Jack Mezirow, Who Transformed the Field of Adult Learning, Dies at 91
Teachers College emeritus professor Jack Mezirow, a former international community development consultant whose paradigm-changing theory of adult learning was partly inspired by watching his wife return to graduate school in middle age, died in September at age 91
At a time when adult learning focused primarily on the mastery of basic skills, Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning “reached right into changes of the identity,” wrote the adult education theorists Peter Sutherland and Jim Crowther. Transformative learning theory focuses on what Mezirow himself described as “a critical dimension of learning in adulthood that enables us to recognize and reassess the structure of assumptions and expectations which frame our thinking, feeling and acting.” The theory has helped trigger sweeping changes and ongoing debate on fronts ranging from social activism to graduate and adult education, to human resources development. It also forms the basis for AEGIS (Adult Education Guided Intensive Study), the unique doctoral program in adult learning founded by Mezirow at TC in 1982 and since replicated worldwide.
“Jack’s work has inspired a wealth of empirical case studies that have given the field of adult learning an entirely new order of theoretical legitimacy,” said Mezirow’s former TC colleague Stephen Brookfield, an adult learning scholar who holds the John Ireland Endowed Chair at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “At AEQ [Adult Education Quarterly, where Brookfield is a consulting editor], we could fill every issue with papers critiquing, refining and developing Jack’s ideas. Yet his influence extends far beyond adult learning. He was invited to speak all over the world, and his work has been used by people in medicine, corporations, social work, elementary schools and the military.”
Born in 1923 in Fargo, North Dakota, John D. Mezirow earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Sciences from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in adult education from the University of California at Los Angeles. He worked as a consultant in adult literacy and community development in Asia, Africa and Latin America for the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization and the United States Agency for International Development, as well as for the Asia Foundation and World Education. After directing extension programs at the University of California, he joined the faculty of Teachers College in 1968 as Professor of Adult and Continuing Education.
By that point, John Dewey’s progressive education theory had formed the bedrock of Mezirow’s thinking. (He later said that the task he set himself was to “analyze what that learning experience is that people have when they learn democracy.”) He had absorbed Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigms (practices that define scientific thinking during particular periods of time); Paulo Freire’s theorizing of conscientization, or critical consciousness of the world; and, in particular, Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action, which holds, among other things, that the different social sciences must co-exist “under one roof” in a dialogue aimed at emancipating human thinking. He had been influenced by Herbert Blumer, an interpretive sociologist who argued that people interpret reality on the basis of previously internalized socio-cultural symbols. And he had also read Transformations, a book by the psychiatrist Roger Gould which argues that adults develop psychologically through a “dismantling of the illusions of safety developed in childhood.”
All these influences crystallized for Mezirow during the early 1970s when his wife, Edee, enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College to complete her undergraduate education. For both Mezirows, the experience was indeed transformative: Edee Mezirow (who passed away in July) went on to serve as Director of Development for both the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham dance companies and The New 42nd Street (New York City’s project to renovate Times Square). Inspired by her experience, her husband undertook a massive study of women returning to community colleges in the United States, seeking to “identify factors that characteristically impede or facilitate” their learning. Mezirow and his team determined that most of the women had undergone “a personal transformation” and delineated a series of phases of change that included a “disorienting dilemma,” a “critical assessment of assumptions,” “exploration of options for new roles,” and “building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships.”
In 1978, Mezirow introduced his theory to the world in a paper titled “Perspective Transformation,” published in AEQ. (The most complete version appears in his 1991 book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning.) He also presented it at that year’s Adult Education Research Conference.
“He got a standing ovation,” recalled Mezirow’s former doctoral student Lyle Yorks (Ed.D. ’95), Associate Professor of Adult and Continuing Education and current Director of the AEGIS program. “And then in five years everyone was critiquing it – but that’s the academic dialogue. Jack always said that to make an impact you’ve got to have disciples who extend your ideas and critics who attack them, so that the disciples then address those criticisms and the theory continues to evolve.”
Much of the criticism, in Mezirow’s case, has come from those who feel that he turned away from the social activist implications of adult learning in favor of a focus on individual growth and development. In particular, many in the nonprofit and community development spheres took issue with the emergence of adult learning as a tool used by corporations to establish a competitive edge. Mezirow – who himself consulted with some companies, and at one point was retained by the Young Presidents Association, an organization of corporate presidents under the age of 40 – was sometimes spoken of in connection with corporate learning gurus such as Peter Senge, author of The Learning Organization. His work was also taught by Harvard business theorist Chris Argyris.
“There was a feeling in some quarters that adult education was being bought out by capitalism,” says Victoria Marsick, Professor of Education and Co-Director of TC’s J.M. Huber Institute, who as a graduate student helped Mezirow gather data for his study of college reentry programs. “But Jack was very much a social activist, and he took a stand that adults need to remember and put forward social justice. Certainly he recognized that if you’re not literate, skilled and competent, you can’t make your way in the world – so you need the scientific method. But he also believed that you must have emancipatory learning that looks at power and positionality.”
To that end, Marsick points out, Mezirow helped found the International League for Social Commitment in Adult Education (now defunct). Yet perhaps a more important impact he made on corporate thinking related to how management viewed employees.
“There’s been an evolution in the corporate world from ‘human relations’ to ‘human resources,’ which is the notion that we’re investing in people,” Yorks says. “On the one hand, that’s great because it’s brought about a greater interest in learning – but at the same time, when you use language like ‘human capital,’ you’re treating people as commodities. And I remember, as a student, sitting in class one day and hearing Jack say that people shouldn’t be resources for organizations, organizations should be resources for people.’ So he was very much someone who put pressure on the human resource development field to focus on people and not just on the organization’s performance.”
Perhaps most of all, Marsick says, Mezirow felt that “there must be a communicative domain, a space for free and informed debates and dialogue that enable critical thinking.” The AEGIS doctoral program that Mezirow created at Teachers College was intended as precisely such a space. Designed to serve people working in the fields of adult education, learning and leadership, AEGIS brings together, ideally in equal proportions, mid-level professionals from private industry (future chief learning and chief talent officers), health care, higher and K-12 education, and community, religious and nongovernmental organizations.
“Jack’s vision was to create a highly diverse mix of self-directed learners with the capacity for critically reflective and collaborative dialogic learning,” Marsick says.
“The rationale, which Jack was known for, was to bring people together to challenge their underlying assumptions, develop a more inclusive mindset and understand the experiences and perspectives of others,” Yorks says.
“He loved that in AEGIS we had a brigadier general sitting next to a church-based community organizer – and that each had to look for similarities in the other’s experiences while also remaining mindful of the constraints of their different contexts” Brookfield says.
“Jack was a romantic, in the sense that he truly believed that if you put people with all those differences in a room, they’d negotiate the powerful differentials of their mindsets and backgrounds and engage in a meaningful dialogue,” says Jeanne Bitterman, Senior Lecturer in the AEGIS program and Mezirow’s former doctoral student. “Our program is still constructed around that outlook, though we’ve learned over the years that it takes expertise to assist those conversations.”
AEGIS was among the very first doctoral program in any field to employ a cohort model, in which a group of students stays together for the duration of their learning experience. There was no grading, an approach designed to reduce competitiveness among students and promote dialogue. The program was also groundbreaking in bringing students together just once a month, for an intensive two-day session, rather than for weekly classes.
“The fact that it was monthly immediately opened it up to people across North America,” Brookfield says. “We had people flying from Tampa to Alaska, and even one woman whose husband had been posted to Saudi Arabia. That ensured a remarkable breadth of students, and it also meant that the program was designed around a great deal of individual contact between professors and students during the times between class meetings, via letters and phone calls. Typically in graduate school, you only get that kind of attention from professors at the dissertation stage, but here we were providing it from the get-go.”
Also unique, Brookfield says, is that AEGIS faculty were “united by a common idea.”
“In other programs, you have a historian over here and learning theorist over there, and they might work well together, but they don’t share a unifying philosophical vision,” he says. “In AEGIS, though, all the faculty shared the desire for people to become critically reflective about their assumptions and practices as adult educators. So in every course we’d be asking, ‘What are you learning about how you make decisions?’ It was very exciting.”
Not that Mezirow wanted students to parrot back his ideas.
“He welcomed challenges to his theories – he never took them as an affront,” Bitterman says.
“He was a joyful subversive – he loved the fun of an intellectual joust,” Brookfield says.
Indeed, Mezirow continued to refine and adapt his theory, particularly in response to developments in other fields. During the 1980s he spent two years working with Roger Gould in an unsuccessful but prescient attempt to create an interactive software program that would enable people to self-diagnose emotional issues that were impeding their personal and professional growth. In more recent years, he became interested in brain chemistry. After retirement, he also spent time with academics in Italy, Greece, and other countries that have become interested in transformative learning theory.
“You’d visit his apartment and he’d be reading all these very intimidating looking books,” Brookfield said. “He was thinking, ‘How does this connect to a comprehensive theory of adult learning. What new things do I need to think about?’ The idea of saying ‘I developed this theory and now I’m done’ was anathema to him.”
Mezirow is survived by a son, Andrew, a professional sea captain, maritime studies instructor and federal Fisheries Policy Advisor who lives in Seward, Alaska.
Jack Mezirow’s many books include Transformative Learning in Practice (2009, with Edward Taylor); Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspective on a Theory in Progress (2000, with associates); Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood, which received the 1990 Frandson Award for Outstanding Publication in Continuing Education; and Last Gamble on Education, (1975, with Gary Darkenwald and Alan Knox), a study of adult literacy programs in the United States that received the Oakes Award for Outstanding Research in Adult Education.
Later this month, TC will host the 11th annual International Transformative Learning Conference, an event created by Mezirow in 1998. This year’s iteration will feature a special session to honor Mezirow and the inaugural presentation of The Jack Mezirow Living Theory of Transformative Learning Award, inspired by its namesake’s efforts to engage the field of adult education in thinking theoretically about adult learning through both research and practice. – Joe Levine
Much of the information in this story was taken from “Jack Mezirow: In Search of a Social Theory of Adult Learning,” a chapter by Victoria Marsick and Matthias Finger that appears in Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education.
Published Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014