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College Quarterly
Fall 2012 - Volume 15 Number 4
Talking with the People
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Books discussed:

  • Designing the Just Learning Society
    Michael R. Welton
    Leicester, UK: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, 2005
  • Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: A Short History of Adult Education
    Michael R. Welton
    Toronto: Thompson Publishing, 2012

Way back on 11 June, 2005, Tariq Al-Maeena published his regular column in Arab News, the Middle East’s self-described leading English-language newspaper. It summarized a conversation he’d had with a fellow named Abdollah. It seems that Abdollah objected to an earlier piece in which Tariq had criticized his country’s educational system for failing to graduate competent young adults. He made explicit complaints about its old-fashioned curriculum and obsolete teaching methods. Abdollah wasn’t buying it. He said that “it’s easy to criticize when something is not working, but much harder to offer working solutions.”

I disagree. Solutions, especially untested ones, are a dime a dozen, but it’s very hard to criticize. People who take up that burden are likely to lose friends and, if the criticisms implicate their employers, they might lose their jobs as well. Openly criticizing governments, large corporations and law enforcement authorities can also cause a world of pain. Criticizing is risky. It takes guts.

By criticism, of course, I do not mean expressing personal gripes and resentments. I do mean making theoretically sound normative and evidence-based empirical assessments of philosophies and policies, procedures and practices. These often take the form of moral and political arguments, but they can also be practical and even technical. Either way, good criticism requires knowledge, skill and occasionally at least a shred of wisdom. Genuine criticism requires that you know at least as much about a subject as the object of your critique. You must know what’s wrong and have a good idea of how to make it right. It also doesn’t hurt to be able to put everything you’re saying into a proper context—theoretical as well as historical. You’ve got to be pretty smart. If you’re not, you won’t be a thoughtful critic. You’ll probably just be a gossip and possibly a bit of a coward as well.

Michael Robert Welton is not a whiner or a gossip, and he’s certainly no coward. He has his gripes, of course, but he also has a ton of accomplishments. He knows what he’s against. He knows what he’s for. He knows how to take criticism as well as to give it. Given half a chance, he knows how to get good things done. That, in itself, is surprising—not because of any lack of imagination, energy, academic excellence or administrative skill on his part, but because he’s against a lot of things that the authorities not only support, but also take for granted as the proper purposes and methods of education.

Professor Welton has won awards in both Canada (where he has taught from Halifax to Vancouver and several spots in between) and Jamaica. He has written (at last count) eight books plus numerous articles, reviews and occasional papers. In Designing the Just Learning Society, he has set forth as close to a complete philosophy of education as we have a right to expect in turbulent times. He’s also taken some lumps.

Shortly after publication, for example, the Canadian Journal of Education handed the responsibility for writing a review to a University of British Columbia graduate student named Mia Perry, who’s now focusing on “drama education” and “embodiment and performance in education” at the University of Regina. Perry takes issue with Welton’s shift from the first person singular pronoun in the opening chapter of his book to the first person plural toward the end. She interprets this as a sort of retreat from the “assertive I” to an effort to blend with the people he has quoted. I regard it as a growing display of solidarity: to each her own.

Perry credits Welton with presenting a “thorough investigation of conceptions and manifestations of learning” and “an extensive review of theoretical studies,” but she also finds fault with his tendency merely to be opposed to current educational theory and practice. It’s not that he fails to offer alternatives, she acknowledges, but that he doesn’t seem to embrace some of her personal favourites. She seems especially annoyed that he doesn’t mention Augusto Boal and his enthusiasm for “theatre therapy” or Alan Luke and his penchant for “discourse analysis.” She finds Welton “vague,” “lacking in clear definition,” and wanting in terms of “rigorous theorizing and clarity.” She seems to be saying that it’s easy to criticize, but what is really needed are a concrete agenda and practical reforms. “I’m an optimist,” she declares. She should meet Abdollah.

In my reading, there’s nothing unclear or unfocussed about Welton’s work. It is also eminently practical. It sets out an assessment of dominant contemporary educational theory and practice not only in adult education, which is Mike Welton’s particular field of expertise, but throughout the entire educational system. He explains the problems with contemporary education and he outlines a comprehensive alternative approach. He draws on a lengthy tradition of pedagogical critique and offers sound principles and recommendations for change. Yes, he disagrees with the status quo, but that is surely what criticism is for. If he is sweeping in his analysis and harsh in many of his judgements, that is no inherent fault—no matter how much it might undercut uncritical optimism. Rather, it is a measure of how much needs to be changed in order to achieve the objective of Welton’s life work, a “just learning society.” Like many liberal reformers, Mia Perry is happy to bear witness to constructive criticism (specific perfunctory objections within an accepted ideological frame), but arguments against the frame itself are said to be going too far.

So, what does Welton say? And how far does he go?

The first point to be made is that Welton is neither a reductionist nor a determinist. He does not assume that we must defer to what is. He imagines that our society and our educational practices could be otherwise. Human agency counts. That said, he also understands how profoundly material interests influence ideas, and how we are commonly bound to the dogmatic constraints that reflect the power of the dominant interests in society—our own and all others.

The influence of material conditions arises in at least two ways: the specific and the general. Explicit beliefs, particular policies, detailed definitions of what is practical and pragmatic under certain social conditions are plainly promoted in the interest of social, political, economic and institutional elites. Education assumes and embodies the acceptance of basic moral beliefs and social arrangements. The limits of reform and the boundaries of permissible change are well set out. No one can expect early onset utopia.

The arithmetic amelioration of suffering and modest steps toward emancipation and enlightenment are usually the best we can expect under any circumstances. To demand too much and to demand it too fast is to risk the collapse of the very foundations upon which progress can be built. This is the mantra of all authorities—liberal and conservative alike. If Welton and others become impatient with the rate of improvement and the spread of social justice, human rights and other widely endorsed concepts, a robust debate may be expected and, we are assured, sound judgement will no doubt prevail. So, we happily applaud all those who push various envelopes and who display the kind of passion and commitment upon which we tell ourselves that progress will be made … eventually, and all in good time.

In our more generous moments, we even take a suitable amount of vicarious pride in our contrarians, as long as they are respectful and properly polite. We just don’t want them to get their hands on the controls. Challenging ideas is fine in its place, but the modification of those ideas, their refinement to something attainable under the circumstances and the guarantee that they will not threaten systemic stability are all matters best left to the proper authorities and the skilled administrators.

The general is something different. Welton says early on that he is “disturbed by the growing gap between humankind’s technical know-how and our moral paralysis in the face of the unmet needs of the multitudes of weak and suffering.” His disturbance has two forms. One relates to the tremendous analytic, technical and instrumental understanding that is growing in the natural sciences and the several technologies that flow from them. From our probes into the cosmos to our exploration of subatomic matter, the strides we are making in getting answers to ancient questions and then in generating new questions about the universe, the structure of matter and the emergence of life are staggering. Myriad discoveries in the theoretical and applied sciences and their implications for how we live and how we think are astonishing and also terrifying—they are the stuff of immense beauty and dreadful sublimity, not paltry optimism nor banal pessimism.

Like children playing with fire and firearms, we lack the critical insight and the wisdom to use our new knowledge and the world-transformative devices of our almost Faustian invention for anything like the consistent good of our species and the maintenance of the planet. It is this meeting between our capacity to master elements of the human and non-human nature and our besotted pursuit of dominion in the absence of good purpose that makes our negligible squabbles about this or that course of action pale in significance. What is at stake is a new variation on what Marx called our “species-being,” the future being of our species which is now palpably at risk. At issue in this book are matters pedagogical and epistemological, and maybe even ontological. How should we teach? What do we know? And, in the end, who are we? Above all, Michael Welton wants us to think long, hard and deeply about the purposes to which education is put.

Provocatively, Welton has the courage to say that not all education—the knowledge and skills that we master, the discoveries that we make, the inventions that we create, the ways in which we interpret and judge ourselves and others—is good. At our best, we have learned to share some of our possessions and respect the minimal rights of others. We have come to co-operate somewhat in common purposes. We have become adept at constructing houses, making music, conducting chemistry experiments and limiting plagiarism. We have, however, also developed skills in manufacturing toxic products that we neither need nor can afford. We have found new ways to censor books and jam e-mails. We do research into non-invasive techniques of surveillance and weapons of mass destruction. Contrary to those who falsely imagine that technology—even technology in teaching and learning—is “value-free,” Michael Welton joins many others who understand that technology, education and morality are intimately linked. Each is embedded in both of the others.

In Designing the Just Society, Welton eschews simple-minded materialism; instead, he argues convincingly that we have choices and that we can make our own history—albeit not just as we please. The social forces that constrain and restrain us are not unknown. They are mainly material in origin. They require investigation of our biology and inherited capacities. They demand inquiry into our technologies. They are mingled and entrenched in our ideologies. They embody the pursuit of wealth and power—individually and collectively. They are constituted by those who own and control the means of ideological as well as material production and distribution. They define what we do as teachers.

If this sounds preternaturally Marxian, that’s because it probably is; or, at least, it encapsulates some of the most obvious truths in the Marxist tradition. On some things, after all, the progeny of Karl Marx and the most open-eyed proponents of a thoughtful conservatism agree. Money and power exercise a profound influence on everything that we think, do and say. The dearth of discussion of slavery and biological evolution in American school texts reveals the influence of school book decisions in Texas; the shape of research in medical schools reveals the influence of pharmaceutical companies. Little could be more obvious.

Designing the Just Learning society alerts us to our achievements and failures and outlines ways in which we might mitigate our lesser angels, while encouraging our better ones. Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past applies these insights to the specific case of adult education in Canada. Ever since Edmund Burke lamented the rise of “new conquering age of reason” at the outset of the “industrial revolution” and Karl Marx saw clearly its culturally destructive implications of modernity in forsaking justice in our “shameless, direct, naked exploitation” of one another and, as we have recently learned, our planet, the more astute among us have made connections. As Henry A. Giroux, another perceptive educational critic of a certain age, continues to remind us: education is a moral and a political act. We are accountable not merely for the so-called content of what we teach—the knowledge and skills that we impart—but also for the “values” that come with them. .

History, of course, does not come easily to educators. We remain defiantly and willfully ignorant of what has gone before, what critics like Burke and Marx actually said, and how they came to their opinions. We increasingly exclude history of any sort from school curricula and we banish it from our putatively professional considerations as we focus on basic math and science, obsess over quantifiable measures of learning outcomes and turn the practice of teaching over to corporate technology and its odious templates. Consequently, whenever anyone has the cheek and impertinence to draw to the attention of the authorities or colleagues—never mind students who have been trained to deem the past “irrelevant” and to live wholly in the specious present—the most that can be expected is a collective groan as eyes roll back in the holes in individual heads.

Welton, I am pleased to say, harbors no such reluctance. He is attuned to the deeper currents that define the parameters of our lives. He is aware of “the causes of the causes,” and thus escapes the clatter and blather that define most contemporary chatter about teaching methodology, student learning styles and techniques for keeping ADD (Attention Deficit Disorders) or, worse, AADD (Administrative Attention Deficit Disorders) under control. In rehearsing the narrative of Canadian adult education, therefore, he has a coherent story to tell—one with an admittedly arbitrary beginning, for he doesn’t explore the educational process that was to be found in “pre-contact” aboriginal societies. He offers us more sociology than anthropology.

Starting with the colonial settler society of the French, he furnishes increasingly lengthy treatments of chronological eras. The period 1492 to 1760 is covered in 18 pages. The “great transformation,” which saw the development of increasingly mass and progressively more secular education grow along with urbanization and industrialization, and the emergence of adult education as a distinct project in the 20th century merit 56 and 68 pages respectively. The current and seemingly permanent crisis in education in all its forms warrants a 38-page conclusion. It is, after all, a self-proclaimed “short history” and, as befits its subject matter, it concentrates more on the recent than the distant past, since it has only been in the past century and a half that the formal education of all citizens has been taken seriously as a social goal.

Just because a relatively short book deals with a complicated topic over an extensive time, however, does not mean that it is not worthwhile. Authors of such books, however, do need to be selective in their choice of material and focused on their purpose. Welton is certainly discerning in his choices and quite focused in his purpose. In addition to encapsulating complex events and controversies in manageable portions, he also brings acute interpretive methods that yield important results.

One of the reasons that I strayed from the study of history as a youngster and for far too long as a certified adult was that it was taught in an unappetizing way. It was, it seemed to me, mostly about the rote learning of individual names and events (mostly kings and battles) that were not well connected in a pattern nor well explained or recited to any particular purpose.

Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past is not like that. It is actually about something. It has a method and a intention, part of which involves the revelation of factual information about everything from the workers’ education projects at the turn of the 20th century to the electronically induced agitation of the “restless monkey mind” at the turn of the 21st. Along the way, we learn about adult educators and eager learners whose main problems were to get access to the knowledge they craved. We also are exposed to the ideas of a world of thinkers who put experience into perspective and offered sage advice. From Paolo Friere to Jürgen Habermas, we find kernels of insight that will prompt readers unfamiliar with radical pedagogy or to the generations of “critical theorists” who have taken their lead from the likes of Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, Horkheimer and Marcuse and disclosed the power structures and cultural degradations that have put contemporary education into its apparently interminable critical condition.

Blending history, philosophy, social analysis and compelling accounts of people fighting for the right to learn—in theory and in practice—is no easy task. Mike Welton, however, has such a fine grasp of the facts and such an obvious personal commitment to the task that this book is a pleasure to read. It will inform and it will stimulate the exploration of related topics and the fleshing out of various parts of this well-formed skeleton.

Now, however, for my criticism: there is one problem that may not be universal among readers, but which drives me batty. The book is nicely laid out. Its few photographs are well considered and well placed. It has ample but not overwhelming references that should satisfy the needs of engaged educators eager to pursue particular themes. The design is excellent and the quality of the paper, binding, and so on, are splendid … but it lacks an index. Not being a religious man, I have no faith in the existence of “hell,” unless Sartre is right and it is merely “other people”; if such a ghastly dystopia does exist, however, I think there should be places reserved for the inventors of the APA and MLA citation systems, the creators of PowerPoint and publishers who fail to include a proper index in any book of more than ten pages and intended for anyone over ten years of age.

That, however, is the only serious flaw in an otherwise highly commendable book. Taken together, Designing the Just Learning Society and Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past make important reading for all adult educators, continuing education faculty and outreach programs of any sort, as well as other serious teachers, no matter whom their audience nor what their institutional setting.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at