Monday, November 9, 2020

Paul F. Armstrong: a short appreciation of a generous life

I and many colleagues were sad to learn of the death of a dear colleague Dr Paul Armstrong, on the 31st May 2020, during the Coronavirus pandemic. Paul was a generous, caring man and colleague. He was always mindful of others, what they said and wrote, and maybe this interest in people and their stories brought him to the life history method to which he made a major academic contribution. More of that in a moment.

Paul Armstrong held a number of posts in university adult education: at Leeds, Hull and Birkbeck College, University of London. He worked in further education too.  At Leeds, he was based at the Middlesbrough Adult Education Centre and contributed to the provision of a varied part-time accredited liberal adult education programme across Teesside and North Yorkshire. He was an inspiring, tireless teacher, for whom students always came first. He tirelessly fought for adult education at Birkbeck, at a time when the Department of Adult Education was struggling, despite the College’s roots being in part-time study for adults. Birkbeck was a place, at least for a while, where adult education was taken seriously as an academic discipline, and this work was close to Paul’s heart.

Paul was a key member of the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults (SCUTREA) for more than 30 years. Here is a contribution to be savoured.  He was SCUTREA’s Chair, Secretary, archivist, communications officer and photographer at various times. He would hire a minivan and transport people to and from rail stations. Nothing was beneath his dignity. Paul, in all these senses, was SCUTREA. He compiled a CD-ROM containing all the papers from SCUTREA conferences over a 25-year period: it sits here on my desk. Old technology, I know, but still of value. It was used by the British Education Index, and the entire collection went online. Paul was also part of the influential Kellogg exchange with colleague adult educators in the USA; and later with Canadian, European and Australian adult educators, using diverse lifelong learning networks. He will be missed by colleagues in the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education and the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education as well as by other colleagues across the English speaking world.  

Paul published one of the first systematic accounts of life history as a research methodology in the United Kingdom (Armstrong 1987). What characterises the work was good, even inspiring writing, but also an Annotated Bibliography, encompassing sociology, psychology, feminism as well as adult education. This was characteristically Paul: drawing together a range of resources that others could then exploit. He was a great support to others, like me, who were attracted to the method, and its epistemological as well as methodological assumptions about really worthwhile knowledge. He wrote that ‘the life history is documenting the inner, subjective reality as constructed by individuals themselves, showing how they interpret, understand and define the social world around them, but at the same time, the life history method is able to convey a sense of process (Armstrong, 1987: 8). Of people and lives in movement – like the proverbial adult learner, beginning to see and experience the world in a quite different light – where meanings are made and remade in the company of others. Coming alongside, seriously listening to what is being said, and turning stories into life history – via interpretation and theory – asks a great deal of our humanity, and Paul did all that rather well, as  a thoroughly magnanimous human being.

When I published my first book – Beyond fragments, adults, motivation and higher education, a biographical analysis -  partly born out of frustration at forms of research that most often excluded the human subject  - he was generous in praise. He came to the launch, and remarked to this nervous author, ‘Linden, it is so good to see life history done professionally’. That captures something of Paul, as a man, colleague, adult educator and chronicler of people’s lives. A generosity of spirit and an empathic sensibility for which we owe a great deal. I understand he suffered much from illness in recent years. But his memory, and his life story as an adult educator, will stay with me, as it will countless colleagues. Thankyou Paul for your generosity, and your warm capacity to give and receive from others: the essence of the inspiring adult educator and human being.

Dr Linden West., Professor of Education, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK.


Armstrong, P.F. (1987) The life history method in theory and practice. Newland Papers. social and educational research. Hull: School of Adult and Continuing Education.     

Ps I am grateful for some notes produced by Nod Miller, Miriam Zucas and Rebecca O’Rourke in crafting this appreciation.