In 2019 several members of the European Association for Education of Adults (EAEA) are celebrating important dates in their history: this year is 175th anniversary of the establishment of the first Folk High School in Denmark, the 50th anniversary of founding of AONTAS, our member from Ireland, and the 100th anniversary of German Volkshochschulen. To mark such important occasions, EAEA decided to delve into the history of non-formal adult education in Denmark, Ireland and Germany, and unveil what role it plays in these countries. We spoke with national experts who shared their knowledge and opinion on the state of non-formal learning.
What is the history and philosophy of non-formal adult education in Ireland?
Niamh: Speaking of non-formal adult education in Ireland, what we understand is predominantly community education. It grew really through the 80s to the women’s movement, during the time of poverty and marginalization. And it was a grassroots response mainly by women, which gives it a gender dimension, to social injustice. There were, of course, other groups involved in that, such as religious and workers’ associations, also formal vocational education associations. That was very much in line with the Freirean philosophy and understanding as it was really about social action in adult education. It was about creating critical thinking education, learning communities on the local level that suited the people and reflected their own culture. Community education was non-elitist, in contrast to formal adult education which was more middle-class oriented. So, it always had that radical element. And looking at how it has developed over the years, you can see that it’s always happened inside the policy framework, which has been both beneficial and challenging.
In a white paper on education published almost 20 years ago, there was a chapter specifically on community education, which articulated it as having two dimensions: compensatory model and that more radical Freirean model. So, some community education centres have either this or that, some offer both, and some even go all the way up to degree level. But each of them answers community needs.
What are the benefits of the more radical, without credits model?
Niamh: The whole point of education, particularly from the Freirean perspective, is that people are the agents of their development. The model is about education that brings the real understanding of challenges that communities face, the inequality and its roots. The Freirean approach offers a methodology that’s built on dialogue, contextualization, giving people the tools to understand structural inequality. And then obviously it leads to practice, which is reflection on your learning for action. Community education is probably the only part of educational system where everybody works as an advocate. And there’s a lot of freedom because you’re outside the formal system.
Community education is also about building people’s self-confidence. When a person comes to the community education centre, we can talk about low confidence, fears and bad previous experiences, not being respected… all those macro-level individual difficulties that after all go back to structural inequality. Within the model we say: “You are not stupid, you just haven’t been given the opportunity to benefit from the kind of education that is most appropriate for you” and that’s where people really blossom. Education within the Freirean approach means not being lectured to. It’s about questioning and discussing and bringing a person’s experiences to the learning process for it to be kind of a co-creation of knowledge. The relations between tutors and learners are built on solidarity, and that’s different from formal education.
What is the history and ideology of AONTAS?
Niamh: It was founded in 1969, but it really started in 1968. It was actually started by a priest, Father Liam Carey, who had been involved in adult education and also had been abroad observing what was happening in other countries. When he was in Columbia University in New York, he saw what was happening there and he got an idea to come back and create a network, an association that would bring together actors in adult education in Ireland. So together with colleagues from the University of Cork, from within Ireland and from abroad, with the support of UNESCO, AONTAS was set up and it was established by the department of education at the ministry at the time. So it always had that close connection with the ministry here. And it has been a very brilliant relationship. AONTAS is not about providing courses, but about advancing adult education in Ireland, advocacy, promotion, having international connection. From the start, it was about engaging, and AONTAS has been involved with the EAEA from the very beginning; it always had that outer connection, learning from the EAEA and other colleagues. Now our membership is made of formal and non-formal organizations, universities, individual providers. So we span across all of that, which I think is interesting as well, it’s across the lifelong learning field.
The role of AONTAS is to bring together everyone from the sector where everybody has a common goal. We are all focused on quality education for adults, so in that AONTAS brings the unity of voices from all educational areas. There are three priority areas for us now: learner’s voice, education for sustainability, and the role adult education can play in tackling issues like climate change.
How will you celebrate your anniversary?
Niamh: We are so committed to recognizing educational inequality that this year is not so much about celebrating, but rather the acknowledgement of where we’ve come. It’s a celebration of learners and their achievements and of our members, but I think our work is too important to take time and say ‘Haven’t we done this amazing job?’. The lifelong learning participation rate is 12,5% in Ireland, but if we break that down, people who left school early still only participate at 2,5%. I don’t think we are in the opposition to say we have done so much and we’ve achieved a lot. Our anniversary will be a time to acknowledge all of the contributions of our members over the years and to look at how we can collectively recreate the vision of lifelong learning that meets the needs of learners and societal challenges.
On 11 November, we have our Lifelong Learning Summit. And again, it’s forward-thinking, it’s building on what we have done. We had an annual general meeting, looking back on what we’ve achieved, we have done that reflective piece. I suppose it was a celebration in a sense. If anything we learned in adult learning is that nothing should be taken for granted.