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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Before Compulsory Education: Autodidacts

As an adult educator, I have always been fascinated by autodidacts, that is people who have largely taught themselves, sometimes as children but usually when older. Before formal education towards the end of the 19th century took off, for many people from poorer backgrounds, this was the only way they could achieve a level of education above basic literacy and numeracy. They become prominent, right across Europe, from The 18th century Enlightenment onwards. Of course, many found an individual, a church or chapel, or even the odd adult education class to help them along the way. My college in Manchester, The College of Adult Education, began life in the 18th century as a night school of the Cross Street Baptist Chapel.

One example from Britain is Joseph Wright, who was born in 1855 near Bradford in Yorkshire. He was the son of a woollen cloth worker and quarryman. He first went to work at the age of 6, as a 'donkey-boy', that is leading a donkey cart. A little older he became a bobbin doffer at Titus Salt's mill in Saltaire. This was an extremely perilous job as he was responsible for removing and replacing full bobbins. Many children across both the Yorkshire and Lancashire textile industries lost their fingers, and even lives, as no one stopped the machinery as they went about their tasks.

Joseph received some basic education at Saltaire, as Sir Titus was, for his time, an enlightened employer. But he only achieved very limited success. Around the age of 15, Joseph began to take an interest in languages. He attended formal 'night school', adult education, in order to learn French, German, and Latin. He also learnt shorthand and maths. At 18 he set up his own night school to share his love of learning with others, and also to supplement his earnings, around £1 per week at the time. By 1876 Joseph had saved £40, and this enabled him to pay for a term's study at University of Heidelberg in Germany. To save money he walked across Europe from Antwerp to the University. Coming back home he continued to learn by attending The Yorkshire College of Science (now University of Leeds). He next swapped his mill job for that of a schoolmaster. He returned to Heidelberg, and in 1885 was awarded a Ph.D for a thesis entitled, 'Qualitative and Quantitative Changes in the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek'.

Back in England once more, he obtained a post at Oxford. In 1901 he became Professor of Comparative Philology, holding the post until retirement in 1925. His academic interests settled on English dialects. In 1892 he published the first dictionary of dialect with his book, 'A Grammar of the Dialect of Windhill'. But, his magnum opus was The English Dialect Dictionary. A work that has well stood the test of time, and remains a major reference work today.

One of Joseph Wright's pupils at Oxford was JRR Tolkien who later wrote of his tutor, ' Years before, I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright. 'What do you take Oxford for, lad?' 'A university, a place for learning.' Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. I's making fees. Get that in your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on'. Alas, [adds Tolkien], by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true.'

There is a lovely story to end on. When his mother visited him at Oxford and he showed her the sights, she said of All Souls College, 'Ee, it 'ould make a grand Co-Op!'

Joseph was perhaps lucky in that he was born in Yorkshire for his attendance at 'night school' would not have been possible in most part of Britain at this date. Today such classes would be described as 'second chance' education but in Joseph's day it was 'first chance', and a fairly slim chance at that.

It is difficult to imagine now that secondary education for all only began in Britain under Butler's 1944 Education Act. We are the first generation to have benefited from this advance. Yet autodidactism is still alive and well, for those children who reject the strictures of the modern curriculum and do their own thing, as well as adults who 'failed' under the schools system and return to autodidactic learning later in life. All of you reading this blog are currently engaged in this form of learning, by voluntarily choosing to read it, as well as your self directed learning, whether by book, on the internet, through the means of television and other media, or by membership of clubs and societies. Many of you will have taught yourselves new skills, from gardening to cooking, from watercolour painting to crochet.

This reflection makes us challenge perhaps, the place the formal system of education occupies in our society - not least in its emphasis on gaining pieces of paper. This has been brought into sharp focus over the last week or so. When I began working in Adult Education in the late 1960s, I was told that when employing part-time tutors not to go necessarily for those with a degree but for those, like Joseph Wright, with a burning enthusiasm in their subject. I now teach history, and have done so for decades in Adult Education, but without a degree in the subject. I also don't have a teaching qualification (it wasn't required back in the 1960s, a degree, in any subject, qualified you).

This may appear anathema to some of you, but the Secretary of State's reiteration of the view that the purpose of education is employment and that universities may be judged on the salaries of their graduates, is alien to all my beliefs about education. The point, if you like, that Joseph Wright made and which was remembered by Tolkien. Education is not about salaries, or about the maintenance of institutions, but about the individual's personal growth as a civilised and educated person, as a person able to function as a thinking unit in a democracy; Of course I acknowledge, there will always be necessary exceptions, such as Medicine.

Why do we need so many university places? Why are so many professions now open only to graduates, such as Nursing? Why do we promise young people that if they get a degree, in whatever, they will be richly rewarded? Why do we still under rate technical colleges? Why is there an attack on Humanities at university, and school, level?

Two quotations from a recently published book may suffice to sum up at least part of this argument, 'The humanities enrich us in ways that do not readily translate into cash metrics' (Eliane Glaser, Elitism). And, secondly, 'The participants of the famous caucus race in..... Alice in Wonderland run randomly around in all directions; when they ask the Dodo to determine the winner, he announces that 'everyone has won and all must have prizes'. Another 19th century Oxford don, Charles Dodgson, with his finger on the pulse, like Joseph Wright.

The Times today had an article about the dumbing down of The National Trust, as indicated in its 10 Year Plan (yet to be adopted). It describes visiting its great houses as 'an outdated mansion experience'. The article's writer, Richard Morrison, concludes with these words, 'It's sad ..... that the trust should have fallen so far from the noble, wide-ranging ideals of its visionary Victorian founders. It just adds to the sense of drift and decline pervading the country at the moment'.

In that recently published book, Elitism, Eliane Glaser, writes of living in an 'amnesiac society', that is one that forgets or indeed, I would add, never knew its past. And, as many of you are probably sick to death of me saying, if we don't know where we have come from how on earth do we know where we are going?

Where am I going with all of this? To challenge the assumption, as regards to education, that the State knows best. The State now uses Education for its own political and economic purposes (this is not a party political point). We must learn to challenge this view or else we run the risk of creating an ever more uneducated (quite different from certificated) society, which will be less able in the future to defend our democracy, let alone preserve our culture, whether it be The National Trust or Opera, or Experimental Theatre, and so forth.

OK, this has turned more into a rant than I had first intended, but maybe out there at least one of you may agree with some of it! If not, you can congratulate yourself on having greater wisdom than yours truly.

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