Critique of Paulo Friere’s Society in Transition and Herman & Mandell’s On Access: Toward Opening the Lifeworld within Adult Higher Education Systems

Critique of Paulo Friere’s Society in Transition and

Herman & Mandell’s On Access: Toward Opening the Lifeworld within Adult Higher Education Systems

Stephen Brookfield, in Storming the Citadel (1995), asks us to read the literature of adult education with a critical eye, giving us several lenses through which to interpret and understand the literature as it relates to our practice. For this critique, I will be examining two works by asking the epistemological questions that Brookfield suggests. I will attempt to compare and contrast the works using these questions. Finally, I will attempt to convey the relevance of each to my practice.

The Critiques

Paulo Friere’s Society in Transition, Chapter in Education for Critical Consciousness (1973)

“Are the ideas presented by the writer already predetermined by the intellectual paradigm in which they work?”

To the degree that most adult education theorists are influenced by the intellectual paradigm in which they work, yes. Paulo Friere was a Brazilian educator, and in Society in Transition, wherever examples are provided to support his ideas, they relate to the Brazilian society which was in turmoil at the time. Friere is a historical thinker and frames his educational theories with regard to what he sees as education’s role in historical epoch changes – Friere was obviously observing what he considered to be one of these historical epochs in Brazil at the time. It’s fairly plain from Friere’s writing that his thinking is influenced by the time and place of the culture he was operating in.

A less obvious bias in Friere’s writing is likely a result of his association with and employment by various formal outreach and academic organizations, including universities (Lownd, n.d.). Friere exhibits a clear regard for liberatory education and dialog, and this is what makes his writing so compelling. Yet clues do emerge in his writing that reveal this bias. Stating that “an active, dialogical educational program” would be required to overcome what Friere calls “naive transitive consciousness” in a society reveals a bias towards formal programs that might reinforce the power of the intellectual elite, negating some of the supposed “dialogical” nature of such programs. (Incidentally, the use of such terms as “naive transitive consciousness”, “massification”, “assistentialism”, etc. might also be another clue revealing a bias related to Friere’s ties to formal academic circles. He does a good job of explaining and defining these terms, though, making his work generally accessible to those outside those particular circles.)

Another very obvious bias in Friere’s writing is evident in his exclusive use of male pronouns. Feminist perspectives in adult education were not very common in the literature at the time of Friere’s writing, and he unfortunately makes no attempt to break this mold. Though Friere’s work can be thought to be universally applicable, it is hard to defend its gender inclusiveness given the prevailing language he uses.

Finally, a subtle yet puzzling bias appears in Friere’s work, though the origins of this bias are unclear. Friere’s view is a very human-centered one, and assumes that humans are exclusively responsible for engineering the “historical epochs” he describes, and that humans are always totally responsible for all forms of oppression that other humans feel. Indeed he does a very good job of describing human-originated oppression based on race, class, economic norms, etc., and in that light, it makes sense that human-engineered mechanisms can overcome these types of oppression. But his work does not take into account natural forces such as environmental change that require a some kind concerted response from humanity, whether it is a proactive approach or “adaptation”. Most surprisingly, given Friere’s strong Christian faith (Lownd, n.d.), it does not take into account the possibility of spiritual forces or beliefs driving the types of changes Friere describes. It would probably be irresponsible to suggest that people could just pray their way out of oppressive circumstances, but not acknowledging the role that spirituality plays in driving his thinking seems equally irresponsible.

“To what extent are the central insights of a piece of literature – whether these are framed as research findings, theoretical propositions or philosophical injunctions – grounded in documented evidence?”

The evidence Friere provides is entirely anecdotal and qualitative in nature, so it is difficult to say precisely whether his insights are “true”, though these qualities certainly make his work more accessible and engaging than a reading of any quantitative, “hard evidence” might. Further complicating the precise judgment of the “trueness” of Friere’s work is its sort of “timelessness” – its grounding in what he calls “historical epochs”. How can one look back and judge the effectiveness of Frierian methods in moving populations through historical epoch changes or out of oppression? What exactly would need to be measured? In this piece, unfortunately, Friere does not offer a method for measuring liberatory education’s success.

“To what extent does the writing seem culturally skewed ?”

Friere makes no attempt to conceal the very Brazilian nature of his experiences as an educator. However, in being plain about the cultural skewness of the examples he uses and the influences on his thinking, we are absolved of having to try to discern excessive amounts hidden cultural influences in Friere’s writing. Indeed, Friere takes care not to describe the exact methods he used, and this care is compatible with his lesson from other works that education should be grounded in the local culture.

“To what extent are descriptive and prescriptive writing fused in an irresponsible and inaccurate way?

            This piece, as with most of Paulo Friere’s writing, is strongly polemical in its style. Friere does not do much if anything to engage opposing points of view in his work. That said, this chapter is largely descriptive and only hints at some prescriptive language (the “active, dialogical educational program” that is not described to extent). It is not so much that “descriptive and prescriptive writing (are) fused in an irresponsible way” (Brookfield, 1995), but that the leap to the prescriptive conclusion was not fully explained, at least not in this chapter.

Lee Herman and Alan Mandell’s On Access: Toward Opening the Lifeworld within Adult Higher Education Systems Article (1999)

“Are the ideas presented by the writer already predetermined by the intellectual paradigm in which they work?”

Absolutely, and this intellectual paradigm is much clearer in Herman & Mandell’s writing than it is in Friere’s, so less deliberation and speculation is needed to uncover the underlying paradigm(s). Herman & Mandell are strong proponents of higher education, a system which they understand well as full participants: “Higher education is … an all but necessary instrument for fulfilment in today’s world.” Friere also worked often within this system too, though this is less clear from the ideas in his writing.

Herman & Mandell do make a strong and convincing attempt to critique the higher education system of which they are a part. Indeed, in the final “moment” of their chapter, they deliberate at length on how to reconcile access from the institutional perspective of increasing numbers and improving tangible outcomes, and access from the perspective of critical discourse and improving the “lifeworld”. They acknowledge the problem with their vested interest in higher education: “Our students, our faculty jobs, our academic institutions would simply not exist were it not for the systemic force or imperatives of social prosperity and power.”

Much of the thinking behind this work was influenced by the concept of “lifeworld” as derived from the work of J�rgen Habermas, a German philosopher (“J�rgen Habermas,” n.d.). However, the authors were not the first in the adult education field to make connections to Habermas’ work, as at least two items in the list of references show. Indeed, Herman & Mandell borrow much of their language and thinking from the scholarly field, and 19 of the 28 items in the reference list come from other writing in the adult education field and only 9 come from without. The language of the chapter confirms this: it is intended for those “in-the-know” with adult education vocabulary. As such the work would probably not have a broad and accessible appeal; even many practitioners may find the work a bit obtuse and inaccessible simply because of the language used. In comparison, Friere’s work is fairly accessible since he does make a very good effort of explaining the obscure terms he uses.

“To what extent are the central insights of a piece of literature – whether these are framed as research findings, theoretical propositions or philosophical injunctions – grounded in documented evidence?”

Herman & Mandell’s piece really shines in its use of case studies, and in the tracing of those case studies through the three “moments” of critical thought related to access. The piece does a convincing job in using these case studies to illustrate their point – that access should be viewed through a blending of the perspectives of practicality and tangible results (from the perspectives of both the institution and the adult learner) and critical discourse that respects the “lifeworld”. Incidentally, the case studies also serve to offset some of the intellectual inaccessibility of the piece as these stories can be much more commonly understood. They make the piece seem more “real”.

“To What Extent Does the Writing Seem Culturally Skewed?”

Lee Herman and Alan Mandell are both professors employed by the Empire State College, a United States institution located in New York state. All of the examples that Herman and Mandell provide come from adult learners who studied at their institution. As such, Herman & Mandell’s work must be considered within the localized framework, and its conclusions should be considered with a critical eye with respect to their applicability in other cultural situations.

“To What Extent are Descriptive and Prescriptive Writing Fused in an Irresponsible and Inaccurate Way?”

Herman and Mandell have a point to make, and they preview this in the introduction to the piece. They explain the origins of their thinking, using case studies along the way to illustrate their thinking. They then nicely conclude the piece by summarizing why they’ve come to the conclusion they have and offer us some inspiring advice and “food for thought”: “We believe the

adventure of learning what is necessary to live successfully – this adventure, this enterprise – demands a quest for truth, justice and beauty, a quest which makes human life worth living.”

Yet, the problem with all of this is that we don’t hear much about the other side of the story. It is probable that the same cases could be used to prove the purely corporate/institutional point of view about access – that increased access provides people with more opportunities and gives them upward mobility on a career path. Alternatively, this viewpoint could just as easily be disproved with stories of people who were not successful. It seems as though the authors chose a narrative, and then chose stories to fit that narrative.

Relevance To My Own Practice

In both of the above critiques, I have observed the authors’ connections with formal higher education as partially forming the intellectual paradigm in which their writing is grounded; in other words, these connections represent a bias. There are other situations besides higher education in which adult learning takes place; to be sure, Friere’s work is peppered with these experiences as well. My work and my schooling are every bit as grounded in the strength and legitimacy of formal higher education, a situation which no doubt leads to a strong personal tendency to accept “success stories” and anything which takes an uncritical look at higher education. But I think that in being able to recognize this bias, I am able to take a critical stance with respect to higher education’s methods, actions and outcomes. Both of the works analyzed in this critique demonstrated the authors’ abilities to take such a critical stance as well.

Herman & Mandell’s piece particularly resonated with me as it fairly well describes a debate I’ve seen play out in my workplace. There are those who show a strong preference towards the institutional access viewpoint, saying that “we should give adult learners what they want and tell them exactly what they need to do to succeed” and ” adult learners don’t have time for critical dialog that strays from course or program objectives.” And there are those who feel that adult learners are hungry for intellectual engagement and do not wish to be “spoon-fed” their course materials. The institutional access viewpoint probably prevails though – critical works like those of Paulo Friere are rarely if ever discussed.

The Herman & Mandell work also resonated with me in its descriptions of adult students’ struggle with the unfairness of having to pursue advanced degrees to stay current in their fields:

[Leslie] is learning that the degree her employers require of her, her access to individual success, also symbolizes the power and authority of the institutions which enforce the oppressive social stratifications from which she and so many of her fellow citizens have suffered (p. 23).

I originally started in this academic program at least partially out of a desire to move on from a stagnating career. It was made clear to me that I would need the credentials of a master’s degree in order for this to happen, and that workplace experience would not be enough to really jump ahead. So I initially started out with an attitude much like Leslie’s, though my career path has changed somewhat and I now see earning the degree as more of a source of personal pride and intellectual engagement that I can’t get anywhere else.



Brookfield, S. (1995). Storming the Citadel. In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from 

Freire, P. (1973). Society in Transition. In Education for Critical Consciousness (pp. 3-20). New York: Continuum Publishing Co. 

Herman, L., & Mandell, A. (1999). On access: toward opening the lifeworld within adult higher education systems. In A. Tait & R. Mills (Eds.), The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of Flexibility for the Individual Learner (pp. 17-38). New York: Routledge. 

Lownd, P. (n.d). Freire’s Life and Work. Paulo Friere Institute, UCLA. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from