As with the Scottish referendum in 2014, the UK’s European Referendum provided a fantastic opportunity to engage adult learners in civic debate. Living in Germany, I’ve had to watch the campaign from a distance (the media here only started covering the issue in depth when it became clear that Leave was gathering support in the polls). But I tried to look out for any examples of adult education providing a space for open and reasoned debate.
And there were plenty of examples of adult educators promoting active citizenship in just this way. Branches of the Workers Educational Association held a number of open discussions, often working with the active citizenship consultancy Talk Shop. In Leicester, for instance, the WEA teamed up with Talk Shop to run a fun, open and balanced discussion ‘in a thoughtful and friendly atmosphere’.
Some local trade union organisations held similar open discussions, as in Haringey. And a number of colleges, libraries and community centres hosted one-off meetings or mock debates around the issues.
Universities didn’t have their finest hour. Some individual academics contributed their expertise to public events organised by others. MOOCs came into their own, with FutureLearn commissioning a small set of courses, such as the terrific Towards Brexit course from Edinburgh.
Otherwise, universities have promoted events for their students but seem to have done little or nothing for the public. That hasn’t stopped them from sitting on their hands and complaining that voters don’t really know enough to make a decision.
Even in its much depleted state, then, the adult education system responded. The WEA and other providers have helped show what was possible. We can imagine how much better-informed the debate might have been if adult education providers had been in a position to support a much earlier and systematic campaign of public information and discussion.
My favourite event was undoubtedly this one, held in a pub/microbrewery that describes itself as ‘more folk than punk’ (a sly dig at the BrewDog brand, as my fellow ale-lovers will realise). The Twisted Barrel in Coventry regularly hosts debates under the name of Skeptics in a Pub.
It really sounds my kind of place. But that is the core of the problem. While people like me will feel at home in a bar where we can drink craft beer and discuss politics with like-minded people, quite a lot of people would feel deeply uncomfortable in that environment. I sense that we have a declining number of spaces for face-to-face dialogue, particularly with those who do not share our views and values. Adult education used to be one of those places, and we kill it at our peril.