The magnificent, panoramic trilogy USA by John Dos Passos, describes, better than any other work, how a l9th-century agrarian society became a 20th-century industrial power. You need ambition and a summer holiday to read all of its one thousand pages and follow the lives of its array of characters. The preface by contrast is short enough to read during half time at a rugby match.
There Dos Passos tries to capture the essence of his great work. "USA is the slice of a continent. USA is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions . . . a chain of moving picture theatres . . . USA is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. USA is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington cemetery . . . But mostly USA is the speech of the people."
We are living through a similar period of transformation as we attempt - fumbling, painfully to create a learning society from the ashes of industrialism. The policy agenda of the learning society is beginning to form: standards must rise, schools must improve, lifelong learning must become more than an aspiration; and increased investment in education from government, business and individuals is becoming essential.
Yet none of these answer the Dos Passos challenge. How will this social transformation be reflected in "the speech of the people"?
In industrial Britain, once the pleasantries and the talk of the weather were over, for people at an Islington dinner party or on the terraces at Anfield, the most likely question was: "What do you do?" Its meaning was narrower still. It meant; what paid work do you do? And by the 1980s it had become the only question.
What, in a learning society, will be the equivalent question? We could wait and see. No doubt 15 years from now some mega-sociological study will be able to tell us how the pattern of language has changed.
But this is the passive approach. It underestimates the power of language. Language does not change simply to reflect the changes in society. On the contrary through changing the language people can change society. Advertisers have known this for years. Educators have just woken up to the fact. In one school I know you can ask any pupil what the headteacher's favourite word is and I guarantee the reply will be "achievement". Over the past five years its exam results have risen dramatically: the power of language.
If this is so, then why don't we decide to change the language in order to help create the learning society?
For the only question that people used to ask is certainly obsolete.
After all, people's work is now likely to change several times during a lifetime. Many of us will experience temporary (but hopefully brief) periods of unemployment and as more people create the portfolio lives that management guru Professor Charles Handy advocates, asking what paid work people do will be far too narrow a question to generate really interesting conversation. In any case, even in its heyday this question all too often crushed rather than created conversation.
So in order to help create the learning society what should we ask? Isn't it obvious? The question has to be: "What did you learn today?" I took my courage in both hands recently and tried this out at a social gathering. The effect was electrifying. I had more fun and learnt more than at any other event I can remember. One person told me in graphic detail that she had learnt how to prune hypericum. Another person told me that he had learnt how you replace a smashed windscreen on a car, a useful thing to know in our part of north London. Then two people told me what they had learnt at a presentation by a leading Labour politician about the principles underpinning the "New Labour" project.
All this in one evening and more. Even now I don't know whether these people were doctors or panel beaters, accountants or lion tamers and the important thing is I don't care. I learnt something.
I have no intention of patenting this question or of trying to keep copyright. Ed Koch, the flamboyant former mayor of New York, once said: "These are my 10 policies. If you agree with me on eight of them, vote for me. If you agree on all 10, see a psychiatrist". I feel a bit like that about this question. If you're mad enough to think it's worth it, try it out.
In fact, I was thinking of starting a club for people who have stopped asking "What do you do?" and ask instead "What did you learn today?" If you want to join all you have to do is write to me at the Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL and describe a reply or two that you got. In return you will receive a certificate saying "Learning? I asked for it". The real reward, however, will be the satisfaction of fascinating conversations.
More importantly still, each time someone asks the question they play a small part in raising the priority society gives to learning, in pushing education up the cultural agenda, in building the social and political momentum, which will force our politicians to invest in education.
In short, everyone who asks the question makes a contribution to the creation of a learning society.
What did I learn today? I learnt that the east wind in Yorkshire cuts through you like a knife and that the learning society is many things but most of all "it is the speech of the people".