Some critics have expressed reservations about the individualized, market-oriented nature of lifelong learning and wonder if it might even exacerbate existing inequalities. Among scholars, there has been concern that disadvantaged groups, such as women and low-income populations, may face greater difficulty than others in accessing opportunities to engage in adult education.
Hsu Min-Hsiung, Director of National Taiwan Normal University’s Adult Education Research Center, has been working to address some of these inequalities through his non-profit Dream City Building Association. Hsu came to the field of adult education through a career in social work, which in Taiwan is closely associated with community colleges and social education.
Community colleges in Taiwan function differently from community colleges in the United States. Rather than providing vocational training or functioning as stepping stones to four-year universities, Taiwanese community colleges primarily aim to promote community development and foster interest in public affairs.
These colleges provide participatory education premised on the belief that political action should not be limited to voting for elected officials. These institutions seek to help train their students in how to participate in dialogue with fellow citizens, and expect the faculty members to learn to foster democratic debate.
In practice, however, Hsu sees this community ethos as less common than desired. “We have to admit that in Taiwan’s community colleges, two out of three are more like continuing education programs in that the emphasis is on leisure and entertainment,” he says. “But we all want more of the former kind.”
According to its website, NTNU’s Department of Adult and Continuing Education aims to cultivate students with a “humanitarian spirit,” training them to value “social responsibility” and “cultural perspectivism.” Aligned with this aim is advocacy for migrant laborers, aboriginal peoples, immigrant spouses, and other underprivileged groups.
“At NTNU, adult education is an avenue of expression for social work,” says Hsu. “But we’re trying to be different from welfare systems, which treat people as clients to be served.”
Hsu explains that he finds working in adult education rewarding because it avoids the stigma often associated with social work. While those who seek counseling may be stigmatized as weak or mentally ill, there is no shame attached to those who pursue continuing education. Because the latter focuses on self-directed learning rather than therapy, it also encourages people to adopt proactive attitudes towards improving their lives.
Furthermore, social education aims to disrupt the idea that learning occurs only through what Brazilian educator Paolo Friere calls the “banking” model of education. While formal education typically involves teachers lecturing to the class in a paternalistic, top-down approach, social education involves teachers and students learning from one another through exchanging ideas. Ideally, teachers respect and seek to cultivate their students’ autonomy.
Hsu’s Dream City Building Association, which collaborates with Wanhua Community College as well as local businesses, stems from a commitment to grassroots education. Inspired by the Unseen Tours project in London, the organization trains homeless people to become tour guides in Taipei’s historic Wanhua District.
The tour-guide classes are divided into two stages. Initially, homeless participants are led on tours by local tour guides and encouraged to converse with their teachers. Next, they narrate their life stories using music, art, and storytelling, and with the help of volunteers they arrange their storylines into a script for use during tours. Besides tour-guide training, the non-profit also trains volunteers to run carpentry, art, and music classes.
Hsu says he is heartened by visible markers of progress. In music class, he noticed that a participant gradually became cleaner, friendlier, and more conscientious about his personal appearance, behavioral changes that Hsu attributes to his new social role as a student.
Although only four of fifteen homeless students stayed for the entire course and just three became employed as tour guides, Hsu explains that what matters more than the results is the learning process. Civic literacy involves learning how to participate in discussions and reaching decisions collectively, so the discussion process is more important than the outcome.
Because such seminars can be arduous, filled with conflicts and differences of opinion, the attrition rate is high. “Most people don’t like it, but a minority of people stay,” Hsu observes. “They know it’s difficult but stay anyway because they think it’s worthwhile.”
An added layer of difficulty comes from the emotional vulnerability required to build the kind of relationships that makes honest dialogue possible. Because the homeless participants of the Dream City Building Association are used to being excluded and looked down on by society at large, they find it difficult to trust other people.
Hsu encourages teachers and volunteers to first share their fears and failures to make the participants feel comfortable. Then once they begin to lower their guards and share their feelings, the volunteers must dedicate themselves to listening. Through this demanding process, all parties learn to compassionately communicate with those with different backgrounds and opinions.