Lifelong learning

On the topicality of “old hat”

At one time or another, everyone is faced with the question
whether to drive themselves or to be driven.” 
(Nicolas Born: Selbstverantwortung (Self-Responsibility))

Once again, a contribution of mine revolves around the topic of learning. This time: lifelong learning. “Old hat” that could not be more topical. As early as 1792, Marquis de Condorcet pleaded for an “éducation permanente” in his project for the reformation of the education system. UNESCO resurrected this idea of lifelong learning in 1962 and since the 1990s it has been increasingly and emphatically imposed on our consciousness by the OECD, the European Commission, also our government and national institutions. And fittingly, Ursula von der Leyen recently proclaimed the coming year the “Year of Skills”.

Why is there such an exaggeration of such an elementary human quality? Isn’t it now a platitude that we cannot not learn? Curious as I am, I was interested to find out what some of my contemporaries think about lifelong learning. I received mostly surprised reactions and a wide range of opinions, e.g. “It’s old hat, I’ve been doing it since I was a child, if I stop learning, I’m dead”. But also: “What do you mean with this smokescreen? Stop it, it’s a thing without beginning and end, is that something on top? Don’t we already have enough on our plates, I have a life sentence as it is.” Well, with “life-long” some people involuntarily associate legal sentences, but miss the intended meaning.

I find it striking that this impression of the normal and self-evident among a vast majority of my contemporaries – whose opinions are by no means representative, but are also shared by me – stands in contrast to an almost evocative topicality and urgency of political and economic institutions, which is also represented by NGO institutions. A prominent example is the “European Association for the Education of Adults” ( with its initiatives. On the one hand, the topic of lifelong learning has something self-evident, normal about it; on the other hand, this topicality and urgency is conveyed to us. What is behind it? What drives the urgency to learn a life long?

I find plausible answers to these questions in the media. The war in Ukraine, global warming, migration, social fragmentation, digitalisation, threats to democracy, dynamic changes in the world of work make it easy to understand why politicians see it as topical and urgent that we should learn and in particular throughout our lives. The imperative is clear: be an active democratic citizen, contribute to social cohesion and equality and justice, ensure sustainability, your health and well-being, accept migration and demographic change and, last but not least, become digitally literate and ensure your own employability so that you do not become a burden on the social systems.

On the one hand, our education system is an attractive educational landscape with a wide range of institutions offering various educational paths and degrees, but on the other hand, it is subject to massive criticism from various experts and institutions because the way in which skills are taught does not meet the needs and requirements of society. So no motivation and guidance for lifelong learning can be expected from there.

But then there is adult education. After school, higher education and vocational training, it is not the fourth pillar of the education system, but rather the fifth wheel on the wagon (Schäfer, 2017). The appeal is therefore directed at the individual and is: professionalise your entrepreneurial self and be competitive. Against the background of the quality of our education system, I could criticise this. But I interpret this appeal as a kind of wake-up call. A wake-up call with the implicit request to become aware of one’s resources and potential.

However, one must also be able to pick up the transmitted message. In her book “Mindset” (2017), psychology professor Carol Dweck distinguishes between two mindsets: “growth mindset” as a term for an attitude of openness, curiosity, further development, and “fixed mindset” as a term for an attitude of – in short – “I have and can do everything I need to live”. There is no need for long reflections on who can do something with this appeal and who cannot. Everyone is the architect of their own fortune – we know that.

I personally do not see lifelong learning reduced to a panacea for the structural change taking place at different levels. For me, something crucial is missing here. With regard to the necessary demands for lifelong learning for the functioning and sustainability of our society and economy as well as for the strengthening of European cohesion, I see a gap, without which the whole thing seems to me like a bill without the landlord.

I am not worried about people with a “growth mindset”. They are on the right track. And for people with a “fixed mindset”, any attempt at enlightenment is probably a wasted effort. I hope it’s only a minority. But in between I suspect a considerable number of people who are open-minded, open to change out of insight or necessity. To awaken in them the desire and curiosity to become aware of their own resources and potential, to rediscover the childlike desire to learn, to develop a “growth mindset”, that needs more than the already existing measures such as educational leave. Politics and business should therefore provide more space and time in working life to support the development of individual potential. This could open up a path from a mere function-oriented role to something in line with personal interests and inclinations. Moreover, this path would lead from the professional to the personal sphere and contribute to a meaningful life.

Lifelong learning – or as Chip Conley more aptly put it: learning long life – builds on the attitude of a “growth mindset”. On the one hand, this means continuously acquiring and expanding new knowledge, but on the other hand, it also means reviewing existing knowledge for its usefulness and unlearning it if necessary. For this, each person must consciously decide for themselves whether they want to embark on this path. In my opinion, this is the essential crux of lifelong learning, namely to make us aware of what we take for granted, to make us reflect on it and to develop our learning competence. After that, learning and the experience of self-efficacy will act like a flywheel and energise the process of lifelong learning.

If you have followed me this far, you are probably expecting my opinion on what specifically should be learned. I will gladly fulfil this expectation – in my next post.


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