Men on the Margins: Towards an Account of Men's Experience of Adult Education

Men on the Margins: Towards an Account of Men's Experience of Adult Education

Men on the margins: towards an account of men's experience of adult education

Rebecca O'Rourke, University of Leeds, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 29th Annual Conference, 5-7 July 1999, University of Warwick


This paper, like my session, will be deliberately exploratory. It is designed to stimulate discussion about an area of adult education which appears to me under-researched and under- theorised and into which I am interested in formulating and carrying out more substantive field-based research at a later date. The area of concern is men and masculinities. This is a topic which has attracted considerable interest from education providers and policy makers, in both the compulsory and post-compulsory sectors, over the past few years.

As a lesbian socialist-feminist who for many years worked exclusively in women's education the growth of interest in whether and how men participate in adult education is something I have viewed with some ambivalence. This is partly reflected in my title, which flags up the issue of men's marginal relation to adult education but also suggests the marginality, as social practice and discourse, of adult education itself. This paper represents a preliminary attempt to critically reflect upon the nature and source of my ambivalence towards what I think of as the problem of the problem of men. The debate about men in adult education has tended to be framed in terms of their non-participation, crystallised in the title of Veronica McGivney's recent critical survey, Excluded Men. Valuable as this work has been, I argue that it does not provide an adequate account of what is a complex, and still contested issue.

Engaging critically with men and masculinity in adult education means understanding adult education as a gendered practice. This requires us to consider men's presence, in relational and situational terms, as well as their absence and to specify the exact ways in which men are and are not marginal to its work. It also requires us to consider whether or not men's absence is the result of exclusion or election, in other words how is adult education structured by the differentials in social power which exist more generally between men and women. I have found that the complex and critical theories of gender developed and applied in other disciplines, notably cultural studies and sociology, provide a useful framework through which to deepen our understanding of men and masculinities in adult education.

Towards men's education

While it is true that statistics can be massaged, pruned and doctored in all manner of ways, one of the peculiarities of the problem of men's participation in education is that it is only in a minority of contexts that they are under-represented or under-achieving. As Veronica McGivney points out, 'men are, as a whole, more highly qualified than women.' (McGivney 1999:27) More women than men have no qualifications (21% compared with 16%) and more men than women have qualifications at NVQ levels 3, 4 and 5. That 26% of women, compared with 16% of men, have Level 1 qualifications, needs to be understood in this overall context of gender relations and educational participation and achievement. This is also true of other education statistics, for example the way that increased participation rates for women in higher education muffle women's concentration in first degrees rather than research, in part- time rather than full-time modes of study, in certain, traditionally female, subject areas - a feature even more distinctive in further education - and the disproportionate career progression within education still experienced by women as compared to men.

The issue of men's participation in post-compulsory education, as McGivney makes clear, focuses on a particular sort of man, and his involvement in a particular sort of educational provision. The missing men, who may fall distinctively into a younger or older age group, are those with low basic skills, little or no qualifications and skills who have, or are experiencing, chronic unemployment often accompanied by offending or anti-social behaviour of various kinds. This is an important consideration, and certainly helps to explain why those missing women from the same social position as the missing men - who share with them the same low levels of participation and aspiration - are not perceived as a problem in the same way. These women, on the whole, do not abandon their parental responsibilities lightly and make up only a small fraction of the crime statistics. There are also enough of them actively participating in the community-based and informal educational activities from which men are so noticeably absent for this, perversely, to sometimes be seen as a problem. Such education is designed to contribute to community-building and social regeneration as much as to provide individual access to and progression through further and higher education.

This location immediately sets in train practical and ideological conflicts between education as an agent of social control and empowerment. McGivney takes issue with Chris Woodhead's singling out for particular concern the educational attainment of white working-class boys in schools, when the position for Afro-Caribbean boys is much worse, yet she notes in passing that women with the same characteristics as her missing men are also under-represented in education and training. (McGivney 1999:23)

To focus on the men, as she does, illustrates both her responsiveness to a change in the field, as many projects have set out specifically to involve men, and the ideological frame within which this happens. Whereas forms of provision for women in community education were often aligned to a radical agenda for social change which also challenged traditional gender roles and relations, the new interventions in men's education tend, at best, to confirm traditional gender roles for men. At their worst, they are symptomatic of a moral panic about men's social and familial roles and responsibilities. The Men’s Family Learning Project, funded by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) for Bristol's Community Education Service provides both a good illustration of the complexity surrounding whether men perceive adult education as something they can, should or would want to get involved with.

At the time it was launched, in 1998, the project workers were unable to identify other similar projects. However, there definitely were other projects either already in existence or forming at the same time as Veronica McGivney's account makes clear. (McGivney 1999) She provides brief accounts of upwards of 30 education or training initiatives targeted towards men, often specifically catering for 'Dads and Lads' as Waltham Forest Adult Education Service terms them. The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) in Northern District had run, without a great deal of success, return to study courses for men from the early 1990s and, it has to be said, a great deal of trade union education has by default been single-sex provision. This aside, the Bristol project was breaking new ground and to do so it borrowed several methods and approaches from community and women's education. So, for example, networks and informal contacts were utilised to contact men, a negotiated curriculum formed the basis of the educational work and tutors for these programmes of work were specifically recruited and trained. Considerable emphasis was put on developing positive role models, both for the men who got involved and the impact on the children they worked. The project report links many of the positive outcomes from the project to the kind of man they were able to appoint as development worker.

A local dad ... able to encourage men to get involved by talking about his own experience of volunteering in the local nursery school, stressing the personal benefits and offering a positive role model for other men (Bryant 1998:10).

This emphasis on role models, which is a powerful element in the whole discourse about men and parenting as well as within education, is something which distinguishes this work from feminist interventions. There, role models were important too, but they tended to be linked to the reclaiming of women's place and voice in history. They were rarely or, given the distrust of competition and the 'star' system within the early women's liberation movement, rarely overtly the actual women teaching and providing the courses. Men, as a distinct social group, are not symmetrical with women and it is difficult to imagine them reclaiming a history in this way unless it cuts through and reclaims another layer of experience rooted in oppression, as has been the case with black men in America. But even there it is not straightforward, as Patricia J. Williams suggests.

Today's authors are busy fanning the flames of a wistful ambivalence about how to make the world better for black men, an angst that has grown to a directed anxiety verging on obsession with compensatory fatherhood. This rush, this compulsive drive to romanticize parental authority, is a quite different enterprise than just appreciating fatherhood. On one hand, it is clearly a move to counter the wild, Willie Horton, seed-spewing stereotypes that so flood the media. It is also a move that has eliminated from public view much of the real-life presence of men, particularly black men, in its nostalgic yearning for the Dick-and-Jane nuclear family if the fictionalized past (Williams 1996: 815-817).

A further area of asymmetry is the conventional nature of the courses provided by the men for the pupils as part of family learning - woodwork and bricklaying - plus a computer course for the men. Men, the report suggests, will get involved in family learning projects if it appeals to their interests. However, before stepping in to condemn the conservative nature of this approach it is salutary to remember that community and women's education has been dogged by related debates, first about whether its radical agenda is appropriate to the settings in which the work takes place and second, if such a radical agenda is desirable, whether it should be approached covertly or not.(Smith 1994, Taking Liberties Collective 1989) It is also important to note an area of overlap between men's and women's education, namely the degree to which low confidence and self-esteem prevented many men, just as it prevents many women, from putting themselves forward for family learning schemes which will benefit them and their children.

Clearly, the Bristol Project had several positive and important outcomes but it also begs several questions, some specific to that project and others like it, some of a more general order. Such questions would form the basis of a more critical evaluative study which looked not just at discrete projects but at the wider context in which they were taking place. They include gathering and analysing more qualitative, ethnographic data from the men who took part to establish what had enabled their participation at that point as well as what had previously kept them away;, tracking the men, and the projects, to see who stayed involved and how and whether there were lasting changes, and of what kind, to the projects; and engaging the providers and participants in a discussion about some of the wider - and more problematic - aspects of contemporary masculine identity, such as violence, depression and sexuality, as well as finding ways to track and evaluate these interventions in respect of their impact upon gender relations, and the material experience of women as well as men, in the settings in which they took place.

Where I came in

My interest in these question of men, masculinity and adult education was prompted by a number of discrete experiences. The first was co-tutoring a module on gender for a Masters in Education programme and realising how hard it was both for myself and the students to see gender as something which included men's, as well as women's, experience even when we were working with a model, and theories of, gender relations and socialisation. Second was the flurry of new opportunities and return to learning courses targeted specifically towards men that appeared in my locality during the 1990s. These were provided by the Worker's Educational Association, a Further Education College and the local authority and were sometimes funded with European money which allowed them to advertise widely, including in the local newspaper, and to offer payment towards travel and subsistence as well as fee waivers. This was in marked contrast to similar provision for women.

Third, although work on masculinity had begun in the early 1970s (Tolson 1977) it came to prominence throughout the late 1980s and 1990s both in my subject discipline, cultural studies, in gender studies and in sociology and psychology. This work challenged the monolithic and unitary notions of masculinity which had tended to inform work on sex/gender which took the experience of girls and women as their focus. It did so in three ways. First, through specific analysis of sites of the formation of masculine identities, such as school, leisure and youth sub- cultures. (Connell 1987 and 1989, Mac An Ghaill (1994) Messner and Sabo (1990) Willis 1977, 1990) Second, through specific work on transgressive and subordinate sexual identities and practices, most often homosexuality but also looking at the specific form of working-class and black masculinities. (Dollimore 1991, Gilroy 1993, Hall 1992, Marriott 1996, Mercer and Julian 1988, Sinfield 1994, Watney 1993, Weeks 1981 and 1989) Third, through theoretical work which developed a more complex understanding of patriarchy, as a set of lived relations with public and private dimensions. This enabled the concept of hegemonic masculinity to be simultaneously invoked and de-centred as part of the argument for plural and diverse ways of being and becoming a man, in other words masculinities rather than masculinity (Brod and Kauffman 1994, Clatterbaugh 1990, Hearn 1992, Hearn and Morgan 1990, Segal 1990). Towards the end of this period, as the discourse of education became cluttered with targets, standards and attainment, the popular and educational press began to name the problem of boy's educational underachievement and link this to the feminisation of education in general and English in particular (QCA1998) and to the rise in number of female single-parent families.

Together this formed a general background of which I was aware but relatively unconcerned by. What brought this to the fore for me was a number of issues and challenges which arose in my own teaching and led me to think, possibly for the first time, about how men experienced the educational experience I was providing for them. What happened was this. I was teaching two groups, one literature, the other life story writing, of roughly the same size in which men were the minority in a ratio of 1:4. In the life story group one man was extremely disconcerted about being in a minority, worked very hard to draw the other men into a sub-set by, for example, taking coffee together and choosing them as partners for small group. He also often criticised the exercises I introduced for the group on the grounds that they were biased towards women. He tended to frame his comments on other student's work within sex-gender stereotypes, inviting me and other students to affirm that things were typically male or female (and sometimes getting upset when we didn't do this) or mis-perceiving activities in terms of their gender-bias. For example, when students were asked to bring in an autobiography to read from and discuss he commented that they had all been by women except his own whereas 8 out of the 17 authors had been male.

In the other group, the men worked in mixed groups (although they respected the wishes of 4 women who wanted just to work with each other) and displayed far less anxiety about their minority status. All the men in both groups, bar one, were of a similar age and class background. Women's historical experience and oppression formed part of the second group's themed work, which generated discussion and debate but lacked the defensiveness of the first group. For example, we compared the film and book versions of The English Patient which led one man to talk ruefully about dismissing it as a 'women's' film when he saw it with his wife and the pleasure he had gained from being forced to reconsider this opinion in the class.

Clearly, I was demonstrating-in-use (to bend Boud’s concept, Boud 1985:3) the truth of current theoretical work on masculinity which insists upon the complexity of its lived experience as 'part of the general deconstruction of the unified, rational and transcendent subject of men.' (Collinson and Hearn 1996:73)

And, as a counterpoint to this, was my most recent experience of teaching a designated women-only class where the men were not only missing but missed by women who felt cheated by their absence. Such discussions, which revolved around wanting the men's experience, seriousness and viewpoint (and were always contested, usually by women with experience of mixed groups who were confident that men would at best inhibit and at worst dominate the direction, physical and intellectual space of the group) may have been a silenced discourse in other women-only teaching that I have done but I felt that its appearance in the late 1990s was linked to this broader cultural concern with excluded men.