The blind and the one-eyed monster in the living room

 Edward Thompson was responsible for some significant developments within the field of history, notably The Making of the English Working Class. He also worked for the WEA and recently an article (possibly unpublished) for the WEA magazine, Highway by him, about the OU has come into my possession (thanks to Malcolm Chase).  Although undated there is a reference to the Sunday Citizen (Reynolds’ News as was) which ceased trading in 1967. There are other references which make it clear that the way in which the OU was to be structured had not reached the author’s ears (and indeed may well not have been devised). 

Thompson argued against the OU (which he consistently referred to by its older name of the University of the Air) because it appeared to him to offer centralised lectures, not ‘the essential mutuality of the teaching relationship… the controlled dialogue between teacher and class’. He suggested that

The limitation of the television screen is not only that the student cannot question it or answer back; it is also that the man on the screen is blind

He also proposed that the money earmarked for the OU should be spent on the WEA as the OU was crowding out liberal adult education. Thompson was a former Communist who remained active on the left and this argument initially might be classified with those on the right who wanted to retain and improve the status quo (whether elite universities or adult educational  provision) without competition. However, a distinction is that Thompson supported the local because it was ‘in the class where the tutor and the students meet, that the real work of education goes on’. He wanted television to supplement this, not replace ‘the tradition of disciplined liberal adult education’.  He sought to broaden, not stifle, education. He defined successful classes as ones

when the students, from their memories and from their living experience, revise received academic opinion before one’s eyes and reduce the lecturer to the part of saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘the historians haven’t looked at that yet’.  

He suggested that his focus was on how far learning will suffer from the creation of a University of the Air and although he claimed not to be concerned that he might lose his job as a local tutor to an expert on the television, he mentioned the lower pay of WEA staff compared to the salaries that staff of the University of the Air might expect.

Echoes ofhis case against the OU, that it looked like it might displace the superior WEA and undermine the labour movement can be found in some of the work of Michael Young.  Thompson’s views did not prevent him from accepting an honorary doctorate from the OU in 1982. His acceptance speech reiterates his enthusiasm for listening to learners and also perhaps indicates that he felt more reconciled to the OU in practice, specifically its blended approach to learning and teaching, than he had been to the idea of a university of the air:

 ‘I don’t want to strike any controversial note… the experience I gained from my own students changed, for better or for worse, my whole understanding of history’. (E. P. Thompson, ‘The pursuit of learning’, Teaching at a distance, 22, Autumn 1982, pp. 3-4).

This item indicates that while the insistence on the OU being a university in the mould of other universities (an idea often associated with Jennie Lee) was a notion which had a significant impact on the shape and activities of the OU, there was a wide-ranging debate about the OU prior to its foundation.

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