Philosophy & Science of Learning

Education, Lifelong Learning and the Transformation of Society

There is much anger in the world today. People rage against injustice and inequality. Tempers flair as we struggle to protect the planet. Societies change and evolve and our values are transformed over time.

Many practices such as slavery, colonialism and capital punishment were deemed acceptable in the past and considered abhorrent by today’s standards. Our current laws on discrimination and tolerance were hard fought and did not come about without argument and persuasion. Even with these, we know there is still much to do.

The progressive process of transforming values in society is essentially an educative endeavour. Consider how our collective values have changed, even in the course of, for example my own lifetime: My eldest sister had to leave her job when she got married, it was ok to hit children in school, homosexual acts were deemed criminal offences and university fees excluded many from achieving their potential. The situation today is not perfect but it has improved considerably.

However, we do not live in some privileged time when our values have evolved to a pinnacle. We continue to question how we live with each other and strive to make it better.

In this vein, it is not unreasonable to assume that at some point in the future our understanding of the purpose of education and the nature of lifelong learning will be transformed.

Today, many people think of education as simply a process of preparation: as the preparation of the young for adult life, or the unskilled to become competent, or of human capital in the interests of the supply of labour. Despite its prevalence, this is an impoverished view of education and a flawed model of learning.

Education involves more than preparation; as we learn we are already participating. Our world is transformed by journeys from peripheral to central areas of practice, from novice to expert and from passive acceptance to deep questioning of shared values.

Two significant UNISCO reports, Learning to Be (Faure 1972) and Learning: The Treasure Within (Delore 1996), affirm the transformative power of education on the lives of individuals and societies as a whole. The so-called ‘four pillars’ derive from these documents:

Learning to know,

Learning to do,

Learning to live together,

Learning to be.

These statements go beyond the purposes of education to embody the values that underpin the transformative power of lifelong learning.

Notice how they build and connect with each other. “Learning to know” is perhaps the most obvious and commonly associated with the preparation model of education. In recent times we are increasingly aware of “learning to do” as an important function of vocational and professional education. However, it is only when we connect these with “learning to live together” and “learning to be” that we grasp the progressive nature of learning.

In ‘learning to live together’ we are challenged in a different way – to recognise and respect all other people and to share our competence and collaborate for a better world.

Through these actions – learning to know, do, and live together – we move toward the goal of ‘learning to be’. Each person achieving their full potential.

This is the ultimate aim of education and lifelong learning. Perhaps at some time in the future these values will be shared by everyone. That’s the power of transformative learning!

One Comment

  • John McNamee

    I will start with three quotes; “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” Benjamin Franklin
    “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” Bertrand Russell
    “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Albert Einstein

    I was in “teacher training” in 1972, and we would never have access to UNESCO “Learning to be” because, at that very conservative time in education (still is), such a document would be too radical. And it still is, which only goes to show that we are not learning. The notion of the “Learning Society” would be regarded as a loss of power, as institutions sidelined, and as challenging prescriptive received information. “A little learning is a dangerous thing;” says Pope but the “the existence of gigantic communication-media networks” (p.xxxii) so prophesied in this document makes that possible. But our language (as in Foucaultian discourse) limits us in the questions we ask. “Lifelong Learning” has lost its power from the heady expectations of the seminars during the European Year of Lifelong Learning in 1996. It lost its conceptual structure and became a label used in market-speak.
    Similarly, “Learning to know, Learning to do, Learning to live together, Learning to be” lose their power by being structured algorithmically. Thinking them as a system cements the current understanding as just another system, and as systems are rational, they have a limited discourse to describe and explain human learning. Humans are irrational by default, but capable of rational thought. It is this capability that transformative learning relies upon, which is its weakness. We need a different discourse to describe the whole human, particularly recognising Chalmers’ “hard question,” and then we might be able to surf a different horizon into “learning to be.”
    “Education is what is left after you have forgotten all you have learned.” Skinner.

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