Fat Man on a Keyboard said… (Adult Ed)

I missed “Adult Education – Another Rant” by Peter Ryley, who blogs under the name of “Fat Man on a Keyboard”, when he published it in October. He was responding to Peter Wilby’s Guardian article about Alan Tuckett.

Here is an extract from Peter Ryley’s blog, which you can find here.

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.

The WEA and others share his vision of human possibility and education for public good and we know it’s never too late to highlight the cause. It’s too important to give up on and there is kernel of determined support for it.

In the WEA we have reaffirmed our traditional commitment to adult education for collective and social benefit as well as for individual advancement. Our longstanding vision and mission are back at the heart of our planning and we are not alone in seeing education for social purpose as a vital part of a civilised society.  Mechanics’ Institutes might have gone but we are still working alongside residential colleges such as Northern College and Ruskin, as well as trade union educators, Birkbeck and other universities. 

We are still active in (non-party) political education, community engagement and self-improvement – as well as, yes, running courses about the Tudors as Peter Ryley mentioned. There is a demand for community based part-time, high quality, tutor-led Humanities courses.

The Winter edition of WEA News shows how the Specialist Designated Institutions – Hillcroft College, City Lit, Fircroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Northern College, Ruskin College, Morley College, the Working Men’s College and the WEA – are still going strong and continuing to raise the profile of adult education while we working with our students and their communities. You can read it here.

Adult and Community Learning is an important, but often overlooked, part of the education landscape so any further rants in support of lifelong, life-wide are very welcome!

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