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We need to start taking resistance to education seriously

Three Quick Ones. We need to acknowledge that people have many valid reasons for not participating in adult education, argues Professor Daniela Holzer.

15.11.2022

Why don’t some people want to have the benefit of learning? In adult education, non-participation is often discussed simply as a question of overcoming barriers and obstacles. But non-participation can also be seen as resistance to education, and there are various reasons for it.

Daniela Holzer is Associate Professor at the department of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Graz.

In 2017, she published her theoretical research on “Resistance to Continuing Education – A Critical Theory on Refusal”. We talked to her about the importance of better understanding resistance to learning.

What is resistance to learning, and what kind of forms does it take?

We need to differentiate between resistance to learning and resistance to (adult) education. They focus on different situations and refer to different theories.

When talking about resistance to learning, it is first important to consider that learning processes always require resentment and unlearning. Therefore, most of the time learning includes moments of an inner resistance against it.

However, some scientists also use the term ‘resistance to learning’ when they talk about different forms of refusal in organised adult education. Here we find resistance as refusing specific learning settings or contents. People might also reject other participants or the teacher.

Resistance is a form of criticism, and adult education could be improved by embracing this criticism.

One type of resistance in courses is disturbing the teaching, but there are also hidden or silent forms of resistance. An example of this could be sitting in class and browsing through emails.

Resistance to adult education is broader and also takes non-participation into account. This is where resistance becomes particularly interesting to me. We have a great deal of non-participation, but most of the time adult education looks at it from viewpoint of obstacles and barriers. This disregards the fact that non-participation could also be a conscious decision or even an unconscious counter-action. Then non-participation can be seen as resistance to education.

There are many good reasons why people might not want to engage in adult education. They may have other interests that are more relevant: families, friends or hobbies. Maybe they think “I’m so old, I’m only working for three more years, so why should I take a course?”. Somebody might have already had an experience that promised benefits, but they were not met.

Daniela Holzer is Associate Professor at the department of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Graz.

These causes of resistance to adult education have still not been studied much. I developed a critical theory about the refusal of and resistance to adult education, where I took the findings we have and combined them with resistance studies in other disciplines, for example political science and philosophy.

Why do you think there is so little research into resistance to education?

One reason could be that the non-participants are not easy to reach, but I think the main reason is due to adult education itself. Most of us still believe that adult education is automatically a positive thing, and resistance questions this.

Yes, there are benefits, but there are also downsides. I think adult education researchers do not like to look at the problems, because it might subvert their own importance. It also challenges the narrative in our society that people must be productive and ready to fulfil the needs of the labour market. Taking part in adult education is part of that game.

Resistance to adult education can be seen as criticism of the current system, and therefore it should not come into view.

I think it would be very important to do more research on resistance to adult education, because we do not yet have enough sensitivity to the various reasons behind non-participation. I also see, however, that the findings could be misused to fight the resistance.

We have to realise that adult education is not very meaningful to many people.

Nowadays resistance to adult education mostly occurs in hidden form, which is sometimes also a subversive act. When we research resistance, we make those hidden forms visible. The more we know about resistance, the more possibilities there are to use the knowledge against the people.

How could adult education benefit from better understanding of resistance to learning?

In my view, resistance is a form of criticism, and adult education could be improved by embracing this criticism. Resistance research helps to reflect on the role adult education has in people’s lives. We should not just see resistance as something to be overcome, but to be accepted and to analyse its causes seriously.

It is interesting that, in philosophy and political science, resistance often has positive connotations – to resist domination, to resist hegemonic norms, to resist the circumstances of work. Why is it so difficult to see resistance as positive in educational research and adult education?

We have to realise that adult education is not very meaningful to many people. We really should look at learners and all adults and gain a better understanding of their needs.

Resistance is therefore also a part of a wider conversation on the current ethos in adult education. These days, many promote the neo-liberal form of learner-centeredness and self-organisation of learning – the idea that you are responsible for your life and development.

Critical adult education has a very different idea of empowerment. The ethos is that, instead of making the individual responsible for changing themselves, perhaps we need to do something about changing society.