A Growing Need for Continuing Education

A man tells his life story through art as a part of the tour-guide classes offered by the Dream City Building Association. Photo: Dream City Building Association

In developed, knowledge-based economies, the benefits of a “learning society” take on added importance.

Imagine taking a class about a subject you always wanted to explore without the stressful checkpoints of homework, exams, or grade point averages. Instead of pursuing a degree, you are deepening and sharpening your wisdom. Instead of gearing your studies towards the whims of the job market, you are following sparks of nascent curiosity. Perhaps you are a professional musician toying with the idea of starting your own business, or maybe a strategic consultant with a passion for Tang poetry.

As the concept of lifelong learning takes root in Taiwan, personal and intellectual enrichment is becoming increasingly central to the lives of working professionals. While education is compulsory for the young and usually accompanied by parental supervision, adult education emphasizes individual responsibility. Going to museums, taking online classes, participating in workshops, or simply reading the news are all avenues of lifelong learning, which Taiwanese educators and policymakers believe will result in greater civic participation and collective social advancement.

Beyond offering degrees in business, management, and law, National Taiwan University’s School of Professional Education and Continuing Studies (SPECS) provides classes appealing to adult learners who wish to cultivate non-career-related skills. These include courses on Buddhist sutras, Chinese literature, Chinese Traditional Medicine, chocolate-making, and wine-tasting.

Chao Fei-peng, a professor of Chinese literature at NTU, says the difference between teaching college students and SPECS classes is the latter’s emphasis on applicability. While university students may learn about Buddhist scriptures as an academic pursuit, Chao teaches his adult students not only scholarly exegeses but also how to apply the wisdom of the sutras to their everyday lives.

“When I teach the Yogacara school of Buddhism, I teach students how to analyze their mind’s structure and intentions,” he explains. “This way, we can look at the genesis of our emotions. We can decrease feelings of depression and anger. It’s not therapy; but it is understanding how the self is constituted.”

Because most of his adult students are not interested in becoming specialists, Chao says he tries to design a curriculum that they will find practical and useful. He tends to include plenty of examples in his lectures so that students know how to apply what they’re learning. Such an approach produces tangible results. One of his students told him that he used to get into petty arguments with his colleagues at work, but after taking his class, he became capable of mentally distancing himself from negative moods and situations.

Chao says that he enjoys teaching Continuing Education classes because he can build closer relationships with adult learners, many of whom are nearer to him in age than college students. Some of his students have dutifully enrolled in his courses for the past seven years, and may linger after class, whereas college students are typically out the door as soon as the two hours are over.

“During class, I play the teacher’s role, but after class is over, the [adult] students will regard me as their friend,” Chao says. “We’ll go out to eat and chat, and they’ll ask me for advice.”

Because coming to class is not an obligation, in Chao’s experience adult learners are also more likely to understand the value of knowledge. He points to the SPECS marketing booklet, which bears the cheerful title Happiness is Just Around the Corner. The essays inside spotlight SPECS alumni who have accumulated reams of accomplishments. Each responded to the question, “What is happiness?” with a Post-It note containing handwritten answers such as “Attaining a deeper understanding of the self,” “Feeling like you’ve lived a meaningful life,” “Sharing wisdom and joy,” and “Doing what you love.”

Although the specific answers differ, the narratives share an understanding that happiness involves the pursuit of self-realization. Tucked into the crevices between successful careers and supportive families, continuing education seems to occupy a small but significant space in how interviewees view living a meaningful life.

Multiple benefits

Adult education serves many purposes, including vocational training, remedial training, and personal enrichment. As developing countries make the transition from manufacturing to service and knowledge-based economies, employers’ demand for skilled workers grows correspondingly. Increased leisure time and disposable income also heighten demand for continuing education. In 1972, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) began to promote the concept of a “learning society” to prepare nations for the challenges of globalization, aging populations, and information technology.

Continuing education has been demonstrated to benefit not only the individual but also the broader society. Policy-makers have promoted lifelong learning to reduce unequal access to educational opportunities during childhood that may result in intellectual, social, and economic disparities. According to UNESCO’s 2009 conference on Adult Education, adult education participation rates correlate positively with a country’s per capita GDP. Each additional year of adult education per person brings about a 3.7% increase in long-term economic growth and a 6% increase in per capita income.

In 2002, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan implemented the Lifelong Learning Act, which underscores the importance of formal and informal learning beyond compulsory education. In 2010, the Ministry of Education (MOE) sought to promote lifelong learning through its 3-3-1 Initiative, encouraging citizens to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, study for 30 minutes a day, and perform one good deed a day. To raise Taiwan’s overall educational attainment, the MOE has offered subsidies to community colleges, local governments, non-profit organizations, Active Aging Learning Centers, and open universities.

Two open universities currently operate in Taiwan, the National Open University and the Open University of Kaohsiung. Open universities offer distance learning, do not require entrance exams, and do not impose time limits on the completion of coursework, making them an attractive option for those who have fulltime work and family obligations.

Because of advanced medical knowledge and greater longevity, governments also must confront the challenges posed by a growing elderly population. As of March this year, 14.05% of Taiwan’s total population was over the age of 65, meaning that one in seven in Taiwan is a senior citizen. By 2025, it is projected that the elderly will constitute 20.1% of the total population, creating what demographers call a “hyper-aged society.”

Starting in 2008, the MOE began addressing the educational needs of elderly populations by establishing Active Aging Learning Centers (AALC). The number of centers has grown from 104 in 2008 to 363 in 2017. These centers serve people over 55 years old, providing a variety of courses on topics such as mobile phone usage, exercise, health maintenance, and intergenerational relations.

According to Tsai Hsiu-mei, a professor of adult and continuing education at National Chung Cheng University, the biggest difference between AALCs and other institutions serving senior citizens is its focus on active aging, which seeks to mobilize senior citizens to volunteer and give back to society. The AALC program has significantly increased the rate of participation in adult education, especially for older adults. A national survey of adult education showed that the participation rate of citizens over 65 nearly doubled from 11.4% in the AALC inaugural year of 2008 to 22.64% in 2014.

Any experience, however episodic or sporadic, can contribute to lifelong learning, and anyone who has the time, resources, energy, and motivation can become a lifelong learner. As opposed to the conventional association of learning with classrooms, the lifelong learner is – to quote a 1999 report in The Economist – “an intelligent agent with the potential to learn from any and all of her encounters with the world around her.”

Whether as a tool for changing one’s livelihood or a method for building community, the pursuit of knowledge as a lifelong commitment will always bring welcome new perspectives into one’s life. Tired of your 9 to 5? Maybe it’s time to go back to school.