By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.
My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.
Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.
Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.
What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.
I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.
While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.