If you're interested in lifelong learning in Madison, chances are you will have some experience with the two giants ' Madison Area Technical College, which serves 44,000 individuals per year, and UW-Extension, which reaches literally millions of people statewide through its TV and radio programs, county agents, and continuing education courses. These are large institutions, but the people steering them are personable, passionate leaders who would like to see everyone benefit from lifelong learning, just as they have themselves.
MATC President Bettsey Barhorst has taken to heart a remark by historian John Truslow Adams: 'There are two types of education. One teaches us how to make a living, and the other, how to live.' Barhorst believes that MATC should provide both types of instruction.
'The question that I get all the time,' she says, 'is, 'Why do you have to have strong arts and sciences at a tech college?' We can give [students] a profession, but they also have to learn how to live.'
Although it's important to address the skills that prepare students for an occupation ' one with available positions and a living wage ' it's also important to give them 'the opportunity to experience deeper, richer, more meaningful lives,' says Barhorst. 'It helps them to develop stronger interpersonal relationships, to learn about art, science, literature, music, theater, world events, history, politics and rhetoric.' And so MATC has a performing arts theater as well as a workshop for diesel and heavy-equipment technicians.
Barhorst cites the research in A Learning College for the 21st Century by Terry O'Banion, which recommends offering as many options for learning as possible. That's important, too, because the needs of students are constantly changing, says Barhorst: 'We know that our students probably won't keep that [first] career for the rest of their lives. Most people have about seven different job changes. We also know that students today go to more than one college at a time. While they're enrolled at a four-year institution, they'll come to us for summer, online or interim classes. Then, as adults, after they have finished their baccalaureates, they need specialized training for their jobs.'
For seniors and other adults, MATC also offers avocational training ' 'a whole floor of adults throwing pottery,' or following up on their penchants for arts, writing, music and other forms of enrichment. 'You stop learning, you die,' she says, only half jokingly.
Barhorst has some personal experience with going back to school herself. Her Ph.D., two master's degrees, and her B.A. were all earned in different decades. Like many lifelong learners, her interests have evolved over the years, from speech communication, to management and human-resource development to educational administration.
There's more lifelong learning here in Madison than Barhorst saw going on in Illinois or Iowa. 'I see the culture here is one of learning.' Though she is pleased with the range of MATC's offerings ' 'We offer it all' ' she retains concerns about access: 'I don't know that we offer it easy enough,' citing barriers like child care, red tape and costs. She would like the future of lifelong learning in Madison to 'look like what we do at MATC, except that everything would be easier to access and that lifelong learning would be more expected.'
'Every time I give a graduation speech, I try to give the message that they are just starting. I try to give the message to keep doing your homework. I call it being prepared.'
David Wilson has been the chancellor of UW-Extension and the UW Colleges since May 2006, and he's a passionate voice for lifelong learning. Education should be 'a continuous process of reaching across boundaries and bringing into your life different experiences,' he says. 'It's about recognizing that walls are being torn down all around the world, and we need to learn more about other nations, other cultures, other societies, other people.'
Wilson cites the work of 17th-century philosopher John Locke as an influence, especially Locke's belief that human beings are born as a 'blank slate' and life and sensory experiences write what's on the slate. 'And that slate is not complete until that person dies,' Wilson underlines. This philosophy, still considered revolutionary when the framers of the U.S. Constitution drew upon it, argues against limiting educational opportunities.
Educational opportunity is 'an incredible gift in the United States,' says Wilson. 'I believe that most of our citizens have the opportunity to change their life's position and change their station in life, if they would truly understand this gift and take advantage of it.'
For Wilson, lifelong learning is about more than getting a four-year degree, going into the world of work, and 'basically exhaling.' Lifelong learning is 'about moving out of one's comfort zone and not being afraid to help others to challenge the foundation on which you stand. Challenging that foundation should move one to want to learn more, to engage continuously in that process of inquiry and self-discovery,' Wilson says, perhaps subconsciously echoing the UW's unofficial motto, the 'sifting and winnowing statement' engraved on a plaque on Bascom Hall: 'We believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.'
Put another way: 'What lifelong is all about is intellectual sparring,' he says, 'to be so challenged by a point of view that someone else holds that you go out and read something else or acquire another perspective, and in the process of doing that, continually renew [yourself].'
He's the first to say that his philosophy has been shaped by his personal experience. He grew up picking cotton instead of attending school regularly. He was admitted to college at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) because administrators believed he had the potential to make up for his deficits.
That's why he's passionate about providing access to education through the UW-Extension and the system's 13 two-year colleges. 'Given the kind of nurturing environment that we have in the colleges, and the small class size that we have in the colleges, we can develop and educate that talent' that's out there.
Wilson is committed to holding the door open, even for those who did not do well in high school. He cites the research in The Shape of the River: The Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok as research everyone should read when deciding who should attend college.
Beyond that, it's important for students to think of learning as more than just getting a degree. That baccalaureate degree in engineering has 'about a three-year lifespan,' says Wilson. You can't think you're done with learning when you get your sheepskin, 'because that learning is just so limited.'
Lifelong learning doesn't only mean enrolling in a school or taking a course, either. 'One of the things I've been impressed with here in Wisconsin is the degree to which Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television are truly committed to in-depth interviews and covering topics in a very comprehensive way, understanding that it has a public educational role in the state. Both of these entities take that role very, very seriously.' The two media outlets are 'just an incredible source for lifelong learning.'
But, he notes, not every place is Madison, 'an environment that promotes free thinking, that is challenging, that enables individuals to have 'aha' moments, sending them to libraries and bookstores. There are pockets that promote the kind of thinking, growth, and perspective that I'm talking about. But there are too few.'
Wilson is unapologetic about his idealistic goals. He thinks it would be of great value to society to have every citizen formally educated. His vision of the future of lifelong learning is 'a society where education in the broadest sense is occurring in every possible venue imaginable. There would be programming that is taking place in churches, programming that is taking place on street corners, programming that is taking place in book stores, programming that is taking place wherever people gather.'