Invitation to Learn

By the turn of the century, and particularly after 9/11, I had become very interested in applying the insights I had gained from my training in, and practice of, existential psychotherapy to wider issues of philosophy, sociology, economics and, as a sum of all of these, politics. In particular, I sought to understand the issues of Palestine and so-called global terrorism in terms of an existentially-based theory of power.

After 9/11 I wrote the draft of a book called Tough on the Causes of Terrorism, but allowed myself to be persuaded that it wasn’t good enough to publish. It can be found in Box14 of the Mass Observation collection. Perhaps the problem was more that it was seriously out of step with both left and right-wing views of the world, and was therefore unlikely to find much favour. I was also at that time quite stretched by the need to look after my ailing mother, who by then had moved from Watford to sheltered accommodation in Hove.

And so, to some extent as a substitute, I turned to running classes, and later occasional residential study weekends (which I called retreats) in which I sought to get my students to look at the kind of issues which interested me. It would be dishonest to deny that I hoped for converts, of which there were only a couple, but it was clear to me from the beginning that the classes wouldn’t work if they simply represented my own view. Some students preferred to refer to our meetings as discussion groups, but I resisted this, as I felt I had something to offer which was more than just facilitation. In fact I was, and remain, a bit skeptical about the use of unguided discussion. People need something to grapple with and sometimes to push against.

History

Summer 2004: Friends Centre at Friends Meeting House, Brighton  – Background to World News

The Background to World News (BWN) series had been running since shortly after the Second World War, most of that time under Community and Continuing Education at the University of Sussex, but latterly under the direction of the Friends Centre, Brighton. In 2004 I was asked to take over the series. My first, and as it turned out last, course at the Friends Centre – five sessions on The Middle East – ran in the summer of 2004. In the autumn of the same year building work on the Friends Meeting House caused further BWN courses to be cancelled. When the Friends Centre moved its operation elsewhere the BWN classes did not resume. As far as I can tell, this had nothing to do with the quality of my teaching; the problem was simply shortage of space and resources.

February – December 2005: BWN courses restart privately in the North Laine and at Brighton Peace & Environment Centre (BPEC)

In truth these 5-week mini-courses, which ran from February to December 2005, under the banner of BWN, were differently conceived from previous courses. Whereas the focus had until then been on geographical areas or on particular conflicts, these new courses concentrated on concepts in the news. We had mini-courses on The War on Terror, The Psychology of Power, Democracy, The Problem with Power, Religions and Ideologies and The Power of Money. From September morning classes were supplemented by a parallel evening class on the same subject.

January – September 2006: Invitation to Learn mini-courses, a writing group and two retreats 

In view of the change in character of the classes, the BWN heading was dropped in favour of Invitation to Learn. This new title, suggested by one of our students, Trudi Wiseman, had the advantage of widening the scope of our activities. Mini-courses, like those under the old banner – and sometimes they were repeats of them – ran on Armed Forces and the Arms Industry, The Environment, Bad News, International Institutions, Terrorism, Democracy, Religions and Ideologies, and Armed Forces and the Arms Industry. There was a ten-week Writing Lives Group, and we held two very successful retreats, one at Laughton Lodge in East Sussex over a weekend in April – Putting Our World to Rights – and the other at Hindhead Youth Hostel, Surrey, in the first week of September – Inner and Outer Worlds.

September 2006 to the Present: Forty drop-in classes through the year, and from 2008 ‘Writing Our Own Stories’ workshops, plus special events 

There was a morning and an evening version of the drop-in classes, running in parallel, thus saving me somewhat on preparation. I would always prepare a handout, which formed the basis of our discussion. From September 2006 to July 2007 the theme for the weekly drop-in classes was Riddles of Life which looked at a large number of ‘isms’. From September 2007 to July 2008 the subject was The Art of Rhetoric, that is speeches. The 2008/09 series was on People and Power, that for 2009/10 was on Matters of Choice and finally in the autumn term of 2010 I started on programme entitled Through Others’ Eyes.

All of the classes were originally held in my house, but in the autumn of 2007, after Christine moved in with me, I transferred the evening classes to the Unitarian Church Hall in New Road, Brighton, for which, of course, I had to pay rent (though at a very reasonable rate). The morning classes, and the Writing Our Own Stories, which were facilitated by Christine Hollywood, continued in my house

Special events have included an exhibition of Marilyn Stafford’s photographs of 1960s Lebanon, called Silent Stories (part of Brighton Photo Fringe), two Open House exhibitions (one as part of Brighton Festival) called My Mother and Her Aunt and My Mother and Her Friends, a further residential study retreat and a study day at attractive venues, an illustrated talk by the ex-Israeli saxophonist, Gilad Atzmon, called The Primacy of the Ear – The Road from Music to Ethics, and two series of monthly discussion groups at Brighton Peace and Environment Centre under the title of Discussing Conflict Resolution

The drop in classes on the theme ‘Through Others’ Eyes’ was planned to run through to the summer of 2011, but I had embarked on this rather against my better judgement. In the autumn of 2009 I had been diagnosed with rather aggressive prostate cancer and in the summer of 2010 I underwent radiotherapy for this condition. Although I never felt seriously ill, I became rather more protective of myself, and considered that the classes were more stressful than was wise. By then they were making hardly any money, and though financial gain was only part of my motivation, the struggle to keep the classes viable  was, alas, more trouble than it was worth.

I therefore made the decision to retire completely, and so Invitation to Learn came rather abruptly to an end at the end of 2010. Christine Hollywood transferred the Writing Our Own Stories workshops to a new venue where they still continue (August 2012).

Box 12 (Invitation to Learn) at Mass Observation contains much of the documentation of this enterprise, including most of the class handouts.

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