Where New York leads: reflecting on market forces and adult learners

brainery

Adult learning in the USA can be an expensive business. For example, New York University charges $125 to join a half-day course on Imperial London and $450 for six three-hour evening classes on Management Principles for Non-Profit Organisations. Presumably enough people are willing to pay these sums for the courses to be viable, but these eye-watering fees also mean that the States can provide many examples of alternative provision.

On a recent visit to New York I came across two cases of alternative provision. The first is the School of Practical Philosophy, which has been running since 1964. The School is registered as a not-for-profit, and describes itself as ‘run by its students on a voluntary basis’. Teachers are apparently not paid; fees vary but a ten week advanced course costs $175, while a one-day event on Plato will set you back $50 (including a Greek lunch and an evening wine reception).

Interestingly, the School has now established itself in the UK. According to its website it has venues across the north west of England, where its offer seems more geared towards mindfulness than the broader programme of its New York parent. I have no idea how successful it is.

The other private venture that intrigued me was the Brooklyn Brainery, the hipsterish name of a not-for-profit which describes its raison d’etre as ‘accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education’. Its courses are relatively cheap ($13 for an evening on the history of gin, for example), interesting, and short, lasting mostly between one and four sessions. Its founders crowd-sourced the start-up funding, much of which went on premises, and are still involved in organising the programme.

I’m not setting these up as models for others to follow, though I think they are both pretty admirable, but rather as examples of the way in which adult learning doesn’t disappear simply because state agencies don’t provide everything. If established providers are too expensive, or too rigidly tied to qualifications and lengthy study programmes, then other bodies will flourish in the gaps. We’ve seen that here in the UK where the University of the Third Age has flowered for one large group of learners neglected by the public system .

The first obvious problem is who gets left behind in this process, which largely favours those who are already the most committed to investing in their own continuous learning. The second is that the content and pedagogy follow the interests and preferences of the most easily recruited learners.

And guess what: the popular courses are short, fun introductions to regional world cuisines, along with ‘how-to’ sessions on how to go about buying a house in New York City. Again, that’s not at all a Bad Thing, but it’s not going to solve our society’s most pressing problems. We still need to think about how adult learning can help us achieve the kinds of community we want, and then ensure that it receives a reasonable degree of public support.

The benefits of adult learning: information technology and older adults

Computer-group

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.

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.