Experiments in Education: The Possibility of the 19th Century Auditor Today

As a series of independent experiments on how educational activities and trajectories can be formulated ‘in the wild’ – that is outside of enrollment in a formal institution of education – I became interested in examining what coalescent interactions can be tuned into to serve these purposes.  The guiding compass for the focus is to exclude finance as a fundamentally problematic thing for the greatest number of people; at the same time, points on this compass are to explore symbiotic relationships with those who manifest education within formal institutions.


St. Petersburg State University
St. Petersburg State University

Learning from history the different ways which individuals, cultures and societies opened out and facilitated learning with what methods and means they had is a key strategy of developing educational practice in different modern contexts.  Here I tune into the Russian history of auditors which opened out empty seats as ‘dead stock’ to the interested public with a thought that an experiment on how the individual and small group might find temporary spaces in the interstices of the daily practice of higher education institutions.



On the 18th of October 2022, as a visiting member of the public I informally attended a class given by Drew Whitworth at the University of Manchester. This came through a conversation and dialogue around an educational history based in 19th century Russia where members of the general public were welcome to attend unused seats in the universities there as ‘auditors’.


It was in Mark D. Steinberg’s work that made me aware of educational reforms which took place in Russia which dramatically opened up university learning to a broader population. From Steinberg’s work I have created the following potted history from his Great Courses lecture ‘History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev’, which helps give context to this particular piece of history which I am interested in drawing on for the experiments which I have been doing with certain educators.


Russian Educational History of Auditors

Educated Russians, mainly who envisioned a different future for Russia than an autocracy and even a hierarchical society in particular… a growing number of Russians who found the great reforms admirable through the progress they made also felt that the situation was still woefully inadequate. This included liberals whose numbers were growing and who had a greater place in society in the professions and in the institutions in which the professions worked.


This was often described as a radical ‘Intelligencia’, socialist on the most part. They began to be called the Intelligencia in the 1860s and were a growing force in Russian life. This had grown from an ‘Intelligencia’ in the 1830s who Alexander Herzen, for example, described this Intelligencia as nothing more than ‘a small group of boys’; a phrase meant to convey of course their youth but also how ineffective and isolated they were from any way that they could really make a difference in transforming Russian Society.


By the second half of the 19th century though this Intelligencia, most of whom at this point had converted to socialism, had become a much more formidable cultural force. Perhaps one of the most dangerous in some ways to the autocracy especially, as they increasingly did was ally themselves with that growing class of liberals – mostly professionals still alienated in so many ways, and disappointed in so many ways from the system, but not quite as radical as the Socialists were.


Also these socialist intellectuals allied themselves with the discontented lower classes, with the unhappy peasants and with his growing class of urban workers living in horrible conditions of early industrialization. This particular focus is on the years of the 1860s; the same years in which the great reforms were being enacted.


At this point in Russia an organized student movement emerged. The reforms of Alexander II of course helped set the stage for the emergence of Russia’s first student movement. On ascending the throne Alexander created new conditions in Russia’s universities.  Even before University Statute of June 18 (30), 1863 which reestablished the elective character of all professorships and administrative positions within universities he relaxed supervision of students and professors and opened up admissions.


These reforms were formalized in 1863 and any student who could pass the qualifying examination and afford to pay could be a part of university study. These reforms had great impact on life within Russia’s increasing numbers of universities which had grown rapidly in the course of the 19th century. First of all it led to a massive increase in enrollment of student numbers, of students in the university, and also greater social diversity among students than had ever been seen before.


More and more non-nobles were involved in the formal intellectual life of the country. Additional rules allowed anyone who wanted to audit lectures to just come into the classroom and listen to the lecture. This included large numbers of women who began for the first time to appear in the halls of the university as Auditors.


It also allowed large numbers of poorer students, people who wanted to learn but had no money to really enroll as students. Now women could not yet enroll in Russian universities but to allow higher education among women in 1869 a rule was passed allowing for the establishment for the first time of women’s universities. Although this was the case, just to be sure that no one got confused, they weren’t called universities; they were called ‘Higher Courses for Women’, and they grew very rapidly.


For wealthier women there was also the option increasing the use of going abroad to study in a foreign University. Zurich was an increasingly popular place. All this is creating generated a new social architype on the Russian scene; the female student – or as the Russians like to call her – the ‘studentka’.  Alexander’s reforms offered the preconditions for the student movement openly talking in the late 50s of reforming Russia. The significant changes that came about in the 1860s excited people about the possibilities for Russia to truly become a progressive Modern Nation.


This raised people’s expectations; it stimulated their imaginations. A great characterization of these times comes from Leo Tolstoy the writer who said at one point “He who was not alive in 1856 doesn’t even know what life is”. In the late 50s and early 60s they formed Mutual Assistance Societies which were especially designed to help poorer students at the university survive; find apartments, find ways to eat.


Libraries were organized outside of the official library of the University by students and of course the reason they formed such libraries was to include reading that wasn’t to be found in the University Library. Herzen and Belinsky, for example as well as various foreign writers newspapers were printed, often handwritten; but sometimes small presses were formed. They were illegal, they were of course uncensored, and students spoke their mind in these underground newspapers. Students also began holding mass meetings in contrast to the small reading groups which coalesced in the past.


The Interfacing of Categorial Perception

This experiment has evolved over time through friendly and mutually agreeable arrangements with various people involved in education.  It is through collaborations between community and formal educators which possibilities have become apparent that could be easily utilised in order to open out the possibilities of education as a public good. What needs addressed is the categorical perceptions we bring to framing the world in its tangled, mixed up, messy realities.


At the outset of Ragged University I imagined that formal education and educators that as the learning and research was happening outside institutional spaces there would be no interest or involvement.  This I discovered fairly quickly was a cultural anxiety which I had been projecting onto the situation.  On the contrary, many educators seemed to understand that learning from community was a valuable and important part of the healthy institution.


As someone who lacks formal qualifications, these anxieties which I had about the reception of the Ragged University project came from understanding the legacies of elite meritocracies active in the British context.  The inequalities ingrained in the culture may be reflected in the access to finance but certainly did not find place in the educator interested in education.  In fact, it was became clear that this way of perceiving what we associate with formal education as any kind of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was an exercise largely in false dichotomies.


In my own personal experience I realised that elderly friends Eileen and Roy had been retired educators; that even in my early childhood when I had been doing odd jobs around my neighbourhood, I had been befriended by retired educators (Mr and Mrs Forbes) who took great pleasure in the pleasure I got from learning new things from them.  In my meditations today it is obvious that people who work in professional roles carry their lives all through the world by their interactions.


We can even see in the history of the longest contiguously running university – the University of Bologna – that the teachers were not ‘a part of the university’ formal but were ‘citizens’ who shared their knowledge with the university of students who had largely travelled to learn from these individuals.  The university, Rashdall tells us, has its foundations as a ‘guild of students’ set up to offer mutual support whilst far from their roots and social networks and living in Bologna

[Rashdall H. (1936). The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, Clarendon press]


The conception of individuals as one thing or another is a poor representation of human culture as more accurately we are all many things as we enact and embody them throughout our course in life.  In this sense it is an important note to bring up that all people through the wealth of knowledge and skills they have accumulated through experience are capable of – and arguably do – teach through social interactions. Whilst the old saying that ‘the cowl does not make the monk’ is true, it is also true that when we go to institutions of learning we are finding people who publicly state that they are investing their time in the arts of teaching.