Lifelong learning

John Sutherland on the education of the barcalounging masses

Over the past five years, a long collective howl of pain has interrupted the habitual calm of the American campus. It emanates principally from arts and humanities professors. You can't get your research published any more. Academic imprints are shrinking their lists. University accountants weigh up the prestige of a college imprint against the donations generated by championship track, field or ball teams, and the jockstrap wins every time. Librarians ponder: Shall we buy a new stock-control program or keep our subscription to Neophilologus? Microsoft wins.

In a profession whose motto is "publish or perish" - where tenure requires one monograph and full professorship two - it's a crisis. But look over the top of the ivory tower, ignore the donnish howl, and scholarship is doing remarkably well. Outside the academy, that is.

Two terms help one perceive the non-academic higher-educational boom: "enrichment learning" and "life learning". Americans, in general, distrust institutions and favour individual effort. It's deep in what William Carlos Williams called the "American Grain". They prefer free enterprise, even in higher education - something that Europe reflexively sees as a monopoly of the state.

Millions of Americans, incredibly enough, want to be lectured to by professors as they cruise the freeways or recline on their barcaloungers. They are, or aspire to be, "life learners". Leading the supply of this "enrichment learning" to the non-enrolled, barcalounging masses is the Teaching Company.

As its entry in Wikipedia records, "TeachCo" (motto: "The joy of lifelong learning every day") "produces recordings of lectures by nationally top-ranked university professors. Course offerings are targeted to life learners, typical of what would be seen in a university or college undergraduate programme for non-majors." The TeachCo catalogue is currently more than 200 strong, in some 30 subject areas, which equates with the offerings of a medium-sized college. It will soon be another course stronger: I've been invited to give a 48-lecture course on English literature. It's flattering, as "only the top one in 5,000 college professors is chosen to be on the Teaching Company's faculty. Our professors are gifted scholars, enthusiasts, communicators - and, yes, entertainers."

The Teaching Company was founded 15 years ago by Thomas M Rollins, a US Senate legal adviser, foiled in his attempt to get government support for life-learning, university-level, educational programmes via new technology. He shook the dust of Washington off his brogues, took the private road and got rich, as his millions of life-learning customers got enriched.

Alan Johnson, Britain's first education minister in living memory not to have gone to university, took that depressively anti-life-learning tract, Jude the Obscure, on holiday with him this summer. Let's hope someone puts the Teaching Company catalogue in his stocking this Christmas.