Night classes provide a valuable service. They plug the gap between what you've forgotten or were never taught at school, and what you now need to know in the adult world. With many of the vocational courses already fully enrolled, the popularity of the night class is in no doubt. Whether you need to refresh your rusty O-Level French or learn a new computer package for work, or if maturity has brought a curiosity about a subject you never paid attention to at school, a night class is a way to improve and extend yourself.
However, vocational courses for those who wish to give their careers a shot in the arm, and those which provide a recognised qualification, account for only part of what's on offer to the night class enrollee for the 1998/99 session in Greater London. The non-vocational courses, which range from arts and crafts, covering painting, ceramics and writing, now count among their number an increasing amount of "alternative" courses which offer an insight into the current obsessions of our culture. Still, night classes have always been about more than just straightforward off- the-job learning. In the accommodating world of the evening class, there has always been a place beside the functional for the sublime.
Take the creative writing class. A hugely popular option, creative writing classes offer a refuge for the misunderstood creative genius stifled by a hash and insensitive world. The would-be writers who attend should benefit from the chance to read their work aloud, and get constructive criticism from the teacher and fellow students. Alas, many who attend are often thwarted in their attempts to improve because of the common presence of a certain type of character. Creative writing classes all too often seem to harbour the kind of writer who, despite flying in the face of the opinion of anyone who has ever come into contact with their work, believe that they possess a creative genius which the rest of the world is too blind to see. How, then, are the opinions of these people, so obviously at odds with the real world, going to help others improve their writing?
After the functional vocational courses, and the long-established arts courses, a fast growing sector of night classes are concerned with pseudo- psychological "personal development". These courses are non-vocational, concentrating on more ambiguous skills such as communication, understanding and relating. They are increasing in popularity and, despite offering no kind of qualification or final assessment, they are fully booked every year.
Once a solely American phenomenon, the "personal development" class is now de rigueur in British FE colleges. Like the self-help book, that other great American institution which has found favour this side of the Atlantic, personal development classes offer an array of solutions to problems you never knew you had. Did you, for example, ever find it difficult to "be in a group"? If so, hey presto! The "Being in a Group" sessions offered by the City Literary Institute, one of the larger FE colleges, located in Covent Garden, promise to teach you precisely "how to be in a group", presumably by getting together with other people each week and sitting in a room.
Other courses include such treats as "The Wounded Healer", where those that have been "emotionally wounded" can turn it to their advantage with the help of a two-day class in which they will "explore themes of the wounded healer through the myth of Chiron and initiation rites of Shamanism".
While leafing though a self-help book in the privacy of your own bedroom may be a comforting and possibly useful diversion, if a bit naff, to identity yourself as "a wounded healer" and devote two days to indulging in the myth of Chiron and initiation rites of shamanism, in a college in Covent Garden, starts to verge on the kind of self-indulgent hippyish fads favoured by Ab Fab's Edina Monsoon.
But, of course, it's generally accepted that many people go to night classes just for the social life, and that the enrollees on courses such as "The Wounded Healer" are more interested in the company of other human beings than in mythical figures named Chiron. How much self-deception is required to convince yourself that you'll learn something worthwhile on the "Wounded Healer" class, when what you're really trying to do is to avoid watching Police, Camera, Action! over a meal for one?
On scanning many of the non-vocational courses, it appears that all it takes to carve out a career running personal development evening classes is a nice line in psychobabble. Some tutors would seem better suited to teaching "How to pull a fast one and get 25 people to shell out pounds 60 on a night class, plus the cost of the course text, which happens to be written by you". Though some tutors' entrepreneurial skills may need more honing before they offer any more "Clown Skills" courses, like the one at the City Literary Institute, whose description sails a little too close to the thinly veiled piss-take wind when it promises that "students can expect to learn an awareness of their own stupidity".
Whoa! What a vindictive streak has emerged. Perhaps a course on "Diffusing and Managing my Argumentative Streak" is called for, or possibly the "Anger, Pain and Creativity" class at the May Ward Centre, or even over to the Hounslow Adult Centre for "Choosing to Live Happily" because, at the end of the day, whatever problem or interest you can imagine, there's a night class somewhere about it.