Shame is often at the heart of resistance to adult learning, writes Professor Jude Walker. We need to drag shame into the daylight to diminish its power. The text is a Speakers’ Corner column written for issue 3/2022 on Resistance.
“Judith is quite capable when she tries hard, which is not very often.” These words were written over 25 years ago by my high school dean in New Zealand as part of a letter that was supposed to support my entrance into university.
Needless to say, I felt awful. Ms. Greenlees had made shaming and sarcastic comments about me ever since she had been my English teacher in my first year of secondary school.
Since dedicating myself to adult education in some way for over 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that shame — whether inadvertent or deliberate — is at the heart of resistance to adult learning.
I define shame as that sense of existential threat which emerges in the feeling that we are bad, unloved, and unlovable in some way. Shame makes us want to hide in response to the feeling of being exposed as lesser than.
IN ADULT LEARNING, shame can arise in exposing ourselves as not knowing what we think other adults *should* already know.
One pivotal experience I had as an English language teacher was when a student’s only feedback on student evaluations was: “Teacher asked me question. I feel shame.” And, in my all-too-common personal example shared above, shame can take us back to our formal schooling days — where we could have been repeatedly labelled as lazy or stupid.
Much adult education, I believe, needs to be about deschooling.
Shame relates to resistance to participation in adult education: for example, in the man who struggles with reading who would never dream of enrolling in a foundational class for fear of friends finding out. It also relates to resistance to persistence in adult learning: what if I try and fail and I am then confirmed in my fear that I am a loser or incapable of learning?
We also know that shame presents a resistance to performance in adult education: shame can prevent us from the risk-taking and openness we need in order to learn new things.
In some cases, resistance in adult education is related to the associated shame and stigma of poverty or unemployment. In a study I undertook with my colleague, Suzanne Smythe , in British Columbia, we found that the requirement to demonstrate financial need to qualify for free tuition or subsidies for transportation or childcare resulted in fewer people applying due to shame in exposing one’s own financial status.
As Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz once put it: “means testing is mean.”
OUR PROJECT, THEN, as adult educators, policy makers, and researchers is shame busting. We need to drag shame into the daylight to diminish its power.
As Daniela Holzer argues in her column , resistance to what may be on offer in adult education is a reasonable act of refusal.
While I hated high school (and particularly Ms. Greenlees), I discovered adult education through the work of Paulo Freire and his pedagogy of hope and of love: starting where the learner is at, with questions, dialogue, and reflection that can lead us into transforming both our own lives and our societies.
Much adult education, I believe, needs to be about deschooling: bringing people back to school-like environments can be painful, infantilizing, and reshaming; offering classes that are promoted and taught as remediation of the three Rs can also redouble one’s resistance.
We are currently failing to adequately account for the impact of educational shaming and the role of shame in resistance to lifelong learning.
Some alternative initiatives include contextualising literacy as part of existing trades and vocational training, hosting classes in less school-like environments, making learning fun, and offering adult education that is more applied to one’s life and goals.
What’s more, providing adults with alternative ideas about what education is and with counter-shaming educational experiences is —as was in my experience— a great first step.
Whether in Europe, Canada or Aotearoa New Zealand, we are currently failing to adequately account for the impact of educational shaming and the role of shame in resistance to lifelong learning. Hopefully this conversation can be the beginning of a shame countering pedagogy.