Breaking the consensus: Lifelong learning as a social control, by F. Coffield.

Review of Frank Coffield’s Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong learning as social control.

Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong learning as social control is an academic article written by Frank Coffield. The article was published in the British Educational Journal, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1999. The author of this article has written books on juvenile delinquency, youth employment, youth enterprise, a critical review of learning styles and the impact of policy on post-compulsory education. In his work he passionately calls for educators to challenge the dominant market-led model of education and instead build a more democratic one, better able to face threats such as environmental damage, intensified global competition, corrosive social inequalities in and between nations; and the need for a new, just and sustainable economic model. The article often uses the findings from the Economic Reasearch Council’s (ESRC) ,,The learning Society Programme’’ and other academic sources to bring his arguments home.

The policy of upskilling the workforce is a simplified version of the theory of the human capital, which dominated the public debate after the publication of the ideas of Gary Becker and Theodor Schultz. Coffield stresses that it is this degraded version of human capital theory that is being criticised in his article. The author believes that in the subsequent years the original reservations of the proponents have been forgotten and a degraded version has assumed the status of a conventional wisdom. The statement the author makes in the introduction is that this consensus, also interchangeably called the thesis, the orthodoxy, the regime or the settlement must be reintroduced into public debate. He argues that it is a central plank in the policy of many Western governments in the field of education, training and employment. Coffield insists that it is time to move beyond the cosy consensus and develop more ambitious policies for creating economic prosperity and social justice.

Moreover, he enumerates various reasons that prove this consensus to be naive, limited and apparent as well as being dangerous and diversionary. Coffield encapsulates the central tenets and demonstrates their influence by means of a few representative quotations and problems they imply. Not only this, but the author also explains the popularity of this myriad of false beliefs and their resilience in the face of criticism. He reminds us from the findings of the British Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) that investment in learning in the 21st Century is the equivalent of investing in technological innovation and machinery that was essential to the first great industrial revolution. Then it was physical capital, now it is human capital. As we learn from the authors argumentation, this phenomenon enjoys the support of politicians, policy-makers, industrialists as well as trade unionists, economists and even educationists for many reasons, mostly shifting the responsability of a no longer working social system onto the individuals and measuring education in the so called ‘’rates of return’’. After listing the key problems and analysing them profoundly, the author prompts the question: if the theory is so poor, why is it so popular?

The second part of the article prompts alternative visions of the learning society and the lifelong learning programme. It adduces to reasearch programmes of the ESRC ‘The Learning Society: knowledge and skills for employment where researchers were being invited to study lifelong learning in the service of the national consensus, which the author severely criticised in the first part of the article. In this paragraph we are introduced to the findings of the researchers within the Learning Society Programme. Bartlett and Rees, just like Coffield himself, assume that the link between upskilling and economic prosperity is dangerously oversimplified. Coffield presents us with the three contrasting ways with which the term lifelong learning can be viewed. The first way is called the skill growth model, the second- the personal development model and the third model suggests viewing the term as social learning. According to Coffield, these three models are a convenient device for making sense of the policies on lifelong learning. Another alternative vision in this paragraph is the French social compromise, which issues the companies to be more socially responsible. In this paragraph we are also introduced to the terms: flexibility, employability and empowerment. The author makes sure that the readers perceive the complex meaning of these terms and the hidden agenda in which they play an important role in government policies.

In the third part of his article, Coffield tries to answer, as he puts it, Lenin’s question: What is to be done? His intention is to present parts of a skeleton to use as a feedback. Before he shares his proposals with the readers, he stresses that whatever vision is finally decided upon, it will have to deal directly with capitalism, which is now the only show in town. The author claims that a new social contract between the State, Businesses, Trade Unions and Education will have to take place. Moreover, he also argues that it is necessary that a supra-national power, such as the European Union will have to protect the rights of workers and their communities in dealings with multinationals whose main loyalty is to the maximisation of profits. Last but not least, Coffield stresses the importance of the use of an appropriate model of change which involves teachers in the decision-making process and tackles Inequalities and Structural Barriers.

I strongly recommend this article to anyone who is interested in the lifelong learning issue or is simply interested in the changes and the mechanisms that influence our modern world. I believe it can contribute to the knowledge of those who have previously studied the consensus, as well as those who want to learn about it and do not have any previous background on the topic. The author provides a lot of interesting, valid and consistent argumentation which helps grasp a general idea of this tangled policy as well as understand its complexity and all the factors that influence it. Coffield uses a very pleasurable academic language. I found it enjoyable to read, because the vocabulary wasn’t over intellectualised and allowed me to really concentrate on the topic, without being distracted by the language.

Frank Coffield, Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong learning as social control, British Educational Journal, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1999.

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4 responses to “Breaking the consensus: Lifelong learning as a social control, by F. Coffield.

  1. I am curious about this article- ‘social control is the regulation of individual and group behavior in an attempt to gain conformity and compliance to the rules of a given society, state, or social group.’ Learning leads to growth, asking questions, identifying what is not working within systems and improving those areas. Lifelong learning inhibits social control- working against conformity and compliance in social control.

    Like

    • I understand that lifelong learning by many should be indisputably considered only as a positive phenomenon. Pretty much everyone understands it as a process of improvement, which has no finish line and is automatically associated with the idea that the person who is undertaking such an evolution process ( and as I found out from our Skype meeting, is also a very expensive enterprise in the USA) is very ambitious and wants to become a better and more conscious person socially, as well as personally. It automatically implies becoming a better person, evolving and becoming wiser. Now, how could anyone argue with that? I would like to highlight that the lifelong learning policy of upskilling the workforce that I am writing about is the simplified theory of the human capital, which came to dominate debates about the importance of education in promoting economic development.

      Unfortunately, and to my surprise, even the genuine idea of personal development can be used as a form of social and political control. For the last 40 years the powerful consensus that lifelong learning is a wonder drug or magic bullet , which on its own will solve a wide range of educational, social and political ills has been developed.

      This consensus is a plank policy of many Western governments : a nations competitiveness in global markets ultimately depends on the skills of all its people and so governments have no choice but to introduce policies that ‘upskill’ the workforce.

      The social control policy ( which I understand to be a strategic partnership between the states and businesses) shifts the responsibility to individuals to renew their skills regularly to ensure their employability, without really being able to provide highly educated and trained personnel with jobs that commensurate with their abilities, if they are to boost productivity .

      To many politicians and policy-makers, the ‘seductive appeal’ of the lifelong learning process at a time of economic uncertainty offers the illusion of control and of managerial solutions.

      It also reinforces the employers in their beliefs that the main obstacle to their success is the poor education of their workforce, which again shifts the responsibility onto the individuals and overshadows the need of a new social contract between the state, business, trade unions and education.

      I hope I was able to explain clearly what I have learnt after doing research on the topic and why I now understand and firmly believe that the lifelong learning process is unjustly used as a social control system in Europe.

      Like

  2. From my American perspective, and maybe my naive perspective as well, it is mind boggling to consider lifelong learning as a form of social or political control. When I think of lifelong education, I also think of continuing education, and in the US, these provoke positive feelings and even feelings of pride. As we discussed in our Skype meeting, there is clearly a gap between the US and Europe with regards to the concept of lifelong learning. However, it is interesting to dig deeper to understand the different definitions of lifelong learning and different motivations for continuing one’s education, throughout various phases of life. What factors in each of our respective cultures’ history have influenced the public perception of lifelong learning? There are certainly countless influences to consider, and ultimately, no matter how we attempt to define and structure lifelong learning, it really is its own entity. It exists whether we attempt to define it or not, because human evolution is its proof. Humankind’s existence has been driven by its inherent need to learn. Knowledge and understanding of the universe is as significant in the scope of our existence as food, water, and shelter. WE are the definition of lifelong learning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand that lifelong learning by many should be indisputably considered only as a positive phenomenon. Pretty much everyone understands it as a process of improvement, which has no finish line and is automatically associated with the idea that the person who is undertaking such an evolution process ( and as I found out from our Skype meeting, is also a very expensive enterprise in the USA) is very ambitious and wants to become a better and more conscious person socially, as well as personally. It automatically implies becoming a better person, evolving and becoming wiser. Now, how could anyone argue with that? I would like to highlight that the lifelong learning policy of upskilling the workforce that I am writing about is the simplified theory of the human capital, which came to dominate debates about the importance of education in promoting economic development.

      Unfortunately, and to my surprise, even the genuine idea of personal development can be used as a form of social and political control. For the last 40 years the powerful consensus that lifelong learning is a wonder drug or magic bullet , which on its own will solve a wide range of educational, social and political ills has been developed.

      This consensus is a plank policy of many Western governments : a nations competitiveness in global markets ultimately depends on the skills of all its people and so governments have no choice but to introduce policies that ‘upskill’ the workforce.

      The social control policy ( which I understand to be a strategic partnership between the states and businesses) shifts the responsibility to individuals to renew their skills regularly to ensure their employability, without really being able to provide highly educated and trained personnel with jobs that commensurate with their abilities, if they are to boost productivity .

      To many politicians and policy-makers, the ‘seductive appeal’ of the lifelong learning process at a time of economic uncertainty offers the illusion of control and of managerial solutions.

      It also reinforces the employers in their beliefs that the main obstacle to their success is the poor education of their workforce, which again shifts the responsibility onto the individuals and overshadows the need of a new social contract between the state, business, trade unions and education.

      I hope I was able to explain clearly what I have learnt after doing research on the topic and why I now understand and firmly believe that the lifelong learning process is unjustly used as a social control system in Europe.

      Like

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