Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Jane Thompson writes 'Learning, Liberation and Maturity: An Open Letter to Whoever's Left'

This year, after a period away from teaching and writing in adult education, and ten years after publishing 'Learning liberation: Women's response to men's education' (arguably the first feminist analysis of adult education), Jane Thompson returned to the field with a provocative open letter. This letter was first published in Adult Learning (volume 4 number 9), and subsequently widely distributed and discussed. 

Learning, Liberation and Maturity: An Open Letter to Whoever's Left

Jane Thompson (Ruskin College, Oxford)

Forgive me if what follows lacks the usual scholarly rigor associated with contributions to this journal. But I need to know if there's anyone out there who cares very much any more about the radical tradition in adult education.

Back in the "good old days" when some of us who talked about structural inequality, institutional racism and gendered power relations, were considered "dangerously extreme" by the liberal establishment and caricatured by some as the "young Turks." It was at least possible to discuss politics.

Oppression and the class struggle, patriarchy and feminism, cultural imperialism and endemic racism were not everyday debates within the liberal tradition--but there was sufficient space around the edges from which to be subversive and within which to keep alive the visions and ideals of independent working-class education that we inherited from the beginnings of the labor and trade union movements, and from the activity of working-class feminists at the turn of the century.

I suppose we were all children of the sixties who had sharpened our appetite for social change on the urgency and aspirations of the New Left and in the resurgence of the Women's Movement. We applied our Marxist, socialist and feminist understanding of the world to our practice as teachers, finding inspiration in theories concerned with "really useful knowledge," praxis, conscientization and critical intelligence. We were concerned to make links between the social and material conditions of oppression and the possibility of education as a tool in the pursuit of personal and collective liberation.

Adult education that expressed itself in solidarity with working class, Black and women's struggles was, of course, always a minority pursuit. We exaggerated, in retrospect, the treachery of liberal complacency and wasted too much energy on the intensity of short-term initiatives--just at the moment when, waiting in the wings, a much more serious challenge was gaining ground.

Like others on the left we underestimated the relentless, ruthless and amoral quality of Thatcherism, as we observed the world shift before our eyes and found, as we floundered, the language of liberalism and radicalism re-appropriated into the vocabulary of the re-invigorated right. The rest is history.

Now, 13 years on from Adult Education for a Change and 10 years after Learning Liberation, I return to the front line much like a dinosaur to find the literature of journals and the rationale of conferences preoccupied with the management of the education marketplace, in which the talk is about strategic plans and targeting techniques, about franchising and credit transfers, about twilight shifts and accelerated degrees--delivered with the kind of tenacity devoid of passion that characterizes automatons released from business training schemes.

The discussion is all about institutional adjustments and market forces in which students have become another niche market in the post-Fordist vision of flexible specialization, in which big and powerful institutions sub-contract less prestigious work to small and struggling institutions, and in which gray men in suits, with executive briefcases and brightly colored ties, skilled in business-speak, manage the decisions that deliver fresh batches of new consumers in search of educational commodities into lecture halls and classrooms, staffed at the chalk face by contract labor whose terms and conditions of employment have been so deregulated as to ensure maximum exploitation at minimum cost.

And what of adult students? What experience--transformational or otherwise--might they expect to derive from being packed into the academic confines of former polytechnics? Or shunted through increasingly more complex regulations and toward increasingly more tenacious hurdles as the business of Access and APEL becomes the latest dimension of institutional empire-building?

Does anyone, apart from other dinosaurs, discuss "really useful knowledge," critical intelligence, consciousness-raising? Or reflect upon, with any degree of precision, what it's all about politically? For what purpose are we constructing this Benetton-style solution to educational provision? At what cost in terms of lost community and the disappearance of collective action? And what about feminism? As more and more women are strapped into poverty, our rights attacked, reduced and destroyed by the increasingly arbitrary coercion of the state; with no visible reduction in domestic rates of rape, violence and abuse are we to assume the war is over because some women have achieved individual success?

Because it has become usual to mistake imperialism for democracy and the free market for freedom and because it has become socially and intellectually unsound to speak in essentialist and universal terms about common experiences of oppression, are we still to assume, with a quarter of Europe's poor now living in Britain and bankruptcies occurring every few minutes, that the best we can do is to adjust the regulations at the margins. I assume that my polemic is not unreasonable. Indeed with the collapse of confidence in Thatcherism, exaggerated by widespread unemployment and disenchantment with the tawdry and gratuitous greed of enterprise economics, the time might well be apposite to reclaim the radical initiative. Maybe others feel the same. I'd be glad to hear from those who do. And to find some ways together of putting the politics of resistance and transformation beck on the agenda of adult and continuing education.

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