Having worked with Scott on the Executive Committee of UALL (The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning), which he chaired, I have a lot of time for him. I also recognise where the argument is coming from. It is one of the long-standing justifications for university adult education. The trouble is that, to me, there always seemed something condescending about it. In the old extra-mural days it was all about non-accredited courses for the working classes (or teaching the lower orders the virtues of voting for nice people like us without giving them the qualifications that would enable them to take our jobs), today it is about citizenship in an agenda that is redolent of social control rather than self-determination. I may be unduly and unjustly cynical, but something baulks when I read a statement like this:
Higher education is no longer about elites but about citizens – because going to college is a quasi-compulsory precondition for full participation in our society, the gateway into Middle England.Can you not participate without a degree? Are the sixty percent of people who do not go to university somehow unfitted for democracy? Is politics solely about that mythical beast, 'Middle England'? I know what he means and I am fully with his sentiments on the importance of opening up and expanding Higher Education, of seeing it as a right rather than a privilege. And I know, given his commitment, that includes adult education programmes as well as formal full-time degrees. It is just that us educators seem to end up in contortions and contradictions whenever we try to justify the existence of something that is a self-evident good.
There is a lovely little story in Patricia Storage's travelogue about Greece, Dinner with Persephone. She tries to open a bank account in Athens in a branch of an American bank. She gives her references to the bank clerk who takes them away to her supervisor.
When she returns, she says, "We open accounts in dollars under the following conditions: You must deposit at least fifty thousand dollars in the account. Or you must be of Greek descent. I am puzzled ... and ask the reason for these unexpected conditions. She says certainly, she will ask her supervisor, and after a conference with him she returns. "There is no reason", she says.Wouldn't it be nice if we could give that response to agonising questions as to what higher education is for? It is self-evidently good, a natural human activity and people like to be able to do it. It obviously does serve purposes, but they are many and complex. Let's think about how to do it well, how to open it to as many people as possible, but not have to constantly justify why it is important that it is done. It is many years since Philosophical Radicals roamed the Earth, shouldn't it be time to give the need for utilitarian justifications a rest?