Thursday, October 23, 2014

Adult education - another rant

It's a nice profile and it is good to see Alan Tuckett's work for adult education recognised in this piece by Peter Wilby. It starts by tackling a common stereotype that is often used to denigrate adult learning and whilst he disposes of it neatly, it still sets the agenda. So much of our time has been spent trying to justify adult education's utility against charges of irrelevance, fired against it by both left and right, that we tend to undersell the reality.

And this startled me as well:
Sir John Daniel, former assistant director-general for education at Unesco, once said that adult educators had the reputation of being “boring, sanctimonious, backward-looking and paternalist”.
Eh? In thirty years of working in adult education I have never met such a bunch of enthusiastic, creative and entrepreneurial lunatics. OK, I know of one or two who were capable of making you lose the will to live, but they were never successful. Adult education is market driven. If you are boring, the students drop out and the classes close. You have to be good to survive. This is another misperception, a prejudice held in total contradiction to the reality of doing the job. The whole of my career was spent trying to counter these popular myths that were constantly turned against us.

The picture of adult education that, "It’s just flower arranging, tap dancing, Pilates, lonely old folk going to dusty classrooms to learn about the Tudors", was never the whole truth. There may have been a time in the post-war boom when so-called 'leisure classes' were the most visible part of our provision, but it is atypical of our history. Political radicalism, social egalitarianism and adult education marched together as part of a movement for emancipation; the Mechanics Institutes, working class autodidacts and self-improvement associations, the university extension movement, the WEA, trade union education, the residential colleges, Birkbeck and so on, were all constructed in the belief that what we now tend to call lifelong learning was central to the creation of a better society and to the development of individuals and communities. It was a cause.

And we lost this sense of mission, together with its language, and with them went the provision, as Wilby makes clear in an understated way. Fighting back with utilitarian justifications was always going to seem to be special pleading. We need to recover that vision of human possibility, though I fear it is too late.

I had a glimpse of just how much adult education is a deep human need today when my window cleaner tried to recruit me for his pub quiz team. He was intrigued by the number of books he saw in the house and thought I might help them win things. He described how he reads anything and everything, sitting in bed every night with a factual book, learning. He loves learning things, anything. Adult education's problem is that this is seen as having no utility, a private pleasure maybe, but never a public good. I see it as something more, as a human right. And we're losing it.

1 comment:

Ann Walker said...

I stumbled across your blog, which prompted me to respond at:

Thanks for giving food for thought.