Jack Mezirow: Faded Visions and Fresh Commitments

A Policy Paper prepared for the AAACE by Jack Mezirow

The Issue

In October, 1991, after a mock trial conducted at its annual conference in St. Louis, the AAACE was found guilty by its membership of "negligence regarding the social action focus inherent in the mission and tradition of adult education." This paper will review the evidence, present the arguments and submit policy and program recommendations.

The Evidence

The adult education movement was inspired and had its beginnings in populist movements in Scandinavia and in England. Eduard Lindeman described adult education as an instrument of social action consisting of "increased awareness of the self and other selves, directed toward social justice." The "primary responsibility of adult education," he wrote, was to "...undertake the task of defining democracy in the language of practice." Lindeman shared John Dewey's vision of participatory democracy in schools, families, the workplace, communities and the state. "Adult education will become an agency of progress," Lindeman wrote in The Meaning of Adult Education , "if its short- term goal of self improvement can be made compatible with a longtime, experimental but resolute policy of changing the social order."

In 1952, a year after the establishment of the Adult Education Association of the USA, the Committee on Social Philosophy, co-chaired by Lindeman, published its seven principles "which should guide the American Adult Education Movement." These principles called for the solution of community problems as an aim. Social action on behalf of reasoned social change in the context of the quest for meaning was declared the fundamental raison d'être of modern adult education. The function of adult education was to train citizens. Consequently, the AEA/USA was urged to take a stand on public questions and moral issues.

A decade later, in 1963, Jack Crabtree, President of the AEA/USA, outlined "A Vision of Greatness." Like Dewey and Lindeman, he saw adult education as vested with the imperative of making democracy function to the limits of its potential. This vision was passed to a succession of leaders in the field of adult education, including Wilbur Hallenbeck, Moses Coady, John Herring, John Walker Powell, Jeanne and Jess Ogden, Paul Sheats, Howard McClusky, Roby Kidd, Collie Verner, the Biddles, Paul Bergevin, Jack London, Richard Poston, Eugene Johnson and Myles Horton. Through the 50's community development and social action was the principal identification of a major segment of adult educators active within the AEA/USA. In the subsequent thirty years, the original vision of adult education's mission as fostering rational participation to effect democratic social change has been abandoned by the mainstream of the field and by the AAACE. There has been no effort to articulate adult education's social goals or other leadership by the AAACE to identify common social ideals among its diverse membership. Conference time is not devoted to such considerations.

After 50 years as a profession, we have not agreed upon criteria to judge adult education in terms of social values. We have remained collectively mute as democratic values and human rights essential to adult learning and education have been violated at home and abroad, even when colleagues in adult education have become victims of oppression and political violence. As a profession concerned with democratic values, we have had nothing to say about freedom, human rights, peace, racism, sexism, multipluralism, homelessness, health care, the environment, poverty, welfare or unemployment--all matters of crucial concern to adult learning and education. The terms "education for democratic participation," "civic literacy" and "community development" are no longer heard in AAACE meetings.

As the world moves in this exciting time in history to embrace American- inspired democracy as a form of government, American adult educators have failed to provide leadership to help their counterparts in other countries to prepare their populations to realize the potentialities of responsible participation for social change.

We have long since severed our tenuous bonds to social activists, and very few mainstream adult educators know anything about how to work with drug victims, prisoners, AIDs victims, the homeless, tenants organizations, environmental groups, block associations or how the general public should be reached to foster active participation in critical discourse about pressing public issues. Those engaged in such front-line adult education for the most part have no identification with the profession and certainly not with the AAACE. Even mainstream adult literacy education has been sanitized from any responsibility for helping learners to engage in critical thinking and reflective discourse or to understand how to take responsible social action as adult citizens of a democracy.

Despite recommendations by its own "juntas," the AAACE has failed to provide needed leadership to help the profession formulate social goals and priorities. This nonfeasance has recently resulted in some of its frustrated members acting to create a new North American organization for adult educators, Popular Educators for Social Change (editor's note: this group has now become the North American Alliance for Popular and Adult Education, known as NAAPAE).

Rather than being led by the collective vision which illuminated earlier program efforts, the adult education movement, as reflected in its professional association, has become market driven, preoccupied with issues of increasing worker productivity and getting people off welfare. Its highest social value has become the "bottom line."

Supporting evidence of this social drift includes the dearth of articles and books published over the past decade in North America devoted to adult education for democratic social change, the absence of graduate courses and dissertations devoted to this topic and the absence of materials devoted to social action or controversial public issues in ABE and continuing education classes. Deans of continuing education look disoriented if questioned about how their programs reflect their social goals. Discretionary funds at their disposal are almost never earmarked for courses or programs because of their social value. The market dictates the value of educational offerings. The AAACE has made no effort to foster public policy to encourage that education for democratic participation be included in government sponsored adult education programs. It only pleads for more adult education.

All evidence points to abandonment of significant social goals, the default of leadership, failure of our historic promise to serve as a means of realizing democracy's full potential and the decline of a once idealistic movement to a collective free market mentality with a vested interest in serving only those who can afford to pay and in maintaining the social status quo.

The Arguments

There are two fundamental reasons why adult education must accept responsibility for fostering democratic social change. Both pertain to the nature of adult learning in modern society in which traditional forms of authority have become attenuated and the pace of change requires a high degree of socially responsible adult self-direction.

Most adult educators would agree that, beyond short range instrumental objectives, their goal is to assist learners to negotiate their own meanings and values rather than to passively accept the social reality defined by others. Central to this transformative process of learning is critical reflection and testing new meanings through rational discourse.

Unlike ordinary everyday dialogue, rational discourse involves deliberate reflection on the evidence, on arguments based upon alternative points of view and on critically examining assumptions. For discourse, we turn to those whom we believe will be the most informed, objective and rational. The resulting judgments are useful until we encounter new and more persuasive perspectives, evidence or arguments which subsequent discourse establishes as yielding better judgments. When this process of rational discourse fails, and the issue is not amenable to empirical tests of truth, we turn to tradition or to sources of authority to decide which belief is correct--the courts, politics, religion or brute force.

As adult educators, concerned with fostering democratic social change, our function is to create educational communities of rational discourse in families, formal education programs, the workplace, the community and the state. Social action can involve effecting change in interpersonal relations, organizations or in social, educational, political or economic systems.

Learners who critically reflect upon their beliefs and assumptions frequently come to challenge taken-for-granted social practices, ideologies and norms which they discover have been impeding their development. Adult education cannot ethically abandon these learners who have achieved insights impelling them to act upon what they have learned. To change families, organizations and systems to make them more responsive to those they serve, to foster participatory democracy in these contexts, often requires guided instrumental learning in how to effect change in these settings. Adult education's responsibility extends beyond facilitating learning to see to also facilitating this kind of learning to do.

A second argument for adult education for social action in modern societies has to do with the educator's responsibility for those unable to participate more fully and freely in rational discourse because they are hungry, ill, uneducated, homeless, jobless, discriminated against, or coerced by internal or external forces. Every adult has a human right to understand his experience, to learn to negotiate her own meanings, purposes and values. Consequently, rational discourse is central to adult learning in our society.

The quality of rational discourse is a function of the degree of the learner's freedom from coercion; the degree of mutual respect; access to relevant information; openness to new perspectives; the ability to analyze, to make reasonable inferences and arguments; equally to participate in the discourse; the ability to be critically reflective of assumptions; and a willingness to accept a best judgment in the absence of empirical evidence of the truth of a belief or an assertion. These conditions of effective participation in rational discourse provide criteria for judging both the quality of adult education and social, political and economic issues which effect preconditions for rational adult discourse as well.

Because of the potential contribution each person can make to our own understanding of our experience and to our collective wisdom, we cannot afford to limit participation in rational discourse to those most favored by society. As adult educators, we have a special responsibility to actively work toward a participative social democracy in which the conditions impeding free full participation in learning thorough rational discourse are changed to meet these needs of all adult learners.

Policy & Program Recommendations

The AAACE should provide leadership by producing through its membership a collectively articulated mission statement of social and educational goals for the adult education movement (and the AAACE) which would be reviewed and, if necessary modified every decade. This charge includes a continuing reassessment of the progress of the adult education movement to achieve these goals.

  • Control over the content and themes of its annual conference should be retained by the AAACE's national leadership. This would permit a deliberate attempt to forge and give direction to a national movement with a planned agenda--rather than just let the local sponsor of the conference call the shots on conference themes. The planned agenda should be derived from the organization's mission statement.
  • An annual AAACE conference should be designated a National Directions Conference, convened to formulate a statement of social and educational goals for the field. The conference on goals and principles would devote its major general sessions to dialogue and presentations on the topic of our social goals and the future. Each unit would reserve time for dialogue on this topic and the development of a set of principles and their respective priorities. A panel of leaders in the field would be charged with producing a synthesis for presentation at the final general session. The final statement of principles and goals would be sent to every member for a vote or ratified at the following annual conference. The AAACE should plan a similar National Directions Conference every ten years.
  • If it is not possible within the foreseeable future to devote an entire conference to National Directions, then at least time should be reserved in the next annual conference for a general session devoted to planned presentations on social and educational goals of adult education. Each unit meeting could be charged with discussing these and formulate their own list of goals and priorities for the field, and these lists could all be synthesized by a panel of leading educators and sent for ratification to the membership.
  • A less desirable option would involve the appointment of a special commission of leaders in the field to formulate a statement of the social goals of the adult education movement. It has been decades since this occurred. Such a statement should be ratified by members of the AAACE by mailing a special ballot.
  • The Philosophy of Education unit should be charged with maintaining a continuing dialogue on goals and principles of adult education. This unit should be renamed Social Philosophy and Social Change. A general meeting at each annual conference should be devoted to Social Philosophy and Social Change and be planned by this unit. A Myles Horton Award for an outstanding social change educator should be established. The winner of this award should become the Social Philosophy luncheon speaker.
  • The AAACE should make a continuing priority its vigorous attempt to influence federal and state governments to articulate education for democratic participation as a goal in all adult education initiatives. Its advocacy efforts should extend far beyond commissioning papers for its officers' approval. It should become a dynamic advocate of popular participation and participatory democracy as the means and the end of our government's foreign aid efforts and of its involvement in international agencies concerned with national development.
  • The AAACE should provide the field with an uncompromising voice to protest violations of human rights of adult educators and acts which deprive adult learners of free and full participation in rational discourse. The organizational process by which this advocacy occurs should be instituted without delay.
  • The AAACE should make every effort to extend membership to adult educator activists by drastic reduction of membership rates for these educators whose incomes preclude their joining, by actively recruiting them and by admitting them to its national conferences with only a nominal registration fee.
  • The Commission of Professors should be charged with establishing a consensus on social goals of graduate instruction in adult education, experimenting with and disseminating course syllabi and instructional materials on adult education for social action, fostering dissertations on this subject, amending its Standards statement to include graduate instruction in adult education for social action and arranging a national program of internships in adult education for social action.
  • At least one issue a year of both the Adult Education Quarterly and Adult Learning should be devoted to ideas, issues and actions pertaining to the social and educational goals of adult education for social action. Within the next year, the AAACE should commission a comprehensive book devoted to Adult Education for Social Change and disseminate it widely here and abroad. This publication should be rewritten every decade as is the Handbook of Adult Education.

November 15, 1991