Where Is Adult Education Going?

This is a condensed version of a paper given to a WEA Conference on 14 May, 2016,

The initial invitation suggested I talk about the future economy and its relevance to adult education. I explained that the best advice I ever came across is ‘don’t make predictions, especially about the future’. You get a sense of the difficulties if you go back thirty years ago, say, and realise any forecasts of today would have been way off track. I’ve chosen thirty years back, to reflect a time when today’s average adult was entering adulthood.

Think about the economy thirty years ago. It is easy to say that Rogernomics, which blew up shortly after, was a deviation, but I am sure more-market and its companion economic liberalisation were (almost) inevitable. Rogernomics (or neoliberalism) was an unfortunate and extreme version which did unnecessary damage and has still left elements to be reversed. For instance the neoliberal 1988 report on Post-compulsory Education and Training (the Hawke report) said that we should not distinguish between education and training which meant that the tertiary institutions focused only on training. To this day we have lost the distinction except in rare places.

We should not assign all the changes which have happened since to that liberalisation. For instance, the number working in the manufacturing industry in New Zealand has halved. The reasons are complex: one is that productivity rises in manufacturing faster than in the service sector so its employment rises relatively more slowly; another is that individuals are increasingly consuming services; yet another is that manufacturing is increasingly offshoring, where it can, to cheaper locations.

Thirty years ago we would not have thought much about globalisation, although it has been happening as long as we have historical records, albeit faster in the last two hundred years. I am not sure if we are entering a new phase – as an historian said, two centuries after the French revolution, ‘it is too soon to tell’.

One consequence of globalisation is the increasing ambiguity of cultural identity. Another has been the rise of globalised finance. In my view, we economists dont have a good handle on how the financial sector works – and neither has anyone else. My guess is that much is about transferring income entitlements through time so that individuals are taking the future profits, if any, as income today. (I say ‘if any’ because there is an argument that most finance is primarily a Ponzi scheme, shuffling IOUs, and that one day the system may implode, even more dramatically than it did in 2008, when many of the IOUs prove worthless until they were bought by the taxpayer.) It is this boom in finance which has generated the rising income and wealth inequality. You would not have predicted that 30 years ago. Inequality had been falling slowly in the postwar era. Another transformative recent change is digitisation – the rise of the computer and the increasing access to information that comes with it.

There is the possibility that rich economies are entering a stage of what is called ‘secular stagnation’, that is, a period of in which productivity growth (as it is usually measured) is zero (or very low) in the long term and in which traditional economic policies do not work.

Stagnant material standards of living in affluent economies need not mean there will be no progress. Wellbeing may improve, with greater longevity and better health while we are alive. We may be better informed, although past experience suggests we will be no wiser. Perhaps there will be more leisure, although we may have a problem in sharing it out, with the unskilled experiencing high unemployment and the very skilled experiencing long, stressful hours. I am guessing that the average working week may shorten and there will be more holidays – New Zealand is not an international leader in decreasing hours worked. I shant be surprised if in the future greater weight is given to environmental sustainability.

I have identified a few recent trends. How well did the formal education system of 30 years ago prepare today’s adults? How well is it today preparing young people for the unpredictable future?

Adult education provides only a part of the rich range of the experiences from which we learn and enable us to adapt to these changes. Probably the most important is the conventional media, but commerce, the social media, blogs and self-education and many informal organisations play a part.

What strikes me is how poor the quality of much of this adult education is because it is a by-product of some other purpose. As H. L Mencken said ‘No one in this world … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.’ Dumbing down is the natural approach of commerce.

We have not yet adapted to the information revolution. It is no longer what you know, when finding it with the hand-held computer in the handbag has become so much simpler. The challenge now is to evaluate the quality of the information which pops up on the screen. We assume that the reader has some training in critical awareness.

Isn’t there an issue of the extent to which the public can address and improve their understanding of non-trivial issues? Organisations like the WEA once filled gaps which mass tertiary education and the media have since taken over. But much of what is provided is essentially anti-education, with the aim of training the student to be a pliable employee without any civic interest other than their pay packet. That leaves a huge gap for informal adult education institutions.

I would be disappointed if there was no demand for programs to meet this need, for it would reflect a narrowing of intellectual life in New Zealand and a consequent reduction of our ability to accept the challenge of change as we face an unknowable future.

Perhaps that is what we want. We want to be entertained rather than enlightened. We want to be comforted by a nostalgia for the past, even if that means we have little idea about what is actually going on in the present and are unprepared for the future. But that is not what education should be about – for children or adults.

There are two lessons I want to draw. First, our thinking, and the institutions that underpin it, are dominated by where we have come from, not by where we are going; very often our expectations of the future are founded on unquestioned assumptions which are questionable. Second, where we are going is very uncertain and unpredictable. Perhaps the one secure prediction is that the future wont be like we expect it to be. These need not be pessimistic conclusions. The best way to approach the future is to recognise that it is largely unknowable, but that we can develop skills which enable us to cope with that.