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A Magazine for Sheffield
No-one's neutral about the education system. Whether you've been through it or you're still in it, you've probably got an opinion based on experience. Here's mine; fairly ignorant people can only raise fairly ignorant kids. Our great-grandparents were educated little beyond primary level unless they were born rich or very, very lucky. The introduction of free schools and universities in the 20th century was a leap in human progress. This enabled newly-educated parents to 'pre-educate' their children to go even further up the education ladder; inter-generational improvements on improvements. A certain diminishing slice of society doesn't get to the first rung for various reasons, but a lot do. Working class families begin to call themselves middle class. Life's got better for the better-off, but the rich-poor gap remains a massive chasm. We still have starvation and chronic poverty of education for millions. Does schooling merely serve to reproduce the same divisions in the next generation? Discuss. Universities are rightly criticised for becoming businesses - servants of big corporations. Once upon a time the highest ideals of educators were philosophy, the arts, culture, virtues. That's long gone. An even more depressing prospect is offered by Aronowitz and DiFazio in their book The Jobless Future, in which they conclude that our hollowed-out 'marketplace' universities are being further cut back in advanced economies; that they don't need us so very educated because even the high-level technical work is being automated. But I'm still optimistic. I see education as a force for social and personal change, and I like the idea of life-long learning. The real lessons begin as soon as you're free from the conventional education treadmill. Here in Sheffield we're fortunate to have multiple alternative learning organisations. In response to education cuts, Sheffield Universal Education Collective has sprung up to offer free lectures on an occasional basis. The next is on eco-socialism. A similarly radical approach is available in a unique MA course offered by the University of Leeds. The Activism and Social Change MA is run by activist lecturers and attracts students from across the globe. The visiting professor for 2011 is John Holloway from the University of Puebla, Mexico. He's an internationally-renowned expert on autonomist Marxist theory, author of Change the World Without Taking Power and Crack Capitalism. Not everyone has the time, money or commitment for an MA course, but a reading group is a great way to get working with others and keep your brain learning. The Books for a Better Future reading group, based at Sheffield Library, concentrates on ecology and progressive topics, meeting once a month for discussion of a particular book chosen by the group. For longer courses, don't forget the Workers' Educational Association (WEA). This is a great voluntary sector alternative, offering adult education 'for both personal fulfilment and collective advancement for a better society'. In each branch around the country, local people decide what courses to run. They don't have to follow corporate or government agendas. The organisation has a long history, developing from the co-operative and socialist autonomous organising movements. There are many grassroots community centres offering courses - a world away from the pressures of schools, exams and essays. Sheffield's Learning Central is a good online directory to use as a starting point. One new addition is Women in Construction Arts and Technology (WICAT). This Pitsmoor-based organisation offers courses mainly for women (and some for men as well) ranging from car maintenance to building, DIY and book-keeping. With unemployment climbing, university fees soaring and the current government slashing everything in sight, the thought of education can be pretty depressing, but I hope this little round-up of alternative education resources has inspired you, whatever your circumstances. You're never too old to learn. It really raises your spirits. Who knows, we may even raise a revolution. Do we need one? As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire observed, washing your hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless is not being neutral - it's siding with the oppressor. )

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