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Adult Education, Community, and Learning for Democracy in Scotland

Summary and Keywords

Historically, the relationship between adult education and democracy has been one of mutual synergy with education providing the context for thoughtful reflection and democratic action. The social purpose of adult education was precisely in its contribution to making the world a more socially just and more democratic place. However, this relationship has been eroded over the years as adult education and democratic life have become increasingly distanced from each other. Can this be repaired? This is the central theme of this entry, which is explored through trends relating to adult education, community, and democracy, and articulated through the particular experiences of the Scottish context we are familiar with. This article argues that adult education can enrich democratic culture and practice and that in turn democratic issues and debates can energize and stimulate adult education.

While the Scottish lens is distinctive, our argument has a broader reference point, as the neoliberal economic forces and subjectivities shaping adult education are global and pervasive, busily percolating in, down and across all sectors and levels of education. Our claim is that adult education can still play a critical role in nurturing democratic life. Rather than abandon democracy, the task of education is to deepen it at all levels and ensure politics is educative. From this view, adult education for democracy can reinvigorate the culture and institutions of democracy and, in the process, help to reclaim the lodestone—or soul—of adult education. For some readers, this may seem a nebulous idea; however, for others it will mean that which animates what is worthwhile in adult education. A profession without a soul is a dead one.

This article is a collaborative effort that draws from different university institutions involved in the training and formation of community educators. Together these institutions represent a spectrum of the Scottish university sector involved in this work and bring to this analysis considerable experience. Although different interests and distinctive emphases are represented in the perspectives here, this entry focuses on common ideas and values. We start therefore by situating ourselves in terms of professional, political, ideological, and theoretical orientations.

Keywords: educational politics and policy, adult education purposes, learning for democracy, Scotland

Situating the Text

This article is written by those professionally and institutionally involved in the vocational preparation of intellectually critical practitioners who can make the connection between “private troubles” and “public issues,” and the changing relationship between the two (Mills, 1959). Critical analysis has to go hand-in-hand with the practical skills to engage educationally with communities of endurance and struggle. Community, in policy, often serves to reduce or deflect structural problems in society to the personal failings of individuals and communities. It is essential, in such circumstances, that professional preparation enables practitioners to understand the politics of educational policy and instills a commitment to the public good by challenging inequalities of power, status, and knowledge.

Politically, the Scottish context for community education had the unique distinction of being explicitly committed to furthering democracy as evidenced by the Alexander Report, which led to the institutionalization of community education services across Scotland (Scottish Education Department, 1975). The model of democracy assumed in the Alexander Report was a liberal pluralist one that encouraged educators to resource dissent and critical participation in democratic life in communities. This agenda arose in the social democratic era of the 1970s, which, of course, is now traduced in neoliberal times. Nonetheless, the legacy of this commitment in Scotland still resonates with practitioners, even if only at a rhetorical level.

Ideologically, this article draws from socialist and feminist traditions that seek to build equality, social justice, and democracy from “the bottom up” as well as from “the top down.” A vibrant democracy needs to be founded on a democratic culture in communities, and the state can help or hinder this outcome. As the neoliberal project reduces the role of the state in supporting people, by atomizing communities into self-interested individuals the possibility of establishing common interests is reduced. Democracy, on the other hand, involves identifying common ground. In this sense, the struggle for democracy can mean working “in and against the state” but, increasingly, “for” the state to realize its potential to reduce the burden on poor people’s lives (Shaw & Martin, 2000).

Theoretically, this account draws on a Gramscian tradition of critical political and educational analysis. From Gramsci’s perspective, hegemony occurs when the values and interests of a dominant class are universalized and actively accepted by subordinate groups. Hegemony fashions the “common sense” of a period that in turn justifies and reinforces relationships of domination. For Gramsci (1971), material context, cultural hegemony, and political society are interrelated, and it is the complex interactions between these that is important for understanding the potential for social and political change. Experience is primarily shaped by contradictory forces and always produces “loose ends” and incoherence, which open up the space for critical education and progressive social change. “Common sense” can be transformed into “good sense”—that is, a critical perspective necessary to make visible relationships of control through consent. Gramsci’s focus was on class struggle, but we can widen his aperture to include other subordinate social groups without losing sight of unequal class relationships.

One further point of clarification. This article’s focus on learning for democracy overlaps with concerns for active and critical citizenship, which is the educational research agenda most relevant to this area. It is necessary, however, to keep in mind that education for citizenship and learning for democracy are different in terms of purpose and curriculum. Education for citizenship has primarily been concerned with experiences of belonging and exclusion, rights and responsibilities, activities such as volunteering, and the nature of power and participation in existing democratic processes and procedures. In other words, its frame of reference tends to be the formal rights ascribed (or denied) to citizens in the context of liberal democracy. These concerns overlook the more fundamental questions of what type of society we want to live in, what type of society we currently live in, where power is located, and how we move democratically from the present to the desired future. In this perspective, issues of social justice, equality, and democracy are interconnected, and their separation—which the frame of liberal democracy perpetuates—has to be avoided theoretically, politically, and educationally.

Historically, learning for democracy informed the tradition of social purpose adult education, which has almost disappeared from the modern practice of adult education (Martin, 2003; Bowl, 2017). Fundamental to learning for democracy are the demands that emerge within civil society for new democratic rights that have to be asserted, argued, and contested. Crucially, democracy is unfinished and constantly shaped by changes in the wider social and political context. The rise of populism—which will be discussed later—is indicative of this condition that educators interested in learning for democracy need to address.

The rest of the text is organized in the following way. Key concerns and approaches to community adult education in the Scottish context are introduced, and it is shown how this related to learning for democracy. More contemporary policy concerns in Scotland, Europe, and globally have seriously undermined adult education through a number of significant social, economic, and political changes that austerity has magnified and accelerated. We then turn to examine changes in Scottish civil society in 2014, initiated by the referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, which politicized communities and galvanized professional interest in learning for democracy. This article argues that if adult education is to emerge from its current crisis it needs to reconnect with broader struggles for democracy and social justice in civil society. Finally, the analytical lens is widened to the current context of populism sweeping the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States and the challenge and opportunities this creates for community adult educators.

Community Adult Education in Scotland: A Brief History and Characterization

There are many types of adult education that differ in significant respects. Adult education in communities, for example, is different from adult education provided in further education colleges or adult education in the university sector. It is also different from the range of adult education day and evening classes organized by local authorities or universities. Attempts to essentialize the profession, as specialists in adult learning for example, have so far failed to make a convincing case for a distinctive and unifying professional identity (see Knowles, 1980). Instead, substantive differences of professional purpose, embedded in diverse institutional contexts for practice and responding to a wide variety of policy pressures, create a “fragmented field of practice” that influences what adult education offers, the adults who participate, how it is organized, the curriculum of study, the agencies involved, and the purposes it serves (Bowl, 2017). Because of this fragmentation the potential contribution of adult education for democracy also varies. This text primarily refers to community adult education.

The roots of community adult education in Scotland can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries with the emergence of the co-operative movement, radical socialist parties, and the women’s movement (Crowther & Martin, 2010). However, the significant professional development began in 1975. The official report chaired by Sir Kenneth Alexander, Adult Education: the Challenge of Change (Scottish Education Department, 1975) was the catalyst for community adult education. It inspired the development of community education services across most local authorities to promote adult education by linking it with youth and community services. The aim was to widen participation in adult education by taking a community development approach in working class and disadvantaged communities.

The following principles informed the characteristics of community adult education:

  • Adult education was voluntary. This status meant adults were free to choose what they did, and of course this influenced their motivation. This freedom also involved adults in shaping what sort of learning was valued and who decided on it. Adult education, in this sense, meant adults were not merely selecting from preexisting menus of classes or courses; instead, they were defining what was educational and worth knowing. In other words, adults were both the subject and object of education with all its full implications.

  • Education was organized to start from “where people are” rather than from the demands of formal study, criteria for acquiring qualifications, or the organization of subject-specific syllabi. The adult educator had to acquire the knowledge and skills to develop different types of informal, non-formal, and formal learning experiences aligned to this form of organization.1 To perform this role, adult educators had to be facilitators, teachers, resource specialists, co-researchers, networkers or brokers, guidance workers, “animateurs,” and community developers—all rolled into one person.

  • Its purpose had a strong personal and social dimension. It aimed to develop people’s confidence, self-esteem, knowledge, and skills as well as to make a contribution to the social context in which people lived. For individuals, it may be a stepping stone toward formal education or training opportunities; but, for the community, it could also be a resource for local action and the improvement of community life. Adult education was not merely individual learning in that it aimed to address collective interests, too. It was underpinned by a democratic ethos so that the experience and practice of democracy in community and society would be enriched by allying education and action.

  • As a consequence of the above, the curriculum of adult education was open and wide in order to be relevant to individual and collective experiences, common issues, concerns and interests. The Alexander remit was helped by the fact that it focused exclusively on non-vocational adult education. This involved reflecting on experience as well as challenging its limitations through study, active learning, and dialogue.

In reality, the experience was more ambivalent than the above principles suggest. The idea of making “committed allies” between adult educators and youth and community workers was deeply problematic, and the training of the new profession focused less on drawing together the strengths of distinctive professional experiences and instead, arguably, diluted them through prioritizing generic educational practices and processes that were assumed to apply in the same way to different groups and communities (Kirkwood, 1990). Nonetheless, where adult education did develop in line with these principles at the level of community—an intermediate level of social reality with individuals, groups, and collectivities—it was ideally positioned to enable people to engage critically with democratic issues in their daily lives.

Building democracy through community groups and associations is a practical way to acquire the knowledge and skills of participation in decision making, as well as nurturing a culture of debate, compromise, and agreement when views and priorities differ. The Alexander Report (Scottish Education Department, 1975) also acknowledged that such work can result in conflicts between communities and the state; but, nonetheless, such dissent was expected in a flourishing pluralistic democracy and was to be resourced rather than suppressed. This policy legitimacy given to work with dissent and collective action was reinforced theoretically, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with the dissemination of Freirean ideas of liberation and radical community practices emerging in other parts of the United Kingdom (Shaw & Mayo, 2016). In this sense, engagement in communities involved nurturing community activists willing to challenge the politics of the state; in short, forming new political subjects able to act agentically inside and outside conventional political processes in order to enhance democratic life.

The conjunction of adult education and community development in the Alexander Report aimed to make adult education more socially relevant to disadvantaged communities and community action more educationally informed. To achieve these ends, the key issue was the capacity of community groups to ensure participation with institutions and agencies reflected their concerns and that they were not simply being incorporated into the agenda set by others. The “invited” spaces of participation have to be critically assessed by communities because strategic “non-participation” may be more productive (Shaw & Crowther, 2014). The horizontal processes of engagement at the level of the community can be nurtured, neutered, or thwarted by vertical processes of engagement with the state. In this process, adult education contributes to helping individuals develop the insight, organizational capacity, along with the skills and tactics of artful politics, necessary to influence decisions.

To summarize, the creation of community adult education in Scotland from 1975 created a new space for people to engage with the politics of education and learning in order to harness it for personal benefit and to eventually make for a better community and a more democratic society. In the 21st century, however, for adult learning to attract funding and support, it has to fit with the social and economic priorities set by government. The next section will look at how this happened in the Scottish context and beyond, and how the soul of the profession can be revitalized.

The Neoliberalization of Adult Education: Local and Global Dimensions

The long-term erosion of community adult education in Scotland broadly follows the contours of the changing relations between the state and citizens across the United Kingdom in the past decade. In this section, we draw parallels between changes in the Scottish context and the rise of neoliberal politics in adult education that is occurring globally.

Austerity measures across the United Kingdom, particularly from 2008, have accelerated and magnified the trend of cuts on public sector provision that has been central to neoliberal ideology. In “The Alchemy of Austerity,” Clarke and Newman (2012) differentiated between economic consequences that further inequality, political consequences that involve shifting the blame from structures and institutions to moral failings of individuals, social consequences that increase social divisions in communities, and subjective consequences that change expectations and secure active consent. These multi-faceted consequences of austerity are relevant to a consideration of what has happened in communities. Increasing scarcity of resources makes it hard for small groups to sustain an organizational base and therefore maintain an independent voice (Fisher & Shragge, 2017). The result is the pluralist community either shrinks or is redeployed into forms of consumer participation rather than active community development. As the state withdraws welfare provision, the community can be co-opted into providing low-resourced service substitute such as care homes, libraries, and community centers to be run by volunteers on the cheap.

Austerity also sets community and voluntary groups in competition with each other in a scramble for scarce funding. One response among groups is to “play the game” by nominally working toward the outcomes that funders are willing to resource while at the same time maintaining a critical stance. Another response, however, has been a change in culture and subjectivities as groups and organizations seek to “fit into” and embrace the dominant paradigm. The development of neoliberal subjectivities in the community sector, who work to the logic of market principles, marks a significant shift towards non-democratic and anti-democratic practices as the need for profitability replaces the significance of community engagement and control in decisions made.

Another powerful force remolding subjectivities consistent with the neoliberal project has been the dominant discourse of lifelong learning. Biesta (2006) made a convincing argument about the impact of European Union, OECD, and IMF discourses that reduce the focus of lifelong learning to narrowly economistic objectives. His term “learnification” conceptualizes the process whereby all sorts of “problems” become supposedly amenable to learning “solutions.” There may well be broader narratives of lifelong learning promoted by organizations such as UNESCO, through its Confintea conferences, but the overwhelming drive has been to see lifelong learning (to which adult education was tied) as a commodity to be purchased or as reworking the relationship between the individual and the state through the stripping away of the social rights of citizenship. Lifelong learning has come to mean learning “for earning” rather than “learning for yearning” (Martin, 2003). In the global “north” it has generally developed as a disciplinary practice to prepare people for the labor market (Crowther, 2004) and to accept the imperatives of precarity as a mode for differentially evaluating some people over others (Coffield, 1999). Its potential as a tool for social transformation from “the bottom up” has been emasculated.

Neoliberalism in the public sector has also led to the growth of a culture and practice of performativity (Fraser, 2012). The focus on measuring what matters to policy, rather than what matters to people, reflects the incremental incorporation of adult education provision in Scotland into the state’s social, educational, and economic policy objectives. Throughout the decade from 2000, education in communities was progressively hitched to social justice milestones in the New Labour administration; from 2007 onward, the first minority Scottish National Party Government developed a more overt focus on a national skills strategy, titled Skills for Scotland. This diminution of purpose to the delivery of vocational skills and “employability,” along with growing mandatory and coercive welfare rules to ensure people comply, have eroded the distinctiveness of adult education and morphed it into a pale shadow of its former self. The current fashion for family literacy and parenting skills programs, which can be linked to promoting educational attainment in schools, is another example of how adult educators are deployed to serve performance outcomes set by government. The main objective of educational intervention is to deliver communities to policy targets (Crowther, Martin, & Shaw, 2007).

Dominant narratives of value also make it difficult for adult educators to articulate the worth of their engagement in a mode consistent with a commitment to a wide and varied curriculum. Provision that may have produced social and health benefits, or improved political understanding and awareness, are devalued unless they are quantifiable and are deemed irrelevant unless they support the government’s policy agenda. The idea that adults are both the subjects and objects of education, with the capacity to decide what is worth knowing, is crushed in this process. Moreover, in a context where the value attached to formal education is measured in terms of qualifications, formal education always trumps community adult education (with its invisible or “soft” evidence), which then has difficulty in attracting public resources. The problem here is one of politics of numbers so that what is valued is what can be measured and quantified as having impact. The focus on “impact” involves simplistic assertions of cause and effect to demonstrate one thing leads to another, rather than taking into account the complex processes and chains of influence and action, which are the reality of educational interventions.

To summarize, community adult education committed to the support of a democratic way of life has been seriously undermined by the neoliberal project, particularly in terms of its economic consequences in communities and the reconstitution of public sector practices that have been hostile to a more open approach to adult education in communities. The democratic agenda for adult education has not, however, been entirely extinguished. Social, educational, and political opportunities kindled by the Scottish Referendum on independence have reinvigorated the demos, which presents an opportunity for education in communities.

Politicizing Civil Society: The Scottish Referendum Experience 2014

Between 2013–2014 a significant change occurred in Scottish politics and civil society largely due to the demand for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The immediate impact on the profession of community adult education was slight but not insignificant. What was unexpected and had a deeper impact was the proliferation of a wide range of community groups, organizations, and movements across the length and breadth of the country intent on propaganda and educational activities aimed at promoting or rejecting the cause of independence.

There were many routes for politicization during the referendum, as people learned individually or collectively. Learning occurred through the activities of campaign groups, on social media sites, in friendship networks, online and offline, and at locally organized community provision, in discussion about the issues that mattered. It was at the community level that a wide range of grassroots initiatives canvassed for voter registration, raised awareness, engaged in debate, and promoted independence. There were pro-union groups, but these were much less visible and less active at a community level.

Organizations such as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Women for Independence, Scots Asians for Yes, Commonweal, and a wide and varied range of other groups provided a radical spectrum of ideological positions on independence. (RIC, for example, focused on impoverished communities across the central belt of Scotland to recruit disillusioned Labour Party supporters.) Both pro-union and independence campaigns were active and creative in the digital sphere with over 700 blog sites and social media groups providing a vibrant, humorous, critical, opinionated, and flourishing online space for people to engage in politics in their own way, without the restrictions of the mass media, formal political structures, parties and processes (e.g., All this activity undoubtedly had an impact on political thinking. Around 95% of the electorate registered to vote, and over 85% voted on the day. People also learned to change their views. In 2013 support for independence was around 25%, but this increased significantly to almost 45% at the time of the vote (Curtice, 2014).

One way of thinking about this process of politicization is Fraser’s (1990) notion of subaltern counterpublics, through which social groups invent spaces to promote alternative interpretations, values and priorities to those circulating in the official public sphere of politics. As such, these counterpublic spaces expand the range of possibilities for participation in political education by loosening the vicelike grip of formal politics on political debate. Fraser also argues that these are more inclusive and open spaces for participation, which enable people to “‘speak in one’s own voice’, thereby simultaneously constructing and expressing one’s cultural identity through idiom and style” (1990, p. 69). The development of subaltern counterpublics during this period occurred partly through new grassroots movements, aided by the role of social media in creating digital spaces for participation but often simply through motivating widespread political debate in the home and in friendship networks.

A consequence of these new subaltern spaces was that there were many different referendum debates, encompassing a range of social interests and a spectrum of ideological views. From concerns over catholic education (see Geoghegan, 2015) to debates on the problem of “safe” voter registration for people not on the electoral register or tenancies for homeless people, to gender equality and radical socialist alternatives to neoliberalism, the opportunity for people to make politics meaningful to their lives was driven by a broad agenda “from below,” which the closed spaces of the official campaigns did not address. For young people, the referendum offered the opportunity to have a voice. Research has shown that many young people are politically aware but choose to ignore elections, considering them alien to their lived reality. Farthing (2010) perhaps captures this best, arguing that “the retreat from politics on the part of many young people is the very core of their political action” (p. 190). The created spaces of participation enabled young people to raise issues of importance to them—their political alienation perhaps chief among these.

The politicization of people in communities had immediate reverberations on the support and position of political parties in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been the main political beneficiary, with membership more than trebling to over 103,000, which now makes it the third largest political party in the United Kingdom, whereas the Scottish population is only one tenth of the country. Increases in membership have been claimed by all the political parties that supported independence—not simply the SNP. Moreover, polling evidence suggests around 25% of 16–17 year olds have joined a political party, with a similar number being involved in political campaigning since the referendum (Black, 2015).

Another indicator of this linkage of horizontal politics in communities impacting on organized politics with reach to political institutions has been attendance at political events. The Annual Convention of the SNP in November 2014 attracted a remarkable 12,000 members and, on the same weekend in Glasgow, 3,000 participants attended the RIC Annual Conference. The opposite trend seems to be occurring in the main Scottish political party supporting the union position—membership of the Scottish Labour Party is in deep decline. In the General Election in May 2015, the SNP achieved phenomenal success whereas the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats hemorrhaged support and were almost wiped off the political landscape. The three political parties behind the pro-union campaign were only able to elect one MP each. In addition, the average turnout in Scotland was particularly high at 71.1% (the U.K. average being 66.1%) rising to over 80% in two constituencies where the SNP gained seats ( Election, 2015).

In summary, a rich and mixed variety of responses in civil society to the referendum led to a widening and deepening of politicization in Scottish communities. In general, people were eager to learn about and argue the merits of a variety of issues—and not merely those issues that dominated the agenda of the official campaigns. A pluralistic political culture that had vibrancy and energy emerged. We now turn to see how adult education reacted to this new context.

The Response of Adult Education

Education for democracy and social justice are always a product of wider social and political changes that create the motivation and spaces for reflection, study, and social action. Adult education in communities can provide a subaltern counterpublic space, which enables people to engage with political issues on their own terms. In the previous section we have seen how this need was met mainly through a myriad of different local groups, campaigns, and movements. In general, however, educational provision up and down the country was slow to respond—if they responded at all.

One factor in this response was that some local authorities made it clear that educational staff were to stay clear of politically sensitive issues. In a few schools and communities, the opposite was true and critical and creative opportunities were seized. However, these were in the minority. Providing information on voter registration was regarded as the least sensitive activity and therefore the most widespread in schools and communities across Scotland. The inclusion of 16- and 17-year-olds in the vote placed the onus on schools to provide such information. At the same time, registration information was one issue that educators felt most comfortable with in that it appeared more procedural rather than responding to substantive policy and constitutional differences that divided the pro-union and independent camps.

The issue of registration was, however, not merely procedural. Scotland had been the testing ground for the U.K. government’s poll tax in the early 1990s. The poll tax had been vigorously resisted in Scottish communities before eventually paving the way for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s political downfall. Many people opposed the poll tax by going missing from the electoral register and prior to the referendum over a million adults were unaccounted for (Sullivan, 2014). These missing people had to weigh up the risks of becoming officially visible against their eligibility to vote. The fact that by the referendum 96% of the electorate was registered is testimony to its importance for this group.

There were also inspiring examples of educational engagement with the referendum issues. Learning to access political procedures was relevant to groups who had little or no previous experience of voting, of dealing with the necessary paperwork of registering and voting, of making the connections between different positions, as well as the difficult business of assessing claims and counterclaims of the various sides involved in the campaign. Participatory public spaces enabled informed debate and “safe” opportunities to listen to alternative points of view. These spaces for public engagement outside official channels can widen awareness and provide the chance to directly participate in debate and learn in more meaningful terms through contact with peers. If adult education is to foster critical intelligence, it needs to enable people to move beyond the limitations of personal experience.

Courses of study in culture, nationalism, and political issues are instances of more formal adult education learning opportunities that provided spaces for in-depth examination of contentious claims. These examples were, of course, limited in terms of spread and the number of people involved, but they are indicative of ways in which adult education can deepen political analysis. The Massive Open Online Course on the Scottish Referendum, provided by the University of Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Change, brought together critical insights from leading intellectuals nationally and internationally with opportunities for public online participation. It claimed to have over 10,000 registered participants from within and outside Scotland.

Despite the above, a number of factors influenced the scale and spread of adult educational engagement with the referendum. One was the local state’s response, which in some cases censored educational activity by discouraging it. Also self-censorship occurred among educators who believed they would find little support from their colleagues and thus limited their own potential engagement. While adult and community educators do work on contentious issues, the boundaries of confidence did not extend to politically controversial ones. Uncertainty and insecurity in dealing pedagogically with political complexities was a theme that emerged later as a reason why many educators felt uneasy with political education (see two paragraphs below, this section).

If adult educators are to engage with contentious political issues then they must be clear about their role in this process. Binary choices in referendums squeeze decisions into one or another preference, which can exacerbate conflicts between people, particularly when they disguise a spectrum of views. Polarities on public issues can then easily manufacture “false” interpersonal conflicts between individuals. The human relations element of this is clearly important so that respectful debate is managed. There is, moreover, no simple way in which recourse to “facts” or information can reduce the tensions in this process. Often the facts themselves are hotly contested by the different sides both in relation to the status and weighting of the “evidence” or what, indeed, are the significant facts that need to be considered. What may be highly significant to one group could be irrelevant to the other. Thus, educators need to manage tensions and disputes within groups and harness the energy this generates for learning and action.

The fear of appearing to be biased was also a difficult issue holding practitioners back. What some consider to be educational can be seen by others as mere propaganda. Adult educators need to be able to make the distinction between education and propaganda and understand the relationship between the two. While propaganda is commonly understood as deliberate distortion of a position, its original meaning is the systematic presentation of arguments for a particular case. In this sense, it is not merely the opposite of education; it can be educative by opening up ideas, values, and information that have been suppressed by opposing groups. Political hustings, which compare the propaganda of different positions, can be educative as assumptions are exposed, questioned, defended, and challenged. The key difference between education and propaganda is that education involves acquiring the tools to think whereas propaganda involves telling people what to think.

The open-ended nature of education should not imply that it is neutral. As Freire (1985, p. 122) states, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” All education involves taking a stance in relation to what values and beliefs are important and the kind of knowledge and skills necessary to sustain and nurture them. In periods when the dominant hegemony is accepted, such values, beliefs, knowledge, and skills seem natural and commonsense. It is only when disruptions occur to the canopy of assumptions that form the dominant hegemony that the prospects for social change are stepped up.

During 2016 and 2017 the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dundee, working alongside committed allies in the Workers’ Educational Association, the state-sponsored agency Education Scotland, and Learning Link Scotland (a national learners’ voice agency) have been busy promoting the agenda of learning for democracy. Three national events have been resourcing and stimulating professional interest in this work. The first event was held in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and focused on what learning for democracy means and examples of practice during the referendum. The second event in Glasgow addressed the theme of political inequality and drew on international experiences and policy developments to think through how to address it. The third event at the University of Dundee focused on the practical skills for organizing and campaigning, for area-based work to promote democratic life, and how the university can be a resource to support this work.

These national events provide a space to include a range of voices and experiences to reflect on politics and educational practice. By their very nature they provide a challenge to understanding the purpose of adult education and how educators can further struggles for a democratic life. The response from practitioners has been overwhelmingly positive, with many keen to revitalize their work and to ally it with a socially progressive cause. For example, a new initiative by a small group of community education practitioners—Camina—responds to the need to connect and support critical education practice and practitioners in Scotland (Bolland, 2017).

The Crisis of Democracy

The bourgeois class is ‘saturated’: it not only does not expand—it starts to disintegrate; it not only does not assimilate new elements, it loses part of itself (or at least its losses are enormously more than its assimilations).

(Gramsci, 1971, p. 276)

The crisis of democracy is not only about the institutions of liberal democracy but also about a crisis of the hegemonic claims of capitalism to provide the opportunity for never-ending growth and social mobility that can absorb rising demands from working and middle-class groups. The interregnum this disintegration creates is full of dangers as well as opportunities. If adult education in 21st-century communities is to make a difference, then it also has to address the critical changes shaping liberal democratic institutions and the tensions between these and capitalism.

The experience of political inequality helps explain why democracy often falls far short of expectations for it. Political inequality exists when decision-making processes systematically benefit dominant social classes and groups who are able to use the system for their goals (Lawrence, 2014). Such inequalities reinforce the need, as Fraser (2005) argued, for redistribution, recognition, and representation to achieve social justice and make democracy meaningful. Maldistribution of economic power and low social status interact and undermine the possibility of successful representation of excluded voices.

To focus on political inequality would necessitate closer examination of the electoral system, the funding of political parties, lobbying mechanisms, electoral boundaries, among other issues. Although the formal apparatus of democracy differs from context to context, the impact of unequal social structures, education, and age also produces a democratic deficit. The importance of highlighting political inequality is that it shifts the argument away from thinking about apathy and disengagement from politics as merely an outcome of the characteristics of individuals. It reframes these issues as structural inequalities in society, which then systematically reproduce unequal political outcomes in communities. In the United Kingdom, the poor, working-class communities, the least educated, young people, and minority groups are all more likely to experience the impact of political inequality (Lawrence, 2014).

The hollowing out of democratic institutions is another reason why capitalism and democracy are in tension. Crouch (2004) referred to post-democracy in the sense that the historical tradition of the struggle for democracy has been undermined and reversed. As he puts it:

Democracy thrives when there are major opportunities for the mass of ordinary people actively to participate, through discussion and autonomous organization, in shaping the agenda of political life, and when these opportunities are being actively used by them.

(Crouch, 2004, p. 101)

Although such active engagement may be an ideal and sets a high benchmark, the experience of the Scottish referendum closely approximated it (Crowther, 2015). The educative nature of democratic association is important to a thriving democratic society. Crouch (2004) goes on, however, to argue that contemporary experiences of democracy have seriously undermined this ideal. Politics and political debates become tightly controlled media spectacles; campaign strategists are experts in the powers of persuasion rather than generating critical engagement; the issues and agenda of politics reflect an implicit consensus; corporate interests are always dominant in the background; and real power often lies outside political institutions in the sphere of multinational and transnational agencies, institutions, and private companies. Consequently, citizens are socialized into apathy and political disengagement.

In contrast to apathy and disengagement, however, there has been a dramatic and widespread surge of right-wing populist responses evident in the U.K. Brexit referendum in 2016 and in the United States with the election of Trump. Populism is generally used pejoratively to attack the unthinking poor and badly educated by exposing them as easily influenced by powerful demagogues (Hindess, 2016). What this negative labeling does is undermine why such appeals may have legitimacy for people; instead, the people making the choice are denigrated, and their reasons dismissed as superficial, racist, or xenophobic. The indifference of politicians to the concerns of people disempowered by the political process has led to some grotesque outcomes. The history of fascism in Europe is a case in point. However, “populism” could potentially lead to politically progressive outcomes. The experience of Podermos in Spain would be an example of this (Mouffe, 2016). Populist reactions often reflect the failures of liberal democracy to address the inequities of capitalism and neoliberal globalization with its “winners” and “losers.” Trump’s “America First” campaign connected with popular discontent over increasing inequality, widespread precarity, and the failure of liberal democratic institutions to make a significant difference to poor people’s lives. In the United Kingdom the message of Brexit was “take back control,” which appealed to dissatisfaction with the centralization of power in European institutions, austerity measures, and the discourse of xenophobia and racism accompanying mass movements of refugees fleeing conflicts (White, 2017).

One important contradiction of populism is the discourse of renewing citizen agency in the figure of a powerful leader who will take on the establishment and repair the damage done by the liberal institutions that the privileged have cornered. What this points to, however, are the limits of liberal democracies and their capacity to safeguard the interests of the working class and other marginalized communities from the consequences of neoliberal globalization. The alternative response is to deepen and extend democracy institutions and practices rather than abandon them. The Scottish referendum experience was not populist in the manner of Trump’s victory in the United States, or the Brexit referendum, but it did reflect popular interest in the restoration of citizen agency closer to home. The idea of making important decisions in Scotland was a key argument for exercising more democratic power over political decisions. Whereas this can provide a powerful motivator for political participation the link between local and global experiences has to ensure democracy and democratic institutions have to be global and local as well.

More importantly, the rise of populism seems to undermine the very foundation of critical Enlightenment projects such as radical education. If reason, evidence, and argument are no longer important to political choices, then what is the value of education? The issue of “post-truth” politics is a case in point. “Post-truth” refers to overt attempts to mislead with inaccurate information; one counter-reaction is to offer the true facts. The Trump election and the Brexit result suggest this type of response is highly unlikely to succeed. As the Canadian philosopher Ignatieff points out: “Enlightenment, humanism and rationalism” can no longer “explain the world we are living in” (Mishra, 2017, p. 106) and therefore we need to go beyond such narrow intellectual frameworks. The mere comparison of specious claims against factual realities misses the complex mix of reason and emotion that has to be addressed educationally.

The crisis of democracy reflects the disconnect caused by the failure of politics and policies to engage with the voices and experiences of ordinary people; should we be surprised at their cynicism, contempt, and anger? Writing in the 1970s, Sennett and Cobb (1972) referred to the hidden injuries of class through which social conflicts are internalized into internal conflicts. This psychic damage people experience festers by being ignored, denied status and dignity, while at the same time material inequality between social classes is increasing exponentially. The basis for trust between social groups breaks down when material inequalities are so great that people’s lives share little in common. The result can be deep anger, malice, and loathing against minorities and others who do not “belong,” particularly when stoked by manipulative politicians seeking to stir up popular discontent by “othering” some groups as the enemy within. But these negative outcomes are not inevitable, and anger can result in creative and critical agency; social purpose education can be a resource for turning anger into hope and despair into purposeful action (Martin, 2003).

Strong emotions can lead the struggle for progressive change, and reason and emotion can change and interact with each other in productive or destructive ways (Jasper, 1997). We should not see reason and emotion as mutually exclusive or necessarily in conflict. They are simply aspects of the human condition. Thus, educational engagement has to address the interplay between reason and emotion (i.e., develop a critical pedagogy of the emotions) if it is to succeed in deepening and extending democratic life (see this argument in relation to climate change in McGregor & Crowther, 2016). To return to a point made earlier, democracy is always a work in progress, and education should be part of the process of exploring how it can become a resource for transforming society rather than merely managing its contradictions and tensions.

Conclusion: Renewing Democracy and Renewing Adult Education

Adult education in Scotland, and adult education globally, is at a crossroads—isolated from social struggles by being hitched to dominant policy agendas that have little to do with democracy, social justice, equality, or freedom. Working in the “nooks and crannies” of policy can be productive but austerity, “learnification” (Biesta, 2006), or performativity measures are making such spaces difficult to find. The only way out of this is to ensure adult education connects once more to its historical roots as a resource for enhancing democratic life.

Adult educators need to align themselves with the social struggles that have challenged the dominant consensus of politics as normal. The roots of community adult education in the 19th century could be located in a wide range of progressive social forces seeking to make a better world and administered by people who understood that education could be a weapon in this struggle. This alignment and resourcing of past social struggles is important in that adult education was in the history-making process. It is its value in these terms that needs to be resuscitated and argued for. As long as adult education is simply a handmaiden for some other end, such as the development of human capital, then the more likely it is to disappear altogether or morph into something different. Adult education has to be involved in history if it is to save its own soul as well as contribute to the democratic life of communities.

What is needed in the 21st century is more, not less, community adult education driven by a democratic intent. Communities can be places of inclusion and exclusion in that they are shaped by unequal relationships of power. But communities also provide more enduring places of contact and association: thus they can potentially provide the space for engaging with diversity in community life along with the common political interests that can help diversity thrive across mutual interests and concerns (Sennett, 1998). Adult education in communities has to engage with these trends to reassert its role as part of the history-making process promoting an expansive and inclusive democracy. It can therefore contribute toward the revitalization of the demos, and this, in turn, can contribute to the revitalization of adult education as a socially purposeful project.


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                                                                                                          (1.) By “informal education” it is commonly meant the types of learning that occur casually and incidentally rather than being planned. Non-formal learning refers to educational work in non-educational settings. Formal learning refers to planned learning in educational contexts.