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Lifelong Learning in Europe: National Patterns and Challenges

reviewed by Bowen Paulle - May 08, 2014

coverTitle: Lifelong Learning in Europe: National Patterns and Challenges
Author(s): Ellu Saar, Odd Bjørn Ure & John Holford
Publisher: Edward Elgar,
ISBN: 0857937359, Pages: 456, Year: 2013
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How has lifelong learning (LLL) taken root over the course of the previous decade or so across the various countries constituting—and influenced by—the European Union? Fully aware that that there never was any one best way forward for all the quasi-autonomous, heavily path-dependent, and more or less isomorphic fields in question, this is the main question the editors set up at the outset and take on in twelve empirical chapters. To this reviewer’s knowledge, the three editors have compiled the most comprehensive and coherent account to date of LLL in Western, Central and especially Eastern sections of the ‘old world’. Obviously, this is not the place for even a superficial engagement with the array of empirical arguments developed across this four hundred-page tome. What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the book’s main contents and a pithy explication of why, despite what might be considered a few relatively minor flaws, this volume will serve for many years as a resource for those concerning themselves with LLL in the EU and beyond.

The Introduction as well as the three opening chapters, which together form the first part of the book, offer a sound foundation and innovative approach for dealing both with the relevant research literature and with evolving fields of LLL. In terms of basic sociological principals, the authors rely most heavily on (critiques of) seminal works by Bourdieu and DiMaggio. The main take away here is that to get it right, those investigating the reasonably identifiable LLL systems operating across the countries comprising (or adjacent to) the EU must engage in non-reductivist, non-static, non-routinized thinking. Furthermore, insights from macro-, meso-, and micro-levels of analysis—as well as qualitative and quantitative data—must be integrated if modes of (for example European or class-based) domination and transformation in “(organizational) fields” of adult learning within the EU meta-field are going to be adequately understood. This, the editors seem to be explaining to policy makers who might be tempted to look for easy answers, is a delicate task. It requires a sophisticated mix of skills—a métier, as Bourdieu might have said. And although the twelve empirical chapters constituting the section entitled “Country Studies” are not all crafted with the same dexterity, taken together they certainly validate and further explicate the claims about the need for theoretical savoir-faire and empirical rigor made in the opening section.

In language strong enough to get the main point across without engaging in irresponsible polemics (about the pseudo-empiricism of seemingly rigorous yet unduly reductivist research), a surprisingly sparse conclusion restates the argument against zooming in on specific trees (i.e., key components or mechanisms) rather than attempting to see how the forest (i.e., the bundle of complex, interdependent social processes) actually operates and evolves. Instead of a final plea for specific policies or putatively content independent “evidence-based” practices, the reader finds a final plea for more relentlessly relational, boldly multi-dimensional, and explicitly processual (national) case studies of the type delivered in this well-written book.

My main concern is a methodological one. While the editors and contributing authors are to be commended for indeed bringing together different levels of analysis, the micro-analytic insights seem to be based not on what people do, but rather on what people say. At least since Malinowski and the Chicago School ethnographies (of institutions such as post-secondary schools), anthropologists and sociologists alike have understood that informants’ utterances about everyday practices are often extremely misleading. In short, without direct observations to confirm (or otherwise help make sense of) the verbalized claims of participants (or, in ethnomethodolgical terms, of members), there is little reason to trust the accounts they offer. Local experts that they are, we get the sense that several authors know a great deal about the primary processes at the heart of the dynamics they describe. Yet, whether hindered by methodological inhibition or not, in their various empirical chapters they offer precious little insight into what actually takes place on the ground from the perspective of the fully embedded and embodied insider. The book therefore cannot speak to the possibility that in some countries professionals typically live up to their (lofty) rhetoric about what they actually do while, in others, claims made in interviews should be seen mainly as after-the-fact rationalizations having little to do with gritty everyday realities.

Another concern has to do with framing. The editors certainly contextualize their research in terms of the (EU’s possible role in the) neo-liberal attack on welfare state policies, provisions, and protections. This ties in, as they argue, both with increasingly economistic/instrumentalist political talk (e.g., the foregrounding of efficiency, competitiveness, globalization) as well as with growing socio-economic inequality and insecurity. Almost certainly, however, this book could have been framed at least in part in terms of how the recent rise in lifelong learners across much of Europe has been driven by increasing pressure to acquire new skills or retrain after if not before the loss of jobs in the interminable recession that followed the global financial crisis.

While this may be a stretch, from a very different perspective there is still another frame that might have been used to highlight why this book deals with an urgent issue. From Scandinavia to Greece, ethno-political entrepreneurs are mobilizing feelings of resentment and (economic) insecurity into openly xenophobic (if not neo-fascist) challenges to the established order. Such developments may do more than ‘merely’ impede European efforts to offer the world a promising model for socially and environmentally responsible liberal democracies. These very developments, reinforced by (ethnicized) struggles over educational systems or not, may bring out the worst in European society in the years ahead. Differently stated, educational systems generally (and the quasi-nationalized organizational fields constituted by interdependent sets of LLL institutions and practices more specifically) may in the next decade or so be Europe’s best bet when it comes to dealing with these disconcertingly potent trends.

These concerns notwithstanding, this sophisticated and judicious work of social science offers useful insights into the trajectories of a rather amazing range of countries and an admirably accessible statement about how to approach the matter at hand: What works for more or less vulnerable adult learners in more or less wealthy countries at given stages in the evolution of these countries’ fields of LLL, may or may not represent adequate or realistic paths ahead in other countries’ fields of LLL during a given phase in their development. In demonstrating this lucidly, Saar, Ure, and Holford have produced a major contribution to the comparative study of an increasingly important topic.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 08, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17525, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:33:33 PM

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About the Author
  • Bowen Paulle
    University of Amsterdam
    E-mail Author
    BOWEN PAULLE is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. After working on efforts to desegregate schools in various parts of the Netherlands, Paulle is presently working on a grass-roots initiated effort to bring enriching experiences -- after school, during vacations, and on weekends -- to roughly 1000 primacy school students in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rotterdam. He is the author of Toxic Schools: High-Poverty Education in New York and Amsterdam (University of Chicago Press, 2013). His most recent articles are “Elias and Bourdieu” (with Bart van Heerikhuizen and Mustafa Emirbayer, Journal of Classical Sociology), “The Integration Matrix Reloaded: From Ethnic Fixations to Established Versus Outsiders Dynamics in the Netherlands” (with Barak Kalir, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies) and “Coming Hard: The primacy of embodied stress responses in high poverty schools” (forthcoming in The European Journal of Sociology”).
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