Lifelong learning is more than a bland slogan. It's the key to a flourishing - and happy - society. Michael Duffy reads an argument for reclaiming this vital idea from employers and politicians
Lifelong Learning and the New Educational Order
By John Field
Trentham Books pound;16.99
As John Field says, lifelong learning is a deceptively simple concept. It's like motherhood and apple pie: straightforward and reassuring, an obviously good thing. But increasingly it has become a sort of slogan, too; for policy-makers it's an incantation against the huge uncertainties of a bewildering, fast-changing world. The trouble with slogans, though, is that they tend to stop you thinking. "Lifelong learning," Field says, may well be a reality, but it is not an easy one; it demands, from all of us, serious analysis and thought.
Don't get him wrong. As you would expect from the country's first professor of lifelong learning (at the University of Stirling), he is, "by and large", an enthusiastic advocate. The reservations are important, though, and it is they that shape this timely new edition of Lifelong Learning and the New Educational Order, first published in 2000.
Field starts by outlining the fast-moving contexts of globalisation and technological and societal change in which the mantras of lifelong learning have been framed. Much of this is familiar, but, as he rightly says, there have been significant policy advances (and retreats) in the six years since he first constructed his argument. That argument, here developed and extended, rests in part on what he sees as the failure of policy-makers and conventional providers to recognise the sort of lifelong learning that is everywhere around them - the "silent explosion" in highly individual, home-based, "informal" learning delivered by the lifestyle and leisure industries. Casual it may be, even trivial; what matters, says Field, is that, even more than the "knowledge explosion", it has changed the education landscape. Informal learning becomes a sort of consumerism; self-directed, it seeks gratification, not enlightenment, spelling the abandonment of social purpose.
Not that social purpose is any longer the policy-maker's prime concern. The imperative now is economic: the belief that, in a knowledge economy, only by expanding knowledge can we ensure survival; the needs of employers are held to be paramount. Field is sceptical about this. Too much of our training is short-term, he says.Work itself is always changing; there is growing evidence that it is generic attitudes and skills - what he calls social capital - that create the adaptability the economy needs.
But this sort of learning doesn't feature in the policy-maker's perspective. This learning, too, is essentially self-directed, but it offers real advantage to those who participate in it. Conversely, it excludes those who don't, and in the process strengthens what Field sees as the central paradox of the learning society. Lifelong learning, he claims, is reproducing inequality: the gap between those who do or can possess it and those who don't or can't grows ever wider. The more we leave it to the individual to acquire knowledge, the more easily we legitimise the social and economic exclusion of those who don't. We begin to characterise this, too, as "self-directed".
It is a careful argument, comprehensively referenced both to government policy and to academic research. Field is critical of government's unwillingness, as he sees it, to challenge its fundamentally conservative assumptions about education and training, but is still - as educators always should be - optimistic. Hence the "new educational order" of his title.
Four things are needed, he claims, if as a society we are to get lifelong learning right.
First, we have to get schooling right. It is schools that lay the foundations for learning ability and for learning disability; it makes no sense, therefore, to plan and manage schooling "as though nothing has changed". Yes, of course the basics matter, but everything else - teaching, the curriculum, the accreditation of learning, the role of the family - requires attention too.And if that sounds suspiciously like the educational progressivism of the much caricatured 1960s, that's just too bad: it is the minimal response we can make to the technological and societal changes that frame our learning.
Second, we have to widen participation in adult learning. If we leave it to the tug and flow of market forces, the opportunities will go to those at the front of the queue. If we leave A-levels in place (a nod perhaps to Mike Tomlinson, oddly not mentioned here) we close too many gates.
Third, we need to review the curriculum, to strip out the focus on factual and often outdated knowledge. Fourth (and this too is familiar ground), we have to put new value on the work-placed route to learning and look again at the "congealed and rigid system" that national vocational qualifications have turned into. We have to challenge the employers' claim that it is they alone who own this sort of learning; specifically, we have to recognise that it is informal, self-directed learning that may yield the best returns for learners and for the economy - and for society as a whole.
One of the stimulating aspects of Field's view of a genuine learning society is that it rests on the unfashionable conviction that a prime function of all learning is to build social capital. Education providers have, he points out, an important role in connecting individuals not just with each other but with their local communities and interest groups, too.
Yet we give these communities - families, voluntary bodies, trade unions, councils - little responsibility and little trust. If we are going to create a genuinely inclusive learning society, we need to involve these players more, and empower them. Social movements should be learning movements, and vice versa.
There is a risk in all of this, as Field readily acknowledges. Learning is by its very nature subversive; politicians have always wanted to control it. But it is also, or should be, value-led. One of its legitimate roles is to challenge the assumptions on which government policies and strategies are based. Given the current state of the world, that may be an all-important function.
So Field's argument has wider implications. As an analysis of the factors that determine educational policy and practice it is comprehensive and persuasive. It is also well written.Although perhaps not as accessible to learners themselves as it might have been, it should be compulsory reading for teachers and policy-makers in the field of continuing education.