A blend of solidarities and knobbly individualism

Life before Easter was characteristically mad. Like many other small organisations on the margins of the education business, the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education relies on securing external contracts to make ends meet, and to fund a lot of the work that it wants to do. This often means that you have to be able to respond quickly to other bodies' need to get work done and money spent before the end of the financial year turns budgets into pumpkins.

This year that pressure was compounded by the need to bid for the fourth round of funding from the National Lottery Charities Board. Since this is the round when voluntary sector bodies are invited, under the "New Opportunities, New Choices" theme, to increase chances for adults to learn, we were hard at it, bidding for ourselves and encouraging others to make proposals.

And then there was VAT. When the first BBC computers appeared they were loaded with a game which involved developing a village on the banks of the Yellow River. You had to decide how much of your resources should be allocated to strengthening the river defences against flooding, how much to commit to expanding work in the paddy fields, to feed people, and to build reserves against failed harvests, and how much effort to put into watching for bandits. Since bandits are unpredictable, it feels often as if time spent looking for bandits who don't appear could be better spent on feeding the people, but the moment you drop your defences along they come and steal the stores.

Repelling the occasional forays of VAT inspectors coming in search of revenue from already put upon adult learners feels like that. Over 20 years the inspectors use the same arguments and the same strategies - looking for a gullible outpost to impose taxes to establish a bridgehead from which to generalise the tax.

I came away for a short break reflecting that all this was a long way from the pleasures and challenges of learning. But a week in the Cornish sunshine changes perspectives. In the spaces left from long days with buckets and spades on the beach, or clambering around King Arthur's Castle, or looking for the Lady in the Lake at Dozmary Pool, and from evenings spent with aunts and cousins catching up on lives lived differently, I have been reading Philip Payton's Cornwall and thinking about identity and how we connect with one another.

The book is quite extraordinary in its range and reach drawing on scholarship, mythology, and folk memory; on geology, history, economics and poetry to map political colonisation, and cultural resistance. The story it tells is strikingly similar to those captured in Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, showing how you can at one and the same time work within an economic and political system that marginalises your experience, and at the same time draw on that experience to preserve and strengthen a sense of difference.

The attack on the Cornish language which accompanied the strengthening of the central state under the Tudors, the ending of the separate legislative arrangements of the Stannaries, the incorporation of the Duchy as another county were effective. They leave debates about cultural difference for the Cornish sounding like discussions about Ruritania, whilst the debates about Wales and Scotland chime with the European trend towards respect for minorities, for the regional and local. They are the stuff of jokes. When I was a child Punch quipped that Devon dreamed of having a cricket team accepted for the County Championship while Cornwall wanted to play in the six nations championship.

The Cornish experience may help explain the paranoid defence of little England that characterises so much of the discussion about our involvement in the European Union - the fear that if you lose sovereignty you end up relatively poor, and the stuff of unfunny jokes. But it is surely only a bit of the story. There must be a reason why there are so many Cornish words for foreigners, others, emmets, all of them pejorative, and all about people from across the Tamar.

Identity matters, and is actively chosen. You see it in the willingness of hundreds of people to subscribe to the book in advance of its publication, to see it into print. Never mind that without such a subscription list the risks of publication might seem too great for a metropolitan publishing industry. I experience it in my own life, too. There is little work of the sort I do on offer in Cornwall, and I find it hard to imagine remaking my life there now. Yet I feel my sensibility shaped by a place described by one of its education officers as an inner city with spaces in between.

It is not just a matter of geography. To get by in such places you have to work together - whether in a lifeboat, or in the co-operative that buys feed on behalf of Cornwall's farmers; in the women's institutes or chapel culture, there is a combination of knobbly individualism and actively chosen solidarities.

This is the social capital Tom Schuller described in his inaugural lecture as professor of continuing education at Edinburgh University as the key component of a successful learning society. Of course it is not limited to places like Cornwall, though it can be easier to identify outside cities. Perhaps in recognition of that, the development of social capital is a key element in the Learning Cities movement. It is there in the moves to recreate the workplace as a convivial learning community.

But far too much of what we do in education and training ignores the power of our shared and chosen experience. This is not to reject out of hand the dominant individualism of our current ways of doing things. Rather it is to argue that the two need to be reconnected, if we are to imagine our way out of our current and future messes, and that this is a central task for adult learning. And so, back to work, and to England.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education

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