The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching

By Stephen D. Brookfield | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
I Learning Liberation

In the late 1960s and early 1970s—the era of the Hippies and Black Panthers, the French May 1968 revolution, Students for a Democratic Society, race riots in Watts, protests against the war in Vietnam, beatings of demonstrators at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and shootings at Kent State University—there was arguably no more famous public intellectual than Herbert Marcuse. This was particularly the case in education. Though he criticized aspects of the student movement's actions as "pubertarian revolt against the wrong target" (1972, p. 51) and was disturbed by the slogan of "do your own thing" (which he felt ignored the fact that some things contributed more to liberation than others), his effect on educational and social activists was massive.

In a text published at the time, Marks (1970) noted that despite death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, contempt from Pravda (the Soviet state-sponsored newspaper), and attempts by the San Diego post of the American Legion to deprive him of his academic post, "he has nevertheless more general popularity than any other living philosopher" (p. 8). Like Fromm, Marcuse was read by millions, but unlike Fromm he was regarded as an instigator of and catalyst for oppositional social movements across the Western world. His emphasis on combating libidinal oppression, emancipating the senses, and striving for new aesthetic, sensuous, and moral sensibilities also fit perfectly the zeitgeist of the time that encouraged liberation through pharmaceutical and sexual experimentation. As Habermas (1983) acknowledged, Marcuse developed "striking arguments for a new political praxis that integrates sensuality, fantasy and desire" (p. 170).

Marcuse's power as a critical theorist was brought home to me a few years ago during a class I was teaching. I was talking about

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