Strangers who bring gifts of cultural diversity

21st September 2001 at 01:00
IN the mid-1980s my friend Adnan visited Britain for the first time. His great ambition was to see the British Museum. I met him for a drink after his first visit.

He came in, awestruck: "You have more of Egypt here than they have in Cairo, Englishman," he said.

Adnan has spent his whole adult life in the Palestinian camps in Damascus working with adult learners - overwhelmingly literacy students - and pre-schoolchildren, struggling to share a sense of Palestinian identity within the constraints of a national curriculum, and an embargo on a return home.

Palestinian adult education is developed in the spaces allowed in 15 to 20 different host national adult education systems, and of course, within major financial constraints on the West Bank and Gaza. He sensed that here in Britain we were able not only to define ourselves but the experiences of others too.

I was reminded of him last week when the annual Adult Tutors' Awards ceremony was held in the new conference centre underneath the glorious new Great Court of the museum. John Healey, minister for adult skills, was chief guest.

All of us who attended the event saw afresh the rich resources for learning on offer as we made our way to and from the ceremony. It reminded us that museums are powerful contributors to informal learning for young people and adults.

But the collections come from all over the globe and Greek visitors will often feel that the Elgin marbles might better be returned to Athens, or West Africans that the Benin mask is out of place in London.

The complexities of global mobility and its consequences were shown too in the experience of Mongay Lek-Lek Bapindikwa, a Congolese refugee who was short-listed for an award.

He arrived in Britain nine months ago speaking little or no English and is now a successful and inspiring teacher, sharing his new skills with other refugees and asylum seekers. Skilled, motivated and infused with an affection for the space afforded in liberal democracies, he represented a powerful case for recognising the merits of permeable borders.

A second national event was held on Saturday, September 8 to mark International Literacy Day, and the Sign Up Now campaign co-ordinated annually by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The event was a family learning day which explored how the galleries and exhibits might be used as springboards for inter-generational learning. Again, a colleague of mine was surprised to discover that her family surname was shared with a south-Asian royal dynasty and a collection in South Kensington.

Shared experiences are not always uncontested, though. This summer, at Ocho Rios on the north coast of Jamaica surrounded by dripping white sand beaches, the International Council for Adult Education held its first world conference for eight years. There was marked agreement among adult educators from all over the world about priorities in stimulating demand, improving advocacy, seeking entitlements for adult learners, and in sharing experience across national boundaries.

In the margins of the conference, a meeting of Commonwealth adult educators looked at future co-operation. The meeting agreed that there was enough to merit a continued dialogue - if only because there are few viable networks for north-south discussion - and because the learning histories of families in all our countries cross national boundaries.

I came back to the debate in Britain about the introduction of a language proficiency test as a pre-condition for citizenship. To many this seemed an intrusion, and I read one piece which suggested that Kurdish refugees, escaping the suppression of their language, would see such an obligation as an affront.

I strongly disagree. As long as the state provides access to education for all asylum seekers, refugees or domiciled speakers of other languages, it seems a reasonable demand. It guarantees that all who share responsibility in a democracy for shaping it have access to the learning necessary to do so in an informed way.

But any such measure should be accompanied by greater opportunities. Countries that invest in new arrivals reap rich rewards in the economy and civil society. No bad goal for us this year - to recognise the rich treasures that migrants bring.

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

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