It is a responsibility of adult education professionals to continue to challenge the idea that some bodies matter more than others, writes Dr Aideen Quilty. / Photo: Dave Meier;

Island of saints, scholars and queers!

World of research. Religion, economics and sexuality matter to adult education because they all relate to how prejudice and all forms of bias operate in society. They influence what is taught, who benefits from what is taught and how people are treated within our adult education classrooms.



Island of Change!

I live and work in Ireland as an academic and adult educator positioned within a university Women and Gender Studies programme, in Dublin, Ireland’s capital city. This small island, on Europe’s periphery, is heavily referenced in folklore as the island of saints and scholars relating to its golden knowledge era between the third and fifth centuries.

Over the years I have collaborated with a diverse range of adult student groups and communities of interest. Working closely with, and within, feminist and LGBTQ communities I developed a particular interest in driving queer educational scholarship as a way to promote social change. As a result I like to think of this Island of Ireland as an interesting place of saints, scholars and queers!

What relevance has this island of saints, scholars and queers to my vision and work within adult education? For me it highlights three incredibly complex arenas: religion (Saints), economics (Scholars) and sexuality (Queers).

Religious institutions, class based economics and sexuality policing and surveillance are all present and implicated within our Irish education system. Together they impact on how gender, sex and class biases and prejudices are understood and perpetuated in society. Therefore, all three matter for how we can think about education and social change.

Island of Saints!

Saints? There is an obvious relationship between religion and education in Ireland. It is the case that Ireland is a nation of almost 3.8 million identified Catholics, though many are lapsed or Catholic in name only. It is also the case that religion continues to maintain a stronghold in education politics and policies. 96% of primary schools are owned and under the patronage of religious denominations with approximately 90% of these state sanctioned schools owned under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

Education is not a neutral process. As Paulo Freire and bell hooks have highlighted, it can be used to establish and maintain conformity or be part of a process of liberation and social change. The Irish State’s failure to acknowledge this lack of neutrality has characterised the formal education system in Ireland since its inception.

From the introduction of the Irish National School System of education in 1831 to the present day, the ruling force of the Catholic Church within education is evident. We see this in the gendered and conformist nature of our formal education landscape. In practice this means that religion can and does influence what is taught, where it is taught and to whom it is taught. This happens through curricula, teaching practices, school management and leadership, student enrolment policies and institutional ethos. And these things matter in particular ways for adults.

Many adults in Ireland come to adult education carrying negative and damaging memories of their formal early schooling experiences. And for many the damage relates to this religious/education infusion within our schools: religious schools which in particular treated girls and poor children badly. This treatment reflected a gender and class bias, characteristic of our religious history and enshrined within our education system. Acknowledging and understanding this history is important. It matters for how we interact and organise and work with adult learners today.

Island of Scholars!

Scholars? As a nation we seem keen to believe the numerous multi-national companies who want to locate in Ireland and tell us that we are a wonderfully attractive, flexible, educated workforce!

We know that there is a clear link between a highly functioning economy and the provision of a skilled workforce. We also know that the latter depends on a particular and targeted form of education that is lifelong and lifewide.  Ireland’s not insignificant success in this regard is evidenced by the presence of an impressive number of tech companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Dell etc.

And yet, based on OECD statistics from 2013, one in six Irish adults has difficulty understanding basic written text. One in four people find it difficult to do simple maths calculation. And this stark reality matters. It matters for how adults can both contribute to, and benefit fully from our economy, as workers and from our society as citizens. It matters for who counts as learners and what counts as valid learning.

Island of Queers!

And Queers? Well, perhaps queer-allies is more apt as we became the first country to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. However, this celebratory moment should not occlude the fact that the invisibility and violence associated with LGBTQ discrimination continue to be tenets of Irish and more broadly European culture and society.

However, we might still look to the successful Irish referendum on same sex marriage as a statement of an outward looking Irish society. This successful campaign could be interpreted as an acknowledgement by Irish society that our social world is changing. We might say that it was a statement by the Irish people of the need to acknowledge, celebrate and fully accept people’s diversity. Yet, this is not always an easy thing to do.

Acknowledging diversity also means that we must confront any bias we might have that results in unfair, discriminatory treatment. Unpacking such biases matters in radical, transformative adult learning environments.

Unpacking bias, why bother?

We could describe bias as a prejudice in favour of or against a person or group. Biases are strongly related to social stereotypes and can be positive or negative forces. They can also be conscious or unconscious expressions based on our own levels of self-awareness.

Importantly, no one is immune from the power and impact of bias, including the most open minded people.

Biases in the form of social prejudices are damaging. They can result in people internalising feelings of inferiority, of feeling ‘lesser than’. They can also have material consequences. For example, women paid less than men based on their gender and childbearing potential, or older workers failing to secure employment because they are considered too old to make a ‘useful’ contribution.

Bias and prejudice can be reinforced within our education worlds if they go unchecked. Education is one of the key cultural filters within a modern society and one of its primary functions is the reproduction of dominant social ideology.

And this dominant ideology is one in which some bodies matter more than others. Those who are white and settled and wealthy and heterosexual and young and male, it seems, matter most. Other bodies are subject to a range of prejudices and biases. Understanding such biases in our educational worlds is I believe key to challenging and ultimately eradicating prejudice.

Unpacking bias, how?

Adult learners come to our learning environments from all walks of life, from across a range of social categories. Therefore, understanding our own biases, both as students and educators, is critically important. Within a dynamic learning environment of the sort advocated by feminist critical educator bell hooks, this is an important act of critical engagement.

This process of critical engagement can start with opening conversations and sharing stories about race and class and sex. Stephen Brookfield, a US based adult educationalist, calls these three hot topics the ‘holy trinity of contemporary ideological critique’. This refers to the need to challenge and fight a practice of domination within society constituted by the interlocking systems of racism, classism and sexism.

This ‘holy trinity’ has expanded way beyond these three oppressive systems. This expansion reflects the growth of inequality and discrimination based on our social identities. It has resulted in an expanded range of ‘isms’! These now include ageism i.e. discrimination based on age; ableism i.e. discrimination based on physical and mental ability; heterosexism i.e. discrimination based on sexuality and sexual orientation; and genderism i.e. discrimination based on gender.

Teaching and unpacking all these ‘isms’ can be tough work. There is nothing easy or straightforward about doing educational work that is explicitly linked to social change. There is also nothing about this work that is, or can be, neutral.

In practice this means for example that when I teach, I teach as an Irish, white, middle-class, lesbian, woman, feminist. As I am always remaking myself I can never be sure what these social categories mean to me, or to others. Conversation and communication must therefore sit at the heart of our classroom exchanges that seek to translate our social identities and experiences into meaningful and worthwhile pictures.


The radical roots of adult education have always emphasised the relationship between knowledge and transformation. Respecting this tradition, I believe we have a responsibility to continue to challenge prejudice and biases and multiple forms of social oppressions through our teaching. Our work as adult educators, whether on this Island of Saints and Scholars and Queers or elsewhere, demands that we continue to refuse to accept the idea that some bodies matter more than others.


– Brookfield, S. D. (2005). The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching. Berkshire: Open University Press.
– CSO. (2011). Census 2011 Reports.
– FRA. (2014). Being Trans in the European Union European Union. (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights). Brussels.
– Gillborn, D. (2015). Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 277-287. doi:10.1177/1077800414557827
– ILGA-Europe. (2015). Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People in Europe 2015. Brussels.
– PIAAC/OECD (2013). Survey results for Ireland from the OECD’s programme for the  International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Retrieved from CSO (Central Statistics Office) Ireland.
– TENI.  (2014). STAD: Stop Transphobia and Discrimination Report Ireland. Transgender Equality Network Ireland. Dublin.
– USI. (2013). Say Something: A Study of Students’ Experiences of Harassment, Stalking, Violence & Sexual Assault. Union of Students Ireland. Dublin.

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