Skip to main content
Kent Academic Repository

Lifelong Learning and the Legacy of Social Purpose

Malcolm, Janice, O'Rourke, Rebecca (2001) Lifelong Learning and the Legacy of Social Purpose. In: British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, 13-15 Sept 2001, University of Leeds. (KAR id:59487)


This paper explores the implications for current lifelong learning research and practice of the historically privileged relationship claimed for radical adult education and movements for social change rooted in class, gender, anti-racist and community politics. The trajectory this relationship follows, in research, policy and practice, is complex, with phases of expansion and retrenchment, in the social movements and adult education, which do not always map straightforwardly against each other. The traditions, for they are importantly distinct within themselves, are also always found in relation to other traditions and purposes for adult education. “Complex and contested”, as Richard Taylor describes them (Taylor 2000, p.69), but there is nevertheless a clearly identifiable, if historically varied, set of values, sites and practices which share a commitment to an educational pedagogy and purpose rooted in social and transformative, rather than individual and conformist, aspirations. This tradition, like the social movements and political cultures with which it has been aligned, has foundered in the last decade under the combined impact and discontents of the radical right, de-industrialisation and globalisation. In Britain, especially in Scotland, in recent years there are signs of a revived interest in questions of social purpose, popular social movements and their relation to lifelong learning. Some commentators have explored and debated the extent of the tradition’s radicalism, less in the spirit of revisionism and more as a warning against the backward construction of a golden age against which to measure the shortcomings of the present (Chase 1995; Thompson 1996; Andrews, Keane and Thompson 1999). Others have engaged with and developed critiques of the shift from adult education to lifelong learning in terms of the opportunities and obstacles this presents radical adult educators (Foley 2001; Thompson 1997, 2000; Crowther, Martin and Shaw 1999; Field and Leicester 2000; Johnson 1999) while others have considered the debate in terms of changes within higher education as a whole (Scott 1995, 2000; Schuller 1995; Coffield and Williamson 1997; Watson and Taylor 1998).

We explore the legacy of social purpose in lifelong learning from our shared positioning as researchers, teachers and providers who were formed in the older, radical tradition of adult education and are now seeking ways to integrate its first principles in a very different social, political and educational order. The paper has four sections. We begin with an overview of how the sites and preoccupations of an earlier generation of radical adult educators fared in the new times of post thatcherism and new labour. As part of this section we track the response and implications of the “call to arms” Jane Thompson extended through her 1993 article ‘Learning, liberation and maturity: an open letter to whoever’s left’ in Adults Learning (Thompson 1993). Next, through a comparative analysis of proceedings from the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in Education and its sister organisations in North America, Canada, Australasia and Europe, we consider the extent to which these concerns have shaped and informed the research agenda for adult education. We then discuss the nature of a range of contemporary social movements, of the right as well as the left, and discuss the extent to which they engage with and utilise forms of lifelong learning. Finally, in considering the implications for teaching and research into lifelong learning, we argue for the importance of constructing and inhabiting positions within lifelong learning which are both critical and active, that is they are for, as well as against, things.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Uncontrolled keywords: adult education; social movements; lifelong learning
Subjects: L Education
L Education > LA History of education
L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC5201 Education extension. Adult education. Continuing education
Divisions: Divisions > Directorate of Education > Centre for the Study of Higher Education
Depositing User: Janice Malcolm
Date Deposited: 06 Dec 2016 17:09 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 10:24 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.