Michael Newman: Adult education: throwing out the balance with the bathwater

Photo by Marcus Dall Col on Unsplash

Michael Newman argues for the jettisoning of the concept of balance in adult education. ‘Balance’ allows the teacher to adopt an amoral or even immoral stance; to refuse to take sides even in the face of the unpleasant, the gross and the unjust. 

contents: introduction · in the company of others · what do I teach? · defining the process · thinking clearly · thinking imaginatively · taking action · acting wisely · purpose · throwing out balance
This piece was first given as an address to the Commission of Professors of Adult Education, AAACE Conference, Milwaukee, November 2006.

I will start by thanking you for inviting me to give this address. It is an honour and a pleasure. The honour is obvious, but I want to say a little more about the pleasure.

In the company of others

It is always nice to be with university professors of adult education. We are a close-knit band and there are a number of reasons for this. First, there are not too many of us. When I write, for example, I have a sense that I know most of my potential readers by their first names and perhaps even have their private addresses written down somewhere in pencil in an old notebook. Second, we are a group of people constantly under threat, so we huddle together for warmth and comfort against the cold winds of downsizing and cost-cutting that blow through our universities and always seem to attack adult education first. Third, ours is a meta-meta profession and so is pretty unusual. Lots of people work as ambulance crews or pastry chefs or middle-level executives. Those are professions. A much smaller number of people teach ambulance crews, pastry chefs or middle-level executives. Those are meta-professions. And an even smaller number – that’s you and me assembled in this room – teach the teachers of ambulance crews or pastry chefs or middle level executives. Ours is a meta-meta-profession.

And fourth, no one except you and me assembled in this room really understands what we do. When, a long time ago, I worked as a community education worker in inner London, people constantly asked me: “But what do you teach?” I would reply that I did not actually teach but that I organised educational activities for people in the local community. “What kind of activities?” they would ask. “Things like a series of meetings on welfare rights or an arts and crafts workshop for mothers and babies,” I would reply.  “Oh, you teach art,” they would say. Back home in Australia I worked as a trainer in the trade union movement – labour educator, you call them here – and designed programs on recruiting, organising workplaces, running meetings, speaking effectively, campaigning, and negotiating. I remember one person looking in horror at me and saying: “You don’t actually teach them to do that, do you?” And when I fetched up in a university educating adult educators and people asked me what I did, I would reply: “I am a university lecturer.”  “Oh,” they would say, “and what do you teach?” “I teach adult education.” “No, I meant, what is your subject?” “I educate adult educators.” “Yes, but you must have a subject like history, or maths, or science, or English literature?” “I teach people about the processes of learning and organising learning.” “Yes, of course you do,” they would say, “but what do you teach?”

My father-in-law, a Frenchman of military background and ramrod demeanour, never understood what I did and, in a document he produced for the fiftieth anniversary of his year from the naval officers college, I saw that he had described me as a literature teacher. It is a pleasure, therefore, to be here with you; to be, however briefly, with people who may actually have some inkling of what I have done with my life for the past forty years.

What do I teach?

But that question hangs stubbornly in the air. “What do you teach?”  Well, I am retired now so I teach nothing much but when I was an educator of adult educators I taught programs called “Adult learning theory” and “Program development” and slightly more radicalised versions of the same called “Pedagogy and practice of popular education” and “Forms and traditions of popular education”. But the problem is still there. These may have been subjects in a university postgraduate degree program but they were not subjects like history or science or maths or English literature. They were not about content. They were about process.

But this is the point! This is what marks us off. We teach process, untrammelled by the limitations, strictures, traditions, content, rules or regulations of conventional subjects or academic disciplines. We teach process. We teach people to learn and to help others to learn. We teach them to organise learning and to help others to learn how to organise learning. We teach people to act, to do, to behave, to perform, to use their bodies and their minds. We teach process. We teach people to live out their lives through learning, and to help others live out their lives through learning. And to do this we can filch stuff from anywhere: sociology, psychology, politics, philosophy and, yes, history, maths, science and English literature.

Defining the process

But with this freedom comes a problem. If we are teaching about living and learning and everything that goes with these two aspects of being, then our field is infinite. So now we must try to put the brakes on this freedom and decide on the processes we can teach in the time we have available.

In a recent book called Teaching Defiance I have looked at how we might do this. For a start, as the book’s title suggests, I am proposing that we teach process with attitude. I am arguing that in every moment of our teaching we should encourage ourselves and others to defy anyone laying out an unwanted future for us. I am suggesting that we should teach and learn how to wrest our lives away from the control of others and take charge of our own moment. I am suggesting that we teach and learn how to be fully human, to use Carl Rogers’ phrase; how to be fully conscientized, to use Paulo Freire’s phrase; and how to be free, to use a word given the sense I want in it by the life and example of Nelson Mandela. Mandela, by the way, is one of those truly exceptional people whose love I like to imagine I could earn by the actions I take and the choices I make.

And I go on in the book to say that we can teach the following processes. We can teach people to think clearly. We can teach people to think imaginatively. We can teach people to act. And we can teach people to act wisely.

Thinking clearly

Irrespective of the subject, program or context, we can teach people to think critically. But we will need to revisit the way we teach and learn critical thinking because, over the past two decades, critical thinking has lost its edge. It has become a skill, competency or capability to be taught at school, in HRD courses, in the office or on the shop floor alongside project planning, problem solving, the ability to work in a team and the desire to produce high quality products. We need to give critical thinking back its political purpose. We need to go back to critical theory from which critical thinking, in its modern form, derives.

Critical theory as elaborated by people like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno implied a philosophy, a state of mind and a stance of constant and continual critique. Nothing was to be taken for granted. No utterance was to remain unexamined. It promoted the kind of positive scepticism which would enable us to withstand the doomsayers, the mean-spirited, the manipulators, the malign and the propagandists who might otherwise force us to think in the way they wanted us to. Critical theory helped us combat a Gramscian kind of hegemony. It helped us resist being hoodwinked. It helped us see through people, ourselves included. It enabled us to make up our own minds.

We can re-establish the teaching and learning of this kind of critical thinking without making major changes to established curricula (although it may take a major shift in our own stance). We can teach the time-honoured processes of rational thinking and of careful, logical argument, and we can use many of the communication and problem-solving models already in existence. However, we will need to rejuvenate these processes by encouraging people not just to examine the way they think but to examine the history of their thinking. “Where did that idea or belief come from? Your family? Your school? Your colleagues? Your reading? Just how reliable were those sources?” We will need to teach and learn how to tease out “truth” from “ideology”, and how to distinguish between honest authentic discourse and the mouthing of platitudes, simplifications, distortions and given wisdoms. We will need to locate our teaching and learning within an analysis of power. And we will need to argue that a genuine communication is made and a problem solved only when there has been a readjustment in that power and a move towards the establishment of equity.

Thinking imaginatively

Clear, and good, thinking is not enough. Rational, enlightened thought has given us extraordinary scientific and technological advances but, as a depressed Adorno acknowledged after the Second World War, it has also given us the means to exploit people, squander resources and manufacture the weapons of war. And so some of the critical theorists looked to aesthetics and the less strictly rational forms of discourse as a redress. We can follow suit and examine ways in which we can encourage insight.

Insight is both an intellectual and an affective phenomenon. It is intellectual in that it is a sudden understanding, a sudden realisation, a sudden falling into place of things, or a sudden completion of a half-guessed-at schema. But insight is equally an affective experience. It is a sudden elation, flowing into satisfaction, or a sudden horror flowing into resignation or resistance. Whether intellectual or affective, insight is that mysterious experience in which we come across the answer without asking the question. It is the conclusion without the argument. It is a moment when we speak with the gods.

Since insight is a process we cannot understand, it will be impossible to teach. But we can establish the conditions, and help others learn how to establish the conditions, that may encourage insight. We can use literature. We can use metaphor analysis, critical incident exercises, mind-mapping, and the other tools of the transformative educator. We can use dialogic forms of enquiry. We can use physical activity such as body sculpture. We can use games and role-play. And we can use forms of playback or forum theatre. All of these create ‘climates’ in which people may experience insight, in which they may suddenly understand some significant element of their world intuitively, spontaneously, even mystically.

Taking action

If we have helped people learn how to reason and understand, then we can help them learn how to take action based on that reasoning and understanding. Looking again to the critical theorists we can see our being taking shape concurrently in our objective world made up of tangible and physical phenomena, our social world made up of relationships, organizations and collective experience, and our subjective world made up of values, assumptions, prejudices, predilections and ideologies. In the objective world we act as subjects to objects, in the social world as subjects to other subjects, and in the subjective world as subjects to ourselves, and so we engage and make meaning through physical action, through our interaction with others, and through self-reflection.

So we can help ourselves and others choose actions which ‘fit’ the three worlds. Since the worlds exist concurrently the fit will rarely be neat, but there will be times when objective action such as the construction of a barricade predominates, when social action such as the organization of a meeting predominates, or when subjective action such as a period of review at a retreat predominates.

We can help people choose roles which ‘fit’. So there will be ‘front line activists’ who engage primarily in direct physical action, putting themselves, their careers, their bodies and even their lives at risk.  There will be ‘strategic activists’ who organise groups, forge alliances between different organizations, mobilise, lobby, and make use of the law and the institutions of the state. And there will be ‘activists of the mind’ who speak and write, argue and persuade, and make people think.

Acting wisely

Once we act on our world in order to change it we impinge on the lives of others. All but the most isolated of acts have an impact on other people and so have a moral dimension to them. If we are to help people take critical decisions, form understandings and then take action on those decisions and understandings, it is incumbent upon us to help them make decisions they believe are good and right. It is incumbent upon us to teach morality, not in the form of some established code but by helping ourselves and our learners examine and review the principles upon which we judge an action to be good or right.

We can do this through storytelling. We can tell stories of people who have been confronted by moral dilemmas and made difficult moral decisions – as Mandela did all those years ago when he decided to move from non-violent action to the violent action of sabotage in his struggle against the apartheid government of South Africa. We can ask our learners for their own stories. And together we can examine recent events and recount our reactions to those events as stories. We can discuss the decisions made by the people in the stories and ask if they were morally good ones. And if the climate is right we can discuss the decisions in the stories we told about ourselves, and ask the same question.

Since no two moral dilemmas will be exactly the same we cannot offer hard and fast rules to use in order to respond. But by telling stories we can build up a stock of experience, both personal and vicarious, upon which we and our learners can draw when confronted by moral challenges in the future. Decisions taken in the light of a rich and varied experience have a better chance of being the right ones.


But teaching process alone is unsatisfactory. After all, if I teach the processes of facilitation qua facilitation – that is, if I teach facilitation outside a moral context, then my learners might use their skills to facilitate the loading of people into cattle trucks or a fund-raising event for the partially-sighted with the same aplomb. We need to teach process with a purpose.

My partner in life, with whom I have lived for the past thirty-eight years, is French and so, now that we are both retired, we spend some of our time in Paris. The French enjoy debate and I have seen television panel discussions on social and political matters begin at nine in the evening and continue until well after midnight. On one program, about the European community, I remember, one of the panel guests had to take his leave about midnight but the program simply continued without him until about an hour later the subject was exhausted (and so was I!), So it was no surprise to me just three months ago when the French radio station France Culture announced it would broadcast four programs on the French philosopher Albert Camus over four mornings from 9.00 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. Fourteen hours in all! Clearly the French have little time for the public relations concept of the sound bite, or the learning disability described as attention deficit disorder.

I like Camus’s concept of the absurd. There is nothing to believe in, Camus says, yet we will lead our lives as if there were. Absurd though it is, we will spend our lives giving purpose to a purposeless existence. This places an immense responsibility on each and every one of us. If there is no ultimate power to give us direction, we will have to find that direction ourselves. We, and we alone, become responsible for constructing our own purpose, our own meaning, and our own morality.

One of the people who took part in those four mornings on Camus talked of the concept of the absurd in terms of “a desire without an object”. This rang true for me, and it was a relief to hear it expressed as a generalised experience. Life, a lot of it, is like an unspecified ache, a want we cannot define, an unrequited yearning, an existential angst. The future is an empty (and daunting) space that we can fill in any way we want. We want to fill the space, we have the desire, but we do not have a reason. We are free to act, but we do not.

And now I have my purpose, which I offer to you on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Our purpose in working in adult education at any of the levels, meta or otherwise, is to help people quell their angst and so liberate them from their own inactivity. It is to help them identify and understand their unrequited yearning, and to help them act in order to satisfy that yearning. It is to help them give an object, an objective, to their desire.

Throwing out balance

And so to the title of the paper. The phrase I have plundered for the title sees the throwing out of the baby along with the bathwater as a clumsy or reprehensible act. But in my version I see the jettisoning of the concept of balance as a good thing. Life is too short always to put the other argument, to be objective, or to be academically detached.

Perfect balance, true objectivity and absolute academic detachment are impossible anyway, so why try to achieve them? Our learners are adults and can look after themselves. They can accept or reject or adapt the processes we encourage them to practice. Propaganda exists when there is coercion, when people cannot leave, and when the ideas and practices being promoted cannot be contested. But in good adult education the opposite conditions obtain. The learners are there by choice, nothing is forcing them to stay if they dislike what is being taught and, most important of all, as adults, as free agents, as our equals, they can challenge the teacher.

In my book I have turned away from the conventional academic controls of balance, objectivity and academic detachment. These are cop-outs. They allow the teacher to adopt an amoral or even immoral stance. They allow the teacher to refuse to take sides even in the face of the unpleasant, the gross and the unjust. And I have downplayed conventional moral concepts such as trust, integrity, responsibility and dignity. They are all worthy concepts but they are dull. Instead I have turned to love and hate. (And here of course I can get into trouble, so I ask you to read Teaching Defiance before condemning me, since in the book I have spent whole chapters rather than single sentences on these ideas.) If I am to help myself and others think clearly, think imaginatively, choose to act and choose to act wisely, if I am going to help myself and others replace angst and inactivity with action driven by passionately espoused objectives, then I need to do so from a strong moral position. Again I do not want to impose my morality on others, but I need to have thought through my own position.

Morality for me is an emotional thing and so I try to use, and model, this personal, emotional, moral code:

Hate, and the anger that goes with it, are not emotions we should necessarily repress. There are events and situations in this world – illegal wars, the oppression of women, the bombing of bars and trains, the profiteering from drugs, the wilful destruction of the environment, the daily denial of human rights in a place called Guantanamo Bay – about which it would be unnatural not to be angry. And there are the people behind these destructive, negative and inhuman acts – people in Myles Horton’s terms who will not get off people’s backs and give them room to grow  – whom we have every right to hate. Carefully nurtured, hate can be positive force, quelling our angst and spurring us on to learning and action.

But unbridled hatred will makes us as loathsome as our enemies, and so we need to counter the potentially destructive nature of this emotion. And we can do this by an appeal to the emotion of love. However, I am not suggesting that we try to offset one emotion with the other, or mix them together, because either of these strategies would result in one emotion cancelling the other out. I want to keep hate and love apart, unconnected, so that each emotion maintains its own primal, exigent, moral force. And I can do this by nurturing the anger in myself as a spur to action but seeking in every action I choose to earn the love of others. Hate for the hateful should be our motivating force, and love from the people we respect should be our guide, our control, and our source of moral authority.

Myles Horton, by the way, is another person whose love I would have tried to earn.


Newman, Michael (2006) Teaching Defiance: Stories and strategies for activist educators, San Fransisco: Jossey Bass.

Michael Newman is an internationally renowned consultant and author in the field of adult education. He is a two-time winner of the Cyril O. Houle Award for Outstanding Literature in Adult Education, awarded by the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

Acknowledgement: We would also like to say ‘thanks’ to the Commission of Professors in Adult Education for allowing us to reproduce the paper.

Photo by Marcus Dall Col on Unsplash

How to cite this article: Newman, M. (2006). ‘Throwing out the balance with the bathwater’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/adult-education-throwing-out-the-balance-with-the-bathwater/. Retrived: insert date].

© Michael Newman 2006