Change, power and adult learning in an accelerating world

John Field
In recent years the notion of power has taken a back seat in debates about adult learning. Although adult education has long been understood both as a means of promoting emancipation and citizenship on the one hand, and as enabling adaptation to the demands of employers and state on the other, these broad purposes are often discussed in terms that avoid the question of power, or do so in minimal ways. Explicit attention to relations of power and domination are addressed much more rarely.
I want to restate the idea of power as a central dimension of our understanding of adult learning and the context in which it functions. Of course, this requires us to consider why it is that power has ceased to be visible in our analyses of adult learning. Perhaps this is partly because of the decline of utopian thinking, among adult educators as among the wider society, an example of a cultural-political shift that Fukuyama exaggeratedly called the ‘end of history’. But it is also a product of a process of change in the relations of domination and inequality in contemporary European societies, a process which has tended to entrench and detach elite groups both from the reach of the (national) state and from any wider social visibility.
This process is in turn associated with a general if uneven trend towards social polarisation, prompted not least by the economic globalisation that the European Union exists both to promote and to channel. For empirical evidence, we may turn to the Great British Class Survey, a monumental sociological study of stratification in one of Europe’s largest nations. This study may be of particular interest to researchers in our field because of its deployment (and refinement) of Bourdieu’s ideas of multiple capitals. Among its most striking findings are the existing of an increasingly wealthy, cosmopolitan and socially insulated hyper-elite at one extreme, and an increasingly socially disconnected, immobile and insecure ‘precariate’ at the other.
It is by no means clear that such social configurations can provide the basis for political inclusion and social solidarity across borders. On the contrary: mobilities of different kinds contribute to the economic and social polarisation process. At one end is the mobility of cosmopolitan elites, as well as of the highly educated and highly skilled, who are ‘at home’ in an international habitus and indeed are recognised and rewarded for their mobility; at the other are marginal groups, such as refugees and job seekers, whose access to mobility is severely constrained and whose mobile status is stigmatised. 
These economic and social changes are combined with political developments that have rather interesting consequences. First, we can see a rise in radical nationalist populisms across much of Europe – including, belatedly, in Germany. Several studies have demonstrated the appeal of these movements to those who have been ‘left behind’ and who are anxious about the future and angry with the political class as a whole. Second, the long hegemony of social democracy in Northern Europe appears to be in what may well prove a terminal retreat. The language of ‘neo-liberalism’ may well be used in a loose and even lazy manner, but its widespread use points to a pervasive sense of insecurity and anxiety among the public sector professional service class, as well as to the influence of the ideal of the free market.
These political developments are highly significant for the future of adult education in Europe, which emerged and grew in the context of welfare regimes that were either products of or responses to social democracy. The recent policy documents of the European Union focus principally upon adult education as a coping strategy, with employability serving as its main mechanism for social inclusion. At the same time, adult education in many European nations has been subjected to a form of de facto privatisation, with the state pulling back from direct provision. The social and economic effects of de-institutionalising provision are by no means unilinear, but counter-influences to corporate and state actors are weak in the absence of influential social movements.
In these circumstances, researchers in our fast-moving field face new demands and challenges. Simply mapping and seeking to understand the rapid processes of change in adult learning, and the new and multiple demands of adult learners, could itself be seen as challenge enough. But the demands and challenges have become particularly acute with the trend for policymakers and corporate actors to pursue ‘evidence based interventions’. University based researchers do not have a shining record of producing such evidence, in contrast to those who work in think tanks, corporations, or voluntary agencies.
Power relations impinge upon researchers and their work as well as on the wider social and economic field. This poses a tricky question: if our role as researchers demands that we ‘speak truth to power’, what will we actually say? And if we are not speaking truth to power, then what on earth is our research for?