Don’t be a robot! Think for yourself!

Britain has a fine tradition of autodidacticism, so why not forget university and pick up a book?

Artillery Row

A few years ago, I wrote a short biography (for purposes of internal family consumption) of my great grandfather. Born in 1892, he went to work in the brickfields at the age of 12. He then served in the Royal Navy, where he was shot at on the beaches of Gallipoli, sunk in the North Sea and ended up in Crimea for the Russian Civil War. Afterwards, he got a job as a platelayer on the Tilbury Docks. He became politically active around about the time of the General Strike, joined the Communist Party and was instrumental in getting a fellow traveller selected as the Labour candidate and then MP for Thurrock. He became acquainted with people like Fenner Brockway, a leftist intellectual, and V.K. Krishna Menon, who later became independent India’s Defence Minister.

One of 15 children, he was brought up in the direst poverty imaginable. He mistakenly hoped that the Royal Navy would be more bearable than the brickfields. He soon realised his mistake: this was a time when birching was still allowed in the Navy. His life was a (literally) bloody struggle, and he only found some degree of comfort when he got married and his father-in-law managed to get him a relatively decent job on the docks. Being a platelayer, later a wagon examiner, was a slightly better paid and less tough job than being, say, a stevedore.

When I started to write this little bit of amateur family history, my grandfather (his son, now 91) — who hero-worshipped his father — gave me all the papers and other materials he had relating to him.

Hardscrabble lives made them determined to assert their own dignity

Amongst these was a large box of periodicals, magazines and pamphlets. As well as a White Russian propaganda paper that he picked up when he was in Odessa in 1921 during his naval service, many old souvenir copies of the Daily Worker (including one from the day that Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space), pamphlets on disarmament, “the labour question” and suchlike, there were many copies of leftist periodicals such as Labour Monthly, World News and Views and, most numerous of all, Plebs magazine. Plebs was the official organ of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), a workers’ educational organisation with close ties to the trade union movement.

By turns both serious-minded and irreverent, with spiky cartoons and anti-capitalist jokes, Plebs facilitated an astonishing range of educational opportunities. Readers of Plebs were encouraged to learn subjects ranging from socialist and Marxist theory (naturally), to history, economics, psychology, English, mathematics and so on. Day schools, week-end schools, teach-yourself books and correspondence courses were all offered at affordable prices. Each edition would contain suggestions for new books to read, a large book review section, and adverts for all kinds of booksellers and pamphlets.

The NCLC movement saw education and reading as the path to a better and more hopeful world, encouraging workers to think independently and understand the world as it really was. The slogan of its correspondence courses — “Don’t be a Robot! Think for Yourself” — catches the spirit of the whole movement well. Considering that most of the readers of Plebs (at least, the ones lucky enough not to be unemployed) continued to work long hours in tough jobs, the fact that they chose to use what little extra income and time they had to educate themselves and improve their minds is a testament to their grit and determination.

My great-grandfather also got heavily involved in the Esperanto movement. Esperanto was (still is, to a small band of enthusiasts) an artificial language invented in 1887 by a Jewish eye-doctor from Poland, Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. A sort of simplified and regularised generic romance language, the idea was that it could function as a common tongue for the entire world, reversing the primal sin of the Tower of Babel and helping to spread peace, love and global understanding. It was enthusiastically taken up by left-wing idealists like my great-grandfather, who taught it to himself: my grandfather still has his Esperanto dictionary and copies of The British Esperantist, the official magazine of the British Esperanto Society. He named his bungalow in Grays “La Espero”, which means “Hope” in Esperanto.

Browse the pages of Plebs, and what strikes you immediately is an enormous sense of energy, confidence and agency. The NCLC had been created because working class people demanded it (they rebelled against the more staid offerings of Ruskin College Oxford to set it up). It was by and large run by trades unionists and other working men, many of whom would have faced genuine deprivation and struggle. Their hardscrabble lives made them utterly determined to assert their own dignity and educate themselves, on their terms: they had no deference whatsoever to established educational institutions. Their whole attitude towards the establishment, of whatever kind, from the bespectacled lefty lecturers at Ruskin College to the Tories running the country, was: balls to the lot of you, think you’re better than us? We’ll bloody show you: we can think and write and educate ourselves, thank you very much, without being spoon fed by the likes of you. In short: “Don’t be a Robot! Think for Yourself”.

Contrast this to the attitude of many on the left nowadays, to whom the hollowed-out corporate behemoths that are modern British universities are unquestionable redoubts of authority and status. Never mind that most humanities and arts courses consist largely of being taught to mindlessly imbibe the syllogisms and dogmas of poststructuralism and critical theory with considerably less critical engagement than the priestly scholars of the Middle Ages would have been expected to absorb the axioms of scholastic theology. Never mind that modern universities have completely lost their historic ethos of scholars governing themselves through deliberative collective structures and are now instead ruled over by middle-managers, HE departments and accountants, with all the respect for academics of an imperial governor dealing with recalcitrant natives.

Nothing is more modish or conformist than academia

No class has ever shown more deference to official qualifications and the authority of credentials than modern progressives. You can see this in the nasty undertone of much Twitter rhetoric, where people with lots of letters after their name love to lord it over those who haven’t spent three years soaking in Foucault. I have a doctorate, and believe me, brandishing it in such a way as to suggest that your opinions are fortified by an impenetrable wall of unimpeachable truth and expertise is laughable: I am qualified to speak about 18th century British politics, but not necessarily much else. This doesn’t stop the “I think you’ll find that actually I’m Doctor Bloggs” brigade from suggesting that it is unimaginable impertinence to challenge them. What such people would have made of the proletarian autodidacts who read Plebs, one can only imagine.

Yes, I went to university, but in many ways, I have received more education since university than during it — and I went to Cambridge in the before days, pre-decolonisation and the imposition of other such tedious orthodoxies. What did I do at university? Read a lot of books, think about them and write essays. All I needed was a reading list, and I was away. How much use was “contact time”? In some ways it can help, but in others it can constrain: inevitably university teachers spend a lot of time trying to help the indolent come up to a basic level of knowledge. They wish to teach a relatively narrow range of topics that they know well enough, which means one often has to make one’s own way anyway. Much of the mystique of a university education comes from the need of the institutions, and those who teach at them, to justify their own existence and bolster their status. Ignore the blither, and the value added — particularly with ever larger teaching group sizes — is nowhere near as big as universities would claim.

Nothing is more modish or conformist than academia. Trends — “material culture” one day, “the new political economy of capitalism” the next — come and go. Many academics are constantly trimming the wind to suit the whims of funding bodies, who suddenly decide that their priority is “queer epistemologies” or anything that can claim some tenuous link to climate change. The social background and assumptions of academics are incredibly narrow, which inevitably influences what they teach and research.

There is always the semi-legitimate objection that auto-didacts can lack discipline and become idiosyncratic, or miss some wider context. There is some truth to this, but, overall, we could do with a bit more idiosyncrasy, a bit more (much beloved buzzword) diversity — albeit diversity of outlook, class background and viewpoint more than skin colour or “gender”. I have more faith in intelligent but unschooled individuals, than I do any hierophantic group of neo-Pharisees, to impart new ideas and genuine cut-and-thrust into academic and intellectual debates (which should be the province of any concerned citizen). Better to follow their own impulses and interests than read too much Paul de Man and Kimberlé Crenshaw, writing in such a way as to — to borrow Hazlitt’s description of the purpose of Bentham’s prose — “darken knowledge”. That’s assuming what these people are trotting out constitutes “knowledge” at all, which I doubt.

Publishing used to cater far better to the working class “general reader”, who would devour the sorts of books that could educate and inform in a rigorous yet clear way, free from the jargon and deliberate obscurantism of the sort of contemporary academic work that is typically read by four people (including the author and peer reviewers). My great-grandfather was a member of the Left Book Club, and he dived into works with such shamelessly salacious titles as “The Problem of the Distressed Areas” and “The Condition of the Workers in Great Britain, Germany and the Soviet Union 1932 – 1938” with enthusiasm. The same era also saw the rise of Penguin and similar publishers, with their commitment to the mass dissemination of knowledge and culture. Think of those wonderful blue-covered Pelicans, those glorious Everyman Classics, the vivid yellow and black “Teach Yourself” tomes.

They have completely lost faith in the the ordinary citizen

This culture of self-improvement and earnest endeavour led to the phenomenon (familiar to anyone who used to watch Mastermind in its glory years) of the working-class person, often performing a relatively humble job, who knew more about the novels of Henry Fielding or marine biology or Christological disputes in the Byzantine Emperor than some academics. They immersed themselves in these topics out of curiosity, simple love of knowledge or for the inherent pleasure of appreciating poetry or novels, not because they were status seekers or only interested in “contributing to the economy”, and certainly not because they fancied being able to sneer at the unlettered on Twitter.

Jonathan Rose, in his brilliant book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, looked into the reading habits of the first Labour MPs elected in 1906. The most popular authors and books mentioned by those MPs (few or none of whom went to university) were John Ruskin, the Bible, Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, with Walter Scott, John Bunyan and Tennyson in the top ten. Marx was nowhere — the humane, aesthetically informed Christian social criticism of John Ruskin, or the doughty Protestant ardour of Bunyan, roused them far more than Karl Marx. Even Adam Smith was higher on the list than the tedious German factory-botherer.

I think this illustrates something important. The fear of the credentialled classes is that, without their “enlightened” influence, mediated through the modern wannabe clerisy that dominates universities, the unwashed masses might not think the “right” things and read the “right” books. They might — heaven forfend — think for themselves and come to conclusions that their “betters” disapprove of. Many academics know and fear what happens when working people start to educate themselves and reject the authority of a self-serving priestly caste. It is no coincidence that the autodidact tradition of the British working class found particular expression amongst those rooted in Protestant Dissent, Methodists and Baptists and so on. Democracy, print culture and Protestantism were intimately intertwined in our tradition.

This obsession with credentialism and the authority of experts reflects the fundamental fact of most of the contemporary left. They have completely lost faith in the “common man”, the ability of the ordinary citizen to participate in democratic institutions and exercise both individual and collective agency, assisted by the power of education and self-improvement. They hate and fear the masses, which is why their politics has devolved into a mixture of disempowering legalism and condescending technocratic expert-worship. Only people who have had every scintilla of spirit and originality squeezed out of them, who have been subject to a rigorous round of indoctrination in the ruling orthodoxy — an orthodoxy of victimhood, passivity and gesture politics — can be trusted to administer this curious quasi-democracy.

One might not approve of the politics of my great grandfather, but if there is hope, it lies in people like him: the ordinary, critical citizen of a democracy who is free from the smug groupthink and self-serving hogwash of his “betters”. It will be the sort of person who might take as his slogan, “Don’t be a Robot! Think for yourself!”

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