Learning, talking, thinking, dreaming: Some thoughts on International Democracy Day

Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence, the referendum has given rise to a notable resurgence in grassroots democratic activism north of the border, with a corresponding increase both in people’s intentions to vote and in the blustering resistance of those in power who see increased democratic engagement as a threat. For once, people have a sense that what they think matters.

What could have been a dry, cynical and negative campaign – and, indeed, started out that way – has been transformed by a combination of community engagement, education, social media and the bullish refusal of Scottish voters to be cowed by the intimidation of parts of the establishment – all that and a very evident passion for democracy and political debate. The result of all this is that the people of Scotland have had the debate they wanted, not the one most mainstream politicians and the media wanted them to have.

I went up to Edinburgh a year ago to hear from some of the projects adult educators had set up in response to the referendum. Frustration at the quality and integrity of debate and the prevalence of negative campaigning was obvious. It was also clear that the debate the adult students I met wanted to have was not one primarily about economics – though everyone agreed that mattered – but one about identity. They wanted to know more – the lines of partiality driving the campaigning meant reliable information was in short supply – and they also wanted spaces in which to think about the kind of Scotland they wanted. Adult educators, through projects like the Workers’ Educational Association’s Talk Scotland programme, and the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group’s series of public seminars, have been at the forefront of creating such spaces – filling a real gap and making a real difference to the quality and purpose of what has been, by and large, a remarkably civilized debate.

Time will tell whether this results in a real, long-term democratic shift in Scotland, with greater, wider political engagement from all sections of society and more power in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians and the unelected moguls, corporations and markets whose influence comes at the expense of ordinary people. Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that the grassroots debate and argument the referendum has unleashed continues, and spreads to other parts of the UK. However, if that is to happen, I think we need two things: more political education and more spaces in which to discuss things that matter to people. Adult education is key to both. But we need to think about adult education as being about more than preparing people for work – and find ways to realise its contribution to wider democracy in creating spaces in which people can learn, talk, think and dream.

Many adult educators across the UK still see themselves as working within this social-purpose tradition, but most will acknowledge too that they are swimming against the tide. Social purpose adult education – which has its roots in the (middle-class) idea that working-class people need opportunities to engage fully in culture and democracy – has been in decline for decades, replaced by a crude but utterly pervasive kind of economic utilitarianism, which makes it difficult for us even to talk about the things we think are most valuable about what we do. Increasingly, the fruits of a liberal education – among them, an appreciation of the arts and culture, an understanding of science, history and politics and an ability to think critically and question norms – are the preserve of the privileged few. For the vast majority of everybody else, education, at its heart, means not much more than preparation for work. Adult education’s role is to correct the failings of the school system, to support people in acquiring new skills for work or to help them update old ones.

This is all hugely important, of course, and, for many, this sort of intervention can be transformational. I don’t mean to disparage it. But if we are serious about developing a genuinely democratic society, we need adult education to be about more than vocational training and basic skills. We need more than employability skills to turn around foundering lives and failing communities. We need imagination, creativity, bravery, resilience, mental toughness, as well as a range of practical skills about engaging with the democratic process, starting up businesses, building up networks, and so on. There is more to empowerment than giving people the skills and know-how to get a job.

The Scottish independence debate has shown, among other things, that people are not necessarily disengaged from politics – at least, not as long as they feel that what they think, and the things they want to talk about, matter. As any adult educator will tell you, with the right sort of opportunity and encouragement, people will set their own agendas. Yet one result of our highly stratified education system is a democratic deficit, in which the vast majority of people feel politically disengaged, powerless to effect change. Party politics is peopled by ‘experts’ who, in such a vacuum, are able to make policy without democratic mandate, justified by empty rhetoric and half-truths. This is some way from the kind of democracy for which adult educators sought to prepare the first waves of Labour MPs, many of whom were former students of the WEA. Genuine democracy is dependent on continuing, lifelong education – the sort that opens up possibility rather than closing it down. It’s all well and good knowing the right answers, but we need to be able to question too.

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