Author Seeks to Radicalize Adult Education Programs

Published September 1, 2007

Teaching Defiance: Stories and Strategies for Activist Educators
Michael Newman
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006
305 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0-7878-8556-2; $35

This is a book that seeks to transform adult education–all those courses aiming either to train (computer courses, language skills, etc.) or entertain (e.g., art classes) working adults.

Author Michael Newman has toiled in adult education programs in his native Australia and England for the past few decades. But his influence is not limited to those countries–he has twice won an award for outstanding literature in adult education from the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

Newman does not want adult education programs to teach primarily content, such as computer skills, or craftsmanship, such as learning to practice an art. Those things can be taught, he says, but the teaching must be infused with the aim of turning the “learner” into one who practices “defiance.”

Newman, it appears, would prefer adult education programs to dispense with transmitting “bourgeois” skills and just make people progressive activists. He reveals his own activist leanings on the cover page, where he notes the book was “written in wartime” and irrelevantly laments that there has not been more of an outcry against the war in Iraq.

Potential Harm

Newman suggests teachers should inspire rebelliousness and encourage defiance. He recommends discussing stories and using role-playing in order to change students into social agents.

It’s unlikely Newman’s manifesto will lead to great change in adult education. Unlike college education, adult education is strongly market-driven. People are most likely to choose courses that directly benefit them either by giving them a skill or bringing them pleasure.

Adults are unlikely to pay to be indoctrinated or goaded into becoming political activists.

The great problem with this book is that it could be used in college education courses to convince future elementary and secondary school teachers it is their job to turn young people into political activists. This would be a great distraction for aspiring teachers, and potentially harmful to a young educator’s career.

Fortunately, Newman’s model of an “activist educator” will not last in a world of standards and test-driven accountability.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania.