An Athenian philosophy student is said to have asked the Delphic Oracle who was the wisest philosopher of the world, and was told that this was Socrates, who was wise enough to ask others about the things he did not know.
This spawned the "Delphi" research method of questioning independent experts, which has now been used for an ambitious study of adult education in 16 European countries.
The Eurodelphi project, led by Walter Leirman, head of the social and family pedagogy unit at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, aims to influence national and European policy.
This month, Leuven hosted the project's European conference, following a series of national surveys and national conferences. Eurodelphi hopes to feed into the European Year of Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in 1996 and the Unesco World Conference on the Education of Adults in 1997.
It has built a unique data bank of responses from 1,750 educators, researchers, policy makers and commentators in 13 European Union countries or regions, as well as the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia, on continuing education.
Some participants have complained that the bulky project questionnaire does not take enough account of each country's individual circumstances, making comparisons difficult.
There was repeated concern at the Leuven conference that learners themselves were not included in the survey. "We talked about including learners right from the start, but financially it was not feasible," Professor Leirman said.
While the underlying assumption was that learners would have different views and goals from the experts, the Scottish and Irish surveys had included interviews with learners, whose views largely echoed those of the experts.
Whatever its shortcomings, Eurodelphi is remarkable in having brought together two distinct groups, those who see adult education as reacting to change and helping people cope, and those who see it more as an agent of change.
The survey asked about the seriousness of problems confronting adults, ranging from distrust of politics to a lack of meaning in life.
It then asked the degree to which education could help solve these. Unemployment, changing work patterns, and time management and stress were seen as the most serious problems. But education was seen as most effective for problems which were not considered particularly serious: insufficient professional knowledge, new technologies, and access to information.
Catalonia had most problems, but also held the strongest belief that education could help. Spain signalled the lowest level of problems, and the lowest belief in education's potential contribution.
The French survey revealed a high degree of problems combined with a low belief in education's capacity to solve these. The survey found that particularly innovative work was being done to help adults improve their employability, learn how to learn, communicate better, and study maths and computing. But managing home and the family, citizenship, and giving meaning to life also needed attention.
The survey found that most countries had no main law for adult education, and most wanted it. There was also majority support for national advisory adult education councils.
The Leuven conference upheld the principle of subsidiarity, opposing European influence in areas that could be tackled more effectively by national governments. But there was backing for a European Union programme of staff and student exchanges, and for multicultural education to give not only learners but also educators and policy makers a better understanding of different countries and regions.
Tom O'Dwyer, European Commission director general for education, training and youth, assured delegates that the forthcoming European Year of Lifelong Learning was much more than a one-off promotion of adult education.
Eurodelphi: The Future Goals and Policies of Adult education in Europe. Copies are available from FOPA-Universite Catholique de Louvain, Place Cardinal Mercier, 10, 1348 Louvain-la Neuve, Belgium.