General Education

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Informal education is fantastic for several reasons. One of them is that you can get going on your own; anyone who knows anything can invite friends and acquaintances to come and hear about it. All that is required is freedom of assembly and a place to be together, or that arrangements can be made to meet in secret.

The French cultural salons

The first form of informal education - as described in the chapter on Education, Cultivation, Paideia, Bildung - took place in the higher circles of the French bourgeoisie before the French Revolution. At that time, people began meeting in private homes for lectures and debates on important political, scientific and cultural topics. It was called "holding a salon". The idea later spread to other European countries where these cultural salons were very popular in the 19th century.

People from the affluent bourgeoisie met scientists, thinkers and artists of all kinds in the cultural salons, the interesting thing being that it took place under an absolute monarchy. Salons were, if not directly illegal, then probably just on the edge of what the kings minded. It is also interesting that it was typically women who organised the salons and that men and women participated equally.

Informal education in the 20th century

After the introduction of democracy in Europe, especially from the late 19th century up through the 20th century, labour movements and peasant organisations became actively engaged in creating educational opportunities for workers and peasants. Educational associations and opportunities to study were established for people who worked during the day and could only study at night. These evening classes opened up a whole new world of knowledge for a lot of people who had perhaps only attended school for 7 years and had only learned to read, write and count.

Evening schools offered, and still offer, courses in everything from languages, literature and history to handicrafts, economics, politics and natural sciences. It is difficult to overestimate the importance that evening schools have, and have had, for democratic societies, partly because they help to disseminate a lot of knowledge, but also because of something equally important: participating in evening school courses means meeting a lot of new people. New relationships are formed and connections made across family structures and workplaces. People meet each other as fellow citizens around a subject that fascinates all of them and this reinforces loyalty between the participants and trust in society, a mutual trust on which democracy depends.

Informal education in the future

It depends on you. It is that simple. Both in the existing democracies and everywhere else, we have the opportunity to meet around science, literature and politics to discuss matters and learn. In democratic societies, we can do it freely; in non-democratic societies, it can mean putting one's life on the line. But among friends one is familiar with, it's a place to start.

Next chapter: International Cooperation