The impoverished language of citizenship and adult learning

With colleagues here in Cologne, I’m currently looking at adult learning and active citizenship. Our starting assumption was that this was an area of decline, whether in policy, practice or research, but we have had to moderate that judgement at least in respect of research. So far as policy is concerned, the picture is extremely mixed, and I’ll blog about that later on. What I wanted to note today is an interesting linguistic shift.

Across much of Europe, and that includes the European Commission, governments often use the word ‘citizen’ in connection with adult learning. But when they do so, they usually use it as a synonym for ‘person’ or ‘individual’. Very seldom do they make a connection between adult learning and active citizenship, understood as full participation in civic and political activity.


Let me take one example, which comes from the Nordic region. It’s a good region to pick, because it is one where governments not only support adult education more generously than most other European regions, but they also take a broad and generous view of what sort of adult education they should support. It is typical of this view that the Nordic Council of Ministers also fund Nordplus, a lifelong learning programme that covers all stages of education and training in the Nordic and Baltic nations.

Nordplus sounds like a great programme, and you can read about its activities in adult education here. Nordplus Adult has recently published a report on its work to ‘strengthen adults’ key competences and recognition of adults’ informal and non-formal learning’.  It is well worth reading for anyone interested in basic essential skills, validation of prior learning, learning disabilities or older adults’ learning. We can learn much from the Nordic experiences.

The report also illustrates the way in which ‘citizen’ is widely used in policy discourses. The word appears twenty-three times in the report as a synonym for person/individual; the term ‘citizenship’ appears twice, both times in a list of the three Nordplus Adult programme objectives.

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I wouldn’t make too much of this case alone. The report concerns Nordplus Adult’s activities in the field of competences and recognition; presumably a separate report will deal with adult learning for ‘modern citizenship’, and the Nordplus database lists 15 separate projects in this area. On the other hand, I – perhaps naively – would expect some cross-over between competences/recognition and ‘modern citizenship’, particularly in the Nordic context.

More importantly, the same use of ‘citizen’ as synonym for ‘person’ can be found in many other policy documents in Europe. The Nordplus handbook uses the term ‘citizenship’ once, in the list of objectives for Nordplus Adult, and offers no further elaboration of what ‘modern citizenship’ is. That also is typical.