Published on 2012/01/31
Marshall McLuhan once wrote that “the future of work will consist of learning a living”. Prescient about more than technology, McLuhan in his typical pithy fashion was able to encapsulate the importance of ongoing or continuing education as “learning for life” – upgrading skills and knowledge for what young people today are told may be as many as seven significant career shifts in their professional life.

While skills upgrading or re-training for mid or late career adults constitutes an important focus for continuing education units in many colleges and universities, at McLuhan’s own academic home base, the University of St. Michael’s College, continuing education is primarily about lifelong learning.

How is lifelong learning different from learning for life, you might ask? Meet Bill. Intelligent. Successful. Retired investment banker. Scratch golfer. World traveler and self confessed “lifelong learning junkie”.  Bill writes:

“This is a tale of love and addiction.

I was introduced to literature, principally English and French, in high school and university, and it was love at first sight. I devoured Shakespeare and Moliere, Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, Baudelaire and Verlaine. They built and fed my interest in the depiction of human actions and emotions in powerful and elegant language.  Then I became an investment banker, and for more than 30 years I read mostly corporate annual reports, The Financial Post and Wall Street Journal.  But I promised myself that when I retired I would return to my beloved Humanities. I have kept that promise. … Now I take about 30 courses and workshops each year – and I’d take more if I could fit them into my schedule!”

Bill is not alone. Every year hundreds of mature individuals enroll in courses, workshops and book groups with little or no practical application or so called commercial value. Often these are the programs that are offered on a “not for profit” basis by institutions of higher learning that take their community obligations to heart.

At St. Michael’s a plethora of affordably priced courses are scheduled at various times of day, including evenings and Saturdays. While the programs are open to learners of all ages, well over 80% of enrolments come from those aged 50 and up.

Active and engaged, “Zoomers”—as Moses Znaimer has playfully labeled this demographic cohort—display enthusiasm for topics that range from “The History of Textiles” to Sacred Architecture, from Verdi’s Operas and Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” to the poetry of T.S. and the prose of George Eliot.

They share a passion for ideas, pre-existing knowledge in a broad range of disciplines and a willingness to participate in lively discussion with instructors and peers. They share coffee. They build community.

“I love having leisure time for courses,” writes one. “This is my entertainment,” offers another.

Marshall McLuhan would be smiling. After all, it was he who also said, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

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