Sentencing Learners to Life


Sentencing Learners to Life

Retrofitting the Academy for the Information Age

We are clearly witnessing a change in the character of academic life. The question is, how is this change to be understood? This development could be read as just another phase in the long history of the university to adapt to the requirements coming its way from its host society. For most of its history, the university has been tolerated and indeed supported by crown, church or state on the condition it acted the part set for it. Other functions were allowed provided they did not affect the larger and dominant mission. The current realignment is merely that: simply an adjustment to a new level of requirements from the wider society…
– Ronald Barnett, The Limits of Competence

Sentencing Learners to Life

When Plato in the Republic sentenced his Guardian class to a life of learning, his project concerned vocational training for the few, who, because they would learn to identify and implement Good, would justly rule the many. Lifelong learning as a modern populist form of adult education worked toward the opposite, offering the many enhanced understandings that would disallow rule by the few (democracy). Of late this comforting academic binary has come undone. The great emancipatory project of modern education (Lyotard, 1984), elitist or popular, has collapsed, the often willing victim of a transcendental Market. Education’s semi-autonomous formal and informal cultural spaces, which in part lived within Bourdieu’s habitus or Habermas’ lifeworld, are being moved to a hypercolonised confine termed the Information Age. Lifelong learning, in its headlong pursuit of relevance as defined by Market, finds itself in the vanguard of this move, perhaps unwittingly championing an information age academic Diaspora.

The radical late twentieth century systematic, structural, semiotic and discursive (Lowe, 1995) re-write popularly termed the Information Age has its inhabitants scurrying about, caught within the glare of a reductionist Market ethic – Adapt or You’re Toast (Kroker & Weinstein, 1994). With a new information age bourgeoisie ascendant, this new ‘virtual class’, as Kroker and Weinstein explain, is:

projecting its class interests onto cyberspace from which vantage point it crushes any and all dissent to the prevailing orthodoxies of technotopia. For the virtual class, politics is about absolute control over intellectual property by means of strategies of communication, control and command. (And further:) Key to the success of the virtual class is its promotion of a radically diminished vision of human experience and of a disintegrated conception of the human good: for virtualizers, the good is ultimately that which disappears human subjectivity, substituting the war-machine of cyberspace for the data trash of experience.

This paper argues that lifelong learning is a central ideological and pedagogical apparatus (discursive device) for the promotion of this radically diminished vision of human experience and of a disintegrated conception of human good. It argues that ‘disappearing (delimiting) subjectivities’ is the unstated goal of lifelong learning. It posits that the womb-to-tomb state supported projects of instrumental learning that increasingly define lifelong learning (Boshier, 1997), far from assuaging the demons loosed by global competition, will excite them even more, leaving its purported goals of fostering individual empowerment and personal and social security receding ever further into a bleak though hi-tech future.

Locating the Information Age

Befitting a saga of renovated social Darwinism, the provenance of the age is located in the American military. The technology that spawned the age became visible circa 1970 with the Mohammed Ali/Joe Frasier boxing match titled the Thrilla’ in Manila (not to be confused with the Mohammed Ali/George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa staged later). This fight marked the first time the command, communications and control system developed during the war in Vietnam was put to large scale civilian (commercial) use to capture a prime-time home audience with a live (real time) feed of an entertainment event. A search for the source of the Internet, the defining information technology (IT) of the moment, locates it in that self-same military, because planners held that a diffuse decentralised electronic communications system built around many nodes (the Internet) would be difficult to destroy if the Cold War turned hot (Dizard, 1997). The original system is being rebuilt according to the specifications of capital, and even more specifically to the capital of Bill Gates, who, along with forays into cable and cellular distribution, is working with Boeing to blanket the globe with 228 low-flying communications satellites. The ‘microchip’ finds itself in similar company, a product of publicly-funded research and development, which, like satellite communications, found itself internationally conscripted by the ‘private’ sector.

In itself the martial provenance and commercial reconstruction of these enabling technologies is unremarkable, except that unlike the Nuclear Age, Jet Age or Space Age, and like its more distant antecedent the Steam Age, the Information Age is discursively constructed as the issue of heroic rather that state capitalism. For example, Steve Jobs, working in his family’s garage in California, comes up with the Apple, only to see its user interface ‘modelled’ by Bill Gates. The Titans battle and Gates’ Microsoft wins; along the way Gates becomes about the richest man on earth and the popular icon of the era. This tale of down-home competition leading to untold power and wealth grounds a cultural imaginary that harkens back to a less complex era of less restrained (free-booting) capitalism. With Bill and Steve popularly constructed as ‘info-neers’ in much the same mould as their forebears, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, viewers may concur that within a free-enterprise system genius will rise to the top. That the genius and enterprise is far from ‘free’ goes missing in this narrative of meritocratic hope and technological redemption. The hundreds of billions of dollars of publicly funded education, research and development that ground the age, and the opportunity costs that accompanied them, are written-off (out), only to be derisively reintroduced (Usher & Edwards, 1994) as deleterious to the workings of a transcendental ‘invisible hand’.

Locating the information age in rejuvenated free enterprise and individual opportunity instead of, for example, in social intelligence and wealth, ties it neatly to the ‘ideology of competitive individualism’. A seamless fit between the political and economic (neo-liberalism, social Darwinism) and the economic and technological (instrumental rationalism, functionalism, scientism) moments grounds a hegemonic narrative of the reduction of life possibilities for the many, those included in what G.K. Galbraith terms the (dys)Functional Underclass. Unlike the beginnings of the industrial age in Britain which saw the Luddites fighting negative aspects of its imposition so well, today’s Luddites seem lacking in moral authority. Without a neo-Luddite ‘General Ludd’ to lead, resistance to the information age remains muted, though thousands of intense rear-guard actions, often lead by public sector unions, continue to be fought. Yet the ability of Murdoch, Gates and Turner, Fairchild, Sony, Matsui, Samsung, Disney, Phillips, Siemens, Time/Warner (or whatever the latest polyglot mega-conglomerate may be) to define information age production/consumption in terms of their making, remains intact. Eliding existing classes as well as physical and social geographies, this age, very like the industrial one before, forms new and often repressive geographies and classes within a hegemonic narrative of rekindled hope. Virtually overnight the gilding on the information age seems as permanently affixed as the gilding layered onto the age of steam a century ago.

Cold War to Old War

A political economy of irony marks the information age. With the industrial revolution re-played as a virtual post-industrial revolution, ‘symbolic-analytic service workers’ re-place the civil and mechanical engineers that wrote the first industrial revolution onto global land and mindscapes. The discursive constructions of these ‘image-ineers’ are the information age. With the rise of this ‘virtual class’ corresponding with a ‘race to the bottom’ for so many others (the functional underclass), constructing a reason (an ideology) for this popular impoverishment and justifying the privilege of the digeratti and their hosts, has kept thousands of symbolic-analytic service workers on-the-job for years. Their work, for one, lead to the imbrication of ‘globalisation’ which means, simply, world trade, and signifies the hegemonic valuation of Market (Jameson, 1994) with ‘information’ (for example see Bell, Toffler, Gilder, Drucker, Naisbitt) to construct the contemporary information age. As Kumar (1995: 34) states:

To call the information society an ideology, and to relate that ideology to the contemporary needs of capitalism, is to begin, not to end, the analysis. Capitalism has had many ideologies over the past two hundred years – laissez-faire, managerialism, welfarism, even, arguably, varieties of fascism and communism… What kind of ideology is the ideology of the information society, and what are its particular contradictions? ‘The Information Society’ may be a partial and one-sided way of expressing social reality, but for many people in the industrial world it is an escapable part of that reality.

With intra-capitalist competition of the information age replacing extra-capitalist competition of the Cold War era, ‘global competition’ displaces ‘missile gaps’ and the ‘race in space’ as the prime threat to individual and social security in nations in the ‘west’. With that, educational strategies, though the challenge of Sputnik is nostalgia now, remain central to national security (Baldwin, 1996). Education joins with nation, both falling victim to a highly sophisticated postmodern semiotic shell game that promiscuously usurps and re-codes signifiers by deliberately changing the signification historically associated with them. In the post-industrial ‘west’ one enemy (global competition) stands-in for another (communism). This rhetorical displacement constructs a post-national info-age ‘nationalism’ that occludes ‘nation’ by harkening back to and redistributing the now polysemous signifiers that defined it originally. Words like individualism, freedom, competition, co-operation and democracy are redeployed on the quickly shifting terrain of post-industrial consumption/production. In the process, the meanings attached to the signifier nation, like the signifier education (and lifelong learning), have been inverted, used now to institute, justify and maintain a globalised (or regionalised) economic system deliberately designed since WWII to facilitate extra-national capital and technological flows (Bretton Woods, GATT, NAFTA, European Union, ASEAN, etc.) that cannot but undermine the ‘nation’ and ‘self’ hood that the signifiers purport to renew.

David Cook in his 1994 review article of the work of the three leading liberal economists in the US (Thurow, Galbriath and Reich) titled “Farewell to American Culture, Work and Competition” addresses these ‘post-national’ social and geographic formations:

what is left (in today’s global economy) are transnational global knowledge webs (that is no longer property based corporations per se) and large holding areas of labour identified with nation states or trading areas. These labour encampments contain in turn ‘workers’ in three classes: “routine production services, in person services, and symbolic-analytic services.” (p. 174) Of these categories the first is completely fungible (clonal) with any other labour source and hence is consigned to permanent ‘poverty’, the second being more site specific is marginally better off but going nowhere (homeostasis), leaving only the third as the skilled technical class created by the rich but whose future Reich sees in terms of the universal, transnational economy.

To quote Cook comments regarding Riech’s work further, saying that for middle and Eastern Europeans, “Basic attitudes about fairness will have to change” (p. 97) acknowledging the projected growth in inequalities and the unstated creation of an underclass governed by technological demands.

In Canada, ‘clonal’ workers who in large comprise this fast emerging underclass are provided lifelong learning ‘opportunities’ through sometimes compulsory short term on-the-job training, frequently in ‘fast-food’ outlets, often combined with equally short term institutionally based training. Second level ‘on-site’ (i.e., relatively immobile) workers are offered technical and business training, retraining and upgrading. These ‘opportunities’ are usually funded by the workers themselves through the federally administered ’employment insurance’ program. An array of Continuing Education courses and programs are offered to this group by distance (now called distributed learning) or on-site in schools, colleges and universities in every corner of the country. The cost of this ‘CE’ is most often borne by the individual directly rather than through an employer or government. Finally, postgraduate university programs, short term learning experiences such as those offered at the Banff School, and management training courses sponsored by experts like Peter Senge, exemplify lifelong learning for the third class.

Colonizing management studies that incorporate techniques such as Total Quality Management (TQM), though beyond the purvey of this paper, are lifelong learning exercises absolutely central to the dissemination of the ideology of the information age. The (tautological) interior logic of this managerial discourse (for example see Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 1995) grounds a recolonisation of labour, a ‘de’ and ‘re’ skilling that emphasises attitudinal (affective attributes) rather than technical or knowledge based ‘competence’ (see for example British Columbia’s Employability Skills website at Again strategies of rhetorical redeployment of terms like worker empowerment, which have been stripped of their previous meaning, legitimises the realties of the info-age workplace (exile in cyberspace?). This new managerial ideology provides the foundation for the ‘learning organisation’ and the ‘learning society’, which is the inverse of the utopian model for lifelong education envisioned, for one , by Faure in 1972 (see below). Lifelong learning, it seems, is somewhat dismissive of class, sentencing all but the wealthy to it.

Lifelong Learning: A Recuperative Moment in the Information Age

In Lifelong Education: A Psychological Analysis, A. J. Cropley (1977: 20) writes:

The conceptualization of education as a tool for developing individuals who will learn throughout life and thus become more valuable to society is to be found in the writings of both Matthew Arnold (see for example Johnson, 1972), and Comenius (see Kyrasek & Polisensky, 1968), as well as educational writers in antiquity. Dewey (1916, pp. 90-91) expressed the view that education and learning are lifelong processes over 60 years ago. A report to the British Government at the end of the first world war (Ministry of reconstruction of Adult education Committee, 1919) specifically recommended that education should be “lifelong”, as a matter of national importance. However, it is apparent that in the 60 years or so since Dewey’s recommendations for the U.S. and the Ministry of Reconstruction’s recommendations for the U.K., truly lifelong-oriented educational systems have not been developed.

Since 1977 truly lifelong-oriented educational systems – as a tool for developing individuals who will learn throughout life and thus become more valuable to society have been developed in the nations of the ‘west’, though these systems invert the utopic systems envisioned in the 1960’s. Lifelong learning today is largely a project of economic, social and epistemological recuperation dedicated to delimiting rather than expanding the subjectivities of learners exposed to it (see below). Boshier (1997) addresses this changed trajectory in lifelong learning:

Many educators thought the 1970’s and 1980’s would be a linear extension of the 1960’s and reform along the anticipated lines would not be a problem. But after the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 the mood changed and the utopian vision anticipated by Faure (Learning to Be, the UNESCO report of 1972 authored by Faure) was significantly cooled by new right discourses. But despite these developments there were significant theoretical elaborations of lifelong education in the 1970’s (Kallen, 1979), important reforms were made and in several UNESCO member states, some of Faure’s ideas were implemented. But now, 25 years after Faure, educators are struggling with cutbacks and restructuring and some of the liberatory developments anticipated by Faure (such as distance education) have been hijacked by architects of the new right.

Today’s lifelong learning differs in appearance and kind from recent constructions of adult, or indeed childhood education. Much of it is predicated upon breaking down the binary between adult/child and valorising learning in both formal and informal environments that stretch from the cradle to the grave. As Clinton’s home-school-work ‘educational initiatives’ demonstrate, learners are indeed being sentenced to life. While there is undoubtedly a liberating moment attached to the removal of such binaries and to extravagant extensions of education, especially the learning experiences dedicated to the ‘new middle class’ (Usher and Edwards, p. 190-191), which provides a description of service-analytic workers in repose, nonetheless lifelong learning designed for the many remains a discourse of instrumentalism concerned with constructing subjectivity (human capital) according to the specifications of the current “information age” regime of virtual production/consumption.

This competency-based discourse redesigned for the Information Age came late to British Columbia. Like its imperial precursors in the UK and the US, it is being implemented by attaching ‘advisory committees’ to ensure the programs are relevant to info-age ‘industry needs’, by state funded curricular initiatives, for example the compulsory Career and Personal Planning curriculum for grade school students that teaches the ‘value’ of ‘lifelong learning’, by private sector curricular initiatives like the Conference Board of Canada’s (the country’ largest ‘think tank’) Employability Skills Profile which emphasises the market value of lifelong learning, and by Ministry funded initiatives to de-emphasise ‘content-based’ academic education and emphasise competency-based education aimed at the development of ‘process’ skills’. The new strategic plan for the province’s colleges and institutes warns that if institutions do not take on these voluntarily the government will do it for them (Charting A New Course, 1996: 28-29), though the also report states the Ministry, however, favours an approach of revitalized partnerships. B.C. will work to create a revitalized public system that can act as a “hub” for new approaches to lifelong learning.

A document produced by the state-funded Centre for Curriculum and Professional Development in British Columbia captures the trajectory of this contemporary project in which lifelong learning is a component of a larger discourse of competency-based education dedicated to Market:

Strategically presented and tactically supported over time, these actions (prior learning assessment) can help create the “seamless learning system ” BC (British Columbia) needs: one that will value, recognize and credit the skills, knowledge and abilities of British Columbian citizens, regardless of how, when or where they were achieved and provide flexible learning options adults require as part of their growing commitment to lifelong learning (Centre for Curriculum and Professional Development, 1995: 39)

An adaptable workforce that is constantly being re(under)developed to compensate for the skills, knowledge and attitudinal obsolescence built-into the information age, provides the specifications to which British Columbia’s colleges and institutes are being retrofitted. This economic “downloading” onto the worker/learner, as so many stories about the “new” poor attest, cannot but have deleterious effects, especially for those relegated to ‘clonal’ status. By consciously designing learning for everyone to limit the production of consciousness not dedicated to Market, and by limiting the production of ‘officially sanctioned’ surplus consciousness once again to the few (elite universities), lifelong learning, in aspects, relegates mass education to the disciplinary role that was used to justify its implementation during the steam age.

Lifelong learning, in an inverse of its original intent to make learning more attractive by removing associations with ‘schooling’ (Boshier, 1997), has made ‘education’ more intrusive. ‘Dropping out’ at age 15 or 50 has become much more difficult, for ‘drop-outs’ don’t just leave school; they leave already reduced life possibilities. The learners that do continue their ‘schooling’, and various compulsory educational schemes for adults see to it that more and more do, engage a highly-scripted scenario that increasingly finds them sentenced to an unending search for the Holy Grail of ‘value-added’ learning, a grail that is proving more ephemeral in this era of post-Fordist labour displacement and out-sourcing than the one pursued by Galahad some time ago. Lifelong learning ‘for tomorrow’, in practice, has become mandatory if one is to participate in the redundant and highly-stylised performance piece referred to as labour today.

Learning ‘to be’ on demand and just-in-time

To most accounts the information age has arrived, and its varied and disputed effects are being academically mapped and analysed. Mark Poster, addressing postmodern society specifically, states:

Telephone, radio, film, television, the computer and now integration as ‘multimedia’ reconfigure words, sounds and images so as to cultivate new configurations of individuality. If modern society may be said to foster an individual who is rational, autonomous, centered, and stable (the “reasonable man” of the law, the educated citizen of representative democracy, the calculating “economic man ” of capitalism, the grade-defined student of public education), then perhaps a postmodern society is emerging which nurtures forms of identity different from, even opposite to, those of modernity (Poster, 1995:24)

Forms of identity, it appears, can develop variously and do not necessarily hypostatise as ‘modern’ subjectivity supposedly did. When this technologically determined subjective fluidity is combined with the (post)philosophic challenges (poststructuralism, etc.) to a unitary subjectivity from within an academy that was until the mid 60’s unilaterally humanist, the changed social, economic and technological conditions termed the information age (the rise of the underclass, the digeratti, globalisation, mediated communication) speak of a new space within which ‘subjectivity’ is itself being rewritten.

As Donald Lowe (1995: 88) explains:

…we have in late capitalism the valorization of social reproduction, gender, and sexuality, and even psychic make-up. In other words, the regime of accumulation in late capitalism can no longer rely on a relatively stable, relatively autonomous mode of regulation, but needs to underdevelop and thus destabilize it.

Education has been a bulwark of the relatively autonomous, relatively stable mode of regulation (social reproduction) that Poster equated with modernity. Underdeveloping it is precisely what the social reproduction activity termed lifelong learning does. Like advertising, lifelong learning roots out stable competency and constant identity, for which it substitutes lack and desire (underdevelopment). This harmonises ‘education’ with the current regime of production/consumption, for example, the micro-credential required each time a new software program is purchased. Recurrent (re)learning is a necessity if the education system is to continue to produce the malleable but disciplined consumer/producer/citizen that the information age is built upon.

The power that has recently accrued to lifelong learning is massive and suggests possibilities not included within current parameters of design. As the private-sector initiatives outlined above demonstrate, in British Columbia, Market is, in effect, reaping the rewards of a system designed to its specifications without incurring the costs. When lifelong learning is viewed as a deliberate and refined process designed to construct subjectivity in accord with info-age specifications, as a vehicle for selling commodities, and as a profitable commodity itself, it occludes many pedagogical possibilities. Examining all the ‘opportunity costs’ attached to its implementation might cause celebrationists pause, dampening some of their enthusiasms, at least in terms of the long run.


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British Columbia, Ministry of Education. Skills and Training. Charting A New Course: A Strategic Plan For The Future of British Columbia’s College, Institute and Agency System, 1996.

Centre for Curriculum and Professional Development & British Columbia Council on Admission and Transfer. Prior Learning Assessment and Educational Reform. 1995.

Cropley, A. Lifelong Education A Psychological Analysis. Oxford: Pergamon, 1977.

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Kumar, K. From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Lowe, D. The Body In Late-Capitalist Society. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Lyotard, J.F. The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

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Cliff Falk is a doctoral student in curriculum studies at Simon Fraser University. His current work concerns the (re)constitution and (re)institution of learning and knowledge.