The Workers' Educational Association and the Pursuit of Oxford Idealism, 1909-1949

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Lee, Chih-Hao 

This study examines the practical application of Oxford Idealism to education reform and the adult education movement. According to Idealist philosophy, enlightened and active citizenship was the cornerstone of a participatory democracy. This thesis thus explores how Oxford Idealists used the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) to pursue the aim of cultivating good citizenship and forming a common purpose for the future society they wished to see emerging. The WEA, founded in 1903, embodied the Idealist vision by promoting its two-fold practices: first, it organised university tutorial classes to foster mutual learning and fellowship between intellectuals and workers; second, it campaigned for a state-funded ‘educational highway’, from nursery to university, so that every citizen would have the opportunity to receive the kind of liberal education which had hitherto been limited to upper and middle classes. By exploring the development of the dual initiative, this thesis examines the achievement and limitations of the Idealist project. In particular, it investigates whether and how this pursuit, in the long run, contributed to the rise of professionalism, a trend which has been ascribed to the efforts of Idealists but which in many ways contradicted the ideal of participatory democracy. In so doing, this thesis explains why the influence of Oxford Idealism—this highly moralistic philosophy which inspired a generation of intellectuals and politicians and lent a distinctive flavour to British public policy at the beginning of the twentieth century—gradually ebbed in the public domain.

Biagini, Eugenio F.
Idealism, Professionalism, Adult Education, Workers' Educational Association, Citizenship, Participatory Democracy, Education Reform
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge