The importance of adult education: “It is never too late to be what you might have been” – George Eliot
I BELIEVE passionately that the classroom can be a gateway to the things in life that give it meaning and depth and balance.
When I say classroom I’m thinking of the adult classroom – at university or further education or informally in community centres and church halls – rather than the years of compulsory education.
I’m thinking of flower arranging as well as higher mathematics, beginners’ belly dancing as well as philosophy. I’m thinking of the the friends made, the ideas and books met for the first time, the self confidence boosted.
And the wonderful thing is that you can’t always predict where that gateway will lead.
A few years ago I went on an introduction to stained glass and within a few weeks I proved to myself, my fellow classmates and to the tutor to be utterly incompetent and cack-handed. I can admire stained glass: I can’t make it. The only reason I came out of the 10 week course with a small star in amber and green was because the tutor took charge of my soldering, undid my hesitant, spidery leadwork and made the damned thing stay together.
Stained glass from York Minister – not one of my projects
Far more interesting is that not that many years earlier the tutor had himself attended a stained glass course; liked it and did another. Liked that and started making glass for his own home and for friends. Then he lost his job (as a wine dealer I think) and realised that what was a pleasant spare time activity was really the thing he liked doing best of all.
Presents for friends turned into commissions for strangers turned into a viable business with a small side line in passing on his skills in the same way as he acquired them.
Of course, not every course is a pathway to a new career (as my own experiences with coloured glass and hot solder prove) but the urge to learn and grow is a vital apart of the human experience.
I love the story about the men who made Dr George Birkbeck’s medical instruments in Glasgow at the beginning of the 19th century.
The doctor thought that they might want to know what the instruments were used for and why all the measurements had to be exact.
Would they be interested in a lecture on the subject? Yes, they would.
He booked a small university lecture room, expecting 10 to 20 to turn up after a day’s work. They queued in their hundreds. They didn’t need to know. It would not add to their job chances, or put bread on the table, but they wanted to know.
The good doctor brought the memory of that experience with him when he moved to London which is why we have Birkbeck – now part of the University of London. In December 1823, around 2000 people flocked to a pub on the Strand for Dr Birkbeck to launch London’s first-ever Mechanics’ Institution, Similar initiatives were happening all over the country – it was the start of adult education for working people.
I’m thinking it’s better to do something than not do something. I’m thinking…have I mentioned that I teach creative writing?