Adult Education and Community Development


In Chapter 10, we covered a major portion of what can be classified as adult education. Community development efforts such as those spearheaded by the Highlander Center, by the various movements centering around people like Belenky, Bond, and Weinstock (1997), Freire (1970), Gaventa (1982), Hall (1975), and Hinsdale, Lewis, and Waller (1995), have already been alluded to and also logically fit under this heading here. While these movements vary a great deal in their theories, methods, and ideals, we agree with Finger and Asun (2001) that they are essentially al reformist movements taking place within the modernist model of development. As Finger and Aslin would put it, these movements are mainly about putting a human face on capitalism. Some prac­titioners think this is much harder than do others, but they all believe in the possibilities of reforming the system. Lest we be thought to be placing our­selves above them, we emphasize that we also share this fundamental orienta­tion, and it is certainly a central premise of our own work.

These activities can all be gathered under the rubric of adult education because they involve processes of ongoing education, capacity building, and self-determination that mainly engage adults who are already well embarked on their lives. They vary greatly in the ways they educate, in how individualized versus group-oriented the processes are, and in how strong their critique of contemporary political economy is, but they still bear some general family resemblance. The various practitioners, of course, would bridle at being lumped together, and becoming familiar with this field means reading well into the literatures in all the different varieties.


Though the notion that Southern PAR and popular education in the “South” is outside of the conventional approaches to international develop­ment is widespread, and at the risk of seeming to offend some practitioners of Southern PAR, we believe that the upshot of the arguments cited earlier from Finger and Asun (2001) and from Usher, Bryant, and Johnston (1997) is that the vast bulk of these practices fit within the overall framework of modernist “development.” The belief in the possibility of education to increase capacities to alter and improve society as it is does not amount to a repudiation of that society. Though practitioners differ greatly in the degree of reform that would satisfy them, nearly all of us are reformers, not revolutionaries. As a result, though it creates an uncomfortable tension or juxtaposition, we believe that it is helpful to all to understand that AR of the practitioners themselves is funda­mentally a reform effort that is based on some degree of belief in the capacity of people to work together to change their life situations and institutions in positive directions.


Probably the best-known tradition in this field is adult education and social change work in the South. This is an immense field about which numer­ous books have been written. We have already provided some basic views about it. It is perhaps the best known of all the AR approaches worldwide, and some of its leaders are considered the models of the AR practitioner—Paolo Freire (1970), Budd Hal (1975), Orlando Fals Borda (Fals Borda & Rahman, 1991). Because these practitioners have created effective records of their own thinking and action, they can be read in the original with great profit. Of course, their broadly similar focus should not obscure their individuality and the unique­ness of the intervention strategies they have developed. Each of them, and their many colleagues worldwide, has a unique voice and perspective to offer. For purposes of this presentation, we do violence to their individuality to make a compact presentation of the approach.

The points of departure for the popular education approach are resolutely moral and political. The moral point comes first and is never allowed to dis­appear from view. Humans are entitled to a decent life, free of grinding poverty and political oppression. Humans have a basic dignity and deserve respect. The political logic that follows from this moral point is simple. Because humans are entitled to be free and have the capacity to manage their own lives effectively, that they do not in so many locations must be explained. The explanation is oppression backed up by economic power and violence. Thus, the practition­ers of this approach build their practices on a strongly Marxist viewpoint. They never lose sight of power and oppression, and they never consider a social change to have occurred until power structures have been overturned and more liberating structures have been put in place.

Along with the many elements of mobilization theories drawn from Marxism and trade union organizing practice, these approaches coincide in privileging local knowledge. The point of departure is that the interests and power of elites—not the poor’s own ignorance or lack of ability—make people poor and oppressed. Thus, local people in communities and organizations are viewed as having detailed, complex, and valuable knowledge about their situa­tions and the capacity to develop analyses and strategies that can mobilize this knowledge for social change.

The role of the outside expert varies from practitioner to practitioner, but almost always the outsider is a catalyst and facilitator, sometimes pressing, sometimes cautioning, but always trying to convey respect for local people and their rights. This is where the connection to adult education arises, because many of these interventions can be understood as forms of adult education and capacity building.

As the AR process continues, people often gain confidence in their own abilities and perceptions, become less willing to submit to authority, and are able to develop organizational strategies to promote social change. In some of these situations, the opponents are simply ignorant or thoughtless. In others, the opponents are truly dangerous and violent. Thus, such work can range from the development of local organizations that threaten few people to activ­ities that would be defined rightly as insurgency.

Paolo Freire

To instantiate our discussions of this approach to AR, it makes sense to review the work of Paolo Freire briefly. Freire is one of the most widely known names associated with AR and a figure with whose work everyone in AR must have some familiarity because of its centrality to Southern PAR, adult educa­tion, formal education, and community development work.

Born in Brazil in 1921, Freire had a long and complex career. He began his work as an adult educator working with the poor but was exiled from Brazil during a military coup in 1964 because of that work. His approach is summa­rized in his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in 1970. This is one of the most widely read AR books ever published, and its messages are still relevant and exciting.

His exile from Brazil lasted 16 years, and he lived and worked in England, Chile, and spent a period working with the World Council of Churches in Geneva. He taught at Harvard from 1969 through 1979, when he was able to return to Brazil. He reinitiated his public career in Brazil in 1988 when he was appointed Minister of Education for the City of Sao Paulo. He had a chance to put his ideas about education into practice. Freire died in 1997.

His writing is a complex combination of neo-Marxism, Gramscian per­spectives, liberation theology, and organizing, a heady mix that he brings together under the general rubric of an expansive concept of“pedagogy.” Freire believed that “to speak a true word is to transform the world” ( 1970, p. 87). He believed in the power of speech linked to critical consciousness, a clear and disciplined action and reflection cycles. He had a complex view of the “alien­ated consciousness” that holds the oppressed in its thrall and criticized two of the most common reactions organizers have to this, verbalism and activism. Verbalism is talk without action ( 1970, p. 87), and activism is action for action’s sake without the discipline of critical consciousness ( 1970, p. 88).

Freire strongly believed in the power of critical communicative action to reveal to people the conditions of their own existence and their ability to change their circumstances. Thus he saw having a voice as a central feature of liberation. Freire noted that “human beings are not built in silence” ( 1970, p. 88) and that reclaiming the right to speak was one of the most powerful forms of action.

Though the act of speaking might seem hostile or aggressive, Freire insisted that dialogue is an act of love and that it requires faith in humankind because dialogue rests on the hope and belief that the other can and will respond. Thus in Freire’s view, authentic education is always social, “cogenera­tive” in our terminology. The notion of love and solidarity is seen in Freire’s insistence that the oppressed must liberate themselves through the develop­ment of critical consciousness, what he called “conscientization,” but that ulti­mately the oppressed must also seek to liberate their oppressors by the same means. To do otherwise would mean simply that the oppressed would in turn become oppressors, and the cycle would begin again.

Freire’s writings are extensive (1970, 1998a, 1998b), and critiques are beginning to appear as well (for example, Bowers & Apfei-Marglin, 2004). Note again that part of this work should be situated as representative of the broad strategies of Southern PAR (Chapter 10) as well as being relevant to educational AR and parts of the human inquiry strategy as well (Chapter 14).

Much more could be said about these approaches, but enough has been laid out to encourage those interested to read more of the relevant literature. The focus on local knowledge and its value and the insistence that social change is not a mere matter of adjusting the dials but of changing systems of power are two of the most crucial contributions of the Southern PAR approach.3

As we have noted in Chapter 10, there is also a critical literature now emerg­ing that examines some of the shortcomings of taken-for-granted assumptions from these approaches.


Some of the most powerful and richest agencies dealing in adult education are the arms of national governments and international institutions that fun­nel national funds into development assistance programs. This is an extremely complex topic. We deal with a very prominent part ofi t that links to AR in our chapter on participatory rural appraisal (Chapter 13).

These development agencies are a dominant force on the same scene where the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and mission organizations operate. Examples of development agencies include the U.S. Agency for Inter­national Development, NORAD of Norway, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Built largely on bud­gets provided by national governments, these agencies support development programs in many countries around the world.

Although it is still fair to say that the bulk of these projects fund large-scale infrastructures, are built from the top down, have generally resulted in only modest improvements in the conditions for the poor, and have not contributed much to democratization, some of the programs have had meaningful local effects. The so-called green revolution technologies in the improvement of yields of major food grains have improved the nutritional and health status of people in some world areas. Under the aegis of development programs, thousands of people from poor countries have been sent to Western industrial countries for further education, in some cases to good effect and in others never to return home at all. These very agencies, in recent years, have been active pro­moters of techniques such as participatory rural appraisal (with elements of AR), about which we write in Chapter 13. Most now announce their commit­ment to participatory development strategies, though many of us in AR view these commitments with skepticism because the record of these national efforts is extremely mixed. The funding appropriations that drive them serve national political interests, regardless of the ideological packaging they are given.

One constant feature of these programs over the past 25 years is the asser­tion that development requires educational and attitudinal change. A constant feature of the critiques of such programs is their failure to be knowledgeable about local people or to respect local knowledge. Although there is some attempt to improve the record on this, structurally, international development agencies are driven from the top down to meet the goals of the funders, not the local beneficiaries. ^then these goals are in the interests of local people, there may be room for AR processes. When they are not, AR practitioners, together with local actors, necessarily oppose them. Of course, distinguishing which kind of situation is which is always a complex judgment call.

Before we leave this topic, we point to a few other kinds of adult education efforts that might otherwise be thought to fall entirely outside the box of adult education and AR.


Though it might appear to be stretching the notion of adult education. support groups involve many of the elements of adult education and AR that we have been discussing. Support groups are intentionally created voluntary ‘ii groups of individuals and families who have been affected by a shared prob­lem: cancer in the family, spousal abuse, substance abuse. The list of support j’ groups is endless.

These groups vary greatly in their organization and philosophies, but they 1, do build on the notion of people coming together to share their dilemmas, ; k solutions, weaknesses, and strengths to help each other come to terms with difficult situations. Often support groups have developed into social change ini­tiatives through the learning acquired in the process. Organizations combating : drunk driving, spouse abuse, and many other social issues originated in small jv support group efforts. A weU-documented case that shows the connection ! f between support groups and AR is found in the work by Chessler and Chesney (1995) on support for parents of children with cancer. The potential for signif­icant developments of AR work in this area should not be underestimated.


Much more common in Europe than in the iAmericas, study circles arose in the labor movement as a mechanism for bringing adults together to inquire into the conditions that affect their lives. Study circles are a very common ped- )agogical approach in trade union education. Many popular education move- I ments in northern Europe use study circles as a major element in their teaching activities.

The point of study circles is to achieve adult education broadly conceived . while focusing on consciousness raising and strategic thinking about specific issues affecting those participating. In one form or another, these kinds of study groups have come and gone in most industrial societies.


Nongovernmental organizations in many parts of the world develop and administer extensive educational programs in support of particular kinds of social change of interest to them. Ecological education, agricultural education, sex education, health education, nutrition, and similar themes form the core of the activities of many NGOs. Though now many NGOs are immense and they are a diverse lot, they generally share a view of international development in which the people, rather than governments and monied interests, are the real agents of change. Historically, NGOs have tended to invest in people so that the people make changes and sustain the changes themselves. This view makes pop­ular education a high priority and constant element in the activities of NGOs.

In recent years, trenchant critiques of the operations of NGOs have arisen. In some cases, they have become a hidden, nonelected government in poor countries with more disposable cash than many governmental agencies. Each pursuing its own agenda and value scheme, NGOs can be quite abusive (Mendelson & Glenn, 2002). By the same token, precisely because of their flex­ibility and relative freedom of operation, some NGOs can be fully and robustly focused on AR activities, involving the local stakeholders in significant social reform efforts under local control.


Whatever else it is, missionization is certainly an educational effort. Missionization is a reality in all the countries of the world, and it is not likely to disappear soon. Stereotypically, missionaries are viewed either as naive do- gooders or as religious fanatics. Though there are plenty who fit these images recent generations of missionaries are considerably more sophisticated. Some groups are popular educators who operate by trying to live out their ideology in local communities, contributing labor and resources to projects of value to the people. Others bring significant resources into communities and use these resources to gather people both for change efforts and for missionization. In some cases, only such religious groups have the courage, political indepen­dence, and resources to be in dangerous and divided places. Governments may be punishing the area, afraid of it, or denying the existence of problems. Thus, missionization occasionally reaches those unreached by other means.

A great array of educational strategies accompanies this process, including literacy campaigns, the formation of social groups with particular local or national change projects (see Kurt Ver Beek on the Lenca Indian mobilization in Honduras, 1996}, Bible study groups, health clinics, and refugee camps. Some of these organizations promote ideologies of democratization as part of their Christian message.

Although we do not question the legitimacy of their presence, it is impor­tant to examine their practices closely. Because one element in missionization is a belief in a final or ultimate truth, there is always the possibility of the imposition of an unwanted framework on local people. When this happens, missionization is inimical to AR. But this is not always the case, and AR prac­titioners should keep an open mind about missionization, just as they need to be alert to the possibilities for abuse in NGOs, land grant universities, and everywhere else that democratic interventions are being attempted.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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