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(en) Britain, FREEDOM, 29th July 2006, page 5, Anarchistic educational network

Date Wed, 18 Oct 2006 16:30:19 +0200


A massive, unsung, spanning the UK - by Martyn Everett investigates
Asked to give examples of how anarchist ideas work in practice most
anarchists would probably suggest the collectivisation of industry during
the Spanish Revolution. If pressed to give more recent examples then some of
the surviving small-scale worker co-operatives set up since the late 1960s,
or free schools such as Summerhill might be suggested.
Yet there is one successful organisation that few people would think about,
and that is the University of the Third Age (U3A) which was established as a
way of providing further education to the over 45s.
Deliberately set up in the early 1980s as an independent community-based
'Mutual Aid University', and now has a network of 574 local groups covering
most of the major towns and cities in the UK, and members in many small
rural communities.

Although the numbers of elderly people studying in state-controlled further
education has spiralled downwards, total membership of the U3A currently
stands at over 153,00 (February 2006), and increases yearly.

The U3A adopted a healthy anti-authoritarian approach right from the outset,
so that the formal role of the tutor was challenged and usually abandoned
altogether.

As Eric Midwinter wrote in an early account of the U3A: "Those who teach
will be encouraged also to learn and those who learn shall also teach, or in
other ways assist in the functioning of the institution - e.g. through
counselling other members, offering tuition and help to the housebound,
bedridden and hospitalised, by assisting in research projects, by helping to
provide intellectual stimulus for the mass of the elderly in Britain."

The deliberate decision to abandon formal tutoring whenever possible was a
social rather than an economic decision, based on the "assemblage of
experience and skills which is the automatic gift of the third age".

By dint of living, working and travelling, enjoying hobbies and holidays,
fighting wars, raising children "a veritable treasury of knowledge is
spontaneously available and it is the task of the U3A to mobilise and
channel the resource which otherwise would ... be pitifully wasted."

This is how one member of Ealing U3A describes their organisation: "Interest
Groups are the heart of the U3A movement. Groups meet mainly in each other's
homes. Someone with particular expertise and knowledge takes on the role of
teacher, leading each session. Alternatively, a member acts as secretary and
helper with group members taking it in turn to lead a meeting. Groups
generally meet fortnightly or monthly and everyone pays 20 pence a meeting
to cover tea and coffee.

"The movement is a self-help organisation. Most of the teaching and tuition
comes from the ranks of its own members. It is a unique educational '
self-help co-operative. While each U3A is an autonomous unit responsible for
organising its programme, the Third Age Trust - of which all local U3As are
members - provides local U3As with administrative and educational resources
and support to help in running their groups. It organises 'subject networks'
of individuals who are willing to assist others in their particular field of
study, e.g. languages, history, geology, etc.

"As leadership comes from the members themselves, a U3A member may be a
student in one group one day and the leader or tutor the next. It is not
always necessary to have an expert as a leader. In some subjects, members
learn from each other and the role of the leader is to encourage everyone to
take part.

"Interest groups are often quite small with meetings or classes taking place
in members' homes. Not only does this save on accommodation costs, it makes
for friendly contact among members."

In Norwich the U3A has over 700 members and more than 40 active groups
studying computing, science, environmental sciences, seven different
languages, arts, crafts, literature, poetry, theatre, and nearly 20 leisure
subjects, including music appreciation, bowls, philosophy and vegetarian
cooking.

While state-sponsored adult education now only runs courses that result in
certificated qualifications, the U3A does not mark or grade educational
activity, and the rigid boundaries between education and leisure have been
dropped.

In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Peter Kropotkin defined anarchism as a
society without government, explaining that social harmony in anarchist
society would not be achieved by "by obedience to any authority, but by free
agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and
professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption,
as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and
aspirations of a civilised being."

He went on to describe how this might be realised: "In a society developed
on these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover
all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as
to substitute themselves for the State in all its functions. They would
represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups
and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and
international - temporary or more or less permanent - for all possible
purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary
arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so
on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever increasing
number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs." .(Peter
Kropotkin, `Anarchism', Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1905.)

The U3A provides a living example of how people can organise effectively to
bypass and replace the state, demonstrating a method that can be adapted to
other forms of social activity. Of course there are limits to what has been
achieved, and no doubt in some groups informal hierarchy may still exist.

But if members' personal experience of non-hierarchical organisation can be
extended into other activities such as credit unions, housing co-ops,
communal allotments, then the social basis for informal hierarchy will
diminish.

The experience of the U3A demonstrates that in their daily lives people
organise in ways which are both autonomous and anti-authoritarian because
they provide effective solutions to social problems, even if as individuals
they do not advocate anarchism as a political philosophy. Our role as
anarchists is to argue that the central principles of anarchism - autonomy,
mutual aid, self-help and direct action - are important as forms of social
organisation that provide a practical social basis for the reconstruction of
society.

The members of the U3A have quietly established one of the largest movements
for libertarian education in Europe, and in doing so have demonstrated that
the state is redundant.
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