Mythologies of Adult/Continuing/Lifelong Education

Malcolm Tight
University of Warwick, England
Paper presented at
SCUTREA, 29th Annual Conference, 5-7 July 1999, University of Warwick



Like all disciplines or fields of study, adult/continuing/lifelong education has its own traditions, assumptions, practices and beliefs. This is not, of course, to say that these beliefs are shared equally by all who work within the field, or that they are unchanging. The very way in which I have chosen to label the field suggests something of the evolving and contested nature of its territory. Simply put, and historically framed, adult education and educators might be said to favour participatory learning for its own sake, while continuing education added a concern with accreditation, updating and retraining, and lifelong education is now shifting the focus to cover all learning throughout life (Tight 1999).

Despite these differences in perspective, it may be argued that those who occupy the territory of adult/continuing/lifelong education do, perhaps to a large extent, share similar understandings about the way things are and why that is so. While these understandings usually remain unexpressed or implicit – adult/continuing/lifelong education is, after all, only poorly mapped as a field of study when compared with more established disciplines (Becher 1989) – they are no less strong because of that.

The purpose of this paper is to identify and analyze a selection of these traditions, assumptions, practices and beliefs as myths (cf. Hughes and Tight 1995).

A myth is a kind of story told in public, which people tell one another; they wear an air of ancient wisdom, but that is part of their seductive charm… myth’s own secret cunning means that it pretends to present the matter as it is and always must be. (Warner 1994, p. 13)

To term something a myth is not, then, the same as saying that it is a delusion or fantasy (though it may be). Rather myths are powerful and revered ways of knowing aspects of our world; indeed, so powerful and revered that questions about their relative ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ are not usually on the agenda for those promoting or living the myth.

Myths are also endemic:

There is no dimension of individual and collective life that is not regulated or inspired by myth. Hence, as a microcosm of the social order and of the individual’s inner life, myth provides meaning: it is the horizon that surrounds all aspects of life. (Hegy 1991, : 7)

Thus, for example, older myths about origins and heroes were supplanted, in the modern world, by myths of progress and opportunity. Now, in less certain times, we continue to live by a diversity of myths, ranging from the big bang to Gaia, and from spiritualism to extra-terrestial salvation.

Adult/continuing/lifelong education also has its myths and mythologies. As a field of study and practice, it has a (contested) structure, ideology and purpose: this conference is, of course, further evidence of this. And while, as academics, we may be more critical and reflective than most believers, a good deal of our shared mythologies necessarily goes unchallenged for much of the time. By recognizing these as mythologies, we should, however, be better positioned to deconstruct them by paying attention to their narrative and characterization.

The remainder of this paper is organized in three main sections. First, four key myths within adult/continuing/lifelong education are identified and discussed. Second, as a disruptive device, four counter-myths, articulations of contrary beliefs, are proposed and explored. Finally, some conclusions are drawn on the exercise as a whole.


Four key myths within adult/continuing/lifelong education will be identified in this section for discussion:

Adults are ‘volunteers’ for learning

Education/learning/training is ‘good’ for you

All participation in education/learning/training is of value

The underlying aim of adult/continuing/lifelong education is to produce independent, self-directed learners

This is, of course, a personal selection: you might wish to alter or delete some of them, or add others. The myths chosen also overlap to some extent. Taken together, they produce a fairly consistent picture of what the field is like, or, at least, of one, inevitably partial, perspective on this. However, most, if not all, of those working within the field should be aware of and familiar with these myths, whether they believe in them or not, and with some of the issues that arise from them.

Adults are ‘volunteers’ for learning. Volunteers for Learning was the title of a pioneering American survey of participation in adult education (Johnstone and Rivera 1965). On this side of the Atlantic, a similar title, Choosing to Learn, was later used for much the same purpose (Woodley et al 1987). The myth being promoted here builds on the observation that children and youths have to participate in education and training: schooling is compulsory up until a certain age, and attendance at training sessions may also be mandatory for both those in and out of paid work. Adults, by contrast, are portrayed as making a conscious and free choice to engage in learning. The model of adult presented is clearly one with a fairly stable work and family life, who, viewing a realm of possibilities for expending their time and money, sees the innate value and pleasure of learning.

This myth has a long and varied lineage. In this country, we can trace it through, for example, the Victorian Mechanics’ Institutes, the London external degree, university extension and extra-mural provision, the tutorial class and post-war community development initiatives. Indeed, the entire history of British adult education may be presented as the story of heroic individuals and groups who have put themselves out to further their education (Kelly 1992). There has often, of course, been a strong vocational overtone to this, of men – and it usually has been men, preferably working or lower middle class – seeking to better themselves so as to improve their own, and their families’, life chances. The adult educator’s perspective, by contrast, has tended to emphasize the value of learning for its own sake, as the motor driving the adult towards Maslow’s self actualization.

Education/learning/training is ‘good’ for you. If participation in adult learning is voluntary, the corollary is that it must also, almost inevitably, be ‘good’ for you. Take, for example, the rhetoric of the government’s recent consultative paper, The Learning Age:

Learning is the key to prosperity – for each of us as individuals, as well as for the nation as a whole. Investment in human capital will be the foundation of success in the knowledge-based global economy of the twenty-first century… As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilized society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. (Secretary of State for Education and Employment 1998, p. 7)

This is a very broad myth. Learning is not only ‘good’ for you as an individual, but for the economy and for society; and, by extension, for your family, organization and community as well.

Such beliefs are endemic to our behaviour as educators of adults. While we may take great care in assessing the needs of individual adults, and in finding and enabling access to the most appropriate educational, training or learning activities, we rarely pause (partly, no doubt, because we have so little time) to question whether learning is the answer to every need. For every situation an adult finds themselves in, there is an appropriate learning response. Thus, the adult learning curriculum may be portrayed as based on the needs of life roles, stages and transitions: e.g. entry to the labour market, job changes, retirement, marriage, childcare, divorce and death (McCoy 1977). Just take the course, and you’ll not only cope but come to understand and rise above any difficulties you encounter.

All participation in education/learning/training is of value. This myth follows fairly directly from the first two, and, together, they constitute a triumvirate of basic tenets for educators of adults. All learning, freely chosen and entered into, is enriching and is bound to come in handy some day. Not only that, but all kinds of learning are inter-related and the more you learn the better you get at it. As adult educators and learners, we celebrate this diversity each year during Adult Learning Week, awarding prizes to examples of the most persistent, innovative or deserving adult learners.

Two contemporary examples will serve to illustrate the prevalence of this myth. First, the kind of education provided by universities has been both criticized and warmly embraced as ‘useless’, except in so far as it trained the mind or prepared students to become academics themselves (O’Hear 1988; cf. the 19th century radical adult education tradition of ‘really useful’ knowledge: Johnson 1979). By contrast, considerable emphasis is now placed on the identification of the ‘transferable skills’, such as problem-solving and group-working, produced by degree study, which will be of general use in working life (Bradshaw 1992). Second, the employee development programmes launched by Ford and other companies during the 1990s have commonly laid emphasis on the provision of funds for employees to engage in almost any kind of learning activity (Forrester, Payne and Ward 1995). Academic, leisure and vocational learning are increasingly seen as inter-penetrating and of equal value, each contributing much to adult development (McGivney 1992).

The underlying aim of adult/continuing/lifelong education is to produce independent, self-directed learners. The idea that adult learners were intrinsically, and/or desired to be, independent and self-directed became prevalent from the 1970s onwards, popularized through the writings of authors such as Knowles and Tough (Knowles 1970, Tough 1971). Emphasis was placed on the need to start from where the individual was, to respect and make use of their existing experience, to acknowledge and give credit for the amount of learning they had undertaken on their own, and to tailor subsequent learning activities carefully to their specific interests. More recently, this myth can be seen as informing ideas about action and experiential learning, and well as ‘learning to learn’ initiatives.

In essence, this myth is, of course, just another version of the master/apprentice model. As successful educators of adults – or, at least, ones who are managing or aspiring to hold down some sort of job in this field – we see our role as being to replicate ourselves. We are fairly independent and self-directing, if not, perhaps, quite yet self-actualized, see this as a desirable state of being, and believe that we can and should bring others to this state. The role of educators of adults is, then, not so much to ‘teach’, but rather to help adults through a series of appropriate learning activities, to act as a guide and resource person; in short, to be a facilitator (Brookfield 1986). By re-casting teachers and trainers in this way, and seeing the adult learner as on their way to full independence in learning, the facilitator/learner relationship may be portrayed as a partnership, operating to mutual benefit.


As already indicated, the four myths identified in the previous section are not universally believed by all adult/continuing/lifelong educators. They are open to critique. In this section, I propose to provide something of an unsettling critique by deliberately setting out, for each myth, an opposing or counter-myth. We have, therefore, four counter-myths:

Engagement in adult/continuing/lifelong learning is becoming a compulsory activity

Education/learning/training commonly has unsettling or deleterious effects on those participating in it

Some kinds of education/learning/training are valued much more highly than others

Educators and trainers are in the business of ‘addicting’ learners to their wares.

Engagement in adult/continuing/lifelong learning is becoming a compulsory activity. The myth of adults as volunteers for learning seemed to fit quite well in the immediate post-war decades. Then, education and training were essentially confined to childhood and adolescence (the now derided and revoltingly named ‘front end’ model), the stable nuclear family was seen as the norm, and jobs could be ‘for life’. Now, however, in the language of what has been called ‘fast capitalism’ (Lankshear et al 1997), we are led to expect multiple or ‘portfolio’ working careers, and to undergo regular updating and retraining, or perhaps continuing professional development. In terms of the identity of the field, adult education has been supplanted by continuing education, which is now being subsumed within lifelong learning.

In effect, learning has been re-located within adults’ lives. Adult learning, or at least certain types or aspects of it, has been shifted from its position within ‘spare’ or leisure time and placed as part of work or a new form of work in its own right (Tight 1998a). As such, it is becoming effectively compulsory, at least for those in work or seeking work. Not only that, but the responsibility for finding the time for work-related learning, and for funding it, is being shifted increasingly on to individual adults:

Public financial support for learners should be designed to: bring back into learning those who stopped after leaving school; address particular shortages; widen access for those who are disadvantaged; and enable individuals to choose the method of learning that suits them best. For other adults, the main responsibility will rest with them and their employers. (Secretary of State for Education and Employment 1998, p. 26)

Those who don’t engage in appropriate adult/continuing/lifelong education risk exclusion from the mainstream economy and society.

Education/learning/training commonly has unsettling or deleterious effects on those participating in it. One consequence of the growing compulsion to participate in adult/continuing/lifelong education has been the interest in the experience of those, particularly women, returning to learn and to work. There is now a substantial literature in this area (for example, Pascall and Cox 1993). In a modern parallel to the earlier myth of the heroic working-class man engaging in adult education in his spare time, this presents the heroic woman as striving, but struggling, to cope with the many and conflicting demands of family, work and learning.

What this literature also makes clear, however, is that the experience of engaging in education/learning/training as an adult is not necessarily beneficial, and may indeed be harmful. As ‘Educating Rita’ (Russell 1981) showed, participating in adult learning may lead to the break-up of your marriage and family (as it may, of course, that of the adult educator). It may cause considerable personal stress, as the individual is forced to re-consider and adapt their existing beliefs to encompass new understandings. Meaningful learning is meant to be challenging and unsettling, as learning theory suggests, but many learners are neither prepared nor able to cope with this.

Further, success in education/learning/training brings no guarantee of economic or other reward. Learning does not invariably pay. While there are many rate-of-return analyses which indicate the precise financial return – to the individual and to society as a whole – which might be expected from completing given levels of education (for example, Psacharopoulos 1987), these are retrospective averages. There is a risk involved in making such investments in learning. Some will not find that new job or gain promotion. And, as the relative success of successive government initiatives for re-training the unemployed makes clear, many will not get any job.

Some kinds of education/learning/training are valued much more highly than others. The strength of this counter-myth may seem self-evident from the preceding discussion, but its pervasiveness is worth emphasizing. While the (first) quote from the government’s consultative paper, The Learning Age, linked learning with spirituality, that was the only place it was mentioned. All of the policy initiatives that were then outlined had as their primary purpose the improvement of the national skills and qualification base, and its application to the economy. These initiatives included, for example, expanding further and higher education participation, creating the University for Industry, setting up individual learning accounts, and increasing funding for adult literacy and numeracy development.

This focus on vocationally oriented education and training is, of course, by no means new. It is one that has been shared by all British, and many other, governments throughout this century. It is also both understandable and justifiable: education and training does contribute, directly and indirectly, to the economy; and, without a healthy economy, there might seem little purpose in discussing adult/continuing/lifelong education policy more generally. The point is, however, that, almost regardless of the state of the British economy, non-vocational forms of education, training and learning are seldom discussed in national policy terms and receive little funding. In short, they are poorly valued by comparison with vocational education and training; and not just by government and employers, but by many individuals as well (Tight 1998b).

Educators and trainers are in the business of ‘addicting’ learners to their wares. Students looking for definitions of specialist terms commonly turn to the dictionary for guidance, though we may urge them to at least consult a good dictionary. If you look up ‘student’ in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is, famously, organized on historical principles, one of the oldest definitions given is ‘a person who is engaged in or addicted to study’.

The notion of learning as a drug on a par with alcohol, tobacco or heroin may, at first, seem a little dubious. But adult learning is ‘a business’, and educators of adults operate in a competitive marketplace, in which their survival depends upon their attracting sufficient custom. The whole dynamic of continuing education and lifelong learning is to produce and serve regular, even compulsive, customers. From this perspective, we don’t really want to create independent and self-directed learners. What we want are learning junkies, people who will start on an access course and keep going until they get their PhD, people who will haunt the company open learning centre, people who will enrol for an evening class faithfully every term.


What, then, might we learn from this brief examination of some of the myths and counter-myths which inform adult/continuing/lifelong education? Without becoming embroiled in debate about the relative truth or falsity of any of the positions that I have outlined, I will offer three main conclusions.

First, it is quite possible to view all of these myths and counter-myths as having some validity. It all depends upon the context: what learning and learners are being considered, and, most importantly, who is making the judgement.

Second, your perspective with regard to these, and other, myths and counter-myths will depend critically upon how you identify yourself in terms of adult education, continuing education, lifelong education or the many other available labels for our changing and confusing field.

Third, and finally, it seems highly appropriate that the kind of myths I have outlined may be readily linked with various of the ‘gods’ – regrettably, I can think of no ‘goddesses’ - of adult/continuing/lifelong education, such as Freire, Knowles and Tough. The counter-myths, by contrast, seem to be the product of mere mortals: politicians, employers and sceptical academics like me.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 21 June 1999