3. The Liberal Approach: Culture & Critical Thinking

3. The Liberal Approach: Culture & Critical Thinking

Cultural knowledge and critical thinking skills have long been seen as being at the centre of our western culture and democracy. A liberal education has long been assumed to be what is meant when someone is considered “educated.” One of the most prominent adult education scholars in this tradition throughout the latter half of the 20th century and on to today is Stephen Brookfield.

Stephen BrookfieldBrookfield has written extensively on the topic of critical thinking, which he argues is central to the very idea of education and democracy. Brookfield has written on how adult learners can be helped to critically challenge ideology and prejudice…how to “unmask power” by basing arguments and points of view on logic and reason—that is, the logic and reason of our dominant western culture.

The history of a liberal arts education dates to classical antiquity. The very name, “liberal,” dates back to the Latin word, “liberalis.” The educated class during the Roman empire as known as the litteratus who could communicate in Latin.
For citizens of ancient Greece and Rome, a liberal education was considered essential for every free citizen.

Let’s consider what it means when someone says, often with some level of admiration, “They are ‘well educated.’” What does it mean to say a person is “educated”?

For many, it has to do with being learned. And, if we ask what that means, the usual understanding is that being learned involves being knowledgeable in areas such as languages, philosophy, literature and science. The focus is on general knowledge and intellectual capacities such as reason and judgment. For writers like Brookfield, teaching and helping adults to enhance their critical thinking skills and build their intellectual capacities in normative cultural ways is vital if one is to succeed in our society.

If vocational education has ancient traditions, so does liberal education. From the study of English literature in public schools to the discipline of the Humanities in universities, a liberal education has long been the foundation of universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. And, although we might not think about it, our own field of adult literacy has a long history of liberal education. Even the brief history of literacy presented in Section Two depicts the goals of cultural knowledge as well as morality and good citizenship that have been the foundation of literacy programs for centuries (Quigley, 2006).

 “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
- Socrates

However, and not surprisingly, what we teach in our literacy programs can be “contested territory.” This is where the norms of the dominant culture get questioned. Educators and learners alike can, and do, ask such questions as: “Whose culture?” “Whose history?” And, “Who decided those values need to be my values?”

Here is an experience I had that might exemplify this.

In the 1970s, I was an instructor in Fort McMurray in the Vocational Technical (Voc-Tech) department of an Alberta Vocational Centre (an AVC that later became Keyano College). It was understood that our job was to prepare adult learners to enter the college’s trade programs. This was a vocational and technical institution so, not surprisingly, programs such as carpentry, welding, auto mechanics, and heavy equipment operation and preparing to be cooks in Northern construction camps were the types of programs offered. The goal for the AVC was to help learners get jobs in the local burgeoning oil sands industry.

Shirley was our Voc-Tech English teacher. She had no interest in welding or auto mechanics. She was insistent the Voc-Tech students would study at least one Shakespeare play before they left her class. Seen as kind of a “crackpot,” she was often asked by her co-teachers and the management how would Shakespeare help them work in the oil industry? Her answer was blunt: “It will help them succeed in society.” Shirley’s perspective and approach was to build learners’ cultural knowledge and critical thinking skills. Her view, passionately expressed, was: “Life involves more than driving a bulldozer!” While some thought her view was irrelevant, laughable, even “snobbish,” and some argued she should teach vocational English aimed at the trades, tellingly no one on staff seriously disagreed with her, including instructors in the trades or heavy equipment operation department.

Ways to Use the Liberal Approach

Following are the steps for applying the liberal approach as cited in Pratt’s book on teaching in adult and higher education (1998, p. 112). You might notice how close this is to Ausubel’s Advance Organizers method described in Section Four. And, you may recognize how Cattell’s crystallized intelligence, discussed there as well, is central to helping adults add new learning to existing brain pathways.

Pratt gives us seven principles for teaching in the liberal—what he calls developmental—approach:

1. Prior knowledge is key to learning. (See Advance Organizers in Section Four.)

2. Prior knowledge must be activated. (See Advance Organizers in Section Four.)

3. Learners must be actively involved in constructing personal meaning (i.e., understanding) – the linkages are more important than the elements. (See Crystallized Intelligence in in Section Four.)

4. Making more, and stronger, links requires time.

5. Context provides important cues for storing and retrieving information. (See Crystallized Intelligence in in Section Four.)

6. Intrinsic motivation is associated with deep approaches to learning. Extrinsic motivation…is associated with surface approaches to learning. (See the VVSE formula for motivational teaching in Section Four.)

7. Teaching should be geared toward making the teacher increasingly unnecessary: that means the development of learner autonomy as well as the intellect. (See Self-directed Learning in Section Five.)

Read More

Brookfield, S.D. (1988). Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S.D. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M.S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pratt, D. (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.