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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



The Vital Need for Engagement in Active Citizenship: Part 2

by Brian Caul
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR DE

/epale/en/file/challenges-adult-educatorsjpgThe Challenges for Adult Educators.jpg

The Challenges for Adult Educators

Part 1 of 'The Vital Need for Engagement in Active Citizenship' is available by clicking the link here.

The Challenges for Adult Educators

In this final instalment we will be exploring the challenge for adult educators in encouraging active citizenship. How important is it for citizens to understand the institutions and structures which govern their lives? In what ways can citizens be helped to believe that, individually and collectively, they can challenge myths and misleading rhetoric?

Citizens should be enabled to challenge assumptions, reflect critically on the options available and even offer alternative routes. Of especial importance, they should demand that social progress has to be underpinned by values which refute prejudice and bigotry, and celebrate inclusiveness and diversity. Individually and collectively, people who are willing to be active citizens in this way can help to transform their world for the common good.

Confronting the myths

What are the challenges for adult educators?

At the outset, it is essential that people are able to examine and reach an understanding of the institutions and structures which have influence over their lives, including laws and governance. As a result, the citizen can move beyond passive resignation about one’s fate to an active belief that the individual or collectivity can really influence and effect social change. 

An understanding of the sources of human prejudice is also of the utmost importance.  Every human act is political, whether placing a vote in a ballot box or carrying out apparently mundane roles within the family. Furthermore, our lives are not static; they are subject to constant dynamic change as we attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to reach resolutions of our uncomfortable contradictory states. This is exemplified in the protest reform movements and eventual legislative changes that achieved greater equality for women in some parts of the world. More perversely, freedom to worship or express religious or ideological beliefs outside the norms of particular societies may be perceived by the indigenous populations as literally a threat to the survival of their own civilizations. Suppression, imprisonment or even death can result at the extreme level. Isolation and alienation may cut off minority ethnic groups from full participation in their chosen societies.

Ironically xenophobic reactions can create physical and attitudinal ghettoes and self-fulfilling prophesies about “others” being “different”. It is manifestly the role of adult educators to confront such bigotry with persuasive evidence about the common human needs among people, and to encourage citizens to reflect critically and honestly on the sources of their own prejudices.

Paolo Freire summarized this process as critical reflection and action leading to praxis – a continuing and open cycle of human learning, in which we try to make sense of and find resolutions to life’s contradictions. (Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  NY: Continuum, 1970.) 

Critical reflection is essentially different from nostalgia or memory. It requires an examination of events or interactions based on evidence for and against possible explanations or propositions. From the macro political level to the everyday life of the individual, all issues can be subject to critical reflection. Only then, can decisions be made soundly about personal or collective action. Is the result of any action likely to produce beneficial change? Who are the likely beneficiaries? Are the probable outcomes going to be consistent with one’s own reviewed social values and goals? No prior knowledge or assumptions can be taken to be the right means by which one realizes the end or goal in a particular situation. There has to be a continual interplay between ends and means which can themselves be subject to change.

Praxis is then the process by which theories, ideas or skills are enacted or realized; and put into practice. The process must involve a commitment to human well-being and a search for truth, based on respect for all other people. As well as being creative and dialogical, the process requires risk-taking and practical judgement as to how to act in a given set of circumstances. People who may themselves have been oppressed or brutalized by other individuals or régimes are afforded the opportunity to act together in ways which can shape and change the world. Importantly, these positive changes can elevate not only the people who activate these changes, but the very oppressors whose ways of thinking may themselves be altered through greater insights. This form of liberating learning is distinguishable from conditioned socialization through which people are like passive recipients, waiting to be filled with given assumptions. This is the essential difference between an autocratic populist regime where conformity to prefabricated norms is required and a vibrant open society where diversity is not only accepted but celebrated.

The validity of personal reflection

On a personal level, much of my own active daily life consists of responses to the many varying levels of transactions with individuals, groups and organizations. They are concurrent, but at varying degrees of resolution or conflict. Within my particular personal, social and political context, I am constantly aware of contradictions around me and within my own outlook. For instance, as a partner, parent and grandparent, raised in a conflicted and insular social environment, I continually re-examine my assumptions about progress in relation to gender equality and the raising of the glass ceiling. Frequently I become aware of contradictory decisions or obstacles which indicate that traditional outmoded notions of gender roles still prevail.

As a scholarship boy, educated in a grammar school and then university, in pursuit of upward social mobility, I listen to the arguments about our need for proper integrated and accessible education at all levels, wondering if I should act more positively to help achieve this.

An amateur musician throughout my life, I have a strong belief that music is a universal language that can engage and inspire people across all cultures, and play a central role in building healthy societies.  In my interactive community of practice, “Music and Cultural Awareness”, on the EPALE website, I invite subscribers to participate in building a virtual music library which can be used for workshops, research or informal sharing.   

My little country, Northern Ireland, is currently facing a massive political crisis. I am hoping fervently that we, as citizens, can reflect critically on our history of turmoil and suffering, and reach a form of praxis, based on shared values of mutual respect and equality of opportunity, which will enable us to maintain and prosper in a continuing peace.

Why are the skills of active citizenship important?            

We are all blessed with a physical planet, rich and diverse in its flora and fauna. However we need to preserve and sustain it through better understanding and coordinated global action. Likewise, we need to learn how to embrace and celebrate the immensely valuable diversity of cultures and traditions across the globe, and engage each other in productive, shared enterprises for the common good. Societies need to reflect on the enriching impact, socially and economically, of newcomers from other cultures. Religious leaders need to put into more visible and unequivocal practice their values of respect and tolerance in relation to other religions and creeds, while acknowledging honestly their vested interests in maintaining their positions of power and influence. Politicians need to listen carefully to constituents, and engage fully with local anxieties and fears, offering constructive, unifying solutions, rather than divisive rhetoric. 

My vision of a positive global future is one where people are encouraged to see the beauty of uncertainty, a dynamic process in which everyone shares ideas, resources and energies in order to achieve continuing social and economic change. By practicing the collective skills of good citizenship, people can be truly empowered for the common good. In the midst of all this, adult educators have a significant role in raising awareness and instilling in citizens  the positive confidence that they can truly influence their futures. 

/epale/en/file/brian-cauljpgBrian Caul.jpg

Brian Caul

Brain Caul has spent 27 years in Higher Education, as an academic and then Director of Student Services. He has been a Board Chair of F&HE Colleges and the RNID (now Action on Hearing Loss), for whom he still acts as a volunteer. Since November 2015, he has been Chair of the Board of Directors of CRAICNI, a vibrant training organization, the aims of which are summed up in its acronym - cultivate respect, appreciate inclusion on communities in Northern Ireland. Brian is an ambassador for EPALE UK and has a keen interest in music and cultural awareness.


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  • Brian Caul's picture

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Eleni.

  • Elena Galifianaki's picture

    Dear Brian,

    I continued reading your article in this second part (Part 1 available here: and find myself agreeing that every single one of us should take ownership and act having the common good in mind starting from the simple things in our everyday lives.

    And as Confucius said: "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".

    Let us all be that single step to forming an active society.

    Thank you!