The mind joggers: a race to keep up

Ann Walmsley August 9 1982

The mind joggers: a race to keep up

Ann Walmsley August 9 1982

The mind joggers: a race to keep up


Ann Walmsley

Every summer Colleen Wright, 33, her husband, Wayne, and son, Kirt, 11, pack up the tent trailer with fishing equipment, trail bikes and a kayak for two weeks in the bush. But this year Colleen cleared a space amid the camping gear for a box of books—everything she needed for her Canadian History 225 home-study class at Edmonton’s Athabasca University. Beside Fawcett Lake, north of Edmonton, Wright found the perfect environment to delve into the tumultuous Riel years. “It’s a world away from a world,” muses the Edmonton legal assistant, “something just for me.”

While most mainstream students would loathe the very idea of a summer course, adult students such as Colleen Wright deny themselves other indulgences for the heady pleasures of learning. Across the country thousands of Canadian adults are now hitting the books. Twenty years ago an adult would have been painfully conspicuous in a classroom of undergraduates. But the notion that education ends abruptly after high school or university has been challenged by a new generation of lifelong learners. No fewer than two million Canadians over 25 are now refusing to bury learning along with their yearbooks.

Yet not all are coursing back to the traditional venue of the ivory tower. Adults are taking classes wherever and whenever they can. At the University of Guelph urban teachers mingle with airline pilots for evening classes on sheep farming—all hoping to become parttime farmers. Union members spend weekends at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, studying the art of negotiating. At the tiny Université Sainte Anne in Church Point, N.S., a boat-building program is graduating adults who hope to revive a local shipbuilding yard. At Rankin Inlet, N.W.T., RCMP officers wile away hours with degree-earning correspondence courses. And across the country at Niagara Institute executive seminars, the captains of industry, government and labor compare notes on Plato’s The Republic and

Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The common denominator is not the subject matter—the range of degree, training and general interest courses is vast— but the activity itself.

Even those who do not study know someone who does, as the continuing education movement booms. In universities alone the adult contingent is expanding by 10 to 15 per cent every year. In Ontario, which boasts approximately one million older students, educational institutions have responded with direct appeals to the active learner. University calendars and posters point the way: the adult is no longer urged to take a course to “jog his mind.” Indeed, mental fitness may well be rivalling physical fitness as the nation’s number 1 pastime.

The new cerebral athletes readily admit that they want more than just information from their tuition invest-

ments. For Isabella Chang Fong, 41, of Toronto, who has taken at least 20 noncredit courses in the past four years, belly dancing, calligraphy and copyright law provide more fun per dollar than movies or eating out. Others use the classroom as a glorified mating service.

Events have also conspired to make the return to school imperative for many adults. Knowledge itself dates so rapidly that they must struggle simply to keep up. Career advancement, by far the most common goal cited by the returnees, often depends on an ability to keep pace with technological change and increasingly specialized information. It is a sign of the times that computer and management courses attract the highest enrolments, with the result that students often must be turned away. The women’s movement has also swollen the ranks of those acquiring credits to enter a competitive job market. Indeed, women form the most visible adult contingent on campus and have generated a demand for courses geared specifically to their needs. No less significant, as the widening maw of retirement and leisure time widens, aging adults are using interest courses as a hedge against boredom. Senior scholars’ demographic muscle will grow—by the year 2000, the number of Canadians between the ages of 40 and 64 will increase by more than 50 per cent, funnelling far more older students into both credit and noncredit studies. Observes John Morris, extension director of the University of New Brunswick (UNB): “Adult education is not a luxury any more. It is becoming a necessity.”

Although the first significant rumblings of today’s mental-fitness movement began 30 years ago, adult education has been around in Canada ever since early settlers first tried learning each other’s languages. Alan Thomas, a professor of adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is only half joking when he speculates, “The reason Father Brébeuf was murdered by the Hurons was because he tried to teach them French irregular verbs.” With the introduction of compulsory education in the early 1900s, it

was believed that the need for adult education had been eliminated. As a result, until 1950 continuing education was regarded only as a safety net for the tiny number who missed out on a “real” education. But the beginning of the most recent boom came at the close of the Second World War when the department of veterans’ affairs pumped what was to be $213 million into education for returning vets. Says Thomas: “There’s a whole generation out there with DVA printed on their foreheads.” Even though the traditional institutions of higher learning have had plenty of time to read the early warning signals, many, due to budget restrictions, have not been able to accommodate accelerating demand. Canny U.S. colleges such as the widespread City University have taken the opportunity to move into Canadian cities and offer advanced U.S. degree courses at night. At the noncredit level, private enterprise, industry and vocational schools have leapt into the breach, successfully carving out a significant portion of the profitable market (see box). Universities, with far greater administrative costs, cannot always compete with the private sector’s low-cost general interest courses. The result is a motley range of standards across the board. In a seller’s market, many are questioning who among the competitors should shepherd adult education into the ’80s.

This summer the tussle has peaked. The chaotic and spontaneous growth of

continuing education has stiffened government resolve, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, to provide guidelines for the future. At the same time crippling budget cutbacks in education have undermined any positive action through government funding. Universities often look to their extension departments as the first place to trim. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), where part-time students outnumber those studying full time three to one, the centre for continuing education recently weathered a five-per-cent cutback.

Universities, which have the most to lose, are trying to shore up their gains. Faced with the double setback of limited funding and declining enrolments as baby boomers graduate, schools view the summer session as a prime time to woo the adult dollar. For some institutions such as Trent University and Brock University, in Ontario, burdened with massive deficits, mature students have helped to keep them solvent. “The revenues from summer part-time students alone make a substantial $604,300 contribution to the overhead of the university,” says Lionel Rubinoff, vicedean of Trent’s faculty of arts and science. The University of Toronto (U of T), meanwhile, pulls in a cool $5 million during the summer session.

In order to plumb the summer market fully, universities have also extended their appeal to die-hard vacationers —families. Now in its second year, UBC’s

July holiday learning package proffers challenging academic fare. For $80, a parent can spend a week studying Shakespeare and Elizabethan society, William Morris and the cottage crafts, or the plays of Ibsen and Shaw. The kids have a choice of adventure science camps, sports camps and such courses as Literature for Keen Readers. “We have a commitment to the community,” explains Philip Moir, director of the summer program for UBC, “but we also need the business.”

UBC, one of the leaders in adult education in the country, has also pioneered high-ticket summer learning trips. Its highly enticing courses range from a $4,970 voyage to the South Pacific, tracing the landfalls made by Capt. James Cook and his impact on the island cultures, to a $220 raft trip along the Thompson River Valley in British Columbia in search of native flora.

The advent of a different kind of floating classroom has drawn many adults out of the closet. Deborah Ellison, a 29-year-old London, Ont., mother, says she never would have gone to university if it had not come to her. Last year the University of Western Ontario set up satellite degree courses in the suburban Berkshire Club, aimed directly at homebound women. Ellison’s initial fears about testing her knowledge against others were not unlike those of the other young mothers in the study group. Yet, she says, “I wanted to prove that I’m a worthwhile person. My


friends had degrees and so did my husband. I didn’t feel ignored, but kind of left out.”

While now blasé about competing with older scholars, increasingly students are finding themselves registered in the same classes as their parents or even grandparents. Few students found it remarkable that two Betchermans, Irving, 57, and Michael, 32, rose discreetly one after the other in the solemn Ontario call to the bar last spring. During the bar admission courses, the father-and-son team would get together over a beer to discuss the course material. “I deferred to his knowledge,” admits son Michael. “He knew it better than I did.” Now, though Michael is not practising, his father has built a corporate law business.

Such dedication is not lost on instructors, who claim they would opt for a class of bright-eyed adults over undergraduates any day. “They’re there because they want to be,” says one professor. Adults are frequently able to turn experience in the workplace into marks in the classroom. Wilbur Grasham, who teaches Canadian public administration to both day and evening

students at U of T, is the first to admit that his students can often teach him something. What’s more, claims Grasham, compared to his younger day students, the adults demonstrate superior work habits and are less prone to cramming.

In returning to school, adults have challenged the formidable triple squeeze of work, family and study. Ed Rice, 41, has just entered third-year law school in Toronto, years after he left university to have a family. Now he works 10 to 11 hours a week as an insurance agent, drives a delivery truck on Saturdays and makes time for his family. Says a nonchalant Rice: “I don’t find it gruelling. Often I read while my wife drives to work. I do a lot of bathtub reading, too.”

Underlying the rush to provide and obtain knowledge is the conviction that understanding enhances the quality of life. A good course, it is reasoned, should act like a good dinner party—pit a person and his views against new in-

formation. James Ham, president of U of T, credits a photography course with literally having changed the way he sees the world. Ham still raves about his intensive week-long session two years ago at UNB, taught by Canadian photographic maven Freeman Patterson. Exclaims Ham: “I would march across the continent for another opportunity to study with him.”

An informed citizenry will also plough its newfound expertise back into work and, hence, into the country. For Everett Summerfield, an RCMP officer stationed until recently in Rankin Inlet, a correspondence course from the University of Waterloo (U of W) in political science was responsible for shaking his convictions about a key issue—capital punishment. Using all the resources at hand—including material from the Yellowknife library—Summerfield

wrote a paper on the subject for his Conflict of Political Ideas class. “I worked for three weeks, then one week solid. I had such strong feelings [before]

but I found that my beliefs weren’t exactly true.”

Some elevate the zest with which adults rediscover learning to a calling. John McLeish, a professor of adult education at U of T, might speak of such epiphanies as a form of “educational conversion.” As part of a quasi-religious crusade for the concept of lifelong learning, McLeish has written a bible on the role of education in “successful” aging—a highly praised work of social analysis, The Ulyssean Adult, to be released in revised form this winter. In it he affirms the human capacity to learn at any age. Monthly meetings of the 200-member Ulyssean Society, of which he is founder and president, open with a creed and close with a candlelight benediction. Companions pray, “May the zest for learning and the renewing power of seeking. ... be with us and enlighten our ways throughout the Ulyssean life journey.”

Seniors have derived a new confidence from recent research that confirms their continued ability to learn languages and other skills previously considered the preserve of youth. The late J. Roby Kidd, the doyen of Canadian adult education and a force for continuing education throughout the

world, maintained that as a person ages the ability to learn remains constant. The speed of absorption may decrease, but the capacity to measure distinctions accurately actually increases.

But cognitive capacity means little,

say adult educators, since learning is an activity, not an acquired possession. A case in point is the Boston-based Elderhostel movement, a unique experiment that combines education for older citizens with hosteling. This year Elderhostel will billet 50,000 seniors in campus residences across North America for a week of noncredit courses, room and board at a cost of only $150 per person. At Fort MacMurray’s Keyano College, in the heart of the Alberta oil sands, this year’s courses feature heavy-equipment operation, gold panning and tar-sand technology.

While marshalling campus resources to attract the new breed of learners, universities and other campuses are also reaching out to the Canadian hinterland. Long-standing purveyors of correspondence-course programs such as U of W have reported 20to 25-percent growth in demand every year since 1977 (with a slight decline last year).

Traditional correspondence courses, for lighthouse keepers and those in isolated communities, now represent only one aspect of a technology-enhanced “distance education.” Radio, cable television, Telidon and teleconferencing now afford remote or disabled students an opportunity to participate in classroom-like situations at a distance. St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Memorial University in St. John’s and the University of Regina are just a few that employ teleconferencing. Using speakers and microphones that transmit via telephone lines, a professor at UNB can conduct classes with students in Dalhousie, N.S., Campbellton and Bathurst, N.B.—simultaneously and live.

The stampede toward distance education has been so great that one university has been founded solely for the purpose of serving degree courses to the “open university” market. Athabaska University, established in 1975, has practically no classrooms at all. Many of its 5,000 home-studiers, 62 per cent of them women, admit they might never have considered a higher education or a university degree without Athabaska. Little is spared to accommodate the shrinking or procrastinating student. Course extensions are readily granted with only a $10-a-month penalty.

A far less rosy picture of the adult education scene is painted by Ian Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Association for Adult Education. He claims that the race to create educational opportunities has been directed largely at middle-class consumers who already have “high incomes and higher education.” “Certain people are benefiting a lot more than others,” frets Morrison. “We also have evidence to suggest women aren’t getting a fair shake compared to men in senior courses and that


the handicapped have been neglected.” On the job-training front, the problem is particularly acute. Co-ordinators for the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women in Toronto complain that apprenticeships in the skilled trades still have not opened up sufficiently to women. Adults in Quebec enrolled in courses subsidized by Ottawa’s department of employment and immigration, for example, say that they often have to wait up to 2 V2 years to actually be admitted. Affirmative action groups have complained that Canada Manpower counsellors across the country actively discourage women from registering in most trades courses. And, despite the pervasiveness of the media, illiteracy is still holding back a major segment of the population. According to Ontario educators, one million Canadians cannot read or write and more than five million are functionally illiterate.

For many of those people the priority placed on high-technology job training is useless. As John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked, “The conquest of illiteracy comes first.”

The ensuing government scramble to rethink adult education has been marred not only by devastating educational cutbacks but by political blunders. In the past year both Ontario and Quebec have penned thoughtful draft recommendations to shift resources to those who need the education the most. But while Ontario, in a bid to support the so-called “Third System” of education, suggests a minimalist hands-off approach, Quebec is veering in the opposite direction. The ambitious $3-million Quebec commission on the issue, headed by Michèle Jean, in effect paves the way for a second Quiet Revolution in that province. With talk of enhancing Quebec’s regional development, the 700-page report calls for a “democratization” and a “descholarization” of continuing education: “It must no longer be regarded as a luxury reserved for the elite.”

While revolutionary for Quebec, the idea of establishing a network of regional “brokerages,” co-ordinating such community resources as libraries and school boards, has Canadian precedents. Jean, herself, admits that both Alberta’s well-established Further Education councils and the regionalized education programs in British Colum-

bia and Saskatchewan approximate her goals. Adults in those provinces already have access to local counselling and funding.

But the Quebec government dealt its own blow to its commission early this year by introducing $33.2 million in budget cuts to adult education shortly before the paper’s release. The cuts have resulted in a provincewide drop in enrolment by about 90,000 adult students. Explains Paul Bélanger, director of l’Institut Canadien d’Education des Adultes in Montreal, “The government is concentrating its resources on retraining and skill-upgrading courses, while sociocultural courses are feeling the pinch.”

The same is true in Ontario. There, new draft policy emerging from the Third System discussion paper lifts subsidy ceilings on programs in adult basic education, driver education, En-

glish as a second language and other credit courses. (Continuing education in that province accounts for $40 million, or less than one per cent of the provincial education budget.) But at the same time, in a move to placate marketplace competitors, Ontario has cut all direct funding for school boards’ general interest courses. While this will have little real impact on the number of course offerings—boards will reshuffle revenues or raise tuition fees slightly— the philosophical intent has enraged students and school administrators alike.

Another obstacle impeding greater planning and funding for adult education is the unpredictability of the student population. Adult learners appear to be highly influenced by trends, swaying from studies in El Salvador and Islam one year, to computer programming the next. Studies are interrupted by job transfers, childbearing

and other responsibilities.

Yet, despite their peculiar circumstances, disgruntled adult students are demanding to be considered the equals of their full-time counterparts. Complaints are rife about the use of secondrate professors in evening classes, the inaccessibility of libraries and textbook stores with daytime hours only, and the problems of getting credit from one university for courses taken at another. At Toronto’s Ryerson, students enrolled in a business administration program have discovered that the degree cannot be completed exclusively at night.

Nowhere have cutbacks in continuing education curried greater disfavor than at Carleton University in Ottawa. All off-campus credit courses have been dropped for next fall. Two hundred and forty students in Perth, Deep River, Smith Falls, Brockville, Bells Corner and Carleton Place in Ontario have found their programs abruptly cut off as the university trims its teaching staff and digs in against a staggering $2.5 million deficit. Indeed, it may be on the satellite campuses that the first heavy battles for adult education will be played out.

Adult educators must zalso be visionaries in this ^respect, predicting comE-munity needs and assembling resources in advance of demand. In oNewfoundland the extension department of IMemorial University ohad readied videotapes about the impact of oil oand gas exploration as early as October, 1979, to circulate to communities that questioned how the industry would affect their lives. After running 200 seminars, Memorial noted that some local fish companies and fishermen adopted negotiating models presented in the films.

If nothing else, the process of adult education has helped Canadians discover each other. Education’s mystique draws pilgrims from all walks of life. The cross-fertilization is already apparent as retired assembly-line workers turn up for university lectures on the North-South dialogue and middle-class matrons step gingerly through pulp mills learning how to manage a wood lot. Regardless of government encouragement, these learners will plunge resolutely on. Concludes Colleen Wright: “You do it not only for yourself, but for your family, your employer and your community.”

With files from Rosa Harris Adler, David Folster and Donald Gutstein.

Rosa Harris Adler

David Folster

Donald Gutstein.