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davEvery member a thinker and a worker: notes from a 1925 social psychology class in Tyneside

Our WEA  Colleagues in the North East recently published this fascinating insight into early WEA courses. It demonstrates that the WEA has always been committed to providing education with a social purpose. We love to encourage our students to develop their critical thinking skills.


Turbulent Times 1918-28

Our recent visit to Tyne & Wear Archives provided a rare insight into the ways that 1920s WEA students responded to the educational activities on offer.

Hidden in a parcel of more mundane documents was a small blue exercise book entitled “Annfield Plain Class in Psychology, Journal 1925-26, 3rd year’.

This was clearly quite an advanced university extension tutorial class. Evidently, there was a class meeting, lecture and discussion each week, and the students took it in turns to take notes in the class journal.

This class was concerned with social psychology and there is evidence throughout that both the tutor, Mr Rutherford, and his students were using a psychological lens to engage with preoccupations of the era, such as the nature of progress and the power of advertising/propaganda. Other discussions dealt with politically charged issues – such as social Darwinism, patriotism and whether there were innate racial characteristics (‘the questions of stock’). These both harked back to the debates of the first world war and were harbingers of the extremist thought which pervaded Europe in the following decade, but the class notes show a critical engagement, taking nothing at face value. Even the contentious ideas of Oswald Mosley and his father were used as examples to stimulate debate.

Additionally, the group discussed what made for a successful WEA class. As the list on the image above demonstrates, the emphasis was on a tutor who could inclusively guide discussions that catered for a wide range of abilities, and a class (“each member a thinker and a worker”) who were willing to participate, absorbed in the topic, and open to others’ opinions.