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Adult education: Was there an “embodied

argument”? If so, what happened to it?

Ian Martin
University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Paper presented at SCUTREA 34th Annual Conference, University of
Sheffield, UK. 6-8 July 2004

That rationalised feeling

The hero, or anti-hero, of the South African writer J M Coetzee's novel Disgrace,
which won the Booker Prize in 1999, is the jaded and errant academic, David Lurie.
He is someone who has become - for a whole series of complicated and messy
reasons, both personal and professional - somewhat 'de-centred', as the
postmodernists would say:

He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar,
and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his
income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By
most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last
chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead. ….

…. Once a professor of modern languages, he has been, since Classics and

Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalisation, adjunct
professor of communications. Like all rationalised personnel, he is allowed to offer
one special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment, because that is good for
morale. This year he is offering a course in the Romantic poets. For the rest he
teaches Communications 101, 'Communications Skills', and Communications 201,
'Advanced Communications Skills'.

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first
premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous:
'Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our
thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other'. His own opinion, which he does
not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need
to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul. (pp.3-4)

Towards the end of the book, after his eponymous disgrace and forced resignation,
Lurie - liberated from the misery of Communications and the insolent boredom of his
unwilling students (as well, no doubt, as the South African version of the RAE) - is
trying, none too successfully, to combine a late middle-aged crisis in fatherhood with
writing the libretto of a chamber opera about Byron's last days and loves in Italy. One
day, he accidentally bumps into the head of his former department in a local

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… Nervously, she returns his greeting.

'And how is the department getting on without me?' he asks as cheerily as he can.

Very well indeed - that would be the frankest answer. We are getting on very well
without you. But she is too polite to say the words. 'Oh, struggling along as usual,'
she replies vaguely.

'Have you been able to do any hiring?'

'We have taken on one new person, on a contract basis. A young man.'

I have met him, he might respond. A right little prick, he might add. But he too is
well brought up. 'What is his specialism?' he inquiries instead.

'Applied language studies. He is in language learning.'

So much for the poets, so much for the dead masters. …. (p.179).

Lurie, the scholar, has yielded his place in the academy to the bright, young,
casualised and, of course, suitably doctored technician: from teaching to learning;
from substance to process; from curriculum to methodology; from critical enquiry to
instrumental rationality. Among other things, what Lurie's experience tells us is that, in
both intention and effect, the restructuring of higher education is an epistemological
and ontological as well as an institutional and procedural intervention.

The question is, in what ways, if any, does the ignominious end of Lurie’s academic
career speak to us in adult education – and, in particular, in university adult

The idea of the 'embodied argument'

One way of '(re)generating research' in adult education and lifelong learning may be
to look back at the past, and ourselves in the past, and to ask what happened next.
Keith Jackson once argued in his Foreword to an important book called, significantly,
Adult Education for a Change, that what matters is 'not producing histories of adult
education but locating adult education in history' (Thompson, 1980, p.14).
Nevertheless, it sometimes seems, these days, that we do not have enough of a
sense of our own history, or of the historicity of our work. It is now rather trendy to be
cavalierly ahistorical, and consequently rather dismissive about our past traditions
and trajectories.

This paper is intended to be no more than the beginning of the bigger idea of a book -
and is one way of starting to think it through and get some critical response to it. The
project is concerned with re-historicising adult education, locating its politics in the
changing contexts of policy and the fluctuating climates of intellectual debate, but
doing so in a way which helps us to understand some of the problems and
possibilities of our present condition as well, perhaps, as our competing intentions
and aspirations for the future. It is also about reconstituting a different - and probably
a rather unfashionable - view of 'research': a view that suggests that we also need

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time, not to find out more 'facts', but rather to understand more clearly what we
already know, and to look for it in ourselves. This suggests that a rich but neglected
source of 'data' lies in our own intellectual, political and professional biographies:
what we have worked for and lived through, and what this has done to us.

The methodological approach adopted here broadly reflects the current interest in life
history and biographical research. The 'story', however, is simply the vehicle for the
argument; and the argument is both historical and ontological in its relation to the
changing contexts and contingencies of theoretical discussion, political debate and
policy intervention. In this sense, the personal acts as the lens of the political. The
focus of interest is in how the argument of adult education has been 'embodied'
(adopted and adapted, sustained and changed) in working lives and changing
contexts - and, crucially, about what that argument now is. It must be emphasised
that the central interest is not in life histories as such, but rather in the situatedness of
biographical experience and personal endeavour. What is the relationship between
argument and biography? How has argument influenced biography, and vice versa?
What can we learn about ourselves and our work by reflecting, perhaps more
reflexively than we are often inclined to, on this process? In short, what have we
learnt from our own experience?

Some clarification may be required. The Scottish-born philosopher, Alasdair

MacIntyre (1985), has characterised institutions - and, by extension, vocations - as
'embodied arguments':

Every institution is marked by the moment of its foundation as the embodiment of a

historical argument and the expression of a set of values. Institutions survive by a
continuous adaptation of their argumentative base, a continuing fulfilment of their
original argument in a new context; the history of an institution is the history of its
development of the argument on which it was founded and the strength of the
argument is reflected in the institution's ability to continue to sustain its
fundamental values in changed conditions. At some point, of course, an argument
may become redundant or irrelevant and the institution founded on it will itself
become redundant or will have to reorganise itself around a different and more
relevant position (Craig, 2003, p.177).

The values and purposes which constitute these arguments and the institutions and
identities which embody them are the products of particular historical moments and
social movements. Such arguments can only be sustained if their embodiment is
continually reworked and renewed as times change. If and when this process of
redefinition and adaptation no longer happens, the arguments wither and die - to be
replaced by others which are perceived to be more relevant, apposite, in keeping with
new times.

So, what is the embodied argument - or what are the embodied arguments - of adult
education? How have they been worked out and sustained - or jettisoned and
replaced - in the lived experience of its practitioners? And what does this tell us about
where we are today, in the brave new world of lifelong learning - and where we are

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This paper is simply a starting point for raising these questions. As such, it marks the
first, tentative step towards '(re)generating research' in a very particular kind of way. It
is hoped that thinking about our work in this way may be of interest to colleagues -
including some old fashioned comrades, perhaps - who still have a gnawing or
niggling sense of the values of the past embodied in the present as well as some
notion of what the future may or may not hold for the 'embodied argument' of adult

Adult education: roots and routes

Does adult education still matter? Indeed, does adult education still exist? Could it be
that adult education, conceived as an 'embodied argument', has been the victim of its
own success; that it has, in effect, done itself out of a job? Adult education, as such,
no longer matters precisely because the seeds it so carefully sowed and nurtured
have grown to flourish and thrive in pastures new: in the transformation of access
studies into mass higher education; the expansion and diversification of tertiary
education; the development of new forms of qualification and credit transfer; the
translation of lifelong learning from well-intentioned rhetoric into hard-nosed policy;
the institutionalisation of cultural studies and women's studies within the curriculum of
the academy; the now widely acknowledged significance of political literacy and
education for citizenship; the thrust towards more systematic pedagogy within higher
education; the democratising potential of information and communication technology;
the customised flexibility of the educational marketplace. Does all this mean that adult
education no longer matters because what mattered to adult educators now matters
to everyone?

Of course, we live in a world that is radically different - politically, intellectually,

culturally, materially - from the world in which adult education emerged and evolved.
Globalisation, reflexive modernisation, detraditionalisation, the risk society and
individualisation are some of the familiar, if slippery, short-hand ways in which we
assign significance to the great transformations we are living through. The question is
whether these transformations now render that particular kind of adult education
which was traditionally conceived as part of the Enlightenment Project little more than
an irrelevant anachronism – its remaining protagonists merely nostalgic radicals
jousting at the windmills of times already past. Adult education has simply been
overtaken by events. Does all this mean that adult education no longer matters
because the world in which it mattered no longer exists?

Or, is there still a different kind of argument to be made? It may be, at the beginning
of a new century, that the words of Raymond Williams (1993) ring as true as ever:

.... this is a social order which really does not know in what crucial respects it is
ignorant, in what crucial respects it is incompletely conscious and therefore in what
crucial respects this collaborative process of Adult Education is still central (p.264).

This is the context in which it may be worth asking a selection of people who have
been influentially involved in British adult education - mostly but not exclusively in the
university sector of adult education - what sense they make of all this. Reflecting on
their own work as adult educators and their careers in adult education, the basic
question to be asked of them is: Why did they first choose to work in adult education

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…. and then, over time, what happened? It should be emphasised that the intention is
not to present biography in any simple or chronological sense but rather to refract
through biography the 'embodied argument' of adult education. When Keith Jackson
wrote about the importance of 'locating adult education in history’, perhaps he could
have added that it is also important to try to understand historical change through the
prism of adult education. It is hoped that the result will be a unique account: a series
of distinct and idiosyncratic voices answering the same question in different ways.

The aims of the putative book, provisionally called Why Adult Education? Roots and
Routes, are, therefore, to:

 ask selected individuals whose work has been influential in theory, policy and
practice to reflect upon the changing policy and politics of adult education;
 trace and track the 'embodied argument' of adult education in the ideas and
experience of the contributors;
 expose and clarify the grounds of agreement and disagreement about the nature
and significance of the continuing argument;
 consider the ways in which agency has been exercised and choices made, and
with what consequences;
 examine the connection between the personal and the political within the working
lives of the contributors;
 reassert the importance of historical consciousness in thinking about what has
happened to adult education;
 identify key political and theoretical debates in adult education and assess their
significance for policy and practice.

Contributors are unlikely to need much prompting as to what they want to write about.
Nevertheless, they may find it useful to think about the wider context in the following
general terms: changes in policy and politics; social movements and social change;
the reconfigured relationship between the state, the market and civil society;
theoretical debates and intellectual arguments, and, particularly perhaps, the so-
called ‘cultural turn’ in theory; confidence in or scepticism about ideas, values and
causes; changes in social, cultural and material reality as well as ways of thinking
about what power is and how it is exercised.

More specifically if somewhat randomly, in relation to the nature of the work itself,
significant markers and changes might include: notions of ontology and vocation; the
new emphasis on lifelong learning and higher education (as distinct from adult
education), and on learning rather than teaching; the apparent movement from
independence (was it ever so?) to incorporation (if such it is); the current policy drive
towards widening participation and a mass system of higher education; the revival of
interest in (certain kinds of) workplace and community-based learning; the changing
politics of research, and the importance of policy in defining research priorities; the
emphasis on skills development, competence and employability; the expansion,
restructuring, merger and disappearance of university departments of adult and
continuing education; the emphasis on the individual choice of the learner/consumer,
and the corresponding demise of notions of collective interest and social purpose;
changing concepts of efficacy and accountability; discursive shifts in the language of
educational policy, theory and practice; the marketisation of provision, and relations of

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both competition and collaboration between providers; the influence of the new
managerialism and performance/output measurement; the linkage in policy discourse
between active citizenship, lifelong learning and social inclusion; the trend towards
accreditation, credentialism and the commodification of knowledge. That is probably
enough to be going on with!

Adult education, citizenship and democracy: restating one argument

We are now getting used to being told that 'There is only one game in town' or, as
Mrs Thatcher liked to put it in her TINA formulation, 'There is no alternative'. Certainly,
there is a real danger - although increasingly contested in some quarters - of a new
kind of political settlement between democracy and the market system. And this
settlement would, indeed, be facilitated by the 'abandonment of education as social
policy in favour of individual learning as government strategy' (Griffin, 1999, p.432),
i.e. government 'steering' as distinct from 'rowing', whereby self-sufficient citizens are
offered the opportunity of lifelong learning to thrive if possible, to survive if necessary.
In this scenario, the 'active' component of citizenship would reflect the capacity of the
individual to learn to be self-interested and self-sufficient by donning the flexible fig
leaf of lifelong learning in the brave new world of entrepreneurial citizenship. And as
the progressive 'left hand of the state' (Bourdieu, 1998) continues to wither, lifelong
learning becomes, indeed, a life sentence.

In which case, should not the role of critical and progressive adult education be to
challenge and contest this new common sense, and become part of the process of
fighting back and showing that there is never no alternative? Can citizens really be
'makers and shapers' rather than merely 'users and choosers' (Cornwall and
Gaventa, 2001)? What this would mean, essentially, is reasserting the politics of
citizenship, which has always been at the heart of the radical project in adult
education, by demonstrating in our teaching, writing and research that '"new" debates
over citizenship are often "old" debates over justice dressed up in new clothing'
(Kymlicka, 2002, p.287).

Perhaps the first task in re-embodying one particular argument for adult education
would be to resuscitate our interest in 'education' as a way of talking in a more
discriminating and purposeful way about 'learning' and re-engaging, much more
creatively, with the crucial dialectic between the economic, social and democratic
imperatives which remain at the heart of all educational work. But to do this, it would
be necessary to reassert our own agency as educators and to show, as Susanne
MacGregor (1999) insists, that there are still choices to be made and that politics still

We need to reinvent the language of the social. This is a task of public education in
which all those who call themselves scholars and teachers need to engage. It is no
less than the reinvention of politics (p.115).

One argument that adult education should still embody is, surely, that democracy and
its citizens must accommodate – and cherish – the capacity for and the possibility of
dissent. Perhaps this is the real challenge for progressive adult education for
citizenship in the bright new dawn of lifelong learning. If we do not face up to this
challenge, we may have to get used to a Kafka-esque sense of metamorphosis when

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we wake up in the morning, still knowing who we are but finding it difficult and
disquieting to recognise ourselves:

Gregor gave a start when he heard his own voice ….; it was unmistakably his own
voice as of old, but mixed in with it, as if from below, was an irrepressible, painful
squeaking; and this only left the sound of the words clear for a moment, before
distorting them so much that one could not tell if one had heard them properly
(Kafka, 2000, p.78).

This is a fate David Lurie, whatever his troubles, manages to escape: he still knows
who he is and what he stands for - even if he doesn't particularly like what he sees.

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Craig C (2003) 'Scottish arts and common culture' in J Crowther, I Martin and M Shaw (eds)
Renewing Democracy in Scotland: An Educational Source Book, Leicester, NIACE, pp.177-
Griffin C (1999) 'Lifelong learning and welfare reform', International Journal of Lifelong
Education, 18, 6, pp.431-452.
Kafka K (2000) Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Kymlicka W (2002) Contemporary Political Philosophy (2nd edition), Oxford, Oxford University
MacGregor S (1999) 'Welfare, neo-liberalism and new paternalism: three ways for social
policy in late capitalist societies', Capital and Class, 67, pp.91-118.
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Thompson J (ed) (1980) Adult Education for a Change, London, Hutchinson.
Williams R (1993) 'Adult education and social change' in J McIlroy and S Westwood (eds)
Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education, Leicester, NIACE, pp.255-264.

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