The purpose and process of lifelong learning: all work and no play?

By Ezri Carlebach -

The term ‘lifelong learning’ has its modern origins in post World War I reconstruction efforts. In view of the extension of suffrage, and with at least one eye on the principles of the October Revolution in Russia, the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction declared in 1919 that:

‘adult education… is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong’. 1

The use of lifelong learning as a policy term took recognisable shape in the 1970s with the arrival of the ‘knowledge economy’ as a driver of education and skills thinking, soon followed by the creation of a ‘learning society’ as a pan-political aspiration.

Lifelong learning in the sense I intend it here extends across a range of different settings, whether in the workplace, in a youth group, at a local library or community centre, or in a college, institute or university. It also stretches from some point in life at around 14 years through—if demographic predictions are to be believed—to 114 years, covering the various milestones that can occur in a person’s life such as parenthood, career change, relocation and so on.

Work, learn and play

These things, the current orthodoxy asserts, all contribute to employability, encourage aspiration and provide a platform for a future commitment to learning, retraining, reskilling and so on. But it is precisely in the 14–19 age range, when young people make extraordinary leaps in their physical, emotional and intellectual growth, that our system tends to marginalise specific attributes and attitudes that are, in fact, essential to the desired employment and economic outcomes.

These attributes and attitudes are found in play more readily than in either learning or work:he video games industry often comes up as an exemplar of modern design and manufacturing. It seems we have no problem with play as a factor driving consumption of goods and services, but we don’t sufficiently appreciate or encourage its importance to production—and therefore wealth creation—whether in the technical or business realms.

This is of course because play is seen as the realm of the very young or of those at leisure, and thus the opposite of work, whilst at the same time work itself has become an all-encompassing realm, as indicated by the shift in Sunday supplement-speak from ‘work-life balance’ to ‘work-life blend’. Some may argue that ‘life’ here includes play, but not, I would suggest, in the specific manner in which play is important to lifelong learning and its economic consequences.

In his classic work on the primary role of play in creating human culture, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote ‘[t]o dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension – these are the essence of the play spirit’. 2

They are also the hallmarks of effective lifelong learning and at the same time characterise the very employability skills most needed by successful modern knowledge workers and their employers.

Rousseau spoke of ‘the most useful of all arts, the art of training men’. 3  The current political climate demands that those providing publicly supported lifelong learning must prove their usefulness; i.e. that they deliver value for money to econimies  in the form of jobs and/or wealth created, whilst apparently granting less credence to the role of ‘arts’ in those accomplishments.

The question that remains for anyone concerned with the learning supply side is what impact does this economic imperative for lifelong learning have on our practice and our values as a learner- and learning-driven sector? It is important to observe that not only are those values not at odds with the economic priorities of a post-recessionary environment, but they are actually fundamentally important to recovery and growth. We must also beware that the economic imperative does not drive out the play spirit that is, in fact, at the heart of our ability to overcome technological, economic and social challenges.

Ezri Carlebach FRSA is Deputy Director, Communication and External Affairs at University of the Arts London. Previously he was Communication & Research Director at Lifelong Learning UK, the sector skills council for post-compulsory education employers, and he has held senior marketing and communication roles in the arts and heritage, international higher education and financial services sectors.

  1. Quoted in John Field, ‘Lifelong Education’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20: 1, 3 — 15, 2001.
  2. Homo Ludens, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950.
  3. Emile, 1762, Project Gutenberg E-edition, 2004.



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