Lifelong Learning in the 21st Century: a potential conversation opportunity

Anyone remotely interested in education, this entire current issue of Educational Leadership is a MUST read. It is devoted to “What Students Need to Learn.”

I stumbled onto the issue, thanks to this article, The Humanities: Why Such a Hard Sell?

Historically, democratic societies have recognized three broad purposes of schooling: personal, economic, and civic. At the personal level, schools have helped students discover and cultivate individual interests, talents, and tastes; form good habits; and develop an understanding of what it means to lead a good life. Schools have prepared students to contribute productively to the economy by preparing them to pursue a vocation or further study leading toward some profession. And schools have achieved civic goals by equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be good citizens. Together these three imperatives have constituted a holistic understanding of persons as having private, productive, and civic selves.

That holism has atrophied. The civic purpose of schools, when invoked at all, is usually an afterthought, treated largely as a by-product of the economic imperative to develop 21st century skills said to be essential to the modern workforce. The personal dimension of schooling has been reduced to self-expression and self-advancement, wherein a school’s value is defined primarily by whether it helps students earn credentials that will make them employable.

As a high school and college student, I heavily benefitted from a combined history and literature focus. American history and American Literature was team-collaboration effort at that time in my high school. In college, with few exceptions, every single college student at my university was required to take 12 hours of western civilization: 6 hours each semester that was team-taught by a history and English professor.

“Civ for Life”

“An unexamined life is not worth living”

“Generalizations backed up by facts”.

These are just some of the phrases that have stuck with me from those class-times. They impacted my life in countless ways, and it had very little to do with the specific knowledge gained from learning about The Scarlett Letter or World War II or All Quiet on the Western Front or the Renaissance. Instead, it was about the discussions, the inquiry, the drawing larger conclusions, and gaining a greater understanding of the foundations of this country and western civilization. [Since I left college, I believe they’ve expanded civ to also include a requirement for world civ, yes?] But I digress…

I’m not an educator by formal training. However, librarians, professors, and teachers — we’re all educators, just in different venues, different delivery modes, and different skill sets:

Early childhood literacy.

adult education.

lifelong learning



But at the end of the day, we want those whose lives we’ve touch to gain knowledge and then impact the world with that knowledge.

I have friends and colleagues in all these different areas. We all talk in our little bubbles of our profession, what some call “the echo chamber“. In our professional circles, we chat face-to-face, at conferences, online, on listservs, in journals, in emails about what needs to happen to change education and lifelong learning in a society that needs the tools to learn, unlearn, and relearn faster than any other time in history.

What if we all got together, and talked about the future of education, the possibilities, if testing didn’t exist, if the self-created university did formally exist and how it might look?

(I believe it does already thanks to growing open access education content; Yale course lectures on the American Civil War, anyone?)

Could we together come up with some creative new ways and approaches to education? We all have unique skill sets and professional knowledge that complements each other. What if we all worked together? What could we come up with if we dreamed?

Read the Educational Leadership issue I linked to at the beginning of this post and let me know what you think about this idea of a joint conversation. We all see education and that how it currently exists on a large scale isn’t working for some reason. It’s not the teachers (there’s always bad apples, but for every bad one there’s 20 amazing teachers out there), we have access to more knowledge and information than ever before (maybe too much?), so why aren’t kids learning, thinking, analyzing, critiquing, critically thinking, solving problems and issues, becoming civicly engaged (NOT necessarily partisan)?

Even more critical, prior to the information revolution of the last twenty years, you could stop learning if you wanted to, after high school, vocational school, or college, and still survive. But in today’s society of fast-paced information change and rapid knowledge creation, deconstruction, and recreation, I don’t believe people can ever stop learning if they are to be successful in the job marketplace. And again, it’s not necessarily the specific knowledge that comes out of the learning: it’s the discussion, engagement, critical thinking, comparing that makes you a better worker, a better leader, and a better community builder. It’s a lifelong learning society.

So how do we create this lifelong learning society [and maybe help k-12 education in the process without all the silly so-called reform ideas that people know are band-aids, missing the big problems]? I think K-12 educators, university professors, and librarians of all types would be a good group to bring together to start this discussion.

Am I off my rocker on this? Let me know in the comments!