Oppression & Adult Education

Originally written 31 October 2011


The intersection of oppression and adult education is vast, multiple, and complex. Combating oppression simultaneously informs goals and values of adult learning, a philosophy of adult learning, and points towards visions of social change and transformation. Grounded historically in the foundations of the adult education field (Lindeman, 1921), understanding and overcoming oppression in its many forms has been championed through the work of Freire (1970), Mezirow (1991), and continues at present with Marxist and feminist scholars (Carpenter, 2010; Choules, 2007; Tisdell, 1993; 2000). The following manuscript provides an overview of oppression and adult education. First, I will name and describe the context of oppression within the history of adult education. Following, a brief discussion of critical theory is provided as a framework for situating three perspectives of oppression and adult education: Freirian/Critical Pedagogy, Transformative Learning, and other alternative conceptualizations. Summarizing thoughts and considerations for future dialogue is provided as a conclusion.

Defining and Situating Oppression within Adult Education History

While in practice oppression is conceptualized depending on the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of the framework in question, each approach draws on a foundational definition. Merriam-Webster (2011) define oppression as “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power; something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power; a sense of being weighed down in body or mind.” For clarity, we will consider the oppression of an individual and oppression within and as a society separately.

Adult education has been primarily concerned with the individual, self-directed adult learner (Cranton, 2006; Knowles, 1975, 1980). Cranton notes that emancipatory learning has been a goal of adult education since its inception. Emancipatory education (or emancipatory learning) is used to describe the process whereby participants are able to see, name and act on their oppression. Cranton (2006) continues: “Emancipatory knowledge is gained through a process of critically questioning ourselves and the social systems within which we live” (p. 13). It is through the gaining of emancipatory knowledge that an individual is able to shed the weight and limitations of oppression. Chronicling the history of adult education in Great Britain Harrison (1961) writes: “it [adult education] has been in the main regarded as a movement for freedom and liberation, both person … and social’ (p. xii). Lindeman (1926) “describes ideal adult education as cooperative, nonauthoritarian, informal, and as a quest for the roots of our preconceptions” (cited in Cranton, 2006, p. 15). Thus, at least historically, helping learners to overcome oppression is one of the roots of adult education.

Two approaches to combating oppression are highlighted in this manuscript. The first, Mezirow’s transformative learning theory (1991), assists individuals in overcoming oppressive beliefs and personal, primary assumptions through critically reflection. Yet, the past three to four decades has seen an increased interest in overcoming not just individual oppression but the oppression of groups of individuals based on any number of categories (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, culture, nationality, age). The second approach highlighted is Freirian or critical pedagogy. This perspective stems from Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s (1970) work with social transformation through literacy. Freire’s pedagogy represents a “deepening awareness of both the sociocultural reality which shapes [learners’] lives and … their capacity to transform that reality through action upon it” (p. 27). Freire’s writings have become the primary texts for anti-oppressive education efforts (Choules, 2007). The following sections present Freirian Pedagogy and transformative learning theory as emerging from the philosophical context of critical theory.

Critical Theory

While many anti-oppressive efforts reference Freire (1970), it is the work of the Frankfurt School critical theorists (1920s-1930s) that provide the foundation for much of the exploration of overcoming oppression through education. Bohman (2010) references the words of Max Horkheimer, one of the founding theorists from the Frankfurt School, in defining critical theory:
“A theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’ (Horkheimer 1982, 244). ... In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.”

Adult education scholars have noted the connection between critical theory and Freirian Pedagogy (Choules, 2007; Kincheloe, 2010). In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1970) specifically references the work of Eric Fromm and Jean-Paule Sartre, the former a member of the Frankfurt school and the latter a more modern critical theorist and philosopher, to ground his pedagogical philosophy.

More recently, the aspirations and goals of critical theory have been driven by Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action (1984). Indeed, Mezirow’s transformative learning theory is clearly grounded within Habermas’ conceptualization of “emancipatory knowledge.” While not rejecting other ways of knowing, Mezirow draws on Habermas’ understanding of emancipatory knowledge as a way to overcome the limitations of alternative ways of knowing. As can be seen, both Freirian Pedagogy and Mezirow’s transformative learning are ways of naming, addressing and ultimately overcoming oppression within and via adult education. The Freirian approach is aimed at assisting in the overcoming of oppression of groups while Mezirow aims to assist individuals in overcoming oppressive primary assumptions and beliefs. While both approaches differ in their respective populations, each stems from the philosophical framework of critical theory in an effort to name and process oppressive power relations.

Countering Oppression within Society: Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paulo Freire and his educational philosophy epitomized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed remains at the absolute center of understanding oppression and adult education. Freire, a Brazilian literacy educator and philosopher, revolutionized traditional understandings of the relationship between students, teachers, and society. In addition to providing an analysis of social class through a Marxist perspective, Freire offers his primary objective to traditional understandings of schooling by way of metaphor: the banking model. He describes: “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable [teachers] upon those [students] whom they consider to know nothing.” Freire continues by distinguishing the dichotomy that exists between the oppressor and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless, respectively. Oppression, writes Freire:
“overwhelming control--is necrophilic; it is nourished by love death, not life. The banking concept of education, which serves the interests of oppression, is also necrophilic. Based on a mechanistic, static, naturalistic, spatialized view of consciousness, it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads women and men to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.”

The term critical pedagogy (Giroux, 2011; Kincheloe, 2004; 2008a; 2008b; Smith, Ryoo & McLaren, 2009) is currently used within educational research literature when describing teaching and learning that is actively and purposefully emancipatory. Offering one of many definitions, Kincheloe (2008b) notes: “A key task of critical pedagogy involves helping people understand the ideological and epistemological inscriptions on the ways of seeing promoted by the dominant power blocs of the West” (p. 3). This is the process championed by Freire (1970), an avenue that provides the oppressed with an avenue for dramatic social change. An additional conceptualization provided by Freire (1970) is conscientização or critical consciousness. Goldbard, a community organizer, activist and author, provides the following definition (2006):
Conscientization means breaking through prevailing mythologies to reach new levels of awareness—in particular, awareness of oppression, being an "object" of others’ will rather than a self-determining "subject." The process of conscientization involves identifying contradictions in experience through dialogue and becoming part of the process of changing the world." (pp. 242-243)

By engaging in conscientization, the oppressed are able to see their oppression and are then as a result are able to transform their realities. Conscientization, it should be noted, is collaborative by definition whereas transformative learning theory, an alternative approach to combating oppression, remains focused on the individual learner.

Through the work of contemporary critical pedagogical theorists and practioners, Freirian pedagogy continues to uncover and combat oppression within adult education to the present day. A recent push in scholarship has been driven by the work of Fiallos (2011), Kincheloe (2003; 2008a), and Kincheloe & Steinberg (1997) to further explore how globalization and media studies can be analyzed and utilized to further the goals of critical pedagogy. There have also been additional scholarly journals and other texts published to provide additional ways to disseminate relevant research to communities and other organizations.

Countering Oppressive Habits of Mind: Mezirow and Transformative Learning Theory

Mezirow’s transformative learning theory also emerged from the adult education tradition. In his doctoral research, Mezirow (1975) uncovered a process whereby women who had returned to continue their college studies were able to shift their perspectives to sponsor a transformation in their ways of seeing and knowing reality. Within this process, Mezirow’s participants were able to name limiting beliefs and assumptions and, ultimately, were able to redefine their perspectives to support greater self-empowerment. In this way, the women were able to overcome oppressive frames of reference and habits of mind. Mezirow titled this process transformative learning and it has dominated adult education research and practice for multiple decades.

Transformative learning suggests that learners’ meaning structures be taken into account in any learning encounter. Mezirow (2000) named this meaning structure a frame of reference. A frame of reference can be broken down into two components: habits of mind and points of view. Frames of reference are best understood as cultural paradigms, large interconnected beliefs and values that quite literally structure how people view and engage with reality. A habit of mind is characterized as the individual assumptions that make up a learner’s frame of reference. Types of assumptions include a learner’s sociolinguistic, moral-ethical, epistemic, philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic perspectives (2000). A habit of mind is then experienced as a point of view in action. Within his larger framework, Mezirow (2000; Mezirow & Taylor, 2009) suggests that there are four ways in which learning can occur: (1) by elaborating existing frames of reference, (2) by learning new frames of reference, (3) by transforming points of view, or (4) by transforming habits of mind.

Cranton, a scholar and author who researches transformative learning theory, writes in her book Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning (2006) about the interconnection between her own habits of mind and how they influence her frame of reference:
My way of seeing myself (psychological habit of mind) is influenced by my cultural background (sociolinguistic habit of mind). By growing up in an isolated and poor community that did not value education (sociolinguistic), I ended up with great gaps in my knowledge (epistemic habit of mind). Moral-ethical and aesthetic habits of mind are obviously deeply influenced by sociolinguistic, psychological, and epistemic factors. If, for example, I know little about classical music or art (epistemic perspective), my tastes and standards about beauty (aesthetic perspective) will be very different from those of a person well-informed in the arts. Philosophical habits of mind may provide an umbrella for many other of our perspectives (p. 28, 2006).

Transformative learning theory has been criticized for its lack of attention to social transformation (Collard & Law, 1989) but Mezirow has recently revised his theory to include aspects of collective social change (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009). These revisions and other additional perspectives on combating both personal and social oppression are addressed in the following section.

Alternative Conceptualizations: Emancipatory Education at Present & Concluding Thoughts

Demarcating the boundaries between Freirian pedagogy, critical pedagogy, critical theory, the banking concept of education, perspective transformation and transformative learning theory remains difficult. In many ways each represents its own unique identity while overlapping and gaining strength from the others. At root of each, however, is the empowered learner, moving beyond oppressive understandings of themselves, their relationships, and their world. There also exist other approaches to oppression in adult education that build on Freire’s (1970) and Mezirow’s (2000) perspectives. This final section will provide an overview of some of these approaches as well as include some final thoughts for the future of combating oppression within adult education.

In the most recent edition Contemporary Issues in Adult Education, Merriam & Grace (2011, p. 2) cite the work of two critical pedagogues to situate the first section that overviews the history of adult education.
At issue here is a vision of the future in which history is not accepted simply as a set of prescriptions unproblematically inherited from the past. History can be named and remade by those who refuse to stand passively by in the face of human suffering and oppression. (Giroux & McLaren, 1988, p. 176).

Stemming from Freire’s conceptualization of critical pedagogy, the work of Giroux (2011) and Smith, Ryoo & McLaren (2009) continue to inspire teachers, researchers, and learners alike. Queer perspectives on oppressive learning and knowing have also started to emerge (Walker, 2009), as well as environmental (Hill, 2003), feminist (Tisdell, 2000), Afrocentrist (2011), and spiritual perspectives (Tisdell 1993; 2000). With each additional approach comes another lens to examine and explore the many ways in which adult learners must deal with and combat oppression every day.

Some scholars have answered criticisms dealt to Mezirow’s transformative learning theory to provide additional perspectives on naming and dissolving oppression. O’Sullivan, Morrell & O’Connor (2002) have supplemented Mezriow’s predominantly rational approach to transformative learning theory by framing their response within an environmental education context. In addition to incorporating ecological concepts and constructions, O’Sullivan et al. point to arts-informed research methodologies to assist in promoting emancipation within and between groups of people (see also Grace & Wells, 2011). Brookfield (2005) has championed the intersection of critical theory and adult education, arguing that it is Mezirow’s concept of critical reflection that may hold the most promise for supporting transformative learning. From a spiritual perspective, Dirkx (1997; 2001) has offered compelling evidence that there are oppressive structures in place that limit access to meaningful, deep, and soulful learning. Each of these perspectives offers additional avenues for generating and supporting emancipatory learning to counter existing oppressive conditions.

Freire and Mezirow’s approaches to empowerment and transforming realities may represent two practically accessible perspectives to countering oppression. But, if the demarcation between the aforementioned concepts is difficult to draw, determining how the influence of other domains and disciplines and their attempts to combat oppression have influenced oppression within adult education is much more difficult. For example, Blakely and Lappin (1969) have noted the power of knowledge within the context of organizations while social change educators have approached the conversation regarding oppression by conducting ideological critique (Evans et al, 1987; Choules, 2007; 2011). Examining oppression from a more global point of view, some have integrated class systems into their analyses (Apple, 1996; McLaren, 1995; Nesbit, 2011), as well as queer activism (Hill, 2011) and postmodernism (Kilgore, 2011). Each of these approaches pushes the boundaries in order to more effectively address deeply embedded and often transparent oppression.

Naming, combating, overcoming and transforming oppression as an overarching goal of adult education has existed since the field’s inception and will continue to play a pivotal role in practice and in research. I am most excited by the opportunities of even more diverse methodologies being integrated into the fold of accepted methods in an effort to more fully grasp the affect of oppression on disempowered groups and individuals. Looking towards arts-based, feminist, poststructuralist, postmodern, postcolonial, and spirituality-situated points of view, is where we will see the emerging and pivotal ways that we will continue to address oppression in years to come.

This manuscript was written for EAC 522 Foundations in Adult Education, Fall 2011.


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