Lifelong Learning that learns for Life! by John Salway

I came up to Edinburgh at the end of April to experience a Ragged University event for myself and got in touch with Alex in advance to explain why. After having retired from teaching Drama and English, running a Theatre-in-Education operation and engaging in non-institutional teacher-training, I have had time to reflect at length on the upshot of that whole working life.

John Salway
John Salway


My own deep sense of dissatisfaction with the direction State Education had been and still is) heading, has crystallised and intensified. I saw how the curriculum in every sector of the system had narrowed and how far bureaucratic myopia and corporate exploitation had disempowered teachers in their own classrooms.


I became aware of how much skill, knowledge and experience in local communities, in the arts and media and in marginalised sectors of our society has been ignored, devalued and wasted by an obsessive regard for marketization.


I recognised that everywhere I looked, I could see wisdom and understanding at work in the gaps and breakages left where private enterprise could not turn a profit; trying to repair the damage of so-called “creative destruction” to our landscapes, streets, urban commons, rural margins and “Nature” itself. I found myself being taught by activists about what needed to be done to redirect social energies in beneficial and sustainable ways.


Yes, I was certainly enjoying the opportunity to control my own time, to re-educate myself in areas (such as Economics) where I had spent a life largely in ignorance. It struck me that I had benefitted greatly from time as a student back in the early-mid 1970s (on a maintenance grant, with no fees to pay) when real research was being conducted into new areas of the curriculum and ways of restructuring knowledge; where new styles of teaching and learning were being investigated.


I got especially interested in the possibilities of Action Research by teachers themselves. So, I had a certain confidence in devising courses of study for myself. But surely much more could be achieved through sharing experience, collaboration and building communities of learners who understood that they, too, could teach?


“Lifelong Learning” is a concept that springs glibly to the lips of many in the Education business. The problem, of course, is just that. Business. It is framed within the narrow confines of what is called the “World of Work”. Take a look at any official report from Government bodies or establishment think tanks and you will see the same set of priorities repeated ad nauseam.


We must be ever more flexible and adaptable, prepared to develop new skills required by the “Economy” (always with that unconscious capital and as if it necessarily transcends our needs, wants and desires) that, subject to the chaotic storm of Global progress, can no longer offer secure ways of making a living.


Working lives, in fact must be extended into our 70s (eventually into our 80s?) if future “Growth” (that capital again) is to be achieved. Few confront the rather glaring contradiction between such endlessly expanding human labour and the likely effects of mechanisation and artificial intelligence. The stress and alienation of uncertain but lifelong employment will reach, it is seriously contemplated, well into what is now understood as the “Third Age”.


Civil Society, though, is beginning to question the absurdity of such thinking. A critical head of steam is building pressure at the grass roots of communities who are tired of paying for the gated paradises of the wealthy with their own local hells as waste and pollution poisons rivers and roadways and their public services are cut to the bone.


The skill, knowledge and experience that has been marginalised is not dead and buried. It is reviving itself to challenge long-established orthodoxies about who has the expertise to decide.


A growing body of activists and militant practitioners in every sector of our society; in the knowledge economy itself, in public health and education, energy generation and supply, waste recycling, transport, social care, food production, … you name it …, is refusing to believe that the Neoliberal settlement that has dominated policy-making for well over 30 years, cannot be dismantled. It is not set in stone. It is not a force of Nature. It has a historical time limit. Now, it is well past its sell-by date.


So, I am about to embark on a Ph.D. as a very mature student, because there is still a hell of a lot to learn about “Learning” if it is to be “Lifelong”. I mean real, hungry, impassioned learning of the kind that is not going to tug its forelock or doff its cap to Academic Authority. It was Chaucer who first suggested in popular parlance that actual “Experience” could front up to Crown, Town and Gown.


We can all be authors; we all have poems to write, songs to sing, arguments to advance, theorems to prove, ideas to think aloud, inventions to model, new maps of knowledge to draw. As Alex himself said, every person is a walking Ragged University.


Because I am entering my eighth decade on this Earth, I am not compelled to sink into superannuated oblivion. I want to be there; arguing, singing, thinking, listening as part of what shouid be a burgeoning body of revellers in the carnival of learning. Bertolt Brecht always insisted that his “theatre of instruction” had to be at the same time a “theatre of pleasure”. “Hard Times” will not be overcome without the circus. Here are powerful intimations of that “realm of freedom” imagined by Karl Marx.

John Salway.

May 2018.