The ministry for education has produced yet another ‘Lifelong Learning’ strategy document. ‘Lifelong Learning’ has arguably been the most widely diffused term bandied about in education over the last half a century at least.

It was first promoted as ‘Lifelong Education’ with the emphasis on investing in and also recognising forms of non-formal education as part of the mainly UNESCO strategy for providing education for all. This term, originally used in the 1920s by Basil Yeaxlee, was subsequently hijacked by organisations such as the OECD and the European Roundtable of industrialists and streamlined in its definition to become an important feature of the neo­liberal market and competitive individualism-driven current phase of globalisation ‘from above’.

The emphasis is less on the building and fostering of educational structures and spaces for holistic growth and more on ‘learning’, which places the onus on the individual to aspire to take charge of one’s own learning. From a matter of social responsibility, the whole process becomes one of individual concern, responsibility and choice, mostly dependent on one’s means.

‘Lifelong Learning’, in my view, playing around with verse from Shakespeare, is made to look like the innocent flower but can be the serpent under it. Behind this widely diffused term lie interests which are not so ‘innocent’. They are geared to roll back the State, leaving everything to the educational marketplace, with those who cannot compete, lacking the wherewithal, left to flounder by the wayside.

Happily, many are those who can see through this ruse and, often adopting the same language, subvert it to reach social ends. The resources of hope for a social justice-oriented education lie in people and movements acting as social actors circumventing the dominant funding discourse in clever and imaginative ways.

I argued that the previous ‘Lifelong Learning’ national strategy document was characterised by a delicate balancing act between the neoliberal competitivity demands of the dominant and potentially funding institutions (the EU) and retaining vestiges of what once was often called the ‘social contract’ between State and its citizens. Luckily, documents are just those: documents. And yet we keep being flooded with them.

Each time a new minister and his entourage take office, a new strategy ‘docu­ment’ is produced. Is this just a cosmetic exercise? How about taking stock of what, from the previous strategy ‘document’, under then education minister Evarist Bartolo, has been accomplished before embarking on a new one?

Otherwise, this is mere paperwork, symptomatic of our times when things are simply recorded in writing without one’s looking at what really takes place on the ground. I am here referring to that which Jean-François Lyotard, in a prescient way in 1989, called ‘performativity’, one specific meaning from among many other meanings of the term. So, a minister, not even a party in government, changes and we are flooded by a flurry of newly printed documents. 

How about improving the budget and appealing to the imagination of some local councils to invest in communal education and cultural activities

The document, though rather skimpy, has some good points. It recognises the need for a pedagogical approach to be adopted with adults, which is different from that traditionally associated with initial education. It mentions a small percentage of people in Malta actively pursuing adult education, according to statistics gleaned from Eurostat. Statistics can mislead us. They, for instance, make some ignore one important insight from a study the document includes in the references.

This concerns non-quantified uptake of informal provision through intergenerational learning in the family, especially with regard to ICT. A lot of non-formal and informal adult and initial learning occurs beneath the statistical radar and eludes measuring instruments. 

Nevertheless, I would have liked to see greater challenges concerning more democratic critical approaches to adult education which are not accounted for by these measuring techniques ‒ all this in a world scenario where global democracy is eroded by what Yanis Varoufakis calls techno feudalism ‒ few people act as techno barons (your Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk) and reap the ‘cloud’, owning bene­fits in what the renowned Greek economist calls a post-capitalist struggle involving the US and China.

What are the implications for lifelong education in this scenario? 

The main positive point about this docu­ment is its rather belated embracement of the ‘learning city’, promoted by the EU. As with most master concepts promoted by international organisations such as UNESCO previously (the ‘ Learning Society’) or the EU today, let us not treat such terminology as new.

Rather than present the ‘learning city’ as something to which to aspire ‒ the mantra of ‘Towards a Learning society’ ‒ let us seriously take stock of what has been taking place for donkey’s years and recognise and affirm, without over-exposing and maybe subsequently ‘killing’, what already exists.

How about funding research to empirically explore, in concert with local councils, the elements of a learning city or village or town that already exist, rather than reinvent the wheel? How about an ‘inventory’ of what lies, in terms of resources, institutions and informal learning settings, within specific localities?

Many are those who argue that power is often predicated on networks of learning, both for regulation through consensus or disruption through alternative learning or unlearning strategies. Every relation of hegemony is a pedagogical relationship, a prominent Sardinian once wrote. So let us start by taking stock of what already exists as basis for a ‘learning city’. 

Furthermore, how about improving the budget and appealing to the imagination of some local councils to invest in communal education and cultural activities? These can include analysis of what learning is desired, beyond that which is provided, by members of local communities, with special focus on learning in the context of social justice. How does a local community showcase its cultural history and present reality? They would celebrate what the communities had or have in abundance rather than simply lament what they lack.

A Community People’s Museum is a good starting place. How about seriously developing the much floated around idea, in previous curriculum and lifelong learning documents, of schools as multipurpose educational providers, Community Learning Centres at that? This idea, first enunciated in the 1998 draft NMC document and repeated in subsequent curriculum documents, is conspicuous by its absence in this document.

Peter MayoPeter Mayo

This is the first of a two-part series of articles by Peter Mayo on lifelong learning.

Peter Mayo is Professor and UNESCO Chair at the University of Malta.  He is co-author, with Leona English, of Lifelong Education, Global Social Justice, and Sustainability (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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