Lifelong Learning and the Imagined Worker: Hine Sight


I am fortunate to live in a beautiful house in a beautiful town in rural New South Wales. Although my access to the internet is constrained by living in a rural community, I can access the internet.
A post by Audrey Watters affirmed just how fortunate I am. Audrey used a Lewis Hine photograph as the image at the head of her post. It was this photograph:
The picture was taken at a cotton mill in North Carolina and is one of many Lewis Hine photographs held by the Library of Congress and shared on Flickr with no known copyright restrictions.

Lewis Hine’s note of the photograph is “A moment’s glimpse of the outer world, said she was 10 years old. Been working over a year”. The photograph was taken in 1908.

It was a very powerful picture for Audrey to choose to introduce her post on lifelong learning. Her writing disturbs me and challenges me. I use ‘disturb’ in a very positive sense. Audrey affects my equilibrium and I have to rethink my taken-for-granted assumptions.

… all from the comfort of a personal office space in a warm house with access to a Mac computer.

The Imagined Worker

Audrey’s post discusses the Pew Research Center’s survey on “Lifelong Learning and Technology” published last week. She suggests this survey:

provides an important counter to the sweeping pronouncements we often hear about Internet technologies and the coming democratization and de-institutionalization of education.

Her post introduced me to Tressie McMillan Cottom and her thinking about “the roaming autodidact” as:

a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets.
Audrey mentions “untethered entrepreneurial learners” too.
She discusses the mythologising of these learners in conversations about continuing learning and points out that according to the Pew survey “the majority of adults are unfamiliar with online learning platforms”.
Audrey concludes her post with her observation that education technology exacerbates existing inequalities. She notes that the Pew survey asserts that those “who are better off and better educated get more benefits from learning”. She cautions that:
when education technology and “future of work” proponents say that it’s increasingly up to the worker to become more “entrepreneurial,” to become a lifelong learner, we should interrogate exactly who that imagined worker might be.
This final sentence connected me back to the image of the ten year old spinner in North Carolina.

Good Fortune

This is another of Lewis Hine’s photographs:

The photograph was taken in 1911. Manuel had been working since the age of four at Biloxi, Mississippi. He was five when this photograph was taken by Lewis Hine.
Audrey’s post helped me think about good fortune and Lewis’s photographs are testimonies to others with different fortunes. Manuel was younger than my granddaughter, Ivy, when the picture was taken. Ivy goes to a wonderful school and is taught by a charismatic teacher.
Audrey’s disturbance took me back to my first day at school and meeting teachers there who changed my life chances. In my community, education was seen as an opportunity to ‘get on’ and move beyond the clay pits, brick works, coal mines and steel works that offered employment to young people who left school before their fourteenth birthday.
My experiences from my earliest days of schooling have made me a voracious learner. I have thought, naively, that personal learning is about intrinsic motivation and the resilient quest for opportunities to learn. I take Audrey’s argument forcefully about how my own experience leads me to assumptions about lifelong learning.
Whilst I was writing this post, my daughter, Beth, shared a link to the Australian Labor Party’s policy agenda for tackling inequality that starts to address the structural inequalities in access to learning that are at the heart of Audrey’s post.
The discussion of quality education across life in the policy document includes this quote:

many Australians lack the language, literacy and numeracy skills to participate in training and work. Only just over half of Australians aged 15 to 74 years have been assessed as having the prose literacy skills needed to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work
The document reports that 2.5 million Australians live below the poverty line.
This left me wondering about what Lewis’s record of poverty might look like in present day Australia.

Hine Sight

It is a profound regret that I only became aware of Lewis Hine today through an image shared by Audrey.
There is an outline of his life in Wikipedia. I need now to learn more about him. I like the idea that sociology was an important part of his learning journey and am keen to find out more about his move from teacher to visual ethnographer and his recording of child labour in the United States.
I need to find out more about how such a selfless person could end up in the poverty he chronicled.
His story is interwoven with Audrey’s narrative about learning. I am delighted I have found him. I think his story will help me clarify my own unequivocal commitment to supporting personal learning opportunities in a grounded way.
I am going to explore Tressie’s ideas too in the context of my work for the OERu.

Photo Credits

Rhodes Mfg. Co, Linconton, NC. Spinner (Lewis Hine, no known copyright restrictions.)
Manuel, the young shrimp-picker (Lewis Hine, no known copyright restrictions.)


  1. mmmmmm
    But statistically, will we not always have inequality? No matter what measure you use, there will always be a median point at which some will have more and some will have less.
    Is it the same for ‘poverty’ – who determines the line? Does not the line always advance as the general economy advances? Clearly there are no Australian 5-year old “Manuel” working as they did in 1911. Neither are there any boys climbing up to sweep chimneys. Thus the poverty line in 2014 would be a very, very different place from that in 1914.
    The reason for asking these questions is to highlight the risk of believing that “Quality Education” (as opposed to straight-forward ‘education’?) is some sort of panacea? France has some of the best education in Europe but has a truly awful young unemployment rate (10%?). I pose the question because I have a niece who has chosen to teach in a Secondary that has a number of problem groups. One of them are 17 year old boys who only have one desire and that is to join their father in his building/plumbing/fencing business. Is it little wonder that with a £90 call-out fee, my emergency plumber turned up driving an BMW X5?
    I was struck by this Telegraph story : which was picked up in this comment: – we’ll never get a ‘bot’ plumber come and service my boiler or fix a leak but traditional ‘educated’ roles will become more and more the preserve of computers.
    Perhaps its time for me to re-train as a plumber?

    • Thank you for taking me to account, Gordon. Your point about the median is well made.
      You are right to question ‘quality education’.
      My take on Audrey’s argument was that she was arguing against panaceas too.
      We are facing the same vocational dilemmas in Australia too. My local educational trust offers support for rural children to continue their education. A large proportion of this year’s group were from trades.
      Thank you for taking time to post such a comprehensive comment. I really enjoyed reading and thinking about your observations.
      Best wishes


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