A Few Words about Macramé:A Meditation on Governor Jerry Brown’s Most Famous Quote about Adult Education

It is received wisdom in California education circles that Governor Jerry Brown is no friend of adult education, as evidenced by something he once said about the state paying to teach macramé to mothers.  The statement is quoted various ways, with other  “hobby” subjects, like ceramics, sometimes standing in for macramé.  But the student was always a mother.

While adult schools do serve a lot of women, many of whom are mothers, the state does not pay for classes like macramé or ceramics.  Adult schools have a dual funding system, which is simple enough once you understand it. Some programs, most of them adult literacy programs that provide adults with the equivalent of an elementary or secondary education, receive funding from the state.  State funded programs include Adult Basic Education (the equivalent of an elementary school education), Adult Secondary Education (the high school diploma for adults), GED (certification of tenth grade equivalency for adults) and English as a Second Language (English literacy for adult immigrants).  Other state supported programs include programs for Adults with Disabilities, Parent Education and Older Adult programs.  These programs are designed to provide vulnerable adults with vital services they would not be able to pay for.

Adult schools also offer “community interest” classes which are supported by student fees.  Many of these community interest classes are job training classes, but adult schools do offer some more recreational classes such as exercise, cooking and craft classes. These classes are entirely supported by student fees and do not encumber the state.  Because adult school catalogs are often designed to attract students to the community interest classes, the general public often associates adult schools with recreational classes, and may be unaware of the more serious side of adult education. The general public can be forgiven for this, but politicians should know better, especially if they are going to make policy affecting adult education.  California politicians should be aware that recreational classes are actually a very small part of what California adult schools do, and that by far the largest department at almost every California adult school is English as a Second Language.  Yet Governor Brown’s quote about macramé strikes fear into the hearts of adult educators all over the state.

The first time I heard Governor Brown’s quote referenced, it was the governor’s own mother who was the student, and the subject was ceramics.  The governor was quoted as having said, “Why should the state pay to teach my mother ceramics?”  I must admit I found the quote disturbing on one level; what kind of man, I wondered, would be so contemptuous of something that made his mother happy?  After bearing and raising the governor and his siblings, and undoubtedly sacrificing her every personal dream to her husband, former governor Pat Brown’s, political career, wasn’t this woman entitled to a little innocent crafting fun?  On another level, the quote was rather perplexing.  Would Governor Brown’s mother, the wife of a wealthy former governor, really take a ceramics class in adult school?  If she did, good for her. But it seemed unlikely.

I couldn’t stop wondering about the quote.  Was this something Governor Brown had said recently?  Did it reflect his views on adult education now? After all, our once and present governor has been quotable for a long time, and people do change. I googled “Jerry Brown” and “ceramics”, but nothing came up except a ceramic antique in the governor’s mansion.  Perhaps the whole thing was an urban legend.  I checked Snopes.com but came up empty.

But I recently heard the quote again, in a slightly different form.  The student was still the governor’s mother, but the offending subject was macramé.  This immediately raised my suspicions about the recency of the quote. Macramé, for the young sprouts out there, is the art of making decorative objects with intricately knotted string.  It is doubtful that macramé is an adult school subject anywhere now, but in the 1970s, during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor, it was wildly popular.  I myself own a few pieces of macramé jewelry, more keepsakes now than actual items of apparel, made by my sister while she was in high school.  She was good at it; I was not.

Once the macramé piece had fallen into place, it was not hard to find the original quote.  In fact, it turns out to be one of the more famous things the governor has said, and is included in several “notable quotes” type lists.  Since the actual quote is a bit more of a well crafted bon mot  than the more oft-repeated misquote about the governor’s mother, it is rather a pity for the governor that his words are not remembered as he said them.  The actual quote is, “I question whether we can afford to teach mother macramé when Johnny still can’t read.”

 While the quote itself was easy to find, the original context and date were not. I first found the quote in a book entitled Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Times by Laurence J. Peter, published in 1993.  Governor Brown’s quote appears on page 174, along with a collection of other quotes about education by Diogenes, Mohammed, John Milton and Ralph Waldo Emerson.   Rather unfortunately for the governor, his quote appears above a quote by another former governor of California, Ronald Reagan: “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?”“ While the placement of quotes on the page appears to be random, the juxtaposition is perhaps deserved, since Governor Brown’s quote actually shares some assumptions with President Reagan’s.  Interestingly, the first quote on the page, from Erich Fromm, is “Why should society feel responsible only for the education of children and not for the education of adults at every age?”

 I was never able to track down the original source of the quote, but since Peter’s Quotations came out in 1993, it is obvious that the quote is not from Governor Brown’s current gubernatorial term.  It probably does date from the 1970s, when he first served as governor of California.

So the governor never spoke dismissively of his own mother’s hobby, but the actual quote is subtly disparaging to women in general. The mother in the quote is the mother of Johnny, the boy who can’t read. What kind of mother fiddles around with string when her child, her male child, poor little Johnny, is in danger of lifelong illiteracy?  Notice that Johnny has a name, while mother does not.

Macramé mom is a minor version of Reagan’s welfare queen, an undeserving woman who sucks resources from the state.  She doesn’t correspond to any real woman or group of women, but she is believable because she is constructed from negative attitudes about women that people accept without questioning, and sometimes don’t even recognize they hold.  Women have long been devalued by associating them with pursuits considered trifling and unimportant.  Try masculinizing the quote and see if it has the same punch:  “I question whether we can afford to teach father golf when Johnny still can’t read.”  Do you think that would have ended up on a list of quotable quotes?

This quote is intensely frustrating for practitioners of adult education, who know that an adult school student who is the mother of a child struggling in school is more likely to be in an English as a Second Language, Adult Basic Education, or High School Diploma class.  Research has firmly established that the literacy of the mother is one of the most decisive factors in a child’s school success, so the mother’s adult school education will in fact help Johnny (and Janey!) learn to read at last.  But, with the Governor’s Budget Plan recommending that adult schools be reorganized under the community colleges, it looks like the taint of macramé, ceramics and jazzercise is about to bring adult schools down at last, even though taxpayers do not pay a dime for these classes.

As an adult educator, I can even see some advantages to macramé mom, if she actually existed, taking macramé in adult school.  Maybe her macramé class is the one place where she can get away from the stress of having a child who is struggling in school.  Maybe she is more patient with Johnny when she comes home from macramé class. Maybe she meets other mothers there, and they talk about how their children are doing in school, and she learns about something that might just help Johnny.  I’m not advocating for state-funded macramé classes (though our tax dollars certainly go for worse things).  But I am saying that policy makers should be a little more humble when they make decisions about what is and is not important or valuable for people.

I can say this, because I myself used to be something of a snob about the community interest classes.  To qualify as an English as a Second Language teacher, I went back to school for a year and a half to get an ESL certificate on top of my master’s degree in English.  Adult school teaching was my profession; I devoted all my time to it. In the classroom, I saw my students gain confidence as their English skills improved.  Outside the classroom (on my unpaid time), I was an unofficial social worker, helping to connect students with medical services, housing and other crucial resources.  I knew what I was doing was important.

I knew the teachers of the community interest classes were mostly retired or moonlighting; adult school was not their primary concern. I wasn’t hostile to the community interest classes, but I thought they were funny and possibly a tad embarrassing.   With my colleagues in the more “serious” programs, I would compete to make up names for the most ridiculous community interest class the adult school could offer.  How about “Yoga for Cake Decorating”?  “Soap Bubble Sculpture”?  Ha ha ha!

But then I was on my adult school’s accreditation team when we were preparing to go through our accreditation review with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).  Someone had to interview at least some of the community interest teachers so we could include them in our report, and the task fell to me.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I arranged to interview the flower arranging and quilting teachers.  Flower arranging! All right then.  Somebody had to do it.

Those interviews opened my eyes.  I learned that there was a thriving flower shop in a neighboring town whose owner picked up her skills in the flower arranging class.  Many students from the flower arranging class had gone on to work as florists.  And the bouquets the students made for practice were donated to local hospitals.

From the quilting teacher, I learned that a group of parents at a local school had taken her class in order to make a quilt they could raffle off to make money for the school.  The boundaries between practical and impractical classes began to come down for me; the line was not so hard and fast.

In the struggle to save adult schools from extinction, there hasn’t been time to talk about the way adult school classes support small businesses.   They can be small business incubators, as the flower arranging class was for the student who went on to start a flower shop. Small business owners also sometimes teach classes that attract more customers, as when a restaurant owner teaches a cooking class that attracts patrons to her restaurant.

And classes that will never have anything to do with the marketplace can serve very serious purposes, too.  Exercise classes and healthy cooking classes may be fun, but they also serve a very important function in a country that is in the throes of an obesity epidemic.  Classes in organic gardening can help improve the environment.  Limiting all education to classes strictly and obviously related to job training is short-sighted, and ignores the many ways learning can improve community life.

Governor Brown’s quote about macramé is referenced in another article I found in my search entitled, “Will Belly Dancing Be Our Nemesis?” by Dale Parnell, published in the journal Community Services Catalyst.  The article is based on a speech Mr. Parnell made in 1982, when he was the president of the American Association of Junior and Community Colleges.  The article makes for dispiriting reading.

Mr. Parnell chose Belly Dancing as an example of a class that the general public would find ridiculous or frivolous.  Note, once again, the feminine association. Though some men do belly dance, this activity is associated in the popular imagination with women, sexy women.  Does that belong on a college campus? Or, maybe, worse yet, these women are not conventionally sexy. Maybe they are not young and thin.  Maybe these are ordinary looking women wiggling around.  And this is happening on a college campus, where men are supposed to learn important things like engineering and business management? Horrors!

Afraid that belly dancing might not sound frivolous enough, Mr. Parnell adds another class, poodle grooming.  However, if anyone were to take a class in poodle grooming at an adult school or community college, I imagine that would actually be a vocational education class.  I can’t imagine that there is anything about poodle grooming that would be relaxing or fun.

Anyway, Mr. Parnell goes on to explain that, while he and his audience know very well that these classes are in demand and are not supported by tax dollars, community colleges might still need to let them go.  Self-sustaining though they may be, they create an image problem.  Policy makers sneer at them, so they have to go, in order to save the college’s reputation.

It baffles me why educators like Mr. Parnell think policy makers, supposedly grown people who hold very responsible positions of power, are more uneducable than the fictional little Johnny.  It seems to me that it is their job to know how the things they make policy about work.  If they are really too thick to learn, we should vote them out and elect a more intelligent crew.  We certainly shouldn’t indulge their every mistake and prejudice. They will never learn that way.

At the adult school where I work, there is a white board at the entrance showing what classes will be held that day.  It always gives me a lift to see the variety there.  I love to see “Bicycle Repair”, “Hats, Hats,Hats!” and “Pies, Pies, Pies!” right up there with “Certified Nursing Assistant Graduation”, “Accounting” and “CPR/First Aid”.  There it is: the serendipity and diversity of life. That’s what adult school is about.

But I also have felt afraid to admit that I love this.  If people knew, would they think my advocacy of adult education was serious?  Would it discredit me if people knew I think pie making classes are great? Shame makes us weak. So I’m going to say it here: I love bicycles and pies and hats, and any sane person would love them too.  A healthy society has room for all kinds of human endeavors.

I sometimes take adult school classes.  I took a CPR and first aid class to clear my teaching credential. I take an exercise class that has helped me overcome debilitating sciatica. I love it that to register I fill out exactly the same form my students fill out. I have to declare that my native language is English and say whether I receive any public benefits or not.  The beauty of adult school is that it has something for everyone.  That is not anything to be ashamed of. It’s something to be proud of.



2 Responses

  1. Good article Kristen. I hope a lot of people read it. Send it to the newspaper if you haven’t already. Pat

    Connected by DROID on Verizon Wireless

  2. Beautifully articulated vision of the importance of adult schools. Thank you for your vision and your hard work.

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