Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What Next for the WEA?

The name ‘Workers Education Association’ (WEA) was formally adopted in 1905, three centuries on from the publication in 1605 of Francis Bacon’s epochal ‘The Advancement of Learning’. The historical trajectory is a significant one.

Against widespread scholastic dogmas and common superstitions, Bacon championed the idea that human understanding could only truly progress if social institutions and educators systematically supported the development of open and cooperative enquiry in relation to all subject matters. Instead of telling people that they must remain ignorant or blindly accept the words of venerated figures, he outlined the vision for an alternative where learning would steadily advance through collective efforts in experimenting, sharing and critically revising ideas and practices.

By the second half of the 17th century, Bacon’s philosophy had inspired the founding of the Royal Society which played a crucial role in embedding the scientific approach in the acquisition of new knowledge. In the 18th century, his ideas, along with those of John Locke, a member of the Royal Society and pioneering educationalist, fuelled the Enlightenment movement, which insisted that since none should be excluded from the process of deciding what was to be believed, how society was run should no longer be left to a powerful elite. Following the democratic revolutions in America and France, momentum grew in the 19th century for all men and women to be given equal respect in learning and deciding matters of interest to them. Social reformists, trade unionists, cooperative activists dedicated themselves to opening opportunities for all citizens to have more control over their lives.

At the dawn of the 20th century the founding of the WEA took up the Enlightenment challenge of empowering all citizens to participate in the quest for knowledge and power to shape their own lives. Indeed according to the Baconian insight, knowledge is power. The more people understand what causes natural and social problems, the more able they are to pick out the most promising solutions. As learning spread in the 20th century, income inequalities declined, public services improved, and exploitation by private interests was curbed. But all these trends were threatened by the rise of market fundamentalism in the 1970s. The Thatcherite gospel preached that the rich and powerful should be free to rig the market as they saw fit.

After decades of upside-down democracy with society increasingly made to serve the rich, the vast majority are now left with lower pay, job insecurity, public service cuts, and fear before the might of corporate juggernauts. What are people learning about this turn of event? What lifelong education is equipping them with the knowledge to find a better future? Where can they get help with unmasking plutocratic propaganda that disguises the hijacking of public policies for private gains?

These questions are of course particularly pertinent for the WEA. Now a century old, with the tide of inequalities sweeping back with a vengeance, threatening to wipe away the social progress made in the post-war years, what is the WEA to do? In this context, I’m greatly heartened to read a paper by Greg Coyne, WEA’s Regional Director (North West), written to stimulate discussions about the role of the WEA.

Greg’s paper, proposing a radical, action learning oriented educational approach for the WEA to deal with old challenges in new times, should be widely read by WEA members and all supporters of lifelong learning. In this age of hierarchical markets, where people are just mass commodities to inflate profits for the few, it reminds us that “contrary to the assertion about a high skills economy, we are actually preparing masses of young people to work in and accept low paid, low skilled, insecure employment in the service sector rather than the knowledge economy.”

In short, citizens are now being deprived of sufficient capacity and opportunity to attain the knowledge to function as equal members of a democratic society, and thus disempowered from recognising what changes are really necessary to pursue to counter injustice and exploitation. Greg’s proposed approach has five elements, each of which merits serious consideration. First, we are urged to shift “from the ‘sage on the stage’ towards the ‘guide at the side’.” Instead of presenting knowledge as a fixed package to be revealed to the uninitiated, people are to be engaged as active participants in exploring their shared concerns, and working with the help of a guide in discovering what should and could be done.

This leads to the second element which is to ensure the engagement of citizens in raising critical questions. Greg illustrates his point with the example of asking in a flower arranging class why flowers were being flown in from Africa with all the implications of pollution, and distortion of farming priorities. I would certainly like to see WEA classes raise questions in relation to economic issues such as why certain politicians are called ‘technocrats’, suggesting that they are somehow better equipped than ‘ordinary’ representatives of the people in solving problems, when in fact a key qualification for such an appellation seems to be their conformity to the market orthodoxy which has brought about financial instability across the world.

Linking classroom discussions to wider socio-economic issues is indeed the third element of Greg’s proposed approach. There are subject matters which lend themselves to being studied as an end in itself – and the Open University and other institutions cater well for such interests, but if learning is to serve the purpose of enhancing our ability to deal with social problems, then the WEA has a vital part to play in helping people connect what they learn to the broader challenges facing them and their communities. Exploitation of the masses depends on keeping citizens ignorant. To counter it, we need more socially aware learning.

Moreover, awareness is only superficial if it is not tested and strengthened through exploratory action. The fourth element of Greg’s proposal rightly maintains that action learning can help participants understand better the issues they are studying and also reinforce their comprehension by applying it to practical activities. There can be no detailed blueprint for how this will roll out, but it is essential for there to be constant review and refinement of course activities in the light of their impact on participant’s lives. This last element completes the proposed reorientation of WEA into a dedicated champion of active citizenship and community involvement.

The difference would be between a WEA that runs a motley collection of courses of interest to individuals without necessarily addressing the knowledge/power gap that is undermining our social cohesion; and a WEA that, to use Greg’s words, “brings the social and political into whatever we teach and develops an emancipatory, involved style of learning that fits with our ethos and mission.”

As corporate forces continue to expand their influence through their political acolytes, mass media outlets, and ‘research’ centres funded by them to undermine beliefs in inconvenient truths, it is more important than ever that the advancement of learning for all resumes its true course with the help of social educators. It is fitting that R H Tawney, one of the most outstanding social educators of the 20th century, eloquent defender of the cause of equality, was for many years President of the WEA. What better way to commemorate next year (2012) the fiftieth anniversary of his passing than to see WEA declare itself as the hub for radical action learning in the UK. It’s time we, workers and citizens, expand our shared learning and reclaim our power.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Corporate Flu

Corporate Flu, a horrific disease originating in vampire bats, is now rapidly spreading through the human population. Anyone catching it develops an insatiable craving to suck the lifeblood out of other people.

Carriers of Corporate Flu can usually be identified by one or more of the following symptoms:
• Frothing of the mouth when holy items such as worker protection, fair pay for all, bonus restraints appear anywhere near them.
• Sudden onset of blindness when they come across the consequences of their destructive behaviour.
• Severe weakening of their spine when they smell the presence of someone who is stronger than them through having consumed more victims.
• Outbreak of an allergic rash whenever they hear that a vulnerable individual has been rescued by the public safety net.

Many of the approaches advocated so far for dealing with Corporate Flu have proven to be completely ineffective. Burying one’s head in the sand while pretending the epidemic would soon be over has only served to make one easier to be picked off. Talking endlessly about the disease without taking any concerted action has not given anyone the slightest extra protection. Insane attempts to sacrifice scapegoats such as asylum seekers and benefit claimants to placate the infected have only made the problem worse.

However, scientists have now confirmed that this grotesque disease is spread through gross inequalities, and swift action to narrow the gap would put an end to it. In the meantime, the government is being urged to target existing Corporate Flu carriers with a taxing treatment to remove the excess resources they have accumulated and transmute these into nutrients which can be injected back into those who really need them.

There have been reports that the mere threat of taxing Corporate Flu carriers has led some of them to flee the country vowing never to return. Unfortunately, stories are also coming in suggesting that the government is unlikely to take any action as many of its members have caught the virus via contaminated donations.