Lifelong learning and the American myth of the self-made man.

It is a funny coincidence, but today, exactly on the 4th of July, I would like to write my last post about the american myth, or as some would rather call it, ideal of the american self-made man and how this belief can be related to the lifelong learning movement.

The differences between the way the American colleagues we collaborated with perceived the lifelong learning topic has inspired me to learn more about their culture and try to understand how this topic can be observed from a totally different perspective. As I already mentioned in the previous posts, the American citizens come from a different welfare system than the EU citizens. This definitely shaped the ways the citizens from these two backgrounds perceive the lifelong learning issue and the way they relate to it as individual beings, employees or employers.

First of all, I would like to point out what I have learnt about the self-made man ideal in the american culture. It is  a deeply rooted concept in the American Dream. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States is believed to be the creator of this concept.

In his Autobiography, he describes his way from a poor, unknown son of a candle-maker to a very successful business man and highly acknowledged member of the American society. Franklin creates the archetype of someone coming from low origins, who, against all odds, breaks out of his inherited social position, climbs up the social ladder and creates a new identity for himself. Key factors in this rise from rags to riches are hard work and a solid moral foundation. Franklin also stresses the significance of education for self-improvement.

In the European culture this concept is also known, and of course ambition and the will to work on self- improvement are two very respected and valued characteristics. However, this concept is not rooted in the general culture, like it is in The USA. The EU citizens are  encouraged by the state to invest in their self-development and the EU supports its citizens with various programs that promote flexibility and self-development to guarantee employability and the best  economic development of the EU community possible.

However, because of the welfare system in most EU member countries the citizens often tend to notice and point out the drawbacks of the lifelong learning and they feel like they have the right to blame the state for shifting the responsibility on to the individuals etc.

Finally, I am very intrigued  to have had the possibility to experience such a tangible example of cultural differences. I enjoyed trying to change my perspective and understand how certain aspects of institutional change are perceived by different cultures. Surprisingly, shifting my perspective and gaining a deep understanding of some issues was much harder than I had imagined and have me food for thought.

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5 responses to “Lifelong learning and the American myth of the self-made man.

  1. Thank you for this – and very many other!- enlightening post! I take this one to tie in some thoughts about similarities between our two topics. When I read the words of ‘self improvement’ and ‘shifting the responsibility to the individual’ some bells rang and I thought it might be worth to look at the parallels between the two concepts of lifelong learning and performance measurement (I will follow the lines of the typically sceptic and pessimistic European take on these things that you have worked out so well, sorry for filling that stereotype!).

    With the term of self-improvement you nailed the normative core of both – LLL and PM. In both these concepts the self becomes something that is to be optimized, be it through education, classes you take, certificates you collect, money you invest, or be it according to indicators of efficiency, quality and output from your employer. In both cases it is a highly individualized concept: the focus of attention is not the organizational or national level, but the person. And neither performance nor your knowledge, competences and formal degrees are transferrable, they are tightly coupled to individual persons.
    What is connected to that is the dimension of time – reading the line of ‘lifelong learning’ makes me wonder if the lifelong-part of it is a threat or a promise. Lifelong leaves no doubt that the self – in working life, in the education system and even more and more in the private sphere – is never good enough and is something that requires constant activity and work. Self-development becomes a never-ending and unsolvable task – it is not enough anymore to do your schooling and then acquire a degree to get a job that you will keep until your retirement (like it was and in some jobs still is in Germany) but you are incessantly demanded to increase and boost your abilities and competences – update your computer skills, take a class for improving your soft skills or learn a language. Here, LLL and PM form an alliance, as the measurement tools formalize and objectify your individual efforts of self-development. With the numbers, ratings and evaluations from PM ‘development’ suddenly materializes.

    The experiences of the teachers from the US form a vivid example: Unlike teachers from Germany who do practical examinations in only one period of their career (the beginning) the experience of being evaluated, the demand to ‘prove yourself’ and to ‘perform’ is for the US teachers expanded – to a lifelong period of time.

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    • I believe lifelong learning includes both, a chance for myself to expand my skills, my capabilities and my understanding of the world but also a necessity to always work on myself and to never be content with what i reached. This is were the problem comes in. Goals are per definition outside of ourselves. If every reached goal means setting the next goal further away, there is no reachable end point. It is important to somehow hit the balance between both extremes. The question is, can you yourself decide where that balance-point is or does societal pressure constantly move the point further away.
      The necessity to always expand your skills also comes with the danger that those who do not want to or can’t, get left behind. For Example: The generations who are now entering the universities will have no problem working with computers and modern media – maybe less than their teachers – because they grew up with it. For older generations this can pose (seemingly) unpassable barriers. We have social systems to compensate for this – i.e. offering computer courses – but this only goes so far.
      On the other Hand, I’m glad that I live in a society that allows me to continue my education. I myself had a job training, worked several years in this vocation and then decided that I can’t do this for the rest of my life and started another educational path. I don’t take it for granted, that I had this opportunity.

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  2. Pingback: PM and Lifelong Learning – Some Affinities | Organizational and Institutional Change·

  3. I believe lifelong learning includes both, a chance for myself to expand my skills, my capabilities and my understanding of the world but also a necessity to always work on myself and to never be content with what i reached. This is were the problem comes in. Goals are per definition outside of ourselves. If every reached goal means setting the next goal further away, there is no reachable end point. It is important to somehow hit the balance between both extremes. The question is, can you yourself decide where that balance-point is or does societal pressure constantly move the point further away.
    The necessity to always expand your skills also comes with the danger that those who do not want to or can’t, get left behind. For Example: The generations who are now entering the universities will have no problem working with computers and modern media – maybe less than their teachers – because they grew up with it. For older generations this can pose (seemingly) unpassable barriers. We have social systems to compensate for this – i.e. offering computer courses – but this only goes so far.
    On the other Hand, I’m glad that I live in a society that allows me to continue my education. I myself had a job training, worked several years in this vocation and then decided that I can’t do this for the rest of my life and started another educational path. I don’t take it for granted, that I had this opportunity.

    Like

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