Empowerment and resistance where life happens

Life is about relationships; so community is important to learning. I think there is, in that community, accountability. [The students] know one another and know their strengths and weaknesses. … [so] they begin to care about each other as students, but also as a person. Hopefully [students] are developing some deep relationships over time and that when life happens maybe they can step in and support and encourage…” [interview excerpt with a Greek adult educator]

Resisting the neoliberal “sub silentio”

The power of resistance to neo-liberal values in adult education is essentially positioned with those who actively and directly participate in it; learners, educators, organisers. It largely relies on the level of readiness for change through empowerment, particularly in educators and learners, and depends on the learning matter and the type of the programme in which they all participate and interact. It is commonly expressed through learning environments where participatory dialogue is exercised and reflective methods of learning are employed. Nevertheless, this resistance is not easily visible or recognizable. It is normally resistance “sub silentio” with no immediate social benefit, since it passes unnoticed except from those who share the experience. This type of resistance relates to what Hollander & Einwohner (2004: 538) define as opposition in that actors challenge, subvert or intentionally reject dominant discourses in some way. It is about conscious questioning of dominant discourses of power.

Research backdrop of the EduMAP project

In order to resist the neoliberal rhetoric on marketable skills and educational instrumentality adult education needs to reshape curriculum contents, educational initiatives and pedagogies in ways that are acceptable to a wide range of cultural codes and communicative practices. Educators must not only take account of diverse cultural backgrounds but also actively involve adult learners in educational initiatives that will take account of the differing needs of minority groups. Consequently, adult education could be regarded as a means of bridging the gap between hegemonic and peripheral cultures, but a crucial issue remains; what kind of educational activities are needed to encourage active citizenship among social groups that are discriminated against so that it will be able to overcome barriers to political, social and economic participation for people at risk of social exclusion (Bagnall, 2010).

In the research conducted for EduMAP with adult educators, policy makers and vulnerable young adults it is evident that resistance is largely associated with accepting and naturalising certain policy dominant concepts like ‘vulnerability’. The concept of vulnerability seems to collect more variety of interpretations. Some young adult learners attribute to vulnerability characteristics that are not compatible to their own condition and therefore refuse to identify themselves as vulnerable. They believe that vulnerability relates more to youth, or being a refugee or homeless, physically challenged, etc. For educators the term ‘vulnerability’ refers to the condition of disempowerment which many adults experience due to abrupt life changes or transitions. This condition is normally associated with the development of psychological pressure and/or mood disorders that can cause extreme and persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.

The term ‘vulnerability’ was frequently used during the interviews but what is defined in either policy or academic terms as vulnerability is not accepted by young adults. Resisting acceptance and naturalization of policy dominant policy concepts is part of a Freireian approach to educational processes that empower learners in meaning-making processes through coding and decoding the meaning of terms. This essentially asks for reflective practices that also resist understanding active citizenship as a competence that is measurable through its learning outcomes. Resistance to dominant forms of curriculum development and delivery are also prioritised by adult educators. Many respondents felt that exciting, varied and interactive learning delivery style is important in engaging young adults, but educators need to realise the limitations and their own incapacities.

George K. Zarifis


Hollander, J. A. & Einwohner, R. L. 2004 ‘Conceptualizing Resistance’, Sociological Forum, vol. 19, no. 4, pp.533-554.

Bagnall, R. 2010, ‘Citizenship and belonging as a moral imperative for lifelong learning’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol.29, no. 4, pp.449-460.