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University of Wyoming

The Social and Political
by Kathleen Kirsch

New Social Movements

In the beginning of his article Social Revolutionary Learning: The New Social Movements as Learning Sites, Michael Welton (1993b) asks a rather poignant question about the emergence of the new social movements. Are the new social movements (NSM), in our time, particularly privileged sites for the organization of enlightenment and emancipatory praxis? To look at these new social movements and their emergence. Seidman (1994) suggests that the new social movements were born out of turmoil that erupted during the 1960's in many industrialized nations. These mew social movements included feminism, African American issues, lesbian and gay, or Queer theory, Chicano issues, Asian issues, environmentalists, peace, the men's movement and personal and local autonomy, to name just some. In the United States there were many groups looking for social change. Social conflict emerged around ideas of race, gender, class and sexuality. These conflicts generated two types of social movements: civil rights and liberation movements. The post war United States saw the rise of a new type of politics: identity politics. Appealing to the idea that all members of the same oppressed group shared common identity, individuals assuming identities as Blacks, women, and gays organized into ethnic type political communities (Seidman, 1994).

Welton (1993b) suggested that the new social movements are best described by Cohen (1995) who proposed NSM are normatively oriented interactions between adversaries with conflicting interpretations and opposing societal models of shared cultural field. This definition places great emphasis on the capacity of human societies to develop and alter their own orientations through social action situated in the field of relations which includes power and shared cultural orientation (Welton, 1993b, Cohen, 1985, Touraine, 1981). The new social movements do not seek an entire revolution with a change in the centralized state; instead they seek to create an autonomous and exuberant civil society - with important consequences for economic restructuring inevitably following (Welton, 1993b). Hart (1990) suggests that there is a liberating effect the new social movements have upon groups and individuals. A laboratory educational process is there fore conceived of in terms of fostering theoretical consciousness which is capable of understanding and criticizing individual experience in the light of larger social forces, as well as bringing to life the richness of the individual and social differences, this producing a desire both to dwell in and appreciate and to transcend these differences in a process of mutual understanding (135).

From these new social movements there was a new body of knowledge created. People within these groups began to write about their history, their experience, and in doing so, rejected the Eurocentric paradigm by which they were previously sheltered. Now we have many of these NSM groups operating within the University system, giving a possible legitimization to their theory and their experience. It seems that these NSM sought to free them from oppression of the dominant ideology. Was their experience emancipatory and liberating? In what other ways do we see the new social movements operating within the culture? How important are these new social movements to education, particularly adult education?

Social and Political Questions about Education

Three questions are presented in Merriam and Caffarella's (1991) text. These questions include:

  1. Who decides what the learning opportunity will be?
  2. To what goals are the learning activities directed?
  3. Who benefits from these learning activities?

Who decides what the learning opportunities are for people?

Is adult education driven by the needs of the public or is it based upon economic factors within society? According to Jarvis (1986) and Merriam & Caffarela social pressures create pressure within the educational system to which educators react. Giroux (1983) affirms that those in control of the system seek to maintain their power by determining curricula and recreating the social structure and the power structure (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). Grioux (1992) suggests language, which is used within the educational system is maintaining the societal structure and power relations within that structure. Within this perspective, language provides a theoretical service in demystifying the means and processed by which capitalists relations organize and shape different aspects of school life (221). Some would argue that one of the major functions of education is to reproduce the means of production within a capitalist's society. Part of the power that is structured into any organization or culture is the language that a participant must sue to negotiate their understanding of relations within the culture.

Education is a right that American s feel they deserve. However, how regulated should the education be within a society a and who should decide what is being offered? Does a governing body have the right to dictate the educational opportunities that you receive? Cross & McMartan (1984) have developed four levels of intervention by the government (federal, state, and local) within the educational system (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). How do these four divisions operate within our society?

  1. Laissez-faire approach- Education is served best by the development of a free market system.
  2. Encouragement- The State still maintains distance but suggests the involvement of others within an educational program by encouraging goal setting, planning, data collection and other social resources.
  3. Intervention- The state wants to use its resources though the best possible means and insure that its citizens receive a quality product from the educators.
  4. Direct Support and Services- States may intervene with this type of assistance to offer better service statewide. (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991).

How do you think that the new social movements would view these levels of government intervention?

To what goals are the learning activities directed?

Educational ideas often overlook the educational real. Jarvis (1985) suggests that educators often ignore the constraints of the social structure and exists within an ideal situation. Education is often a tool used to preserve society rather than promote social change within a society (Cunningham, 1998, Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). If we look at the goals of the learning activities, there is often an underlying base to which education speaks. There are the economic factors that we must pay attention to, for economics is the basis for our entire society and reproduces many of the social relations that exist. This is a definite example of education being used as a tool to reproduce the social structures instead of change it. Griffith and Fujita-Stark suggests that people support adult education when they perceive it as a solution to a threatening situation. Merriam & Caffarella suggest, most threatening are challenges to economic stability and social order. So while the rhetoric of adult education suggests some rather lofty ideals for the purpose of the endeavor, the reality suggests much more conservative purposes-maintenance of the status quo and economic return are the two primary orientations of those who decide what learning opportunities are offered (277).

Who benefits from these learning activities?

We have been taught that adults participate in education for a variety of reasons. If they have a formal education, then they are more likely to be formal lifelong learners. Those adults that have been socialized into valuing and acquiring these attitudes and skills will be the ones taking advantage of learning opportunities (Merriam & Caffarells, 1991). This sense of value comes from a variety of sources, family, community, success, both personally and economically. The question that should possibly be asked is: Why aren't other adults participating within the formal educational system?

Ross-Gordon (1990) examines models of participation to explain why radical and ethnic minorities are not participating in formal adult education. A study by Keddie (1980) is used to note, the concept of disadvantage in adult education often reflects concern with helping the supposedly different adult, but it neglects to challenge the models by which education controls different access to knowledge and power (Ross-Gordon, 1990). She suggests there is a dominant ideology, which does not allow minorities to feel a sense of self-esteem and motivation, which is needed for success.

Ross-Gordon also uses a theory proposed by Ogbu (1987) which describes a collective process of cultural inversion through which members of a minority group may reject ¥certain forms of behavior, certain events, symbols, and meanings as not appropriated to them because they are characteristics of members of another population (e.g. White Americans); at the same time, however, they claim other forms of behavior, other events, symbols, meanings as appropriate for them because these are not characteristic of the members of the other population' (12). Both scholars suggest that this use and rejection of meaning effects school performance.

The questions I have now are within the context of the new social movements. How is adult education taking place? Do they have a formalized system outside of the University system to offer their ideas to the public? Is the adult education outside of the University system self-directed? Do learning circles exist where this education takes place? Are these ideas being built into other courses? How has society shaped our societal norms of education? What role do economic factors play in these political and social questions?