Friday, 6 May 2011

Lifelong learning and constructive recreation

In my previous post, I talked about how my curiosity in how the earth ‘worked’ led me to buy a dvd and a book on the subject to learn more.  All very laudable, I’m sure – even if I say so myself!  And I concede, that my initial literacy was an important contributory factor in motivating me.  However, there is another point that I would like to explore here and that is the privilege of having the opportunity to learn more.  At the risk of sounding an old fart, I can remember a time, when I would also have had the choice of enrolling in an evening class run by the local council.  Sadly, over the years, that option has become increasingly difficult to find. 

The temptation is to blame government cuts that were first introduced by the much celebrated Margaret Thatcher, and that have since continued, under both Conservative and Labour governments, eroding away at what was once a great institution – and all that it stood for.  But I think blaming our leaders is too convenient and - worse - lazy.  Certainly, the leaders – especially when they are as influential (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘charismatic’) as Thatcher and Blair- have contributed to the decline, but the wider society must bear some responsibility too.  (Thatcher, of course, famously dismissed the very notion of 'society', which says a lot about her outlook.) 

For those not familiar with adult education, it consisted of courses in a range of subjects that were offered by the local council’s education department and funded by a combination of local council and central government money.  They were usually held in the evening, made use of local council school facilities and the fees set were, I think, affordable.  Crucially, people enrolled out of interest and for pleasure, not to gain a qualification that they could wave in front of existing or prospective employers.  In short, the courses offered constructive recreation in the belief that learning was a good and worthwhile activity in its own right and a tool for improvement in the broadest sense. 

It was Napolean, I believe, who once dismissed the English as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’.  It was an unjust and unkind assessment - in my experience, every nation, including the French, is to some extent a nation of shopkeepers and thank god for it.  Commerce and trade are vital to the successful functioning and growth of any society. Yet, the shopkeeper’s daughter, Thatcher, was also a person with an outlook so narrow and so narrowly defined it scarcely deserves to be called a vision.  She saw everything through the perspective of a provincial, money-minded upstart and it was a viewpoint that shaped the politicians and business leaders, as well as trends within the wider community, for the generation that followed.  In fact, provincialism under her was almost a virtue to be celebrated. 

And so, over time, the catalogues have got thinner, the range of courses more restricted and adult education has been either amputated or grafted onto an altogether different beast called Further Education.  The New Labour/Blair government rebranded this concept as Lifelong Learning, though in a telling example of just how pervasive the Thatcher mindset was, this learning was largely geared towards gaining a qualification that was marketable.  So, whereas before there was a palpable sense of learning for learning’s sake, the priority now is to get a qualification – any qualification, no matter how manufactured or trivial – that is marketable.  Teaching too is judged on ‘progression’, i.e. whether the student progresses on to another course (and another qualification) or gets a job.  The new mantra is ‘value for money’ and value = economic in their eyes.

Putting this in a wider context, both Thatcher and Blair were also keen to extend pub opening hours and Thatcher sold off council owned sports facilities (tennis courts and playing grounds), a trend that Blair’s New Labour did nothing to reverse.  To me, this is a far greater indicator of their priorities than any rhetoric about nation building that they and their media cronies have thrown at us over the decades. 

Sadly, the people have colluded in this decimation so that we are now also faced with library closures.  With more leisure time, the classes, sports fields and libraries symbolised a constructive alternative to easy and lazy options like the mindless watching of TV, getting drunk at the local pub or shopping – and yet, that is precisely what Britain has been reduced to.

I can remember enrolling in classes ranging from woodwork, badminton, sewing and swimming to studying politics, philosophy and psychology.  Moreover, I did so in the company of like minded individuals and going to evening classes was as much a social event as it was educational – in the broader sense.  As an example, having made my own clothes, I am now filled with a mixture of admiration, awe and anger whenever I see how cheaply clothes are priced in London stores – do the people who crave more and more clothes at less and less cost have any idea what skill, time and effort goes into making these garments?  Would they be prepared to get paid a pittance for the same amount of effort?  "There but for Fortune go you and I", as the great poet once said.  It’s the market say some – be that as it may, in the end markets and demand are shaped by people, but what shapes the people? 

I have nothing against people wanting to improve their or their children’s personal economic circumstances.  Indeed, I am a product of just such social mobility.  However, I think it’s important to also ask the why, what and how underlying this desire for social mobility.  What does moving ‘up’ mean exactly?  Why do people want to move ‘up’, and how will you know if you have moved ‘up’?  Unfortunately, for many, ‘more money’ is the answer to all three questions. 

Since Thatcher, there has been a renewed admiration and respect for money; and both Thatcher and Blair encouraged a sort of cult of not only new money, but fast money.  (Mr Blair’s post-prime ministerial pursuits are ample proof, if any were needed, of this!)  It was not investment for the long-term, but profit in the short-term that became the measure of success; and success was always in terms of monetary gain.  With quick profit, came fast and – worse still - conspicuous spending.  I had thought this was a failing peculiar to the third world and a reason for rampant corruption in these countries.  It was certainly true of Pakistan, where I grew up, and the main reason I wanted to escape. 

This gluttony can be seen in the bonuses that people expect (as if salaries were just for turning up to work?) and the wares advertised and written about in weekend newspaper magazines and television, so that shopping is now a recreational activity in its own right.

Yet, I have met people like my local road sweeper, who saved each month in order to buy a season ticket to the BBC Proms music festival every summer; and a security guard who was a Friend of the British Museum and regularly attended their lectures and events.  They had neither wealth nor degrees, but in my eyes, both these men were far more worthy than those normally honoured in society.  It is their approach, I feel, that should be encouraged.  It is on this kind of attitude that a good society is built.  It is this attitude that makes a country great. 

Instead, it is crass footballers, talentless pop stars, gluttonous bankers and wealthy tax dodgers who are honoured and respected.  Their bombast and strutting leaves ordinary folk in thrall and awe and who then buy into this myth of wealth - ordinary folk like the Thatchers and Blairs of this world; upstarts who have never seen anything and are easily overwhelmed at the first sight of wealth.  Moreover, with money and consumption  elevated to objects of envy, application, effort and persistence are demoted in favour of instant gratification.  It is then that the rot sets in.

Admittedly, there is a wider issue here: is it the role of government to mould a country’s people?  They say "Stateways don’t change folkways”, and in any case, people must be free to decide and choose for themselves.  But these concerns lead one to ask: what is the choice, who provides it and how does one choose?    Some would answer: the market; others religion; and yet others happiness.   I hope to pursue these and similar questions in future posts – and how these issues impact not just on the seeming decline of the West, but on the sorry state of the Muslim world, and indeed the third world in general.

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