‘The New Learning’

Recently I’ve been doing some writing about agricultural science films, and thought it may be interesting to write a post about one of my favourite Secrets of Nature primary sources. The New Learning: An Experiment wit Educational Films in the County of Devon is the name of a pamphlet published by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in 1932, which reported on a study into the reactions of rural audiences to the film medium. These types of experiments were common in the interwar period. Some of them aimed to address moral and social concerns over the influence of cinema on young minds, while others were conducted by enthusiasts of the medium in the world of education, who hoped that film would become an ordinary classroom tool.

Although the Secrets were aimed at the entertainment market, H. Bruce Woolfe and his production team at British Instructional Films were eager to promote cinema’s use as an educational medium. They lobbied eargerly for their films to be included in film experiments across the country, many of them compiled in The Film in National Life (1932), the report that recommended the establishment of the British Film Institute. These reports are fascinating because they are often the only audience reactions that we have for many of the Secrets films. However, whilst the majority of these experiments aimed to document the reactions of child audiences, The New Learning focussed on adult viewers. The study was conducted by F. G. Thomas, who worked in the science division at Dartington Hall, which had been established in 1926 as an experimental school oriented in part toward cultivating rural skills in agriculture and crafts. Thomas was also an extramural teacher for the WEA, a national institution which pioneered adult education during the early years of the twentieth century, and had begun expanding its presence in rural areas during the 1920s.

In 1931, Thomas had established the Newton Abbot Film Society, which organised weekly cinema showings and also aimed to produce amateur films of their own. The New Learning experiment was the result of the Society’s Rural Sub-Committee. Thomas was especially keen to make observations on the effects on rural audiences of a medium that was developed primarily with urbanites in mind. How would the reactions of ‘country’ people differ from those of London cinemagoers? Were films made for urban audiences suitable for rural people, especially in the context of education? Crucially, they wanted to inquire into the use of cinema as an educational tool in its own right, rather than its use in formal education: ‘We conceived this as an experiment on the cinema as education, as contrasted with previous experiments on its value in education.’

In order to answer these questions, Thomas and the rest of the sub-committee chose to show a series of silent and sound films grouped around the theme of ‘Man and His Environment’. There was significant debate over what films should be screened. Some where of the opinion that ‘the specifically educational film may be of less real educational value than a good feature film’, which might help to extend viewers’ knowledge and experience in more indirect ways. A feature film may not have offered much in the way of science education, for instaqnce, but it might serve to educate rural viewers about cinema. Some were doubtful about the value of showing Secrets of Nature films to rural audiences: ‘Why, therefore, use films illustrating the already existing experience of the countryman, depicting “Secrets of Nature” already divulged to him?’. Thomas shared these views in part, and viewed the countryside in pastoral terms, depicting the cinema as a modern technology breaking through to rural society for the first time, much like Leo Marx’s ‘Machine in the Garden’. One of the images included in the report shows the village of Holne, followed by the caption: ‘Electricity was installed in this village a few days before our arrival’.

The Secrets films used in the experiment were Battle of the Ants (1922), Floral Co-operative Societies (1927), Paws and Claws (1925), Down Under (1930, view here), Peas and Cues (1930, view below) and The Honey Bee (1929). Other films were shown too, including a film about agriculture in Cyprus, Almost Arcady (1929, view here); a film about railways in West Africa, Rails and Trails (1930, view here); and an industrial film, A Visit to the Coal Face [Possibly this film?]. At the end of each film evening, which generally consisted of three short films, viewers were asked to fill in questionnaires, after which they took part in a discussion on a common theme, led by a WEA tutor.

The New Learning report concluded that cinema could be a productive way of engaging rural audiences in WEA teaching, and emphasised in particular its promise with regards to non-verbal expression. Cinema, Thomas argued, offered ‘a direct approach to the mind of the countryman. Words we have found to be full of difficulty in teaching in a rural area. They are an abstraction of an experience, and while a few simple words like “tree” are readily understood by all, words like “factories” vary in their significance according to the experiences of the group.’

Portraits of some of the participants in the experiment

The Secrets films, however, were often criticised by viewers who took part in the experiment, who found them unsatisfactory. But according to Thomas, a common theme running through these criticisms was one of the most revealing aspects of the whole experiment:

Their criticism was in the main general but naturally more specific in the case of the nature films. Here their own experience served as a basis; some of these films were for us unreal in that we did not know the flowers mentioned; our attitude was that perhaps the average cinema-goer who marvels at the wonder of seeing the tendrils of the pea wave almost human-like in their quest for a “hold”; but for the majority of our audience, the speeding up and slowing down of natural processes, the magnifying of flowers and insects, were indeed a revelation – there were many questions as to the method employed – but it was an extension of everyday experience; the Green Fly is an old enemy and the house leek is still used as a remedy for eye trouble; bee-keeping is, of course, frequently and diligently undertaken. This sense of wonder was accompanied by an attempt to evaluate the significance of this evidence. Hence the importance of discussion where ideas were digested and therefore more impressed on the mind than is usual after a commercial exhibition where criticism is often desultory and superficial.

Insofar as they portrayed subjects which rural dwellers were more likely to be acquianted with, the Secrets films were immediately relevant to countryside viewers, and this meant they were more likely to react critically to these films, and to offer their own experiences as evidence in discussions. The nature films, therefore, prompted many engaging conversations, not only about natural life, but in discussing how representations of the natural world could serve as analogies for human affairs.

Remarkably, the report’s Appendix includes a transcription of one of these post-screening conversations, and luckily the bulk of the conversation concerns the two of the Secrets films. This makes it a one-of-a-kind source, offering a glimpse into the reception of natural history films by rural audiences, showing a structured conversation led by a WEA tutor, with contributions by anonymous voices who appear only as ‘postman’, ‘railwayman’, ‘farmer’ or ‘housewife’. I will upload a complete copy of the conversation to the ‘resources’ section of this website, but here is one of my favourite parts, where several of the participants discuss the behaviour of ants, comparing the film to their own observations:

Thomas believed that what made the Secrets especially interesting to rural viewers were the techniques of microcinematography and fast-motion cinematography, which permitten aspects from an audience’s ordinary experience to be illustrated in a new light:

The camera-eye, reinforced by the microscope, made the invisible a vast “close-up”; by telescoping fifteen days of plant life into as many minutes the relations between that plant and its environment, between cause and effect, were emphasized and driven home; and in some cases functions of the parts were revealed for the first time — e.g. of the root. […] Here of course is one of the most important functions of the nature film – not in the giving of new information, but in giving new significance to an already existing body of knowledge.

Although the Secrets were intended principally for urban audiences, their unique format became something of a standard of the non-fiction genre. I’m very interested in exploring the circulation of these films in different contexts and places, and am excited to share more examples of this as my research progresses.

Further Reading

David Hilton’s 2005 thesis on the Dartington Hall Film Unit, which mentions the New Learning experiment, is available to read online.

Also of interest is Michael McCluskey’s recent article on craft and amateur filmmaking, which is available online, but requires institutional subscription.

I also discuss the New Learning experiment in my recent article in the British Journal for the History of Science, which open access and available to read here.

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