I love to learn, and I find it helpful to enroll in formal educational courses in order to be guided through learning experiences. Ultimately I’m going to get out of any experience what I want to get out of it and will focus my energies in the ways that I see fit. But, I know that I will finish each course having learned a lot—however learning may be defined. I like to think that I learn because I choose to learn, but the line between voluntary and non-voluntary learning has become somewhat blurred for me as I have gone through the readings for this course. Lately I have heard or seen the phrase “college is not a choice” in a few different places, emphasized in different ways to illustrate different sets of circumstances. So, I got thinking about my own learning experiences during and after my undergraduate studies.
From a young age, my parents told my brothers and me that we would be going to college. I always knew that I would go and never thought about what that meant. I knew that I would have some choice, admission dependent, about where I might go, but there was never any question about whether I would go. From my parents’ perspective, I think the intention was probably instrumental, built out of a generational understanding that a college degree qualifies a person for a job. I bought into this idea, but in 1999-2000, the job market was pretty tight and neither I nor many of my friends had the sort of prospects that we expected based on this cultural myth. A liberal arts degree seemed to have become necessary, but no longer sufficient. As Paul Jay Edelson notes in his monograph, Adult Education in the USA: Issues and Trends, “…with the upward drift of educational requirements for all employees, the quickening pace of technology and change in the workplace, we are undoubtedly entering a phase of constant, ongoing, lifelong learning for those who wish to remain occupationally viable” (p. 3, italics in original). It seems that I have the same simultaneous choice and lack-of-choice that I had as a kid—I get to choose what I learn, but may have little choice about whether I learn.
Knud Illeris sees adult education as largely non-voluntary:
No one today can expect to pass through adulthood without being involved in some sort of education, usually several times, and adult education has taken over the most basic feature of children’s schooling, namely that it is compulsory, if not by law then by necessity….Now, the majority of participants turn up because they have to come, either directly by employers or authorities, or indirectly because the alternative would be social and economic marginalization. (p. 14)
Looking at adult education in this light, it’s easy to feel somewhat out of control, as if the fundamental feature of adulthood—choice—is limited almost to the point of predetermination. According to Illeris, the process of adapting to newer and more rapidly changing contexts can have a profound effect on adults’ sense of self.
What they conceived of as stable factors in their lives have become uncertain or simply no longer exist. They have to find new life orientations, but in contrast to younger people they have to develop these orientations on top of some that they have already established. Thus, for them the development of a new identity simultaneously means discarding parts of the old identity, and the latter is often a process far more difficult and causes much more pain than the former. (p. 16)
Who I am, or thought I was, may not have relevance in the future, so what do I do? Become proactive and try to anticipate the changes to which I must adapt? Fight for sameness and stability and the continuity of my own identity? Become a teacher in a context that has arguably not changed in hundreds of years? Fade away, like an old soldier? Or just tango on.