Few traditions are as admirable as that of self-taught working people, including the women mill workers in Victorian Lancashire who would rise an hour before work in order to read Shakespeare together. It was for these patronisingly named “autodidacts” — a category which sometimes included anyone who hadn’t been to Oxbridge — that Ruskin College, the Workers’ Educational Association and the so-called “Extra-Mural” departments of universities were to provide.
Sixteen years before the Beveridge Report was published, the working people of Britain showed that, whatever problems might afflict them, ignorance wasn’t one of them. The General Strike of 1926 broke out when the mine owners tried to impose lower wages and longer working hours on their already impoverished coal miners. Soon three million workers in other industries (transport, iron, steel, building, printing and so on) had pitched in.
These people may not have known much about algebraic topology or the history of post-Impressionism, but they knew how to organise. They were not the objects of Beveridge’s benevolent paternalism but self-determining actors. They also knew about want and hardship, justice and solidarity. The truly ignorant were those highly-educated undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge who acted as strike-breakers, and who knew nothing of the conditions in which most of their fellow country people had to live. Ten years later, a new generation of the erudite and educated would boo the hunger marchers….