I’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.
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”.