June 10, 2009 at 4:22 am (education, essays)

well here it is, submitted four hours before my plane leaves. now i’d better go and pack. it’s 4am.

Does postmodernism have anything to offer you in terms

of understanding the contemporary context in adult education?

What can you learn from the adult education literature on this topic?

Postmodernism has much to offer in terms of understanding the contemporary context in adult education, by both examining new developments in the field and offering new perspectives and tools with which to delve deeper and reinterpret previous analyses. In this paper I will survey several examples of Australian adult education in postmodernity such as university and TAFE systems, lifelong learning, public health campaigns and the queer and convergence movements. In an attempt at somewhat postmodern writing, I will use question, irony, eclecticism and analogy instead of definition and certainty to discuss how the literature of postmodern adult education can enhance understanding of these educational settings I also hope to suggest some jumping off points and create a sense of possibility that there will be somewhere for education to go, given adequate deconstruction and openness to the situation. I will also be using the personal pronoun, to not pretend that my own positionality does not inform this reading.

Whenever postmodernism is mentioned, the first objective is usually to attempt to explain what it is. However postmodernism does not adapt well to such a modernist endeavor; the consensus required to define the term does not exist. Yet rather than being a failed theory, postmodernism has been described as a constellation of views (Hill 2008), a new perspective on meaning and the world which emphasises and criticises a new selection of aspects and puts forward a selection of tools, comprising an additional lens of analysis with which to do so, to supplement and adjust the previous hundreds of years worth of modernist understandings (Kaufmann 2000).

Some sections within postmodernism are easier to pin down than the whole, and serve to mark some parameters of the field. With regard to adult education theory, several authors have offered dichotomies in order to adapt postmodernism to some practical use. Radical postmodernism, according to Kaufmann, claims that the world has fundamentally changed, that postmodernity is “an era of hyperreality in which all relations are governed by images” (Kaufmann 2000). This is a challenging claim; many criticisms of postmodernism, for such concerns as nihilism, amorality and overly dense language, often appear to be directed towards such an interpretation. Yet it does have at least some explanatory power, as evidenced by the inclusion of public health campaigns as an integral aspect of adult education. The Australian AIDS awareness (Willett 2000) and anti smoking campaigns are two striking examples of heavy use of powerful imagery to change public behaviour, and both campaigns’ successes attest to the potency of image in contemporary society, and its significance in adult education.

Strategic postmodernism, which Kaufmann draws in opposition to the radical version, is a more integrated approach, a perspective where political grounding is still possible, which uses tools to be explained below to rethink and recontextualise what we know, rather than discarding it.

Addressing the era rather than the theory, Bagnall similarly refers to a postmodernity of resistance which is “a positive, constructive, adversarial postmodernity of critical opposition to the status quo”, and opposes it to a postmodernity of resignation, a “negative, passive, compliant acceptance of the inevitability of the status quo” (Bagnall 1994a), which, though possibly demoralising, nevertheless needs attention. While we scramble to find practical applications in resistance postmodernism for a strategic postmodernity, the flip-sides can explain much of our surroundings, those aspects of the contemporary context which can otherwise be interpreted as a crisis (Usher, Bryant & Johnston 1997). Bagnall lists eleven features of a postmodernity of resignation, which are evident in our world and need to be addressed, rather than ignored as we try harder to keep sailing to our original course no matter what obstacles are in our way. The features, which challenge the epistemology behind education and all of modernity, are presentism, surfacisation, fragmentation, changeability, non-progressiveness, anti-intellectualism, crude instrumentalism, consumerism, existential insecurity, despair and practical indifference (Bagnall 1994a). Between the former and Bagnall’s list of tendencies of adult education appropriate for postmodernity, one can get a reasonable feel for the subject. The tendencies are for adult education to be reflexively contextualised, indeterminate, expressive, open, participative, heterodox, phenomenal, critical and dedifferentiated (Bagnall 1994b). As with much of postmodernism, the attributes in the latter list are not exclusively postmodern or new, but together they can amount to a postmodern approach.

Postmodernism is still a new perspective, likely to transform with time and continued social change. However, we need not wait for debates over hyperreality to be won before we can find use for insights and tools that reside in various corners of the last few decades’ scholarship, as can be seen in the increasing merging of postmodernism with several important strands of education theory, born of modernity. Postmodern feminism in particular melds a consistent focus on gender and oppression with newer, sophisticated views of diverse, complex identity; deconstructing gender and power into “multiple systems of privilege and oppression and their intersections, along with people’s capacity for agency or resistance (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner 2007).

Deconstruction is the tool at the heart of postmodernism and probably the aspect which garners most agreement from otherwise conflicting strands of postmodernism. It is a means of interrogating our understanding of meaning, and by extension, the world. Some aspects of deconstruction which are particularly pertinent for Adult Education include Lyotard’s suspicion of metanarratives (Peters 2000), and an incredulity towards binaries (Newman 1999).

To deconstruct binaries is not as simple as it may seem, since they are densely integrated into our lives. The most obvious manifestation of this is the suspicion of binaries. Modernist thought is heavily dependent on commonplace acceptance of dualistic categories; good or bad, male or female, normal or other, and ironically, radical or strategic and resistance or resignation. These and many more structure the way we interpret the world, until it becomes acceptable to assume that everything that does not fit in one box will conform to a second one, and that anything which does not, is necessarily insignificant.

To deconstruct binaries is to examine these assumptions and construct ideas free from such conventions, while acknowledging their use and its consequences, where they are retained. Gender is a good example as it is ostensibly one of the most stable binaries at the basis of our language and culture, and also has a concrete bearing on adult education. A binary view of gender declares every human to be either male or female. Whether determined by chromosomes, anatomy, birth certificates, presentation or some other criterion, we are all expected to be untroubled when we tick the M or the F box on a form. Our biological sex, gender identity and presentation, and often even sexuality are expected to align; all in one box, none in the other and certainly no colouring outside the lines. Secure in this assumption, we have binary gender dependent educational theories, enrolment forms, some attendance lists and classes grouped by gender. Examples and illustrations in teaching materials are clearly gendered, usually with stereotyped gender role attributes furthermore, even when the extra information is entirely irrelevant to subject being explained. Feminism has long fought for recognition of the speciousness of the role stereotypes, and indeed recent textbook illustrations are likely to carefully disturb stereotypes such as portraying female engineers and male nurses, yet this flipping of codes depends on the understood binary structure and merely reinforces the acceptability of the underlying concept of binary sex. Despite all this use, when the gender binary is interrogated, it can be seen that the lines are not nearly as clear as they have been drawn.

Nature, including all attributes used to determine human sex and gender, evolves in spectrums and bell curves rather than dichotomies. Questions of identity, though suppressed by the status quo, have the potential to be even more wide ranging. Supporting this view of gender, postmodernism sees identity as a complex, multiple and mutable collection of self-selected attributes and identifications, rather than a category, determined by others, that one is born into.

This perspective change has huge consequences in education. Throughout modernism, theories have paid more and more attention to different characteristics of individuals, their experiences and the social groups they belong to, for reasons ranging from the reduction of individuals’ barriers to learning to the forming of class consciousness and revolution. Many theories of education depend on fixed identities being a determinant of needs, as have identity politics. Yet just like the queer movement which is taking over from the gay and lesbian movement, postmodern education celebrates the productiveness of difference (Edwards & Usher 2001).

Once we accept such a view of identity, there is much to do. We suddenly find our classrooms are filled with a diversity of people that we can’t categorise, tame and manage. We already knew our picture of a good student as young, straight, white, middle class and male was erroneous, but w can no longer merely replace it with a better image. What’s more, the social positions of teacher and student become merely another aspect of people’s identities, as changeable as the rest.

This all leads to celebration of difference; acceptance is not enough. In order relinquish belief in the comforts and structures we are accustomed to and make the most of these ideas, we must find them not just right, but important. From the original example, why merely add a box marked ‘other’ and leave anyone who doesn’t step into it to keep their original problematic labels, when we can appreciate the differences between being, for example, female-to-male transgender, intersex or genderqueer, and understand how the regulation of our own identity by the status quo is a contemporary, subtle form of oppression (Hill 2004).

As well as alerting us to the needs of differently gendered people in classrooms, this one deconstruction has exploded our confidence in binaries and given us a taste of a whole new ambiguous world underneath our comfortable conventions, one that requires an entire reworking of the concept of knowledge. In today’s information-saturated society, it’s getting hard to pretend the world is neater than it is, and even harder to justify the negative consequences of adhering to knowledge that just isn’t true. We find that people in a different place, time or circumstance have contradictory views and knowledges, and we are too exposed to them to be able to conscionably assert that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong. Without postmodernism this can leave the world, and especially education, in crisis as our confident foundations now look like shifting sands. However, rather than digging for replacement foundations, postmodernism develops a whole new architecture, adapted to building on the sands of ambiguity. “Uncertainty is not a passing state of puzzlement but an acceptance of the provisional and contingent in what we believe and do” (Usher, Bryant & Johnston 1997).

Of all the ways society has changed in postmodernity, the era in which postmodernism has come about, the availability of information is but one of several which have a direct impact on adult education. As well as facilitating reinterpretation of many extant facets of education, postmodernism can take account of the impact of newer phenomena, for example the marked increase in education at a distance, another consequence of information technology. Online learning has greatly increased access to education, but only to those who can afford the technology and [find the support required, as it becomes less the responsibility of the institution]. Looking further, this promotes individualisation of learning, but also provides opportunities for distributed forms that are actually collaborative. (Edwards & Usher 2001).

This ambivalence echoes the quandaries in a wide shift in the circumstances of society surrounding education, which can be grouped under Bagnall’s classification as consumerism. While many adult educators consider consumerism irredeemably bad and would like to prevent it impacting their classrooms, adult education has become a consumable commodity, and to pretend it hasn’t won’t make it less so, or help educators respond to the change.

As the government cuts funding from the big education institutions and encourages but regulates private providers, all education that offers qualifications has to find more of its own funding. Courses are tailored to the market; subjects are only taught if enough people are expected to pay for them, be it corporations or individuals. Content is therefore forced to the lowest common denominator too. We see for example that TAFEs are teaching only three market segments; vocational, enterprise and tertiary (Towards 2012: Strategic Plan 2009), and their funding has been opened up to private colleges. They have also lost their last free offerings, as the unemployed now have to pay $50. There’s a good reason that adult educators are suspicious; access that has so long been fought for is lost as user pays is entrenched. From this largely modernist perspective, the problems are too big to assail and the future is dismal.

However postmodernism, while not necessarily rejecting such concerns, asks different questions and suggests new directions. Why privilege these major institutions? They’re big, they have cultural cache, but they do not need to dominate adult education. Education is a foundation of modernism and the modernist project is what has made educational institutions so important. Formal education tends to rely on there being a truth, an ultimate knowledge, usually in the possession of the teacher, to be either poured into, or drawn out of the student. Many theories throughout modernism have debated the nature of this process or where knowledge resides, but they do not question the existence of knowledge and truth. A core of postmodernism, however, is that knowledge is diverse, local and contingent. Maybe it is the institutions that we need to deconstruct.

Adult education, however, can exist outside of institutions. In fact, the rise of lifelong learning which has been seen in the last decade, is very much in line with postmodernism, to the extent that it has been viewed as a postmodern condition of education due to the multiplicity of practices employed (Edwards & Usher 2001).

Postmodernism has more to offer than elevating lifelong learning to be the new hegemonic paradigm, vanquishing the educational institutions in either importance or idealism. It recognizes education as happening in many other places such as communities and subcultures. The convergence movement, for example, is heavily invested in forms of adult education which fill out the picture and stand in direct opposition to the fears of societal degeneration and lack of purpose sparked by the decline of the most hegemonic forms of adult education. It is heavily collective and committed to awareness and activism, yet distinctly postmodern as a culture of visibility through difference (Hill 2008), with a selection of goal that, while so broad as to be fractured, manage to be cooperative and strong.

Attention to these diverse sites may seem to have shifted the borders of adult education, but according to postmodernism, more than that has happened. Another postmodern term, dedifferentiation, describes the borders of things becoming less defined. In this case, adult education is bleeding into the culture, leisure and entertainment industries. Usher, Bryant and Johnston (1997) speak of confessional, vocational, lifestyle and critical practices, four different aspects of adult learning which, whether or not they are comprehensive, point to an expansion of education in several directions even as the traditional educational institutions contract their purposes.

Confessional practices, such as self-help courses popular in community colleges and the similar topics flourishing in publishing, display education as an unending process, where there is always more work one can do on oneself, as opposed to the modernist concept of mastery where competencies and levels are achieved (Edwards & Usher 2001). Similarly lifestyle practices involve consuming not only the learning but the style, image and mark of difference involved in the content, another process which continues as long as that aesthetic is valued.

Within a modernist context, Houle lists many purposes of learning; “a way of examining one’s life, a tool taken up to learn something specific, an accomplishment, a way of preserving the state, a pleasurable activity, part of a personal rule of discipline, a mandate, a way of avoiding responsibility, an emblem of elitism, a rung on the ladder of success, a personal discipline or rule of life” (Sheridan 2007)  it’s an interesting list, but where Houle saw ‘self directed study as the peak of a continuum, Postmodern consumerism and the search for identity, aesthetics, meaning and spectacle continues further. Usher, Bryant & Johnston consider “A strong case could be made, therefore, that consumption in postmodernity is an active, generative process. It is embedded in a variety of social practices that involve adult learning, thus it cannot be argued that all that is going on is simply a matter of passive an d alienating consumption of goods, services and images” (1997). In our post-full employment society, the source of meaning and identity is shifting away from the workplace, to be found in leisure, desires and the consumption of images. This is an opening which is encouraging education to change, to attend not only to people’s needs, but their wants (Usher, Bryant & Johnston 1997). Needs and wants has been a powerful dichotomy and wants has always been seen as less important, even dangerous. Just maybe, it’s time to deconstruct the binary and learn the value of desires.

At the end of the journey, postmodernism has had plenty to offer; a small amount on how we see students in the classroom, up to a whole body of analysis on epistemology and the reorganisation of the entire field of adult education. With time the theories will no doubt be honed, and unless they are severely challenged they will likely gain more and more acceptance. However even now, when the concepts are more widely feared than understood, they can at the very least encourage us to look upon the world with fresh eyes.

Reference List

Bagnall, R.G. 1994a, ‘Educational Research in a Postmodernity of Resignation: A Cautionary Corrective to Utopian Resistance’, paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

Bagnall, R.G. 1994b, ‘Postmodernity and its Implications for Adult Education Practice’, Studies in Continuing Education, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 1 – 18.

Edwards, R. & Usher, R. 2001, ‘Lifelong Learning: A Postmodern Condition of Education?’ Adult Education Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 4, pp. 273 – 285.

Hill, R.J. 2004, ‘Activism as Practice: Some Queer Considerations’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, vol. 102, no. Summer, pp. 85 – 94.

Hill, R.J. 2008, ‘Troubling Adult Learning in the Present Time’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, vol. 119, no. Fall, pp. 83 – 91.

Kaufmann, J. 2000, ‘Reading counter-hegemonic practices through a postmodern lens’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 430 – 447.

Kilgore, D.W. 2004, ‘Toward a Postmodern Pedagogy’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, vol. 102, no. Summer, pp. 45 – 52.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R. & Baumgartner, L. 2007, ‘Critical Theory, Postmodern and Feminist Perspectives’, in S. Merriam, R. Caffarella & L. Baumgartner (eds), Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd edn, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, pp. 241-270.

Newman, M. 1999, ‘Looking for Postmodern Adult Educators’, in, Maeler’s Regard, Steward Victor Publishing, Sydney, pp. 194-202.

Peters, M. 2000, ‘Redefining Adult Education: Research, Self and Learning in Postmodernity’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 335-343.

Sheridan, J. 2007, ‘Lifelong Learning in a Postmodern Age: Looking Back to the Future through the Lens of Adult Education’, The LLI Review, no. Fall 2007, pp. pp 4-13.

Towards 2012: Strategic Plan 2009, TAFE NSW – Sydney Institute.

Usher, R., Bryant, I. & Johnston, R. 1997, Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge: Learning beyond the Limits, Routledge, London.

Willett, G. 2000, Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.


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