Yet another Government consultation on Lifelong Learning. It actually makes you lose the will to live. Every few years we get yet another report full of platitudes. 'Lifelong Learning' trips off the tongue (beware of alliteration) but it’s a glib, confused, if not misleading, phrase. No one describes themselves as a ‘Lifelong Learner’ – it would sound pompous, even ridiculous. To be honest, I don't really think that Lifelong Learning is a 'thing', just the rhetoric one sees in reports and PowerPoints.
In truth, most of us, after being put through the wringer of intense schooling, can’t wait to see the back of it. Even those who extend schooling for another three or four degree years are often weary of the endless diet of formal learning and exams. If Lifelong Learning means more and more qualifications, forget it. Lots of people are now being prompted and pushed into being academic, when they’re not, prolonging their schooling, when the evidence suggest that it neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives. Lifelong learning, so far, has meant extending schooling. Of course, the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. We may even want less learning. Bryan Caplan has argued that more people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer. But to what end? Signalling. Credential inflation is the wasteful result.
In my lifetime, I‘ve seen the Lifelong Learning brigade dismantle vocational learning in favour of University for all – well not really all, as they killed off support for adult learners (which is what Lifelong Learning was supposed to be about) – hence the near bankruptcy of the OU. They talk the talk but at the end of the day – the focus has been on 18 year-old undergraduates. That’s a shame. For all the rhetoric they default back to their own little world.
Even in work, HR has a tendency to become the department that actively defends the organisation against its own employees through an endless diet of compliance courses. Is this Lifelong Learning? Or is it sitting in a 2rd rate hotel room full of round tables having to endure some god-awful Powerpoint presentation, or worse, being asked to form groups to answer ill-framed questions, then feed your results back to the ‘facilitator’. If so, that's the opposite of learning – it’s conformity and compliance that often turns people off learning.
If you mean keep open opportunities to reskill, fine. But for many that’s usually too little too late, after mass redundancies. Janesville, about a community in the US hit by factory closures, exposed the dangers of the reskilling promise. These hastily improvised projects are usually too little too late.
‘Lifelong Learning UK Council’
Remember them? Thought not. An organization so invisible, that no one noticed when it disappeared, basically a bunch of University and College administrators with a couple of librarians thrown in for good measure, who thought that lifelong meant 18-22. I didn’t come across a soul in the learning industry who even knew that it existed. Although they thought that ‘employers... will look to this SSC for the standards and qualifications of the people who deliver learning in their own workforce.’ This is what happens when Lifelong learning is actually seen as lifelong teaching. There was nobody at the wake when it was closed down.
Life is for living, not learning
Lifelong Learning is a shallow phrase as it assumes that we need something we don’t. For many, the book group or film club is formal enough, a group that encourages you to read something new and different. Life, for most, is for living, not learning. We learn to lean without formal structures, following our interests and curiosity.
Lifelong Learning is a phrase that appears in lofty reports, grant applications or by organisations that no one has even heard of. It’s a weasel phrase. Nobody has ever, or wants to, call themselves a Lifelong Learner. It’s a sort of educational conceit – stick with we ‘educators’, you’ll need us – for life. Adults do not want to be infantilised by this sort of jargon. They’re adults not learners. The older you get the less inclined you are to want to cram and sit exams, as you know you’ve forgotten most of what you previously learnt. I’m all for recommending that people remain curious throughout their lives but life is not a course.