Infamy, infamy? The International Continuing Adult Education Hall of Fame

IACEHallofFame-headerI’ve just been inducted into the International Continuing Adult Education Hall of Fame (ICAEHOF). I really hope it doesn’t seem too churlish if I start by expressing doubts about the whole process!

For a bit, the experience almost persuaded me that there was something to all this guff about uniquely national cultures. Embarrassment and shame often seem part of the British condition, above all when we are singled out for any kind of public praise. But then I discovered equally sheepish Australians and Scandinavians, muttering queasily together about this “American notion” of a Hall of Fame.

ICAEHOF is indeed an American-led institution, and its main purpose is to support recognition and status for the field of adult learning. This, it seems to me, is very far from a bad thing to do, so my and others’ unease must really focus on how ICAEHOF seeks to achieve this goal.

First up, the idea of ‘Fame’ (with a capital F) in our field seems slightly silly. We aren’t athletes or actors, who strut our stuff in front of a fascinated public, and whose sexual habits feature in the press. We do our work in drafty halls, cluttered workshops, spare corners of primary schools, or upstairs in a pub, and none of us are likely to find journalists tapping our texts in the hope of news about cocaine-fuelled orgies every night of the week.

More significantly, Halls of Fame honour individual achievement. There’s a reason why individuals seldom stand out in adult learning: while some people contribute more effectively than others, ours is an essentially collective endeavour. It isn’t just that we depend completely on our colleagues and our organisations; our work stands or falls by the engagement of learners, which in turn usually depends on the support of their colleagues and their loved ones.

So if I’m not instinctively an obvious candidate for a Hall of Fame, why did I agree to be nominated? Sheer vanity? Well, perhaps; it is mostly nicer to be praised than attacked. There are exceptions to this general rule: I can name a dozen people whose criticism has long served me as a sign that I am probably doing something right. But vanity alone wouldn’t have made me travel to northern Romania to be inducted into ICAEHOF.

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One thing in its favour is precisely the goal which it seeks to achieve: recognising and advancing our field. I’m very comfortable with the idea of promoting the status of adult learning, starting with the USA (where it certainly deserves far more recognition than it has at present), a country from which those who support adult learning elsewhere have much to learn.

And although ICAEHOF is based in the USA, its leaders are keen to widen its base. My fellow inductees included my old friend and mentor Chris Duke from Melbourne and a new friend, Mihaly Sari from Hungary. There is still much to be done in reaching out to courageous and principled adult educators from developing nations or oppressive regimes, but on the whole I’m happy to be part of and supportive of an American educational initiative that looks with sympathy and interest beyond the US’ borders.

Another reason for not dismissing ICAEHOF out of hand is that it involves recognition by one’s peers. Though it certainly distinguishes ICAEHOF from such establishment baubles as the British honours system, this isn’t necessarily a good thing, as there might be similar risks of old-boyism. In this case, I was invited and nominated by Carol Kasworm, an American scholar whose work I have long respected and cited, and while I swithered, I was encouraged by Budd Hall and Alan Tuckett, proud radical adult educators both.

So if I’ve got this one wrong, I am in good company. But I can still hear my mother’s voice telling me sharply that I’m ‘showing off again’. And British readers will already have twigged from the title that any mention of Fame for me evokes not the American TV series but the dying words of Julius Caesar, as played by the popular comic actor Kenneth Williams: “Infamy, infamy – they’ve all got it in for me”.

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Modernity and socialist land colonies

Why did socialists create so many new utopian communities in the late nineteenth century? In his engaging short book on Modernism and British Socialism, Thomas Linehan revises the neo-Marxist notion of a ‘conjuncture’ (it sounds better in French) where a number of factors came together that encouraged a positive view of the world as it might be, a negative view of the world as it was, and an optimistic sense that an alternative was realistically achievable.

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For Linehan, the socialist revival itself in the 1880s and 1890s reflected a belief that capitalism stood stood on ‘the cusp of profound and radical change’ (132). While urbanisation, mechanisation, scientific advance and economic growth had brought about an end to old ways of living, they had palpably failed to produce spiritual renewal and material prosperity for all, while also throwing old certainties into the dustbin of radical doubt. The result was what Linehan calls ‘an acute liminoid moment’ (28), when radicals were able to put into practice their values of fellowship, harmony and equality.

Linehan devotes a chapter to the socialist colonies, paying particular attention to the Tolstoyan settlements at Purleigh and Whiteway, the Christian socialist colony at Starnthwaite in Cumberland, and the Kropotkinite Clousden Hill Communist and Co-operative Colony near Newcastle, as well as the arts and crafts colony at Chipping Campden. He also mentions the one-man settlement of the Scot Douglas Semple, who went to live in a bell tent on Linwood Moss, near Paisley.

These ‘experiments in social modernism’ represented an attempted reconstruction of communal life in communion with nature, as well as a refusal of the spatial and temporal arrangements of modernity. Linehan contrasts these utopian impulses with ‘Fabian modernism’, which he presents as underpinned by a belief in the power of rationalism and science, as well as a strong sense that ‘progress’ was inexorably moving towards the collectivisation of social governance. Fabian efficiency, writes Linehan, was incompatible with and intolerant of the utopian colonies, which Sidney Webb deplored as sentimental expressions of pre-modern nostalgia.

This is a compelling account, and I wish I’d managed to read it before finishing my own study of British work camp systems. My fourth chapter is given over to a discussion of the utopian colonies, and on the whole I think my analysis and Linehan’s complement each other. His work is much stronger on the intellectual history of the period, though, and it forces us to rethink much of the socialist project of the late nineteenth century (and more recently, of course).

Where we part company is, I think, in his use of the term modernism. I’m generally sceptical over such portmanteau concepts as modernism and neo-liberalism, both because they jumble together much that is contradictory and because they tend to be deployed as non-personified actors rather than as general intellectual currents. And I think this has influenced Linehan’s account of the socialist colonies as well.

For one thing, any account of socialist utopian colonies has to acknowledge not only the various autonomous community building endeavours of small groups. It must also consider the ways in which socialists sought to use local government – particularly the poor law institutions – to develop labour colonies that were similarly inspired by the idea of building new, post-industrial and egalitarian communities. The work of George Lansbury and his allies in Poplar and elsewhere in London is the prime example, but there are others.

Science alone was not enough to render utopian colonies unrealistic. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the great supporters of the labour colony movement, was himself a rationalist and a biologist, who is best known for independently developing the theory of evolution; he was also a spiritualist, and saw nothing contradictory in holding these views.

And this brings us back to the Fabians, who may have understood themselves as dispassionate and scientific, but were perfectly happy to develop plans for labour colonies as part of their wider vision of socialised efficiency. Equally, the Kropotkinites at Clousden Hill thought of themselves as promoters of the latest scientific techniques in agriculture. Science and community building were by no means mutually exclusive.

Finally, the utopian moment passed fairly quickly. Few of the socialist colonies survived more than a couple of years, and those that did survive – like Starnthwaite and Whiteway – had to change their goals and nature pretty drastically. It is then hardly surprising if Fabians thought them of little value in the years before the Great War, as by that time no socialist colonies existed. Interestingly, although the local government colonies also lost their utopian character, Lansbury supported them loyally to the last.

Modernism and British Socialism is a lively, well-written and intellectually fluent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and while I don’t agree with part of Linehan’s central argument, nor with his account of the socialist colonies, it helps us rethink the intellectual climate in late nineteenth century Britain and offers a stimulating account of early British socialism.

Reflecting on the Parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy

The Parliamentary Select Committee for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently looking into adult literacy and numeracy. They have invited written submissions, questioned witnesses, and visited adult learners in a college and a prison.

This represents quite a remarkable level of public attention for a part of the education system that rarely enjoys centre stage. And its work is likely also to enjoy a high profile given the level of public concern over the English results in the latest OECD adult skills survey, about which I blogged at the time.

Having attended one morning of the Committee’s public sessions, where I gave evidence on behalf of Scotland’s Learning Partnership, I was struck by its seriousness and potential value for adult learners. Most of those who gave evidence alongside me worked for providers, often with strong special interests in a particular sub group of provision. This was enormously informative, even for someone like me who has worked in adult learning for some decades. It was striking that learners’ voices were missing from the august Westminster committee room in which we met.

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage, Conservative MP for Gosport, has a track record of interest in and support for adult literacy, and she co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on maths and numeracy. She set the inquiry in motion, and she will undoutbedly influence its final report. Her questioning of witnesses is thoughtful and informed, and reveals a particular interest in the role of volunteer tutors in helping to support basic skills learners.

I have developed considerable respect for Ms Dinenage, and I also very much welcome greater encouragement and support for those who work with adult learners on a voluntary basis. People who support peer learning in such contexts as prisons, men’s sheds, workplaces, community groups or parent and toddler groups are often likely to achieve much more than formal tuition in a less naturalistic setting.

But we can’t rely on volunteering on its own. It is too hit and miss: some groups may be well served by volunteers, others not; some volunteers may be highly competent, others not; some volunteers may know how to support progression, others not. So we certainly need training for voluntary tutors, and we need to remember that their own learning needs will develop over time. Volunteer tutoring works best when it is part of a strong lifelong learning system.

Another Conservative member of the Committee took the view that any problem with adult literacy and numeracy was the fault of what he calls ‘the educatioal establishment’. Brian Binley MP pursued a number of witnesses in the first part of the session (after which he left). The point that he wished to make was that the UK was the only country in the survey in which young adults performed more poorly than older adults, and this must therefore reflect badly on the ‘educational establishment’ that had taught these young adults as children.

Mr Binloey is no enemy of adult learning; on the contrary, he has spoken publicly and warmly of his own adult learning at the hands of the Workers Educational Association. Of course he was over-simplifying when he spoke about the ‘educational establishment’; he didn’t define what he meant by ‘the educational establishment’, he didn’t show much interest in precisely which young adults had been ‘let down badly’ by it, and he didn’t recognise that some parts of our education system perform extremely well by international standards. But he still has a point.

England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales took no part) were indeed the only countries in the OECD adult skills survey where the younger generation of adults did less well than the older generation. This is a highly unusual result – normally, improvements in schooling mean that the young invariably do better than the old, even in countries where everyone believes that the young of today are useless wastrels. So the distinctive UK pattern requires explanation.

So far, the only explanation on offer has been the Conservatives’ knee-jerk response – namely, that the New Labour government made a complete hash of the schools system. Again, they are politicians, and saying that the last government messed things up is their job. But what is surprising to me is the complete silence of Britain’s educational research community on this topic – a research community, remember, that is totally dominated by specialists on schools and school teachers. I would dearly love to see one of them take a hard, close look at the OECD results, and tell us what (if anything) they mean.

Let me draw one obvious conclusion from this extraordinary finding. What it means is that a large group of young adults is exposed to the scarring effects of recession, while being equipped with relatively weak basic skills. This is a recipe for disaster, and I hope that the Select Committee’s report will include specific proposals for tackling this challenge as a matter of urgency.

Above all, I hope that practitioners and learners contact the Committee to share their views, expertise and experiences. While the Committee’s report is unlikely to lead to specific policy changes, it will certainly influence the climate of ideas in which policy is discussed. With an election scheduled for May 2015, the Committee’s recommendations will face a new Government. A lively response from the field can only help ensure that adult literacies are a priority.

School cheating and social capital

I’ve always been interested in the contradictory consequences of people’s social connections. While the literature on social capital has shown conclusively that there are far-reaching positive benefits, there is also a clear ‘down side’. I’m revising my book on social capital for a new edition, and have been reading up on recent research that addresses the negative as well as positive effects.

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In a particularly interesting study, two Italian scholars have examined the relationship between social capital and cheating in school achievement tests. We should note that these were so-called ‘low stakes’ tests: the results are not published, and they have little or no impact on student grades. Their main finding was that cheating was higher in schools situated in neighbourhoods with low scores on several social capital measures. So far, then, the study seems to support the positive story of social capital’s benevolent consequences.

Next, though, they looked at the prevalence in neighbourhoods of two broad sets of values, universalistic and particularistic. Their data showed that cheating was negatively associated with the former but positively with the latter. Finally, they found that cheating was more frequent when teachers were from the local community as well as when the students were relatively homogeneous in terms of social status and ethnicity. This brings us closer to understanding why some forms of social capital are liable to produce ‘negative externalities’.

The dandelions and the docks

The New English Landscape

Hadleigh.colony.planHadleigh Land Colony Plan

A well designed freesheet called Managed Retreat came our way at the recent Essex Book Festival. Principally about land and environmental issues in Essex, it contained a timely essay by Marina O’Connell on ‘Land Settlements in East Anglia’, made all the more interesting by the fact that the author manages a small-holding on a former LSA (Land Settlement Association) site near Manningtree.

Land settlement or colonisation has a long history in Essex, important strands of which are highlighted in a new history by academic John Field called Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880 – 1940 (Manchester University Press). Field makes the obvious but often forgotten point that while ‘Work camps may seem strange to us, before 1939 they were a normal part of the landscape.’ Having spent part of my childhood in Hadleigh, Essex, it was common during school holidays to play in and…

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