No more heroes? Educational thinkers and activists in austere times

Paulo Freire, from Wikimedia Commons

Paulo Freire, from Wikimedia Commons

Ann Walker, a prominent British adult educator, has been providing a wonderful resource for anyone interested in educational ideas. The Educational Thinkers Hall of Fame has covered such eminent figures as Paulo Freire, John Dewey and Mary Wollstonecraft, summarising their main contribution and indicating why they matter today.

After a few of us retweeted her most recent post, on the American radical Myles Horton, Ann replied with the question: “Who can compare with Horton & Freire today?” Others weighed in with similar questions, asking where the younger passionate voices are, and why there is so much more effort invested in writing and speaking but so little in action? These are good questions, promoting me to wonder whether a truly heroic period of innovation and passion ever existed, and if it has, whether it has now come to a close.

There probably is less institutional and theoretical innovation now than when I started my professional career, in the late 1970s. Recently, I reviewed the memoirs of Michael Barratt Brown, and was struck by how many organisations he had helped to found, from the Institute for Workers’ Control through a successful fair trade company to Northern College (where I was lucky enough to work from 1978 to 1984).

But the context has changed. The social movements that inspired Michael, as well as other originators such as Freire and Horton, are now a shadow of their former selves. I ended my review by reflecting on the number of Michael’s creations that no longer exist, while the movements that nurtured them have either vanished or have changed beyond recognition. Radical educational organisations like Northern College have had to adapt to survive.

Northern College for residential adult education

Northern College for residential adult education

Much the same is true for the wider intellectual climate. Michael was one of many left-leaning academics who saw the labour movement as a natural ally, Freire found a mass readership at a time when liberation theology (which he greatly admired) spoke to and for mass struggles for land and liberty. Today, radical academics may be powerfully attracted to ideas of ‘transgression’, but these are largely personal and unconnected with and irrelevant to wider social movements.

Historians are always suspicious of any notion of a ‘golden age’ – a scepticism summarised neatly in the title of a book by Gwyn Alf Williams, When was Wales? But I do think that some periods are generally propitious for social inventors, and other periods favour people who are good at maintaining and defending what we have rather than building new structures and ideas. We are now in the second type of period.

That said, we still have our educational heroes – people who are creating great new institutions, and developing new ideas about knowledge and learning. In the last year or so, I have been mightily impressed by the spread of the Men’s Shed movement, a remarkable bunch of quiet revolutionaries who are changing the ways in which men promote their sociability and wellbeing.

Then there are such collaborative movements as citizen science and citizen journalism, often exploiting new social media, in which knowledge creation itself is the basis of socio-cultural action. Not to mention the flourishing self-help world of older adults, exemplfied in the Universities of the Third Age.

This list could go on, but these are enough to give us grounds for supposing that we are living in at least a silver age of educational creativity. What strikes me is that these seem to be generally collective and collaborative ventures, that generally have few outstanding leadership figures. And that seems to me better suited to the bottom-up, somewhat dislocated and at times inchoate world of social and political anaction that we now inhabit.

Multiplying literacies

The Community Health & Learning Foundation has just published an interesting short briefing on health literacy. Their basic case is that there are huge inequalities in people’s access to and understanding of information about health, and they set out a number of ways in which to remedy this.

It’s an important argument, and forms part of a wider case for public investment in adult learning. But it also illustrates a trend that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is the proliferation of different literacies. As well as health literacy, we hear about financial literacy, digital literacy, civic or political literacy, and even emotional literacy.

What is this about? Well, one obvious reason for using the word ‘literacy’ is as a way of focussing attention. It is an arresting word, because it implies that some of us are ‘illiterate’ in the context of financial planning, or health, or information technology. Actually, all of us must be illiterate in some contexts, so it’s a kind of linguistic hook, a way of pulling us in to the discussion about this or that form of literacy.

But isn’t there also a risk of linguistic inflation in this multiplication of literacies? The more we use it to describe unequal access to different kinds of knowledge and information, the more we dilute its original, narrower meaning. And we know that we have massive inequalities in people’s abilities to grapple with and command the written word; and this in turn has huge consequences for people’s life chances.

In a modern information society, literacy as narrowly understood is a fundamental precondition of participation in the wider community. Weak literacy skills have clear material effects, which are measurable. The OECD’s recent adult skills survey showed just how far literacy is linked not just to higher incomes, but also to political efficacy, volunteering, trust and indeed health. And it also showed that these effects were larger in the two UK nations that participated in the survey than in most of the other nations involved.

 

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So literacy in its narrowest sense – confident and competent reading and writing in real life settings – is among the most important fields of adult learning. Anything that reduces the focus on literacy, and allows policy makers to avoid their responsibilities for securing its improvement, is a concern.

On the other hand, the proliferation of literacies has a more positive effect in reducing stigma. Anyone who has worked in adult literacy knows that fears of being branded ‘illiterate’ can cause learners the most profound anxiety and distress. This is one of the reasons why Freire’s work became so influential in the 1970s among those working in the area, as his ideas of liberation pedagogy offered a constructive way of understanding literacy practices as having to do with power, and thus offering a possibility of empowerment.

The idea that we are all ‘illiterate’ in some contexts reduces the stigma attached to ‘illteracy’, and breaks down some of the barriers to participation. Of course, this in itself is only one step towards literacy learning as a force for civic empowerment and social change, but it is a start.

This also reminds me that I used to watch a lovely tv programme called ‘On the Move’ which starred the great Bob Hoskins, who died recently. The BBC still took its educational mission seriously in the mid-1970s, and this series – intended for adults with literacy difficulties – attracted an audience of millions. It is generally credited with breaking down some of the stigma attached to literacy learning; the fact that I am still discussing this issue now suggests that we still have some way to go.