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The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching

reviewed by Veronica Gaylie - 2005

coverTitle: The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching
Author(s): Stephen D. Brookfield
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787956015, Pages: 414, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

Connections between critical theory and practice in adult education are rarely articulated in a way that makes those connections seem practical or contextually relevant.  While there is a larger body of literature in critical theory as it pertains to youth and schools, there is little writing that connects adult learning to the tradition of critical theory in practical ways. As a result, adult educators are usually left on their own to forge critical links in the classroom.  Brookfields text is part of a small but growing body of literature that promotes critical thought in a genre previously dominated by traditional rhetorical methods. As Brookfield puts it, the goal of the book is &to put the critical back in critical theory& (p. vii).

The text responds to the question: Why is critical theory important to adult education? Brookfield argues for critical theory as both a philosophy and practice that can easily translate to most adult learning contexts.  He reinforces the idea that critical theory emerged as a critique of capitalist society and summarizes what he considers to be the tenets of critical theory: social inequality; the dominance of a single ideology; and the potential impact of critical thought in the world.  Early chapters provide an overview of major critical theorists and explain several learning tasks that may be implemented in adult education, including: challenging ideology, contesting hegemony, unmasking power and learning liberation.  Subsequent chapters describe how such tasks can be used to foster critical awareness.  Brookfield includes a discussion of prominent feminist and race theories as a lens for critical analyses in adult education. The last chapter describes Brookfields own experiences (and challenges) in teaching critical theory at the university level.

Early on, Brookfield notes the postmodernist dismissal of critical theory as so much wasted effort within the theoretical bulk of the modernist tradition. For Brookfield, the critical aspect is relevant as it is applied in the world.  He begins by asking: What is theory? What is its importance?  As a response, Brookfield calls on Gramscis (1971) notion of the organic intellectual and the idea of opening the definition of theorist to include a broader section of society.  He also includes bell hooks(1994) reflection on the life altering aspects of theory and Mezirows (1991) work in transformative learning as a means of gaining perspective on experience.  With the inclusion of hooks, Weiler and others, the text is a reminder that the tradition of critical theory is also a process open to change and new or previously excluded voices.  The work is clearly written without losing critical depth and in this way the reader also feels a part of the processes (and people) involved in critical learning.  As Brookfield (p. 5) simply states: &just getting a better sense of why things are the way they are is often helpful.

Brookfield does not describe critical theory as the only body of thought that informs adult education. But he convincingly takes Horkheimers (1995) case that since critical theory is rooted in the political, specifically in the questioning of economic imbalance and suffering in capitalist society, there will always be a need to consider a frame of reference based on the hope for a more human and equal society. Anyone who has participated as a teacher or student in an institutional structure that mirrors social injustice knows the basis of critical theory; the problems are real, even in the midst of a capitalist society that promotes group think and denies honest critique as an imposition to the status quo.  In the realm of education there exist undeniable social and economic inequalities that arguably should be revealed. Brookfields text delineates the work of critical theorists in a way that can provide mainstream adult educators with the background and confidence to name and address those imbalances.

What this volume adds to writings in critical theory in adult education is an emphasis on practice and the addition of important aspects of race and feminist theory as an integral part of the historical tradition. With such subheadings as: How Hegemony Works and A Racialized Engagement with the Critical Tradition, the text aligns critical theory as a lens for viewing and questioning adult learning in practical ways. Central to the book is the importance of critical theory as a measure against passive acceptance of ideological manipulation.  Brookfield acknowledges the difficulty of supporting such a fundamental idea in the current conservative social and political climate in the United States.  Since most forms of hegemony and social injustice occur implicitly, it is vital to bring forward an honest awareness of the environments, systems, and undercurrents by which that injustice is permitted, or even promoted.  Brookfield reflects a sincere interest in social transformation, and he is not afraid to ask hard questions or bring divergent ideas forward. He argues that in an inescapable climate of right wing domination, &removing ourselves from the influence of others is a revolutionary act& (p. 196).

Knowledge of the historical tradition of critical theory, inclusive of denied voices, permits transformative ways of engaging in teaching and learning. This primer aids the adult education community by offering a timely and practical mode of critical questioning.  Educators who advocate for students, who promote critical reflection, or who question unfair social practices, are already practicing critical theory. What is needed is a useful and readable overview of the genre that brings the skill of serious questioning to the forefront. This well written text provides a meaningful overview of social, political and analytic philosophical theory that never loses sight of the complexities faced by learners. The text is also an important reminder that critical theory is part of a larger historical tradition that is particularly relevant in conservative times.


Gramsci, A.  (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. (Q. Hoare and G.N. Smith, eds.) London: Lawrence and Wishart.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Horkheimer, M. (1995). Critical theory: Selected essays. New York: Continuum.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2484-2486
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11841, Date Accessed: 1/29/2022 12:20:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Veronica Gaylie
    University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, BC
    E-mail Author
    VERONICA GAYLE is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna, British Columbia. She recently developed the new middle school teacher education program and her research and field work involves urban education, critical pedagogy and literacy.
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