In June 2011, the North Edinburgh Social History Group published Never Give Up, an illustrated history of a community’s fight for social justice.
A huge success, it deomstrated the often unseen, certainly unheralded, capacity of communities to improve the lives of their citizens and to create local solidarity.
Never Give Up was also the product of intense local effort, written, at least in part, by participants in the events it described and analysed. The same group has now launched Power to the People, a radical initiative in adult education, supported by local Community Learning and Development staff and by the Workers’ Educational Association.
Based on Tuesday mornings in the Edinburgh’s state-of-the art Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, this open-ended series of adult learning sessions will use film, literature, photography, song and theatre to explore some of the great movements of social protest.
Although the group is interested in international events, the course will concentrate on Scottish and, where possible, even more local historical events.
One of the first themes chosen is the Porteous Riots, etched into the historical consciousness by Walter Scott’s depiction of them in ‘The Heart of Midlothian’. The topic will open up a range of major issues on the interpretation of history and of the role of the arts in shaping how historical events are perceived.
The riots occurred in 1736 but Scott’s retelling of them poses problems. Was an account written in 1818, at a time when the French Revolution had made fear of ‘the mob’ a potent force in British politics, likely to present an objective picture of historical events?
The group has identified a wide sweep of issues which it wishes to investigate: the Highland clearances; Red Clydeside; the Hunger Marches of the 1930s; the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, and many more. One of the truly innovative aspects of this course is that has no end-date. This is, literally, open-ended learning. If the learners want more, it will continue.
For the group, education is an empowering force and it will look at early extra-mural educational developments including the Mechanics’ Institutes movement and the self-education, using libraries and classes centred on organisations such as Miners’ Welfare Associations, of men like Keir Hardie. The struggle for women to achieve education at every level is another strong focus of interest.
It has backing from the Janey Buchan Centre for Political Song at Glasgow University. It will utilise the superb Scran archive of photographs and will consider drama as a medium of protest.
The adult learners on the course are keen and enthusiastic. Karen Soso knew what she hoped the course would give her: “I want to know where we come from, what life was like for people like me in the past.”
Roberta Blaikie summed up her pleasure in the process of such open-ended learning: “I enjoy how it’s done, the discussion, the interaction and getting to know things along with other people.”
With inter-disciplinary learning, an emphasis on inter-action among learners, learner-determined outcomes and an emphasis on the pleasure, and not just the utility, of learning, the Social History Group could be said to have leaped ahead of many schools in putting Curriculum for Excellence into action. There are a few lessons there for those of us working in schools and community learning.
The above article was first published in The Herlad on 14 September 2012: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/edinburgh-grabs-adult-learning-initiative.18875626