“The value of adult education is not solely to be measured by direct increases in earning power or productive capacity, but by the quality of life it inspires in the individual and generates for the community at large. It is an agent changing and improving our society.” (preface to ‘The Russel Report’, 1973)
In the thirty-plus years I have been teaching in adult and further education, I have learned that there are two kinds of taught subjects: those that are concerned with skills or work, and those that are not. The skills orientated subject areas tend to be taken seriously, are usually accredited, and attract funding. Those that are conceived of as ‘liberal adult education’ are often treated as leisure subjects, are non-accredited and are the first to be on the receiving end of cuts. These attitudes have largely come into being since the inception of the skills agenda in the 1980s. This is not to say that there wasn’t a degree of snobbery around some adult education subjects prior to that period, but the Thatcherite eighties were the main decade wherein negative attitudes to liberal adult education became entrenched in government thinking.
My own taught subjects started off at the ‘leisure’ end when I first qualified. I initially taught music appreciation, then history and philosophy. But I also taught ICT, and worked in teacher education. Nevertheless, it was much easier to discuss the ICT with my friends as it had the respect of being a ‘serious’ subject, whilst philosophy… well, it was a rather stuffy academic topic and not really suited to getting anyone a job, was it? How embarrassing! But I loved working in adult education. My WEA teaching was (and is) the strongest influence on my working life, and to this day I still gain more enjoyment from teaching liberal subjects than I do in the skills domain.
But the question remains: does liberal adult education provide any value whatsoever to British society? Is it worth funding?
This depends on how one visualises the purpose of adult learning. If one accepts the need for learning to support the development of society, then it is very clear that prosperity is part and parcel of that development. But how does society become prosperous? Certainly this comes from the capacity of individuals to work and innovate around wealth creation. This capacity means each individual should have an appropriate personal confidence, an understanding of society, a stake in the community, and be able to understand the changes taking place around them (technological, social, political, etc.). Indeed, understanding society itself is a crucial part of creating wealth and enabling its spread as prosperity. The idea that learning is only about the demand for certain immediate job-skills is a nonsense. Such a concept is predicated on short-term demand and supply mythology and doesn’t approach the question of long-term social development. The great irony, of course, is that a prosperous society comes from a wide-ranging background continuum of educational initiatives. These are based around building the strength of individuals to learn, continue learning, and expand their learning throughout their lives… often starting with a liberal subject such as music appreciation, or philosophy, or literature, etc.
It is in this ‘forming the continuum of learning’ that the WEA does exceptionally well. My own experience of this has been through a course I originally entitled ‘Great Thinkers’. I started teaching this many years ago, and it has developed ever since at a variety of venues and with a number of student groups. ‘Great Thinkers’ was about philosophy, politics and the sciences. But it became very clear at the outset that it wasn’t the subject taught that was the main success story of ‘Great Thinkers’ but the manner in which learning took place.
‘Great Thinkers’ is about participation. The students don’t just learn about the subjects taught week-to-week (often quite complex issues), but also about how learning works. They have major control over the course content. They discuss (and vote on) what they want to learn. They also dictate how learning will take place, by suggesting the activities they will be involved in. They manage the subject matter via discussion, and feedback on issues they want to expand or repeat. But what’s more important are their social relationships. Many meet outside of the course, share activities together and have become involved in campaign or voluntary work that has been stimulated by the course. The atmosphere is one of happy informality, but also a deep and focussed enthusiasm for the topic matter. Arguments happen often, and one of my roles as a tutor is to maintain good working relationships between each student. My position with regard to the group is hence one of facilitator, academic resource, organiser and leader. Certainly I am there to make sure the needs of the group are met, but this means a new kind of power relationship with the group that rarely exists in standard adult courses. Essentially, the course exists to enable each student to expand their horizons as they may, and through this process to make decisions for themselves that contribute to social participation… and hence to active prosperity.
If this all sounds familiar to WEA members and tutors, then that is because the Association has long fostered the concept of ‘communities of learning’ within its courses. That this provides a very strong means of encouraging learning is made clear by the work taking place within ‘Great Thinkers’ (now renamed ‘Big Ideas’ by the students!). Indeed, the WEA’s greatest asset is its communities of learning; it’s capacity to create welcoming, attractive and fun courses such as ‘Great Thinkers’. It is not the WEA’s courses themselves that are its selling-point, but the unique manner in which WEA learning takes place.
About the Author: Bea Groves is currently a tutor for WEA North East Region. She has worked for the WEA as volunteer and tutor since 1980. She is WEA Ambassador. She is also President of the ‘Tutor Voices’ national network for adult and further education teachers.