Community Education: survival is the new success

AONTAS, the national adult learning organisation in Ireland, hosted a community education conference on 17 November 2011. The only topic on the agenda, both hidden and overt, was the threat to community education in this Shock Doctrine era as attempts are afoot to colonise community education for market ends. While many civil society groups are suffering acutely in the present environment of hostility to community emancipation, those working in community education are under particular stress. They are aware of the imminent danger of being press-ganged into providing ‘job-ready’ classes, where the perfect CV is seen as the solution to unemployment, instead of programmes underpinned by the philosophy of personal development and social transformation. In other words, the community education field is currently being co-opted like the education system has been.

The story of community education in Ireland has been that of a critical alternative to formal education, organised by community activists and educators, with particular focus on people who have been excluded and disadvantaged through class, gender and ethnicity. It also serves as a liberatory process, and women’s community education has been acknowledged as a significant dimension of the women’s movement in Ireland, against the hostility of conservative anti-feminist movements. It has a clear vision which contrasts with the state provision of community schooling, which ought to serve the community but which serves the market instead. In addition, private and selective schooling has vacuumed up huge state resources while serving the wealthy and the ruling class, as a conduit to the market place. Giroux has commented frequently on the underlying focus of education; in particular he says that schooling is now the key institution for producing professional credentialled workers, with citizenship being relegated to a very subordinate role. Citizenship and democratic participation are reduced to voting within our very limited political party system. The neoliberal version of citizenship frames citizens as customers or clients, highly individualised, and with high levels of personal responsibility, but without any recognition of the person’s capacity to take on the responsibility. This ultimately ascribes success or failure to the individual, and absolves the state from any part. The resultant outcome is that so-called active citizens involve themselves in non-critical community action such as Neighbourhood Watch or Tidy Towns, a model articulated by the British Conservative Party’s Big Society, which aims to empower local people and communities, with the ultimate objective of taking power away from politicians.

This model has almost tragic overtones in Ireland. This kind of initative was the only one available to vulnerable groups, as the same limited political system marginalised communities and the social issues that assailed them. An emancipatory model of community development evolved in the light of state failure, one which endeavours to identify community needs and to work collectively to address those needs. It has managed to take away power from the politicians, who ignored them anyway, and has succeeded in building agency and capacity within the community, through community education.

But this emancipatory model of community development and education is not powerful enough to address structural inequality and poverty. An illustrative case is that of the Public Private Partnerships formed to address the housing and accommodation crisis, which we can now see was an abject failure due to the pursuit of profit rather than taking care of the needs of the population.

Community education facilitators and practitioners are watching almost helplessly as their work is subsumed into pre-job training. The role that it played in the past in addressing inequality is ignored, while capitalising on its capacity to reach out to marginalised people. In this, it has proved itself to be much more effective than State schools or State agencies, such as the now disgraced and defunct FÁS (while the new incarnation, SOLAS has yet to be tested).

One of the contributors to the Community Education conference said with resignation that ‘survival is the new success’ which was taken up as the epigram of the moment. However, among community educators, even survival is in doubt. {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: jantjuh14.