The discourses of adult education and, more recently, of lifelong learning have never included particularly rigorous theorizing about learning. There has been surprisingly little consideration in the field of adult education about what exactly it means to learn, what is distinctive about human learning, or what changes if any might take place in learning throughout the lifespan. The prime reason for this, I think, is that, over the past two decades, adult education discourses have adopted general sociological/cultural studies approaches and outlooks to issues in the field. These approaches are good at assessing phenomena at a particular level of scale, but they do not enable us to view patterns and processes that unfold at other levels of scale.
Most often, adult educators think of learning as a taken-for-granted human power whose development and function requires no detailed explanation at all. Learning is just something we do. Rather than focusing in any detailed way on the basis for this capacity, discourses in adult education have attended to the tools we can use to shape learning to achieve specific outcomes. Instead of striving to develop a rigorous theory of lifelong learning, adult education theorists have been satisfied to issue what Jack Mezirow once described to me as “long lists of practice injunctions” to guide the actions of adult educators.
Mezirow and many others have been very critical of the instrumentalism of professional adult education. Over the last couple of decades, considerable protest has been raised about the power relations hidden behind professional practice injunctions. For the most part, much of this protest has been liberal in orientation. Much of the adult education literature deals with the ways professional adult education practice needs to be reformed to enhance our capacities to become more productive in a globalized economy or to handle the increasing complexity of postmodern society.
Despite the importance of this critical literature in helping us understand the ways power deflects the practices of adult education, it has done little to enhance our understanding of human learning. Without a deep sense of the complex nature of adult learning – its biology, its evolution in our species, its contribution to human development, its role in social and cultural production/reproduction – we are left, at best, with a shadowy sense of adult education as a practice. We cannot really understand how adult education might impact the lives of people, we remain incapable of understanding adult education’s vulnerability to forces of social domination, and we have difficulty appreciating whether and in which ways adult learning might provide a basis for emancipatory social action.
For too long, I think, the discourses of adult education have refused serious engagement with a range of potentially important sources of knowledge. The field desperately needs to broaden its theoretical basis. Its longstanding neglect of scientific discourses, for example, must end. An enriched range of perspectives on human learning would strengthen the capacity of adult educators to take meaningful, ethical, and effective action in the world.