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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


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  • Knowing the personal, as well as academic, side of Jack was one of the joys of my life. He had an impish irreverence blended with a respect for true scholarship and activism.

    It was through him that I, and our students, met people like Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Imagine being able to tell grad. students at a summer school "on Thursday Myles will be visiting our class" or "next Wednesday Paulo Freire will be here to chat to us". I couldn't believe my luck.

    He loved stirring things up in scholarly settings like academic conferences by asking difficult questions. And several times I remember him saying to an earnest academic expert who asked for questions - 'I have no idea what you just said'.

    I remember too falling asleep in a presentation he gave at a conference in upstate New York. He was assumed by my napping, rather than angry with it, and afterwards said something like "guess I need to use more overheads"

    When mutual friends heard I was going to work with Jack at TC several of them were worried for me. They said he was a fearsome and temperamental academic who didn't suffer fools gladly. And that was a side of him we all knew - the ability to see through bullshit and call it out.

    But behind a sometimes brusque facade there was a completely soft center. I remember him dissolving into tears at one of the many student gatherings he hosted at his Ansonia apartment when a student sang a spiritual. I remember Edee reducing him to a little boy with a raised eyebrow and a sighing "Oh Jack". I got married in his apartment and remember how happy he was for me and how attentive he was when my kids were born. If ever I had a success he was unfailingly and unreasonably pleased for me.

    So Jack, wherever you are, give 'em hell! And take satisfaction in the multiple times you touched people in very deep ways.- Stephen Brookfield
  • On so many occasions I have stopped to reflect on "What would Jack say?" Our profession has evolved over the past fifty years becoming more professional while adapting to the changing demands on our adult students. As an adult education teacher, program manager, state director and national trainer, at each juncture I would reflect on Jack's work as guidance for the paths to follow.

    I was so impressed when after reading his research in grad school I had a chance to meet and talk with Jack. He was so approachable and took the time to help me explore and to discuss issues with me. He was a teacher above all.

    I loved the way he expected excellence in the work we did and in all parts of life. He and I served on the technical assistance group for the national evaluation of adult education in the early 1990s. At dinner in a neighborhood restaurant all of our meals were served accept one. We waited and waited. Finally Jack called the manager over and said "This is unacceptable." The rest of our party was willing to sit and wait but not Jack. "This is unacceptable." That made such an impression on me and it inspired me to stand up for others and declare "this is unacceptable" rather just accepting poor service or poor work.

    To lose Jack and Sam Halperin in the same year is a great loss to our profession. We all stand on their shoulders as we do our best to continue their work. - Lennox McLendon
  • I was deeply interested in Mezirow's theory while in graduate school and have continued that passion with my own students now. While on the Board of AAACE, I ran into Jack in a waiting area, while he was preparing to receive and award. I had questions and he very graciously took the time to answer them in a way that made me think deeper about my questions. It was a thrilling moment for me that I will never forget. - Kathy Peno, Professor of Adult Education, University of RI
  • Knowing Jack as a student was truly one of the best parts of my life. He and I first met during my interview for the AEGIS program; I had not expected to meet him so quickly and contrary to all expectations, he was funny, warm, and welcoming. He set out to be the "tough" questioner but instead engaged with me as a professional--my interview was truly pleasurable. I loved the irreverence that Stephen describes and very much valued his way of understanding the bigger picture so well.

    In trying to tell others outside of AEGIS and Teachers College about the loss I am feeling from learning of Jack's passing, I realize that I will never be able to describe what I learned from and with him and how much he meant to all of us who were fortunate enough to be his students and colleagues. An amazing man on so many levels.

    May he rest in peace--his work here was done well and with grace. - Barbara A. Macaulay

  • Thank you for such an insightful article about Jack Mezirow, who moved the field not only forward but in so many new directions. - Caroline Vaughan, Ed.D. (TC)

  • Jack Mezirow visited Athens together with Edee in January 2007. They stayed for eight days. Jack had a full day presentation on his ideas and conducted group work with 300 participants. Edee presented her experience from her perspective transformation during her return to community college. During their stay, Jack gave interviews and worked intensively with the Hellenic Community of TL.
    One day, Edee, Jack and I travelled to Delphi. There, in the "navel of the earth", between myriads of symbols and archetypal memories, we sat in a stand of the ancient theater. Jack confessed that he did not know much about ancient Greek Drama and he asked me to narrate some stories. I told them the story of the Oresteia by Aeschylus, in which the Furies pursue Orestes, who killed his mother, while he is wondering whether it is right for him to be taunted for ever, since his mother killed his father. Athena intervenes and declares that it should not be the Gods that will give the solution, but the people of Athens, who will judge Orestes fairly, based on testimony and evidence...
    At this point, Jack, very excited says: "Amazing! As far as I know, it is the first time that in a work of art the final solution is not sought out from a Superior Force, but from people's judgment, through discourse" And then, turning to his wife: "Edee, where in New York is the seminar on ancient tragedy we have been told about taking place? I want to register!" He was 84.

    Alexis Kokkos

  • I am one of the people mentioned in the article who flew from Alaska every month for two years to be with Jack and his faculty colleagues. Jack's razor sharp mind and fondness for piano keys neck ties, orange dress shirts and one-size-too-big jackets were the perfect antidote for jet lag.

    After graduation, I had the opportunity to welcome him on a visit to Anchorage. A world traveler, he was delighted to be off the beaten path. When I shared a problem about a pesky board of directors, rather than offer a theoretical solution or probing for implicit meaning, he said: "Oh, why don't you just hire someone to deal with them."

    Fast forward nearly 25 years, and there I am in Tokyo, Japan leading a seminar for my employer which included identifying assumptions. Though not quite transformational, it worked well as usual and led to some surprising insights.

    So "Thank you, Jack." Your work and spirit live on in countless ways and in myriad parts of the world you loved. It's a blessing to have had you here for 91 years. - Doug Barry

  • I enjoyed the article regarding Jack. I look forward to learning more about his work. As a TC alumnus and as spouse of a member of the Young President's Organization I would like to clarify that they are Presidents 50 and younger. - Sabrina Bober-Levin
  • I returned to school as an adult and graduated from Columbia's School of Genersl Studies, but it was not until I got to Teachers College as a doctoral student that I encountered Jack's theory of perspective transformative and Jack ofcourse. At first I reflected on my own transformation but then I wanted to to figure out how theories of adult learning could be applied to teacher education. Jack's work influenced me personally and my work as an academic and a practioner. Thank you Jack for your legacy. - Mary Leou, EdD (TC) New York University
  • I met Jack Mezirow first through the enthusiastic stories from my good colleague and friend Alexis Kokkos and, then, through his own books and papers. His transformative learning theory Ā«talkedĀ» to me immediately, I found in it an exceptionally useful tool for my own context, the training of teachers of English as a foreign language. I was therefore really eager to attend his talk at the event organised in his honour in Athens, in 2007. I was immediately taken aback by the simplicity of his presentation, his subdued tone, his genuine courtesy, as well as the genuine interest he showed in every question that was addressed to him. I remember going near him, during the break, and talking to him briefly about the possible implications of his theory for my field. In the few moments we talked (there were more people waiting to talk to him of course) I was really impressed by his humbleness, the attention he paid to what I was saying and, especially, how open he was to everything he heard. It was obvious that he did not want to give me a particular "directiveĀ», or tell me explicitly what I should doā?"on the contrary, he encouraged me to pursue my own understanding of transformative learning theory, in fact he insisted that his theory is open to differentiation, depending on the idiosyncrasies of every different context. I left the talk more enthusiastic than ever before. At the same time, I felt that strange calmness and sense of responsibility, emotions that really great teachers engender in their students.

    Nicos Sifakis
    Hellenic Open University
  • Jack Mezirow had a profound impact on my life. I was in the first cohort of AEGIS, an innovative program he designed for operating professionals in the human development field. Of all the challenges I have experienced in my professional life I consider surviving the US Marine Corps Officer Candidate Course and AEGIS the two most daunting, and the most satisfying. Both were personally transformative. While in AEGIS I changed careers, from a trade association in NYC to an elite university hours from New York. Settling on the actual focus of my dissertation was difficult, I will always remember Jackâ?Ts humor, patience and insight. He asked, â?ťIf you expect to finish this in your lifetime or mine you have to address some real issue. What is a major focus or concern of the head of the department in which you are working?â?ť My boss, the dean, and I came up with a project that not only satisfied my academic requirements but also greatly benefited my school and the industry it served. My tribute to Jack in my dissertation was heartfelt -- he practiced what he preached when it came to adult education.
    - Fred Antil, EdD, '86
  • I was fortunate to be a member of AEGIS 9. This program that Jack Mezirow created set a tone for serving adult learners that carried through from TC/Columbia into my own practice at two different universities. His legacy will live on through the large number of us who were fortunate enough to be a part of AEGIS and to have him as one of our faculty. Thank you, Jack. - Fred Garlett
  • In 1977 I wrote to Jack Mezirow saying I wanted to study adult education at TC. Having an exchange of letters about why I want to do that, he welcomed me with warm generosity. Nothing of that changed over the years except to experience that support as a student and then as a colleague and friend. At a time like this when such a large gap opens in the spaces of 'significant others' so many memories come to mind: In class, being party to the Edee effect not only about TL theory but her regular softening impact on an otherwise brash (on the exterior only) Jack, 'Oh Jack! you can't do that' or Oh Jack! we must do something about that.' And they did. Often together. Wherever they are, together they will be formidable. There better be some critical reflection and social justice. Sad. And condolences to Andy whom they loved dearly and talked about all the time. - Ted Fleming (MA, 1979; EdD 1980)
  • I fell into his course by accident--I needed one more, and it fit into my schedule. What a gift! I loved watching his mind work and then seeing him transition into laughter a second later. - Nancy Kaczmarek, GNSH
  • For me, he is still alive in his books. - Khoshnam Rahmani
  • As my dissertation advisor and mentor, Jack was a great inspiration to me. He helped us all look beyond the content and skills to be learned and see the enormous potential of working with adults to encourage transformation in our thinking, perspectives and relationships. - Robert M. Anderson, Teachers College, International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR)
  • I was very saddened to learn of Jack's death. He was both my teacher and mentor and certainly an inspiration to me. It was through him that I became acquainted with recognized practitioners which included Malcolm knowles, Steven Brookfield and so many others. Jack will surely be missed by all. - Maurice H. Margotta
  • Thank you, Jack, and the AEGIS program for changing my professional and personal life. My TC experience was enhanced by my relationship with you! - Anonymous