The theory and rhetoric of the learning society

Picture: Learning the imagination by Tony Hall. Sourced from Flick and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

The theory and rhetoric of the learning society. The idea of the learning society has featured strongly in recent pronouncements around adult and lifelong learning. But what actually is the learning society? How have notions of the learning society developed. We the theory and rhetoric of the learning society and provide an introductory guide and reading list.

Contents: introduction · the development of the idea of the learning society · current models of the learning society · conclusion · further reading and references · to cite this article

Today there is much talk of the learning organization, the knowledge economy and the like. The ‘learning society’ is an aspect of this movement to look beyond formal educational environments, and to locate learning as a quality not just of individuals but also as an element of systems (see the social/situational orientation to learning).Here we briefly examine the development of the notion and its current application. We suggest that when we strip away the rhetoric, the notion of the learning society may have utility as an aspirational and descriptive tool.

The development of the idea of the learning society

Notions of the learning society gained considerable currency in policy debates in a number of countries since the appearance of Learning to Be:

If learning involves all of one’s life, in the sense of both time-span and diversity, and all of society, including its social and economic as well as its educational resources, then we must go even further than the necessary overhaul of ‘educational systems’ until we reach the stage of a learning society. (Faure et al 1972: xxxiii)

The notion has subsequently been wrapped up with the emergence of so called ‘post-industrial’ or ‘post-Fordist’ societies and linked to other notions such as lifelong learning and ‘the learning organization’ (see, in particular, the seminal work or Argyris and Schon 1978). It is an extra-ordinarily elastic term that provides politicians and policymakers with something that can seem profound, but on close inspection is largely vacuous. All societies need to be charactized by learning or else they will die!

Donald Schon and the loss of the stable state. An early, defining, contribution was made by Donald Schon (1963, 1967, 1973). He provided a theoretical framework linking the experience of living in a situation of an increasing change with the need for learning.

The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions are in continuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure for our own lifetimes.

We must learn to understand, guide, influence and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and to our institutions.

We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation. (Schon 1973: 28)

One of Schon’s great innovations was to explore the extent to which companies, social movements and governments were learning systems – and how those systems could be enhanced. He suggests that the movement toward learning systems is, of necessity, ‘a groping and inductive process for which there is no adequate theoretical basis’ (ibid.: 57). The business firm, Donald Schon argued, was a striking example of a learning system. He charted how firms moved from being organized around products toward integration around ‘business systems’ (ibid.: 64). He made the case that many companies no longer have a stable base in the technologies of particular products or the systems build around them. Crucially Donald Schon then went on with Chris Argyris to develop a number of important concepts with regard to organizational learning. Of particular importance for later developments was their interest in feedback and single- and double-loop learning.

However, as Griffin and Brownhill (2001) have pointed out three other earlier conceptions of the learning society also repay attention.

Robert M. Hutchins and the learning society. Hutchins, in a book first published in 1968, argued that a ‘learning society’ had become necessary. Education systems were no longer able to respond to the demands made upon them. Instead it was necessary to look toward the idea that learning was at the heart of change. ‘The two essential facts are… the increasing proportion of free time and the rapidity of change. The latter requires continuous education; the former makes it possible (1970: 130). He looked to ancient Athens for a model. There:

education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of the society. The city educated the man. The Athenian was educated by culture, by paideia. (Hutchins 1970: 133)

Slavery made this possible – releasing citizens to participate in the life of the city. Hutchins’ argument was that ‘machines can do for modern man what slavery did for the fortunate few in Athens’ (op. cit.).

Torsten Husén, technology and the learning society. Torsten Husén argued that it would be necessary for states to become ‘learning societies’ – where knowledge and information lay at the heart of their activities.

Among all the ‘explosions’ that have come into use as labels to describe rapidly changing Western society, the term ‘knowledge explosion’ is one of the most appropriate. Reference is often made to the ‘knowledge industry’, meaning both the producers of knowledge, such as research institutes, and its distributors, e.g. schools, mass media, book publishers, libraries and so on. What we have been witnessing since the mid-1960s in the field of distribution technology may well have begun to revolutionize the communication of knowledge within another ten years of so. (Husén 1974: 239)

Husén’s approach was futurological (where Hutchins was essentially based on classical humanism). The organizing principles of Husén’s vision of a relevant educational system have been summarized by Stewart Ranson (1998) and included:

Education is going to be a lifelong process.

Education will not have any fixed points of entry and ‘cut-off’ exits. It will become a more continuous process within formal education and in its role within other functions of life.

Education will take on a more informal character as it becomes accessible to more and more individuals. In addition to ‘learning centers’, facilities will be provided for learning at home and at the workplace, for example by the provision of computer terminals.

Formal education will become more meaningful and relevant in its application.

‘To an ever-increasing extent, the education system will become dependent on large supporting organizations or supporting systems… to produce teaching aids, systems of information processing and multi-media instructional materials’ (Husén 1974: 198-9)

Husén’s vision was based ‘upon projections from current trends in communications technology and the likely consequences of these for knowledge, information and production’ (Griffin and Brownhill 2001: 58. Significantly, these predictions have largely come true.

Roger Boshier, adult education and the learning society. Boshier argued for an integrated model of education that allowed for participation throughout a person’s lifetime. Influenced by more radical and democratic writers like Freire, Illich and Goodman, and his appreciation of economic and social change, Boshier looked to the democratic possibilities of a learning society.

When we turn to current explorations of the learning society it is possible to discern the various strands developed by these writers: technological, cultural and democratic. (The philosophical underpinning of these models is discussed by Griffin and Brownhill 2001). However, it is the technological that appears to have become dominant in many policy documents.

Current models of the learning society

The learning society can be approached as an aspiration and as a description (Hughes and Tight 1998: 184). It is seen as something that is required if states and regions are to remain competitive within an increasingly globalized economy. It may be sought after as a means of improving individual and communal well-being. Edwards (1997) has provided us with a helpful mapping of the territory. He identifies three key strands in discourses around the notion of a learning society in which there is a shift from a focus on the provision of learning opportunities to one on learning. The first is portrayed as a product of modernism, the third as exhibiting a typically post-modern orientation. The second strand, with its emphasis on markets, economic imperatives and individual achievement, he argues, currently dominates.

Richard Edwards on learning society

The learning society is an educated society, committed to active citizenship, liberal democracy and equal opportunities. This supports lifelong learning within the social policy frameworks of post-Second World War social democracies. The aim is to provide learning opportunities to educate adults to meet the challenges of change and citizenship. Support for this conception was put forward largely by liberal educators in the metropolitan areas of the industrialized North in the 1960s and 1970s. This is part of a modernist discourse.

A learning society is a learning market, enabling institutions to provide services for individuals as a condition for supporting the competitiveness of the economy. This supports lifelong learning within the economic policy framework adopted by many governments since the middle of the 1970s. The aim is for a market in learning opportunities to be developed to meet the demands of individuals and employers for the updating of skills and competences. Support for this conception has come from employers’ bodies and modernizing policy think-tanks in the industrialized North since the mid-1970s in response to economic uncertainty. The usefulness or performativity of education and training becomes a guiding criterion.

A learning society is one in which learners adopt a learning approach to life, drawing on a wide range of resources to enable them to support their lifestyle practices. This supports lifelong learning as a condition of individuals in the contemporary period to which policy needs to respond. This conception of a learning society formulates the latter as a series of overlapping learning networks… and is implicit to much of the writing on post-modernity with its emphasis on the contingent, the ephemeral and heterogeneity. The normative goals of a liberal democratic society – an educated society – and an economically competitive society – a learning market – are displaced by a conception of participation in learning as an activity in and through which individuals and groups pursue their heterogeneous goals.

There has been a significant amount of critical debate around these themes and the very notion of the learning society itself. For example, the development of the notion of the learning society can be approached as a modern day myth. It builds on earlier myths of productivity and change (such as those explored by Donald Schön) and of lifelong learning and the learning organization, and operates largely in the interests of capital, the state and professional interests.

[T]he function of the learning society myth is to provide a convenient and palatable rationale and packaging for the current and future policies of different power groups within society…. Nothing approaching a learning society currently exists, and there is no real practical prospect of one coming into existence in the foreseeable future.

Yet this myth has power. [It] is a product of, and also embodies, earlier myths which link education, productivity and change. (Hughes and Tight 1998: 188)

In Britain the notion of the learning society has certainly bitten deep into the rhetoric of policy makers – as the Green Paper The Learning Age (DFEE 1998) demonstrates – and highly instrumental and vocational understandings of education appear to predominate. There is relatively little talk of, or resources flowing into, more liberal and emancipatory educational processes (see, for example, social exclusion, ‘joined-up thinking’ and individualization – the connexions strategy). However, does this make a case for abandoning the notion of the learning society?

Michael Strain and John Field (1998) have been critical of views like that put forward by Hughes and Tight. They argue that we should be too hasty in our rush to sideline the notion.

The project may indeed come to be subverted, hijacked by corporatist, instrumentalist, universalist interests embodied in national governments and globalized financial institutions (of which the World Bank is a signal example)… But democratic conditions still make possible a formative discourse from which much stands to be gained. We should not give up so easily and on such a superficial and limited critique. There is ‘out there’ a real society in which knowledge and other resources are unequally distributed, to a degree that is not only inimical to the fulfillment of individual capabilities and freedoms, but, arguably, detrimental to the collective survival and development of human society. (Strain and Field 1998: 240).

In a similar fashion Stewart Ranson (1992, 1994, 1998) has argued that the notion of a learning society provides us with a helpful way of making sense of the shifts required in the context of the profound changes associated with globalization and other dynamics of social and economic change.


So what are we to do? It pays to approach the rhetoric of policy makers around the learning society and lifelong learning with skepticism. As Ranson (1998: 243) has commented: ‘There is a need for greater clarity in defining the meaning of the learning society, and for establishing criteria which allow some rather than all usages to be interpreted as legitimated’. The notion of the learning society may have some theoretical and analytical potential – but it does require considerable work if that potential is be realized.

The strength of the idea of a learning society as a concept is that in linking learning explicitly to the idea of a future society, it provides the basis for a critique of the minimal learning demands of much work and other activities in our present society, not excluding the sector specializing in education. Its weakness is that so far the criteria for the critique remain very general and therefore, like many terms of contemporary educational discourse such as partnership and collaboration, it can take a variety of contradictory meanings. (Young 1998: 193)

It is necessary to deepen our theorization of the relationship between education and economic life; to appreciate developments in our theorization of learning; and to draw upon understandings of human beings as active, and cooperative, agents if the notion of the learning society is to move beyond the level of rhetoric (or even myth). It may well be that, as Richard Edwards (1997) suggests, the idea of learning networks or webs (after Illich) may be a more appropriate and convivial way forward.

Further reading and references

Department for Education and Employment (1998) The Learning Age: A renaissance for a new Britain, London: The Stationery Office. Glossy Green Paper full of policy speak, that reveals the shift to individualized, market-driven notions of lifelong learning.

Edwards, R. (1997) Changing Places? Flexibility, lifelong learning and a learning society, London: Routledge. 214 + x pages. Edwards looks at some of the key discourses that he claims have come to govern the education and training of adults. He looks at the context for such changes and their contested nature. The focus is on how the idea of a learning society has developed in recent years. The usual trip through postmodern thinking is followed by an analysis of the ways in which specific discourses of change have been constructed to provide the basis for a growing interest in lifelong learning and a learning society. Edwards also argues that there has been a shift in discourses from a focus on inputs, on adult education and provision toward one on outputs, on learning and the learner. This shift is linked to supporting access and flexibility. A further chapter examines ‘adult educators’ as reflective practitioners and as workers with vocation – and how they are being constructed as ‘enterprising workers’. The book finishes with a return to the notion of the learning society.

Faure, E. and others (1972) Learning to Be, Paris: UNESCO. 312 pages. Important and influential statement of the contribution that lifelong learning can make to human development. Argued that lifelong education should be ‘the maste concept for educational policies in the years to come for both developed and developing countries’ (p. 182). The first part of the book looks to the current state of education, part two looks at possible futures, and part three examines how a learning society might be achieved. The latter includes chapters in the role and function of educational strategies, elements for contemporary strategies, and roads to solidarity.

Jarvis, P. (ed.) (2001) The Age of Learning. Education and the knowledge society, London: Kogan Page. 229 pages. Collection of chapters that explores the emergence of the learning society; learning and the learning society; the mechanics of the learning society; the implications of the learning society; and reflections on the age of learning.

Raggett, P., Edwards, R. and Small, N. (1995) The Learning Society: Challenges and trends, London: Routledge. 302 + x pages. Examines the demographic, technical, economic and cultural changes that have led to an interest in a ‘learning society’. Produced for E827 (MA in Education). Useful collection of material.

Ranson, S. (ed.) (1998) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell. 294 + x pages. The introductory chapter explores the lineages of the learning society; part one of the book examines different perspectives on the learning society; part two, the learning society and public policy; part three, the critical debate; and a concluding chapter looks to the learning democracy. One of the best collections of material around the learning society.


Boshier, R. (ed.) (1980) Toward the Learning Society. New Zealand adult education in transition, Vancouver: Learning Press.

Griffin, C. and Brownhill, R. (2001) ‘The learning society’ in P. Jarvis (ed.) The Age of Learning. Education and the knowledge society, London: Kogan Page.

Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (1995, 1998) ‘The myth of the learning society’, British Journal of Educational Studies 43(3): 290-304. Reprinted in S. Ranson (1998) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell. [The page numbers given in this text are from Ranson).

Husén, T. (1974) The Learning Society, London: Methuen.

Husén, T. (1986) The Learning Society Revisited, Oxford: Pergamon.

Hutchins, R. M. (1970) The Learning Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Ranson, S. (1992) ‘Towards the learning society’, Educational Management and Administration 20(2): 68-79

Ranson, S. (1994) Towards the Learning Society, London: Cassell.

Ranson, S. (1998) ‘A reply to my critics’ in S. Ranson (1998) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell.

Schön, D. A. (1967) Invention and the evolution of ideas, London: Tavistock (first published in 1963 as Displacement of Concepts).

Schön, D. A. (1967) Technology and change : the new Heraclitus, Oxford: Pergamon.

Schön, D. A. (1973) Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Strain, M. and Field, J. (1997) ‘On the myth of the learning society’, British Journal of Educational Studies 45(2): 141-155. Reprinted in S. Ranson (1998) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell. [The page numbers given in this text are from Ranson).

Young, M. (1998) ‘Post-compulsory education for a learning society’ in S. Ranson (1998) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell.

Acknowledgement: Picture: Learning the imagination by Tony Hall. Sourced from Flick and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)  licence.

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2000) ‘The theory and rhetoric of the learning society’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2000, 2002