“THERE is a huge history of adult education in Cork, and people have a great interest in education, and it does all sorts of good for the city and for the community; and it has blossomed now into this learning festival.”
Even over the telephone, Dr Barry O’Connor’s enthusiasm for education is infectious as he highlights the connectivity he says makes Cork such a great city for learning.
President Emeritus of the former Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and chair of the Cork Access Network (CAN), he is a long-time champion of this week’s Cork Lifelong Learning Festival.
Dr O’Connor says this year’s festival will be all the more welcome, given the two-year hiatus since the last one.
“When Covid happened, people couldn’t get together, and what I find with learning is that it brings people together, and people learn from each other, which wasn’t happening during Covid, so I think we have a great chance to relaunch all of that again.
“Learning isn’t all about getting qualifications, it’s great if qualifications come out of it, but it is more about opening up people’s minds, and listening to each other, and talking to each other, and learning from outside people as well,” he says.
“It’s a great opportunity, the festival, and it’s all about learning, maybe developing new interests or new skills, but one of the key tenets of the festival is that learning should be fun, that people should actually enjoy it, because that keeps people going then as well.”
He says CAN, which has been running since December of 2020, grew out of the Cork Learning City forum which included the former CIT, now the Munster Technological University (MTU), UCC (University College Cork), the Cork Education Training Board (ETB), and most importantly, he believes, it included Cork City Council.
“To me, having the City Council involved in education and to have the various sections there involved in developing identity and sense of place, it takes education outside of the classroom, or the schoolroom, or the institute, or the university, and it puts it into the community.
“You don’t get that in too many places, and to me that is the glue that just keeps the whole thing together.”
He describes Cork as lucky in its size, with MTU and UCC being so close together, and working together with joint degrees, which he notes are not replicated anywhere else in the country.
“You have all sorts of connections going on, and, like I say, the huge thing for me is you have Cork City Council being so heavily involved in education because they realise that it is so important for the rest of the city,” he says.
“I’ve always believed that the student experience is extremely important, but again, going back to the idea of the glue, people can learn mathematics, they can learn poetry, they can learn drama, on their own, they can certainly read books, and learn how to do calculations, but you can’t learn how to deal with people, and teamwork, and getting on with people on a day-to-day basis on your own.”
I mention something a former student of the Cork Life Centre, William Cooper, once told me about his experience of leaving school at an early age, and about going to the northside centre where, with one-to-one tuition, he discovered a completely new way of looking at education.
“Exams are great, and it’s great to get them, but it’s who you are and what you do that’s important,” William had said.
“I got my Junior and my Leaving, but it was everything that happened in-between that was important.”
Dr O’Connor says he agrees wholeheartedly, adding that Covid-19 brought a lot of fresh perspective to education.
“I think really before the pandemic, people thought this was only all fluff, but when all that disappeared and people were just sitting at home in their kitchens or their bedrooms, looking at a screen and picking stuff off, and lecturers and teachers did mighty work to get that done, but it’s like your friend in the Life Centre said, it’s everything that happens in between is actually what is achieved.”
He says the festival has opened up opportunities for hybrid learning, and he returns to the example of the Life Centre.
“To go back to the work that [Life Centre director] Don O’Leary has been doing there, we’re saying to people, ‘We want to give you access to education, but by the way, it’s available from September until June, Monday to Friday, half-eight to half-four, and if you can’t make that bus, like, you’re off.’
“It doesn’t suit a lot of people, and I do think that we need to be a lot more flexible, and I think that is what the Lifelong Learning Festival is, it’s a chance that the festival gives people to get a foot on the education ladder,” he says.
“The French word for education is ‘formation’ and it’s about forming people, and forming characters, whether or not you ever get to master long division is by-the-way: if you can learn how to find out stuff, and the right stuff for you in your life and in your job, that is what’s key, keeping the mind open.”
He says the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival is something very special, something particular to Cork.
“It is unique, you don’t get it anywhere else, and there is a great spirit that is behind the festival, it is all voluntary, and people are just so happy to be involved in it, and to me, it is just a great example.
“If education gets you on the narrow towards a formal qualification down the line, fantastic, but if it actually keeps people alert and interested in what’s happening around them, and developing their own skills and interests within the community, and for the community, sure you couldn’t buy that.”
He says CAN has a hashtag, ‘Leaving No-One Behind’, but lately they have added onto that a rider saying ‘Is Féidir Leat’.
“There is an element that we can put on all the courses we like, and we can make them very attractive, but the learner also has to be interested.
“It’s a partnership,” he says. “There must be something there that sparks the interest, the learner must be interested as well, and we’re trying to facilitate that, and that’s where the enjoyment part of learning has to come into it.”
Cork Lifelong Learning Festival runs from today Monday, April 4, to Sunday, April 10.
Details at corklearningfestival.ie