Roaring down a cultural cul de sac

A society in which self-betterment is a cherished and ingrained aspiration is surely a good thing - a thing to be sponsored and encouraged and nurtured and recognised, not just for the advantages it bestows on individuals but for the benefits it brings to society as a whole.

We used to be like that. As a nation, that is. We didn't take learning for granted; and we aspired to it, because it was self-evidently the way to improve our lot. Education was the key to a prosperous and enriching future.

Education was a "taonga". No-one questioned its value, but then neither did anyone own it either.

In a way - back in the middle decades of the last century - we were essentially an aspirational lower-middle-class nation, imbued with a thirst for knowledge and convinced of the social adhesion and common good it could deliver.

Only a rigorous examination of complex historical tides and currents will show how it all began to unravel, but somewhere along the line, and one suspects most acutely in the decade beyond 1984, education became less of a community treasure and more of marketable commodity.

And so the tide began to turn - education and learning became a privilege rather than a right; it was ascribed definitive economic and financial value.

It could be bought and sold. Schools and institutes and centres of learning became "education providers", their ability to provide rationed according to various measurable criteria and observable "outcomes".

Pretty soon we were roaring down a cultural cul de sac and well on the way to becoming a society which - in educational terms - knew the cost of everything and the value of very little.

Now is not an easy time to be in government. There are, without doubt, huge challenges in meeting budgets, making cuts and savings and facing down unenviable choices in the distribution of increasingly pinched State largesse.

But it is a mistake to line up adult and community education against the wall, take a few cheap pot shots at some of the apparently less useful (and more headline friendly) programmes, and slash and burn its budgets.

This is what Education Minister Anne Tolley - apparently a one time tutor of Mediterranean cooking classes for adults in Hawkes Bay - and the Government seem bent on doing.

The extent of the cuts have been variously described. Labour MP Maryan Street accused the Government in Parliament of cutting $70 million for adult and community education courses that are specifically targeted at literacy, language and numeracy skills.

Maryke Fordyce, president of Community Learning Association through Schools, protested over a funding "reprioritisation" that would see $54 million cut from adult and community education courses.

She maintained that more than 200,000 adults participating in night classes would be affected by the cuts.

"A distinctive feature of night classes is its affordability and accessibility for learners," she said.

In May this year, a mere week or so before the Budget, Associate Minister of Education and Minister of Maori Affairs the Hon Dr Pita Sharples attended a Community Colleges Conference in Sydney and addressed - as eloquently and passionately as usual - the subject of "Adult and Community Education".

Dr Sharples spoke of it as not only being of immediate value to the lives of adults and communities "most directly accessing it" but also having the "wider benefit of an investment in our future".

He said it provided a "second chance at learning for those who may have missed out earlier in their lives - through marginalisation; economic constraints; racism; or any of the other factors which limit access to far too many people".

He said it was synonymous with "social empowerment".

He said that it was "not only a human right", but was also "the key to development in the 21st century, as the need for a literate flexible workforce increases for all countries".

He repeated that "adult and community education is a vital aspect of the social and economic aspirations of every country".

It is hard to disagree with him, and even harder to understand why the Government to which he belongs has chosen to fly in the face of such an excellent, far-sighted prescription.

Adult and community education has a long and honourable history in this country; it is woven into the fabric of a once-prized egalitarianism, and to traditions of social justice.

The recession will come and the recession will go, but what will not change is the constant value of, and need for, an educated society; moreover, a society that desires to be educated in all sorts of ways, and one in which it is prized to be so.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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