Education for Empowerment of Individuals and Communities

Communities of Empowerment – Chapter & Article Review

Kevin Jenson

Colorado State University

Approaching the concept of empowerment from a western perspective, there are three major views that dominate the discussion. Functional empowerment is the focus of most university and adult training programs. It involves an improvement of skills and performance in one’s roles. Psychological empowerment focuses on giving people the confidence and ability to speak up for themselves. The authors of “Adult Education for the Empowerment of Individuals and Communities” dismiss the first two perspectives in favor of a third they call the critical perspective. They argue that empowerment involves “understanding the causes of injustice and taking action to create more equitable conditions…” (Prins & Drayton, p. 210).

Unfortunately, educators who try to confront injustice often become the cause of further inequality by their failure to recognize the assumptions inherent in their methods of teaching. Karen Bennett provides a deeper look into how educators subconsciously impose their cultural assumptions about education on learners in a way that can actually disempower the people they want to help. In her article titled Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: The Geopolitics of Academic Plagiarism she argues that much of our “…ethical framework is so deeply entrenched in the power structures of the modern world that its values go largely unquestioned in countries at the centre of the world economic system. However, as we move away from the centre towards the semi-periphery and periphery, we find that those values become weaker, and may enter into conflict with another moral code…” (Bennett, p. 57). Unless educators from the center take the time to question the underlying assumptions of their system of education they risk becoming the source of disempowerment for the individuals and communities at the periphery that they oftentimes want to empower.

Bennet offers an example of EFL students that had no problem with copying the work of other people and using it as their own. In fact, their moral code had great value for taking others ideas, using them to create new ideas and adding to the common pool of knowledge. They didn’t understand that the marketplace for books had created a cultural stigma against plagiarism in the western world since the 16th or 17th century. They did not understand how someone could own information or an idea.

In contrast, their teachers came from a world where “modern academic transactions, like other marketplace operations, are governed by relationships of contract” (Bennett, p. 59). Proper citations are necessary in an education system based on competition around the creation and dissemination of ideas for individual success.

Bennet identifies this last mindset as the product of Gesellschaft – a term used by the German philosopher Ferdinand Tonnies to identify a society organized through individuality, contracts, and competition within certain guidelines. Tonnies had used this term to highlight the benefits of another form of social organization he called “Gemeinschaft.” Gemeinschaft literally means community and is based on the idea of commonality in location, values, relationships, life experience and cooperation. It was bound to the land and at the time of his writing was losing influence to Gesellschaft through urbanization.

In cities, people didn’t need each other in order to pursue their own individual interests and so society was structured around contractual relationships that protected self interests. Those who didn’t understand reading, writing, and numbers were at a disadvantage for participation in this more “advanced” form of society. It took years for the wealthy and elite members of society to master these tools for successful competition. Farmers and tradesmen could not leave their work long enough to compete in this way and so they were always at a disadvantage in this Gesellschaft society.

To combat this problem, various organizations within the Gesellschaft society have always taken members of peripheral Gemeinschaft communities to try to help them participate. It feels good to be philanthropic and offer to give people access to the modern and dominant Gesellschaft system of human relationships. Unfortunately, this often fails to empower individuals, but actually “…positions participants as passive recipients or clients” (Prins & Drayton, p. 211).

The one or two people that qualify for support are empowered relative to their Gemeinschaft (peripheral) community, but not relative to the Gesellschaft (dominant) society in which they are still poorly equipped to compete. Prins and Drayton identify this as a major challenge of adult education for empowerment. “It is used to help individuals enrich their lives and gain some power within the existing system (see Inglis, 1997) instead of supporting collective action to subvert social structures” that disempower the entire community (p. 213). The education in itself becomes a system of perpetuating the disempowerment.

The solution to this problem begins by recognizing that the very methods of communicating empowerment may actually be accomplishing the opposite end. The Gesellschaft assumptions of the education system encourage isolation of the individual from their context of community and lead to disempowerment. However, education can also be used as a connecting point for the commonality of a Gemeinschaft community.

Educators often recognize the inherent power of building a Gemeinschaft community around common connections. It is through this type of community that individuals and groups of individuals often begin to feel empowered. “It takes “a great deal of trust, commitment, and support to confront the fear of change” (Suave’, 2001, p.22)…” (p. 216). Prins and Drayton warn that educators need to balance their efforts between building this kind of community and giving students the tools they need to develop this community on their own. They say, “…educators cannot bestow power on others, for power is not a possession to be granted or withheld (Gore, 1992; LeCompte & deMarrais, 1992)” (p. 210). Empowerment must arise from within the context of community and cannot depend on the teacher for its existence.

Prins and Drayton give an of an effective use of education to empower individuals and a community through building Gemeinschaft. In their example, women used the social space created by the education environment to “…disrupt women’s isolation, allowing them to meet with other women and discover common experiences” (p. 214). This led to discussions of community problems and the connections needed to confront them together.

It is difficult to actually allow this to happen because “…educators and participants are beset by challenges such as minimizing funder co-optation, negotiating the tension between service delivery and community organizing, sharing decision-making power, and avoiding paternalism” (p. 217). If the teachers in this example had presupposed (paternalism) that to empower the individuals meant to teach them how to compete in the Gesellschaft community, they would have prevented the women from “wasting their opportunity to learn” their formation of a Gemeinschaft community.

Another struggle Prins and Drayton identify is that “Well-meaning educators may unconsciously act as change agents who determine a priori what empowerment entails and impose this perspective without recognizing learners’ viewpoints (Fiedrich & Jellema, 2003; Freiwith & Letona, 2006)” (p. 216). This particular problem that teachers often encounter which keeps them from responding to the local conditions is that funding comes from some far-away place. This is one of the major struggles for teachers that want to empower adults and communities through education. The access to education is often purchased by financiers that have predetermined criteria for success.

What publishing company would support an education program that empowered adults to “steal” ideas from their authors without accurate citations? Plagiarism is just one example of the way in which academic institutions “…reproduce social and political relations of knowledge and ignorance” (Prins & Drayton, p.210).  It’s not just what is being taught, but the methods that are used in teaching that impose the cultural norms and values upon those that need to be empowered.

Unfortunately, Bennett observes, “…the forces of capitalism, industry and technology which govern our world have tightened the rules of the game, pushing universities into ever-closer partnerships with business, as public sector funding recedes. In a world dominated by patents and copyrights, the plagiarism police are, if anything, becoming even more relentless” (p. 69). Her observation goes beyond simple plagiarism to the social structures that determine students attitudes toward information, learning and community. If students are to be empowered, they cannot simply be added to the Gesellschaft economic competition. They need to be surrounded with a safe community that can give its people the opportunity to approach the learning process as they see necessary.

Teachers who understand this balance will find themselves equipped to stand at the borders of community and society (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft) with the tools necessary for creating communities of empowerment.



Bennett, K. (n.d.) Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: The Geopolitics of Academic Plagiarism [PDF Version]. Retrieved from

Prins, E., & Drayton, B. (2010). Adult Education for the Empowerment of Individuals and Communities. In C. Kasworm, A. Rose, & J. Ross-Gordon (Eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (pp. 209-219). United States of America: SAGE Publications Inc.


One thought on “Education for Empowerment of Individuals and Communities

  1. Very thought provoking! I like how you stress the importance of being aware of one’s own assumptions and the impact that they can have.

    While I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but recall some of Freire’s work. In particular, there’s a great video clip that a classmate shared several semesters back, “An Incredible Conversation,” ( that hits on some of the ideas you discuss.


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