Brexit: a wake-up call for adult education?

An article with this intriguing title features on the EPALE website for Germany. Google provides an English translation which is all but incomprehensible (here), so here’s a few tasters in the meantime.

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The author, Susanne Lattke, is a researcher at the German Institute for Adult Education; while she is presumably writing in a personal capacity, she is an experienced and informed commentator on European education policies.

Lattke starts by suggesting that actual Brexit is not inevitable, and even if it takes place most member states will move quickly to protect their interests through bilateral deals with the UK. She suggests that the rest of the EU are likely to want the UK to remain within the education programmes, offering a similar relationship to that already enjoyed by Switzerland.

Of course, we cannot be sure that all the four devolved education ministries will wish to fund participation in Erasmus+ in general and Grundtvig in particular. Even if they do, Lattke points out that it will become harder to secure British participants, and this will be a loss for other European partners.

The ‘wake-up call’ is, in her view, a challenge to the self-image and self-understanding of adult education as a space of tolerance and openness. She sees the Brexit debate as characterised by ‘a culture of political confrontation’, in which there was ‘little trace of respect for other opinions or a responsibly-exercised “active citizenship.

Unlike some in the UK, Lattke does not think that inadequate knowledge and low education alone explain the poor quality of the British debate. However, she does think it reinforces the need for ‘political-social education and learning’, not so much to transmit the ‘right’ attitudes and information as to open up options for ‘the growing number of potentially frustrated citizens’. And that, she concludes, is not solely a lesson for the UK.

One comment had appeared by today, from Christina Norwig, who largely agreed with Lattke. However, she also pointed out that older adults – who largely voted for Brexit – were the least likely to have participated in EU mobility schemes.

I largely share these views, and posted my immediate thoughts here. It is, though, interesting to see them shared by an experienced German adult educator and scholar. Hopefully a proper translation of Lattke’s post will appear shortly in English, and will generate further constructive debate in both languages. Meanwhile, I commend the EPALE website as a great resource for all who are interested in adult learning.

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Obama and adult education for active citizenship

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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!

 

The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.

Spying on sword dancers: Nazis, work camps, and English folk music

In 1927, a party of 46 German students visited Newcastle. The local chief constable duly reported this to the British security services, who opened up a new file on Rolf Gardiner, the Germans’ English contact, and the spooks duly monitored Gardiner for the next twenty years. Gardiner loved folk music all his life, and he ensured that folk song and dance was an integral part of the work camps that he founded and led.

I’ve been thinking about Gardiner and race this week, as the folk festival season gets into full swing, and I pass my evenings stewarding concerts in my local rugby club. Rolf Gardiner (father of John Eliot Gardiner) has intrigued and divided historians for years. His most recent biographers sum him up as a ‘folk dancer, forester, poet and visionary’. He was all of these, and more, for Gardiner was also an adult educator, youth worker, organic farmer and lifelong Germanophile with strong public views on Jews, racial purity, and the future of Europe. He admired the Danish adult education thinker Nikolai Grundtvig, and described his own rural work camps as attempts to put the ideal of the Danish folk high school into practice in England.

He became involved in folk dancing while a pupil at Bedales School, and joined a dance side while a student at Cambridge. So when he joined a work camp in Germany in 1927, it was entirely in character that he led his young male camper comrades in a naked sun dance – at six in the morning. By 1930 he was hosting work camps for Kings’ College students at his uncle’s farm in Dorset, complete with singing around the campfire (though he seems to have found the students less adept at dancing).

By this time, Gardiner was spending time in Cleveland, researching local sword-dancing traditions and encountering a ‘people of robust Scandinavian stock’. He opened further work camps for unemployed miners that he had met through the dancing sides, as well as sympathetic students on their summer vacations, as well as visitors from the German youth movement. Again, folk singing and dancing were part of the everyday routine, along with the demanding labour of converting rough pasture into small-holdings. And they also helped Michael Tippett, himself a communist and a student volunteer in Gardiner’s, to compose a somewhat völkisch opera about Robin Hood, duly performed in the miners’ hall.

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner's Cleveland work camp as it looks today

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner’s Cleveland work camp as it looks today

By 1933, Gardiner had fallen out with his Cleveland partner (and owner of the land), who disliked Hitler’s treatment of German Jews. By now he had his own farm in Dorset, at Springhead, and could organise his own ‘harvest camps’. Once more, the camp day started with a supposedly Nordic ritual, and closed with song; plentiful dance and song opportunities arose in the evenings.

Gardiner’s aim, whether through heavy labour or folk music, was ‘to restore and remake the real England which is basically that rural England upon whose final destruction the forces of today are willy-nilly bent’. Gardiner was clear and unambiguous in portraying Jews as among these destructive forces. In one article, published two years before the Nazi seizure of power, he denounced ‘deliberate misinformation by our Jew-controlled press, cinema, wireless and advertising’ for having ‘corrupted the soul of England’.

By contrast to these dark forces, both labour and dance, he said, taught ‘order, beauty and rhythm’, which ultimately ‘come of the soil and care of the soil’. These were, of course, fundamentally masculine – he would have said ‘virile’ – qualities. And the folk high school model was attractive because, as conceived by Grundtvig, it provided a form of ‘national education’ that underpinned work and cultural activities with a suitably nationalist – or Nordic and Germanic – knowledge of history, agriculture and current affairs.

Gardiner was, then, more than a Germanophile. His understanding of history and culture was racially based, and he was more than a sympathiser with the Nazi Party. He was on good terms with Otto Bene, the Nazi Party’s Landesgruppenleiter for the British Isles (ironically, given the Irish Republican movement’s sympathies, when it came to their own organisation, the Nazis treated Ireland and the UK as a single political space). Gardiner disparaged Oswald Mosley to Bene as ‘very shallow’. In exchange, Bene reported to Berlin that Gardiner’s work camp movement, while puny by German standards, was ‘well above the average English one’.

What Britain’s spooks made of this is another matter. While they opened his mail, and monitored his connections, a report in March 1940 mocked him for ‘still worshipping the sun, Wotan etc at a Dorset farm and being generally “nordic” and “voelkisch”‘, concluding that ‘I do not think he is a danger’. Nevertheless, the authorities carried out period checks, including an inquiry into rumours that he had planted trees on his farm in the shape of a swastika, and was engaging young men ‘in disgusting practices under the influence of hypnotism’ (neither of which could be confirmed). The last report, in 1949, asked for British security officers in Germany to monitor Gardiner’s contacts during a visit to recruit managers for a tea company.

Don’t for a moment think I am damning the whole of English folk music with this reminder of a dark, racially-rooted past. Gardiner was denounced on several occasions by other folk enthusiasts for his attempts to weave dance and music into a mystical pan-Nordic völkisch world-view. But there was enough overlap to cause discomfort: in presenting folk dancing as manly, for example, Gardiner was echoing the views of Cecil Sharp, and an interest in national culture often went together with beliefs in racial purity. I have blogged previously about Scottish nationalist thinking on race and work camps.

I see Gardiner as a man of his time. He shared the racial assumptions of many English and German men of his generation, and was certainly guilty of anti-Semitism; unlike some, I do not minimise his Nazi sympathies. But I’m also not persuaded that I should see sword dancing and folk singing as quintessentially tainted by association. Far more important to me is how we reposition British traditional music today so that it appeals to and engages a more diverse audience that is representative of the entire population of these islands. British folk festivals routinely include Irish, Australian and American performers; it is high time that they also made space for black British traditional music.