Radicalizing Learning: Adult Education for a Just World

Tara Fenwick (Professor of Education, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK)

Journal of European Industrial Training

ISSN: 0309-0590

Article publication date: 26 July 2011



Fenwick, T. (2011), "Radicalizing Learning: Adult Education for a Just World", Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 35 No. 6, pp. 625-628. https://doi.org/10.1108/03090591111150149



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Book synopsis

One could describe Radicalizing Learning as a cross between a socialist polemic, a highly readable introductory textbook of radical pedagogy, and a nostalgic round‐up of stories, writers and heroes of social activism, particularly those who have been iconised among radical adult educators – from Myles Horton, Moses Coady, Paula Alman, Paolo Freire and Cornel West to Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and Julius Nyerere. The book has emerged from what seems to have been a happy collaboration between US adult education giant Stephen Brookfield, well known for his early work promoting humanist student‐centred approaches to teaching adults and who for the past decade has been publishing introductions to Frankfurt School critical theory for adult educators, and Marxist‐Leninist educator John Holst who burst onto the US adult education scene with the publication in 2003 of his bold Social Movements, Civil Society and Radical Adult Education. Together they have developed here a Gramscian‐inspired manifesto of adult education for democracy, which they argue to be inseparable from economic socialism. This manifesto is not just for working class struggle or grassroots movements, the authors tell us, but for all occasions of adult education, from auto‐repair classes and agricultural extension to executive development seminars. Adult learning is defined as “inextricably tied to creating and extending political and economic democracy” (p. 17). Full stop.

This uncompromising radical position is buttressed with imperative curricula: adults “need” to learn a structural worldview, alternative economic arrangements, and how “dominant ideology” circumscribes their personal choices and actions. “Adult development” here unequivocally serves one project: collective movement towards democratic socialism (p. 49). The job for educators is to promote three developmental “tasks” for adult learners: understanding well‐being and identities as inextricably linked to collective interests, acting to further socialist values, and participating in collective movements. The authors rescue “training” from its associations with dehumanised behaviour modification and rehabilitate it as an instrument of building socialist democracy. “Program planning” here is recast around radical principles of anti‐imperialism, intrinsic motivations of love and empathy, and orientations to service and sacrifice towards goals of helping working‐class people understand the historical dynamics and trajectories of socio‐political change, and their place within these trajectories. A list of criteria for evaluating programmes is framed for a socialist democracy agenda, such as “Does our work help the dispossessed understand the historic nature of their existence, and does it expose the growing contradictions within existing socio‐political economic relations?” (p. 100). Likewise in their treatise on (radical) teaching, the authors offer a list of its features: a focus illuminating power and hegemony (p. 118), a constant negotiation and co‐creation of methods and curriculum (p. 124), a close link between teaching and particular struggles (p. 120), and so forth. Arts‐based approaches to teaching and learning receive an entire chapter. Through specific examples from film, improvisational drama such as Boal's theatre of the oppressed, and music such as Billie Holiday's “Strange fruit”, the authors argue that “aesthetic” approaches to radical adult education can build solidarity, open alternate ways of knowing and being, affirm pride, and teach history. Finally, turning to the enterprise of research, the authors not surprisingly focus on participatory action research, offering stories illustrating approaches of Freire, Highlander and the US civil rights movement, and ending, again, with a tidy list: here they provide “key questions” for researchers that foreground standard reflexive issues of interests and benefits, inclusions and positionalities. In all of this, one can see clearly the strong American focus in the book's content and references, pragmatic concern for method, and persuasive strategy.


Whatever one might think of yoking adult education to an unequivocal pursuit of democracy as economic socialism, this book presents the position clearly and substantively to be theoretically consistent with traditions of neo‐Marxism. Terms like democracy, capitalism, workers, civil society and neoliberalism have sometimes become baggy and vague in critical education commentary, or used as emblematic tokens dividing the world into black hats and white hats. In contrast, Brookfield and Holst patiently explain and justify every radical concept through examples selected to make sense to non‐radical, even anti‐radical, readers. The style of writing is lucid and compelling. One can imagine a student utterly new to theories of both adult education and Marxism picking up this book and becoming quickly drawn into a proverbial “good read”.

One secret to this invitational style is the authors' generous use of stories. While much of the critical theoretical ground is basic – well rehearsed even in US education literature – the authors offer compelling tales that may be quite new to many readers. Ella Baker's work in the 1940s with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) is carefully narrated to show how she emphasised effective organising over simple mobilising: instead of simply rushing people to the streets, she advocated “training” them through action and guidance to build the necessary relationships, trust, and capacity for decision making. An extended examination of Paul Robeson traces a surprising story of his radical leadership through art.

Such tales are crafted perhaps more for inspiration than critical analysis. Nelson Mandela is represented in terms of learning: the tale is not muddied by exploring the contradictory processes that were also very much part of the complex struggle for racial liberation in South Africa. Julius Nyerere's well‐deserved veneration for his leadership rooted in a philosophy of radical adult education is presented in a story romanticizing Nyerere's system of communitarian Ujamaa, omitting to mention how disastrous this system was economically for Tanzania. A nicely narrated tale of a pending Ford plant closure in mid‐west America, intended to show the pernicious effects of globalisation on workers, does not engage other Marxist views of such dynamics with which industrial relations readers may be familiar. One example is the “paleo‐Marxist” view that progressive socialisation of production is being driven through globalised multi‐nationals, which in fact is prompting globalised forms of struggle and unprecedented opportunities to exercise social and regulatory controls (e.g. Adler, 2007, 2009). While the authors' position is clearly flavoured by the cultural argument of the Frankfurt School, they do not engage its critique of the failure of the socialism. Their frequent references to activists for racial equality and “Africentric” scholarship suggest alignments with critical race theory (e.g. Collins, 2004), but without theoretical explication. Their emphasis on adopting the standpoint of the subaltern implicitly alludes to standpoint Marxism, but again without theorising this perspective or engaging critical debates of Marxist feminisms with their own view (Calas and Smircich, 2006; Harding, 2004). Nor do the authors engage with the sizable literature in adult education and workplace learning that has been developing cultural‐historical activity theory rooted in Marxism (e.g. Sawchuk et al., 2006).

But then this book is intended to inspire, with a clear unwavering purpose, heroic models and practical directives, rather than to undertake critical analysis of its own positions. And that may be utterly justifiable, given its wide‐ranging intended audience (including practitioners, policy makers, organisers, community educators) who may have more pressing things to do than wade through tedious scholarly debates. Certainly in the current socio‐political climate of the US, where radical educators have good reason to despair of fairness, equity and justice‐oriented citizenship, this book has an important job to do. The authors have pitched it well to accomplish this.

In the authors' own words

The point of getting people to think critically is to enable them to create true democracy – what Fromm, Marcuse, West, and others regard as the cornerstone of socialism – at both the micro and macro level. If adults think critically in this view they will be demanding worker cooperatives, the abolition of private education, the imposition of income caps, universal access to health care based on need not wealth, and public ownership of corporations and utilities. Critical thinking framed by critical theory is not just a cognitive process. It is a development project, inevitably bound up with helping people realize common interests, reject the privatized, competitive ethic of capitalism, and prevent the emergence of inherited privilege (pp. 58‐9).

A Reviewers' details

Tara Fenwick researches workplace and professional learning, and is Director of ProPEL (www.propel.stir.ac.uk), an international network for research in professional practice, education and learning. Tara Fenwick can be contacted at: Tara.fenwick@stir.ac.uk


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