Oxford and adult education: Alexander Dunlop Lindsay and others

posted by Kaihsu Tai on October 9th, 2007

With Dr Purdie’s permission, I publish his talk below. Some of the work on Charles Plater was published here earlier.

Oxford and adult education: a talk by Dr Bob Purdie given to the Oxford–Bonn Churches Link, Catholic Education Centre, Kasernenstrasse, Bonn, Saturday 9 June 2007.

Oxford is known to the world as a great university city, in which the young are educated in ivy-covered colleges, with the river winding past the golden sandstone walls. It is a city of dreaming spires and book-lined studies, of learning and of research. But it is also a place of inherited advantage and privilege and it is not my Oxford. For nineteen years I have taught in Ruskin College, an independent college in the city, which educates adult men and women who have left school with few or no qualifications. I am also the Chair of the Education Committee of Asylum Welcome, a charity which helps asylum seekers and refugees in Oxford and Oxfordshire. My Oxford is a place in which disadvantage is overcome, prejudice is challenged and discrimination is redressed. And that is part of the Christian heritage of Oxford.

I benefited from that other Oxford. I left school at sixteen, expecting a life of manual labour because I had no qualifications and no opportunity to get into higher education. But at the age of 34 I got a place at Ruskin College and after a two year history course I went on to a BA in History, a Master of Science in Politics and eventually a PhD. In 1988 I returned to the College as a Tutor in Politics and was able to help others to succeed as I had done. I retired from full time teaching in 2005, but continue to teach on short return-to-learn courses.

Through Asylum Welcome I support the endeavour to help refugees and asylum seekers to gain access to educational opportunities. We have a small team of volunteers who give advice and support. They have a great deal of expertise in finding suitable courses and assisting with applications. We help with the cost of courses, but more often we provide books or equipment. Or we can give a bus pass or a bicycle, to enable someone to get to classes. We promote basic English classes, particularly for mothers with young children. We focus on destitute asylum seekers, especially those facing detention and possible removal, because we know that attending a course can raise their morale and allow a semblance of normal life.

We do a lot with very little, but the government has cut funds time and time again and the charities and funding agencies that have supported us in the past no longer give us a such a high priority. We are having to turn outwards and look for help from the wider Oxford community. And we look for support from Christians because we know that they are generous and because the educational work I have been describing is a Christian duty. In the Europe of today feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and helping the poor requires access to education. Christians have always been educators, but it is not often recognised that adult education is of particular importance in overcoming disadvantage and recognising the God-given dignity and equality of all humanity.

Ruskin College was founded in 1899 to give working people an opportunity to get access to the education and enlightenment of the city, which had previously been the prerogative of the wealthy. It gave them a period of living and learning in Oxford, with classes by expert teachers and access to the libraries and lectures of the University. They were challenged by this experience and their presence has been challenging for Oxford. Ruskin College influenced the setting up of a commission on working class education by the University of Oxford in 1907, from which the university extension movement began, with university teachers sharing their knowledge with people who had no previous opportunity of higher education.

The College began as a way of redressing disadvantage based on social class, it has extended its scope to educate people who have suffered discrimination because of their ethnic origins, or sexuality, or gender or because they are refugees or asylum seekers. It has been successful in educating people who failed at school because of a disrupted childhood or learning difficulties such as undiagnosed dyslexia. It works because it is a place of friendship, in which all are respected, are given their human dignity and the individual help they need to make a success of their studies. It has always been an international college, in my time as a teacher I have taught students from more than twenty different countries and five continents. I taught people who have gone out to help others, as teachers, as trade unionists, as politicians, as social workers as writers, in managing businesses and as active members of their communities. I helped members of the African National Congress to study democratic theory, so that they could go back to replace Apartheid with a system that respects human dignity. I taught a the housewife from County Durham whose dissatisfaction with her life led to an honours degree in political theory at Durham University. A 60 year old former casino manager from the East End of London, who won the Bain Medal for Mental Philosophy at Aberdeen University and who told me that he had been saved from wasting his pension in the pub. A young woman from a chicken processing factory in Stranraer, Scotland, who went on to help educate troubled teenagers. A young man of Nigerian extraction from London, who went to work in Hungary for the rights of the Roma people. A young man from Portadown in Northern Ireland, who is dyslexic and is now teaching children with learning difficulties.

Ruskin College is part of a tradition of adult education that was begun by Christians. The first adult classes were founded by the Quakers in the eighteenth century. The Methodists were influential in the creation of the Mechanics Institutes in the nineteenth century. The Working Men’s College in London, was founded in 1854 by Frederick Denison Maurice, one of the leaders of the Christian Socialist Movement. It offered evening classes in subjects such as English grammar, French, book-keeping history, music and art. The art classes were taught by eminent artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the art critic and social thinker John Ruskin, who gave his name to my College. Walter Vrooman, who first proposed the creation of a workers residential college in Oxford, was a Christian Socialist as was Denis Hird, the first Principal of Ruskin College. Christian Socialists also founded the Worker’s Educational Association which extended the principle of adult education across the United Kingdom, in a parallel with the Folk High School movement in Scandinavia and Germany.

I want to tell you about the example set by two Oxford Christians and adult educators. The first was Fr. Charles Dominic Plater. He was born in London in 1875 and was a Jesuit novice in Oxford between 1900 and 1904. He returned in 1916 as Rector of Campion Hall. In Oxford he developed his mission to soldiers during the First World War, but he refused to become an army chaplain, believing that an officer’s uniform was a barrier to a pastoral relationship. In Oxford he spoke out against the international rivalries that had led to war. In Oxford he developed his project of retreats for working people, to give them time for rest and spirituality away from the stresses of work and poverty. And in Oxford he was a pioneer of ecumenism, collaborating with the great Anglican churchmen, Charles Gore and William Temple.

And it was in Oxford that he did much of the work for which he is best remembered, the education of working people through the Catholic Social Guild and the scheme, unrealised in his lifetime, for a Catholic Workers College. He was influenced by Ruskin College, on which he modelled the Catholic Workers College. Henry Somerville the editor of the Catholic Social Guild journal The Christian Democrat was a former Ruskin College student, the Catholic Social Guild summer schools were sometimes held in Ruskin College and, in its early years, students from the Catholic Workers College were welcomed into my College to participate in its courses.

Plater and his collaborators promoted understanding of Catholic social teaching and also of the economic and sociological knowledge needed to make sense of social problems. The Catholic Social Guild was launched in Manchester in 1909 and developed a network of branches across Britain. Local groups would meet to study and discuss books and pamphlets. A system of book boxes supplied them with literature, even where no good library was available and there were regular conferences and summer schools, often addressed by distinguished academic speakers. Working people, with little formal education, were encouraged to study and to develop the self-confidence to form their own judgements on social issues. Plater was an effective educator because he established a personal relationship with his students; one of them wrote to him, “… I haven’t a mind that takes kindly to being labelled as being of a particular political brand … . You, however, Father, present no difficulty. I swallow you completely and without reserve”.

The second Christian educator was, like me, a Scottish Presbyterian. Alexander Dunlop (A. D.) Lindsay, born in Glasgow in 1879. He became fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1906, and after two years back in Glasgow he returned in 1924 as Master of Balliol. Throughout his life he was involved in adult education, in the university extension movement, in the Workers Educational Association and in the summer schools he ran in Balliol. In 1945 he came to Germany to work on reconstructing universities in the British occupation zone. And in 1949, at the age of 70 when he should have been retiring, he became Vice-Chancellor of the new University of Keele and a pioneer of post-war higher education in Britain. Keele was the first of the new universities to be established in a community that had not previously had such an institution. Lindsay helped to forge an open and democratic ethos that broke down barriers and inculcated a belief that teachers, students and the local community were all learning together, in mutual support.

Someone observing him teaching at one of the Balliol schools noted his respect for the working people who had come as part-time students. And he won their respect because of the care he had for each of them, which came from his belief in human equality and in his duty, as a Christian, to make that equality real. His attitude was summed up in a lecture to Workers Educational Association students in 1920: “Adult education is not the process of teaching adults what they should have known when they were young, it is education in the ideals and practice of democracy.”

As an adult educator, I profoundly endorse Plater’s and Lindsay’s understanding that all education must be pastoral but that adult education must also be democratic – in the sense of social equality between teacher and student. To teach adults requires not only helping them to learn new things, but connecting their life experience with the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Helping them to be confident that the world of knowledge is not just for the privileged, but is for also for them. To encourage them to believe that if they work systematically they can become an educated person.

Adult education is a Christian vocation because it must begin where Christ began, with people who need to be lifted closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. With people who need education to improve their own lives and the lives of others – their immediate families and their communities. It begins by finding out what kind of learning they need and not with a rigid preconceived curriculum. It also educates the educators, because respecting the life experience of your students means learning from them. It requires, to use a good Catholic word, “solidarity”, meaning a profound sympathy and friendship with your students. Plater and Lindsay had that sympathy because they were brimming over with love for Christ, which spilled out into the lives of their students. I pray that their mission will continue in this new millennium.

Here are a few more paragraphs from Dr Purdie on Lindsay:

Alexander Dunlop (A. D.) Lindsay, was born in Glasgow in 1879. He became fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1906, and after two years back in Glasgow he returned in 1924 as Master of Balliol. He was a Presbyterian and worshipped in Saint Columba’s. He is best known as the anti-appeasement candidate in the Oxford by-election of 1939, when Labour, Liberals and Communists united against the government candidate. Three future Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, campaigned for Lindsay.

Throughout his life he was involved in adult education, in the university extension movement, in the Workers Educational Association and in the summer schools he ran in Balliol. In 1945 he went to Germany to work on reconstructing universities in the British occupation zone. In 1949, at the age of 70, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Keele, where he helped to forge an open and democratic ethos with teachers, students and the local community learning together, in mutual support.

Someone observing him teaching at one of his Balliol schools noted his respect for the working people who had come as part-time students. He won their respect because of his care for each of them, which came from his Christian belief in human equality. He summed his attitude up in 1920, “Adult education is not the process of teaching adults what they should have known when they were young, it is education in the ideals and practice of democracy.”

Lindsay understood that to teach adults means connecting their life experience with the accumulated knowledge of humanity and helping them to be confident that learning is not just for the privileged. It educates the educators, because respecting the life experience of your students means learning from them. It is a Christian vocation which begins with people who need to be lifted closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.

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