Privilege and access to learning



Catherine DevenyCatherine Deveny, Author and comedian

“Beautiful scarf, did you knit it?”

“Thank-you! Yes, I did.”

“Who taught you to knit?”

Put a pin in that conversation for a sec.

What would you predict the answer to be? ‘My mum’, ‘my nana’, perhaps ‘a friend I shared a house with in my early 20s’.

Let’s find out, shall we…

“I learned to knit on YouTube. It’s where I learn everything these days.”

“Ah yep. YouTube is the new TAFE”.

Thanks to the democratisation of information in the form of the internet we are living in the Golden Age Of Learning.

Adult education and lifelong learning are terms that are as familiar these days are they are revealing. ‘Lifelong’ and ‘adult’ suggest education and learning was, not too long ago, considered something that only occurred during childhood and youth. Not too long ago, being considered grown-up meant the end of developing new skills, knowledge and abilities. From late teens onward, it was a lifetime of rinse and repeat.

Think about it. You learned to walk, talk, dress yourself, read, write, make your bed, tie your shoelaces, ride a bike, cook, clean, wash your clothes, drive a car and if you were lucky speak another language, learn a sport or play an instrument. At 21 you were given the ‘key to the door’. And the door was the entry to the room you were stuck in for good.

It was fine if you were lucky enough to have access to learn what was needed, but if you weren’t, bad luck, your future was limited. Many who missed out on learning what were considered important life skills spent their years navigating a world of roadblocks and dead-ends, not pathways to different learning opportunities. This resulted in a lifetime of limited job opportunities, earning capacities, unhealthy dependence on others and often being trapped in toxic relationships.

It meant some people had the chance to live meaningful happy lives, and others just didn’t.

People with access to the resources and abilities needed to learn life skills were privileged. If you were born neurotypical and able bodied, into a society that provided access to education and a family that had enough patience and money, things generally went well. If not, you were destined to a life of disadvantage. It was a life bonsaied, an existence trellised, a journey you hobbled foot bound.

Without being born into privilege few had the tenacity and resilience to manage to find and leverage what they could to get where they wanted. Even if people wanted more for themselves they may not even know where to look for it, or how. Choices were limited for the lucky ones and non-existent for most.

Some would suggest the system didn’t work well. They’d be wrong. The system worked perfectly. It was a rigged system built and maintained to punish the poor, the neuro diverse and the disadvantaged. Access to education, literacy and platforms (in the form of being published and broadcast or having access to a pulpit, a seat in parliament or inherited wealth) have always been used to discriminate. Certain people’s skills, opinions and abilities were elevated which in turn compound their privileged in the form of access to money, power, decision making and leisure. This made the gap between those with the skills and without wider and wider. In the past, bridges between those gaps were rare, narrow and only available to those who would help maintain the discriminatory system of privilege.

These days there are many bridges, they are broad, sturdy and accessible. There is more work to do but we have come a long way in a short time.

During this time of Covid most people have spent at least some of their time on lock-down projects acquiring new skills or brushing up on old ones. Baking sourdough, learning a language, picking up an instrument, or rediscovering an old hobby, skill or pursuit from the past is not considered learning or education just how we spend time. No one considers this unusual, in fact it’s considered a logical coping mechanism. The question people ask is ‘what’s was your lockdown project?’ not whether people have one.

When people can’t go to sea they repair their nets which is precisely what they have been doing thanks to that YouTube tutorial.

Never underestimate the vested interest some individuals, institutions and groups have in the existence of the unfortunate so they can feel they are the fortunate, the have nots so they can be the haves, the underprivileged so they can consider themselves the privileged, the unlucky so they can be the lucky.

We are hurtling toward a world that normalises learning and education simply as life. In the meantime, the use of the terms ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘adult education’ remind us all that there are opportunities and different ways for all of us to get better at things that will make us happier and able to live life in the way we choose and deserve.

Toni Morrison said ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else’.

There is enough for everyone.

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