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College Quarterly
Summer 2014 - Volume 17 Number 3
Lifelong Learning in Europe: National Patterns and Challenges
Ellu Saar, Odd Bjørn Ure and John Holford (Eds.)
Northampton MA, USA / Cheltenham, UK: Edgar Publishing, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

This is a book that stands well on its own, but that also deserves to be seen in a larger context. Its subject is broad, but well enough defined. It deals with the topic of adult education and it is directed toward an audience that is concerned with precisely the issues it purports to address. It does an admirable job. I wish, however, to insert it into a somewhat different argument. That will be my responsibility and not the fault of the editors for whom I have great admiration. I will stray for a while, but I will return to the book itself in section III. Those impatient for a précis and assessment are invited to skip sections I and II, for they were not written for readers who are easily annoyed by circuitous routes.


Let me first briefly discuss Europe from an admittedly limited North American perspective. English-speaking North Americans sometimes display a peculiar conceit when contemplating Europe in general and the European Union in particular. They can become unaccountably pretentious, especially when considering the acknowledged political and economic troubles affecting the older part of the Western world. Recovering from the horrors of World War I and World War II, a legacy of noxious nationalisms dating back from beyond the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to the much more recent tensions of the Cold War, it seemed an astonishing leap of faith to attempt to cobble together a united Europe out of the remains of some very unpleasant days.

So, when Sir Winston Churchill broached the notion of a United States of Europe in 1947, there was understandable scepticism. Still, in view of the evident success of the Marshall Plan, the apparent stability of the stalemate between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the robust economic gains in Western Europe attributable in part to the creation of the European Economic Community in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the 1993 Maastricht Treaty represented a bold and welcome step toward democracy, peace and the promise of increased capitalist prosperity. By creating the European Union (EU), continental leaders made clear that it was their ultimate goal to fashion a united Europe with a common commitment to representative democracy, mutual security, economic growth and as much cultural cohesiveness and sense of community as their diverse backgrounds would allow. There was hope for interring old rivalries, bringing antique hatreds to an end and building deliberately toward a common (at least loosely) integrated future.

Still, even though the prospect of a harmonious and prosperous European continent seemed to be an undeniable good, a lingering sense of superiority remained in the no-longer-so-very-New World. After all, throughout Europe national interests were still important and sometimes intense rivalries remained. The prospective loss of sovereignty among proud old nations was worrisome. The disastrously violent break-up of Yugoslavia (1991-1995), obviated only in part by the peacefully negotiated dissolution of Czechoslovakia, came as a rude shock and did not augur well for naive optimists who hoped that rational and prudential self-interest would overcome centuries of religious bigotry and tribal enthusiasms. Rapid progress toward Churchill’s dream remained uncertain and possibly elusive.

Meanwhile, in North America the relentless narrative of “American Exceptionalism” assured confidence that Europe provided little of interest to the United States in terms of lessons for good governance; moreover, even in Canada where rumblings of separatism and two (failed) referenda had brought the country to as high a level of emotional anxiety as Canadians can normally sustain, a measure of self-assurance remained. The new nations seemed convinced that Europe had little of interest by way of tutelage in matters of either federalism or representative democracy.

So, after the largely American-induced financial crisis of 2008 and its devastating consequences in parts of Europe, there was an unpleasant hint of schadenfreude as many Americans and even some Canadians deflected self-criticism by pointing fingers at Iceland and Ireland, Spain and Italy and especially Greece as examples of countries in which the economy was badly managed and, in some cases, where moral vice and ethical corruption contributed to near collapse. A few chronic complainers, especially on the political right, went so far as to pronounce the EU terminally ill or, at the least, much reduced and degraded as some countries came dangerously close to defaulting on their debts and being unpleasantly labeled “economic basket cases.”

Above all, attention was directed toward allegedly inflated public service salaries, generous welfare systems, abundant paid holidays, extensive parental leaves and ample retirement schemes that were said to deplete economies which already lacked the energy and rugged individualism needed to create something akin to the “American Dream.” The recommended therapy, of course, was “austerity,” cut-backs in public spending, privatization of public services and an all-out assault on trade unions. It didn’t work in North America and it only exacerbated the situation in Europe; but, since each failure of policy could be blamed on the victims, the pathology prevailed and persisted.

Of course, more generous souls and, in particular, relatively recent European immigrants who retained close connections to their countries of origin did not indulge in such hypocrisy; nonetheless, the EU’s troubles made North American casualties of Wall Street’s financial institutions and their political enablers feel a little better when they heard that some Old World countries were hurting as much or more than they were and that the pain could be attributed to EU politicians, bureaucrats, bankers and especially to trade unions, social programs and workers’ pensions.

Within the neoliberal litany, a major point was that any suggestion that minimum wages be increased, public sector salaries be linked to inflation (almost no one contemplated an actual raise) and needed infrastructural investment be fast-tracked were to be derisively rejected. Even public sector pensions to which employees had contributed throughout their working lives were looked upon as a tasty financial morsel, ripe for picking and applicable to reduce the bogeyman of public debt.

More thoughtful individuals took a different view. Building a functioning, continent-wide liberal democracy with a mixed capitalist economy had not been an easy task for either the United States (where any hint of “socialism” drives the authorities and the bulk of the population apoplectic) or in Canada where neoliberalism is less strident but far from totally discredited much less absent. Occupying vast tracts of land by fair means or foul, managing the importation of diverse cultures and organizing complex federal systems of governance has been an evolutionary process that quite obviously remains a work in progress.

As difficult as the North American nation-building projects may have been, however, we may legitimately ask how much more difficult it was initially to bring together six countries into the former European Economic Community, to expand that to fifteen in the original European Union and to grow that to the current twenty-eight with seven to ten nations awaiting entry―particularly when we recall that many of them had been at war with one another only a few decades before?

Surely any success in achieving cooperation and, eventually, confederation among parties to two of the most hideous conflicts in recorded history should be regarded as remarkable. Likewise, any parallel success in forging common bonds among people with dissimilar and often contradictory cultures, social arrangements, languages, political institutions and sometimes dramatically different stages of socio-economic development is estimable, despite or maybe also because of their almost claustrophobic geographical proximity.

The question North Americans and others should therefore consider is not: “What is the matter with Europe?” It is, instead, “What can people with similar but sometimes simpler challenges learn from the Europeans?” It’s not that the EU has been an astonishing success (its Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding), but that the success it has managed to achieve is astonishing. I think that the answer to the proper question of what others can learn is simple enough. It is the virtue and efficacy of an admittedly precarious but persistent and pragmatic modesty.


Part of the explanation of creeping cooperation in the European Union involves an approach to policy formation, decision making and administration that specifically eschews a top-down, authoritarian model. Put in somewhat philosophical terms, the achievements of the EU have not followed the Platonic method of assembling and achieving consensus (also through fair means or foul) on some generalized political, social and economic axioms and then elaborating a framework for a workable system using what is called the deductive reasoning. This may work well enough in military organizations, religious orders and facilities for the criminally insane. It is less helpful in more flexible and open political systems.

Moreover, it is anathema to aspirationally democratic societies and institutions that aim to build collegial relationships among managers and employees or that define themselves in terms of any credible standard of professionalism. Such organizations perform optimally when the approach to goal setting, policy formation and implementation, and individual and organizational assessment conforms to the more scientific and therefore democratic methods of inductive reasoning combined, of course, with a commitment to participatory management.

What I have in mind comes not merely a lifetime of thinking about and participating in more-or-less democratic organizations, but also from some of the insights gained from exposure to EU practices at a splendid series of seminars organized by the EU and the University of Victoria, British Columbia. It was there that I became aware of, and learned to appreciate the pragmatic modesty represented by the “open method of coordination” (OMC). Unlike jurisdictions that are preoccupied with templates for doctrinally defined research, harmonized policy development and tightly guided administrative uniformity, the prudently optimistic among us are happy to learn, or at least to be reminded, that a softer touch can achieve better results than a heavy hand (Guile, 2012; Ravinet, 2008)

When I was first exposed to the OMC, I was more than a little sceptical. It had all the hallmarks of futility and possibly of deception. Simply put, OMC is a cyclical reporting process which is directed toward policy learning, not policy making, policy implementation and policy enforcement. It is a largely voluntary process that is growing more popular not only in education (Haskel, 2013; Pochet, 2013; Verdun & Wood, 2013; Wood, 2014), but in many other fields of social development (European Commission, 2013). It is seemingly aimed at nothing more impressive than the sponsorship of an unending series of meetings at which a collection of bureaucrats and experts―sometimes leavened with what are annoyingly called “stakeholders” (Saul, 2011)―chat amiably about some important and often sensitive issues. It is backed by no EU legislation. It contemplates no authoritative action, no executive accountability, no responsible assessment and no juridical entity with the right and the duty to mete out punishment or order corrective action if the policy fails. With no demonstrable power, little structure and only the vaguest of mandates, it initially seemed to me that OMC was set up to fail. It appeared to be no more than an administrative ploy to allow governments to claim that a problem was being addressed when, in fact, nothing was being done except the creation of a bureaucratic illusion of a process the purpose of which was to look as if something was being done ... but with no possible practicable results.

I am tempted to say that “nothing could be further from the truth,” but that unlikely position is now so crowded that I will merely acknowledge that I was wrong. As Vanhercke and Lelie (2012) explain (and as I was grateful to learn from Bart Vanhercke himself), there is much value to be gained from this unpretentious and self-effacing approach. Its spirit runs throughout Lifelong Learning in Europe. It is, after all, the very definition of politics―ongoing deliberation in which closure (or, in parliamentary language, cloture), is endlessly deferred. Thus, no interest is permanently victorious, no concern finally defeated. Above all, participants are invested in process over product; there is a commitment to unending politics, civil discourse, a give-and-take among participants and a recognition that no decision need be final so long as conversation carries on. The point is well made by Judge Learned Hand, often called the finest Supreme Court Justice that the United States never had (Hand, 1932):

… And so when I hear so much impatient and irritable complaint, so much readiness to replace what we have by guardians for us all, those supermen evoked from somewhere from the clouds, whom none have seen and none are ready to name, I lapse into a dream, as it were. I see children playing on the grass; their voices are shrill and discordant as children’s are; they are restive and quarrelsome; they cannot agree to any common plan; their play annoys them; it goes so poorly. And one says, let us make Jack the master; Jack knows all about it; Jack will tell us what each is to do and we shall all agree. But Jack is like all the rest; Helen is discontented with her part and Henry with his, and soon they fall again into their old state. No, the children must learn to play by themselves; there is no Jack the master. And in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with one another, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can. But the condition is that they shall be willing at least to listen to one another, to get the habit of pooling their wishes. Somehow or other they must do this, if the play is to go on; maybe it will not, but there is no Jack, in or out of the box, who can come and straighten out the game.


It is time, then, to restart the process. In Lifelong Learning in Europe, Saar, Ure and Holford do not restrict themselves to EU members. Rather, they treat their subjects as participants in a common geography and, except for Russia we may assume, all those included for discussion in their book are members or at least potential candidates for membership in a rapidly expanding and some say aggressive and even a quasi-imperial EU.

The editors have assembled three conceptual essays that prepare the reader for the necessarily eclectic country-specific studies that make up the bulk of the book as well as a brief but effective summative chapter signed by all three editors. The national accounts treat distinctive issues and problems as they are addressed in various EU member states as well as in neighbouring post-Soviet nations. So, for example, we learn whether Scotland’s learning policy has promoted social inclusion, why participation rates in lifelong learning are so low in Hungary, how Estonia has been developing human capital in its “post-socialist” era, and how adult education is dealing with the transformation of the labour market in the decidedly non-EU Russian Federation.

Critics might question why the editors have devoted space mainly to smaller European countries and have even dealt with one particular sub-national group as they include an article on Flemish adult education in Belgium, while seeming to ignore some of the larger countries such as Germany, France and Italy. I did not find this disappointing for, in my view, there is already an ample and accessible literature on some of the larger and more affluent countries and particularly on well-publicized and successful nations, notably including Finland and the rest of the Scandinavian countries which so often top international lists of the most healthy, best educated, most equitable and happiest places on the planet; so, learning from accomplished writers and researchers about lifelong learning challenges and responses in less well-known nation states such as Bulgaria and Lithuania is more than justified.

The specific country-by-country analyses are also valuable because, although they do not deal with a common set of questions and therefore allow specific national circumstances to direct their primary lines of inquiry, rich and revealing analyses are provided. One size, it is clear, does not fill all and no standardized questionnaire can be made to apply successfully to such diverse communities. Yet, I was impressed by what can best be described as the common mood that animated each contribution. The obvious good faith that is evident in the writing easily overrides the disparate issues and the distinctive approaches and locates the chapters within a singular and reasonably comfortable “architecture.”


As Searby (1993), Prentice (2004), Welton (2007) and countless others over the years have amply shown, education has been contested turf at least since the earliest reform movements for public schools. Now, from junior kindergarten to postdoctoral fellowships, teaching and learning is fraught with competing and often conflicting views of the proper institutional goals, pedagogical methods and social functions of formal and, increasingly, informal instruction―the latter being of growing importance in an age in which demonstrations of “mastery”, and displays of “competencies” compete with completion of formal curricula and discipline-based transcripts are challenged by the emerging proliferation of “portfolios.”

The recognition of conflict applies to all facets of lifelong learning which may consist of anything from formal programs required of physicians or lawyers to ensure that they keep up with new developments in their professions to casual suburban book clubs and community programs dedicated to yoga exercises, folk dancing and exotic cuisine. For the most part, however, lifelong learning still involves certifiable academic upgrading, vocational training and retraining, and civic education for increasingly diverse immigrant populations. What is more, it is nonetheless one of the few educational domains in which it is possible to build inspiration and direction from the bottom up, to match learning to actual and expressed student needs and not simply to impose bureaucratic standards dreamed up in government and corporate offices where the main matters on the minds of authorities and experts is the capacity to combine organizational accountability, economic efficiency and political subservience in programs aimed as much at maintaining social order as in disseminating marketable skills―never mind critical social understanding, personal intellectual development and civic responsibility. For all the talk about “student-centred education” which normally means little more than flexibility with deadlines for the completion of assignments, lifelong learning opportunities can be self-generated by groups of people with a desire for information and edification―an opportunity not lost on, but far from fully exploited by the “social media.”

Because lifelong learners are not always compelled to engage in a course of study, but have traditionally been consciously excluded from eligibility for higher education, there have been many cases in which aspirant learners have tussled with the governments and established educational institutions both to gain their attention and to obtain their assistance. At first, it was a struggle to find established and elitist universities willing to climb down from their elevated towers (ivory or otherwise) and to open avenues for intellectual fulfillment to working people. Now, however, the frantic quest for funding has resulted in higher education facilities frenetically seeking “customers” in the expanding educational market. Running parallel to the almost unseemly promotion of “educational experiences” for the hoi polloi, of course, are venerable traditions of educational self-help that are largely ignored by official education and the corporate media, but which are often more praiseworthy than programs provided by institutions empowered to distribute officially sanctioned diplomas and degrees. These are not ignored by Europeans who seem to understand better that Economics studied in trade union schools for shop stewards and activists are often a good deal more helpful for understanding the real economy than Economics taught from one of the many iterations of Paul Samuelson’s classic text and its host of successors and imitators.

Of course, as in all educational ventures, established institutions of government and associations of private sector corporations have a vested interest in defining the goals and methods of instruction and in authorizing the kind of certification that gives practical value to a certificate or diploma for those whose motive for learning is mainly the instrumental goal of getting employment or a promotion. Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that, in the early days of public education, the very aspiration of the working classes to acquire “book learning” was threatening to the middle and upper classes. After all, once people acquired the skill of reading, it was hard to restrict what they chose to read. So, the roots of lifelong learning are to be found in the struggle for self-improvement among those whom official education had previously either forgotten or rejected. Some of that desire for education for the sake of enlightenment or for the practical purpose of social reform remains. And some of the fear that education might breed social unrest remains as well.

At the opening of the Darlington Mechanics’ Institute in 1854, for example, the Reverend H. N. Ball admonished those who would use its library as follows: “The Institute is no idlers’ lounge nor gossip shop. ... If this is to be a people’s college, we must have men who would labour to improve their minds, and trifling shilling volumes will never do this.” He warned against “desultory reading” and the “dissipating effect” of newspapers. Lifelong learning was a serious matter (Lloyd, 2014). Today, people like Bill Gates and Barack Obama’s aptly named “Education Czar” Arne Duncan are doing their best to enforce conformity and submissiveness to standardized, technologically enhanced curricula and pedagogy. They have not yet entirely succeeded. The grand hopes of building a class of worker-intellectuals may have faded since critics like Antonio Gramsci (1971: 3-43) first raised a voice against the segregation of classical education from vocational training; still, here and there a candle burns.

We have evolved from the era of elite education, in which self-motivated working people had to fight for the opportunity to gain access to professors, classrooms and libraries, through the time of mass education in the mid to late twentieth-century in which middle and fortunate working class students gained access to some of the better postsecondary institutions, and on to the current striving for universal education. Now, however, the dominant determinative theme has been embodied in the “market,” with courses opening up online and curriculum designed to appeal to the greatest number of “clients” and, some would argue, declining to the lowest common academic denominator where “customer satisfaction” and empirical measures of “success” define the objectives of the academy. From the top down, the overarching desire is to promote a neoliberal ideology that transforms education into a commodity that is acquired mainly for its use-value as an instrument of preparation for job-entry qualifications with the ultimate goal of being plugged into the maze of the labour market for the sole purpose of acquiring and adding to a private income. The ubiquity and rigidity of this framework is not to be underestimated.

Blowing a little fresh air into this increasingly stale atmosphere, the degree to which European educators and administrators at least appear to be open to individual human and not merely to collective corporate needs is welcome. This is not, I regret to say, a blanket endorsement of the European approach. Indeed, as I have tried to stress, there is no single European approach and countries differ greatly in their manners, methods and even their morals. At the same time, there is a flicker of hope to be found in the apparent tolerance for diversity, the absence and perhaps the impossibility of the kind of continental model that is currently taxing the patience of American K-12 teachers as they grapple with the federally imposed “common core” or of postsecondary educators in the Canadian province of Ontario where every college and university is being compelled to slap together a Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) to be accepted or rejected on pain of losing accreditation and funding. Accordingly, each one of the 44 institutions of higher education must cobble together an inventory of specialties wherein they plan and may be permitted by the provincial government to expand and excel. The template is plain. The rubric is clear.

The SMAs, of course, are part show business and part shackles. It’s not that they are inherently misguided and doomed to failure. I don’t even mind the idea of colleges and universities articulating some relatively unambiguous mission. And, although to date there is little evidence of thorough deliberation and none of democratic engagement with teaching faculty, it is possible that there is more to the process than the generation of lists of vapid slogans and PowerPoint slides. Who knows? If these pseudo-contracts provide some security in funding, they might even bring some stability to a system now out of control.

But it is the impulse to control, to macromanage, to mesomanage, to micromanage and maybe even to metamanage education that is problematic. It threatens to become unreflective corporatism running amok. Whether by choice or necessity, the Europeans seem to be avoiding the problems of overconcentration of power at the top. If they can succeed to any credible degree in providing what their people genuinely want and authentically need by opening up their decision-making processes to credible representatives of the variegated populations they purport to serve, they will certainly have a thing or two to teach their colleagues in North America and, perhaps, the Pacific Rim, Oceania and even the developing nations where guidance is so desperately sought and, too often, provided by the wrong people with the wrong ideas.


Many years ago, I was instructed in The Book of Tao by a wise friend who has long formed a part of my approach to both private and public life. On political matters, he pointed to Sutra 17: “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honour and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate. ... When the best leader’s work is done the people say: ‘We did it ourselves.’”

Of course, in the best society, the people’s entitlement to self-development and self-determination will be valid and empowered, for leadership will be recognized as an aspect of the pathology of inequality and will have systematically faded away―but it is plain that the “best society” is a long way off, if it is even practically conceivable at all.


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Guile, D. (2012). Working and learning in the ‘knowledge-based’ creative and cultural sector: Vocational practice, social capital and entrepreneurability. In Livingstone, J. & D. Guile (Eds.). The knowledge economy and lifelong learning: A critical reader. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

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Welton, M. (2007). Dangerous knowledge: Canadian workers’ education in the decades of discord. In H. Doughty & M. Tuzi. (Eds.), Discourse and community: Multidisciplinary studies in Canadian culture (pp. 93-116). Toronto, Canada: Guernica Editions.

Wood, D. (2014). Discussion on postsecondary education long overdue in Canada―What can be learned from the EU. Retrieved April 30, 2014 from

Howard A. Doughty teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at