Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Adult education blues

Here is another lament for the demise of University Adult Education. Pol Pot analogy aside, it sums up the position pretty well, though some institutions are holding on and supporting lifelong learning. One of the better pieces of analysis of the situation that I have read lately is this academic paper by Chris Duke. He deals with both the demise of adult education, but also the failings that made it vulnerable. Duke puts forward a critique of the sterility of the Great Tradition*, which I wholeheartedly share. Yet he is also a partisan for adult learning, particularly for engagement.
Engagement today needs a compelling narrative that legitimises community and regional engagement work as integral to mission and policy, effectively embedded in the practice of the whole university as ‘what we do here’.
There is one, Patrick Geddes' University Militant. It was articulated just after the First World War; it is a narrative that has been forgotten.

Duke takes a lovely sideswipe at bureacucracy,
Any attempt to document, quantify and regulate the work of partnership and engagement in pursuit of social, civic and cultural as well as economic development is doomed. If pursued ruthlessly it will destroy the very work.
And I can't fault his judgement, nor his pessimism, here:
What is needed to promote university engagement and balanced regional social and economic development in the spirit of the early extension and tutorial classes today?

To borrow from the title of a book cited in this paper, something of the spirit might conceivably be rekindled, in a world desperately needing applied humanistic intelligence for the sake of sustained and balanced development of the eco-system and the social systems which we inhabit. But the form will have to be different. An effective solution will require clear and competent institutional leadership. This means courage and staying power, along with effective and confident delegation to and empowerment of strongly motivated academic organisational units... The extramural tradition should have been a natural breeding ground for the latter. Whether the new managerialism that prevails in many universities will produce this mix remains to be seen. Whether the competitive but changing environment of RAE and league tables will allow it is also a moot point.
"Desperately needed"? Yes, it certainly is. Valued by those with power? I doubt it.

*Discussed by Richard Hoggart, who once taught in the Adult Education Department in Hull, here.

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