Lifelong Learning: Vacuous or Virtuous?

Is there any substance to this pernicious bit of higher-ed speak?

Posted Dec 18, 2012

Where highfalutin blather and jargon are concerned, higher education has much to answer for. One of the most overused and, to my mind, bloated catch phrases of all time is “lifelong learning.” Each and every time I see this boilerplate in a mission statement on a college or university web site, I am put in the mood to paraphrase some screed from Scrooge in A Christmas Carol:

If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "Every idiot who goes about with 'lifelong learning' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly [or, better yet, a thesaurus] through his heart. He should!"

Doesn’t the phrase seem altogether worthy of millions of mindless bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets? Can’t you imagine it as the rubber stamp-iest of all rubber stamps? LIFELONG LEARNING. Maybe that’s just me.

And maybe I need to get over my it because I think there is something to the concept, if not the phrase’s alliterative qualities (certainly, it beats the administrative wont to use that ugly word “facilitate” with abandon or to change the perfectly fine noun “task” into a silly verb—“I was tasked with the responsibility to encourage lifelong learning in our graduates . . .’). So, what do we in higher ed mean when we drop the LLL bomb? We simply mean that a long-term goal of teaching at the college level is to inculcate a desire among our students—soon to be graduates—to pursue ideas across their lives. What LLL does not mean (should not mean) is the pursuit of yet more degrees (i.e., MA, MS, MBA, PHD, JD, MD, DPhil). Don’t get me wrong: Postgraduate degree seeking is fine—I spent some 5 years myself doing it and I’ve spent 25 or so years encouraging it—but such experience is for specialization, not general education, outlook, or perspective. It’s a form of personal development that is somewhat distinct, I think, from the triple L.

As an educator—a teacher and researcher—my hope is that my students learn to read and appreciate challenging, controversial, classical, and contemporary materials while they are in college. That means the old stuff (the Western canon—whatever it might be deemed to be this year), the new stuff (science, social science, non-Western literature), and other stuff (plays, poetry, nonfiction essays and novels, even blogs) that require more time and effort than a casual glance at the front page of the newspaper or Facebook feed. That student interest in these things becomes a pleasant, desired distraction from the ebb and flow of career, family, and crises great and small once the golden days of college are well and truly in the rearview mirror of midlife and beyond. Note that I am not suggesting that one sit by the fire poring over the Riverside Shakespeare or the Brothers Karamazov all the time (although that would be nice—done with Hamlet, are you? What about Troilus and Cressida?), but that college grads maintain some intellectual momentum beyond remembering they enjoyed (and recall being vaguely troubled by) Death of a Salesman or The Crucible–and not just when their kids read or perform them in high school (“Why yes—something about plastics wasn’t it—no, wait, wasn’t it a commentary on the American Dream?”).

Given the general uncertainty of our time, its socio-economic and cultural upheaval, I realize that LLL is a tall order as students who become workers, parents, voters, citizens, neighbors, and friends make their way in the world (yet the historians among us will wryly and wisely point out that it always feels this way in the thick of history—nothing is every smooth or settled—you think we have problems? Try the Civil War or the Black Death). Books, art, music, dance, drama—all these things offer constructive distraction and needed solace from the hurly burly of our days (and after last week’s terrors and our individual and collective reflections regarding it, don’t we need a little distraction and solace?). Something more than the TV, the Internet, the Wii, is called for.

As Freud put it, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks.” Fair enough, but education—ongoing, self-motivated education, education for a lifetime (yes, LLL with a vengeance)—provides a breather (Freud would say a “substitutive satisfaction”) if not an antidote to the contradictions of our days.

 So, I will try to be more charitable about the phrase “lifelong learning” when I encounter it, and I will remember the substance underlying it. But what about you? What do you do—will you do—to capture its virtues for your daily life?

 To close with the season in mind, let's paraphrase Fred, Scrooge's nephew, who chides the old miser: `What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're educated enough.'

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