberal education and the development of independent critical thinking amongst students. It was strongly criticised by the Plebs League and Labour Colleges (whose tutors taught from the viewpoint of a particular brand of Marxism) and others such as George Lansbury, who became a left-wing Labour MP and leader of the party. Tawney did though point out that socialists predominated in all classes and many students had said how the WEA had helped them in the labour and trade union movement.

These principles of tutorial class teaching became widely adopted but it’s worth reflecting upon Tawney’s particular impact; a young, eccentric middle class Oxford academic with a rare ability to inspire many of his students and build a thriving learning community. To him tutorial classes represented a micro version of the sort of society for which he strived.  Recollections by former students present a picture of a charismatic tutor. One of his former students writes of his ‘nobility’, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met a more humble yet at the same time a more noble creature’. This charisma went alongside an egalitarian and at times self-deprecating style, mixed with an authentic interest in his students’ experience. Tawney was clearly able to draw out and learn from their experience and he acknowledged this in his scholarly work.

The subject of the bulk of Tawney’s classes was 18th and 19th economic or industrial history. Why? He was not trained as a historian, in fact history was just emerging as an academic discipline at Oxford and his own research and writing focused on an earlier period. His idea was that by studying the creation of their communities, working class students would be better placed to understand and change their current conditions. In a sense this was the beginning of the ‘social purpose’ curriculum espoused by WEA and university adult educators in the inter-war.

Finally I want to reflect on how Tawney saw workers’ education within the wider education system. Whilst an influential and formative innovator within workers’ education, he did not see this as a discrete area of educational activity. The tutorial classes’ movement was conceived as part of opening up Oxford University, replacing the ‘idle pass men’ with talented working class students. He campaigned vigorously for this attracting considerable notoriety, as well as praise. His teaching experience vividly brought home the limitations imposed by inadequate schooling and long hours of heavy work on people’s capacity to study. His response to this was policy and campaigning work for universal secondary education, the raising of the school-leaving age and improved working conditions.

Tawney was one of the greats of workers’ education in the first half of the last century. Goldman’s book, drawing on much previously unused source material,  provides a fascinating ‘warts and all’ study.

Goldman Lawrence, ‘The Life of R.H.Tawney’ London, 2013



From → Adult Education

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