On the tension between work-readiness and lifelong learning

In trying to explain university courses to prospective students and making a case for the approach to teaching and curriculum design that I favour, I’ve often felt at odds with “work-ready graduates” rhetoric on one hand and frustrated with “lifelong learning” rhetoric on the other. Both are usually presented as obvious goods that no one could disagree with (apart maybe from a few romantic academics who don’t believe in work or jobs other than their own) yet there’s a certain tension between the two.

For me, at least, one of the wonderful things about being in school and university was the sense that I was exploring the world, learning about myself and what I could do, and developing a philosophy of life. I discovered ideas and experiences I’d never come across before—even if calculus and the theory of Western music, to take two examples, are actually hundreds of years old—and formed my views of which were right for me.

That largely disappeared when I graduated and found myself in a nine-to-five job. Suddenly my day-to-day task was to churn out computer software according to the needs of my employer’s customers and principles of software development that I’d already learned. Of course I could and did pursue other interests in my spare time, but personal development was no longer the driving force of my life.

One can create a neat economic narrative about “investing” in youth with training and education and so forth, followed by forty or so years of productive labour, and finally twenty or so years of living off the fruits of that labour. But is that the way we want to live, or even very plausible in an economy and society we are assured is constantly changing?

After less than a year of full-time work, I decided to go back to university as a postgraduate (PhD) student. Looking back on the experience now I see a certain amount of youthful petulance in the way I handled the situation; yet that experience was itself part of learning what I wanted to be, and foreshadowed the tension I see now between being productive (“work-ready”) on one hand and developing oneself (“lifelong learning”) on the other.

Exactly how much time we need to spend being productive and how in learning and development isn’t easy to say; which is perhaps exactly why it deserves thinking beyond “work-ready graduates” and “lifelong learners”.

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