Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The strange death of liberal adult education

It gets to you. Whether you have been a student or a teacher or both, adult education will always be special. There is a touch of magic about it. It crops up everywhere too. I was reading a profile today of the author, Marina Lewycka, who comes across as engagingly as her comic novel, and there it was,

Her great interest has been in adult education. She and her husband moved to Yorkshire in 1976 when her daughter was due to be born. In the mid-80s, working for the extramural department at Sheffield University, she started teaching day-release classes for miners.

These days, liberal adult education is dying; not a natural death through lack of demand, but as a victim of government policy. I have watched with an increasing sense of despair. The Tory governments of the 80's and 90's had waged a long war of attrition against it and, just when it seemed salvation was at hand, New Labour embraced a narrow utilitarianism and started to deliver the coup de grace.

This hostility leaves me baffled. Both parties had viewed adult education with favour and funding, even if it was never as lavish as we might have liked. Then, despite its continuing popularity and growth, the climate changed; the right saw adult education as an expensive state extravagance, the left as middle class privilege, both articulated economic justifications for their prejudice. Policy makers began to see education as predominantly an economic, rather than a social good.

Justificatory ideologies went through a number of phases, one of the fashions being the idea of a post-industrial knowledge economy. You hear less of it today, thankfully, because, like many ideas that see us entering a new modernity, if you look hard enough all you see is a tired banality. All economies are knowledge economies. A hunter gatherer economy, as Jared Diamond memorably pointed out, can only survive because of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of their environment, a knowledge that would put many a naturalist to shame. The knowledge economy is a truism; there is no such thing as an ignorance economy.

What they really meant was that wealth creation was based on 'knowledge products' in a 'weightless', hi-tech 'new economy' and hence there was a premium on science and technology, a concept eagerly leapt on by the scientifically illiterate lawyers in government. This was accompanied by the eulogising of a flexible workforce and followed more recently by anxiety about a skills gap between Britain and the other industrialised nations. None of it bore much relation to reality, as described by the more convincing research, but the breathless urgency with which it was expressed, together with the apocalyptic prophecies of decline that would result inevitably from a failure to follow the latest fad, gave policy makers the ammunition to use against the expensive, unproductive luxury of liberal adult education.

The only reason to learn was now work. Learning for its own sake became a 'bit dodgy'. Lifelong learning, when it did not have a direct relationship to employment, was seen as a luxury in the scramble to maintain a competitive advantage in a globalised economy.

This analysis is all based on a false dichotomy between liberal and instrumental learning. There are no hard and fast barriers, hermetically sealed against the other. Lifelong learning means just that, and people learn for different reasons at different times of their lives. In a desperate attempt to justify liberal learning, its practitioners have leapt on the examples where the first step on the ladder is something that would now be demeaned as a 'leisure course', for example the person who started in a belly dancing class and ended up at university (true story). What we often forget though is the example of the person who got turned on to learning by a health and safety course at work and finished by studying mediaeval literature (also true). There is no good learning and bad learning, one strand is not more useful than another, there is not only one path to take. Instead, lifelong learning is complex, diverse and intensely human.

Adult educators tried to counter this philistinism by finding their own utilitarian justifications for liberal learning, yet it should be unnecessary. We do not need to justify the protection of children, the care of the elderly, a universal health service or, indeed, education for the young as anything other than a self-evident good. Learning is intrinsic to humanity and adult education is a human need and a human right; it is something people like to do and they love it. Not only that, the impact of learning on individuals, families and communities can also be awe inspiring and transformational. It should be provided in the most appropriate way for a wealthy, industrial nation.

It has been a bitter experience watching as doors closed and departments shut, all the while struggling to protect my own work from the barbarians at the gate. Now the defences have been breached and the threat is palpable; anger and frustration have been joined by an intense grief. We are witnesses to a crime.


Dr Hiding Pup said...

Oh, I told you to take a break from all this for a while - give us more Friday cat posts!

But, seeing that you raised the subject, isn't there a possibility that some disciplines shot themselves in the foot a long time ago and have been bleeding to death ever since? There are so many instances of disciplines that have swathed themselves in bullshit and so what their students get by studying them isn't even knowledge anymore, it's just polysyllabic noise.

The Plump said...

There are so many instances of disciplines that have swathed themselves in bullshit and so what their students get by studying them isn't even knowledge anymore, it's just polysyllabic noise.

Absolutely, but they are surviving. We are popular and populist. That's why are numbers are big and why the bullshit merchants hate us.

Dr Hiding Pup said...

No, they're not surviving - they're dying very, very slowly and very painfully. I think anyway. The thing about adult education is that one of the goals you can reach is getting onto a bullshit degree course - bullshiters are to blame for everything that's wrong in the world. Thanks for the cappucino today :-)

Anonymous said...

Well said, The Plump!

I teach evening courses at a local community college as an adjunct (very adjunct -- my office is the trunk / boot of my car) instructor. Most of my students are working on two-year technical degrees, so my entry-level writing class is a requirement, a gotta, a basic, something to be gotten out of the way. Even so, most of the students do come to appreciate the fun of playing with language and ideas, even while focusing on the grind of earning some sort of certificate.

Happily, the State of Texas really does seem to want the students to be exposed to the liberal arts, even in strongly technical programs, so God bless Texas!

Once a year I am privileged to teach a real BritLit class, and since this is an elective all are volunteers. Among the best of 'em are war veterans -- they really get it.

-- Mack in Texas

The Plump said...

Sounds great Mack and really encouraging. The bit about war vets really rings true. When people have experience they are far more open to learning and bring things to it that we, as tutors, can't provide. Have you ever thought of getting them to read Wuthering Heights? :-)

Anonymous said...

WUTHERING HEIGHTS? No, they'd hurt me! As well they should!

-- Mack