ERIC Identifier: ED448290
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Rowland, Michael L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
African Americans and Self-Help Education: The Missing Link in
Adult Education. ERIC Digest No. 222.
Mainstream literature on adult development examines the unique life changes
of adults using the theoretical models of Maslow, Rogers, Levinson, Sheehy, and
Belenky et al., to name a few. Yet, as Ross-Gordon (1991) has emphasized, there
is a need for a multicultural perspective in adult education research. She
states, "If we are to truly listen to learners representing multicultural
perspectives we must be open to looking at the world from their perspectives"
(p. 10). In this Digest, I assert that a multicultural approach to adult
education and self-help must include a review of literature that examines
self-help education and its impact on African Americans' learning and
development. An approach to adult learning that integrates the various
dimensions of the lives of African American learners must be researched for the
future growth of the field of adult education.
Recently, African-American writers in the popular press and academicians
(Eric Copage, Iyanla Vanzant, Dennis Kimbro, bell hooks) have focused their
attention on issues of self-help and personal growth for African American
adults, as evidenced by the growth in the number of books written in the genre
of self-help and African American consumers' book-buying habits (Smikle 2000).
The majority of African American consumers are women in their thirties and
forties with higher education, who are in the work force and/or married with
families. The types of self-help books these women buy most often include books
on self-esteem, gender issues, or spiritual enlightenment, as well as
biographies of well-known African Americans such as Maya Angelou or Oprah
Winfrey, whose lives serve as inspiring models.
The purpose of this Digest is to recognize the significant role of the field
of self-help education and self-help literature in the lives of African American
adults and to pose the question, How can we expand the knowledge base and scope
of self-help education for African Americans?
AFRICAN AMERICANS AND ADULT LEARNING
The basic models of
learning, development, and program planning in adult education have often been
developed with little concern for the unique needs of African Americans (Colin
1994). Current theories of adult learning have also been criticized for their
lack of cultural understanding and the role that race, economics, and gender
play in the learning transaction. For example, Flannery (1995) argues that three
of the main theories of adult education--andragogy, self-directed learning, and
perspective transformation--focus heavily on the individual and do not recognize
the value of groups. She observes that some racial and ethnic groups, such as
African Americans, place greater emphasis on "communal values." Flannery
explains, "communal values include knowledge which is valued, how learning
occurs, [and] communication patterns of working together for the good of the
community" (pp. 153-154). Flannery contends that adult learning theories must be
mindful of the influence of social, historical, and economic roles in adult
education and "must acknowledge that people and cultures vary in how they learn"
(p. 156). Theories "must become inclusive and give voice to all people and
groups, allowing missing voices (women, working-class persons, persons of color)
to narrate their diverse stories of how and where they learn, and about their
values of learning" (p. 156).
If we look beyond some of the traditional models and formal approaches to
learning, there are many ways to examine the learning needs and habits of
African American adults. Any discussion of self-help for African Americans must
include the interplay of race, economics, power, and education. This can be
achieved through the Africentric perspective. As defined by Guy (1996), the
Africentric perspective is a "culturally grounded philosophical perspective that
reflects the intellectual traditions of both African and African American
cultures. Africentrism is understood as an attempt to reclaim a sense of
identity, community, and power in the face of Eurocentric cultural hegemony" (p.
21). Therefore, when focusing on the learning and development of African
American adults, learning models that reflect the Africentric perspective should
be considered (Colin 1994). Africentric learning models "focus on the
development of the racial self and the bond between the individual and the
racial group and the impact that racist interactions have on the development of
the self-ethnic image" (Colin 1991, p. 58). Colin notes that the work of Cross
(1971, 1978), DuBois ( 1969), Parham (1989), and Thomas (1971) should be
considered in developing models for learning and development.
Africentric books present issues and problems from the African American
perspective. People who have been oppressed by the European / white perspective
and who have come to believe the black stereotypes that have been projected onto
them need the redefinition that Africentric books can offer them, because they
are too closely identified with the stereotypes to be able to break out of them
on their own. Africentric books present sensitive issues and point out those
hidden barriers that only other African Americans who have experienced them
first hand would know. In contrast, a general self-help book would simply
discuss general rules for how to achieve something, without looking at the
hidden barriers that create obstacles for blacks. Africentric self-help books
are usually intended for blacks who want to have successful lives and
professions in "white America," while still maintaining their African American
identity. It is this focus on reinforcing one's multicultural identity, while
also giving one the survival skills for "making it" in the mainstream, that
distinguishes Africentric self-help books.
Today, one of the main philosophical ideologies of adult education programs
has been the focus on the personal growth of the individual or what is often
referred to as "self-actualization" or student-centered learning (Maslow 1968;
Rogers 1961). Yet, given the African American experience, this is nothing new to
African Americans. The concept of self-help, which became popular with the wave
of New Age ideas, has been the mainstay of the African American community. From
the days of slavery, African Americans have had to develop coping skills just to
stay alive. At first, self-help for African America was embedded in the
spirituals, sermons, faith communities, slave songs, and coded hymns that the
white master could not understand. Self-help and adult education are part of the
African American cultural heritage, as exemplified by such men as Booker T.
Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.
Booker T. Washington believed that African Americans needed first to take
care of their survival and safety needs and then worry about the more complex
needs of belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Once the basic needs
were met, then they could focus on economic independence, home and land
ownership, and starting a business. The humanistic efforts of adult educators
like Booker T. placed the personal needs of the learners first; learning for
personal change was a secondary but essential characteristic of adult education.
Washington advocated self-help within the race and engaged African Americans to
pursue "industrial" education, which he felt would allow them to be more
independent. At that point, they would know how to position themselves
strategically in the social, political, and economic structure of America.
Denton (1993) asserts that today's adult education programs are in fact modeled
after Washington's principles and his contribution to the field of adult
education. Denton describes how Booker T. Washington's philosophy of adult
education led the way for the mainstream white American writer Abraham Maslow's
hierarchy of needs. The humanistic perspective on adult education, not only
among African Americans but in general, may not have come about without the
influence of men like Washington or DuBois.
W. E. B. DuBois believed in self-help for African Americans and understood
the social dynamics that race played in America for blacks. DuBois's answer to
the problems that confronted Black America was the power of education to
transform the race, in contrast to Booker T.'s humanistic philosophy. DuBois was
concerned with the activism that African Americans needed in order to gain
social and political freedoms. In other words, he did not want to wait to meet
survival needs first, but was more militant about the need to demand one's
rights. He understood the interplay of race, economics, and education and the
conflicting feelings many blacks had of being an American and being black.
DuBois's self-help philosophy is therefore more aggressive than Booker T.'s. As
with the work of Booker T., DuBois's book, The Souls of Black Folks (1903), can
be regarded as one of the early books on self-help education in America because
it promotes survival skills acquired through education.
Another example is Marcus Garvey's "self-ethnic reliance" model. Garvey
insisted that African Americans rely on their own initiative, and he believed
that "the only limitations they had were those that they placed on
themselves...the effectiveness of white control and oppressive constraints was
dependent upon whether [one] believed in the doctrine of racial inferiority and
acted accordingly, and... their negative self-ethnic image and fatalistic
attitude were not due to a state of being ordained by God" (Colin 1996, p. 54).
Colin argues that we need to consider all previous models when planning new
approaches for African Americans.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
If self-help efforts
continue to be important to African American adults and to adult education, we
must study the ways in which African American adults pursue learning that
facilitates personal growth and self-help and can lead to self-actualization.
Given the strong need for self-help education in the lives of African Americans,
adult education cannot continue to ignore this area of adult development and
learning in America. Adult educators can contribute to and enhance the area of
self-help education by exploring essential questions and assisting adults in
critically selecting and analyzing self-help literature to maximize their
learning experiences using these books as a resource.
Questions such as the following could be explored: What is the basic
educational philosophy of self-help and inspirational literature aimed at
African Americans? Can reading this type of literature and engaging in this type
of self-education lead to greater self-awareness, personal growth, or personal
development? Can self-help books provide or provoke praxis (reflection and
action) in order to assist African American adults understand themselves better?
What impact does low self-esteem have on self-help education? Why has adult
education neglected the area of self-help education?
Research is needed to discover the applicability of the mainstream models of
self-help for African Americans. Such research can identify the areas where
mainstream models are lacking. Although self-help by definition is all about the
individual, adult education can promote social action as well. The African
American community can benefit from collective efforts at self-help. Research
can also be done to distinguish valuable self-help literature, based on
researched data, versus poorly researched and poorly written books that can
mislead and may even harm the reader. Such research can identify the helpful
literature we can incorporate into the classroom for African American adult
education. Adult educators can also research where the fine line is between (1)
counseling learners on their lives and (2) letting learners evaluate the
concepts in a self-help book for themselves--the goal being to sharpen their
analytical and critical thinking skills and not necessarily to "fix" their lives
As the self-help literature and mentality pervades every area of society, it
is important for adult educators to understand this phenomenon and how it
affects adult growth and development. This is especially critical, as it may
provide additional information about adult development, growth, and learning
processes for African Americans. Adult education focuses on three learning
theories based on an adult's characteristics, life situations, and consciousness
raising (Merriam 1987). Adult education for African Americans must address these
in light of Africentrism. Adult educators can incorporate adult self-help
literature in their programs and classes. Adult educators can also offer new,
Africentric models based specifically on ethnic identity or gender identity.
Other ethnic self-help models, such as those of immigrants to America, can also
be used to establish new strategies for adult education for African Americans.
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