The world of adult education and learning is deeply entwined with modern risks, a central concern in social theory and social science research. For Ulrich Beck, the late 20th and early 21st centuries are characterised by the rise of old and new forms of risk, and by crises at diverse levels. These include social, economic, political, cultural, environmental and other types of risk that affect the existence of, and interactions among, individuals, communities, organisations, states and transnational actors.
Although authors like Beck have not systematically elaborated the topic of risk for the field of adult education and learning, modern risks are a fundamental concern for policy research in this area for at least two basic reasons. First, adult education and learning have been a political issue for decades, within both “lifelong education” and “lifelong learning” discourses. Second, as political issues adult education and learning are closely interrelated with such institutions and phenomena as politics, democracy, work, culture, economics, communication, life style, and family – the central “arenas” in which risks emerge and develop.
Of relevance to the field of adult education and learning policy is the development of risks in the areas of knowledge, science, or policy. This affects not only policy narrowly-defined – formulated and implemented by professional politicians and nation-states – but also policy in the broader sense that becomes itself the subject of political debate. Only in this way can the paradoxical perception that we are living in a different world from that we actually inhabit be overcome. This can be the source of maladaptive responses, such as globalism, which applies economic approaches to all kinds of issue, and anti-modernity, an effort to avert the globalization process by returning to different forms of nationalism.
Adult education and learning policy may ignore contemporary risks, or it may respond to them in adequate or inadequate ways – causing to them, exacerbating them, addressing or even preventing them. This area is the central concern of the 2019 conference of the ESREA Network on Policy Studies in Adult Education.
The notion of risk conveys – simultaneously – elements of both pessimism and optimism; there are potential pathways from a (world) risk society to the reinvention of politics and a new cosmopolitan order. Specific forms of this new order continue to be contested in numerous locations and at numerous levels. Future development also raises how far we can develop reflexivity, a capacity to question social reality along with our own ways of grasping reality.