Utopia – Whither the Future?

I’ve been very taken with the idea behind this conference, which examines the past, present and future of utopias. It’s being held in New York in September, and the call for papers is open (details here) until 30 June. I can’t attend myself, but what a great topic!

The organisers pose some attractive questions about the past and present of utopia. The future, reasonably enough, is summarised by a question mark.New Picture (2)

I certainly have an interest in the history of utopian thinking and practice. I encountered numerous cases in researching the British work camp tradition, ranging from the Christian Socialist settlement at Starnthwaite and the Tolstoyan anarchists of Whiteway to the Zionist David Eder training farm, the Aryan work camps of Rolf Gardiner’s group, and the peace-builders of Gryth Fyrd. All of these sought to prefigure a different world; and although none managed to persist with its original intentions, some lasted much longer than others.

Given that work camps are seriously hard work, literally as well as figuratively, there may well be some lessons to be learned from these stories. The tension between academic rigour and utopian activism is one of life’s great pleasures.  And I very much hope that utopian thinking and practices are far from dead: if we cannot imagine a different way of living from the world around us at present, we may as well turn to the bottle.

Sampling private adult education: a beer seminar


Last night I headed to the Malzmühle, one of Cologne’s venerable brewhouses, famous for dining Bill Clinton after another Brauhaus had refused him entry. I was there, not to honour the former President, but to take part in a Bierseminar on the topic of German craft beer.

It was a two-hour event, which involved lots of hands-on (or tongue-on) activity in the form of sampling, with a beer-master who introduced the six craft beers and placed them in the wider context of the thriving phenomenon that is German craft beer. We also snacked on “Kölscher tapas”. You won’t be surprised to learn that I enjoyed it enormously.

It’s interesting to reflect on it as an adult education experience. There was a lot of humour, initiated and led by the beer-master, who made light of his considerable knowledge, claiming that it was based mainly on having drunk 27,000 litres of beer. There was a touch of subversion, with an informed critique of the famed Reinheitsgebot, and a rather sharper mocking of the dominant Lager industry. The highly sociable event was high on learner involvement, increasingly noisy as the evening went on.

The thirty-plus learners, I ought to say, were mostly in their thirties, with some in their twenties or forties (I was far the oldest).  Two thirds were male and one third female, and one family had brought two young children. Beards were plentiful but not as frequent nor as ferociously clipped as I’d expect to see in the UK. And in one of Germany’s most multi-cultural cities, and indeed in the middle of a multi-ethnic neighbourhood, all were white.



I don’t want to get too serious about what I had attended mainly as a bit of fun. Still, I learned quite a bit about the science of brewing, the shortcomings of the Reinheitsgebot, and the relative uniformity and blandness of most (not all) German lagers. My expectations had been modest in this respect: what could I learn in Germany about craft beers that I didn’t know already? Well, I was happy to be proven wrong.

Pleasant though it was, the evening wouldn’t be worth blogging about were it not that it exemplifies one of the largest and most diverse but most neglected areas of adult learning: privately-run educational activities that are sold on a commercial basis and promoted in terms of the benefits to customers. Very often they are conducted as a by-product of the core business, as was the case with the Malzmühle – which also represents a highly-trusted brand.

Yet we know very little about this part of the adult education sector, and what we do know is often anecdotal, completely subjective, and unsystematic. And we have little or no knowledge of the wider effects of this growing consumer-oriented private sector.

I want to end, though, by celebrating the German craft beer industry. I had some great IPAs, including a wheat IPA, and a wonderful Imperial Stout. Star of the show for me, though, was a Gose Bier (known also as a Goslar Bier), an acidic ale which had been brewed from a mix of malts, complemented by a small about of lactose,salt and coriander. It completely failed to meet the Reinheitsgebot criteria, and packed a mighty punch of fruity flavour with a bitter, hoppy finish. Prost! 


Advertising learning: some German images

I spotted this bike walking to a craft ale bar after work one day. The bright red saddle cover is promoting the VHS (Volkshochschule, or local adult education service). Cycling is extremely popular in Cologne, as in most German cities, and is often supported by public transport companies as well as employers (for instance, I have access to a university bike for work). So a branded saddle cover is something that people are highly likely to use, though I wonder how much thought was given to the part of the anatomy that gets closest to the VHS message.


Start now!


Here’s a bit of ‘knocking copy’ in a campaign recruiting apprentices. The poster, on a wall in the Bohemian suburb of Ehrenfeld, pokes fun at the way university graduates have to wait until their late 20s before they are earning, and hints that being a craftworker is a better option. Average study time in German higher education is long, with pupils on the academic track leaving school at 19, then spending at least four years studying for a Bachelor’s degree and at least two more working for a Master’s.


“First salary at 29? I’ve got something better in mind”


I like this postcard, which I picked up when I went to see Eddie the Eagle. It was in a multiplex, with foreign language films dubbed into German (including Eddie), showing mss market movies. The card is published by the Federal Ministry of Education and Science, and while it provides plenty of space to write on, contact details are listed on the back.


“You can’t choose your family. You can your continuing education”.


Next up, a punning key-ring. The reverse side says simply VHS, followed by the web-site.


“My door-opener”

And last, a mini pack of gummi bears, a give-away for one of the many private university chains in Germany. Fresenius is one of the older private chains, and it now has outlets in eight German cities, including Cologne, and an outpost in New York City. I thought this pack of sweets (since eaten by my grand-daughter) was quite clever, as it manages to combine a light touch seriousness with a bit of fun.


Nerve nourishment


Obama and adult education for active citizenship


President Obama has long been an admirer of the Nordic countries, and he has just hosted a meeting with the five Nordic prime ministers. Toasting his guests, he made the standard jokes about Vikings, ale and Norwegian TV. He also took time to praise the Danish tradition of adult education.

Many of our Nordic friends are familiar with the great Danish pastor and philosopher Grundtvig who, among other causes, championed the idea of the Folk School — education that was not just made available to the elite, but to the many. Training that prepared a person for active citizenship, that improves a society.

Over time the Folk School Movement spread, including here to the United States. One of those schools was in the state of Tennessee. It was called the Highlander Folk School. Highlander, especially during the 1950s, a new generations of Americans came together to share their ideas and strategies for advancing civil rights, for advancing equality, for advancing justice. We know the names of some of those who were trained or participated in the Highlander school. Ralph Abernathy. John Lewis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were all shaped in part by Highlander and the teachings of the great Nordic philosopher, and they ended up having a ripple effect on the Civil Rights Movement and ultimately on making America a better place. We would not have been here had it not been for that stone that was thrown in the lake and created ripples of hope that ultimately spread across the ocean to the United States of America. I might not be standing here were it not for the efforts of people like Ella Baker and the others who participated in the Highlander Folk School.

Grundtvig, well known as an adult educator, was a nineteenth century Lutheran pastor, poet, and historian, and also a politician. I hadn’t known much about Grundtvig’s political career until we watched the Danish TV series 1864, in which the esteemed founder of the folk high school movement featured as a war-mongering nationalist, who helped push Denmark into a disastrous war with Prussia.

Can we reconcile this rather negative portrait with our image of Grundtvig the peaceful paron saint of adult education? Or was this just a television director’s way of heightening a dramatic moment in Danish history? Grundtvig was indeed a nationalist, whose first proposal for the folk high school claimed that ‘King and Folk, Fatherland and mother-tongue’ were the four leaves of the Danish clover.

So the folk high school went along with other measures such as replacing the Lutheran hymn book with Danish writings, emphasising the value of the ‘living word’ over the written text, and celebrating Nordic mythology. Grundtvig championed adult education as a means of integrating young men into a distinctly Danish way of life, helping preserve the country’s language, literature and song from Germanic contamination, and promoting a qualified egalitarianism.

Later generations were faintly embarrassed by this nationalistic dimension to Grundtvig’s thought, emphasising his respect for the German speaking people of Schleswig, and pointing out that his nationalism represented the conditions of the nineteenth century. Of course it is reasonable to insist that we do not simply judge the past by our contemporary standards, but neither should we airbrush away those parts that we now wish to disown.

Grundtvig was a many-faceted figure whose influence went way beyond Denmark’s shores. I am deeply impressed, and cheered, by the fact that the President of the USA took time in a brief speech to single out the Danish folk high schools, and made clear the connection with the training for active citizenship which helped equip the civil rights movement. Skål!


Some people find it difficult to discuss male underachievement (updated)

As someone with a long track record of interest in educational inequalities, I started my day by reading a new report on male underachievement. Published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report points to evidence from the UK of male underachievement in higher education entry, persistence, and final results. In particular, it presents evidence of underachievement among white working class boys. It then sets out a number of proposals for changing that situation.

New Picture (2)

I found it a reasoned and evidence piece of work, though far from perfect. Aware that they were entering a minefield, the authors went to some trouble to point out that they were very comfortable with the growth of female participation in higher education, and they noted that there are significant differences between subjects; they discussed male/female salary differentials for graduates and criticised female under-representation in senior academic positions. They developed their proposals in a way that sought to avoid zero-sum political carve-ups.

However, that wasn’t enough to prevent an official from the National Union of Students using the highly-respected WONKHE blog to attack them for turning “a complex and nuanced issue into a battle of the sexes”. Even for a zero-sum world view, this ignores possible wars over ethnicity and class.

The WONKHE blog also contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, it claims that the HEPI report says that female school teachers are the main reason why boys do badly in school. The HEPI report says in terms that “the evidence on whether male teachers raise the achievement of boys is contradictory” – so it is pretty much the opposite of what the WONKHE blog says.

I’d idly started to wonder whether the blogger had actually read the report, or was drawing on another source. Then I spotted an attempt to smear the authors based on who they cited. The WONKHE blog says that on page 36 the report refers to an “un-named academic”, with a footnote referring the reader to a “disreputable source” by the name of Mike Buchanan, who is a leading figure in a campaigning group called “Justice for Men”.

New Picture

The blogger simply got this wrong, muddling two quite separate footnotes to two quite separate sentences. The reference to the “un named academic” (footnote 61) is to Joanna Williams, who is at the University of Kent. Mike Buchanan is not identified at all in the report, but footnote 60 does list three sources – one of them being Justice for Men etc – for the statement that “groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence has been ignored”.

In itself, I don’t think this is that important, though I’d like WONKHE to correct the factual “errors”. The National Union of Students exists to defend its views, and sometimes it officers will do so in ways that they see as robust and others as underhand. What this episode does tell us, though, is that some people will try and stamp out any attempt whatsoever to discuss male educational performance.



It turns out that the report put out by HEPI in advance to sector stakeholders and media had three slightly broken footnotes which were corrected in the finished version which was published. One of those who received an advance copy was the NUS, whose vice-president produced the WONKHE blog post. You must judge for yourself whether a failure to twig that something was obviously wrong was the result of the author’s prejudice or something else. Muddled footnotes do not, though, explain the other inaccuracies.

An educational response to violence against women – women’s self-defence classes

women fight

By women for women!


The New Year’s attacks on women in central Cologne have left a lasting mark. Cologners tend to see their city as a haven of tolerance, and of safety. And this open-minded spirit has largely characterised the continuing debate about what the attacks mean for society, with most people challenging racism and sexism alike. At one meeting I attended, for example, a number of women who had been harassed by intolerant male Muslim neighbours over their or  their daughters’ clothing and behaviour came to the conclusion that what they wanted is a ‘Reclaim the streets demonstration for the new millenium’.

There has also been a huge rise of interest in women’s self-defence courses. This poster is typical of many that covered the whole Innenstadt where I live in the aftermath of the attacks. Like many similar posters, this one is advertising a programme offered by a Turkish voluntary association. All-Aacht is a particular type of martial arts (don’t ask me any more about it, because that’s all I know), and the poster promotes it both as a form of self defence and as a way of staying fit and healthy, run “by women for women”. I photographed it outside a lesbian dance bar, just along the street from my apartment.

I imagine that some people would see this entire development as based on false assumptions. Surely women should be able to go where they want in Cologne, or anywhere else, without being threatened by men. You might also question the imagery. So are courses like this part of the problem, by encouraging women to adapt to a world in which some men think they have the right to attack women? Or does this sort of activity contribute, in however limited a way, to women’s empowerment?

Cologne’s Continuing Education Trade Fair: quality sells


Berufliche Volltreffer – Career Bullseye

This weekend saw me attending the Cologne trade fair for continuing education. It took over two floors of the Gurzenich, a splendid venue which combines a medieval hall, substantially restored following bomb damage during WW2, with modern exhibition and meetings spaces. As you’d expect, it was a lively and well attended event, with some 60 exhibitors along with a series of talks and seminars.

I’m familiar with similar events in the UK, often held during what is now called the Festival of Learning (previously Adult Learners’ Week). Nevertheless, a couple of things struck me. The first was the sheer range of the organisations who attended. As well as the ‘usual suspects’ like the Volkshochschule, or VHS), those present included the Federal Labour Agency, and the Archbishops’ Trades College, as well as many higher education institutions and private providers, and a language school called the English Institute of Cologne.

The German Army and Deutsche Bahn both had stalls; their staff said they were major providers of in-work training, and saw this as a attraction for new recruits. Details for all the exhibitors and associated talks were listed in a colourful and informative brochure.

Something I always found interesting when I used to take part in these exhibitions was the different levels of interest that the various stalls attracted. I visited on the Sunday morning, and although it wasn’t heaving, there was a steady flow of visitors.And they were relatively young (by contemporary European standards – ie almost all under 50), which is probably because this event focused on work-related education. Liberal adult education has its own event, Lernfest Köln, which takes place in September.

The city adult education service, the VHS, unsurprisingly had the largest numbers chatting to staff or browsing the literature. Some exhibitors had proven less popular and they were chatting across the stalls (such networking by providers is always a valuable, if unrecognised, part of these events) or gazing forlornly into space.


The other thing to strike me was the importance accorded to quality assurance. Several of the exhibitors made a point of saying, in the brochure and in their own material, that they were ‘recognised’ by the ministry of education and culture of the Land Nordrhein-Westfalen. I don’t know what this involves, though I strongly suspect that the recognition process is a little more rigorous than anything that our own education ministries undertake in the UK.

In addition, the organisers went to some pains to let you know whether exhibitors had satisfied the quality criteria of the Qualitätsgemeinschaft Berufliche Bildung Region Köln (‘Quality Community of Vocational Education of the Region of Cologne’). This association came into being in 1991, and is administered by the Chamber for Industry and Trade. It doesn’t cover the higher education sector, where private providers – and there are a lot of them in Germany – have to apply to the ministry for recognition.

The QG, as it mercifully calls itself, counts the VHS and various other public bodies among its 130 members. However, the large majority are private providers, most of whom seem to be for-profit bodies. The QG, as it mercifully calls itself, operates through a series of working groups, and regularly submits its processes for national recognition. Its web site and publications tell you how to make a complaint if you feel let down by one of its members.

With such a large number of private training providers, a well-publicised quality system clearly makes sense. Learners who feel ripped off are hardly the best advertisement for the joys of learning, so a system designed to secure high standards is in the interests of all the honest providers.You could argue that the quality problem is caused by having a market in the first place, but that boat sailed long ago.

All in all, then, it was an interesting morning. The trade fair was bright, colourful, well-organised and very focused on advice and recruitment. And it made a welcome break for a hot and sticky Brit on a day when the temperatures outside hit 30 degrees.