consumption, postmodernism, adult education

November 15, 2007 at 3:20 pm (education, essays)

kat sent me the contents of her ‘kate’s assignments’ folder. turns out there are a bunch of essays from turkey that i didn’t have copies of, including some things i’d missed!

here goes with another round of essays, starting with:

Consumption, Postmodernism, Adult Education

Much of adult education is rooted in critical and liberatory philosophies. While these theories are worthy bases for progressive education, they are products of modernity, and the current period of postmodernity presents some different challenges though the two approaches share a number of aims. Like modern adult education, postmodernism undermines and raises awareness of assumptions and norms.

The postmodern world is an uncertain place, and the need for education as a way to adapt to the world is amplified. Unfortunately, postmodern theory also has profound consequences for the whole field of adult education. One of the more difficult aspects of postmodernism for an idealistic adult educator to deal with is consumption.

Consumerism, the culture of consumption for its own sake, has long been recognised as a feature of late capitalism, something that oppresses and domesticates people, makes them dependent on the system by manipulating their desires, and blinds them to their own situations. As such, adult education has sought to blunt its power by raising awareness of its mechanisms and insidious charms.

Postmodernism however, puts a different spin on it. In an unsentimental attempt to establish the way things are rather than how we would like them to be, it accepts consumption as an important feature of society, not good or evil. In fact, “consumer behaviour rather than work or productive activity has become the cognitive and moral focus of life, the integrative bond of society” (Bauman, as paraphrased in Usher, Bryant & Johnston, p16) Even though not everyone can consume equally, everyone is affected by the culture, if only in formation of desires and aspirations. What we buy or possess frames the way we categorise things and therefore the way we think and relate to people and the world. “Consumption is not so much about goods and services per se but about signs and significations” (Usher, Bryant & Johnston, p16). If consumption is indeed so embedded in society, and thus not something that can be defeated by a little more education, then it needs to be taken seriously. Ignoring changes in society means our education becomes neither relevant nor effective.

Under postmodernism, the idea of what is consumed has evolved. If purchasing things displays your status and identity, then the fact that we all end up owning too much plastic we don’t need is not the only important aspect of consumption. There is also the fact that images, lifestyle and the self can be consumed. Education can be consumed.

As postmodernism erodes the traditional bases of adult education, the field is diversifying into a much wider one of Adult Learning, which includes a wide range of areas that were previously considered frivolous, such as personal development and cultural creativity. What is on offer is often dependent on those who can afford education as a leisure activity, but the news is not all bad

Engaging with students is a vital aspect of adult education. As consumerism frames the way many people think these days it can be used to better connect to students. Education is generally more effective when presented in a context that students relate to and understand, which argues for the inclusion of consumerist ideas in the classroom.

There is certainly still some place for criticism of consumption, and consumerism, but no longer for complete rejection. How can we negotiate this? One suggestion is that teachers should avoid taking themselves too seriously, though this raises concerns about loss of the idealism that is for many people an important motivation for teaching. Another is to be flexible and acknowledge the importance of consumption and don’t automatically view it as solely a threat to community.


Usher, R., Bryant, I. and Johnston, R. (1997). Chapter 1 “Adult Learning in Postmodernity” (pp. 1 – 27) in Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge: Learning Beyond the Limits, Routledge: London.


1 Comment

  1. Steve Rosenbaum said,

    I’m glad these circular arguments are stuck in acadamia instead of out in the real world. Most people learn very little in school evidenced by the show “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”

    Yet these “so called” dumb and manipulated adults create great things and lead happy lives.

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