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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

'A well-educated person is a man in a suit' : meanings, values and identity in the biographies of part-time adult learners

Julia Clarke, University of Southampton, UK

Narratives of liberation are always tied to people's stories, and what stories we choose to tell, and the ways in which we decide to tell them, form the provisional basis of what a critical pedagogy of the future might mean. (Paulo Freire 1993, xii)

This paper addresses a problem in my own experience as a mother, an adult educator, and a lifelong learner which is at the centre of my doctoral research into the relationship between biography and participation in Adult Continuing Education. The problem is related to a conceptual (as well as practical) conflict between notions of progress and emancipation, both at work and in continuing education, and the needs, demands and desires associated with domestic life and relationships.

For more than twenty years, I have worked in adult literacy and basic education, mostly in the inner city but, for the last seven years, in a rural area of Southern England. During this time I also brought up three children and have always been engaged in some kind of formal or informal learning activity. A part-time Masters degree course provided me with an opportunity to review my educational practice and evaluate this work in relation to Paulo Freire's definition of a problem-posing education in which `...people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves'. (Freire 1972, 56) Reflection on my experience of running courses for `Women Returners', combined with my reading of feminist theory, has led me to question the polarised stance of Freire's fundamental thesis that, since education can never be a neutral process, we must choose between engaging in education for liberation, or for domestication. Of course, education is never a neutral process, but the opposition of liberation/ domestication becomes problematic when we consider the extent to which our thinking about liberation ignores, denies or suppresses the domestication upon which we depend for our physical and emotional sustenance.

When practitioners write about adult education, we inevitably represent learners - their social histories, goals and desires - through a perspective which is framed by the educational aims and purposes of the course or programme in which we are engaged. From this perspective, positive outcomes are usually measured in terms of increased or enhanced activity in the public sphere of paid work or further education. Progress in adult education generally means sharpening the divisions between private/ public, subjective/objective, and emotional/ rational aspects of our lives. What would the notion of progress look like if we reversed the opposition of liberation/domestication to privilege the domestic-ation which is associated with love and with the connectedness of one's own needs and desires to the needs and desires of others? My research question, then, is whether it might be possible to conceive of emancipatory goals which embrace these needs and desires.

In order to look at educational experiences from a standpoint which gives prominence to women's domestication I decided to study the biographies of learners who have regarded themselves as primarily responsible for the care of others and yet whose aspirations involve some form of continuing education. British and international surveys on motivation and participation in continuing education offer us various typologies of `non-participants', all of which include people who:

Course tutors in Further and Adult Education, using these criteria, have enabled me to locate a group of eighteen adults who have chosen to continue their education despite facing all the barriers most commonly identified as those which prevent participation in lifelong learning. Thirteen of these were enrolled on courses within an Adult Basic Education programme (including literacy, numeracy, and a `Fresh Start for Women' course). The other five were enrolled on courses in hairdressing, care, business management, community organisation and counselling. Not surprisingly, all the participants are women. All but one are mothers and several also care for disabled or elderly relatives. They all live in West Dorset, a rural area in which a decline in full-time employment in agriculture, defence and small industry is marked by a growth in service-sector jobs where part-time workers with few qualifications comprise a marginalised but growing sector of the workforce. One member of the research group works the twilight shift in a factory while all the others work in shops, offices, catering, care or cleaning jobs.

I conducted three, hour-long interviews with each group member in her home, followed by a series of group meetings. Each interview had a different focus, based on a questionnaire, provided at least a week in advance, on `Education', on `Work outside the home', and on `Unpaid work in the home'. The questionnaires all followed a similar chronological pattern, beginning with childhood memories of the stories told by, or about, parents and grandparents, moving on through to the present and finishing with hopes and plans for the future. Some members chose to provide written responses to the questionnaires, which were followed up in the interview. I transcribed every interview, ensuring that members received the transcript of each interview before we embarked on the next one. The questionnaires divide members' lives into three broad spheres of activity, structure them in a linear time sequence, and concentrate on particular experiences and ideas to the inevitable exclusion of other possibilities. The resulting data cannot capture members' real lives, nor provide a transparent window on their experience. The only objective data for my study are the tape recordings and transcripts which can now be analysed for the meanings, values and subject positions represented in the text.

My aim in this analysis is not to prove a hypothesis, but to open my eyes to new meanings, new ways of thinking, which might be glimpsed through the ways in which a particular group of people, located in a marginal relation to formal education, make sense of their lives. The following account of work in progress offers some examples of the approaches I have been using so far with no more than a suggestion of the problems which we might wish to pose in any discussion of `what a critical pedagogy of the future might mean'.

Taking an extract from a pilot interview, I began with an analysis of the discourse in my transcripts, using the work of Michael Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan on functional grammar. I chose this framework because of its focus on the social function of language and emphasis on the interaction between social context and the interpretation of meanings. In this approach, all `language which is functional' is regarded as text, and the text is seen as a form of exchange in which continuous semantic choices are made in a `network of meaning potential'. (Halliday and Hasan 1989, 10) A brief example is offered to indicate some features of this approach.

Heather 1 manages a café which was located near some public toilets. She had been talking to me about how she had spent her time over the previous two weeks. In the following extract, (.) indicates a pause no longer than one second and [ indicates overlapping speech.

1 H now it's just automatically part of my job

2 they just say oh you'll lock the toilets again this year won't you

3 and I just sort of say OK

4 J but you don't get any (.)[payment recognition

5 H [oh no (.) nothing no

6 I just do it (laughs)

7 well it's like doing any of the hundred and one other little jobs you do isn't it

A careful analysis of the longer extract from which this sample is taken revealed various constructions of the concept `work'. The business of managing a cafe, referred to as my job in line 1, is distinct from the hundred and one other little jobs you do, and further functional analysis of, for example, the use of a modal adverb just (lines 1, 2, 3 and 6) in utterances associated with only one kind of `work', shows varying degrees of affinity with each kind of work in different situations. Similarly, the choice of first or second person in I just do it (line 6) and the little jobs you do (line 7) draws our attention to the implied attributes of you in this discourse. My own role in the construction of meanings is also exposed in this analysis. While most of my utterances are in an interrogative mood, the question in line 4 is not. The pause is followed by two words providing possible answers to an unspoken question, (`Why do you do this job?' or `What's in it for you?') and the particular lexical choices of payment and recognition limit the scope of possible answers and tell us something about my stance in relation to the topic. Thus we can see how the choices we make in the design and structure of every clause in every utterance are choices, (albeit unconscious choices), about the way we `...signify (and construct) social identities, social relationships, and knowledge and belief'. (Fairclough 1992, 76)

Having identified the possible insights to be gained from this level of analysis, I needed to establish some criteria for the selection of extracts for such close attention. Setting aside my linguistic lens, I adopted an ethnographic approach, scanning the transcripts in order to identify themes and categories which might emerge through a focus on the content, drawing on my own common sense understanding of what is signified by the words and phrases in the text. A series of readings suggested over thirty topics worth investigating under headings like `Fatalism', `School memories', `(Un)desirable jobs', and `Choices: caring for others'. Searching under a heading `Education means...', I noticed a surprising consistency in the responses to two questions posed in the course of the Education interviews. These asked members about childhood memories of any adult who they might describe as well educated and again, towards the end of the interview, asked whether they know anybody now who they would describe as well educated. So I went through the Education transcripts for all eighteen members and found the same images cropping up again and again. From childhood memories, four members mentioned female teachers, but all the others provided variations on the following description, which represents a compilation of their responses,

A well educated person is a man in a suit who talks with a posh accent. He goes to work with a brief case, earns good money, lives in a detached house and drives a smart car.

In every case, there was an enormous gap between members' representation of themselves - their interests, achievements and social status - and their representation of people who were well educated. Responses to the second question, regarding current perceptions of well educated people, were more varied and a few members had come to relate the idea of being well educated to their own experience. However, these observations still carry a strong sense of ambivalence as exemplified by the constantly changing subject (I, people, somebody else, they, you, I) in Tiffany's remarks,

I used to think people with O Levels 2 were really clever and somebody else would think people with degrees are clever, and when they actually get there you don't, you just think oh, I achieved that...

How can we expect people to formulate educational goals for themselves when the ideas about educated people which they grew up with are so far removed from anything they might aspire to become? This question has led me to focus on those aspects of the data which relate to members' self perceptions, and their ideas about what it means to be educated. Convinced by arguments about the role of narrative in the construction of meaning and of the self, I have now adopted a framework for the linguistic analysis of narrative developed by James Gee. (Gee 1991)

Gee's approach recognises the poetic features characteristic of spoken narratives, and offers a framework for their transcription and interpretation which draws our attention to the ways in which the story is structured in the course of its telling. In the example which follows, the story is organised in stanzas which, as in formal English poetry, tend to be four lines long and deal with a single topic. The lines in each stanza approximate a written sentence and each line may comprise one or more idea units. An idea unit contains a single new piece of information, the FOCUS (printed in capitals) which is signalled by pitch movements in the voice of the narrator. This very sketchy explanation should suffice to convey the point that we structure our spoken discourse in such a way as to rule out some possible interpretations and constrain others by the questions asked in the structure of the texts. Gee argues that, `..interpretation, like visual perception, is an amalgam of the structural properties of texts and creative inferences drawn on the basis of context and previous experience'. (Gee 1991, 16)

The following example is a short `before and after' narrative which also provides an evaluation of the longer narrative related in an interview with Rosie, based on my Education questionnaire.

I always felt like an outsider at school
1. I always felt like an OUTSIDER at school/ ALWAYS
3. Because it was a VERY SNOBBY SCHOOL/ where a lot of people were VERY WELL OFF/ and had a LOT OF
4. And I just felt completely DIFFERENT and out of it
Now I'm on the inside
5. And yet NOW/ because I've got friends now who are JUST GETTING BACK IN to education/ I'm one of the (laughs) INSIDE CROWD if you see what I mean
7. And I've got a job that fits in quite well with the things I HAVE TO DO you know
8. So I'm in that respect I'm this time I'M IN THAT SITUATION/ I'm on the INSIDE

This outsider/insider metaphor is an example of a common linguistic practice in which an emotional state is conceptualised in terms of physical space or direction, the most common examples being up for happy and down for sad. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) Rosie tells us that she was on the outside of one container, `school', but is now on the inside of another, `education'. What do these containers have in common?

A linguistic analysis of this story throws up the interpretive questions which need to be asked, but for an exploration of these questions I drew heavily upon the additional life history data which Rosie provided in our interviews. This means treating the information as if it provides a window on experience in order to make `creative inferences' about the connections between the events signified and the ways in which the story functions to express, confirm and validate a particular self identity.

In an earlier story, Rosie had talked about the events leading up to her return to education as a mother with four children. In that story, a friend had persuaded Rosie, despite her protests that she was too busy, to enrol for a course leading to a GCSE in `Welfare and Society' 3 The story concluded,

31. And I MUST have known/ it was what I WANTED TO DO/ because when I went down to SIGN UP for it/ I had to STAND IN A QUEUE with H in my arms/ for TWO HOURS (laughs)/ to get my NAME down for it
32. So I must have REALLY WANTED TO DO IT (Rosie, `Further Education')

From Rosie's representation of her childhood, I inferred that she felt like an outsider at school because her family's circumstances did not conform to those which were assumed to be the social norm in a small town grammar school in the early 1970s. If being an outsider meant, for Rosie, non-conformity with a dominant culture, then what, I asked, is the dominant culture in the world of `education' to which Rosie now conforms? The image of Rosie standing for two hours in the enrolment queue with her child in her arms provides a graphic picture of a culture in which women are expected to continue holding the baby while engaged in paid work and also pursuing educational qualifications. This is the culture in which Rosie now feels herself to be an `INSIDER' because she is, at this moment in time, managing to balance the things she `REALLY WANTED TO DO' with her domestic commitments - `the things I HAVE TO DO'. Her membership of this culture, however, will always be tenuous as any increase in the demands from, (or the relative attractions of), the domestic front could tip this balance and threaten Rosie's continuing membership of a culture which will only tolerate the incursion of our domestic lives into its institutions to a very limited degree.

Those of us who are engaged in education for Women Returners are caught in a contradiction when we want to validate women's domestic experience and yet the very notion of Woman Returner locates women's domestic activity on the outside of the desirable place which we are encouraging women to return to. This echoes Rosie's conception of education as a container which her friends are `JUST GETTING BACK IN to' and where she is glad to identify herself among the `INSIDE CROWD'. Similarly, in our attempts to design courses for women which fit around the times when children are in school, are we accepting Rosie's perception that caring for others at home is not a free choice but comprises `the things I HAVE TO DO', while education is the place where human agency operates, where people can do what they really want to do?

In her investigation of the nurturing activities of mothers, Christine Everingham challenges the notion that a child's needs are objective, biological facts and argues that children's instinctual impulses are constructed as needs through `..a process of interpretation and judgement carried out by the mother in a particular `mothering culture'... (Everingham 1994, 7) We need to ask ourselves how we, as adult educators, contribute to this `mothering culture' by regarding domestic commitments as something on the outside of our real concerns. As Christine Everingham points out,

How one category is defined depends on what it excludes. Since nurturing has strong links to ties of sentiment and the bodies of women and children, it is excluded from the sphere of human agency, or free-will, and placed in the opposite realm of nature. Here, it is seen as a timeless and unalterable activity, guided by natural laws and associated with the natural attributes of women. (Everingham 1994, 6)

Rebecca O'Rourke claims that issues of women's identity are included in the courses run by radical educators for women returners but writes that problems arise when these women progress on to Higher Education courses where the argument still needs to be heard that `Femaleness, sexuality, class or racial belonging won't wait patiently outside the door'. (O'Rourke 1995, 119) (my emphasis) Rosie's story draws our attention to this metaphor of outside/inside and suggests one of many possible ways in which we might question the nature of this place we occupy and the conditions for inclusion which are perceived by those on its borders.


1 Members each chose their own fictitious names which are used throughout.

2 GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) replaced O'Levels in the 1980s to accredit a broader range of achievement at 16-plus

3 O Levels (Ordinary Level) certificates in five subjects generally indicated successful achievement in secondary education at age 16-plus in England and Wales although the exams were only taken by a minority of pupils. None of the research group members left school with five O Levels.


Everingham, Christine (1994) Motherhood and modernity. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press

Fairclough, Norman (1992) Discourse and social change. Cambridge: Polity Press

Freire, Paulo, (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmonsworth: Penguin

Freire, Paulo, (1993) Foreword. In Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard (eds) Paulo Freire: a critical encounter. London and New York: Routledge

Gee, James Paul, (1991) A linguistic approach to narrative. In Journal of Narrative and Life History 1 (1) pp 15-39

Halliday, M A K and Hasan, R (1989) Language, context and text: aspects of language in a social semiotic perspective. London: Edward Arnold

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (1980) Metaphors we live by. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press

O'Rourke, Rebecca, (1995) All equal now? In Mayo, Marjorie and Thompson, Jane (eds)(1995) Adult learning, critical intelligence and social change. Leicester: NIACE