What is youth and adult education - today?

Rosa María Torres
Silvio Alvarez - Brazilian artist

En español: ¿Qué es educación de jóvenes y adultos, hoy?

In an event held in Quito in December 2016, with the participation of education specialists and members of social organizations in Ecuador, I was the only one mentioning youth and adult education.

The objective of the event was to (re)think the national education agenda, in the proximity of national elections leading to a new government.

Everyone made contributions. At the end of the day, the wall was full of coloured cards covering all possible topics and all levels of the education system. Adult education, however, was not there. Relatively absent was also early childhood and initial education, which is also and mainly adult education since it implies educating parents and caregivers in dealing with young children. 

The fact is that those located at both extremes of the education system - young children, and adults - have always been sidelined in the big picture of education.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) the right to education (Article 26), even if focused on the perspective of children and young people, referred to everyone. It mentioned elementary and fundamental education, technical and professional education, and higher education.
Article 26.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
Today, the right to education continues to focus on children and youth. The conceptualization of the right to education applied to adulthood has not advanced.

In an era of expanding life expectancy and of a proposed Lifelong Learning paradigm, national and international education agendas are far from including adults as legitimate subjects of education and of the right to education. Adult education remains the Cinderella of education policies and is not in the mind of most people and most organizations when they refer to education. However, the phrase 'lifelong learning' has been adopted in educational rhetoric worldwide and the education goal (Goal 4) within the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, 2015-2030) speaks of "Ensuring inclusive and quality education for all, and promote lifelong learning". 

Lifelong Learning has been introduced and is being promoted as a new education paradigm for several decades now, especially by UNESCO. However, education mentalities and policies have not changed accordingly, and specifically in relation to the education of young people and adults. One may be surprised by:

a) The persistent association of education with childhood, education with education system, and education with schooling.

b) The persistent understanding of youth and adult education as compensatory and second-chance education, addressed to the illiterate, the semi-literate and, in general, those 'lagging behind' in terms of school experience and completion. 

c) The continued association of youth and adult education with non-formal education.

d) The absence of policies and strategies dealing with family education, community education, and citizen education, which imply trans-generational approaches.

e) The use of the term 'lifelong learning' without fully understanding its denotations and connotations, and without a real commitment with the paradigmatic change it entails for the education field.

Lifelong Learning means - literally - learning from the womb to the tomb. Adopting Lifelong Learning as a paradigm implies accepting and understanding that learning begins at home and in early childhood, that childhood is not the only age to learn, that education is much wider than schooling, that formal, non-formal and informal learning complement throughout life, that life is expanding and thus the length and importance of the adult age, that youth and adult learning and education are a fundamental and unavoidable element of any modern education policy today.

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