If you have doubts about how things are going to go if the private sector gets to take over adult education, you might want to look at the catalogues put out every few months in Toronto by an institution that has been calling itself "The Learning Annex" long enough to be considered more or less venerable.
The Learning Annex appears to be an collecting device for the Adult-Ed fringe, featuring mostly three-hour and day-long seminars on a wide variety of interests. Most of its offerings are how-to skill-builders without being particularly focused on what sensible people think of as practical matters. Nearly all of the courses and seminars, actually, seem designed for people in a hurry who want things on the cheap. You can learn various ethnic cuisines: Italian, Indian, Thai with a single three hour seminar, and you can learn to make your own Sushi from a woman with the Japanese-sounding name of Debra Bobechko, who would have serious sushi chefs apoplectic on an number of counts. Stretching credibility still further are offers to teach you piano, playing music by ear, French and Japanese within the same three hour time-period. The more leisurely Spanish course promises fluency in 1-3 seminars, in case you’re a titch slow on the language uptake.
A startling number of the courses offered fall under the category of New Age. They’re fronted by people with names like Oriah Mountain Dreamer, who teaches a course on "how to connect with and live your passion", and says "It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing." Another is given by a woman named "Shakti Gawain", who we’re not giving odds on that name being the one on her birth certificate. She’s the "bestselling author who made creative visualization a household term", and "popularized the empowering concept of inner guidance and intuition.", which I always thought came from my mother—or was it yours?
Also available are seminars with John Bradshaw, who made himself famous by getting people to weep on American Public Television as a means of healing their psychic wounds while maximizing their entrepreneurial potential, and Wayne Dyer, who says there’s a spiritual solution to every problem and charges $69 without guaranteeing the solutions are going to be palatable or workable. You can learn how to receive messages form the beyond, experience your past lives, or discover the ancient art of African divination from a man who wrote a book titled The Healing Wisdom of Africa. Given the benighted state of things in Africa, we can safely assume the author/seminar-giver brought most of that continent’s healing wisdom with him when he came here.
Other spiritual ops abound. You can learn "Siddha tools and Wisdom for Prosperity" from Sri Siva Brzee, a Tamil scholar-mystic who used to be Sri Guruji and is one of Wayne Dyer’s gurus—whatever that means.). You can also do Neuro-Linguistic Programming, learn Lomi Lomi massage, balance your Chakras, learn Reiki, Qi Gong, Feng Shui or become a beginner Buddhist. About a third of the courses offered are of this sort, and some are even sillier.
At least six courses are sex-ed, including three hour seminars that reveal the secrets of Tantric sex and how to use sex aids. A seventh course with porn star Candida Royalle, ostensibly to teach us how to succeed behind or in front of porn movie cameras, but also bonuses out with how "watching porn can do wonders for your relationship" without being clear about what the wonders will be or who—or more likely, what—you’ll be relating to. Another nine courses undertake to make you a successful writer, and since one of the courses is about how to write erotic fiction, we might be up to eight sex-ed courses.
Some of the courses propose to teach us useful social or recreational skills: Belly and ballroom dancing, Tango, soap making, how to concoct home-made bath salts and body scrub, how to perform various sorts of massage therapy, wine-tasting, and so on. Another echelon runs the border between self-help and business skills: courses on public speaking, losing your foreign accent, overcoming shyness, eliminating clutter, jump-starting creativity, and doing facial fitness, whatever that is. Business get-rich-easily seminars are an even bigger item: starting mail-order business on the net, turning your spare time into big bucks, becoming an Info-Preneur (an information-taker?), how to get venture capital funding to start a business, how to start an import/export business, how to make money on the stock market, and dozens of others.
The earning core of the institution, and its most expensive courses—normally more than triple the cost of the New Agers—are an array of full-day computer courses. These take you through everything from Windows 95-98 and the various Microsoft components like Word, Excel and PowerPoint to website design and Internet training. These courses are more expensive because they’re offering real and marketable skills to people who likely can’t afford them any other way.
Then, way down at the bottom of the barrel, are a few courses with titles like How to Hide Your Assets and Disappear, which offers to teach you how to sleaze out on your marital, fiscal or civic responsibilities. Since the skills this course offers are pretty much those needed by your average terrorist, I imagine that the next time this course is offered half the students will be police spooks looking for suspects. In a few months, there will no doubt be a new set of courses based on the anti-terrorist hysteria that’s currently everywhere: Detecting Anthrax spores for fun and profit; Anti-terrrorist Measures in the Home Environment; How to Detect and Disarm Terrorists on Public Transportation; and Calming Your Inner Terrorist for Arab fundamentalists who want to go straight.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any objection to education the quick-and-dirty way. I suspect, for instance, that the offerings of computer skills courses in the Learning Annex calendar offers a much better bang for the buck than you’d get from the public sector or from the more "reputable" private sector institutions. This is, after all, the 21st Century, and technical life is the easiest life to master. It has to be, because we all have to relearn everything every five years.
What I’m less sanguine about is the sense of self that extrapolates from the sum total of these courses, and the social imagination implied, which invites us to reinvent ourselves either as navel-gazing or high-speed quasi-criminal jackasses. If this educational range is indicative of what the private sector believes people really need to know about, then we’re in serious trouble. But then it’s the private sector, remember, which means it’s only a reflection of what the market will bear. What was the line from one of the songs in Leonard Cohen’s new CD? May the light in the Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day…
1164 w. October 19, 2001