Adult Education: Social Change or Status Quo?
by Kerka, Sandra
Some believe that adult education was focused on a mission of social
change in its formative years as a field in the 1920s. As it evolved and
became institutionalized, the field became preoccupied with professionalization.
More recently, emphasis on literacy and lifelong learning in a changing
workplace has allied it with the agenda of economic competitiveness. This
Digest examines the debate over the mission of adult education: is it to
transform individuals or society? It looks at whether adult education functions
as a means of empowerment in a democratic society or as an instrument for
maintaining the status quo.
INDIVIDUAL OR SOCIETY?
One of the core tensions of adult education (Merriam and Brockett 1997)
is whether the primary focus of the field should be on individuals or society.
Beatty (1992) is unequivocal in her stance: "The individual and change
within the individual are not only the necessary and sufficient beginning
and ending points for all adult education but also the focal point for
the educational undertaking" (p. 17). She argues that the individual-society
dichotomy is false: educated, empowered individuals create social change
in ever-increasing spheres. Hass (1992) agrees that social change is brought
about by the individuals affected. Mezirow's transformative theory suggests
that individual perspective transformation must precede social transformation
(Merriam and Brockett 1997).
In describing the ideas of Lindeman, Heaney (1996) and Wilson (1992)
point out the complexity of the relationship between individuals and society.
For Lindeman, individual growth and development take place within the social
context, and changed individuals will have the collective effect of changing
society. But Wilson states that it is unclear just how the social order
is thereby changed. Others suggest that groups and communities, not individuals,
create social change (Horton 1989), that personal autonomy can be achieved
only through collective action (Welton 1993), and that the fully developed
individual is the consummation of the fully developed society. Ilsley (1992)
argues that, although equality in the United States has been defined in
terms of individual opportunity, liberty and justice do not arise from
Embedded in this argument is another debate over whether adult education
actually did set out with a social purpose that has been lost. A strong
practice of adult education for social change is apparent in the work of
Paulo Freire in Latin America and Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School.
Their influence continues, although "well on the margins of the adult education
mainstream" (Heaney 1996, p. 37). On the other hand, Rockhill (cited in
Welton 1994) claims adult education was never committed to social justice
but to the legitimation of one form of knowledge. Ehrlich (1993) thinks
that social change objectives "have not been converted to successful practice"
(p. 67), and Heaney (1996) proposes that it was not a loss of concern but
competing visions for change with enormous differences in what is meant
by "social change."
ADULT EDUCATION AND THE STATUS QUO
How does adult education support the status quo? "More often than not,
adult education in North America serves to socialize adults into changing
circumstances, allowing them to 'fit' into a changing but basically democratic-capitalist
social structure" (Merriam and Brockett 1997, p. 92). Two of the three
purposes of adult education practice in the United States identified by
Heaney (1996) are allied with maintaining this social structure: (1) bringing
learners into conformity with mainstream roles and expectations and (2)
developing the best and brightest and validating the privileges of this
Heaney (1993) traces a shift from adult education's role in building
a new nation to homogenizing and socializing immigrants to supporting efficiency
in business and industry. As the spirit of the nation shifts from the common
good to a consumer orientation, education becomes a "learning market,"
supporting economic needs for skills, competence, and mobility (Edwards
1995). Hass (1992) urges educators to take advantage of this market: "We
must treat adult education as a commodity that can be purchased. We should
not be embarrassed to put a price on it. In today's society, value is usually
measured by price. Adult education will become increasingly valuable" (p.
33). However, Edwards (1995) argues that the learning market proclaims
free choice while reproducing the inequalities consumers bring to the marketplace.
Helping adults cope with a changing workplace has placed increasing
emphasis on techniques, competencies, and skills. Wilson (1992) considers
Knowles' approach to be rooted in technical methods and individual psychology.
He finds that, although Knowles recognizes the forces of society affecting
the individual (especially technological change), those forces are not
Professionalization of adult educators also extends and upholds the
existing system, and Zacharakis-Jutz (1988) points out an inherent contradiction
in professionalization. Because adult educators are themselves beneficiaries
of the educational meritocracy, they have a stake in maintaining the status
quo, which could affect their approach and their responsibility to those
outside the mainstream.
ADULT EDUCATION AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Even if individual development was once a meaningful goal for adult
education, the physical limits to growth and the fragmentation of contemporary
society make an adult development approach counterproductive today, according
to Finger (1995). He sees several factors underlying the need for a new
collective orientation: (1) individual self-fulfillment may be an unreachable
goal for most of the world's population; (2) self-directed learning and
critical thinking may have initially been agents for social change, but
their context has changed; and (3) empowerment, a "liberating adult education
practice" according to Freire and Horton, may have lost the political context
that made it meaningful. Finger calls for collective, collaborative, and
social learning as the basis for adult education.
In this new context, "the possession of knowledge has become increasingly
significant for individuals and groups who wish to influence societal development"
(Arvidson and Rubenson 1992, p. 198). Access to ideas and to knowledge
production and processing are becoming decisive factors for social discrimination,
according to Bogard (1992), who believes that it is not just access but
interpretation that offers power. The new form of disadvantage is isolation
from information networks and inability to decode cultural signs. Heaney
(1993) agrees that "the most effective power is exercised by control of
knowledge" (p. 16). However, the issue arises of whose knowledge is legitimate.
Cunningham (1993) argues that a democratic adult education should facilitate
the production of knowledge by the "have-nots" to counter the official
knowledge of the "haves." New social movements such as feminism, peace,
and environmentalism are attempting to create knowledge that challenges
mainstream knowledge through grassroots political learning, critical discourse,
and nontraditional techniques of research and problem solving. Welton (1993)
urges adult educators to ally with them.
Merriam and Brockett (1997) summarize the characteristics of adult education
for social change:
--Collaborative learning--locally initiated and locally controlled,
"it regards individual learning as a byproduct of collaborative learning
and not an end in itself" (p. 249)
--Knowledge production--"the starting point for social change is the
notion that people can create knowledge that is more relevant, useful,
and empowering than knowledge brought in by outsiders" (p. 252)
--Power--adult education can help people understand the networks of
power relations and empower themselves to change them
--Praxis--the interrelationship of reflection and action, of theory
Adult education at the end of this century is represented by both streams:
market-driven, professionalized institutions that help individuals acquire
the knowledge and skills needed to maintain the status quo, and those who
envision a different order and consider the purpose of their educative
work is to bring it about. Heaney (1996) concludes that professionalization
can give adult educators a base from which to work for different social
purposes. An enlargement of the boundaries of the profession to include
those engaged in social action and change could build a bridge between
academics and front-line activists. He suggests that "such a task inevitably
requires rebuilding the foundations of and possibly renaming the field
of practice and study" (p. 41). In working for social change, it will also
be necessary to alter the status quo of the field of adult education itself.
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