Analysis: We have ways of making you learn

January 5, 2001

Is lifelong learning a form of social control? Alison Utley considers the arguments

Education secretary David Blunkett wants an extra 625,000 adults to enter education next year. His Skills for Life paper launched late last year says further and higher education institutions and employers should work together to improve the employability of the workforce. Not only must basic literacy and numeracy be improved but adults must also have access to high-quality learning opportunities.

This underpins a report published last month by a Department of Trade and Industry Foresight panel on Britain's ageing population. The Age Shift - Priorities for Action points out that the age pyramid is being reshaped as people are living longer and birth rates are falling.

Older workers will be called on to plug the demographic gap. "An older workforce will need to maintain and extend skills and expertise," says the report. "The government should raise the profile of its lifelong learning initiative and develop it as a top policy priority."

But academics are asking whether lifelong learning is in fact a confidence trick in social engineering. Its popularity with governments and educators has elevated its status so that anyone failing to take part might think they were letting down not only themselves but society too. Is it in fact the new assertion of the values of white, male, middle-class England?

Phil Hodkinson, of the University of Leeds, says it is in danger of becoming the 21st-century equivalent of church-going: something that divides worthy from unworthy citizens.

"Lifelong learners, as portrayed by the government, are continually meeting new challenges and exploring opportunities. They are model workers who are always able to find new employment or respond to the latest challenges in the workplace."

Professor Hodkinson challenges the assumption that all learning is by definition good. "Not all learning is beneficial to society and determining what is beneficial involves contested value judgements," he said. "It is well known, for example, that prisons are particularly effective learning organisations - if we want people to be better criminals, that is."

No one would argue with educators encouraging people to learn if the problem is simply their lack of confidence, said Professor Hodkinson. But educators are treading a fine line.

"If lifelong learning is to be more than a piece of lifeless rhetoric we need to develop better ideas about what we mean by it, we need to find out how it occurs and what can be done to enhance it," Professor Hodkinson said. "If we fail to develop these ideas, the current opportunity will be squandered."

Kent University sociologist Frank Furedi said: "If you scratch the surface, lifelong learning is a confidence trick." He added: "Real human beings learn all the time and by professionalising that learning you risk disempowering people because unless they gain qualifications they are somehow not prepared for the world. This is social engineering."

For Furedi, the fact that lifelong learning is targeted at the specific needs of people at different points in their lives means it becomes a way of socialising individuals into accepting standard government perspectives.

Kathryn Ecclestone of Newcastle University sees a move towards "compulsion" in lifelong learning arising from wider ideological trends towards moral authoritarianism in the guise of liberal intentions. "Like compulsory citizenship, learning is increasingly seen as salvation," she said. "But this kind of caring inclusivity is far from a cynical hijacking of liberal values merely to disguise more sinister motives. It stems from genuine concerns about social fragmentation."

Ms Ecclestone believes passionately in the benefits of learning but she is equally passionate about individual choice. "I want to find ways to motivate people to learn but the drift towards labelling people who don't participate can be damaging. Lifelong learning is beginning to be seen as a form of welfare equated with formal learning controlled by institutions. Like health, learning is moving under state jurisdiction in ways that blur the lines between choice and compulsion, alternatives and mainstream.

"Learning, when people choose and enjoy it and have some say in its content, is life-enhancing, maybe even life-extending. We don't yet know if the learning on offer to those who reject it will combat social exclusion."

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, has sensed an air of authoritarian thinking but has a quite different reaction to it. Niace surveys have revealed that while 90 per cent of the population believes education makes a positive difference to job and life opportunities, up to a third of adults believe "it is not for the likes of me". And while education campaigns can work, they take time. Meanwhile, the effects of exclusion are reinforced.

"Why can't you have benign compulsion?" Mr Tuckett asked. Just as health and safety legislation has demonstrated that giving up some freedoms secures others, so, he believes, would an expectation that everyone will have time out to learn. "Education under the old order taught too many people that education and training are for other people. We might redraw the boundary between compulsion and choice. Done well it would fire the passion for learning that is characteristic of adult learners."

In her recent book, Politics, Policies and the Future of Lifelong Learning , Ann Hodgson of the Institute of Education says that what the government is doing is focusing on the removal of barriers to learning while putting all the emphasis on the individual to take part.

"People's lives and attitudes are complex and they just may not be able to take part. Lifelong learning has to be part of a much bigger package of measures to address social and economic ills. It cannot solve everything on its own."

Politics, Policies and the Future of Lifelong Learning , Kogan Page, £19.00.

What does lifelong learning mean?

Alan Tuckett , director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Learning: "It is the recognition that what we learn informally is as important as what we learn formally. And, most important, the label gives people permission to recognise that learning for economic prosperity and social inclusion are the same thing. Work is a key location to reach adults and I would happily see legislation that gave adults entitlement to learning time at work. I would extend it to offer every adult two days out of ordinary life to study anything they want - with back-up for child and elderly care. For the work rich/time poor, time out would be a blessing; for time rich/work poor people it would offer a chance to normalise learning."

Phil Hodkinson , professor of lifelong learning at Leeds University: "There are two approaches to the subject, both inadequate:

  • Learning is life, or rather a fulfilled life. Lifelong learners are continually meeting new challenges and exploring opportunities. They are model citizens who, as David Blunkett wrote, 'play a full part in their community'. But there are two problems with equating learning with life. First, learning disappears as a meaningful activity. To turn the rhetoric around, if I am regularly in employment and an upright citizen, I must be learning. Second, there is a strong if subtle moral imperative: if I am not learning, I am letting down my family, my employer, and my country.
  • Lifelong learning is a linear pathway. The key is to get foundation education right. If everyone at school achieved adequate standards, and most went on to college and university, their early successes would ensure subsequent lifelong learning. Learning can be safely left to chance and individual whim, once the marginal qualification thresholds have been achieved. If this is true then the phrase lifelong learning is meaningless. All that is needed is more and better education for young people and remedial opportunities for those who missed out first time round."

Kathryn Ecclestone , lecturer in post-compulsory education, Newcastle University:

"There is a danger that lifelong learning is equated with an extension of the formal pathway that starts with the early years curriculum. Lifelong learning becomes a series of sticking plasters.

"In its most liberal sense, lifelong learning arises from a positive, satisfied proactive role in the community, at work and in the family."

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