Ewa Przybylska

Images of European Adult Education as Reflected in Metaphors

Between Folk Wisdom and Political Declarations

After 1989, adult education in Central and Eastern Europe has been faithfully ac companied by old proverbs such as “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines” and many others. The old wisdom reflected in such proverbs was eradicated and countered by the post-modern spirit and argu ments supporting the need for lifelong learning. A slightly inflated vision of realistic learning opportunities for everyone at all ages unfolded. Until today, the European Commission (and not only the EC) has been eager to reach out to folk wisdom. The Commission communications from 2006 and 2007 depicting action plans for upcoming years were published under the telling titles “Adult learning: It is never too late to learn” and “Adult learning. It is always a good time to learn”.

Since adult education was the most neglected area of continuing education, it has been given more attention over the past decades. The vast majority of documents, reports, and communications of the European Commission relate to adult education directly or focus on adult education placed in the social or economic context.1Europe witnessed the emergence of dozens of different development strategies for continuing education and more detailed guidelines on individual areas of adult education such as vocational, general, intercultural, gender mainstreaming and education for migrants or ethnic minorities. Recommendations have a life of their own. These documents may offer some comfort as they produce an illusion that there is a vision of effective education. Optimism is enhanced with a data line, i.e. a clearly identified deadline for individual deliverables. Nevertheless, the vision proclaimed by politicians and decision-makers diverges greatly from that of adult education practitioners – people who primarily work in this sector. All dynamic changes heralded by the EU and declarations made by governments leave the adult education practice far behind, especially as regards people with the poorest qualifications. It is hard to escape the impression that there is a moratorium on the implementation of the EU guidelines.

The legislative and systemic solutions for adult education in Europe vary substantially. The theory and practice of adult education across Europe is hard to compare. There is a variety of different financing systems, management styles, organizational concepts and institutional frameworks. Linkages between adult education and the economy or other areas of social life differ greatly in Europe.

However, there are striking similarities clearly reflected in metaphors which were obvious to adult education specialists from different regions in the European Union. We had discussions about metaphors illustrating the essence of adult education with adult educators from Central and Eastern Europe, with Lithuanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and colleagues from old Member States such as the UK, Ger many, Denmark and Portugal. These metaphors uncovered a new image of adult learning as seen from the perspective of adult educators working in very different worlds. However, interpretation of these metaphors, mainly through the prism of ex perience gained by adult educators in their home countries, demonstrated cultural (and linguistic) proximity, proving that perception, understanding and interpreta tion of different phenomena in contemporary adult education are to a large extent convergent, despite the undeniable diversity of adult education.

Adult Education as a Gold Mine

Today, adult education has become a potent industry employing millions of people. It is estimated that approximately one million people are professionally active in the adult education sector in Germany. The UK market for adult educators is even more abundant. Even countries which have a relatively small population, such as Austria or Switzerland, have a hundred thousand education specialists. None of the European countries have produced a complete set of statistics to illustrate em ployment in adult education, as professional activities falling within the framework of this sector escape any attempts at unequivocal classification. A review of job descriptions attributed to adult education proves that besides the traditional role of a teacher working with adult learners, prominence is given to other roles falling within areas such as public relations, marketing, lobbying, counselling, organizing, planning, and evaluation. Given that in the developed Western European countries, every second citizen takes advantage of the institutionalized education opportuni ties, the service sector of adult education is there to provide services to a group of two hundred million customers, only in this part of the continent.

Polish Journal of Continuing EducationIn addition to demand for labour in different areas of adult learning, the support structures have developed dynamically to support adult learning processes. Gigantic European corporations such as Bertelsmann, Klett Group or Longman make millions on sales of different teach ing aids, textbooks, ency clopaedia, software, films, CD-ROMs, on-line libraries, search engines, portals, da tabases, etc. They special ize in distance studies and different forms of e-learning provisions covering dozens of vocational areas and professions. They establish higher vocational schools, research institutes and education counselling centres. Education fairs such as Didacta attract millions of interested visitors. There are newly established higher education schools and universities whose mission is to cater to the needs of the working learners. The market of education services for adults is gigantic.

Investments in adult education are highly profitable for consumers, service providers and producers.

The Germans, the British and the Danes stood out amongst my interlocutors as they ardently highlighted social and economic benefits delivered by the dynamic development of the education market for adult learners. They claimed that this thriving market provided evidence of transformed awareness and attitudes towards learning. As it was forecasted, learning becomes a more natural process, firmly anchored in the daily life of individuals. My interlocutors unanimously agreed that adult education is like “a goose which lays golden eggs”. The only criticism which they voiced was about the non-participation of people living on the social margin, as well as uneducated, unskilled and poorly educated groups. The participation trend is very consistent with the middle class being the largest group of education service consumers.

Educators from Central and Eastern Europe and Portugal were more critical about global development trends in the adult education industry. Their main objections were about “unfair practices” and lack of quality control within individual components of this humongous machinery, which often leads to the wastage of private and public resources and notorious abuse of consumer rights. They unanimously agreed that adult learning may be portrayed as a cash cow.

Concerns about quality standards in adult education in Central and Eastern Europe are very legitimate. It is sufficient to run a rough comparison of some functional aspects of adult education systems in the old and new Member States. The drastic differences are clearly visible. The UK is famous for high standards in education services while both competition and commercial service provision in the adult learning sector are very high. However, examples from Western Europe do not offer a positive outlook on adult education for all. Firstly, the adult learning sector is steadily shifting towards a free market. This development is also visible in those European countries which until recently were proud of their welfare accom plishments in adult education. This shift is apparently controlled by the government and other public bodies, which are there to ensure that free market rules should not cause excessive damage to participants of adult education.

According to their own declaration, the government and public bodies, instead of organizing adult learning processes, should focus on ensuring access to continuing education, assuring the quality of education service, supporting providers of these services in their efforts to collaborate, raise the professional profile of their staff, document their accomplishments and perform methodical evaluation of learning practice. Traditional activities, which involved ensuring financing for education provisions, managing institutions providing priority programs to specific target groups, or certification of knowledge, are pushed aside to make room for support rendered to education servers, research institutes and projects, international exchange and European cooperation networks. As far as control of the adult education sector is concerned, the government and public bodies tend more to develop and support counselling systems for providers and participants as well as quality assurance systems for education services. Government leadership in creating counselling and quality standards has an indirect impact on policies pursued by providers and individual choices made by service consumers.

The principle is simple. For instance, in place of subsidies formerly granted for a training course, public bodies shall provide funding for in-service training of adult educators working at a given institution. Highly qualified teachers have an impact on the effectiveness of teaching and learning as well as on individual attitudes towards learning. They know how to motivate learners to continue their education efforts, offer guidance and point out directions. In addition, public resources are used to set up e-learning centres and a variety of learning incentives. Although this strategy was broadly covered and discussed in professional magazines, it continues to be vague and unclear to the general public, who have to pay a higher price for continuing education. It is premature to judge the social implications of this new policy. It is worth noticing that in parallel to the sector shift towards the free market, expert groups debate on new mechanisms to finance individual participation of those learners who cannot afford the cost.2 Because specific proposals and concepts are missing, additional millions of people are facing the threat of exclusion. They may be excluded from democracy and the market, especially since segments of the labour market which absorb unskilled and poorly educated workers tend to diminish.3

Adult Education as a Catalyst of Economic Growth

Indisputably, in the minds of Western and Eastern European societies, adult education is primarily identified with vocational education and qualifications. The Lisbon Strategy presumed that the most competitive economy in the world should be created in Europe. In order to attain this objective, European education systems were to be aligned and fitted to the needs of knowledge-based economy and knowledge society. Today, the illusion has faded away. In 2010, Europe is not going to have the most efficient economy in the world. The gap between Europe and the USA has grown further.4 In addition, China and India have become more powerful competitors.

Edukacja Doroslych

Ineffective education is to be partially blamed for the failure of the Lisbon Strategy. Other possible causes include lack of political will on behalf of some governments, slow progress of reforms and insufficient spending on research and development.Images of European Adult Education as Reflected in Metaphors5At the same time, as a result of this strategy, adult learning in Europe was embraced by continuing vocational education. Its dominant position is clearly visible, especially in the new Member States, where public subsidies for general, cultural or political education of adults are hardly available while the income level enables individuals to be able to afford only the cost of vocational training or qualifications. Whereas flagship documents of the European Union and individual governments accentuate the need to develop key social skills and social competence which enable active citizen ship and effective function ing in the intercultural world, the ranks of non-formal and incidental learning increase and voluntary work is considered an important social experience. Creativity is firmly called for while the simplest method to develop creativity is to participate in cultural and political life and in any other social contexts. A survey commissioned by the German weekly, Der Spiegel, was made on a sample of twenty five thousand graduates of different disciplines with a view to identify the skills and experiences which were most appreciated by employers.6 It is evident that good grades on a certificate and successfully passed diploma exams are no longer sufficient. Employers are not very impressed with the English language skills, since graduates of higher education studies who fail to speak fluent English have no chance to land an attractive job. (Only 7 % of 25,000 surveyed graduates of higher education schools admitted that their English was rather poor. Students of education were an exception, as 14 % of them admitted to poor English). Almost 50 % of the respondents are fluent in another foreign language (in addition to English), while 35 % are able to speak a third foreign language. From employers’ point of view, soft skills turned out to be the most important and they may be acquired in “real life”, preferably during studies, placements and internships abroad. The survey indicated that graduates, who during their study program spent at least two months at a foreign higher education school, are offered, at the start, a salary which is on average higher by 5 % –10 % than a salary offered to their colleagues who did not have such an experience. Should they stay abroad for a longer term, the first salary is even higher. Employers have more confidence in young people who managed to live in a foreign culture and speak the language.

As if against the increasing importance of social skills and competence, the majority of European countries show a tacit acceptance of neglect in the area of civic, general and cultural education. Good practice is to be found in modern and robust Scandinavian countries which successfully modernize their national vocational education systems and dutifully follow the Grundtvig tradition. An educated Danish citizen is proud to include a few weeks or months spent at the folk university in the education section of his or her curriculum vitae. This experience enables them to “look back” and to “spread their wings to fly high”. Citizens of some other European countries are left to believe that it is possible to fly high and far without “luxuries” such as education for adult members of society. Institutions such as folk universities which are famed for their merits and beautiful tradition silently fade away from the education landscape.

Adult Education as a Solution to the Social Problem

Globalization is present everywhere in our lives. It is part of casual conversations, political discourse, economic debates and cultural deliberations. But as for concepts like social stratification, knowledge gap, winners and losers in a knowledge-based society, users and losers in digital space, Europe has tight lips.

We are reluctant and embarrassed to discuss poverty. It is easier to place such misfortunate developments in the third world and avoid exploration of our own touchy problems. When in the late 1950’s, a stormy debate on equal and unequal education opportunities unfolded in Western Europe (Georg Picht talked openly about “education catastrophe”) very few people expected this problem to augment and become a burning social issue during the first decades of the 21st century. In the area of education sciences, adult educators are those who give a lot of attention to inequalities and social exclusion, especially in the context of access to learning op portunities. They are particularly sensitive to this problem for a number of reasons. First, all systemic errors are acutely visible in a form of individual deficits which are revealed when graduates of different schools take up new social roles as jobseekers or prospective employees, and many are not able to find employment.

Second, adult learning defined as continuation of school learning is based on childhood and youth learning experience. Motivation and ability to learn is critical to success and to any attempts at adult learning. Institutional efforts geared to create conditions which are conducive at adult learning must be coupled with individual competence to arrange learning processes, a skill which one acquires at school. Finally, money rules in adult education with a greater power than in any other sector of education. Individuals with higher education or secondary vocational education (who usually earn adequate income) participate in adult education definitely more often than people of lesser skills and poor qualifications. Moreover, the general public often subscribe to the claim that the poor are to be blamed for their poverty. They are responsible for their deficient education and skills, therefore they pushed themselves to the social margin. Illiteracy is associated with silliness and ignorance, which are the most problematic and embarrassing issues in adult education in Europe. The problem re-emerges in different circumstances, for instance on the occasion of the OECD survey which revealed discreditable reading and comprehension skills of adult citizens in some member states.7 The number of secondary illiterate people has increased. Despite that, in many European countries educators providing literacy courses may rely only on their own intuition and professional ability. Scientific research and academic discussions disregard primary education of adult learners. It seems, however, that primary education will be a recognized area within the sector of adult education in the near future.

Across Europe, adult education is celebrated as a remedy to all social problems, including marginalization, exclusion and poverty. It is expected to counteract social polarization, but it is polarized as strongly as the society. One pole is the realm of financial empires which thrive on increasing the importance of qualifications and competence. Beneficiaries of education services are the lucky ones. They are part of the economic and intellectual elites. They are in charge; they manage, develop, and design. Learning and acquiring higher competence are part of their biography and translate into tangible profits. And there is the other pole, where adult education is expected to fight poverty, but it is as helpless and frail as its mission. Its weaknesses are multidimensional. They affect NGOs and adult educators who work with passion but often lack qualifications. They affect beneficiaries, those who have been out of work for many years, those who can hardly succeed in a labour market because of their disability, gender, or place of residence. This pole of adult education has poor infrastructure. It bypasses small towns and rural areas. Instead of eradicating inequalities, it helps sustain them. It helplessly gives in to the heavy weight of hopes. The widespread belief that social deprivation may occur only “before” or “on the side of” adult learning was upheld for decades but it turned out to be deceptive.

Adult Education, a Paradise for Creative Minds

The number of people employed in adult education is steadily rising. They work for public sector and commercial adult education institutions, in language schools, associations, NGOs, charities, and research institutes, universities, publishing companies, training and HR departments of corporations. They perform a wide range of different activities. They may be vocational teachers, methodology advi sors, local community culture and education advisors, sports club coaches, moderators of seminars for management, developers of training programs, directors managing education institutions which cater to the needs of tens of thousands adult learners.

Situation of Polish Adult EducationIn Western Europe, only every tenth representative of the adult education profession is employed on the basis of a regular employment contract. Most of them work on the basis of short term contracts. It is common for adult education moderators, lecturers, trainers or coaches to work for several employers in parallel. They relentlessly cruise the labour market to find another employment opportunity when the current contract expires. They are loyal and reliable clients of education institutions, as they believe in continuous im provement of their skills and qualifications and spare no efforts or funds to enhance their competence. “Training for Trainers” is a substantial division within the adult education territory, and universities are very determined to win control of this dominion. Confident about their unravelled potential to teach and train highly qualified specialists in different disciplines of science, they outdo each other in coaching, counselling, adult teaching methods, rhetoric or psychology. Their reputation and quality attract thousands of interested students eager to acquire new unique qualifications which may become a gateway to success on the labour market.

Adult educators’ scarce chances for employment stability do not cast a negative light on the profession. Those who dream of stability, want to live a peaceful life, be free of any concerns about employment and never-ending investments to enhance their qualifications, would not choose to study adult education and would not consider a professional career within this sector. Dreams of social security and orderly life may come true in different areas of the education sector. In order to work in adult education one has to accept the risk, spontaneity, ceaseless learning and relentless search for employment opportunities. Aspiring adult educators have to be open to new challenges, able to adapt to new roles and take up new professional tasks, and need to have confidence in their capability. Professional biographies and life plans of adult educators present buoyancy, agility, swiftness, accuracy, transparency and the multitude of ideas which Italo Calvino8 described in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Ulrich Beck accurately described adult educators as a young generation who mastered the art of coping with life a flexible, mobile, creative and challenge-driven generation who are so determined to make their dreams come true that they are ready to accept work conditions which are almost on the edge of exploitation:

“For this generation, self-fulfilment has become a primary condition. In particular, young people with higher qualifications want to do things that are in line with their ideas. Therefore, many opt for casual work arrangement, hopping from one more or less illusive project to the next. The paradox is that these attitudes are welcomed by employers. Lofty dreams never to be tied by the steady employment contract, no checks, no inspections, as these young people do everything themselves. They run their own businesses; they exploit themselves and even take the blame when things go wrong.”9

Adult Education as a Space for Interpersonal Communication

From its beginning, institutional adult education was labelled as unappealing to in dividuals with higher education as they are inclined to take care of their intellectual and professional development independently and autonomously. Contemporary times support this supposition since there is the Internet, professional publications, and a wide range of learning opportunities. On the other hand, students of post-diploma distance courses highly appreciate face-to-face contacts with lecturers, tutors, and colleagues. They tend to complain that there are few opportunities to communicate from face-to-face. Live, face-to-face dialogue between people is irreplaceable even in the midst of virtual media times. Its significance is emphasized by, among others, the theory of constructivism, which says that the ability of education to influence adults is limited by nature.10 Adults have their firm beliefs, fixed convictions and are reluctant to change their attitudes and world constructs. Ardent anti-Semites, avid racists or active members of a neo-Nazi organization may hardly be expected to start respecting their hated enemies. However, con structivists do not rule out the possibility to mitigate one’s opinions when confronted by other views, and be open to meaningful arguments. With great confidence, they highlight the significance of dialogue, emotions and feelings which unfold during a face-to-face conversation. Organized learning processes provide conditions conducive to sharing individual stories. Referring again to constructivists, it is worth to note their case that adults attend courses not to learn from teachers or other course participants but to share their views with them. In the light of the theory of constructivism, teaching and learning are two separate processes.11A teacher only creates a conducive environment so that adults may reach out to knowledge. The teacher offers a provision which may be accepted or rejected by adult learners. Readiness to acquire new knowledge depends on the life experience of a given individual and on his assessment of usefulness of the new content in the course of his life.

The need for a dialogue continues to be understated in adult education. One of my Danish interlocutors voiced the following opinion:

“In Scandinavia, we break records of participation in institutional forms of adult education because like everyone else, we feel the need to meet and talk to other people. We come out of our snug homes which guard our privacy and intimacy. We prefer to talk on neutral grounds. You, the Slavs, score low in the rankings which measure education activity of adults because your homes are open to guests and you are friendly even to strangers. Your home is a place where you meet other people, a place of dialogue. In our case, adult education institutions offer such a place.”

”The Ugly Duckling”

Metaphors drawn by adult educators from Central and Eastern Europe clearly indicate that two worlds of adult education exist side by side. One represents adult education which is aggressive, dynamic, demand and profit driven while the other stands for adult education in infancy, shielding, shy, and timid.

The Moderation MethodThe first one caters to well-educated individuals who un derstand the role of education and are able to invest in their education development. The other world reaches out to resi dents of rural areas and small towns, who are usually poor, and may not be able to afford broad education plans. Qualified and competent adult educators may build a bridge between these two worlds because they are predisposed to provoke changes. However, the adult education sector may not always be able to afford to hire highly qualified employees.

The border between the worlds of adult education is not on the Oder and Neisse rivers, it does not split Europe into West and East. It is delineated not by geographic coordinates but by the prevailing neoliberal political doctrine. Adult education resembles an apple. One half is tempting, appetizing, and healthy. The other half is worm-infested and rotten. Following the laws of nature, the rotten half will prevail and the whole fruit will decay. Optimists believe in the miracle of political awakening which should prompt the policy to put aside its notorious restraint to adult education and start to manage and control its development, with actions not just words. Subjects such as a regulation or deregulation dilemma, public accountability versus a free market in adult education, were not present in the social debate in many Central and Eastern European countries. In reality, an economic imperative turns out to be an argument of the greatest weight.

Long-standing inequalities in the area of adult learning make it evident that responsibility for adult education should not be placed solely on the shoulders of individuals or social groups. Public bodies, government, municipalities and local governments should shape, organize and finance adult learning processes wherever individuals and social groups cannot afford its cost. Adult education cannot be treated as everyone’s personal business or the government’s sole business. The government’s share may be limited to delivering a modern law which regulates a scope of citizen’s claims and obligations and to providing funding for adult learning projects addressing communities which are in need of such assistance. It is about time to give up a futile policy of symbols and declarations which cannot be materialized. Instead of numerous words describing proper adult education, it suffices to use two: democratic and professional. At this point, there is no room for compromises and philosophical discourse on political diversity and inevitable damage.

Before the Ugly Duckling Transforms Itself into a Swan

Numerous outlines of the future development of adult education spread a blissful vision. Learning is becoming and will continue to be an even more integral and natural element of the daily activity of individuals, enabling their development and survival. Learning is and will be interwoven into each human activity. Therefore, it is certainly understandable that many theoreticians of adult education feel annoyed and postulate a complete liberation from institutional contexts.

“… Education is losing its most important attribute, which is intentionality. In the past, it was a set of intentionally designed education practices clearly delineated from the daily reality. As a result it had an unnatural but at the same time sacred nature. Education was a specific social mission and its legitimacy was enhanced by the most humanistic ideas. In the post-modern era, adult education melts away in mundane life, becomes common and ordinary. It is no longer visible and becomes hard to identify.” 12

Adult Learning for Civil SocietyToday, learning, whether placed in organizations, companies, art galleries, entertainment centres, supermarkets, or any other venues of social and economic activity, is not such a common phenomenon that it makes us forget about non-participating adults. Communities which rely on guidance and leadership of teachers are plentiful and far from reaching the status of informed and autonomous consumers of education services. There are too many people who are knowledge poor and not aware of how much they are in need of knowledge. It is the permanent responsibility of policy and science to provide them with a social space where they may discover the need and opportunity and be encouraged to taste education. Given a limitless diversity of stimuli buried in each individual’s life and social structures and despite forewarnings and suspicions of the new forms of government control and power, it is evident that this task may be best performed by adult education institutions, provided that they are equipped with professional educators, modern concepts, and effective teaching programs. Before learning becomes a standard procedure, before the ugly duckling turns into a proud swan, it is advisable to take care of institutional reality. Even if the golden age of adult education institutions has already passed, even if they seem a relict of the past era, there is still room for them in European societies and they are legitimized by millions of people who demonstrate anachronistic knowledge and frightening gaps in their qualifications.


1 EU, EC Teaching and Learning: Towards the Learning Society. White Paper on Education and Training, 1997; Poland, Office for the Committee of European Integration, Strategia Lizbo´nska. Droga do sukcesu zjednoczonej Europy, 2000; The Delors Report, Learning. The Treasure Within, 1998; EU, EC, Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, 2000; EU, EC Communication, Adult Learning. It is never too late to learn, 2006; EU, EC Communication: Adult learning. It is always a good time to learn, 2007.
2 Expertenkommission Finanzierung Lebenslanges Lernen, Finanzierung Lebenslangen Lernens – der Weg in die Zukunft. Schlussbericht. Bielefeld, 2004.
3 OECD, Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society. Further results of the international adult literacy survey, Paris, 1997.
4 See: ”Raport Koka”, Prawo Europejskie w Praktyce. No. 4 (04), November 2004, 78.
5 Ibid.
6 Mohr, J, Lernen im echten Leben, “Was studieren? Ratgeber für Studium, Jobsuche und Karriere” Spiegel Special No. 2/2007,130-131.
7 OECD, International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), 1995. See: Andrea Linde, Analphabetismus-Alphabetisierung-Grundbildung, M. Tröster, ed., Berufsorientierte Grundbildung. Bielefeld 2002, 18.
8 Italo Calvino, Wykłady ameryka´nskie, (Gda´nsk – Warszawa 1996).
9 Ulrich Beck, “Generation des Weniger”, Spiegel Special, 2/2007, 34.
10 Horst Siebert, Lernen als Konstruktion von Lebenswelten. Entwurf einer konstruktivistischen Didaktik, (Frankfurt/Main 1994), 76.
11 Ibid, 79.
12 Mieczysaw Malewski, “Edukacja dorosych w pojciowym zgieku. Próba rekonstrukcji zmieniajcej si racjonalnoci andragogiki”, Teraniejszo Czowiek Edukacja 2/2001, p. 49.

Adult Education and Development


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