Published: 9-01-2012, 10:50

Modernization Processes and the Changing Function of Adult Learning

Education increasingly appears to be the natural form of learning in modern life within a contemporary Western mindset. However, learning is more than that. It is an integral aspect of human life, taking place all the time, necessarily and unnoticed. The societal functions of adult learning are accordingly multiple. The theme of this article is to look at the societal nature of adult learning and hence, the societal functions of adult education. We want to emphasize the historical dimension in the sense of linking adult education to the socioeconomic, political, and cultural context.

Adult Education and Modernization

We can distinguish three main types of adult education defined by their main content. These have developed as educational traditions in their own right, related to particular areas of learning. As such they have been described and critically analyzed elsewhere in the encyclopedia:

  • Basic literacy education, such as reading and writing, with the aspect of cultural integration in the nation and state.  
  • Community and popular education.  
  • Education for work, such as continuing education and training. 

Much of the recent discussion in adult education is a clash between educational cultures. On the one hand, there is a humanistic focus on personal and political selfarticulation, which seems to be inherited from the traditional functions of community learning and liberal adult education. On the other hand, there is the instrumental perspective on lifelong learning for work, theoretically underpinned by human capital theory and similar frameworks of understanding. These ideological struggles refer to historical experiences, and so an understanding of the societal functions of adult learning in their contexts may bring them to bear on wider issues of contemporary society. The theoretical notion of modernization seems to be a productive backbone in understanding the multiple institutional realities, conceptual meanings, and historical changes of adult education and learning. Modernization, here, refers to the economic, social, and cultural changes which have taken place in the last 300–500 years, comprising the inclusion of feudal dynasties and independent city republics in the melting pot of European nation-state building, as well as the imperial inclusion of cultures and countries in the Third and Fourth World that had been living separate from dynamic centers right until the great discoveries or later.

Capitalist economy has been the main motor in this modernization process, where traditional, self-sustaining local communities were included in larger societies, affecting all aspects of political, social, and cultural relations. The development of institutional (formal) education, replacing informal education and learning, is just one of these effects.

Adult education develops complementarily to this greater history of modernization and (formal) education, enabling individuals to deal with new societal realities. The very notions of adulthood and individuality result from this history, as a gradual and complex process creating the individual as a conscious agent in society has replaced the definition of adulthood by ceremonial inauguration.

There is a built-in risk in using the theoretical perspective of modernization framework. Seen from the dominant center of a global, modernized world, it may seem that adult education and learning is on hand to enable modernization, harmonize the levels of learning between generations, and live up to the accelerating needs for individuals to change. This may be a local truth of occidental modernization, where the efficiency and speed of knowledge transmission seems to be secured by institutional education. In order to avoid a narrow functionalist perspective, we must study adult education history with the perspective of discovering the multiple and infinite nature of this modernization process.

Literacy Education: Enabling Modern Societies

The original and most widespread understanding of literacy is related to reading and writing. Prototype literacy education has been engaged in making developing societies literate or in compensating for lack of adequate schooling in modern societies. If we look at it from a societal perspective, literacy is a precondition for citizenship and socioeconomic participation. In Europe, literacy has been closely related to the building of nation-states. The development of secular education activities and the emergence of literature in national languages were instrumental in the building of nation-states.

Today, literacy has become a political issue in the multicultural societies emerging in modern Europe, and in some cases, instrumental for minorities to establish home rule. However, the cultural integration of rural and urban working classes is also a condition for socioeconomic development. Today’s industrial worker must be literate in order to fulfill simple work tasks because logistics and communication are built into every single task on the shop floor. Consequently, concern has moved from formal education to functional literacy – the competence to actually read and write in everyday life. New literacies are added, for example, numbers and mathematical modeling (Johansen and Wedege, 2002). Information and communication technology necessitates new reading and writing skills in order to be a competent member of society, but may also relativize the importance of traditional written language skills.

Literacy is empowering, but the acquisition of cultural techniques – whichever they are historically – also entails submission under cultural dominance. As a result of colonial modernizationwe can see derivates of the great colonial empires, some united by the colonial language, and all to some extent influenced and shaped by colonial rule. Brazilian Paolo Freire answered this contradiction with a notion of political literacy he called conscientization, or learning to reflect the social reality and power relations involved in it. You may see Freire’s ideas as congenial with mainstream modernist pedagogy, only related to the political learning process of those who are the victims and beneficiaries of a modernization coming to them from outside. In a more analytical key, questions have been raised about peripheral modernization, that is, a specific version of modernization in countries and regions that have had a modernization process pushed and influenced, but not entirely determined by colonial rule (e.g., Brazil).

Language is a medium for the individual sensual experience, aswell as, for elaborating cultural experiences historically in a wider society. Written language has contributed significantly to societalization by enabling communication and knowledge transfer across time and space, creating a fundamental tension between immediate (local, situated) and mediated human experience. When printing technology created the industrial basis of the literate modernity, it reinforced this duality.The modern experience of theworld is a language-mediated experience. Digital technology is probably proclaiming a newand more radical version of the same – or possibly a qualitative new relation to reality, an extended version of sensual access.

Community Education and Popular Education: Struggles about the Societal Atmosphere

All the different types of community and popular education are based in a community of people defined by location, religion, cultural values, or political assumption, and often have a perspective of social, cultural, and political self-articulation. Most people engaged in such education probably perceive it as a free space for learning that is relatively independent of societal conditions and constraints. In a societal perspective however, adult learning is a substantial aspect of modernization itself. Community interests are very often defined by and responsive to societal change. Education preserves cultures that are threatened and overcome – and these pockets of social and cultural life that are not entirely penetrated by societal dynamics provide a productive space for self-articulation. Most typical community and popular education is probably based on resistance against some of the influences of modernization, for example, minority communities that also happened to be marginal and/or impoverished by capitalist modernization and centralization.

Independent of whether these communities see learning as explicitly political or not, learning is part of an attempt to create a public sphere of their own or set the cultural framework of understanding on a societal level. Out of closed communities or specific resistance grows – in a number of cases – a structural characteristic of modernity: the existence of civil society. Community and popular education based on specific histories of socioeconomic and cultural circumstances may – in very different and paradoxical ways – produce a general societal development. The history of independent Danish folk high schools provides a historical example. The folk high schools were based on and also contributed to a particular development of political, cultural, and social movement among Danish selfowning peasants, which in turn played a decisive role in establishing a modern democracy. In spite of the fact that the folk high school education was based on an antimodern, romantic ideology, it produced the experience of popular self-regulation and self-organization, which also in later developments contributed strongly to the specific modernization process in Denmark (Olesen, 1989). Its cultural-class compromise, uniting egalitarian and liberal principles and a basically anti-academic, informal notion of education, anticipated some of the developments of lifelong learning around the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The dialectic of local community learning and societal development is, more than anything, related to the role of work in culture and economy. Since the main driving force of modernization has been capitalist industrialization, the most important popular education activity in Europe in the previous century was of the labor movement and trade unions. Industry formed the life conditions in (urban) communities, and the labor movement in most countries organizedworking-class culture and its learning institutions, first as a resistance solidarity movement, then gradually as a more proactive cultural self-articulation and political movement. In some cases, community education also entails alternatives to the dominant capitalist economy – in the form of cooperative economies – prominently in the Basque country and also at a smaller scale in most developed capitalist countries.

It is obvious that labor movement education activities are in one sense a product of an active resistance against some of the effects of modernization, similar to the culture of many communities that have been marginalized or impoverished by modernization. It is a clearly partial culture defined by political and trade union action, or at least from a general class perspective. Unlike many local and minority communities, however, labor movement education activities developed a universalistic perspective, challenging individualistic liberalism with ideas about equality and solidarity. The political struggles between different types of Socialism can be seen as different versions of a universalistic aspiration – communist, social democratic, anarchist, and syndicalist – that each carry in them more or less ambitious aspirations of justice and a new level of democracy beyond capitalism. The real histories of different countries have provided a variety of working-class cultures and not just labor movement experiences, as well as some in which universalist aspirations turned into totalitarian power.

Seen in a societal perspective, popular education comes out of premodern communities, as well as urban communities generated by modernization itself. They are formed by the specific histories of modernization and they take advantage of one of the effects of modernization, namely the existence of a space for noncoerced social organization, what we in modernization theory call civil society. The societalization – from Gemeinschaftswesen to Gesellschaft in the notions of the classical sociologists – eradicates or restructures communities at the same time as modernization extends the space of relatively free cultural activity.The juridical basic rights and economic affluence in modernized parts of the world create the societal basis of this civil society. A contemporary form of popular education must have its potential base in the organization of citizenship to deal with societal issues on a level and with an outlook adequate for contemporary society as a whole. Many onecause movements and actions have a similar profile as community action of resistance or opposition though not necessarily founded in a community.

The bourgeois public sphere as the communicative framework of a fully developed civil society corresponds largely with the nation-state and ideas of formal (state) democracy. At the same time, global capitalism has in several ways bypassed this structure. Structurally, by its international operation and concentrations of power and capital in organizations larger than many states, creating a democratic deficit. Culturally, by the media and consumer cultures which take active part in the shaping of desires, fantasies, and preferences. One may see international labor organizations and forms of organizations like World Social Forum as – very fragile – civil society responses to this situation.

Learning for Work, or Human Resource Development

In the last couple of decades, the need for work competence building has tended to prevail over traditional forms and rationales of adult education and training in developed Western societies. In traditional societies, intergenerational transfer of knowledge and competences enables the reproduction of the labor force. Modernization has brought basic school education and some specialized institutions for academic and professional education – generally serving as basic, lifelong qualifications in the initial career. In advanced capitalist societies, this mode of transfer has increasingly come under pressure. When changes in work and labor market happen faster than the generational turnover in the labor force, adult education and training come in as a mediating instrument to secure the adaptation of labor to the requirements of work life.

It has mostly been left to employers and the individual worker to take care of retraining and adult education. The consequences have typically been a general market failure (i.e., underinvestment) and a very unequal distribution of training resources. Big industrial employers have in some cases been able to secure up-skilling of their own employees, but not mobility across sectors and competence levels. In Nordic countries, training of workers became part of welfare state policies. In Denmark, with its late development of industrial economy, urban industries needed skilled workers, and rural workers needed skills and socialization for industry. A separate new strand in adult education developed to support a rapid migration from rural to urban life, from agriculture to industry. What became later known as the flexicurity model (Jørgensen and Madsen, 2007) consisted mainly of adult education and training together with relatively good unemployment benefits. This combination enabled a more proactive policy from trade unions and employees than in a number of European countries in periods of economic growth. In the period of crisis and stagflation in the 1970s, continuing education was redirected/enhanced to take care of more long-term competence development for the more vulnerable segments of the labor force (e.g., women, young people without vocational qualification, and others).

Recently, adult learning seems to have assumed a more universal or all-embracing nature in all the advanced capitalist countries. As long as the development of work takes the form of strong division of labor based on mass unskilled wage labor, societal needs remain limited to training and retraining specialists and highly skilled craftspeople. However, with the development of postindustrial forms of work organization, a need for broader adult education emerges. The societal demand for knowledge economy has changed to include not only what were mostly called soft skills (e.g., communicative and collaborative skills, quality consciousness, professional attitudes, and self-confidence) but also traditional literacy, as well as new literacies (e.g., numeracy and mathematic understanding, and computer literacy). Work-related learning seems to become broader and deeper and increasingly interferes with personal needs and identity (Olesen, 2005). Nevertheless, it is obvious in the rhetoric of lifelong learning that economic concerns and the focus on employment and work are determining factors. This can be seen as a very local view on global development. The position of most developed economies can hope to maintain their relative competitive advantage in a division of labor where they take care of knowledge-based, complex work and the service work for themselves, whereas developing countries deliver raw materials and build up lowtech industrial production.

The political consensus about lifelong learning of competences may not be so easy to maintain in this narrow key. Rather, the focus onwork and human resource development may raise issues of control and the quality of work. The ideas of a knowledge-based economy have been criticized from several perspectives. One applies a wider, ecological perspective on work and learning, questioning the inward colonialism of human life without boundaries (Hochschild, 1997) and its cultural consequences (Sennett, 1998; Negt, 1984). The requirements on human flexibility and adaptation may erode the conditions of socialization and subjectivity, that is, the human resources on the whole. Another perspective emphasizes the direct political aspect of learning in which labor movements should take the opportunity to advance a politicization of work, including environmental questions, ownership, and use value of production, drawing on vanguard experiences of cooperative enterprises (e.g., The Mondragon cooperative – Antoni and Campbell, 1983), projects for conversion of production (Lucas Aerospace and others), and a vision of self-regulated work (Forrester, 2007). The dramatic emergence of the climate crisis and the fragility of the capitalist world economy underscore the need for more comprehensive perspectives on work and learning.

It seemsmost plausible to outline a neoliberal scenario of an individualized competence market, which will be subsumed into a global labor market. However, it also seems likely that this competence market will show an unprecedented example of market failure – and it will definitely have extreme effects in terms of inequality and the colonization of human labor. The question is whether there is another scenario in which the significance of the labor force as a subjective factor in the economy can be turned into individual and collective self-regulation of work and learning. This seems to be the open question that places the discussion about learning for work and the workers’ role in the development of work as a central issue in global politics.

The resources for any alternative to neoliberal global capitalism must to some extent be found in institutional practices, embodied experiences of the past, social organizations, and experiences of trade unions and other cultural organizations. They are present in the forms and levels of education, expectations, and preferences of young people as well as adults, but they do not form a simple and coherent alternative. While the new discourses of lifelong learning are international, Anglophone, and relatively homogenous, adult-education traditions have many names: popular education, community education, educacao popular, politische bildung, liberal education, folkeoplysning, folkbildning, formation des adultes, formazione popular, volksbildung, and citizenship education to name a few. In adult education discussions, these many names give rise to translation problems – although the names in different languages cover more or less corresponding phenomena, they do not have the same meaning because meaning is related to societal and cultural context.

Functions of Adult Learning in Historical Context

The exploration of the historical function of adult learning may lead to an open discussion of present-day modernization. The main types of adult education form strands of historical functionality over long periods of time. Analyzing them in terms of modernization may present a simplistic scheme: literacy enables modernization by integrating ordinary people in cultural communities that are independent of time and space; popular education elevates the ability of communities to reproduce themselves to a level of cultural construction and selfarticulation, eventually a level of collective self-assertion and political activism; and continuing education and training for work aligns individual competence-building cycles with an accelerated and distributed organization of societal work in global capitalism. Obviously this complex societal evolution is not a unified process – it is asynchronous and very diverse across the world. So the societal function of adult education must be studied in concrete contexts, regarding the interplay with socioeconomic, political, and cultural history. Socioeconomic modernization and the type of learning needed and enabled are mutually interrelated, but institutional developments also set general conditions of this process.When and what type of adult education contributes to modernization (the level of general schooling and the influence on school by church and class movements), and political circumstances, may form very specific conditions and challenges (e.g., the entnazifizierung as a project for political education in Germany after World War II, or the modernization in Spain under a long-lasting dictatorship).

Today, on a global scale, we may ask whether modernization is just one process. The discussion about peripheral modernization has been touched upon in this article. In postcolonial theory and political discussion, the emphasis on difference and multiple histories serves to demonstrate the overcoming of the modernist tale or vision of a rational evolution toward a better society. Sometimes the argument that modernization should not be seen as a continuous progress gets confused with the assumption that there was and is no modernization process at all. In a generalized discussion of global capitalism one may at the same time observe a pessimistic view of one culturally homogenized world (McDonaldization) and much more relativistic postcolonial theory of a general dissolution of the modernization process in a firework of difference. Both fail to grasp the complexity of durable social changes. Having said that, what is the role of learning in modernization processes? It can be argued and underpinned by examples that broad processes of learning and democratic participation lead to durable societal changes, whereas change processes that fail to engage the broader population remain unstable and produce conflicts in the form of imperialism and/or violent repression on macroand micro-levels. The postcolonial discussion of education may, in the era of global capitalism, oscillate between the critical perspective of one culturally homogenized world at the end of the story (McDonaldization), and the postmodernist theory of a general dissolution of the modernization process in a firework of difference. There is a key to dynamic mediation between the two perspectives in an open-minded exploration of specific experiences and learning resources in their historical context.

It is essential to maintain that the possible futures of late- or postmodernity is a matter of social agency and hence also of learning processes taking place now. Lifelong learning implies a new discourse that brings learning beyond institutional education and into social reality. However, the lifelong learning discourse has been heavily influenced by neoliberal politics and human capital theory, and the world is relatively short of alternative ideas that can embrace the critique of educational institutions without accepting the neoliberal economic rationale. The options available are societal and subjectively relevant conditioned by experiences and resources of the past. The author has mentioned a long-lasting influence of the popular education tradition in his own country, which formed the ideological basis for a relatively democratic and liberal provision of formal and higher education, as well as adult education. Others are to be found in Latin America, South Africa, and other particular pathways of modernization.

Modernization is still an uncompleted development even in its original centers. While it seems that globalization brings forward further homogeneity, there are also factors that tend to enable a multicentered and polyphonic global world. The fact that China has had its own almost independent cultural and social pathway, which is now – forcefully – joining global capitalism, forms an exciting experiment for the relation between human socialization and societal development. Oskar Negt calls it ‘‘the greatest social experiment in our time’’ (Negt, 1988/2007) in his discussion of the modernization(s) in China in the perspective of European modernization since the Renaissance. We may most productively see modernization as an infinite process that is still dependent on human efforts and choices on individual, as well as global level.

See also: Adult Education and Civil Society; Adult Literacy Education; Community Based Adult Education; Lifelong Learning; Popular Adult Education; The Political Economy of Adult Education.

H S Olesen, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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