The skill to emancipate

Katarina Popović is Secretary-General of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE).




It seems to me that someone had the bright idea of clicking the reset button on adult education, erasing all its history and many of the functions. During rebuilding, the following conversation took place:

What is the foundation of human existence?
– Basic needs. Adult education should then provide people with the means to satisfy them.

What is the main concern of people around the globe?
– Getting and keeping a job. Adult education should help with employment.
Sick people do not work, so health is the next task.

What is the world’s main concern?
– The global crisis. It is caused by the lack of skills of poor workers. Adult education should provide the relevant skills and competencies.

Look at the last decade and tell me this is not exactly what has happened.

Throughout the centuries, adult education has meant many things – practical assistance, intellectual enjoyment, spiritual paths. It was always a kind of empowerment of individuals and communities. Plato recommended adults to learn, contemplate and debate simply because it is good for their souls. Some looked for knowledge in order to reach God, or knowledge beyond God. Others were looking for wisdom and truth. That is history. Even in modern times, pivoting around employment and production, adult education was often understood as an emancipatory practice. John Dewey stated that the purpose of adult education “is to put meaning into the whole of life”. Today this sounds more like a title of the seminar of some exotic religious sect. We still quote Freire, but we don’t strive to “conscientization” in our work. We refer to the four pillars of the Delors report from 1996, but in reality we mostly mean “learning to do”. The Basil Yeaxlee classic “An educated nation” from 1920 would today be called “A skilled nation”.

How did this happen? We are making an error in thinking. Liberal education is not about results; it does not have any “modern” result. Today only countable, measurable and financially-expressable results are valued. Empowerment, emancipation, self-realisation, justice and equity play minor roles as a decorative framework of main agendas. Adult ­education is reduced to a recruiting centre and a space for boosting skills. Upskilling, competencies and performances are celebrities. Truth, dignity, justice and even peace are poor cousins who are supposed to sit quietly in a corner.

Focusing on our employment, we forget the millions of those who are in precarious jobs or jobless, very often not because of any lack of skills. Taking care of our own well-­being, we neglect the starving human beings and the world community. Obsessed with producing skilful and eager consumers, we behave as if the world were almost perfect. Shouldn’t we “learn to be and to live together“? Valuing only what is measurable, we tend to bury the fundamental values of mankind.

History tells us that taking the narrow path often leads us to a blind alley. Maybe it’s time to “undo the reset button” in adult education?

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