The Inspiration Behind the Faculty Award-Winning Collaboration of Stephen Brookfield and John Holst

In the field of adult education the Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education is awarded annually to the English language book that exemplifies outstanding scholarship. In the words of the Awards Committee, the book must "reflect the universal concerns of adult educators, be relevant to adult educators in more than one country and contribute significantly to the advancement of adult education as a unified field of study and practice." Recently, we learned that we have won the 2011 World Award for our book Radicalizing Learning: Adult Education for a Just World.

Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield

I have been teaching since 1970 and have worked in the U.K., Canada and the United States. My first full-time adult education job in England had the title ‘Lecturer/Organizer’ and required me to build bridges and cross boundaries between the worlds of formal education and community life. For the past 42 years I have worked to connect the often dry world of scholarship to people’s everyday concerns. I have written, co-written or edited 14 other books on teaching methods, critical thinking, community education, adult learning and critical theory.

At the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling, John D. Holst teaches graduate courses in critical pedagogy, social theory and educational research. John entered the informal field of adult education in 1984 as a social movement activist by working in the student, labor, anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity movements. He entered the formal field of adult education in 1988 as an instructor of English as a Second Language in community and work-based adult education in Chicago. While teaching in factory lunchrooms, hotels, church basements, government and nongovernmental organizations, John became actively involved in the labor union of adult educators at the City Colleges of Chicago.

He is the author of the book Social Movements, Civil Society, and Radical Adult Education (2002). In addition, he is the author of several book chapters and articles that have appeared in the Adult Education Quarterly, the International Journal of Lifelong Learning, Educational Philosophy and Theory, and the Harvard Educational Review. His work has been translated into Spanish, German and Italian. He is a Houle Scholar Fellow (2001-2003) and, as such, he is working on the forthcoming text Gramsci, Globalization and Pedagogy.

We first began talking about a co-written book in 2005. In the process, we put on several pounds since our meetings were typically held in Brit’s Pub on Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis. In our early meetings neither one of us anticipated that two major events would happen in the United States before the book was published. The first would be the election of the first African-American President of the United States. The second would be the meltdown of the banking and investment sector; some would say the near collapse of capitalism itself. These two events intersected as President Obama attempted to regulate the operations of the financial sector (banks, insurance companies and investment capital) and to reform the largely private health care system.

John Holst

John Holst

The two of us had been talking for some time about the way that the field that had defined and nurtured our careers – adult education – seemed to have become disengaged from its traditional concerns with such events. Surely the election of an African-American president had all kinds of implications for education about race, racism and diversity? And didn’t the collapse of brokerage firms, banks, insurance companies and investment capital involve a great deal of learning to adjust and survive by those harmed in the fallout? Our belief that a contemporary book that addressed the social role and relevance of adult education was needed in the field only was confirmed by these events.

We decided to call the book Radicalizing Adult Learning (rather than Radicalizing Adult Education) because we wanted to focus on the purposeful learning adults undertake in pursuit of political and economic democracy, whether or not that occurs within programs described as adult education. Much of our attention is on social movements and on organizing that takes place outside of formal institutions, and much of that is self-directed – guided by experimentation and trial and error without the benefit or guidance of an experienced teacher. For the two of us, adult learning is inextricably tied to creating and extending political and economic democracy – to equalizing democratic control of, and access to, wealth, education, health care and creative work, and to promoting collective and co-operative forms of decision-making and labor.

This kind of work for both of us is perhaps seen most clearly in community movements. Every act of adult learning in such a movement entails alternating and intersecting dimensions. When adults learn how to create a tenants’ organization, build a grass roots coalition of environmental groups to stop a corporate-sponsored change in land use, organize a series of ‘Take Back the Night’ vigils, set up bar-and-pool-room classes to teach literacy for voter registration, mobilize a citizen army to fight apartheid, establish a worker’s co-operative in Turin, Clydeside or Nova Scotia, they increase their own knowledge, skill and insight. Radicalizing Learning begins by proposing this kind of learning as being particularly important and then works backward to explore how it is best encouraged, including the role of program planning, teaching and training in that endeavor.

The audience we had in mind for the book was all those who are interested in understanding better how people learn to build democratic, participatory and collective social and economic forms. In more specific terms, we hoped the book would be useful to graduate students new to the field of adult education who were seeking to understand its historical purpose. Educators with an activist agenda—particularly those in social movements, the media, community organizations and workplace learning programs—were another audience. In the preface we write, "We can see this book being used by staff, volunteers and activists in churches, in health care organizations, in labor unions, in economic and housing co-operatives, in tenants’ associations and in community development—in fact in any situation in which people are learning to assert their rights against corporate capitalism, unresponsive bureaucracy and mainstream media." We are gratified that both a mainstream professional association and activist groups have high regard for the book. There are, for example, study groups formed around the book in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Both of us are elated to have won the 2011 World Award for Literature. For me, this is my fifth such award (I first won it in 1986) and I compare it to winning the adult education Oscar. Since the award is given by a group of adult education scholars – many of whom are previous winners of the award – it is the ultimate scholarly recognition by peers. This is John’s first World Award (though I predict it will not be his last), and he feels particularly gratified that a book that some might see as being too controversial has been recognized by the chief professional association in the field, the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

In the preface each of us thanked the other for the gifts of scholarship and commitment that we shared. I indicated that John had provided a constant stream of ideas and criticism from which I benefitted enormously. I also credited John for tightening up my thinking and introducing me to whole areas of practice and theory I had little or no awareness of. John acknowledged his appreciation for my willingness to collaborate with him on the project. He thanked me for taking the decisive steps to concretize our long discussed plans for collaboration by coming up with the specific plan and outline of the book. Both of us have already talked about a follow-up to Radicalizing Learning, which might extend further on the ideas we explored in that book on the role of arts (song, film, theater, poetry) in social movement. But, for now, the planning and editorial lunches at Brit’s are on hold and the weight loss program can start!

Stephen Brookfield and John D. Holst both teach at the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling. Brookfield is Distinguished University Professor and Holst is associate professor.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.