This is the first in a series of posts that will be reflections on my recent experience as an Adult Education graduate student. The pace of formal education is often such that you race past some interesting points in the need to keep up with the course work, yet rarely return to reflect more carefully on those points. One of the key points for me, a foundational point, is… what is the *purpose* of adult education? Why do people engage in adult education — why do students seek out learning, why do teachers continue to teach, and why do researchers remain interested in studying it? Why does it matter at all?
Let’s start with the basics. There are three important purposes for adult education:
1. For career or vocational purposes — to engage in training that will result in employment. This can involve adult basic education, apprenticeships, technical colleges, or universities. This also includes on the job training and other kinds of workplace learning.
2. For personal development purposes — to satisfy an interest or solve a personal problem. This can include pottery classes, music lessons, studying French literature, or pursuing conflict resolution training. These are often offered by community centres or private schools, as well as in Arts and Humanities programs at universities and colleges.
3. For community development purposes — to solve a collective problem, such as stopping toxic effluent from a nearby factory or investigating solutions to local unemployment. These are typically informal learning sessions that take place in living rooms, church basements, union halls, and other meeting spaces across the country.
There are a couple of things that are important to note in this list. First, 1 and 2 are seeking individually-focused changes, and 2 is concerned with community-focused changes. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t social learning involved with 1 and 2 (learning almost always happens through interactions with others), but that the outcomes are individually determined — I want to get a degree in library studies so that I can get a job as a librarian. Compared to — We want to get the speed limit reduced on our street to make our kids safer.
Second, these three purposes aren’t mutually exclusive. I might get involved in a participatory action research project as part of my planning degree (vocational) and to also work on solving a local community issue (community development). I might have a passion for gardening (personal) so pursue horticulture (vocational).
In addition to these three, there is a further way to look at the purpose of adult education. There is adult education that seeks to sustain existing social relations and adult education that seeks to change those relations (critical pedagogy). Studying for a medical degree is typically associated with helping the sick and providing a comfortable lifestyle as a doctor — not upsetting or challenging the social, political, and economic system. Similarly, learning to play the guitar at night school rarely has these transformative aims (although sometimes they do). Even community development education is often more concerned with neighbourhoods participating more effectively within the system (e.g., attracting new employment opportunities) rather than trying to develop alternative forms of economic activity. Some important examples of this kind of community education would be the formation of labour unions, farmers unions, cooperatives, and credit unions as a radical democratic response to the inequities and exploitation of capitalism.
Somewhat more recently, the work of Paulo Freire has been incredibly important for the impact it had in empowering local communities as well as on the philosophy of adult education (e.g., popular education, banking education, etc.).
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, government funding was available for community education projects that pushed the boundaries of what kind of social change was possible, and helped support the massive “new social movements” (gender, GLBT, ethnicity, abilities, children, etc.) that significantly expanded the scope of Canadian democracy by demanding social justice and rights that had previously been withheld.
So, why does understanding these purposes of adult education matter? I’m concerned that the past thirty years of neoliberalism is erasing the memory of adult education for social change and enriching democracy, that we have become preoccupied with individual solutions to what are, in fact, often collective problems. Facing high unemployment in your community? Go to school and out-compete your neighbour, or, go to Alberta and get rich in the oil patch. Government funding is today almost exclusively focused on academic or vocational education. I don’t fault any individual for pursuing this individualist path out of under/unemployment (post-secondary education has paid off pretty well for me), but I am concerned about what gets left behind — the people, the culture, the history, the environment — in this approach.
There are other, more social ways to confront problems of community development, such as the Appreciative Inquiry model that involves collectively “discovering” a community’s strengths and assets (as well as sources of inequality, exploitation, and injustice), “dreaming” what might be possible (including radical democratic dreams), “designing” what could work, and “deploying” a community-based solution, that might, sometimes, fall outside of the mainstream (or sometimes might not). The point is to remember that a radical democratic adult education, as was done in the past, can be done again today. And its is still being done, on a smaller scale, often under the radar, and almost always in the absence of government funding. The challenge is — how to build and sustain this? More soon.