The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching

By Stephen D. Brookfield | Go to book overview

Preface

A couple of years ago, one of the most dispiriting things that can happen to a teacher happened to me. I had just finished teaching a semester-long course on the philosophy of adult education, a substantial portion of which had focused on critical theory. I had asked students to engage with key figures in critical theory such as Marx, Gramsci, Habermas, and Foucault, mostly by reading secondary texts that summarized these writers' ideas and placed them in an adult educational context. As part of the course, students wrote essays and gave presentations in which they considered how their experiences as adult learners or adult educators were illuminated by critical theory. As students were leaving the last class of the semester, I overheard one say to another, "I still don't see why we had to read all this critical theory. What's Gramsci got to do with adult education?"

Since I had just spent a good part of four months arguing for critical theory as a useful lens through which adult educators could view their practice, this comment took the wind right out of my sails. This student had written the required assignments, participated in the required team presentations, and successfully passed the course. Yet, clearly, all this had happened without any real connection being made between that student's practice and the critical tradition. This book is my attempt to deal with that student's complaint. Its overarching purpose is to try to convince adult educators that critical theory should be considered seriously as a perspective that can help them make some sense of the dilemmas, contradictions, and frustrations they experience in their work.

In a sense, this book is attempting to put the criticalback into critical thinkingby emphasizing how thinking critically is an inherently political process. Critical thinking is a dominant discourse in adult education, usually characterized by a particular understanding of

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