Adult education and lifelong learning – southern critiques and alternatives

Picture: Female education by Subhash Purohit for Deutsche Welleced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

Adult education and lifelong learning – southern critiques and alternatives. What can northern educators learn from the experience of the south? A review and introductory reading list.

Contents: context · resisting colonialism · respecting local forms · looking to the whole rather than the individual · implications for the north  · references · how to cite this piece

We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. (Fanon 1963: 251)

Fanon’s much quoted words were written in the context of the struggle in the 1950s and 1960s to throw over colonialism. In this article I want to look briefly at three fairly distinctive elements that can be found in a number of adult education and lifelong learning programmes within southern or ‘third world’ countries. These dimensions of practice offer much food for thought for northern educators. It should be noted, however, that many southern programmes do not exhibit these qualities – and resemble initiatives that can be found in the north. That said, the nature and scale of the contrast is significant.

The context

Bown (1983) helpfully highlighted some key contextual elements when considering the education of adults in southern countries.

First, there are the connected issues of poverty, economic development and debt. We have to recognize there are long-standing and continuing inequalities in economic and political relationships between the industrialized North and most states of the South (Graham-Brown 1991: 2). In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, out of a total population of about 500 million, nearly 300 million are living in absolute poverty – and things are getting worse (Leys 1994: 34).

World demand for what sub-Saharan Africa produces is growing slowly or even declining, while world supplies are being constantly expanded (to a significant degree, at the World Bank’s urging); and many of the commodities in question are increasingly being produced several times more efficiently outside Africa under capitalist conditions of production, forcing process steadily downwards towards levels at which Africans will no longer be able to live on what they can get from a day’s labour in producing them. (op cit: 34-5)

Irrespective of their particular policies, Southern governments are subject to external economic pressures which constrain education and other forms of social policy. As Susan George (1988), along with others, has shown, education and social programmes are particularly susceptible to outside constraint e.g. in terms of International Monetary Fund requirements on loans. In the 1980s, gross domestic product per capita fell in 54 per cent of the least developed countries and 64 per cent of other developing countries. Public expenditure per capita fell in 58 per cent of the least developed and 67 per cent of the other developing countries; and debt interest and other costs) accounts for 87 per cent of export earnings in the least developed countries.

To this we have to add the extent of inequality and division within Southern societies. Here we might focus on the divisions between ethnic and religious groups, and between social classes. We must also add the inequalities in status and access to resources between men and women. As Graham-Brown (1991: 2) says, these divisions influence who receives education and for how long, and what is learnt. Education plays a complex part in either changing or reproducing these divisions.

Second, many Southern countries are grappling with political and economic change on a major scale. They have had to develop forms of political culture and practice which move beyond the forms of colonialism experienced under French, British and other European occupation. Sometimes this has not involved any substantial forward movement in terms of human rights, or closing of inequalities etc. However, a number of the programmes that have developed in the south are concerned with things like citizenship, mobilization and so on. Bown quotes from the late Chairman Mao:

No political party can possibly lead a great revolutionary movement to victory unless it possesses revolutionary theory and a knowledge of history and has a profound practical grasp of the movement.. Complacency is the enemy of study… Our attitude towards ourselves should be ‘to be insatiable in learning’ towards ourselves and to others to be ‘tireless in teaching’.

Third, many Southern countries do not have comprehensive systems of primary or secondary education, there is not compulsory schooling on the scale that we know it in the North. Limited access to schooling does mean that there is large scale illiteracy in the populations

As Bown comments, the result of influences such as this means that Southern concepts of adult education tend to be broader than those of Europe and less concerned with differences between what is vocational and non-vocational; they tend to be defined more closely by objective (economic and social development, the satisfaction of basic needs); they are often preoccupied by literacy; and they have encouraged experimentation, particularly in the use of mass media.

Arising out of the practice of southern programmes, I want to focus on some key themes and their associated critiques of northern education.

Resisting colonialism

As the passage from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth indicates, education is inevitably viewed with some suspicion by many of those concerned with counteracting the influence of colonialism.

Colonialism in its most traditional sense involves the gaining of control over particular geographical areas. It is often used interchangeably with ‘imperialism’ in that it commonly involves the settlement of the controlling (often western) population in the territory; and the exploitation of local economic resources for metropolitan use. It has taken many forms ranging from models of assimilation e.g. France and Portugal where the occupying power has sought make the colony more formally part of their system and culture; to more segregational approaches such as that adopted by Britain.

Neo-colonialism is usually taken as referring to the economic situation of former colonies post-independence. Here the basic argument runs something like the following. Political decolonization did little or nothing to alter the economic balance between states and the power of western (and now eastern) capital. International law, institutions such as the World Bank (and banks in general), corporate property rights and the operation of world markets has left control in the hands of the elites in the former metropolitan powers.

Under neo-colonialism, as under direct colonial rule, the relationship between the centre and the periphery… is said to involve the export of capital from the former to the latter; a reliance on Western manufactured goods and services which thwarts indigenous development efforts; further deterioration in the terms of trade for the newly independent countries; and a continuation of the process of cultural Westernization which guarantee the West’s market outlets elsewhere in the world. the operations of trans-national corporations in the Third World are seen as the principal agents of contemporary neo-colonialism since these are seen as exploiting local resources and influencing international trade and national governments to their own advantage. (Marshall et al 1994: 332)

One of the central forms that has been questioned is that of the school. However, we should not fall into the trap of equating formal educational systems with northern colonialism. It may be that the institution of the school is not inherently bad or tainted by colonialism, but rather the particular forms in which it emerged were. In many African societies, for example, there have long existed formal training periods ‘involving the instruction of the young for an extended period in a withdrawn situation by an experienced elder according to some extended curriculum and with a testing of performance’ (Thompson 1982: 24). Islamic groups have had their hierarchies of Koranic schools and mahadras, up even to university level in some of the older cities of West Africa for many centuries, for instruction in Arabic, the Koran and some forms of non-religious education (ibid). This said, schools can be powerful agents of colonialism where:

… they attempt to impose economic and political relationships in the society especially on those children who gain least (or lose most) from those relationships. Schools demand the most passive response from those groups in society who are the most oppressed by the economic and political system, and allow the most active participation and learning from those who are least likely to want change. While this is logical in preserving the status quo, it is also a means of colonializing children to accept unsatisfactory roles. in its colonialistic characterization, schooling helps develop colonizer-colonized relationships between individuals and between groups in society. It formalizes these relationships, giving them a logic that makes reasonable the unreasonable. (Carnoy 1974: 19)

It is in this way that Paulo Freire characterizes colonialism as the culture of silence. The colonial element in schooling being the attempt to silence. To this extent one class or group could be said to colonize another. Sometimes the term domestic or internal colonialism is used to describe such exploitative relationships between the ‘centre’ (the metropolis) and the ‘periphery’ (the satellite) of particular societies or nation states. There have been a number of problems around such usage – especially as colonialism has tended to be used in relation to the exploitation of majority populations by minority groups. However, as a metaphor it remains a highly suggestive one – especially as it dramatizes the links with imperial powers.

Many of the adult education programmes associated with ‘post-independence’ governments looked to combat ‘colonial mentalities’ and to further a commitment to the emerging nation state. (See Julius Nyererein Tanzania, for example, or Steele and Taylor’s discussion of Indian adult education programmes). Another overt example of an anti-colonialist programme is Cuba’s Schools in the Countryside which had as one of its objectives, ‘to eliminate economic, political and cultural dependence on the United States’ (quoted in Simkins 1977: 49). More recently, combating colonialism and the ‘culture of silence’ been a feature of popular education approaches.

Valuing and developing local social and cultural forms

Here I want to focus on two elements:

  • the use of existing ‘traditional’ or pre-colonial learning systems.
  • developing new forms of education that sit more comfortably with local cultural and social arrangements.

Alongside formalized educational systems has run the usual process of learning by doing – whereby children learn to be adults through imitation, identification and co-operation. Many thinkers such as Jomo Kenyatta (1961) have questioned the abandonment of such indigenous educational traditions and called for their development. This view of schooling prefigures that of Ivan Illich (1972) and the deschoolers. The argument can be used to support the development of other non-school forms such as the mass literacy campaigns using the mass media and so on. A problem here is that to some extent this could be a convenient hook to hang what are cheaper forms of education provision.

Bown argues that the existence in parallel of traditional forms and of more formal Western style schooling in many countries has led to the emergence of ‘new’ forms where the content of one is often learnt by the means of the other, Thus she suggests, traditional apprenticeship systems have been adapted to train bicycle repairers or motor mechanics, while the indigenous organisations through which traditional birth attendants acquired their lore and skills may now convey the message of modern midwifery (1983: 46).

One of the most interesting set of proposals in thus respect was that advocated by Gandhi as Indian independence approached. He saw that Indian education was bookish and European in outlook – and totally inappropriate to the majority of people who were villagers. At the same time Gandhi was completely against the idea that there should be two types of education – urban and rural. He felt that there was a great need for city dwellers to have more contact with the land (an idea also found in Castro’s Cuba).

The programme that Gandhi proposed was that manual work should be the basis for three or four hours per day and that training of the mind should stem from this. The central craft that he recommended was that of spinning – first because spinning wheels or charka were cheap, traditional and simply to use. Second, because it was a good example of ‘bread labour’ (i.e. had a useful social function). Third, because spinning then led onto or involved other activities which could be performed with skill. He argued that mental powers of inquiry and research must find scope for development through craft. He also said that craft must be communal, with teacher and students joining in service to the community. Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s followers, gave the following list of the essential areas of knowledge that all children should have: facility in speech, knowledge of great poems by heart, discussion of the ideas of Gandhian philosophy; and the basic concepts of science and the laws of healthy, nutrition, hygiene, cookery etc. (Sadler 1974: 84-5) (See Gandhi and informal education). This all formed part of Gandhi’s work around combating untouchability and cultivating communal reconciliation and village rehabilitation. The Gandhian philosophy is one of seeking truth, of endless becoming (Woodcock 1972: 79).

Individualization versus development

One of the critiques of northern adult education that has developed under the influence of Southern forms of education is the extent to which it stresses the individual and learning for its own sake. In recent years one of the key carriers of this critique to the North is Alan Rogers (1992). He argues that education in the countries of the so-called west has two main characteristics: it is usually seen as a ‘good’ in itself, needing no further justification; and that is primarily aimed at the individual – personal growth, career development, self actualization and so on. In contrast, he argues, education in general, and adult education in particular, are seen in much of the third world to serve another purpose.

Whether narrowly conceived as adult literacy (functional or not), the extension of elementary schooling to the masses, or whether more widely as incorporating extension and post-literacy educational programmes, adult education is based on nationally identified needs rather than on individual wants.. The role of the adult educator is not so much to increase choice as to encourage responsible social behaviour. Adult education in the third world is for mass education, not for the few (Rogers 1992: 2)

Rogers then proceeds to argue the case for bridging the two strands through a reconceptualisation of the notion of development. I do not want to go into great depth here, because I think he, at one level, brings out a useful contrast, but at another, substantially misinterprets what he sees.

First, I do wonder about the extent to which he takes the rhetoric of western adult education and presents it as the true position. In reality a great deal of adult education does not take place because a desire on the part of funders (or necessarily providers) with individual advancement as to develop a range of particular skills for use in the economy. This surely was the debate about vocationalism and other movements in adult education and youth training in the 1970s and 1980s. It has also been reflected in recent debates around lifelong learningand the learning society.

Second, he pays little or no attention to the way that the self is understood within different cultures and the extent to which this may influence different conceptualisations of adult education.

Implications for the North

Bown (1983: 47) works on the premise that Southern ideas and practice might illuminate Northern approaches to adult education. She draws out some key questions:

First, do we take enough notice of the notion of lifelong learning and the educational potential that lies outside the formal system – what the French might term education populaire? In Britain while there has been a renewed interest in lifelong learning, there has been a tendency to still see it as something that has to be accredited and promoted within formal systems. Learning that occurs outside such systems is either seen as something to progress from (e.g. McGiveney 1999) or as somehow less significant.

Second, against the backcloth of lifelong learning do we need to re-examine the notion of adulthood (and selfhood). In the south this has been made necessary because many young people are faced with full social and economic responsibilities regardless of their physiological or legal status.

Third, there is a major literacy problem in many Northern countries – would it help to look at the reinterpretations of literacy in the South.

To this we also need to add the lessons we can learn from combating colonialism:

  • how much are we working within systems and forms that carry forward another form of colonialism – that of one culture by another?
  • to what extent are we working on ethnocentric and anti-social understandings of the self? Are we simply concerned with individual development or are we interested in human flourishing as a whole? That is to say, do we see people as part of a larger whole – and what does this mean for the work we do with individuals?

Further reading and references

Assensoh, A. B. (1998) African Political Leadership: Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Julius K. Nyerere, New York: Krieger Publishing Co.

Bowm, L. (1983) ‘Adult education in the third world’ in M. Tight (ed.) Adult Learning and Education. Education for Adults Vol. 1, Beckenham: Croom Helm.

Carnoy, M. (1974) Education as Cultural Imperialism, New York: McKay.

Carnoy, M. and Samoff, J, with Burris, M. A., Johnston, A. and Torres, C. A. (1990) Education and Social Transition in the Third World, Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Collins, P. Hill (1990) Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment, London: Harper Collins.

Draper, J. (ed.) (1998) Africa Adult Education. Chronologies in Commonwealth countries, , Leicester: NIACE. 116 pages. Just what the title says chronologies of 12 countries with some introductory essays and a selected regional chronology.

Carnoy, M. (1974) Education as Cultural Imperialism, New York : David McKay. Important exploration of schooling as a means of subjugating people to the interests of the powerful. Develops a theoretical framework that is applicable to education generally.

Fanon, F. (1952) Black Skin, White Mask (1986 edn with a foreword by H. Bhabha), London: Pluto Press. Path-breaking study of colonial depersonalization. Examines cultural and ideological processes that create a desire for acceptance and assimilation – and that make for trauma and self-alienation. See, also, (1961) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin. on the economic and psychological impact of imperialism and points of resistance and change.

Foley, G. (1999) Learning in Social Action. A contribution to understanding informal education, Leicester: NIACE/London: Zed Books. Explores the significance of the incidental learning that can take place when people are involved in community groups, social struggles and political activity. Foley uses case studies from Australia, Brazil, Zimbabwe and the USA that reflect a range of activities. Chapters on ideology, discourse and learning; learning in a green campaign; the neighbourhood house; learning in Brazilian women’s organizations; and political learning and education in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. Unfortunately, given the title, what he doesn’t do is focus explicitly on the development of informal education theory.

Freire, P. (1971) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin.

Gandhi, M. K. (1997) Hind Swaraj and other writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 208 + lxxv pages. Text of the 1910 edition of ‘Indian Home Rule’ which looked at the complex relationships between the commercial and governmental interests of the metropolitan power (in this case Britain) and the culture, and social and political organization of the colonized – ‘It is truer to say that we gave India to the English than India was lost’. As well as historical material, the book also includes chapters on education, passive resistance and machinery.

George, S. (1989) A Fate Worse than Debt, London: Penguin.

Giroux, H. (1989) Schooling for Democracy. Critical pedagogy in the modern age, London: Routledge.

Graham-Brown, S. (1991) Education in the Developing World. Conflict and crisis, London: Longman. 332 + xx pages. Not just concerned with adults, this book provides a good overview of the context for educational policy formation; the nature of provision and explorations of learning and teaching in marginal communities; organizing for literacy; and the future of education in the South

Green, A. (1997) Education, Globalization and the Nation State, London: Macmillan. 206 pages. A development of Green’s influential earlier work Education and State Formation (1990), this book offers a useful exploration of the impact of globalization on education systems. He begins with a refreshing and necessary critique of postmodernism and then moves on to explore education and state formation in Europe and Asia; technical education and state formation; vocational education; education and cultural identity in the UK; educational achievement in centralized and decentralized systems; and education, globalization and the nation state.

Kenyatta, J. (1962) Facing Mount Kenya, New York: Random House.

Illich, I. (1972) Deschooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Leys, C. (1994) ‘Confronting the African tragedy, New Left Review 204: 33-47.

McGiveney, V. (1999) Informal Learning in the Community. A trigger for change and development, Leicester: NIACE. 99 + xii pages. Report on a study designed to explore the role of community-based informal learning in widening participation and achieving ‘progression’ to more formal systems. Contains some interesting material but its orientation rather plays up setting and overlooks process and the possibilities of self-education. There does seem to be some confusion around the differences between learning and education.

Poster, C. and Zimmer, J. (eds.) (1992) Community Education in the Third World. London: Routledge.

Rogers, A. (1992) Adults Learning for Development, London: Cassell.

Sadler, M. (1974) Concepts in Primary Education, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Simkins, T. (1977) Non-formal Education and Development, Manchester: University of Manchester Department of Adult Education.

Steele, T. and Taylor, R. (1995) Learning Independence. A political outline of Indian adult education, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 151 + vii pages. Fascinating overview of programmes and changes in Indian adult education since the 1940s that looks to a political analysis of its role. Chapters examine the English studies and subaltern histories; education in British India from the early years to independence; Gandhi and the dialectic of modernity; education and social development in India from 1947 to 1964: Nehru and Congress; social education and the dream of nationhood; the non-formal revolution and the National Adult Education Programme; Post NAEP – radical populism and the new social movements; and towards a transformative pedagogy.

Thompson, A. R. (1981) Education and Development in Africa, London: Macmillan. 358 + viii pages. Excellent overview of African education practice that is particularly strong on non-formal education. Chapters examine social change and development; education and schooling; politics and education; economics and education; problems in educational planning; problems of educational innovation; the management of educational reform; non-formal education; re-schooling; and linking formal and non-formal education.

Walters, S. and Manicom, L. (eds.) (1996) Gender in Popular Education. Methods for empowerment, London: Zed Books.

Woodcock, G. (1972) Gandhi, London: Fontana.

Acknowledgements: picture: Picture: Female education by Subhash Purohit for Deutsche Welleced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2000). ‘Adult education and lifelong learning – southern critiques and alternatives’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2000