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College Quarterly
Spring 1996 - Volume 3 Number 3
In Defence of the Lifeworld: Critical Perspectives on Adult Learning
Michael R. Welton, editor
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Love, I recall hearing, is not a choice but a verdict. At some time, everyone who has taught must surely have loved at least the idea of teaching. Whether or not they remained teachers was sometimes a trial of that love. Often their withdrawal betokened a greater love than their schools were willing or able to permit.

The cohort of teachers hired at my Ontario college in the late 60s and early 70s seems to have divided into three main groups: those who got out “when the getting was good”; those who stayed to teach; and those who won administrative careers within the college system. Of the administrators little need be said; deeds speak. Of those who, like me, chose to remain “in the trenches,” less need be said until and unless we are willing to say it. But the record of those who left college teaching after just a few years (some having been thrown, pushed or nudged out; others having grown impatient and having vaulted the fence in pursuit of distant verdant meadows) is striking. A “lifer” myself, I have remained in touch with several old friends who took other paths. Just counting those who left what is now vacantly called the “general education” area of my own college, I note that they include senior federal and provincial civil servants, high level trade unionists, a Vice-President of a major Canadian university, a successful private sector CEO, and an occasional academic.

Mike Welton? He is an academic. For 25 years he has followed a career that took him from Seneca College to Brandon, Manitoba, to UBC, Dalhousie and now on to Mount St. Vincent University where he continues his singular work in adult education. In Defense of the Lifeworld is one more excellent contribution from this committed and commendable scholar. It would be a foolish conceit to try to root Mike's most recent book in his experience as a CAAT teacher; it would not, however, be too much to invite CAAT teachers to recall that he was once one of us and that his work is faithful to our work when we do our best.

I am joyful when he and I meet now and again at conferences, nine years ago in Halifax and a little more recently in Ste. Foy, Québec. I'm happy to chat with him on the phone from time to time. I am especially pleased that we are now part of an adult educational research project that allows us to work with others from the universities, the colleges and the informal educational sector. I am glad that there remain small bits and chards of education that have not yet been seduced by the “androgeny consensus” nor that have yet jumped on “the HRD bandwagon.” Michael Welton explores this rich margin of educational potential lovingly.

Mike is by no means a very close friend but he is, I think, a friend. His book illustrates what friendship can mean. It can allow good mates to work and talk and think together in the kind of intimate association that allows companionship to overcome the boundaries of ethnicity and gender, of personal and of professional preoccupations. Welton and his colleagues use In Defense of the Lifeworld to show us how to move beyond the limitations of institutional and ideological constraints that so unapologetically bind us.

Their project is plain enough. It is to counter both the rampant instrumentalism that seems to have made even such a modest proposal as the recent C.S.A.C. guidelines for general education into a cruel joke and the boundless anti-intellectualism that so effectively undermines those still interested in emancipatory education at any level and in any conformation.

Welton and his colleagues have worked consciously and conscientiously to frame a discussion of adult education in an unashamedly theoretical mode. This is, in itself, a dramatic political act. At a time when leadership requires that “bullets” substitute for paragraphs and leaders seem incapable of reading more than a single page, these people take the trouble to explain and elucidate the origins and dimensions of our malaise. Their work deals with politics and pedagogy. Above all, it obliges us to resist the corporate ideology and organization that envelopes us.

The form of the book is almost as telling as its content. It is a serious meeting of studious friends. They raise and debate real issues with mutual respect that never descends into contrived consensus. They give themselves and their arguments due recognition.

As I write this, I have recently returned from Marblehead, Ohio, where I met with friends well and truly made almost thirty years ago. The community I celebrate with these ex-graduate students of the late 60s and the comradeship I share with my fellow college teachers from the early 70s can easily and churlishly be dismissed as sappy nostalgia or a simple time-warp. They have no economic value, no pay-off that can be measured. But that is itself of value as I face a politically-charged agenda for teaching that harmonizes it with industry and thus reduces education to a sordid cash nexus.

The spectre that haunts us now worried Edmund Burke as early as 1790: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our weak and shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own imagination, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.” In our own time of “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” we note with Marx in 1844: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives …”

What unites Burke and Marx is not, of course, their politics but their similar understanding of the effects of the market. They saw modernity “in the present tense.” They understood the emerging human condition as emotional emptiness punctuated by episodes of spasmodic self-interest. Success would be measured in “callous cash payment” and failure would be deprived of even the balm of “philistine sentimentalism.” As college educators, it seems, we must play our part. We have a choice. We may (for now) preserve our jobs by promoting commercial excuses for this hideously distorted version of civil society. Or, we may refrain (at our peril) from fawning over a marketplace of ideas in which only the corporate agenda gains shelf space in the major malls and deal, instead, our yard sale alternatives when and where we may.

If this is truly our fate, I am professionally grateful that people like Mike Welton are present to assist me with the language to capture our fortune in words and ideas, and I am personally grateful that he and others remain available not merely to remind me of a more generous past, but to help struggle for a more copious future and the regeneration of a genuine society of friends.

Howard A. Doughty currently teaches Natural Science at Seneca College in King City, and is the editor of The College Quarterly.