A focus on the ideological perspective

Teachers, technology, and training: Approaching adult education literature using the Donlevy template of perspectives: A focus on the ideological perspective

Donlevy, James G


The field of adult education may be approached with the same template of perspectives sketched by Donlevy and Donlevy to examine the K-12 education and school reform literature: the technological, psychological, ideological, and sociological perspectives. This article reviews the Donlevy template and examines in greater detail adult education literature authored from the ideological perspective.


In Volume 25 (1), Teachers, Technology, and Training (TTT) applied the Donlevy template of perspectives to literature in the field of adult education (see also TTT in Volume 23 [1-4] and Volume 24 [1-3]). The article suggested that the field of adult education may be examined profitably through the lens of four perspectives: technological, psychological, ideological and sociological. In addition to providing a tool for capturing and thinking about divergent approaches to the field of adult learning, the template allows for examination of literature across the K-12 and higher adult and continuing education landscapes from common reference points-the perspectives. In this article, a brief description of the four perspectives again will be provided, followed by a closer examination of adult education writings authored from the psychological perspective.


As we suggested in Volume 25 (1), writings in the field of adult education fall within four major perspectives: technological, psychological, ideological, and sociological. Simply stated, the technological perspective is characterized by writings generally sympathetic to the concerns of the business community. Such adult education writings focus on raising the skill levels of individuals and business organizations to help them compete in a rapidly changing global marketplace.

The psychological perspective includes writings that assist adults in negotiating personal transitions, encourage adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting, and promote development of psychological potentials. Writings in this perspective place special emphasis on the individual adult and her capacity for growth, change, improvement and transformation.

Writers in the ideological perspective attempt to identify and to transform unequal power relationships in society to expand tradition-imposed boundaries for marginalized groups. The ideological perspective brings a critical eye to hegemonic attitudes and cultural practices in society. Authors in this perspective challenge taken-for-granted social relationships and work to empower disenfranchised groups.

The sociological perspective is descriptive and communitarian. The descriptive sociological perspective focuses on demographics, economic data, and social trends and forces. Writings in this perspective inform theorists and practitioners about the adult population, provide commentary on significant emerging data, and offer historical, cultural or philosophical interpretations of educational trends and movements.

Authors in the communitarian sociological perspective promote a deep understanding of democratic citizenship and the ethical obligations and relationships necessary for sustaining the larger social fabric. In this perspective, writers promote the development of morals and values that undergird constructive community life.


Volume 25 (2) contained our description of adult education literature authored from the technological perspective. Volume 25 (3) included a closer look at the psychological perspective. The former focused on writings which promote adult learning tied primarily to the workplace setting. The latter centered on authors who help adults negotiate individual transitions, come to terms with new selfunderstandings and potentials, or confront pressing dilemmas encountered in adulthood.

Writers in the ideological perspective have an entirely different concern in mind. These writers have a special sensitivity to power and its insidious capacity for placing limitations on individuals outside the dominant culture. Authors in the ideological perspective sharpen an awareness of the critical roles institutions play in reproducing dominant ideologies. Ideological exclusiveness persistently keeps marginalized groups at a distance from positions and occupations of influence. The limitations and constrictions these authors identify may be blatant, but also may be subtle, and thereby go unnoticed by the majority.

Authors attuned to ideological barriers critically examine practices that exclude people along the margins, that hold them away from the mainstream. Examining such practices includes taking a close look at the role educational institutions play in reproducing the dominant ideology. Two examples follow; the first one from secondary-level education; another at the college/university level.

Ideological Barriers: Tracking and the Hidden Curriculum

In secondary-level schools, for example, the practice of tracking allows one group of students to march towards premier colleges and universities with the appropriate course work completed, while other groups are shut out from such institutions of higher education from lack of exposure to important prerequisite material. The power to track is wielded by school district functionaries with the net effect that the status quo is served as society’s prevailing power relationships are reproduced.

Too frequently it is minority students who are tracked away from the more demanding courses (See Wells and Serna, 1996). These students then are precluded from entering the more prestigious higher education programs. Special education also represents a form of tracking; a process that sends far too many minority children outside the regular classroom and into the twilight world of the special education curriculum. In an era of rising academic standards, it is increasingly unlikely that secondary-level special education students will return to regular education prepared to compete with their non-disadvantaged peers.

But tracking does not tell the whole story. Henry Giroux’s work, for example, has helped to illuminate additional areas of school life that uncritically support the dominant ideology and serve to marginalize groups outside the mainstream culture. His educational efforts reveal the role schools play in supporting the economic status quo, sustaining social relationships that favor certain groups, and maintaining others in subordinate, inferior positions (See Giroux, 1983; 1988).

Giroux shows that the organization of school time, the structure and arrangement of classes, the kind of interactions among teachers, students, and administrators permitted or favored at the school site, all benefit certain groups and help to sustain prevailing social stratifications. These are aspects of the “hidden curriculum” Giroux explores, those taken-for-granted dimensions of schooling where the actual social and economic interests of those in power are cloaked by convention.

Ideological Barriers: The Declared Curriculum What is taught in schools and colleges sends important messages-both overt and subtle. In recent years, the contentious debates over what constitutes the “canon” and which courses should be taught in colleges and universities underscore the significance of the curriculum. These debates confirm that more is tied to the curriculum than simply the content contained in certain consensuallyacclaimed texts. Fundamentally, the curriculum is an ideological vehicle for communicating essential ideas, thoughts and values of the mainstream culture; the curriculum encapsulates this cultural material and is considered necessary to preserve and disseminate it from generation to generation.

But writers in the ideological perspective are acutely aware of the human consuction of “knowledge” and recognize that ideas, thoughts and values captured by specific curriculums are socially-constructed and can be changed. The curriculum is not something that was delivered from “on-high,” that stands beyond human intervention. Authors in this perspective know that political interests are served through the authorized and sanctioned curriculums, and strive in their educational writings to encourage thoughtful probing of prevailing assumptions.

Clearly, assaults on the canon through suggested elimination of certain books and authors, with the addition of unfamiliar names and titles, creates anxiety among those holding positions of power and influence in higher education institutions (See Bennett, 1992; Bloom, 1987; Gates, 1995; Greene, 1988; Hirsch, 1987; Levine, 1996; Schlesinger, 1992; and Takaki, 1993). The idea that educational materials reflecting the cultures and traditions of Asia, Central America, South America, or Africa, for example, might replace items on the lists of required texts is very disturbing to the dominant majority. At a fundamental level, it suggests the possibility that groups at the margins may gain full access to the mainstream.

Writing from the ideological perspective, Ronald Takaki (1993), for one, has shed additional light on the rich histories of immigrant groups in the United States and calls for increased broadening of accepted perspectives. The official understandings and mythopoeic representations too frequently gloss over the actual struggles of immigrant groups-and native peoples-and fail to present the full-bodied stories of groups not listed among the cultural elites. Authors in the ideological perspective join Takaki in celebrating revisionist understandings that lead to more inclusive treatments of the many groups that constitute our national identity. Writers in this perspective see many hopeful developments:

While Bloom and Hirsch are reacting defensively to what they describe as a vexatious balkanization of America. many other educators are responding to our diversity as an opportunity to open American minds ” (Takaki, 1993, p.3)

Women’s Ways of Knowing

The construction of official knowledge is also a key focus of feminist writers in the ideological perspective. These writers question the assumptions of Western domains of knowledge that have been built up almost exclusively from masculine perspectives. The exclusion and silencing of the ways of knowing grounded in women’s experience is a central preoccupation of these researchers, as are issues of power and how certain forms of knowing become privileged and legitimated in society.

The influential 1986 book, Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, captured critical questions arising from penetrating observations that the contributions of women had been overlooked and disregarded in a wide variety of professional arenas. Goldberger (1996, pp. 4-5) identifies five significant perspectives addressed in the book:

1. Silence

2. Received knowing

3.Subjective knowing

4. Procedural knowing

5. Constructed knowing.

The 1986 work articulated different ways that knowledge can be constructed, valued and communicated, and sought to demonstrate that women can contribute powerful new understandings. Building upon the work of William Perry and Carol Gilligan, Women’s Ways of Knowing has had tremendous influence throughout the United States and beyond and continues to open new dialogue on a rich variety of critical issues.

Importantly, the book has broadened professional approaches for many who were shut out from mainstream discourse, and has emboldened adult educators working with marginalized populations to find those inner voices so necessary for human expression. Too many poor, uneducated, minority, immigrant and other women at the margins have felt the wall of silence in the face of power. Women’s Ways of Knowing offers an avenue for finding and enriching those voices needing to be heard.

Paulo Freire

The Brazilian adult educator Paulo Freire expresses ideas central to the ideological perspective. His literacy work with peasants demonstrates what theorists and practitioners grounded in this point of view hope to accomplish. Freire does not teach curriculum divorced from the lived experiences of his students. In Freire’s view, curriculum too frequently serves the ideological interests of the status quo when the life experiences of students are silenced in the face of “offcial” classroom documents and materials.

Not content to impart the “technical” dimension to literacy separated from its social and political context, Freire helps students to realize what actions they need to take, in addition to intellectual understanding, to become fully aware of the real world in which they are immersed. His “conscientization” of students requires them to understand fully the political realities that affect their lives and impede their struggles to improve socially and economically. Literacy, for Paulo Freire, demands taking action to transform the world based upon one’s critical understanding of it.

Freire dismisses the “banking” conception of education where the teacher imparts knowledge to students as if the teacher’s task were to fill an empty vessel. In this kind of pedagogy:

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. (Freire.1970, p. 57)

Using such a pedagogical technique, information is delivered with the chief mission of the teacher being that of dispenser of the state-sponsored curriculum. No real understanding of material is required, only that pupils be able to master certain technical relationships among the course content, standardized tests, and teacher directives-a process Donald Macedo calls “literacy for stupidification.”

Freire encourages thoughtful dialogue between teacher and student on issues close to both of them in a format where teacher and student can learn from each other and both be changed in the process. For Freire, teaching has a liberative, humanitarian character; exploitation and domination must be unmasked in their social immediacy, and revealed as transgressions of human freedom. Freire’s work honors each adult, as she or he struggles to improve personal conditions.

Ira Shor

Extending Freire’s work into the college classroom, Ira Shor examines the kind of teaching necessary to shake teachers and students from their foundations. Shor’s concern is critical teaching which he describes as instruction that goes to the root of issues. Critical classroom practice identifies areas of false consciousness that students and teachers share through participation in the mass culture.

Shor demands that classrooms be arenas for examining the larger culture to give students an opportunity to construct paths to personal liberation beyond cultural prescriptions readily available to the masses:

Critical education prepares students to be their own agents for social change, their own creators of democratic culture. They gain skills of philosophical abstraction which enable them to separate themselves from manipulation and from the routine flow of time. Consequently, their literacy is a challenge to their control by corporate culture. (Shor, 1980/1987. p. 48)

Shor labors to develop in students increased consciousness of the numerous influences that produce and reproduce in them thoughts, attitudes, and desires that unconsciously support mass corporate culture. His critical literacy struggles to unearth false values and assumptions in students so that more empowered interactions with society may emerge.

Shor is careful to implement curriculum activities centered on the life experiences of students so that real opportunities for critical thought and choice can be made in the experimental climate of the classroom-and beyond. At every step, Shor’s approach seeks to develop practical democracy where informed thought leads to enlightened choice by students. For Shor, it is important to present students with alternatives that require deliberation toward action. By so doing, students begin to grasp the importance of critical consciousness and personal liberatory power. They begin to see that a future increasingly free from domination and exploitation is possible, and that it depends upon their contribution. In Shor’s words:

Perhaps the most breathlessly Utopian aspect is the conviction that critical thought and the practice of freedom are the foundations for exorcising mass culture, purging sexism and racism, evoking class solidarity, and initiating social reconstruction. (Shor, 1980/1987. 270)

Complexity, Diversity, Inclusiveness and Change

Writers in the ideological perspective understand that the needs of adults are tied to the economic, political and social realities confronting them. Too often, adult education writers in the technological and psychological perspectives ignore the complexities inherent in the multi-dimensional spheres of adult life and confine themselves to the solitary workplace or the individual psyche of each adult. Authors in the ideological perspective recognize and explore the complex worlds adults must negotiate daily, especially including social, political and economic factors.

Writers in the ideological perspective affirm the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up our multicultural societies. Adult educators in the ideological perspective consider the world and its many peoples as the proper frame of reference and starting point for understanding and working with adult populations. They do not restrict their gaze to one moment in history, one nation, or one race, class or gender. The broad world in all its diversity must be considered. The multicultural perspective of adult educators operating from the ideological perspective suggests inclusiveness in their deliberations and ruminations. Those kept at the margins by others are embraced by practitioners in the ideological perspective and encouraged to explore paths that lead to full recognition and participation in community life. Active participation at all levels of community life is promoted as a way to discover freedom in its fullest dimensions.

Those adult educators laboring from the ideological point of view, as we define it, understand the fundamental centrality of change. The path to personal and community development requires alterations in power relationships and shifts in the allocation of community resources. Over time, the active participation of those at the margins of society will demand that the resources of community life be shared equitably by all. It is for this purpose that adult educators work so diligently on issues of power.

CONCLUSION Theorists and practitioners in the ideological perspective work to change and transform individuals, organizations, and the larger society. Writers in the ideological perspective care deeply about social justice and its application throughout society, especially in public institutions, schools, and other organizations. Analyses that go to the root of ideological interests are undertaken by these theorists for the purpose of empowering individuals to effect change, both in their personal contexts and towards the creation of a more just social world. Unlike the psychological perspective, where practitioners seek to prompt individual psychological potentials into action, the intent of writers in the ideological perspective is more political, economically challenging and socially radical in focus.

The change that is sought in the ideological perspective relates to personal and social empowerment. Constructive social action is the result of educational efforts in this perspective. For these theorists, constant pressures need to be brought against the social structures and practices that perpetuate inequities for certain groups; writers are especially concerned with creating more just and informed spheres for personal and public action (see Greene, 1988). Authors focused on these issues envision increasingly more just public institutions free from the constricting influences of cultural elites.

Note: In the next issue of the Journal, IT will examine adult education literature authored from the sociological perspective.

Please direct reprint requests to: Jim and Tia Donlevy 120 Farrington Avenue Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591-1305 E-Mail: Jdonle@AOL.Com

Copyright Dr. Phillip J. Sleeman 1998

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