Brid Connelly points out how Irish adult education has developped and changed over the last decades from a social project to an employabiliy driven agenda. She invites the european adult education community to resist a narrow employability focus, valuing the social achievements of adult education.
The past is a foreign country, and this is certainly true of Ireland thirty years ago, in the mid-1980s. A short trip in a time machine brings us back to a time of exhausting struggles between conservative forces intent on undoing any progress that the 1960s and 70s brought, especially to the status of women and the status of working people. When we look back on that time, Ireland is almost unrecognisable. In the Republic of Ireland, we saw two referendums that impacted directly on the lives of women. The first, in 1983, was a referendum to ban abortion in any and every situation, based on the equality of the life of the foetus with the life of the pregnant woman. Two thirds of the electorate voted in support of this position. In 1985, the issue of divorce was addressed, and three quarters of the population voted to continue the ban on divorce. These two referendums provide an insight into the power of the Roman Catholic Church to force Catholic doctrine into the law of the land. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, a peace agreement, The Anglo-Irish Agreement had been signed in 1985, by the British Government, the Irish Government, and many of the elected representatives in the province. However, a conservative Protestant majority rebelled against, forcing the dissolution of the agreement, which perpetuated the violence for another ten painful years, until 1996. Although the war in Northern Ireland was not a religious war, religious leaders played a significant role in it. So, while the republic was a Catholic theocracy, Northern Ireland was a Protestant theocracy. And both resisted the social and human rights movements promoting the emancipation of women, working people and other minorities.
Economically, Ireland was also struggling desperately. The Republic of Ireland was in a deep recession, similar to the recession we experienced in 2008. Out of a population of about 3 million, eventually we saw about 250,000 people unemployed and about 250,000 people had left for England, USA, Canada, Australia, nearly all young people. It was a huge drain of talent, vitality and energy out of the country.
At that time, adult education was just about changing from traditional education or training for adults, providing qualifications for professions and trades such as accountancy and engineering, to a more socially conscious initiative, in particular, literacy education for adults. At that time, about 25% of the adult population had significant problems with basic literacy. This was embedded in class. It was mainly working class adults who experienced these difficulties. And the statutory providers of education finally appointed adult education officers in the late 1970s, with the mandate to provide support for people with literacy difficulties.
However, spontaneously, at the same time, an amazing process started. All around the country, in kitchens, community halls and spare rooms, women were meeting and beginning to learn from one another, which eventually came to be recognised as Women’s Community Education. I was lucky enough to be part of this development, and I started teaching Women’s Studies in a kitchen at the back of a parish centre, in 1985, along with many, many adult educators. The slogan for these developments was: NO CLASSES WITHOUT CRÉCHES. This meant that women could bring their children with them and those children benefited hugely from this early childhood education, along with their mothers, with their community education. This influenced the development of adult education, the process and methods, the research that was undertaken, and eventually, the policy which was developed in the late 1990s and published in 2000.
Subsequent to the emergence of women’s community education, education for those who were unemployed also appeared. I was lucky to be employed on European funded programmes and we brought our experience from feminist education into this field: the methods, the practices and the philosophy of fostering the human spirit in the face of conflicting social forces. For example, the pressure from training and employment agencies focused almost exclusively on job application skills, such as creating the perfect CV/Resume, or practising interview skills. This was in spite of the high unemployment rates, but it placed the responsibility for unemployment on the unemployed person rather than the social context. With our programmes, we shifted that orientation and many of our students continued on in education and to greater social justice community activism. And in turn, these community development activists worked with many, many vulnerable groups, such as drug mis-users and people enduring discrimination and exclusion.
As the new millennium progressed, Ireland saw a new population in Ireland, people from Africa and Eastern Europe hoping to benefit from the economic progress in most cases, but also fleeing from intolerable social conditions in their home countries, from corruption and exploitation to profound violence and sexual abuse. Again, adult education responded to these populations in a similar spirit.
So, where are we now? Since the global recession in 2008, the tactic of using a crisis to promote an underlying agenda is clear. The underlying agenda can be seen as multi-faceted, but primarily, it is individualistic, it is about consumption, it is labour activation orientated, underpinned with a keen interest in invisible hand of the market on public affairs. It perceived that the success of adult education in reaching out to and motivating people who are often quite invisible could be channelled into that agenda. We have seen this clearly in Ireland, with the side-lining of personal and social development adult education in favour of labour skills. Sadly, we have seen the erosion of the social project of adult education towards a singular, narrowly defined labour activation one.
However, the wonderful aspect of a meeting of adult educators from all over Europe, like this meeting, is to recognise the common ground that we have: we are committed to adult education that enhances the human spirit, in personal, social and cultural terms. Adult education has to be about relationships, it has to be about connecting people with one another, and it has to be about helping each of us to develop that sense of what makes us human beings, rather than workers or consumers only.
And, most of all, we, in the European community, can support one another, collectively, to resist that agenda.
Brid Connolly is Lecturer in Maynooth University, Department of Adult and Community Education. She has been publishing in Critical Pedagogy, Gender, Community, Groupwork with a clear focus on education and democracy.