Ars longa, vita brevis – lifelong and lifewide learning


Last autumn, together with a group of entrepreneurs over the age of 55, we discussed their existing expertise and the next steps in developing this expertise. When it comes to development work on expertise and competence in Finland, one will inevitably encounter concepts that emphasize that it is also possible to learn as an adult. Lifelong learning means that a person learns new things throughout his or her life. There is also discussion about continuous learning. We feel that the concept of lifelong learning is used in other Nordic countries, while more used term in Finland is continuous learning.

The concept of continuous learning is also cultivated by the current government program, which strongly highlights the need for it. With Antti Rinne’s government program, a parliamentary reform on continuous learning was launched in 2019. It aims to alleviate the shortage of skilled workers and make skills development smoother for adults. At the Researchers’ Meeting on Continuous Learning Reform in November 2019, many speakers emphasized the need to invest in the development of skills in the late stages of the career path.

The importance of lifelong and continuous learning has been emphasized in all societies due to, among other things, rapid technological development. Jobs and occupations disappear, and new ones emerge. We also need new skills due to internationalization and major global changes.

However, continuous learning throughout one’s life is not a new idea. The saying “Ars Longa, Vita brevis” is already known from antiquity – originally in Greek “Ὁ βίος βραχύς, ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή”. It was said by Hippocrates, a Greek physician born in the 4th century BC. Translated, the saying means “life is short, art is long”. The saying is generally thought to mean that life is not enough to learn a skill in-depth – Greek τέχνη (tekhne) and Latin ars can mean both art, skill, knowledge and profession.

If the limited length of life is not enough to learn new knowledge and skills, one should use its whole width. This idea is at the heart of the concept of life-wide learning. The term is used in educational sciences, but it is probably still unknown to the general public.

While the concept of lifelong learning indicates that even adults and older people can and should learn things, life-wide learning suggests that learning takes place in all aspects of life. We learn new things in our daily lives, even without realizing it. We gain new knowledge and skills through our hobbies and from people we know. We learn to use new devices, we learn when we travel, we learn when we read and watch TV shows.

In the curricula of educational institutions, life-wide learning is implemented by taking students into real-life environments. You can also learn from working, and one can utilize skills acquired from other areas of life at work. Participants in our entrepreneur group said they had learned entrepreneurs’ essential skills themselves: they have learned about marketing and planning from activities of dog association, perseverance from sketches, compassion from literature, new perspectives from art exhibitions, using Instagram from an entrepreneur colleague and creativity from choir singing.

Which skill or quality you last experienced developing? How conscious your learning was?

Written by: Heli Ansio and Sara Lindström, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health