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Nature of societal learning: the collective user

Utilisation of International Documentation (Part #7)

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Emphasizing societal learning raises the important point of a "collective user" whose requirements are clearly somewhat different from the individual user-learner. How does such a user learn? This relates to the problem of the "learning capacity of nations" (3) and to learning by international agencies, possibly via their international documentation systems.

Although it was not possible to clarify in the previous section how knowledge was internalized by society, the Club of Rome report gives further precision to this process.

"Our continued survival is testimony that humanity indeed learns... So we have to reconsider what is meant by the statement "humanity learns". Does the statement not imply - indeed demand - that learning occur at the right time and on a scale sufficiently large not only to avoid disasters but also to conclude a century, so much traumatized by successive follies, with a gain in peace, dignity, and happiness?" (5, p. 118)

The report notes:

"The conventional, often unarticulated, conception of how societies learn usually starts with one or more centers of concentrated competence as the emanators of new discoveries, theories, beliefs, and solutions. These new ideas are then disseminated to larger circles of people and to the public at large. This model of societal learning distinguishes two separate steps: one of distinct discovery and another of less distinct dissemination. The roles people play in this process are likewise differentiated: some invent and others assimilate. The role of society at large is reduced to adjusting to and consuming the discoveries and knowledge produced in centers of expertise. It is easy to see that this conception entails more teaching than learning. The unavoidable consequence of this view of societal learning is elitism, technocracy, and paternalism. What is omitted is the fact that meaning and values - decisive for learning - are products of society at large, not of specialized centers. Despite all their technical advantages, the bodies of knowledge, technologies, knowhow, and theories produced by such centers contain inherent shortcomings - they are too often divorced from the social context. They tend to reproduce themselves according to their own internal logic. This autonomous and self-reproducing development accounts in large part for the fact that so much of societal learning is maintenance learning. "Innovative societal learning seeks to restore active learning to those in society conventionally confined to a passive role of assimilation. Key to this goal is participation that goes beyond mere invitations to accept "given products. To encourage innovative societal learning, true participation must enable people to open and inspect the "black-boxes" of knowledge, to question their relevance and meaning, and to re-design, re-combine, and reorder them where necessary. Effective participation therefore does not mean paying lip service to those who in the past have been deemed to count less than others, but rather ensuring a real contribution of the entire society". (5, pp. 80-81 )

Elsewhere in the report a distinction is however made between the need and possibilities for accelerating learning processes of decision-makers, at all levels of institutional learning, on the one hand, and the equally urgent necessity but greater difficulty of enhancing the more general and slower processes of societal or "public" learning, on the other (5, p. 127). In considering the use of international documentation systems, it would of course be convenient to focus only on the first. The report makes it clear, however, that the two must advance hand-in-hand or the decision-makers will be unable to communicate effectively with the public.

The phrasing of the previous paragraph easily leads to the error of assuming that in either case it is still only a problem of individual learning. In commenting approvingly on the Club of Rome exercise (5, pp. 138-139), for example, the Deputy Director General of Unesco cites Unesco's concept of the "learning society", which appears to mean life-long education for the individual (33, pp. 160-164, 182, 263). But the Club of Rome report is quite explicit that colective/societal learning ("macro-learning") is to be contrasted with individual learning ("micro-learning") .

" Much research has been done on individual learning processes; hardly any research is done on organizational or group or societal learning. This is clearly a new research area". (5, p. 137)

Given the urgent tone of the report, and the absence of further information, those responsible for inter national documentation systems are placed in an embarrassing position. They clearly have a key role in a vital process about which little is known. Furthermore, from the above comments it would appear that they are likely to be contributing mainly to maintenance learning because of the manner in which their function is currently conceived and defined.

Given the time lag before the appropriate research is done, what can be done now to clarify the obstacles to societal learning in order to identify the role of such documentation systems?

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