Adult education and the referendum

New Picture (1)

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.

New Picture (1)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.

Ignorant citizens and the European referendum


If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, quite a few people seemed appalled to discover from a survey for the Independent that most British adults are remarkably ill-informed about the European Union. Personally, I wouldn’t be too critical of the 95% who couldn’t name their local Member of the European Parliament. That’s mainly because I am among them (one name springs to mind, David Coburn, who is an oaf), and anyway the elected Parliament has hardly any powers, and the constituencies are huge.

Some of the other misconceptions were rather more significant, though most were rather less dramatic than the Independent‘s headline suggested. Shortly afterwards Michael Gove, a leading figure in the Leave campaign, triggered another Twitter storm by telling an interviewer that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’. Or did he?

Certainly that is how he was quoted by many commentators, including the academic and university leader Ferdinand von Prondzynski (you can read his blog here). I’ve read the interview transcript, though, so here is a longer quotation. You decide whether the quotation is so selective that it was misleading:

GOVE: The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal.  I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

Faisal Islam: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

GOVE:  … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

My own judgement is that a lot of people think it is fair to twist and invent stuff in referendums, and that the selective quotation was produced in order to discredit Gove (something he usually seems perfectly capable of doing for himself). It’s not something I expect to see academics doing, but I don’t want to make a meal of it. And anyway quite a few people mistrust at least some experts for some of the time.

More interesting by far is the narrative that this “quote” helped to create. Like the widespread misinformation uncovered by the Independent, it feeds a story of the Leave voter as not only ignorant, but as wilfully ignorant. Usually, this ignorance is blamed on a biassed media, whose blatant mistruths are swallowed wholesale by those too stupid to ask questions.

This narrative is based on pretty naked class contempt, of course, as well as the sense of superiority felt by the well-educated over the less-educated. I also think it reeks of rank hypocrisy. Universities across Britain have set about demolishing their contribution to an educated citizenry, closing adult education departments and rushing to recruit ‘world class researchers’. The University of Leicester recently told its local newspaper that it was shutting its adult education programme because it was “committed to focusing on its world-class strengths”, which sounds laughable in terms of logic, and short-sighted in the extreme.

If we want to know why we have ignorant citizens, Rupert Murdoch is the least of our problems. We should start by looking at the failure of nerve that led our universities to walk away from the role of educating local citizens. If some of those citizens now reject the academy, then I can’t resist the temptation to say: Schadenfreude. We are reaping what we have sown.


No honorary doctorate for Edward Snowden?


University Square, Rostock

The University of Rostock will not be awarding Edward Snowden an honorary doctorate. This case has been dragging through the courts since May 2014, when the University’s Rector rejected a proposal from the Humanities Faculty, giving the grounds that Snowden had no particular scholarly achievement to his credit. The Rector’s decision has now been confirmed by the judge responsible for public administration in the Land – or country – of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Pomerania).

The Faculty – known in German as the Philosophische Fakultät – is a broad one with specialisms across education, culture, history, literature and languages, and is the largest in the university. Usually in German universities, the Faculty’s proposals for honorary degrees are uncontroversial, and are accepted without change. In Snowden’s case, the Rector announced that as there was no evidence of an ‘outstanding’ or ‘special’ contribution to knowledge, he was blocking the proposal.

The Education Ministry of the Land, supporting the Rector, argued that the definition of eligibility for honorary doctorates was laid down in the country’s law. The Faculty stood by its original decision, justifying their stance on the grounds of Snowden’s wider social contribution, and took the Rector to the administrative tribunal. It is now considering whether to appeal the tribunal’s judgement, or to nominate the whistleblower once more, this time on grounds of his contribution to knowledge.

From a British perspective, it is interesting to see how these decisions work out in a different system. The German administrative tribunals have the role of a law court, and are expected to deal with conflicts between citizens and public authorities. As the German public universities are legally part of the civil service, the tribunals can become involved in their governance.

This is unusual, certainly by the standards of most English-speaking countries, but I wonder whether it would have been enough to block some of the bizarre honorary degrees awarded by UK universities, usually with had the enthusiastic support of the Vice Chancellor. It would certainly have been hard to argue that Donald Trump and Jimmy Saville  made much of a contribution to knowledge, but British universities honoured them all the same.



The benefits of adult learning: information technology and older adults


The IT Group, Yeovil U3A

I’ve just been reading a study of how adult learning influences older people’s use of information technology. I’ll summarise this study, as it adds to our knowledge about the benefits of adult learning, but if you want to read the original it is available here.

The study is of University of the Third Age students in two Italian centres for seniors. The researchers surveyed 135 individual learners; like many other studies of U3A groups the learners were more likely to be highly educated than the population at large, and the IT groups had more men than average for U3A courses. The survey relied on self-reporting, and examined changes in IT use among those taking the course.

The results were highly illuminating, and they are summarised in the abstract below. The only group who did not benefit significantly from the course were university graduates, which should come as no surprise. Those with lower existing levels of education, and especially those with the lowest levels, experienced the largest benefits.New Picture

Given the increasing role of IT in health care and access to other government services, as well as in everyday communications, these are important findings.Last year I got annoyed with a government minister who’d been sneering at part-time courses in IT for adult learners. She justified her attack on adult learning in machine-like language:

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Well, learning how to use a mouse might just be critical if you are seventy and are terrified to touch a computer. Internet use among older adults is rising, but it falls sharply among the over-65s. Evidence that education changes behaviour as well as attitudes is therefore very welcome.

Adult education as “workshop of democracy”: Germany’s President welcomes adult educators to Berlin


It is a sign of how seriously Germany takes adult education that Joachim Gauck, the country’s President, gave the welcoming speech at the 14th Volkshochschultag. This is particularly good news for adult educators world wide, as it comes a month after President Obama publicly praised the active citizenship tradition in adult education, which I blogged about here.

Gauck’s welcome was uplifting and well-informed, and I give a couple of extracts below. And while he observed the formality of thanking the organisers for their invitation, he added ‘You’ve probablyalready noticed: I’m coming to you very gladly’. The speech made me wish I’d taken the train to Berlin for a couple of days, and I’ll give a sample of it here. As usual, I am sure someone will let me know if I’ve mis-translated!

The President opened with the following two paragraphs:

In times of change, institutions often do well to reflect on their roots and their central essence. Only those who are secure in their identity  can confidently help to shape social change. Let me therefore, before I turn to the digital challenge, which you want to discuss today and tomorrow, first remember Max Hirsch, the liberal union leader and pioneer of community colleges.

It was Max Hirsch who in 1878 founded in Berlin the first Volkshochschule in Germany, the Humboldt Academy. The goals he sought back then are still valid, even if we would formulate it differently today. Hirsch wanted to spread ‘higher, genuinely scientific education’ and, as he said, in ‘in all parts of the population’. He wanted a thematically wide range, namely, literally ‘for those who require thorough instruction’. Finally, he wanted to provide every individual with the opportunity to develop through education into a mature, responsible citizen. Into a citizen who is equally committed to their own personal and professional development and for the community in which he lives.

Gauck then spoke about what he sees as the chief characteristics of the Volkshochschulen. They are, he said, open to all; they are pluralistic and bring different cultures together; they are civically engaged, with social and political responsibilities. He spoke highly of the adult education movement’s support for refugees. He then alluded to the conference theme of digital inclusion, and spoke of its potential for reinforcing as well as changing the nature of adult education. He praised the online portal Ich will Deutsch lernen, created by the German Volkshochschul Association to support the integration courses run by local Volkshochschulen.

His concluding paragraph is worth translating in full:

Community colleges are vibrant institutions, as is demonstrated not least by the theme of this congress. You can help create social change, precisely because you stand on a stable foundation of values and are firmly rooted in local communities. Our civil society needs such institutions, now and in the future. I encourage you, therefore:  continue to keep your ear close to the pulse of the times, try out new things, and have difficult debates. And stay as you were and how you are: Open to all, diverse and civically engaged.

Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor who was part of the oppositional neues Forum movement in East Germany, and he has a track record as a campaigner against racism and xenophobia. He has said that he won’t be seeking a second term of office, which seems a shame, but it is striking that he – like several of his predecessors – has played a very open role in public debate rather than striking the sorts of postures which party leaders are required to do (though nominated to his post by the Greens and Social Democrats, he is no aligned with any party himself).

I’m also wondering whether a largely ceremonial President is the way to go in a future British Republic. It’s very striking that Ireland and Germany have had some thoughtful and interesting characters in the role, and I suspect this is because it attracts people who have something to say, rather than those who have schemed and fought their way to the top of a party heirarchy. There is a debate in Germany over whether the post should be abolished; I rather hope it isn’t.

What Einstein said about adult education


Einstein in 1921

In 1919, Albert Einstein wrote to the Freie Vereinigung für technische Volksbildung (Independent Association for Technical Popular Education) praising their objectives. His letter was subsequently published in the monthly magazine Volksbildung. This is my own translation, which is complete and should be reasonably accurate – and if it isn’t, let me know!

Education always threatens a peculiar risk of detachment from the world of sensual experience. All education creates a world of concepts. These are closely related in their origin with the realities, they are formed out of their clear recognition. But closely bound to the linguistically fixed concept is a tendency to generalization that on the one hand expands its field of application, on the other hand weakens its connection to sensory experience. So particularly in times when culture is aging, we see concepts becoming empty and formal, losing touch with sensory experience. Who would deny that the grammar schools, where the focus of attention is directed to the language, are particularly exposed to this risk? But the nurturing of mathematics uncoupled from applications brings the same risk; and so the geometricians were able over the centuries to forget that their science ultimately deals with constant bodies and rays of light; the geometrician who fundamentally denies this demotes his science to a meaningless word game. Science can only stay healthy and active if it maintains its relationship with the world of sensual experience, however indirect this relationship may be. Engagement with technology is highly suited to counteracting the degeneration of science in the sense indicated.

On the other hand it is important to make the technology a true cultural factor, by which one brings its rich spiritual and aesthetic content closer to the general consciousness. What comes into the mind of a fine person when he hears the word technology? Greed, exploitation, social division of people, class hatred, soulless mechanization, racial degeneration, senseless hasty bustle … is it any wonder that the educated person hates technology as a wayward child of our times, which threatens to destroy the finer attractions of life? For this robust child of society to grow up safe and sound, we must not let it grow wild. One must try to understand it in order to influence it. It possesses powers that can ennoble life. Here I see the second task of your Association.

Einstein, who by this time was a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was on the way to becoming world famous by 1919. His theory of relativity was well known among theoretical physicists, and was being subjected to testing by empirical physicists. I don’t know the context of this letter, but presumably Einstein – who had taken Austrian citizenship when appointed to a chair in Prague – had been invited to make a public statement supporting the newly-formed Association.

Einstein chose to write about the importance of technology as the place where science meets society. His underlying argument is one that scientists today might associate with the world of ‘impact’ and ‘user engagement’. And Einstein clearly thought that an audience of adult educators was likely to sympathise with his belief that technology might ‘ennoble life’, and share his view on the value of fusing abstract conceptual thinking with the world of lived experience.


I – and anyone else interested in the history of adult education – have to thank the Austrian Folk High School Association and the Austrian Folk High School Archive for the fact that Einstein’s letter is in the public domain, as one of the many resources available through their fabulous portal, Knowledge Base Erwachsenenbildung. Some of the materials are also in English, though most are in German. You can find out more here. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to know whether Einstein had any other connections with the adult education movement.


How does the BBC select its expert academic commentators?

The Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation & Skills is currently looking at the emerging shape of work in modern Britain. As someone interested in skills and learning, I am keeping an eye on their inquiry, and am looking forward to its report. Their work was featured this morning on the BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today, which interviewed the Committee chair and an expert commentator by the name of Jeremy Baker.


The interview with Baker created something of a Twitter storm. Introduced as ‘a retail analyst and affiliate professor at ESCP Europe Business School’, Baker proceeded to harp on about the notion of employment rights for entry-level workers, including trainees, which he repeatedly derided as ‘French’ and ‘middle class’.

Needless to say, Baker’s ideas were promptly rejected by Iain Wright, MP, who chairs the Select Committee. But given the rather peculiar nature of his comments, it seems reasonable to put the question: who is Jeffrey Baker, and what is his expertise? I did a bit of internet searching, and the results were mildly revealing.

First, the ESCP itself. ECSP is a private higher education institution, active in and recognised by a number of European states, with its origins in Paris. It enjoys a good reputation, and achieves well in international rankings of business schools.

The ESCP website lists Baker as an ‘affiliate professor’. What this means depends on the institution and individual; often, it is an appointment that is approved at departmental level, for someone whom the department wishes to contribute teaching or research.

The ESCP website tells us very little about Baker’s expertise. The one publication it mentions is his book Tolstoy’s Bicycle, described as ‘a creative look at career paths’, but which seems to be a popular compendium of high achievers and their ages, published in 1982. His current research is not listed, nor are his publications. A search on Google Scholar didn’t shed any further light on his expertise.

I have no idea whether the Today programme tried elsewhere and was turned down, or whether Baker or the ESCP put his name forward. But if you want an up-to-date expert on developments in the contemporary labour market, Baker doesn’t seem an obvious first choice.

Perhaps someone chuntering on about the French makes for good radio. But for those of us attempting to promote ideas of research informed policy, this morning’s interview was a step back.