Service and skills as euphemisms: the “bread and circus” for teachers and students in non-profit adult education


In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire uses an analogy to illustrate how oppressors in society perpetuate the subordination of those they dominate. In ancient Rome, the elite classes sought to win the political favor of the commoners by supplying them with their most primal desires, panem et circenses, (bread and circus) (Juvenal, 1999); Freire avers that a similar process of subordination happens in modern society, “with or without bread and circus” (141), in which the oppressive classes bear out their need to dominate others in a seemingly ineluctable dialectical relationship.

I found this metaphor striking when thinking about my research goals as a doctoral candidate in the Urban Education doctoral program at City University of New York. I teach adult learners and have recently focused on education in the non-profit world; in my work, I hope to investigate how service organizations like my most recent employer, Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, Massachusetts, contribute to the bottom-line of corporate funders through the training of new workers to occupy low-level positions within their workforces. In reading for this paper, I have added some new questions to guide my research: (a) is the act of providing skills training in adult education a form of oppression?; (b) in what ways do adult education teachers act to reinforce an educational model – and wider ideology – that dehumanizes?; and (c) what kind of democracy do we wish to have in our country, and how can education reinvigorate democracy while challenging the cultural myths of meritocracy and equality that contribute to our acceptance of sociopolitical/economic oppression?


            Part of the framework of this paper is to relate the texts we read to education research currently being carried out. I visited the American Educational Research Association (AERA) website and found a page entitled “Recent AERA Research,” which included the following trends in education research: the impact of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards on public education, particularly in the form of standardized testing; English Language Learners (ELLs) and their need for both high-level academic content as well as linguistic environments in which they can most successfully build knowledge; the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and their increasing priority in education and education research; value-added measures in teacher evaluation as a means of determining school funding, staffing, and other administrative decisions in public schools; diversity, inclusion, and integration in higher education; and underserved/low-achieving learners and the pedagogy, programming, and possibilities that schools can employ; and other topics. (Recent AERA Research, 2014) I add to this list the rising number of charter schools and the controversies around them, including school choice for parents and corporate interests; the privatization of public schools; dropout rates and achievement challenges in low-status school districts; and the increasing role of technology in education at all levels.

It seems that much of the current conversation moves around the inequities of our modern social environment and how they are managed or reinforced in education, as well as how tensions between our current form of democracy and capitalism impact values in education. Notably missing in this list, I feel, is the research that needs to be done in adult education in the non-profit sector. I know I am not the first to advocate for this direction in education research; however, I believe the priority has been given to young learners and I hope in my work to contribute to change in this academic conversation.


We read four texts to prepare for this paper: Naturalistic Inquiry by Lincoln and Guba; Postpositivism and Educational Research by Phillips and Burbules; Democracy and Education by John Dewey and the aforementioned Freire text. The first two discuss education research in its unique historical, philosophical, and academic context; the last two propose philosophies of education in response to the complex educational and sociopolitical environment of their times as well as to the eternal questions of the purpose, relevance, and problems in education in human society. I will discuss the first two texts vis-à-vis their relevance to current education research and to my own work, moving on to explore the educational theories of the second two works in similar fashion.

In Naturalistic Inquiry, writers Lincoln and Guba put their purpose front and center: “helping the reader both to understand and to do naturalistic inquiry.” (9) The appeal of naturalistic inquiry is that it responds to the limitations of the positivist paradigm: that it advances science as a means only to describe what can be verified, rather than what can be discovered; that it is deterministic (rather than permissive of individual free will) and reductionist (rather than open to different conceptions of laws to govern phenomena); that it prioritizes nomological (generalizations-based) work rather than interpretive opportunities; that it falsely delineates cause and effect as givens in observable phenomena; and that does not account for the “humanness” of research subjects. (25-27) Naturalistic inquiry, as a postpositivist paradigm and an approach to research, argues that reality is “multiple, constructed, and holistic,” implying a social constructivist priority in the work; that the inquirer and the subject of inquiry are intrinsically related and that knowledge is constructed through this relationship; that time and place context is key to the creation of strong hypotheses; and that, significantly, research of any kind cannot be value-free on the part of the goal of the work or those conducting it. (37) The text further explored these concepts and moved on to describe how naturalistic inquiry might be designed and implemented with success.

Phillips and Burbules’ Postpositivism and Educational Research explores postpositivism in the canon of the three major theoretical orientations in science: pre-positivism, positivism, and postpositivism. It argues for the view that postpositivism is a means of providing researchers with the philosophy of science that offers “the theoretical framework that offers the best hope for achieving Dewey’s goal,” i.e., ensuring “competent, reliable, evidence-based research” (4) after positivism’s limitations, particularly the centrality of foundationalist philosophy (that all knowledge can be verified through either rationalism or empiricism [5-11]), were exposed. The book’s question-and-answer format develops the major components of postpositivist inquiry in educational environments, including the clarification of the need for hermeneutical/interpretive methods (in which phenomena are seen as texts or complex entities to be interpreted in order to construct knowledge); the view that realities are multiple rather than absolute (and, thus, knowledge is a best guess rather than a certainty, signaling the problem of truth claims in research), similar to Lincoln and Guba’s point; and the exploration of value-neutral inquiry and its relationship to knowledge.

Both Postpositivism and Educational Research and Naturalistic Inquiry offer important suggestions to researchers, beginning with the notion that any researcher must understand that approaching inquiry involves more than saying simply, “I’m a social constructivist,” etc. It implies serious choices the researcher must make about the priorities of inquiry, the relationship between the researcher and the focus of inquiry, the membership of the researcher in a paradigm community (Phillips and Burbules, 25), even the view of knowledge itself. Researchers in education-related inquiry projects must be able to articulate these choices and reflect on the impact the selection of a specific orientation may have not only on his/her work as well as the missed opportunities that may exist in taking too positivist a view of knowledge and research as a whole.

Democracy and Education by John Dewey (1916) is a philosophy of education informed by the thinking of Aristotle and Plato, Rousseau, and Hegel that is widely cited and regarded in the education field as a foundational text. Dewey, a pragmatist, sought to address the big questions in education in the early 20th century, when major geopolitical and technological changes like World War I and the Industrial Revolution were transforming values and even the notion of citizenship, questions such as: should students be educated as future laborers, or future citizens of a democracy? His text contains a broad-based set of postulates that encourage educators to view education as a means to engage the mind and create opportunities for discovery and individual construction of knowledge in an environment where process is prized over product, where real education cannot be simply a training process for the military or preset economic expectations and where a student’s personal affinities and curiosities should direct his/her self-development rather than a predetermined set of outcomes. (125) Further, Dewey argued that education’s end should be “a freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims” (125) in a commitment to a democracy which prioritizes community and mutually agreed-upon values. Particular to my work is the following statement:

The concept of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind. (103)

This statement indicates that society’s members mutually define the “social process” of education we employ, and yet I believe it signals an interesting dilemma now embodied in U.S. society. What is democratic education in a society whose conceptions of “freedom,” “equality,” and so on are defined according to a neoliberal ethos?

Such issues are embedded in the education research themes I mentioned earlier: the use of standardized testing to judge student progress; the rise in privatization of schools; the prioritization of the STEM fields to compete in the domestic and global markets; and so on. We can see the paradox; this ideology is the grounding for our society – the free market has become a central American trope much as the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the U.S. Declaration of Independence (Para. 2) of 1776 – and yet as we have become increasingly corporatist and consumeristic, our priorities have increasingly revolved around the monetization and standardization of human efforts (a byproduct of which is the removal of anything that doesn’t contribute to the “bottom line” and “expected output”) including schooling. We have new “princes,” to borrow Dewey’s term, in American society, corporations and individual investors whose powerful influence on the educational process (as well as education research), it may be argued, constitutes the means by which they choose how to “educate their subjects as instruments of their own purposes,” (111), namely, to be consumers and workers. This would violate Dewey’s definition of democratically-minded education a hundred years ago…but yet, doesn’t our “education as a social process” necessarily change to reflect the development of our society over time as well?

No matter how this dilemma is resolved, Dewey’s philosophy of education clearly has and will continue to have great impact in the field of education. His vision is increasingly one that reminds academics, investigators, and teachers to challenge current notions of what learning should be, who our learners are, what knowledge can be (“liberating [of] human intelligence and human sympathy” [269]), and what our goals for research are (to support the current ideological regime vs. challenge our capacity for civic imagination, for example); in a time when conformity is valued and critical thinking is frowned upon in much of the education world (consider the example how the Republican Party of Texas opposed “the teaching of critical thinking” in their state’s public schools (Weil, 2012)), Dewey would no doubt be dismayed. And I agree: Education research must take a more active/ist, critical role in exposing the exploitation in education of teachers, learners, and administrators and creation of a consuming, kowtowing citizenry.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed similarly develops a coherent philosophy of education, though his worldview might be seen as from the participatory paradigm rather than the pragmatic one, as in Dewey’s work; still, both thinkers emphasize humanity and humanization as fundamental to education. Freire’s text draws upon Marx, Hegel, Gramsci, and Sartre to create a cohesive vision of the oppressive forces that define our world and the ways in which we as Subjects can struggle as together to transform, to rename, this world using multiple realities and voices, revolutionizing our society to become a place where oppression becomes defunct and class divisions are no more. Freire emphasized the goal of humanizing education in critical dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressors, a beautiful yet strangely tragic admonition when considering these “antidialogical” (125) times in which the distance between the rich and the poor grows at exponential rates.

Freire’s educational philosophy contains important guidelines for a democratic, transforming pedagogy, including challenging the traditional form of education as a “banking” model in which knowledge is transferred from teacher to learner (72) as well as the false claim of value neutrality in teaching or research (24). Because he wrote the text with a history of participatory, collaborative educational work at his back, Freire references his experiences with peasants in rural Brazil whose societal oppression became clear to them through dialogue. In view of how his work could benefit education research, it’s clear that Freire’s views are both radical and democratically committed; he emphasizes the notion that teachers and students can occupy the other’s position in the inquiry process, ensuring that the focus of the investigation is the co-construction of “meaningful themes” rather than the objectification of the participants. (107)

It may be obvious at this point that I perceive both Dewey and Freire as inspirational to my work as an academic, researcher, writer, and educator. It is important to me to reflect on how to apply their view of learners as constituents of a democracy (either existent or potential) and Subjects that can define their own sociopolitical fate and voice, including in the process of education; the more I read and reflect, the more questions spring to my mind about my work in the realm of “workforce skills training” and what is codified therein. As a teacher of adult learners from other countries as well as low-status learners from the U.S., I must consider that I am working under potentially very tenuous definitions of “democratically-minded” education. We in the non-profit world welcome our low-status learners into our skills training with the promise of a better life, better opportunities, better choices…but is this really what our education provides? And should these promises replace a truly democratic educational experience? Do we seek the empowerment of our learners, or do we transfer a set of neoliberal values to them through codes like “teamwork,” “respect,” and “English-only” which mean “subordination of one’s cultural understandings and sociopolitical self-definition”? If Dewey argued that education should be human first and then professional (160), then I would argue our priorities need a serious and critical review.


Modern American society is not characterized by the same sort of elites-vs.-hoi-polloi dynamic that characterized ancient Rome. Nor does its systems of oppression resemble those in place to separate the upper and working classes of Freire’s Brazil in the 1970s. Yet the American capitalist machine’s processes of control – notably its neoliberal mythos and conversion of citizens into producers and consumers of capital – are being brought to light by public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Henry Giroux every day. We in the education field need to occupy similar radical positions as PhD candidates, teachers, and future researchers in our own work. We need to consider ourselves the Subjects Freire wanted each of us to be and employ the imagination and desire to discover Dewey knew we possessed. I for one am certain that my personal mission will include challenging the “bread and circus” in non-profit adult education: we as teachers view our work as “serving” our students, which supplies us with a sense of doing good, while offering them “skills training,” a narrow version of education which in reality helps develop them into low-cost workers for corporate-backed entities to hire; such a process of accepting the dictates of neoliberal-minded influences on education is echoed in PreK-12 schooling all across out country (which may account for why we accept it for adults). We must enter into review of the political dimensions of adult education in the non-profit world, including in education research; if we do not, what costs, what violence, is being inflicted on adult learners’ opportunity to develop into democratic participants whose potential is not dictated to them (an opportunity, I would suggest, any American parent would desire for his or her children)?

It’s time to change the conversation, through dialogue with the networks of power that reach into the education of low-status adults and define its core values, as well as through solidary communication and partnership among our academic circles, local communities, and adult learners. Education research will best support this coming change by contributing to active change rather than simply observing what is already true (or giving it only a cursory glance, as it historically seems to have done in this country). Dewey and Freire both felt that history was a thing to be learned from, not a dictate of what is unavoidable today; in education research we gain powerful resources to access our earlier knowledges and the critical means to construct new understandings. Adult education in the non-profit world will most benefit from a similar perspective, and a similar commitment, from both its educators and those who research their work.


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