The roles and impacts of adult education: a global debate

Timothy D. Ireland is professor of Adult Education
at the Federal University of Paraiba, in João Pessoa (Brazil). 



The ICAE 2019 Virtual Seminar discussed questions raised in the latest issue of the Adult Education and Development journal. This issue focused on the roles and impacts of adult education. What follows is a reflection on the exchanges which took place during the seminar. 

In 1964, the Beatles sang, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love”. Whilst that is probably still the case in 2019, it is definitely not the case for health care or for education. Health care and education have long been commodities to be sold and negotiated on the open market. Even adult education, which was never considered an easy “sell” to investors, is now attracting attention especially from those who are investing in distance or online education. Education is as subject to the power of economics as is foreign policy and other areas of government activity. Hence, whilst we as educators continue to consider quality of life and “good living” as the ultimate aims of education for all, this is perhaps not the goal of those neoliberal policies which prevail in most parts of the globe at present. From the neoliberal perspective, education is seen as a utilitarian means to the economic end of greater productivity, consumption and generation of wealth. It cares little for the natural environment and the well-being of the global community, despite all the efforts of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to establish goals to combat climate change and its impacts, to achieve food security, gender equality, water and sanitation for all, full and productive employment and decent work, and promote peaceful and inclusive societies. Growth in the productive process is, in general, premised on homogeneity, leaving little space for heterogeneity and diversity. We see this in education through an obsession with standardised tests. 

The curse of the tests

Standardised tests seem to be for education what Gross National Product – GNP, is for economists: standardised tests measure results and not processes, whilst GNP measures the overall material wealth of a nation and not the way in which that wealth is distributed. In a speech in March 1968 at the University of Kansas, Robert Kennedy launched an unexpected criticism of the value of GNP, lamenting that “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things” and questioned the capacity of GNP to measure that which we most value in life: “It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” (Kennedy 1968). Chanell Butler-Morello’s article is an excellent example of the learning and personal growth which we can miss through over-dependence on standardised tests, which as Jorge Osório affirms, “distort the meaning of education in diversity”.

We must all band together in solidarity to safeguard this planet whose existence is so crucial to our own well-being.”

Hessel, Morin 2011

In the document Rethinking Education: towards a global common good (2015), UNESCO affirms that “The development and use of knowledge are the ultimate purposes of education, guided by principles of the type of society to which we aspire” (p. 78) and should be considered as global common goods which belong to all humanity, that is “education and knowledge are collective goods – they belong to all of us. Consequently, we all have the right to education and to acquire knowledge, and the purpose of this process is not individual gain but the well-being of all”. We should perhaps use the noun “knowledge” in the plural – “knowledges”– since the belief that there is only one way of knowing the world is one of the motives for our current malaise. Whilst globalisation has brought some benefits to the global community, it has also tended to exacerbate inequalities between North and South, between nations and between different regions within the same nation. The obsession with growth as an indicator of development needs to be replaced with a “more complex and nuanced imperative that distinguishes between what we need to increase and what we need to diminish” (Hessel, Morin 2011). We need, in the words of Hessel and Morin, to “pursue and encourage the kinds of globalisation that foster a shared future for human beings from all walks of life and everywhere on Earth – a future that will protect us from a grim array of mortal dangers. We must all band together in solidarity to safeguard this planet whose existence is so crucial to our own well-being”. This “banding together in solidarity” requires processes of adult learning and education, which were at the heart of this edition of the virtual seminar as we sought to understand the role and impact of adult education or, to be more precise, the roles and impacts of adult edu­cation.

A word on dignity

Whilst the focus of each of the four articles chosen for this year’s discussion was different: health literacy, the learning needs of the disabled, functional literacy as the key to the development of Africa, and the challenges of data production – given the intersectoral nature of ALE, all point to the importance of education and learning as fundamental ingredients for the quality of human life, for sustainable development and for human dignity. Knowledge, education and health are basic human needs, which for that reason must be accessible to all and not left to the whims of the soulless market. Moreover, in order for the rights to knowledge, education and health to flourish, the health of democratic governments is essential: systems of government, which defend the right to be equal whenever difference diminishes us and the right to be different whenever equality decharacterizes us (Santos 2001).


Virtual Seminar 2019

All the contributions of the virtual seminar can be read ­online at

Video recordings of the webinars are available on Youtube:

  • Webinar with Henrique Lopes (Portuguese Catholic University) and Leona M. English (St. Francis Xavier University, Canada) on adult education and health:
  • Webinar with Samuel Asnake Wollie (UNESCO ­Liaison Office Addis Ababa) and Shirley Walters (University of the Western Cape, South Africa) on the role of adult education for the future of the ­African continent:

Adult Education and Develpop­ment

Issue 85 > “Role and Impact of Adult Education”

Free print copies of Adult Education and Development,
issue 85 on “Role and Impact of Adult Education”
are stillavailable and can be ordered



Hessel, S.; Morin, E. (2011): The Path to Hope. New York: Other Press.

Kennedy, R. (1968): Remarks of Robert Kennedy at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968. Transcription available at the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: 

Santos, B. de S. (2001): Nuestra América: Reinventing a Subaltern Paradigm of Recognition and Redistribution. In: Theory Culture & Society, 18 (2-3), 185-217.

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