Mythphrase: Lifelong Learning

In my ongoing attempt to create and cleverly use new words, I have another word that I might add to Wordnik: mythphrase.

Mythphrase: A mythphrase is a word or phrase that is over-used (often as a catch-phrase), and which contains a lot of unexamined ideas and assumptions that, from my perspective, need to be unpacked a bit.  Interrogated. Parsed. Considered. Discussed. (You get the picture – this is not a thesaurus entry, after all.)

My latest favorite mythphrase is “lifelong learning,” in part because I hear it and see it everywhere. For example, I recently interviewed someone for a faculty position at my university who said, “I am really into lifelong learning. It’s critical that everyone be a lifelong learner.”


Wow – that sounds great and all (it’s not like I would argue with that because that would be like arguing that eggplant has worthwhile qualities, which as you all should know, is not true), but where’s the substance? What in the world does this mean?

Lifelong learning probably most often refers to training or educational opportunities for adults, including continuing education (optional and required) and career development or enhancement courses.  Many universities and colleges have “Centers for Lifelong Learning” (or places of similar names) that offer professional development courses and/ or degree programs for adult students. My own university reinvented itself in the early 1970’s, changing from Marylhurst College (a Catholic women’s residential college) to Marylhurst College for Lifelong Learning (a co-ed college with a Catholic heritage for adult learners) in order to meet the demand for lifelong learning. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is working on an initiative for LiLA’s — Lifelong Learning Accounts.  In short, these are “employer-matched, portable, employee-owned accounts used to finance education and training.”  So there’s lots of “lifelong learning” going on out there, which all in all seems like a good thing.

I did a basic Google search and found a lot of resources to help us become “lifelong learners.” Take a look:

15 Steps to Cultivate Lifelong Learning

Personal Lifelong Learning Plan

LifelongLearning Program (an example of one of many out there)

And check this out: there is even an assessment called the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory that we can take to find out how we perceive ourselves in relation to some key characteristics of lifelong learners.

I don’t take issue with any of these ideas (well, I don’t take issue with most of them); that we think that learning after the age of 25 is an important thing to do is fabulous! It’s a value that greatly informs my work and my life. But I guess why I think that lifelong learning is a mythphrase and worthy of some good discussion is two-fold:

1) Its over-use as a commercialized tagline cheapens what I think the real intent of the notion of lifelong learning is, and

2) Whenever I hear it,  I am left asking this question: If there is lifelong learning and we should all have it / be it / do it, then is there also non-lifelong learning? Because in my mind, this would be an awful proposition!

I guess I’d like to believe that there is a quality that defines a lifelong learner, so to borrow a phrase from Peter Vaill, it’s our capacity to engage in learning as a way of being. This phrase I like a lot better than lifelong learning (if we do, in fact, need a phrase), as it implies that like breathing, eating, sleeping, and caring for others, learning is essential to being human.  And …. that in order to live, learning is not optional, but required.

The optimist in me believes this to be true. The question, then, for each of us becomes to what extent?


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