A Different Way: Reorienting Adult Education Toward Democracy and Social Justice

Paul Jurmo
Date of Publication: 
April, 2021
Source Organization: 

Working from a wide range of institutional perspectives and educational frameworks, this white paper by a long-time adult educator and activist explores how adult basic education in the U.S. has often been seen as a tool for advancing democracy and social justice and addressing community needs. The paper traces the evolution of arguments and programs supporting this approach along three dimensions, the first focusing on critical thinking and action related to learner and community needs, the second supporting evidence-driven system change, and the third emphasizing working in partnership with other adult basic education stakeholders. Through historical examples of ways that adult education has responded to various forms of racial, social and economic injustice – from the Civil War to the civil rights era to today – the paper identifies strategies educators have used to empower learners to mitigate the impacts of social injustices, navigate around those impacts, eliminate unjust policies and social practices, and create alternative ways of working that support social justice. While trends in adult education in the past two decades have prioritized college and career pathways over the family and civic needs of participants, the author describes recent efforts like the National Coalition for Literacy and the Open Door Collective that have supported a more comprehensive vision for the field, especially in the face of recent developments such as COVID-19 and a growing awareness of the impact of systemic racism and income inequality. Noting that adult basic education in the U.S. is at a critical decision point, the paper concludes with detailed recommendations for a system more responsive to learners’ work, family, civic, and lifelong-learning needs. These include taking a more comprehensive view of the multiple “intersectional” challenges learners face, and adapting strategies from collaborative adult education, organizational development, community organizing, and diverse social justice efforts when planning, implementing and strengthening social-justice-oriented supports for adult learners. (Jeffrey Gross, Ph.D.)

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Paul Jurmo (2021, April). A Different Way: Reorienting Adult Education Toward Democracy and Social Justice. ProLiteracy. https://www.proliteracy.org/Portals/0/pdf/Research/White%20Papers/ProLiteracy-WhitePaper-ADifferentWay-AdultEducationandSocialJustice.pdf?ver=2021-04-19-104122-943&timestamp=1618843488481