What has Adult Education got to do with Social Justice?

Written By: Michael Kenny

Maynooth University Social Justice Week : 6th-10th of March

In the last few weeks I visited distant relations in Leeds, England. On the visit we spoke about their life journey leaving a west of Ireland county in the late 1930s as teenagers and arriving in Leeds where an older sibling or a friend of the family had arrived a few months or years earlier. They spoke of the Irish networks for work, socialisation and accommodation. They told me of the strenuous work in factories, in construction as navvy’s, on farms and in hard physical service work. They worked to establish themselves and their families after they had sent money home and/or saved to bring a younger sibling to Leeds (See

Now in their 60s, 70s and 80s they have grown families and, in their view, have had a hard but a livable life. Some of their friends are passed on from old age, accidents, excessive drinking and smoking, or poor health due to over-work in poor conditions. Staying in Ireland was not an option for them though many, not all, came back regularly to visit. Progressing in education was not an option either and most dropped out of an oppressive school system that, to them, was not going to give them a much-needed family income.

I learned about the very big textile, printing and steel factories in Leeds, the poor working conditions, and the struggles to get by through the war years. With so many new workers coming to Leeds there were very big house-building programmes giving more employment and self-employment opportunities. Walking through many areas of Leeds these dense terraced housing estates are in poor condition and towers of high rise flats are dotted around reminding me of Ballymun, Dublin. I also saw leafy suburbs, but there were few in the city area I was in.

As I walked and listened, I thought about my career as an educator that is now going through a seismic transition. I thought “What is the purpose of adult and community education today?”

There is no such thing as a neutral educational process according to Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972). Freire posits that education is either an instrument to integrate younger generations into the logic of the present system bringing about conformity, or it is the “practice of freedom” where people deal critically and creatively with reality and their participation in societal transformation. I’ve been re-reading Tom Lovett’s 1975 book titled Adult Education, Community Development and the Working Class. Lovett says “Adult Education as it developed in Great Britain has always had a strong sense of social purpose” and so it has been in Ireland with its benefit presented in the history of adult education among women’s, youth, and community groups, and most ably presented in the government policy white paper Learning for Life (2000).

However, I am fearful that we are following the English experience where, as Alan Tuckett in the Rise and Fall of Life-Wide Learning for Adults in England (2017) states, adult education has mapped and deprecated “… the .. narrowing of public investment to an increasingly utilitarian focus on qualifications for labour market participation with the rise of Treasury (finance ministry) influence on adult learning policy from 2003.”

If we are to respect social justice, a ‘Social Justice Week’ is not good enough. Social justice must be the heartbeat of all social and democratic conversation, research, innovation and enterprise. Yet so much of our mainstream education does not explicitly have social justice central to its content, league tables, points race and cramming for exams. Adult education, particularly community-based adult education is among the last and is strongest repository of socially aware education for justice practice. How are we to address peace, democracy, equality, inclusivity, liberation from poverty, and tackling global challenges such as biodiversity breakdown and climate change without the form of adult education that Freire, and Lovett evidenced?

That visit to my relations in Leeds, stimulated my soul.

Michael Kenny teaches and researches in Maynooth University’s Department of Adult and Community Education, was course director of the Post-Graduate Higher Diploma in Further Education (HDFE), with Dr. Camilla Fitzsimons, and the Programme Design and Validation (PCPDV) Certificate, and continues as principal investigator (PI) on a number of European research projects. He has recently retired from full time employment.

All views are those of the author only.

By DACE Maynooth

This is the new blog for students, colleagues and friends of the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University. We aim to promote diversity and inclusion in education using our online platform. Guest bloggers and friends of the Department will post about their research and experiences in Education. The views expressed by the authors of individual posts do not reflect the views of the Department of Adult and Community Education Maynooth University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s