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Regenerating conviviality in adult learning: towards a research agenda

Paul Armstrong
University of Leeds, England, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA 34th Annual Conference, University of Sheffield, 6-8 July 2004


As part of an ongoing research project on ‘Sustaining social purpose’, I am collecting stories from university adult educators who entered the field between the early 1970s and the mid to late 1980s, and I am struck by the emphasis on conviviality in teaching and learning that is emerging, and how in those dark years of Thatcherism in the UK, increasing instrumentalism and dismissal of ‘learning for its own sake’, adult education lost its spirit of conviviality. Only now are discussions about convivial adult learning beginning to regenerate.

It is interesting to note that a word search on EducatiOnline, which hosts the papers of previous SCUTREA conferences, shows very few references to ‘convivial’, but virtually all of them are or have been SCUTREA participants, including Chris Duke and Peter Gray. One recent exception is Michael Bassey (2002), in a paper to BERA in Exeter, in which he distinguishes convivial discourse (creating harmony) from wealthist discourse (creating wealth), and realises that convivial education is based on social justice, environmental responsibility, economic viability and cultural development. This suggests not only a ‘cultural turn’ is taking place but that ‘adult education rather than schooling needs to be the present focus.’ The ghost of Ivan Illich is walking among us.

In a speech given at the University of East London, Alan Tuckett (2001) put the case for the regeneration of conviviality in adult learning. Exhortation and rhetoric, however convincing, is not enough to challenge the wealthist discourses of current educational policies. The arguments need to be ‘evidence-based’.

To this end, this paper will seek to stimulate an agenda for a story-telling research project that will convince policymakers that participation could be widened and retention improved if we work towards ensuring that utilitarian purposes fall into the background, allowing the joy of learning in its cultural context to lead communities once again to find learning a convivial experience rather than a lifelong sentence. The irony is of course that we shall then discover what we already knew – that if learning is enjoyable, the people will engage with it, even if it is for wealthist reasons. The paper will draw on the stories emerging from my current research project, and will raise for discussion questions about how we can make the case for conviviality.

This paper links to the conference theme in a number of ways. First, it addresses the question of ‘whose story now?’, whilst problematising the purpose of story-telling. It encompasses an assessment of the need for evidence-based research in challenging the political rhetoric of policy-makers. It argues for new research that will challenge conventional thinking about widening participation and social inclusion based on a perspective of adult learning as cultural praxis. In so doing, it will not seek to keep pace with a changing world, but to place learning at the forefront of that change, through reminding communities of the need to find their cultural voice, and not allow themselves to be homogenised through wealthist discourse

Convivial discourse

For the purposes of this analysis, I want to use the term ‘convivial’ to refer to a broad mode of sociality, which both includes but goes beyond the typical English sense of the word of simply having a good time in the company of others (whether or not facilitated by a degree of inebriation). In this sense convivial can describe a condition/state, or an occasion/event, or an atmosphere/climate. This is already broader than the French meaning which is restricted to a dinner guest or companion, although convivialité does signify a state of bonhomie or joviality close to the English meaning. The point is that although a broader cultural meaning would include these elements, it does not completely represent the meaning, which, if we look at the Latin origins of the word, would want to say something about living together, or sharing the same life. In this sense it relates to the Marxist notion of ‘commune’, or the more current term, ‘communities of practice’. As such, it inevitably comes close to the way in which Ivan Illich used the term in Tools for Conviviality (1973), although his version possibly reflects the Greek and Spanish rather than Latin origins, reflecting an understanding of friendship or playfulness in interpersonal relationships. Illich said that he used ‘convivial’ to describe ‘a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers’, but adds:

After many doubts, and against the advice of friends whom I respect, I have chosen convivial as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools. (Illich, 1973 p.12) [emphasis as in the original]

He wanted to use this term to support his arguments about the manufacture and control of the social and cultural environment through creative and communal, whilst at the same time free and emphasising individually autonomous, agency of its members. But it is clear that his definition has specific cultural significance, and its emphasis on modernity might limit its significance. To go further beyond this we might need to examine what convivial means in other kinds of societies. For example, in a study of native Amerindians in the Amazon, Overing and Passes (2000), take the Illichian view of convivial as their starting point, but point to the need for a complex signification of the term, wanting to add:

… further complementary, and equally vital, features which may be encountered in the Native context, then we would begin to get a fuller, albeit necessarily still approximate, grasp of Amazonian conviviality, at least as perceived by us. These features would include peacefulness, high morale and high affectivity, a metaphysics of human and non-human connectedness, a stress on kinship, good gift-sharing, work relations and dialogue, a propensity for informal and performative as against the formal and the institutional, and an intense ethical and aesthetic valuing of sociable sociality. (Overing and Passes, 2000, pp.xiii-xiv) [emphasis added]

The emphasis added in this contemporary anthropological perspective merely adds to the complexity, which is important to hold on to because what follows is inevitably going to over-simplify. Yet, even in the more restricted culture of university adult education, these dimensions of conviviality and its interpretation are likely to vary, depending on cultural and subcultural differences, especially related to class and gender.

In the context of sustainability, Bassey distinguishes two major discourses: ‘wealthism’ and ‘conviviality’. For Bassey, convivial education provides the foundation for what he calls the ‘four pillars of sustainability’: social justice, environmental responsibility, economic viability, and cultural development. Interestingly for someone whose teaching career was in the compulsory sector, Bassey notes that this agenda requires that the current focus should be on adult education. His reasoning for this is that he identifies schooling with the ‘wealthist’ discourse, whereas adult education has the potential for a more convivial discourse.

The wealthist discourse is about the creation of wealth, improving quality of life through affluence and access to a wider range of goods and service, within which success is measured by income and accumulation of wealth. Convivial discourse, on the other hand, is about the creation of conviviality, improving the quality of life through the development of harmonious relationships between selves and their social, cultural and natural environments: ‘convivial people seek a state of deep and satisfying harmony with their world and through this joyful meaning to their lives’ (Bassey, 2002, p.1). Bassey’s interest in this harmonious relationship is sustainability, and the avoidance of exploitation and promotion of conservation, within a co-operative rather than a competitive ethos.

Bassey’s analysis of convivial life includes emotional, spiritual, cultural and material dimensions. An issue relating to joyful living is the charge that we are now living in a ‘therapeutic culture’. Recent debates emanating from the publication of Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture (2003) warn us of the potential pitfalls of seeing conviviality primarily in emotional terms. The experience of being joyful is as much as anything else a culturally constructed experience. What we deem to be enjoyment and fun is very much a construction of socio-political, and even, economic culture. The cultural basis of humour, for example, is very evident in the research, even if it has medical, emotional or therapeutic value.

I have argued elsewhere (Armstrong, 1993) that in theoretical terms it is feasible to understand the notion of a ‘cultural turn’ in policy-making not as oppositional to the notion of an ‘economic turn’. In the way that Bassey has polarised ‘wealthism versus conviviality’, the ‘cultural turn’ is often seen to be a turn away from the economic. However, in my view, the significance of the cultural turn is the recognition of the pervasiveness of culture that infiltrates everyday life in all its complexities, including economic life. The debate about the cultural versus the economic fails to see the economic is in itself a cultural phenomenon. This has echoes of the debate around different versions of Marxism, between those that prioritise the economic over all else to the point of determinism, and those that understand Marx to have understood that even the economic substructure has an complex but not causal relationship with the social and cultural superstructure.

Thus, whilst understanding there has been among many ‘turns’ one that reiterates the significance of culture, such analyses need to be cautious about overstating the case and producing a version of cultural determinism, ensuring there is still scope for human agency in the analysis.

Having said that, when wealthist discourse is predominant, it is essential to redress the balance and give greater emphasis to conviviality, if only to remind us that there could be cultural barriers, and even indigenous knowledge which are more impervious to the capitalist economic mode of production. At the same time, we need to be aware of the possible contradictions. The phrase ‘cultural industries’ reminds us of the power of capitalism to commodify, through production and consumption, conviviality as cultural artefacts. The growth of leisure industries is a constant reminder of the pervasiveness of the economic that needs to be resisted.

The joy of teaching: three stories reconstructed

Drawing on a current research project, I want to present three stories told by teachers of adults and reconstructed by the author, all of whom are working, or have worked, in university adult education. The three stories are intended to illustrate the degree to which teaching is considered a joyful activity.

Brian had a relatively short academic career in teaching adults, entering late (at the end of the 1970s) and leaving early (retiring in 2003). What is striking about Brian’s story is his working-class identity. However, he is ambiguous about whether it is a source of pride, or a heavy burden that he can blame for his misfortunes. Having a first degree and a related vocational career, for a range of complex reasons, he chose to return to higher education to do another first degree, and then on to a postgraduate research degree. It was at this point that wealthist concerns led him to seek some part-time teaching to supplement his income. As it happened, and not by design, the place he found work was in the continuing education department in the university where he was studying. Without any induction or teacher training, he found himself in a teaching position. For some time he was on one-year contracts and, although they were always renewed, the stress he felt each year when the contract came up for renewal was quite draining in both energy and motivation, as well as damaging his health and physical well-being.

To begin with, he felt he was given a high degree of autonomy, and decided what he wanted to teach, when and to whom. The experience of teaching adults was largely a joyful experience; however, whether it is due to the fact that he has never received any teacher training or professional development, he found it hard to come to terms with those moments when it was less than satisfying. He noted that through the 1980s teaching became harder rather than easier, and he was spending increasing amounts of time preparing his teaching. To begin with, alongside his teaching, he was completing his doctorate, and managed – with some difficulty – to find the time to do that. But he feels that he was not well prepared for the role of academic, and whilst he prioritised teaching, and tried to find time for research, he was little motivated about administrative tasks. His university department was subject to review in the second half of the 1980s, and when the decision was made to rationalise the department, change its status, and distribute academic staff to other departments, he reports being offered an administrative role in the university, which he refused, and was then found an academic post delivering professional development to in-service school teachers. Interestingly, he did not perceive these as adult learners. Their instrumental and wealthiest attitude towards learning, changed the nature of his teaching. Once a source of joy and job satisfaction, it now became dangerous territory in a culture of increasing accountability – the fear of student complaints. Work accountability models were introduced, and he realised that he could no longer escape administrative roles. Moreover, the research he had been doing as an adult educator he found was discounted when it came to the Research Assessment Exercise, and to consideration for promotion. For him, there was now very little conviviality in teaching, just stress and extensive workloads of administration, assessment , quality assurance and other bureaucratic procedures. Although his working class identity, and wealthist concerns for a secure income would not allow him to resign, when he was eventually offered an early retirement package, he decided to take it.

Brian’s story is rather sad, particularly as there appears to be parallel deterioration in his personal life alongside his work life. But his reflective interpretation is even sadder. In his account there is much talk of blame and faults, but this is not only attributed to named individuals, but primarily he has internalised the failure. There was absolutely no sign of an awareness of the impact of the political economy in his story. Rather, his account is largely depoliticised, individualised and personalised. When Furedi (2004) refers to the ‘diminished self’ and the ‘fragile identity’, he is talking about Brian and his low self-esteem. Furedi talks about the culture of therapy replacing not religion and spirituality, but the demise of politics. Brian, it seems, had uncritically incorporated the Thatcherite ideas of individual responsibility and individualised identity, though it did not extend to a ‘celebration of consumption’ which probably reflects his working-class conservatism. It was never clear in his account that teaching was a vocation, nor is there any evidence of particular commitments other than trying to impress his adult students how good he was not just as a teacher, but as a person. His was not simply a matter of job satisfaction, but of identity affirmation. There was no element of altruism; as Brian himself expressed it in his account, ‘it was never a matter of what I could do for my students, it was always far more what they could do for me’.

Rosie was, like Brian, well aware of her working class origins. But a significant difference was how this awareness provided a positive focus for her commitment to teaching. Moreover, her class awareness was strongly associated with an awareness of gender, which was totally lacking in Brian’s account. There was little in her story that resonated with wealthism, unlike Brian’s. Indeed, much of her teaching has been in the voluntary sector, or in partnership with this sector. Her first full-time job was an administrative rather than a teaching role in a university continuing education department. Nevertheless, at every opportunity she could, she did as much teaching as she could, even though her clerical, administrative and academic colleagues did not necessarily welcome this transgression of boundaries. Rosie came to perceive clear hierarchical status divisions, which were in contradiction to her own egalitarian principles, as well as being incongruous with her relationship with students, through which she wished to play down the power relationships between teacher and student, preferring to emphasise the co-operative nature of teaching and learning. At the time (the late 1970s/early 1980s), there were very few women in university adult education in the UK, and there was a fairly obvious gender basis to differentiation and status that needed to be challenged. Rosie did what she could but was overwhelmed and weighed down by the conservatism of the traditions she was working within, not just in the CE department, but in the university itself. Rather than a joyful experience, her radical progressive commitments were creating constant struggles, to the point where she had earned what she considered a negative reputation among colleagues. The weight of the tradition, the conservatism of her colleagues in a rapidly changing political economy, as well as a new and more interesting job opportunity elsewhere, led to her resignation.

She continued throughout the 1980s with a portfolio of part-time work, made up of quite diverse jobs, ranging from writing, research, political action, as well as teaching. Throughout this period, which she describes as one of collective activism, she still held on to her identity as a teacher, whether working with socially disadvantaged groups in inner city areas, or with women’s groups organised around specific interests, including gaining access for working class women into HE, through what was becoming known as access programmes, and New Opportunities for Women. During this period out of university adult education, working in the public and voluntary sector, the political and educational worlds were changing, and her radical progressive ideals and practices were now timely and appropriate. Rosie was appointed back into university adult education, this time as an academic. Inevitably, her activist principles heavily influenced her approach to, and her prioritisation of, teaching. Whilst she was able to undertake research (particularly for her doctorate), most satisfaction was (and still is) gained from teaching students. Although she has recently been promoted in her job, wealthist notions of career ambitions are not driving her interests; her political commitments, which are sometimes contradictory, and now more complex than they were when she first began working in university adult education, provide the basis of conviviality.

By contrast, Lucinda was very clearly embedded in the middle class. Of the three, her teaching career began rather earlier in the 1970s. Age and the gendered nature of university adult education was more apparent to her than social class differences. Her work within university adult education was always primarily in continuing professional development, teaching and training teachers of adults, leading to Masters degrees. Lucinda enjoyed teaching these groups because there was not an instrumental attitude among those studying the programme as there is today. Financial or career rewards – wealthiest notions – were less obvious than teachers’ professional commitment to do the job as well as they possibly could. At this time, shortly after the publication of the Russell Report, university adult education was seen as an exciting and convivial place to be. There was much ‘optimism and joyful irreverence’1, even though the Russell proposals largely fell by the wayside, and financial constraints were beginning to be obvious. Lucinda identified herself as a ‘young Turk’, as described (not always disparagingly) by the elders of the adult education community, one of the new generation of adult educators who were to restore optimism and joyful irreverence. For Lucinda her joy was not so much in teaching, although she very much enjoyed the high level discussions in which she could participate with her postgraduate classes, but in her engagement with educational policy-making. Contrasting with Rosie’s grassroots politics, Lucinda wanted to use her influence as a woman and as an educator, to give direction to policy-makers, not just in the UK but across Europe, if not more globally, particularly in what we now call ‘widening participation’ and gaining access for women of all social classes and ethnic origins. Her account is presented within convivial discourse, though it is worth noting that she has been in management and senior management in universities for a number of years, and her identity is precisely that of manager rather than teacher. However, her story is constructed in language devoid of wealthist notions of career ambition and financial success. More modestly, her career development is largely attributed to acting on whim, and a matter of luck – being in the right place, at the right time (unlike in Rosie’s account where her first foray into university adult education was probably in the right place, but at the wrong time).

Telling stories: setting the research agenda

This paper is intentionally rather modest. It seeks to draw attention to the fact that convivial discourse has been absent from educational policies and practices in favour of wealthist discourse. This has had a differential impact on both learners and teachers though this paper has largely focused on the teacher’s experience. It should be clear that conviviality is not restricted to having a jolly time, though that is an important part of conviviality. But it seems we know very little about convivial teaching nor convivial learning. Alan Tuckett (2001) takes a stance that distinguishes adult education as culture (which is outside the walls) and adult education as sector (inside the walls), and describes the utilitarian view of lifelong learning as ‘bleak’. He reminds us of Blunkett’s preface to The Learning Age (1988) encouraging us to ‘embrace learning as culture’ recognising that the first steps on the ‘learning ladder may well be learning for fun’. That this has not been put into practice, and that ‘seriously useless learning’ has not been stimulated, is to do with boundaries placed around lifelong learning and the lack of discussion around what it means to be educated. What we need, argues Tuckett, are:

… stories about learning – of triumph and disaster, of pleasure and pain, and above all stories that capture the cadences of learners themselves. Stories have their own logic, complexity, ambiguity. They are seldom reducible to a clear set of pre-ordained outcomes. But they can teach, and inspire, and encourage emulation. And at their best, they are fun’. (Tuckett, 2001, p.4)

Optimism and Joyful Irreverence is the title of the pamphlet written by Roger Fieldhouse (1993) which provided the stimulus for my research project. This focused on those university and WEA adult educators who entered the profession between 1965 and 1975. The title is taken from his interview data, although he argues that the optimism was largely false among those entering the profession during the 1960s.


Armstrong P (2003) ‘Assessing the cultural turn: reintegrating lifelong learning and culture’. Paper presented to UACE Annual Conference, Newcastle (April).

Bassey M (2002) ‘Wealthist and convivial discourses in relation to sustainability’. Paper presented to BERA Annual Conference, Exeter (September). Available at:

Fieldhouse R (1993) Optimism and joyful irreverence, Leicester, NIACE.

Furedi F (2004) Therapy culture: cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age, London, Routledge.

Illich I (1973) Tools for conviviality, Glasgow, Fontana/Collins.

Overing J and Passes A (eds) (2000) The anthropology of love and anger: the aesthetics of conviviality in Native Amazonia, London, Routledge.

Tuckett A (2001) ‘If I can’t dance ... conviviality and adult learning’. Lecture at University of East London (24 January). Available at:

This document was added to the Education-line database on 22 June 2004