Tom Heaney: Social Justice and Adult Education


History is as much a tale of what could have been as it is the story of what “really” happened. Ours is a recent story, a short history of promises—some kept and many broken. There is a major contradiction at the core of adult education practice in the United States—a polar tension between education for social justice and education for the production of capital.

Linking Adult Education with Social Justice

Adult education is fashionably viewed as timeless—a permanent feature of civilization with its origins lost in pre-history—making us, for those who care about such things, the real oldest profession. But while work now thought of as adult education has accompanied the evolution of humankind from the beginning, the identification of that work as “adult education” is astoundingly recent. Stubblefield and Keane (Stubblefield, & Keane, 1994) place it in the 1920s in their history of the field, claiming that discourse linking “adult” with “education” gained momentum in the United States through a rapid sequence of publications and events which later some called an “adult education movement.”

Adult education in the United States began with democracy and a spontaneous commitment to learning outside the walls of formal schooling—learning linked to building a democratic social order. Literacy in its broadest sense—in the sense Freire speaks of it: “learning to name the world”—was at the center of that movement. Perhaps nothing so well exemplifies this as the Citizenship Schools in the South—the massive and successful literacy campaign that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.

However, since the first professional association for adult education was established in 1926, the net for gathering adult educators has been cast ever more widely, excluding less and less until almost everything is “adult education,” encompassing educators of adults who work toward diametrically opposed social and political purposes. The term “adult education” is applied to highly manipulative and participatory pedagogies alike, from courses designed to correct deviant behavior to workshops supporting the social change agendas of oppressed communities.

There are those who have made the leap from lifelong learning to lifelong schooling. The eventual collapse of the almost-movement was inevitable, given the propensity of many adult educators to link adult education with jobs. Discipline, control, and mandated learning which characterized much of K-12 also began to infect adult education. And so a democratizing adult education grew up alongside a top-down, professionalizing and more lucrative practice—a practice, which devalued learning-in-action and stressed adaptation to the workplace, corporate America, and a consumer economy.

Someone once said that nostalgia is the lingering desire to return to a past that never was. Many of us—teachers of teachers of adults—have been attempting to reclaim our birthright—our history grounded in a democratic practice for social justice. At issue for us is the social purpose of the field—the socially redeeming merit in the work to which we commit ourselves. 

Tom Heaney