Living for learning
As my friends tripped off gaily to university, back in the …(well, maybe we won’t go there), I comforted myself with the thought that in years to come – when money would not be such an issue – I would be able to follow suit. It wasn’t that I hadn’t got a place, more that I was told I was too young for the course and to come back the following year.
Well, times change. Now I’m definitely old enough to go, there are no more grants for mature students. And I’ve come to realise that money is always going to be an issue. So in the intervening years I have dipped in and out of evening classes. But in 2015 we are confronted with two overwhelming issues: first the need for cash-strapped adult education centres to link each course to an exam or some form of assessment so as to guarantee funding, and second that they have raised their prices to exorbitant levels.
What happened to learning for the sake of learning? Is that a luxury nowadays?
Adults wanting to acquire a skill have also been hammered by successive governments. The number of those taking part in classroom-based education is down by a third, more than a million fewer adults, compared with a decade ago. And given the cuts to the adult skills budget in 2014/15, half a million fewer adults took part in government-funded adult learning compared with the year before.
I learnt these figures from a recent article by David Lammy in The Guardian. He was also quite pithy about the lack of coverage given to adult education and night schools in comparison to the column inches and knee jerk reactions of those in power – in Westminster or the media – to a phone call from a university vice chancellor.
But maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the end of the road for learning. In recent years, following the digital revolution, there has been an upsurge in both webinars and budget-priced lectures. I am in the happy position of having to produce a three-monthly listing of events, talks and seminars around the country and know that it has struck a chord with those who receive it.
For instance, I am now Magna Carta’d out following a series of lectures on this topic at the British Library. They are rarely over £8, depending on the speaker, and frequently include wine and nibbles. I am also an ardent fan of the US ambassador, Matthew Barzun, who in the Twentieth Annual Douglas W. Bryant Lecture, reflected on the link between the Magna Carta and whiskey, based on the method by which the drink is made.
Speaking skilfully and without any visible notes, he described how distilling it is a complex process, with deceptively simple ingredients, which takes time to mature and produces strikingly different results depending upon the raw materials used and the geography within which it is produced. He went on to argue that Magna Carta and its legacy, in the rule of law and political freedom, can be viewed the same way, such as how it has influenced the UK and the US.
Then a fortnight ago, we trotted off to the Guildhall Library where Newcastle University lecturer Tony Spawforth gave a presentation entitled ‘Louis XIV’s Versailles – the Power, the Glory and the Secret Wife’. Part of the Huguenots Summer celebrations, he contrasted the glittering court of Versailles in the 1680s with the horrors of religious persecution, examining the role of Madame de Maintenon in royal decision-making and her possible influence on Louis’ religious policy. I mean, who knew that the Sun King even had a secret wife?
Chatting to the organisers afterwards, we were alerted to the amazing number of Huguenot descendants around today, from Derek Jacobi to Johnny Depp (no, they aren’t all actors).
It’s encouraged us to go further afield and apply to tour Boughton House in Northamptonshire, which is hosting a special exhibition celebrating the extraordinary French legacy of the Huguenot artwork preserved there. Many were commissioned at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries by Ralph Montagu, the 1st Duke of Montagu – patron of the multitude of talented French immigrants.
So for the moment I am satisfied with bite-sized bits of learning acquired at bargain basement prices. It is introducing me to topics I knew nothing about, and frequently inspires me to do further research. And it’s even encouraged me to sign up to an inexpensive afternoon course, starting in November. The only question is, can I do all my work in four days? But as the train unions would probably tell me: “It’s all about the life:work balance.” So don’t try and stop me!