The impoverished language of citizenship and adult learning

With colleagues here in Cologne, I’m currently looking at adult learning and active citizenship. Our starting assumption was that this was an area of decline, whether in policy, practice or research, but we have had to moderate that judgement at least in respect of research. So far as policy is concerned, the picture is extremely mixed, and I’ll blog about that later on. What I wanted to note today is an interesting linguistic shift.

Across much of Europe, and that includes the European Commission, governments often use the word ‘citizen’ in connection with adult learning. But when they do so, they usually use it as a synonym for ‘person’ or ‘individual’. Very seldom do they make a connection between adult learning and active citizenship, understood as full participation in civic and political activity.

nordplus

Let me take one example, which comes from the Nordic region. It’s a good region to pick, because it is one where governments not only support adult education more generously than most other European regions, but they also take a broad and generous view of what sort of adult education they should support. It is typical of this view that the Nordic Council of Ministers also fund Nordplus, a lifelong learning programme that covers all stages of education and training in the Nordic and Baltic nations.

Nordplus sounds like a great programme, and you can read about its activities in adult education here. Nordplus Adult has recently published a report on its work to ‘strengthen adults’ key competences and recognition of adults’ informal and non-formal learning’.  It is well worth reading for anyone interested in basic essential skills, validation of prior learning, learning disabilities or older adults’ learning. We can learn much from the Nordic experiences.

The report also illustrates the way in which ‘citizen’ is widely used in policy discourses. The word appears twenty-three times in the report as a synonym for person/individual; the term ‘citizenship’ appears twice, both times in a list of the three Nordplus Adult programme objectives.

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I wouldn’t make too much of this case alone. The report concerns Nordplus Adult’s activities in the field of competences and recognition; presumably a separate report will deal with adult learning for ‘modern citizenship’, and the Nordplus database lists 15 separate projects in this area. On the other hand, I – perhaps naively – would expect some cross-over between competences/recognition and ‘modern citizenship’, particularly in the Nordic context.

More importantly, the same use of ‘citizen’ as synonym for ‘person’ can be found in many other policy documents in Europe. The Nordplus handbook uses the term ‘citizenship’ once, in the list of objectives for Nordplus Adult, and offers no further elaboration of what ‘modern citizenship’ is. That also is typical.

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Democracy requires lifelong education and critical thinking

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Congratulations to the Southern Region of the Workers Educational Association for organising what looks like a terrific conference on education and democracy. Democratic education was, as Stephen Roberts’ centenary history confirms, a preoccupation that ran like a thread through the WEA’s activities, and I’m delighted to see it addressed in this way, with some pointed questions and sparky speakers to fire up the debate.

Linden West is a friend and we’ve worked and written together, so you can take what I say with a pinch of salt. He has a background in the WEA; his latest book (nothing if not ambitious) tackles racism, fundamentalism, Islamophobia and de-industrialisation in the context of democratic education; you can find the details here.

I’m equally interested in hearing what Hilda Kean has to say. Again, she has a background in adult education, and stood up in public to attack Ruskin College’s decision to trash its own archives. She is a leading exponent of the public history movement, and is well known for her histories of animals, including work for the BBC on animals in wartime.

This could, and should, be a really important event which shapes discussions not only around the WEA, but over the future of adult learning in the UK more generally. I have nothing against Tonbridge, but why leave it there? Can’t the WEA nationally turn it into a travelling roadshow, igniting debates elsewhere?

Education, organisations and civil society

I’m just back from the annual conference of the Commission of Organizational Education of the German Society for Educational Research. This year’s topic was ‘Organization and Civil Society’, a theme close to my own interests in adult learning in connection with social capital and active citizenship.

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The topic was obviously an attractive one: as well as the two keynotes, one in German and one in English, there were 25 papers. A high proportion of papers came from postgraduate researchers, which suggests that the future of this area should be in safe hands. Highlights included studies of:

  • learning through different types of ‘citizen science’, including such grassroots initiatives as the Quantified Self movement;
  • learning and identity in migrants’ voluntary organisations;
  • the development of support for basic literacies in labour office programmes for the unemployed.

Both keynotes came from outside educational studies, which related to a feature of the conference that I found interesting: many of the papers drew on contemporary management and organisational studies, with neo-institutionalism being a particularly strong source of conceptual inspiration.

Among other strong intellectual influences were Pierre Bourdieu, whose work on cultural capital and habitus informed a number of studies of civil society organisations. Unsurprisingly, Bourdieu’s concept of social capital, which relates to the role of networks in elite formation, received little attention.

The other strong thread was reference to contemporary discussions of learning, including organisational learning. Key here were thinkers like Illeris, who have developed broad theories of learning based on syntheses of more empirical literature. If the Communities of Practice or professional learning literatures were discussed in any of the strands, I missed it.

Methodological preoccupations surfaced in a number of discussions of papers drawing on qualitative data. A number of presenters emphasised that they had undertaken a systematic approach to content analysis, and this attracted quite a lot of discussion. I was struck particularly by the influence of Ralf Bohnsack’s work on reconstructive social research, a book that has made virtually no impact in the English-speaking world – though it has parallels with the way in which I and other colleagues have used ‘sensitising concepts’ (including that of ‘habitus’) to guide qualitative data analysis.

I was struck by the lack of clarity and consensus around the idea of civil society. Some papers treated schools and similar formal state institutions as part of civil society, some included major charitable agencies, and others limited their focus to voluntary and community groups.

Interestingly, the conference took place in the Evangelische Hochschule Darmstadt, a ‘university of applied science’ associated with the Lutheran church, whose tradition of diaconical service had a significance influence on the development of the welfare state in Germany. And it allowed me to visit the artists’ colony at Mathildenhöhe, an extraordinary collection of art nouveau buildings sponsored by the Grand Duke Ernst Lugwig.

 

 

What do populisms of Left and Right have in common? Armin Nassehi on the attraction of simple solutions

 

During the Scottish referendum, and during recent visits to Germany and Sweden, I’ve been pondering the rise of radical populist movements. I know much less about the Front National in France or Syriza in Greece than I do about Pegida, UKIP and the SNP, of course. Still, I am impressed by the levels of support that these diverse movements are attracting. And in different ways, they both present and express a significant challenge to the established political order. What does this all mean for active citizenship in modern European countries like our own?

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Armin Nassehi is a German sociologist whose work deals with what ‘society’ might mean in contemporary conditions. He has published fifteen books and who knows how many articles, and he was co-editor (with Ulrich Beck) of the leading journal Soziale Welt. He is particularly interested in the relationship between social science and political activity, and has been recognised for his contribution to intercultural dialogue.

Nassehi’s work, unlike Beck’s, is not yet available in English, but his concerns are hardly limited to the borders of Germany. This week he gave an interview to a German newspaper on the electoral success of populist parties, Left and Right, in a number of European countries (oddly, Germany was been the main exception to this trend – until the recent rise of the largely non-electoral Pegida movement).

Given the wider relevance of the topic, I thought I’d share at least a few extracts. After all, the number of people who do not feel themselves represented by the established political parties seems to be large, and growing in many countries. Is Nasshi right that populism appeals to those who feel baffled and powerless in the face of modern social complexity?

Asked why voters appear so fascinated with parties who reject established political structures, Nassehi agreed that these parties claim that:

everything in society is going wrong. But there is also a constructive element: it is suggested that there are simple ways of changing the world. On the Right there is the idea that a more ethnically homogeneous society will create more solidarity and more cohesive governance. On the Left there is the idea that societies can be governed and rebuilt centrally.

For Nassehi, this implies that while there are differences between Left and Right populisms, there are also similarities:

Modern societies are complex. Many citizens don’t want to deal with that. That’s why parties promise simple solutions – from Left and Right. The Left is generally more attractive because it works with universalistic arguments and demands for justice. But the new Left parties deny the complexity of society as much as the Right. They persuade us that there are simple levers with which one can change things. But modern societies are not made in such a one-dimensional way.

Nassehi’s proposal is that the traditional concerns of the political parties must be transformed into what he calls ‘new complexity challenges’. Precisely what that means in practice is not clear – but perhaps that is his point.

And while the established media seem incapable of investigating and debating ‘complexity challenges’, more and more people are drawn towards digital communications to express their views and exchange information and ideas. Spaces for active digital citizenship really start to matter.