Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Losing one's reason

Norm picks up on this article by Peter Scott, who argues that the real function of Higher Education is the enhancement of democracy. Norm doesn't demur, but he also mounts a defence of learning for its own sake (though without any "farting around"). I am with Norm on this (though I rather approve of farting around, which is why I am writing this blog post instead of getting on with my marking) and I also agree with Scott's general sentiments. However, I have always had my doubts about the education for democracy line.

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?


Anton Deque said...

Agreed. "I like" (Brahms, Indian food, botany or reading Raymond Chandler) has to be a satisfying feeling and survive 'analysis' if adventuring into life is to have any significance. There would be, I suppose, much evidence for the notion that poor and worse teaching has been enough to drive millions away from simple pleasure.

Harry Barnes said...

"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)".

There were variations to this theme. I taught for 21 years on Extra-mural/Division of Continuing Education courses for coal miners, steel industry workers, railway workers and others. No one was ever set a hurdle to jump over, but numbers then moved directly into full-time education at Adult Education Colleges. Most of them then went on to take undergraduate courses, some moving directly to University from leaving our own courses. References, interviews and examples of written work provided the avenue for moving into full-time education. When I arrived in the Commons, I met up with four of my former students.

Of course, many of those with family and other commitments could not contemplate such a move. But as the subject areas of our courses were industrial relations, politics and economics many pursued their developing interests in local government, trade union work and in a variety of public services. Some changed jobs to cater for their developing concerns and interests.

I also came to run Access Courses based mainly on Evening Classes which (on the whole) without exams also fed people into full-time University Studies. It was the exception for a University Department to set its own Mature Entry Exam for such students. They ended up on average with Degree Levels which were above the norm.

Education should be about giving people an opportunity to develop and expand upon their interests, based on challenges to their basic understandings. Such interests can then be helped to expand. The questioning and alternative theories should not just come from their lecturers and their reading, but from fellow students who share such interests.

Without training people directly for jobs, for communal duties or on how to participate in a democracy; these should all be significant side benefits which come from having such an educated population.

Freedom of expression (but not license) are essential in a democracy. But so is they way in which people come to acquire their values and understandings. They are bound to be shaped by their environment when developing these. But the only way to break away from being manipulated by circumstances is to study and question them - and then to keep farting away at such thimgs.

The Plump said...

I had a very different target in mind Harry when I wrote that intemperate sentence :-)

There was a complacent old guard in the system that let much university CE stagnate. They spouted the ideology but ended up teaching solely the retired middle classes without noticing the difference.

Actually, I think that, provided it is done in the right way, non-accredited work can be wonderful. I also find exams faintly ridiculous, though when I ran Access courses I always included them because I would rather the students faced their first exams on our course than in the less sympathetic world of HE.

The important point to me is the way that non-accredited work can lead to accredited courses. Whether we like it or not, certificates of various kinds are the ways that people can change their lives and often help others change. Non-accredited work that is hermetically sealed from the world of qualifications cannot do that.

Personally, I liked to run courses that carried accreditation, but did not require the students to take it if they didn't want to. That allowed students to use the course in the way that suited them best. Then the bloody funding regimes wrecked it all.

Yes, and here's to farting around and long may we continue to do so. Who knows, it may turn out to be a wind of change.

Harry Barnes said...

The Plump : I just feel that there is an important constituency which can be attracted into adult education when tests and hurdles are not at the forefront. When they prove to themselves that they have ability, then they can more comfortably move into the examination route.

The Plump said...

Absolutely Harry! It removes threat. You need to learn self-worth before you can allow your work to be judged by a system that has let you down in the past. The biggest killer of confidence is social class; brilliant people being manufactured into academic failures. This is one of the really wonderful things about adult education, it is part of a process that breaks the chains. And this is why its current state is so tragic.