Tuesday, February 03, 2015


Lifelong Learning and Its Discontents

(Hat-tip to Tressie McMillan Cottom for the idea behind this one.)

Is “lifelong learning” a good thing or a bad thing?  I suspect the answer depends on the definition, and on what you do for a living.

I hear plenty of my fellow academics wax rhapsodic about the virtues of lifelong learning.  They’re sincere in what they’re saying; many of them embody the idea themselves.  They mean several different things by “lifelong learning,” though, which leads to some confusion.

My personal understanding of “lifelong learning” involves picking up the skills to be able to investigate and discover things on your own.  That means a level of literacy and numeracy sufficient to navigate relatively complicated material without help, or at least without sustained or intensive help.  Ideally, it also involves a lively curiosity.  Without that, the skills are largely wasted.  Sadly, higher education struggles as much with the curiosity piece as with the skill piece.

If that were all it meant, I don’t expect that many people would object.

But some take a more literal approach.  They seem to envision graduates cycling back to credit-bearing courses every few years until retirement, if not longer.

From within academia, I see the appeal of that view.  Enrollments are the backbone of our economic model; if we get more repeat customers, that helps pay for all sorts of things.  From a less cynical perspective, it’s certainly true that workers in many industries need to refresh some element of their content knowledge from time to time in order to remain current.  Whether the changes are technological, scientific, or even regulatory, high-performing workers effectively don’t have the option of ignoring them.  So they have to return to the well from time to time to avoid obsolescence.  

But that version of “lifelong learning” strikes much of the public more as a chore than a goal.  It’s acknowledged as a sort of necessary evil, or tolerated as a fact of life, but it’s hardly considered positive.  Each return to school costs money and time, and people in midlife often have plenty of competing demands on both.  

Returning to retool for a new career is usually regarded more positively, but people who do it once usually do it with the hope of not doing it twice.  Having to go back to school to change careers every few years is a pretty dispiriting prospect.  At some point, most people want to move past the ‘student’ stage and get on with life.  Those of us who have made academia our lives may not grasp the distinction, but most civilians do.  

It’s easy to write those attitudes off to anti-intellectualism, and some of that is always around.  But much of it is exhaustion, and the exhaustion comes from entirely respectable sources.  Work a full-time job, help the kids with their homework, shuttle them to after-school activities, take care of meals and laundry, and get some sleep, and time for anything else is at a premium.  In that setting -- a pretty common one -- “lifetime learning” can just sound like one more task.  It’s not the way to recruit allies.

I understand why academics might feel threatened or insulted by talk of “acceleration” of completion, or even of “completion” as a goal in itself.  At its worst, it mistakes credentials for what those credentials are supposed to signify.  But it’s also a sign of respect for people’s time.  

If we want to keep to “lifelong learning” as a rallying cry, we need to embrace forms of it that don’t come across as chores.  Otherwise, it lands with a thud, and defeats the purpose.  If that means being a bit more open to different means to an end, well, we probably should be anyway.  

I'll just note quickly that there are a few professions where "cycling back" on a regular basis is required in order to maintain certification. For some, it's probably a chore, but for others it provides opportunities to grow in the profession.

(There's an interesting geographical issue here: for those who must regularly take classes to maintain certification, such classes must either be nearby, online, or easy to do over a long weekend...)
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Lifelong learning is what you do to keep current in an ever-changing field so you don't get replaced by a new college grad. Usually done via publications and conferences and learning from mentoring new hires (trade what they did not learn in school for what they did learn) in active technical fields. My dad has been retired for years and still keeps up with developments in engineering.

In other cases it takes the form of recertification classes, as noted by Anonymous above, but there is a move to generate cash flow from profitable classes taught to retirees. That is probably what you are hearing about on the leadership side, and ties in with what you wrote two days ago about an older demographic going to college.
Your conception of lifelong learning, Dean Dad, is the old liberal arts version. As I understand the strong form, it's what the liberal arts curriculum builds a foundation for, namely an understanding of what constitutes good reasoning, what are the big unanswered questions, and how one might go on after graduation to continue to participate in the quest for answers. (And yes, it takes a modicum of self-discipline to go on reading and getting involved once grades, or pay, or a chance to impress a crush, no longer serves as incentives.)

In my hitch at Wayne State, I encountered something else flying under the banner "College of Lifelong Learning" that offered degrees in general studies. Let's say it was in bad odor among some of my colleagues in the more traditional disciplines.

It sounds like this new model is an attempt to get in on the professional development and recertification business. Converted teachers colleges get a lot of their masters and doctoral students from the ranks of teachers seeking a pay raise or a promotion. So if there's a way to get the same kind of business going among other crafts and professions, why not?

There's a fourth kind of lifelong learning, which takes place completely outside of college or school (although a few of the skills acquired in school are helpful.) Ask anyone who is working on a proper family history or attempting to build a believable model railroad.
^^^ That is SERIOUS work! You are hauling enough coal to contribute to global climate change.

I really liked the section where there was a new trestle next to the abandoned alignment.
CC, that's the work of several lifelong learners. The Canyon Diablo bridge is a real feature of the real Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, west of Winslow, Arizona, that replaced an earlier trestle. And model railroaders generally like to have a coal mine (or in my case, a coal wharf) for all the work it generates.

I bet you could find a local model railroader to work with, particularly if you have any facility with hand tools or soldering irons. And a bad day of model railroading beats a good day of office hours.
I'm a strong believer in the old liberal arts version (in other words, I'm trying to help my students develop the mindset that they don't have to be taught how to do every specific writing task that they might later be asked to complete; they need to learn how to approach an unfamiliar writing task), but, yes, I, too, have the sense that a change is coming, and that it relates to attracting additional tuition-payers (either students who pay their own ways or businesses that are willing to pay the way of their employees). At least at my state university, it's an attempt to replace the dollars that no longer come from the state (so, perhaps, an indirect higher ed tax on both corporations and individual citizens).

We also have an affiliation with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which, as far as I can tell, embodies the old understanding of the term (and may to some extent serve as a bulwark against the second, by having taken possession of the term at a reasonable number of institutions. Joining costs a bit of money, but, at least at my school, not as much as a single credit hour of regular tuition).
I don't have time for lifelong learning when I've been working on the railroad all the live-long day.
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