Education, age and social change

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What is the role of education in achieving progressive social change? And how does this question link to the opportunities for older people and their preferences? In the latest edition of Soundings, Michael Rustin, co-editor of the Kilburn Manifesto, considers the way human agency is reflected in three fields of ideology and practice. The first concerns the entitlements for individuals who participate in a liberal democracy. The second addresses the socialist focus on collective class-based organisation. The third, most recent, formulation argues that ‘changes in information technology make it possible for society to shift from hierarchy to lateral patterns of domination’ (p 49). Rustin sees merit in all three – the Kilburn Manifesto as a whole explores the interface between evolutionary and disruptive modes of change and asserts the importance of understanding both. And his conclusion reflects an analysis that identifies a porous boundary between his first two categories – the liberal and the socialist.

Rustin locates the British tradition of ‘adult education’ within the first field.  Destructive capitalism and all-consuming market forces have not entirely swept away ‘liberal conceptions of agency and progress’ and so:

‘Even socialists whose conceptions of change were firmly rooted in the recognition of class divisions often recognised that cultural development and emancipation remained a key dimension of their struggle.’

Raymond Williams was one who saw that ‘oppressive social structures needed to be contested in cultural as well as material terms’ and who held that ‘a socialist society would be one based on practices of democratic learning.’ From our perspective as educational gerontologists the writings of Frank Glendinning in the 1980s and 1990s embodied such an approach and tended to assume that later life creates conditions for a type of class action and identity. But then, as Keith Percy pointed out, this perspective took insufficient account of many older learners’ actual experience of ‘adult education’ and of their individual preferences within it. Percy argued that it also under-estimated how ‘later-life learning’ was diffused in the informal practices of the voluntary sector. As I’ve argued here before this assumption is now so dominant that the link between educational practice (eg. of pedagogy) and ‘later-life learning’ has become difficult to trace.

EGhtaQXWkAEFywE.jpgProfessors Keith Percy and Marvin Formosa in Glasgow for this year’s AEA AGM

However, as the Ransackers Experience of further education demonstrated, a demand for challenging opportunities to learn in later life (and at a low financial cost) persisted until a decade ago among those whose secondary education left them unfulfilled. Generationally, that disadvantaged population which left school at 14 is being replaced by the one consigned to secondary modern schools after 1947 by the 11+. Here a different kind of discourse – one more alert to class division and the resentments it provokes – prevails. Something different may now be needed to engage excluded older learners. Surveying the field of current provision the prospects for people – be they teacher or learner – who want to pursue such goals in a classroom setting are not encouraging. And if there is no clear commitment to organising supply there appears to be a matching difficulty in coordinating demand.

For example, the pressure the more fortunate might once have exercised in demanding adult education on retirement appears to have been channelled into the expansion of the universities of the third age. This has been a self-directing phenomenon which, in the absence of research, is difficult to interpret and whose workings may call into question the traditional criteria used for measuring educational success. On the one hand U3As are a considerable feat of organisation and a model for devolved authority. On the other, from anecdotal reports at least, the commitment to quality through teaching is inconsistent. The U3A could be understood, like the cruise ship and the retirement village, as an indicator of the capacity better-off older people now have to assert themselves within a rapidly growing market – a market whose darker face is that of anti-ageing technology and age segregation.  Recent developments suggest U3A the movement is again trying to construct an interface between its mutual aid ethos and the struggling public mainstream.

For educationalists different reservations may apply to the public health discourse which proposes learning as part of the resilience needed to counter social isolation and material impoverishment. The networks and partnerships which now pursue this agenda do provide a framework from which to counter attitudinal ageism. But their approach is focused on defensive strategies where we must reconcile our desire to learn with our needs for solidarity and security. These networks have many necessary features but they are neither socially transformative nor capable of offering a fully-fledged alternative to state investment in adult social care, psycho-geriatric and therapeutic services.

Rustin’s tripartite division may not seem directly relevant to educational gerontology. But his third category is pertinent. We can see this if we look beyond ‘changes in information technology’. What else is emerging which asserts a lateral strategy with the aim of somehow dissolving vertical hierarchy? We might identify aspects of the professionally-led movements to harness the power of cities for social purposes or to reconstruct dementia as a positive condition of identity. And as campaigners for social justice we need to help shape these initiatives as purposeful forms of inquiry – through what Sharon Clancy refers to elsewhere in the same issue of Soundings ‘as an education that is informed on the ground by both politics and praxis’. It’s not clear to me, for example, how the mechanisms of the ‘age-friendly’ city can do much to counter the destructive planning and dramatic densification proposed for my north London neighbourhood. Instead it is bodies like Just Space and the School for Civic Action inspired by grass-roots community groups that pursue such resistance. And collaborate purposefully with critical scholars to do so. There’s an irony in the way a rapacious developer like University College London can support a brilliant initiative called ‘universities and community groups collaborate’. It is of a kind with the way institutionally ageist bodies like universities collaborate with older community representatives. But those are the spaces where we must operate.

A twenty-first century educational policy for later life has to draw on all three of Rustin’s agentic traditions. It needs access to public funds to ensure that people are not excluded on socio-economic and socio-cultural grounds. But it will also have to recognise – and be prepared to challenge – the pleasurable, hedonic and consumerist expectations so many of us now hold about ‘learning’. These are questions which urgently call for the participation of both researchers and teachers. In this spirit the Association for Education and Ageing held its AGM in Glasgow in October where we were delighted to welcome Professor Marvin Formosa to give the Frank Glendinning Lecture. A few days later on October 14th the Ransackers Association met in London.  And soon, on November 19th, the Adult Education 100 commission will report. To celebrate – and to keep later life learning in the forefront of its deliberations – the SIG for Educational Gerontology and the SIG for Technology and Ageing are combining for a joint event to mark the launch. One of the AE100 commissioners, Sharon Clancy, chair of the Raymond Williams Foundation, will be a keynote speaker.

P1150511.JPGCaroline Holland, Barbara Clarke and Teresa Lefort at the Ransackers’ AGM

Education has to be understood as more than the delivery of information. As Caroline Holland reported in our Liverpool symposium, following a recent bout of day-time TV, a significant number of older people appear to accept a diet of mis-information and uncritical commentary. Or rubbish, as she trenchantly put it. Meanwhile, information technology has shown an alarming capacity for misuse, reinforcing hierarchies of prejudice and fuelling strategies of demonisation which have an alarming appeal to older voters on both sides of the Atlantic. As educators we have to stand for the human dignity that should underpin the very idea of learning. But in doing so we had better acknowledge the contradictions of our own position. In his new book the French historian and anthropologist Emmanuel Todd challenges the position of elites:

‘Advanced societies must live in a state of tension: universal primary education indefatigably nourishes the possibility of democracy, higher education no less tirelessly nourishes a higher class, which because it is selected by merit, thinks itself intellectually and morally superior by rights.’

Contentiously, perhaps, Todd sees higher education itself as now the key driver for inequality. Such a scenario does more than reinforce the case for adult education as a site of learning and debate. It implies it must be seen as an essential means to redistribute opportunity. Indeed it could be strongly argued that it would now be a better, more egalitarian destination for state investment than a higher education system preoccupied with the 18-24 age-group. A radical reconstruction of adult education may be the most important way to protect and renew democracy itself.

Adult Education in a Digital World at Nottingham University’s Institute of Mental Health on November 22nd is a joint event bringing together the BSG Special Interest Groups for Technology and Ageing and for Educational Gerontology. It is supported by the BSG and the journal Ageing and Society. To register please email neil.chadborn@nottingham.ac.uk or johnmiles68@yahoo.co.uk