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ERIC Number: EJ813703
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2007
Pages: 15
Abstractor: As Provided
Reference Count: 0
ISSN: ISSN-0010-8146
Adult Education and Social Sustainability: Harnessing the "Red Queen Effect"
Easton, Peter
Convergence, v40 n1-2 p171-185 2007
In 1973, the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen of the University of Chicago devised what he called the "Red Queen Effect" to describe the growth and development of species. It stipulated that an evolutionary system must continue to develop just to maintain its fitness relative to others evolving in its environment. The literary reference is to the well-known passage in Lewis Carroll's "Alice Through the Looking Glass" where the Red Queen interrupts the conversation to grab Alice by the hand and start running at a breakneck pace. After some minutes of sprinting, Alice notes with wonder that they are still in the same spot. Nothing unusual, the Red Queen remarks dryly; in her country "it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place". Social sustainability--or the attempt to devise societies that do not self-destruct or destroy their own environment--arguably has some of the same characteristics. Reaching and then maintaining a relative plateau where human needs are met and the human instinct for personal and social growth is accommodated is likely to be a moving target, not to say an ambition that will require widespread artistry and a good deal of vigilance to achieve. It is not simply a destination or a goal to be attained, but rather a lasting challenge. Meeting it presupposes that people everywhere have finely honed abilities to adjust to the many internal convulsions and exogenous shocks that society and the environment may sustain--and to respond individually and collectively by bringing them back each time on to a viable and sustainable track. Sustainability therefore clearly entails a highly developed social and individual capacity for "learning"--but learning that goes well beyond the limits of the conventional elementary, secondary and higher education systems. Those institutions are normatively responsible for turning their charges into good learners; but the cycle between environmental and social disequilibria the one hand and curricular response in formal institutions of schooling and socialisation on the other, let alone the accession of new cohorts to the labour market and to positions of social responsibility, is a long one. In fact, in most circumstances it is much too long for school-based reform to serve as the principal avenue for social adjustment and the achievement of a sustainable, steady-state equilibrium. In order to map out and encourage the learning processes in question, a broader view of education is required. Philip Coombs's classic distinction among formal, nonformal and informal education remains very serviceable in this regard. It is one quite familiar to the readers of "Convergence" and to all those interested in adult education. However, for our purposes it is useful to note that these three spheres can be thought of as concentric: informal learning--by far the largest domain--surrounds and penetrates all types of non formal education or training programmes, which in turn envelop and surround schooling. Almost no one goes directly from school into the workplace or social life without passing through the transitional spheres of non-formal and informal learning. These large "buffering" layers of the educational system serve to smooth the relationship of its formal components to their social context and to extend learning capacity throughout the life span. They will arguably become increasingly vital and developed as the population ages and as humans strive to adopt new ways of working, living and coexisting that place less strain on the environment. [Abstract presented in both English and Spanish.]
National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Renaissance House, 20 Princess Road West, Leicester, LE1 6TP, UK. Tel: +44-1162-044200; Fax: +44-1162-044262; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Descriptive
Education Level: Adult Education
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A