Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Richard Henry Tawney

This is a guest blog by Ruth Spellman, the WEA’s General Secretary

Ruthe Spellman, WEA General Secretary

My vote for educational influencers would probably go to RH Tawney for all the reasons why I applied to become General Secretary of the WEA, and why I have had a lifetime’s commitment to improving access to learning.One of my favourite quotes from Tawney;“The purpose of the association is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.”

The quote has huge resonance today as more and more of our language and discourse is dominated by the need to re-examine short term returns, short term profits, short term gratification for the consumer, short term windfalls and bonuses.  Education (as Tawney reminds us) is a longer term investment enabling us to participate in and benefit from the huge technological advances of the 20 century.  To use our inventiveness and creativity and channel our energy into positive outcomes for our society as well as our economy.  Reading the testimony of men and women who have been students, tutors and volunteers for the WEA over 100 years I am forced to agree with Mary Turner (1921 -1989) who was a hugely prolific advocate of the WEA in the North West she said “In terms of interest on investment, the WEA does a lot better that the stock market”

Richard Henry Tawney, former President of the WEA

The Wikipedia entry on Tawney is at and there’s more information at

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

4 Responses to Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Richard Henry Tawney

  1. gogwit says:

    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    Excellent commentary on the value of long term planning. Nice to be reminded that there are horizons beyond the next gate, that ideas can take root, grow and stand the test of time.

  2. Val Woodward says:

    Entered this debate a bit late. I agree with what’s already been said. Please can I add that Paolo Freire, and others, emphasised the links between informal education and community development, or empowerment. This has greatly inspired me.

  3. Ruth Tanner says:

    When I was a WEA tutor, Tawney’s comment that when he was in a classroom with 12 students there were 13 people all learning together was always at the forefront of my mind. Here he was anticipating by 50 years the ideas of Paulo Friere about the need to break down the dichotomy between student and teacher.

    Two other quotes which illustrate his understanding of the tasks of the educatior, also ring true to this day, although couched in the language of an earlie time:

    “Our business is not to organise classes for those whom in the circumstances of today, it may…. be easiest to attract. It is to create a denad for education in individuals… who at the moment may be unconscious of its importance, but who, if a tolerable society is to be created, must be won to believe in it.”

    “The fundamental obstacle in the way of eduction in England is simple. It is that education is a spiritual activity much of which is not commercially profitable, and that the prevailing temper of Englishmen (sic) is to regard as most importsnt that which IS commercially profitable and as of only inferior importnace that which is not.”

  4. Ann Walker says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments here and for some very interesting email responses suggesting further ideas. Some people have also offered to write for the blog. Just let me know if you want to write something – or add your comments online.

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