A big, fat Greek rebirth

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Reports of the death of lifelong learning, triple L to pals, may have been premature

A rumour is spreading that big L is born again. Here's what happened.

Down under, triple L had time to reflect. Just before she died, she'd gone into over-drive. But no matter how much she put herself about, she kept meeting blokes who'd never heard of her, especially blokes over 50 who weren't impressed even when she showed them fancy tricks with her Satellite Pro.

She was everywhere, you couldnot go to a conference without running into her, but she started losing the plot. She began forcing people to take her courses, especially those who hadn't been to see her since they left school.

But she talked to them as though they had the social status of smokers, one-parent families or, worst of all, children. "Non-learners", she called them with a superior smirk. And just because they wouldn't say they loved her. Her adviser knew you can't force people to love you. He knew from experience.

Then came the final straw. She was accused of spending all her time with people like herself and ignoring those who didn't know her but were keen to learn. She tried to get the elite universities to help, but they had already fallen in love with Hefce's daughter, Rae, who came with bags of money and status. Anyway, they'd never shown any interest in her until Rae's Dad paid them to do so.

Some of the Russell group of universities (so called because they're terrier-like in defence of their privileges) began closing down their adult education departments and explained their decision as follows: "Competition is about niche marketing and our niche is educating the upper-middle classes.

"We'll trumpet far and wide our marginal schemes for a handful of lower-middle-class kids from disadvantaged areas. But change the culture of our institutions? No way, Jose."

She asked the new universities to help. They took her seriously but she took them up a blind alley: it was all action, with no criteria for judging whether the actions were worth taking or were having any useful effects.

At the moment of death, her whole life flashed before her. She experienced a revelation: it wasn't money, or time, or lack of childcare, or even those inflexible gatekeepers who were the biggest barrier to progress; it was her own shiny, new policies.

There's just so much insight the human mind can bear and hers closed down under the strain. "Hyper-reflexivity" the spin-doctors called it and issued a warning: "It's potentially habit-threatening: if you're not careful, you can end up examining your own practices and assumptions."

Below, she got chatting to Aristotle (she'd wanted to nab Socrates but he'd got hooked on hemlock and kept falling asleep). He persuaded her to ditch the sales pitch about getting a better job or any job, in favour of a programme with a moral purpose.

He advised. "Get them to tackle the dangerous and deepening inequalities which are poisoning their societies. Make social justice the guiding principle of your programme: it'll make people love you more than an appeal to their pockets or purses. Take a care of those who are suffering disproportionately from economic changes. Forget key skills and give them a good general education."

And then he went further. "Develop a theory, involve the teachers as equal partners, and, who knows, you could become a national sweetheart the second time around."

At that moment there was a thud followed by a yelp of pain. It was Socrates. He'd fallen off his couch and hit his head on a stone. "Is that the philosophers' stone?" quipped triple L. She'd been on the ambrosia again.

Socrates ignored her. "I've been thinking", he mused. "Oh, not again", groaned everyone. But Socrates ploughed on for he could be a determined little Greek when he was slighted. "My myth of the metals still applies," he announced.

"You're pushing diversity, but all you're doing is creating schools, colleges and universities of gold, silver, and bronze. Diversity's only a modern euphemism for hierarchy."

Gosh, she reflected, I'm learning more from these ancient philosophers than from the modern economists. The Secretary of State will be pleased.

"Oh, Ari! Oh, Socks!" she cooed as she snuggled up to them both, "how can I thank you? Could you clever old dogs learn a new trick? do either of you fancy an NVQ Level 3 in enterprise education?"

lHefce: Higher Educatin Funding Council for England. Rae: Research assessment Exercise.

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