When universities used to know how to engage Blue-Collar workers

Against the turmoil of the American election and unrest elsewhere from workers who feel “left behind”, inspiration for a different future can be found in the establishment of London’s Birkbeck Collge. 

1823 was a one of the more civilized years in British history. The death penalty was abolished for offences other than murder or treason, the Royal Academy of Music was established, the first pleasure pier was opened in Brighton – and rugby was invented.

1823 was also one of Britain’s more enlightened years for education. It was in this year that the “social entrepreneur”, to use today’s terminology, George Birkbeck, founded an institute to support the education of working men in London. Later, this institute became Birkbeck College.

Reflecting on this week’s events and ways forward, I find useful inspiration the principles and people behind the founding of Birkbeck College.


Fig 1: factory workers during in the early industrial revolution

First and foremost I find inspiration in the 2,000 working men who, after a day labouring on the factory floors of industrialising London in the darkness of November, found the ambition and energy to gather in central London (admittedly at a pub…) to found an institution that would give them the skills with which to face the future. Just seven years later, women would also be admitted.

I find inspiration in the vision and drive of George Birkbeck and his colleagues Jeremy Bentham, JC Hobhouse and H Broughman, who championed their ambition and raised funds for the institution’s opening, even when some argued they were “scattering the seeds of evil”.

Notably, this wasn’t an act of patronage or charity to “better the lives of the working poor” – or get them to “vote right” – but an intelligent, shared response to the needs of the day. George Birkbeck considered the experience and questions of people who actually worked with the new machines of the industrial revolution essential to the development of science and industry. The workers themselves felt entitled to be curious and knew their futures depended on engaging with these new machines.

Reigniting the Birkbeck Spirit

Almost two hundred years have passed since that enlightened day. Birkbeck College continues to be a beacon of opportunity for working Londoners, providing evening classes in hundreds of subjects both vocational and academic.


Fig 2: Birkbeck College today

Today, I would love to find a way to strengthen and spread the “Birkbeck Spirit”.

It speaks of a time when workers felt able to contribute to technological change and when society responded by making sure they did. It was not a time of fear and elitism but a period of open, inclusive creation when ideas from many different people were valued. It was the dawn of Britain’s Industrial Revolution when bright minds changed the world, eventually (very eventually), for the better.


Fig 3: learning together at Aalto’s Design Factory

I do not question the value of expertise but there are many different types of experts in our society, not all of whom are academics. Initiatives such as the Design Factory at Aalto University in Finland recognise this diversity and bring experts – otherwise known as people – from different walks of life together to create better futures together. People are not taught, they learn together and from each other.

“Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge” proclaimed George Birkbeck in 1823 and two centuries later, now is again that time.


One thought on “When universities used to know how to engage Blue-Collar workers

  1. Pingback: Are Universities doing enough as today’s major commissioners of architecture? | Building on Ideas

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