If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

What follows is an account of the British Labour Party, organised not by chronology but in answer to three broad thematic questions: who support it? how is the Party organised? and what ideology does it represent?

My commentary was first presented as a short talk at the Battersea Labour Party in late April 2011, where it provoked some interest. So I decided to expand it into my May Discussion-Point – for people of all parties – and not just those who, like me, have stuck with the Labour Party, often with very mixed emotions. As I wrote, the text expanded into a short essay, which can be read in the attached pdf file.

In summary, the arguments run as follows:

Who? The Labour Party has never been just the party of the ‘workers’. Instead, it’s a coalition between the organised and unionised workforce plus the professional middle class and the left-wing intelligentsia. Clause IV of the 1918 constitution cheerfully defined them as ‘workers by hand or by brain’. (These are generalisations, which don’t apply to all individuals, needless to say).

Ranked against them is the rival alliance of the patriarchal upper class with the now predominant commercial middle class and the right-wing intelligentsia (again a generalisation), seeking votes from working-class Tories. Meanwhile, the unskilled working class, which is non-unionised, very poor, politically inactive, and to an extent electorally non-registered, tends to be neglected on all sides.

On this basis, the Labour coalition has continuing strength in its urban and industrial heartlands, tho these are vulnerable to economic erosion (cf the disappearance of the mining industry). And the core alliance between the ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ wings of the movement needs constant renewal.

How organised? Political parties on the left (and on the far right) tend to be more fissiparous and liable to splits than are those on the centre-right. Labour has long experience with rival parties. After all, it was not the first in the field. The Independent Labour Party began in 1892 and operated as a left-wing ginger-group within the new Labour Party (formed 1906). Then in the political crisis of 1931, the ILP split from Labour, which was hammered at the polls. Only after the Labour landslide of 1945 did the remaining ILP MPs join the mainstream, leaving the ILP to dwindle into a quiet demise in 1975.

After that, there was a quite different crisis in 1981. This time the split was on the Labour right. The four senior politicians (quickly named as the Gang of Four by the press) left to form a moderate Social Democratic Party, now merged into the Liberal Democrats. In the event, the scale of the secession was not nearly as great as was feared. But internal arguments between left and right, later updated as debates between Old and New Labour, long continued. Little wonder that party leaders always stress the need for internal concord: ‘Unity is Strength, Brothers’. Considerable harmony was achieved in the 1990s, when all were united against the Thatcher/Major governments.

Then Labour in power from 1997-2010 continued a top-down command style that discouraged internal party debates. It worked up to a point, but alienated too many among the rank-and-file. Labour’s individual membership post-1980 (when reliable records start) reached a peak in 1997 but by 2010 had fallen to less than half that level. Now the party is not feuding; but it does need some rebalancing between unity and constructive debate.

What ideology? Both in power and in its programmes, Labour has tended in practice to be pragmatic. The remark ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’ – regularly attributed to Herbert Morrison – marked an aversion to ideological purity that was characteristic, although not universal, among Labour’s leaders. However, political parties must have some sort of political compass. Debates cannot be avoided, both about aims and best means of implementation.

Two prominent strands within Labour thinking can be defined as the socialist and the social democratic, although actual policies have often blurred the differences. The first, sometimes also known as Old Labour, wanted radical redistribution of wealth and power, as well as public ownership of the ‘means of production and distribution’. (But, unlike the communist parties, this tradition did not advocate a one-party date). The second, or social democratic tradition (although not using that name, especially after the Gang of Four split) has also endorsed redistribution as an aim but has always been much more favourable to the market economy. In recent times, the New Labour formulation has become predominant, with its mantra of ‘choice’. That seemed to move away from state control, especially in the economy. On the other hand, the Blair/Brown governments proved to be increasingly fond of centralised direction, with attempts at micro-managing via the unpopular targets culture almost all aspects of central and local administration, and the work of many arms-length institutions as well. That contradiction generated more than a little tension.

Today things are moving on from the disputes between Old and New Labour. The first tradition has lost conviction; the second has lost momentum. People now want to debate, without tearing the Party apart. New recruits want action, not philosophy seminars. There is much to do. In its first century, Labour has waxed and waned and waxed again, in the characteristically episodic manner of left-wing movements. Between 1910 and 2010 it was in government for no more than 33 years.1 But Labour has helped to define British politics, both in and out of power. Above all, its mid-twentieth-century creation of the Welfare State was truly monumental. And, in a new guise in a new century, there is much yet to do …

1 This calculation is a crude year-count, totalling Labour governments in 1924, 1929-31, 1945-51, 1964-70, 1974-79, and 1997-2010 – but excluding Labour’s contribution to the wartime coalition 1940-45.

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I know that I am not the only person with an interest in and affection for Britain’s Universities, who is deeply worried by the Universities’ collective failure to stand up to successive central governments. Many people raise this point with me. There is a general perception that Britain’s Universities do not stand up strongly enough for the values of education – and for the supreme importance of knowledge that is not subject to tampering by political leaders. The old arms-length system of governance has already been much eroded. Ministers now talk as though Universities are agencies of the central state, instead of being independent self-governing institutions.

So why are the Universities supine vis-à-vis successive governments, whether Tory, Labour or Coalition? In reply, I generally comment, rather supinely myself: ‘Oh well, he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

Yet consider the British Army. Or the National Health Service. Both are funded by central government. But both they and their supporters among the wider public can rally formidable protests at changes which they consider undesirable. So my answer doesn’t really tackle the question.

Of course, there is never universal agreement as to which policies of successive governments are or have been detrimental to academic life. That point, however, is not my concern here. Public opinion is often divided over changes to the Army or Health Service but that has not stopped campaigns either against specific changes or in favour of other innovations. The debates over what is now called the ‘Military Covenant’ constitute one example. This traditional, if entirely unwritten, pact between the armed forces and the state may potentially be traced back to sixteenth-century levies to assist disabled solders. The term, however, is novel. It arrived in 2000, courtesy of a Ministry of Defence booklet, entitled Soldiering: The Military Covenant. And it has already become a hot political issue, with contested proposals (the Coalition currently against; Labour currently in favour) to codify the vague unwritten pact into positive law, which is likely to be costly.

By analogy, is there anything like an Educational Covenant? Or, if that’s too grand, then a general Educational Concord between the state and lifelong learners? What would it comprise? But no, education is a fragmented cause. And in the UK the Universities fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Skills! Yes, they are necessary. But what an insult to Knowledge and Learning, without which skills don’t work.

Why was there no outcry from the Universities? One answer must certainly be that the elite institutions within the tertiary sector view themselves, and are reciprocally viewed, as part of a nebulous but nonetheless discreetly powerful ‘Establishment’. That perception works against any forms of public lobbying or confrontation. Sound ‘chaps’ (both male and female) apply pressure discreetly behind the scenes.

The perception applies particularly to Oxford and Cambridge. And it holds whether individual Oxbridge dons are languid establishment-types; or scatty bohemian-intellectuals; or (comparatively rare these days) earnest workerist men and women of the people; or (even rarer) zingy Morris Zapps jetting around the world from conference to conference; or (very common) harassed professionals with a preoccupied look as they continually chase behind a hundred tasks that are never done.

Behind-the scenes lobbying, however, doesn’t work nowadays – even for the elite. And it does nothing to combat out-of-date assumptions about Universities. The power of traditional assumptions is sufficiently great that Tom Sharpe’s satire of Porterhouse as a bastion of upper-class privilege, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, organisational incompetence, and elaborate feasting is too readily believed to be the institutional apogee to which all other tertiary institutions secretly aspire.

april001In fact, the reality is different in many ways. The tertiary sector is very variegated. It has faults, but they are often too neo-brutally managerialist rather than slumberingly Porterhousian.

Thus a second reason for the strangled public voice of the Universities stems from the divisions within the University sector. The tactics of the old-Establishment no longer work but there is no new-Establishment consensus to make a new case. The non-Oxbridge campus novels by academics Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, witty and penetrating as they are, provided further satire of a sector in quest for a viable role in a doubting world.
april002april003Divisions between Universities are now institutionalised into rival lobby organisations. The Russell Group (founded 1994) represents 20 Universities, self-defined as the research elite, constituting a limited company (no: 6086902), operating from a base in Cambridge. Feeling excluded, another 19 smaller research institutions created the 1994 Group to defend their research credentials. It operates with an Executive Board, chaired by an academic, with at least five permanent staff members. A similar corporate structure services the University Alliance, which represents 23 ‘major business-focused’ Universities. And from 1997 onwards the Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU) has organised 27 former Polytechnics and University colleges – then known as ‘new’ Universities although many already had long histories. This group now operates as a London-based Think-tank, known as the Million+ Group. These divisions mark a classic case of self-divide and be ruled.

Off-setting this plurality of voices and competing interests is the pan-University alliance, known as Universities UK (UUK). It began with informal meetings in the nineteenth century of a handful of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Now it serves 133 Universities and University Colleges, together with two national sub-groups comprising Higher Education Wales and Universities Scotland. Together they seek to provide a ‘definitive’ voice for all these institutions. And they do good deeds. Recently, for example, UUK helped to pressurise the Coalition government into a partial climb-down over the conditions attached to visas for overseas students – restoring some possibilities for post-study work within the UK. Nonetheless, this umbrella organisation has a difficult task in view of the organised separatism of its constituents. UUK can campaign at the level of general policies that affect all but has to tread cautiously or not at all on issues that divide its membership.

Furthermore, there is no one governmental Department that speaks to and for the educational sector. No equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, battling for the armed forces. And without such protection, education politicians often seem to be battling against the very sector which they are supposed to be leading.

Thirdly and lastly, therefore, the Universities have an urgent job of education to do. They need to explain their intrinsic value. Higher education is not only a massive economic multiplier but it’s also an essential component of the human educational endeavour – developing and transmitting to the next generation the corpus of stored and codified human knowledge to date. The more we have of it, the better for all.

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Revolution – metamorphosis – transformation – disjunction – diagenesis – dialectical leap forward – paradigm shift. Marvellous long words and phrases, such as these (and many more), collectively express the sense of drastic upheaval that is contained within the concept of macro-change.

And yes, great turbulent upheavals occur not only in the natural world (earthquakes, volcanoes, tempests, floods, fires) but in human societies too. Not surprising, really. We are part of the whole and so subject to the same intricate mix of continuities/gradual changes/ and macro-changes that interact seamlessly throughout the cosmos.

But, talking of great transformations, three distinctions can be made.

Firstly, language. The term ‘revolution’ is far too often over-used. It has become tired, lacking the punch and clarity that such a concept should retain. So we need a smarter vocabulary to differentiate between the different categories of radical upheaval.

My own advice is to reserve ‘revolution’ for violent and/or transformational upheavals of systems of government. (Here the reference is to something more drastic than a coup, which changes the leadership without changing the regime). Political revolutions are distinctive. They are characterised by mass action, which aims at rejecting, with violence if need be, an established system of rule with its associated power structures, and at installing something qualitatively different. Political revolutions accordingly differ from other forms of macro-change.

After all, is it analytically helpful to name the process of industrialisation as the Industrial Revolution, when it unfolded over decades, even centuries? The shift from a human- and animal-powered economy to one dependent upon mechanical power was truly epic. But its advent incorporated both dramatic innovations and slower evolutionary adaptations. So why not call it a Technological Transformation? Such a name acknowledges the magnitude of change but does not confine change to one revolutionary moment or movement.

For example, the first steam-powered cotton-looms were truly remarkable. They dramatically increased productivity as well as changed patterns of working, as the male handloom weavers in their homes were ousted by machine-minders in large factories [shown below in an early nineteenth-century illustration]. Yet the clerical inventor Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823), who patented his steam-powered loom in 1785, failed financially. It took decades for his pioneering invention to be adopted, adapted and further upgraded; and centuries for mechanical power to become so essential in so many human activities world-wide, as it is today. Technological transformations need therefore to be analysed with a different set of terms and concepts.
march004Secondly: political revolutions also need to be located within a spectrum of different sorts and degrees of change. It is very rarely, if ever, that everything is transformed all at once. The rhetoric of dramatic metamorphosis is both fearful and hopeful: ‘All changed, changed utterly;/ A terrible beauty is born’, as Yeats saluted the Irish Easter Rising in 1916. Yet, when the dust dies down, continuity turns out to have dragged at the heels of revolution after all. What is known as admirable heritage to its fans is deplorable inertia to its critics. Thus Karl Marx once denounced with righteous passion: ‘the tradition of all the dead generations [that] weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’.

There are other forces within history as well as the desire for radical change. Accordingly, theories of history which assume revolution to be the sole mechanism of change are one-sided and need correction. That criticism applies both to Hegel’s dialectical combustion of conflicting ideals, which each time led to the emergence of a new historical stage; and to the Marxist version of revolutionary conflict in the form of dialectical materialism. For Karl Marx and his loyal co-thinker Friedrich Engels the growing tensions from class conflict would eventually ignite great political revolutions, each one propelling a new social class into power.
march002Yet no. Not only does fundamental change frequently develop via evolutionary rather than revolutionary means; but revolutions do not always introduce macro-change. They can fail, abort, halt, recede, fudge, muddle, diverge, transmute and/or provoke counter-revolutions. The complex failures and mutations of the communist revolutions, which were directly inspired in the twentieth century by the historical philosophy of Marx and Engels, make that point historically, as well as theoretically.

Thirdly, therefore: revolutions are not all the same and are not all automatically successful. Drastic upheaval through direct action is sometimes the only way to effect change.

A youthful enthusiast at the Berlin Wall before its fall –
trying some revolutionary spelling for good measure.
Copyright© NasanTur 2008

The concept can exert a radical charm all its own, especially in prospect – before any bloodshed. ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’. ‘O brave new world’. Yet rosy dreams may turn to horror. Brightness can turn to night. ‘Musing on roses and revolutions,/ I saw night close down on the earth like a great dark wing …/ And I heard the lamentations of a million hearts’, as the African American poet Dudley Randall wrote sombrely in 1968, aware that radical hopes would not easily transform the long after-history of African slavery.

So within the revolution, remember that it is easier to unite against what is not wanted than to agree on what is wanted instead. When the old regime has gone, it is important to keep talking rather than to switch to fighting one’s own side. Don’t let the revolution consume its own children. Don’t let the new regime mimic the faults of its predecessor. Use the great heroic power of revolutionary transformation to break from violence into new dialogue and new construction, taking time to engage with evolution and to tame old continuities.Celebrations-TahrirSquare

Celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 12 February 2011 after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s President. Copyright ©nebedaay’s photostream 2011

Lastly, is there a periodicity to political revolutions? Do they come in any predictable pattern? In fact, again no. History would be tidier and easier to understand if it were so. Nonetheless, there is often a chance (not an inevitability) of a political uprising, even under the most repressive regimes, with each bold new generation of young people – every twenty years or so. We are currently witnessing the opportunity for real political transformations in the Arab world. Let it be beauty and not terror that forthcomes.

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History as a University subject will have to fight harder for its custom – and why not? It has strong arguments for its cause. But they do need to be made loudly and clearly.

From 2012 onwards the success or failure of subjects will depend upon student choice under the new tuition fees regime (outside the protected ring-fence of state funding for Science; Technology; Engineering; and Mathematics). For good or ill, that sudden policy change creates a competitive market. It will be based on the choices of eighteen-year-olds, for all teaching (and hence research) in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

For History (meaning History as a subject for study), there is a risk. Not that interest in the endless ramifications of the subject will die. An interest in the human past is very pervasive among humans who live in and through time. It may take the form of ancestor worship. Or maybe swapping anecdotes about past sporting heroes. Or watching history programmes on TV. Or a myriad of other ways. In sum, a generalised interest in the human past is completely safe from the vagaries of fashion.

The risk, however, applies to the academic study of History. It may be marginalised by a stampede to take courses which seem more immediately ‘useful’ and/or more likely to lead to lucrative employment. Law, business management, and – for the numerate – economics might seem like the hot choices.

In fact, however, studying History is a good career choice. It focuses upon a great subject – the living and collective human past. Nothing could be more wide-ranging and fascinating. It is open and endless in its scope. And simultaneously it inculcates an impressive range of skills, which are individually and socially useful.

For that reason, History graduates go on to have careers in an impressive variety of fields. They experience relatively low levels of graduate unemployment. And they find mid-career changes much less difficult than do many others.

Forget old moans about ‘History is bunk’. Henry Ford who is credited with this pithy dictum (in fact, it may have been polished by a journalist) came to regret it deeply. It took a lot of accumulated human history to be able to manufacture a motor car. [For more on Henry Ford and the motor car, see P.J. Corfield’s Discussion-Piece pdf/1 All People are Living Histories: Which is Why History Matters – within this website section What is History?]

Forget too easy comments such as ‘History is dead’. In fact, the human past is a complicated mixture of things that have departed and things that survive. Like human DNA for a start: individuals come and go but, as long as the species survives, so does human DNA as a collective inheritance. The same applies to human languages. Some do disappear, with the communities who spoke them. Some mutate into different but related forms, like Latin into Italian. And most languages evolve slowly over many centuries, with all sorts of transfusions and minglings on the way: like English. The incredibly complex human past is far from over. It lives as long as humans as a species live.

The point is that History should be studied both for love of the subject AND for its individual and collective usefulness. It is not an either/or choice. But a rational choice to get BOTH.

People have many times listed the benefits to be gained from studying History, in terms of its high-level synthesis of both Knowledge and Skills. So the following list is not unique. These are the points that occur to me (Feb. 2011) and I look forward to learning of others.


  • teaches students about their own society and its past
  • teaches also about other countries in the same part of the world
  • also takes a world-wide perspective and teaches about far distant places
  • enables students to switch their analytical focus as appropriate between close-focus studies AND broad surveys
  • teaches about periods of history that are close in time and also far distant in time
  • therefore encourages students to think through time and about time; and
  • allows extensive choice of specific periods, countries and/or themes for study, drawing upon the huge documented range of human experience
  • trains students simultaneously to analyse a magnificent array of sources, from words to numbers to pictures to sounds to physical objects – and even, in some cases, the smells of the past
  • teaches students to detect fraudulent use of sources
  • trains students to search for and use appropriate sources for their independent studies
  • requires the continuous weighing and assessing of disparate, imperfect and often contradictory evidence to formulate reasoned conclusions
  • inculcates the expression of cogent argument both in writing and in communal debate
  • also trains students to read and to assess critically a huge quantity of writings by expert authorities, who often disagree
  • trains students to use historical websites and databases both adeptly and critically
  • encourages students to think cogently about the links (and disjunctures) between the past and present
  • studies the meanings and often conflicting interpretations attached to the past
  • trains people to help with dispute resolution through historical understanding (‘where people are coming from’) and through empathy even for causes which are not endorsed personally
  • teaches the distinction between sympathy (personal support) and empathy (contextual understanding without necessarily endorsing)
  • allows students to distinguish between history as propaganda and history as reasoned (though still often disputed) analysis
  • allows students to analyse and debate the nature of studying the past; and
  • above all, inculcates an understanding of the human past within a historical perspective.

In sum, studying History at University can be undertaken for love and usefulness combined. It offers access to a huge, fascinating and endless subject, drawing upon the entire range of human experience and requiring a high synthesis of skills and knowledge.

No wonder that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) long ago praised an understanding of the human past simply as: ‘Histories make men [humans] wise’.

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Currently, fashionable chatter on the new political Right refers approvingly to the case for ‘chaos’. That view is voiced by Nick Boles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, author of Which Way’s Up? The Future for Coalition Britain (2010). Out of institutional turmoil, financial cuts, and the end of central planning there will – supposedly – emerge a benign new localised order, freed from the shackles of the contemporary state. The premise is that things should not be as they are. So the uncertainty of chaos is needed to encourage change. But history provides no guarantees that the outcome will be the one desired.

Rather more traditionally, the hard political Left also hopes for ‘revolution’. It’s not the same as ‘chaos’, though it contains the same hope. Out of upheaval will emerge the desired socio-political transformation. In fact, it has proved difficult to achieve such sweeping changes. It takes a total crisis to offer a revolutionary opportunity (as in Russia in 1917). But, even after that, it remains hard to keep a revolutionary regime in power against internal and external enemies, without compromising the original ideals that animated the revolution in the first place. Soviet Russia offers a sad example.

So why the apparent enthusiasm for chaos or revolution? Such attitudes mark an impatience with the strong forces of tradition and vested interests (see my October Discussion-point). And, in certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to drastic action.

But what about the case for the subtle power of gradual change? Perhaps slow transformation seems simply too tardy for today’s politicians. After all, they are constantly beset by demands for instant headlines and instant results. Belief in gradual change has also been tainted by its past association an infallible and unstoppable ‘Progress’. The horrendous experiences of the twentieth century – in terms of world wars, genocides, mass famines, and killer epidemics – have discouraged any easy belief that things are slowly getting better across the board.

On the other hand, there are still some things to be said in favour of gradualism. It marks gentle ‘progression’ rather than inevitable ‘Progress’.

As a political method, it works by trying to convince people. They are to be wooed, not bludgeoned. ‘Slow but sure’ runs the adage. Festina lente – ‘make haste slowly’. ‘More haste, less speed’. Follow the example of the Roman consul Fabius Maximus. Avoid battle or direct confrontation, especially when likely to lose. Play for the long term. But don’t give up either. Fabianism is no excuse for inertia but an invitation to join the ‘long march’.

Historically, there are many examples of how patient advocacy over time can change social attitudes. Once majority opinion in many cultures held that human slavery was permissible and acceptable – even necessary and justifiable – in certain circumstances. The first few campaigners against the practice were condemned for their utter unrealism. Now, however, world-wide opinion holds that slavery is a social evil, even though various forms of personal unfreedom still – shamingly – exist in practice. Official beliefs have changed, collectively and gradually. Even those who covertly disagree find that they have to endorse the new line publicly. And there are reasons to hope that, eventually, the practices of covert slavery will also be stopped, in line with the reversal of world opinion from pro- to anti-slavery.

In fact, cultural attitudes, languages, and ideas are characteristically aspects of human life where transformations occur slowly and gradually. Individuals may often find that they have changed their views imperceptibly over some particular issue – without remembering particularly when and how the change happened. One common, though not invariable, pattern is a shift from youthful radicalism to an older hostility to innovation. Or it could be a move from earlier pacifism to later bellicosity. Of course, sudden and explicit conversions are also known. But gradual adaptations are very characteristic.

Slow evolution, after all, is a regular part of the physical world, of which humans form part. In biology, micro-change is the characteristic form of species adaptation through natural selection over time. That pattern was convincingly demonstrated in the mid-nineteenth century by Alfred Russel Wallace and, most famously, by Charles Darwin. His field observations substantiated the classic dictum: Natura non facit saltumNature does not proceed by sudden leaps and bounds.

The precise mechanisms of change remain debated; and the possibility of natural catastrophes are also canvassed. Nonetheless, the biological centrality of gradual change remains undoubted. And individuals, who find themselves imperceptibly ageing, know the process at first hand. It happened to Charles Darwin (1809-82), as shown in these likenesses of him aged 31 in 1840 (Left); aged 45 in 1854 (Right); and aged 60 in 1869 (Bottom Left).
charlesdickensLastly, for historians, it is also not surprising to find that gradual change is a powerful force in human history. There are many long-term trends that are slow and relatively imperceptible at the time. One example is the world-wide spread of literacy since circa 1700. Certainly there have been oscillations in the trend; but it is unlikely to be reversed, short of global catastrophe.

Another long-term development post-1700 is the process of global urbanisation, with a continuing growth in the proportion of the world’s population living and working in towns. In addition, the numbers living in great cities of 1,000,000+ has also expanded dramatically. Again, this trend has not been linear. But it is highly unlikely to be reversed – again short of catastrophe.

And finally, what about the contemporary state? It has not arrived out of the blue, as an imposition upon its citizens. Instead, it has emerged slowly, along complex routes – from its origins in monarchical society to its officially democratised version today. Sure, there is much more to do by way of making popular participation in politics more systematic and more effective. Sure, too, there are continuing areas for debate as to how much the state can do and should do. But, again, the emergence of orderly government and a collective sustaining of the rule of law is a trend that has long emerged – is still emerging in some lawless parts of the world – and ought to be encouraged.

With collective urbanisation has come the need for effective governance. With the spread of literacy has come the pressures to democratise – with further steps yet required. And with global population growth has come the collective need to manage the planet for the survival of humans and our fellow species.

‘Chaos’ in the full sense means destruction, not salvation. It means running against the grain of historical trends. So let politicians have a sense of modesty about their own roles and aims. Gradual change is more natural, more sustainable, and socially more pleasant. Progress may have been an ideal too far. But steady progression marks how things actually work – and ought to work.

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Having written last month about the power of Continuity, my next discussion-point reverts to an issue within Education that is much influenced by Continuity. And that is the question of why face-to-face group teaching is not only surviving, in this time of technological alternatives, but remains essential. So why do humans still learn chiefly from face-to-face live communication?

Of course, it’s fine to agree that there is ample scope for learning via the wonders of advanced technology. The chances of television in its early days taking over from face-to-face teaching were never very great. That outcome is contrary to the predictions of some behaviourist psychologists such as B.F. Skinner (1904-90). He argued in the 1960s that the box would provide individualised tuition for students to proceed at their own individualised pace. There is much to be said for his concern for not pushing ahead until the student has understood. And much to be said for his opposition to teaching by flogging.

Yet, crucially, he was wrong about the quick switch to technology. Early television lacked interactivity. It was fine for conveying news in small bites or drama in big bites. The hard graft of day-in-day-out learning, however, proved to be very boring to pupils when seated alone in front of an inanimate box, which competed against the distractions of everyday life. Distance learning works at its best for the very highly motivated. And even then educational packages via TV have had to be gracefully standardised for mass delivery.

Today, the small screen and the web together have much greater educational potential. They allow scope not only for individual views to be debated interactively by peers and by tutors but also for students to pursue their own enquiries and research leads. The whole experience can be much more exciting. A cornucopia of information (and misinformation) awaits – with the potential for bewilderment but also endless stimulation.

So what remains so important about face-to-face education? Why does it survive, indeed predominate, all round the world?

An obvious answer is that it stems from our need, as part of a gregarious species, to be with other humans. Children reared in isolation from normal human contact are severely damaged. And this gregariousness applies to humans across the board – not just in education. But the question can be pushed further: why do we still rely on face-to-face communication when we humans have also invented distance communication systems – and worked hard to make those distance communication systems user-friendly for human requirements?

There are three big reasons: firstly, face-to-face teaching allows for improvisation and adaptation on the part of the teacher, with a speaker’s normal range of hesitations, repetitions, emphasis, perhaps humour, and personal style. That fluctuating flow of information and advice encourages listeners to concentrate and to co-think alongside. At the same time, the teachers’ presentations are subtly but definitely influenced by the response or lack of response of the students. As a result, teaching is a performance art, which is always in process of adaptation. It doesn’t always work perfectly, needless to say. But face-to-face allows for responsiveness. [One implication of this comment is that teaching at all levels should preferably be conveyed with a free flow of words, rather than via reading from a prepared text.]

A second important reason, closely related to the first, is that humans also interact via an even older form of communication. In the course of human evolution, a primordial reliance upon facial expressions, gestures, body language, and sounds of all kinds long preceded speech. And, while the power of words has become hugely important, notably aided by its collateral influence when translated into written words, the old ways have not disappeared. Instead, they co-exist.

So students are also learning, not just from the teachers’ flow of words but also from their entire bearing, as well as from their facial expressions and gestures, which accompany speech in rich counter-point. Of course, expressions and gestures can also be seen via some modes of electronic communication: but stylistic conventions have to be learned to suit different media. No wild gesturing (or even minor gesturing) on TV, for example. Look how the news-anchors rely upon facial expressions but firmly control their hands. [Again, another implication of this comment is teachers need social respect to do their jobs well. Otherwise, they may appear socially undermined in front of their students and their students’ families. Education is supposed to convey the confident message Knowledge is Power! But brow-beaten teachers convey the opposite impression. Thus politicians who loosely criticise ‘bad’ teachers tend to exacerbate the pedagogic problems which they claim to be trying to cure.]

And there is one third important point about the face-to-face encounter which applies particularly to education. The need for regular meetings of tutors and students means regular timetabling, at meetings where students learn from each other. Regular timetabling and unfolding programmes of study together help to prevent learning becoming bitty and fragmented. The regular timetabling of learning fits into a weekly rhythm, which fits into an annual cycle, which fits into an evolving lifetime.

Face-to-face teaching on a regular basis achieves its impact, not just for individuals but for social groups. We gesture; we talk; we observe one another doing the same; and together we gain access to the accumulating and ever-expanding stock of knowledge that has been created over the generations. More specifically, we began with gesture; then proceeded to talk; then to write; and now to invent and use machines. But it’s ultra-human to add the new ways without discarding the old. Indeed, far from discarding, the new communication systems enhance and still depend upon the old ones.

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My discussion-points aim to alternate between big themes relating to Education and big themes relating to Interpreting History. So, since the October debate highlighted the current mania for wrongly prizing Skills over Knowledge (instead the two go integrally together), this November discussion-point takes a different tack, in order to ask Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?

One central point of definition needs to be made immediately. ‘Continuity’ is not the same as ‘Conservatism’ as a political philosophy. It is true that the latter ideology does gain much support by appealing to many people’s desire for the former. But it is equally clear that Conservatives in power may also have their own highly interventionist programmes.

To take a current example, the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Coalition has launched radical cuts in welfare spending as well as drastic institutional reorganisations, in order to ‘roll back the state’. But government is not an ‘intruder’ from an alien world. Its mechanisms have been developed (or, to its critics, overdeveloped) over many years by many governments. So the state and society are closely meshed – not only via institutions, laws and tax systems but also via people’s daily expectations, customary routines and a range of differing vested interests.

As a result – interestingly – one of many factors ranged against the current government’s plans will be the force of Continuity, also known as tradition or, unkindly, ‘inertia’. Its power may appear in many guises, from outright resistance to more-or-less concealed foot-dragging.

Furthermore, Continuity also works unexpectedly by twisting apparent innovations back into ‘more of the same’. An awareness of such slipperiness prompted a famous snappy dictum from a French journalist, named Alphonse Karr (see below). He viewed the string of abortive revolutions across Europe in 1848 and concluded pensively that ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. [Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose].
Alphonse_KarrOf course, Karr was not completely right. Changes undoubtedly do happen, both gradually and dramatically. But they are always tempered by the power of Continuity. In fact, innovations may fail or prove to be counterproductive – either because opponents consciously strive to circumvent change – or because the innovations are imperfectly planned and/or implemented – or because the innovations have anyway little intrinsic chance of success.

An example was the policy of Prohibition in the USA in 1920, when the 18th Amendment to prevent the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol eventually failed. (Prohibition was repealed in 1933). On the other hand, controls or even bans on disputed drugs can work when public opinion is broadly supportive. The gradual demise of cigarette smoking in many Western countries is a counter-example to the case of alcohol.

Where do the forces of Continuity come from? Some are embedded within from time-invariant features of the universe, like the laws of physics, which are constants. These features hold the world together stably from moment to moment. Even within the turbulence of quantum physics, there is one tiny invariant facture, known as Plank’s Constant, which operates as a marker, against which other changes can be measured. But other elements of Continuity come from human societies, in the form of traditions, customs, and habitual expectations. These also can and do change. But much persists, as it would be too exhausting and confusing if everyone altered everything in their lives from moment to moment.

So, lastly, why are the forces of Continuity so strangely overlooked? The answer is that Continuity acts as the universe’s ‘default system’, which is simply taken for granted. It is so constant and so ubiquitous that it becomes invisible. Next time that you do something automatically, without thinking about it, you are enacting Continuity. It’s not the only force in the world – and it’s by no means all-powerful. But it’s more important than is often realised – and it operates not only throughout the wider world but also within you.

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Clearly, an educated and skilled population is a ‘good thing’, socially, culturally, democratically, and economically. Why then is it a mistake to define education as a process justified by – and organised around – the inculcation of skills? The answer is that people cannot learn fully from skills taught in a vacuum. At best they have a half-knowledge of what to do – and at worst, they are have forgotten – which means that later they have to learn the same skills all over again.

This state of affairs leads employers to snort: ‘I can’t think what students are taught in schools/Colleges/Universities’ and ministers to promise ever more skills-training. But it is not working, because, from the best of intentions, the teaching processes have been deformed and are not delivering properly.

Labour meanwhile tinkers with the governmental command structure. In June 2007, out went the Science/innovation office within the Department of Trade & Industry. And out went the Further and Higher Education section, within the Department of Education & Skills. In came a merged new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). But in June 2009, lo! all-change again. Suddenly, the DIUS and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) were subsumed into a mega-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Depressingly, the term ‘Skills’ persists throughout the upheavals, while terms such as Education or even Science sink below the froth.

Vocational education faces similar upheavals. In 2008, the current Commission for Employment & Skills (UKCES) merged the old Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) and the National Employer Panel. Again ‘Skills’ are trumpeted from on high. But if no heed is paid to the need to learn and develop these attributes within a framework of knowledge on the job, then the mantra, however often repeated, can’t work successfully.

What is to be done? My answer is: ask the educators who actually do the job. And then free them to teach not lists of abstracted Skills, which are forgotten, but a range of developmental capacities in the content and context of a deeper Knowledge, which works.

EDUCATION CONSULTANCY AVAILABLE: on all issues relating to Higher Education, including how to finish a PhD thesis, how to teach Skills effectively, and how to boost research achievement.

In this context, please see also CorfieldPdf/16.

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