What is America?

Over the past decade, I have come to realize that many people do not know what America is; what makes America unique as a nation, and what it stands for. This is troublesome to say the least. So here is a brief primer for those who are interested.

First, a few things that America is NOT:

Is America a geographical area, political borders, or a particular mapping of territory? No. This country has changed shape many times in its history, yet still remains a nation.

Is America a people?  No. Those who created this country have long since passed. Since then we have seen waves of immigration in the millions. So we America is not about any group or subset of people.

Is America a land of Laws?  No.  We have laws that are very similar to many other countries, so many are not unique to us. Our laws have also changed drastically over the past two hundred years. So we may be governed by laws, the country is not defined by them.

Is America about shared values?  No. (but it tried to be!) This nation started off with plurality as a central paradigm. Our forefathers enshrined a very well crafted set of values in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and these values are what made America great. Still, these values have slowly evolved over time as new values came into the fold.

Is America about an ideology, religion or philosophical orientation?  No, no, and no. America is no more a Christian nation than it is a Muslim nation. Our founding fathers expressed atheistic and agnostic views, and they very strongly cautioned future generations regarding the separation of church and state. So we are not defined by any particular religion.

Is America about military strength, technology, entrepreneurship, trade, diversity, the English language, or any one of the thousands of other facets that might accurately describe us?  NO! These characteristics are features , but they certainly do not DEFINE us.

So what IS America?

America is a Constitutional Federal Republic.  So it is our Constitution that defines us above all else.  And those shared values mentioned above?  We used to hold many common values sacred. Ask any immigrant who arrived here prior to the 1990’s and they will tell you the same thing – all had to assimilate and adopt the core values upon which this country was founded. Every wave of immigrants faced opportunities and challenges; from the Chinese to the Italians, from Germans to the various Hispanic peoples, each group faced discrimination, poverty, and difficulty. But all assimilated, and each group thrived in the long run.

But they came here because of our Constitution and our values. The values shared by these early immigrants included individual liberty, personal responsibility, accountability, industriousness, merit, justice, fairness, and equal rights, to name several.   

Our founding fathers certainly could not solve every problem facing the country in the late 1700’s. To expect such a thing would be incredibly naïve. They did not address a few very obvious problems, such as slavery, religion, women’s rights, and colonialism to name just a few. Sadly, we have yet to adequately resolve these issues in the intervening 200+ years aided by incredible leaps in technology and prosperity.  

They did, however, leave us a nearly perfect country, along with structures and a blueprint of sorts for its improvement.

And we were handed this country with the hardest work already done!

So as you spend time alone or with your loved ones this week, I hope you will reflect on how far astray we have drifted from the ideals gifted to us by our founding fathers. And despite our differences and challenges, I hope you will find cause to celebrate and to be mindful of our mutual blessings. 

It is in our hands now, and I hope we will do what’s right in the coming years; to strive for a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our children.

Happy Thanksgiving

The Secret Path to the Ivy League

By Richard S. Hyland

Each year a new wave of high school students apply to college with the hope of gaining acceptance to a selective college or university. Of course where there is opportunity and prestige there is also competition, and perhaps nowhere is this more manifest than in gaining entrance into a top school.  Many students, despite having a strong background in high school are edged out in the fierce competition. 

Fully ninety-five percent of students who gain entrance to Princeton and Yale each year are in the top ten percent of their graduating high school classes, and the other six Ivies are similarly weighted with top students.  Those students not in the top ten percent may include legacies (students whose parents attended the same school), students from states with lower representation at that particular school (think Alaska) or students who have other strengths like unique creative abilities or a fresh perspective as demonstrated in their admissions essays.  This leaves many excellent and highly qualified students out in the cold. 

Most students who are rejected from their first choice simply move on to their second or third choice schools, while others may appeal the decision.  (Many, though not all, top schools offer applicants the ability to appeal the decision, but most students do not gain entry upon appeal according to the College Board.)

Another, less obvious way to gain entry to a top tier school is to start at a community college.  Perceptions of community colleges vary greatly depending on whom you ask, but it might be surprising to some that community college students regularly transfer to top ranked four-year colleges.  For parents, Community colleges have great appeal due to their affordability, academic support, and proximity to home among other things.  But a lesser known benefit is that they can also serve as an alternate pathway into elite colleges. 

While hard statistics on the number of students who gain acceptance to top schools in this way are hard to come by.  “Parents and students have been using this approach forever,” says Professor John Christesen, Chairman of the Department of Business at Westchester Community College.  “Over the years, many of our best students have gone on to great schools like Wharton [University of Pennsylvania], NYU, Clarkson and ILR [the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell]. This year we have a handful of alumni attending Cornell.”

Not far from Westchester, Rockland Community College also has many success stories.  On average ten to twelve students transfer from RCC to the NYU Steinhard School of Education on scholarships each year.  “For the last two years in a row one of our students has received a full scholarship to Harvard,” offers Len Gersten from the Student Services department at RCC.  “Each year we have students who transfer to Columbia, Brown, and Cornell.”

Author Peter Sacks suggests that the eventual payoff to students who attend elite colleges – those from of all ethnic backgrounds – can be extraordinary.  Graduates of elite schools out-earn counterparts nationwide by almost $40,000 a year and are far more likely to enter highly paid, prestigious professions. According to Sacks, 3 percent of college graduates nationally become physicians, while 15 percent of graduates from prestigious colleges do so.  With so much at stake, it is no surprise that students and parents from all backgrounds are desirous of these colleges.

If the elite colleges can afford to be so selective, one might wonder why they accept transfer students at all.  There are in fact several benefits these colleges gain by admitting transfer students.  First, it can alleviate the need for student housing given the fact that freshman tend to require on-campus housing more than upper classmen – and transfer students often come in as juniors.  It can also help offset attrition and increase enrollment in higher-level courses. 

According to Cathleen Sheils, Associate Director and Transfer Coordinator at Cornell University, “Community College students bring their unique experiences to their transfer University.  Often they have a breadth of leadership and work experience and are able to transition by getting involved in student organizations, research labs and on campus employment at their four year University.”

According to New York University’s website, roughly 32% of those who applied to the school as freshman in 2003 were accepted.  Fully 35% of the 4,692 students who applied for transfer to NYU in the same year were accepted.  The percentages are clearly, if only slightly, in favor of the transfer student.  Parents and students in the know can, and do take advantage of this fact. 

Although they tend to emphasize their differences, most colleges and universities look for similar traits in a prospective student.  A strong academic record, good leadership skills, extracurricular activities, high SAT scores, community service, strong writing skills, and a strong desire to succeed, are some of the hallmarks of a successful applicant.  If a student is missing some of these attributes in high school, a community college can offer another chance to demonstrate these abilities and enhance an application.

Shiels suggests that community college students wishing to transfer to selective colleges should be aware of the transfer requirements and that selection is not solely based on GPA: “Selection is based, more importantly on the courses a student has completed.  We are looking for solid academic achievement, grades of B or better in liberal arts courses, a clear sense of a student’s academic interest and fit with our University clearly expressed in the application essay, and leadership experience.” She adds “We see a concern about affordability of a four year education and not completing understanding how financial aid is awarded and available.   There is a need for Community College advisors and faculty to become aware of and share the breadth of transfer opportunities with their high achieving students early in the process, as transferring takes planning.”

In his book Accept My Kid, Please! Author Hank Herman describes the stress and anxiety felt by parents and their children in navigating the application process.  He notes that parents can put undue pressure on their children to achieve things that they themselves have not been able to accomplish. Westchester County, known for its wealthy and über-competitive residents, boasts some of the best high schools in the country, and so expectations can be high. 

In the past community colleges were seen as a place for students with limited options, but that perception has changed significantly in recent years.  As the economy flounders and the cost of a four-year degree continues to rise – some estimates indicate that students entering kindergarten this year will spend over of $200,000 for a four year degree at a private college when they reach college age –  more parents and students are looking to the community college as the secret path to the Ivy League.   

About the Author

Mr. Hyland is currently a Professor of Business at Westchester Community College.  He is an alumnus of Westchester Community College, and transferred to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a BS in Economics.  He earned a doctoral degree from Columbia University Teachers College and lives in Port Chester, NY with his three children.

On Perspective Tranformations

Acknowledgement: Immeasurable thanks to Dr. Chad Hoggan for his excellent insights into my work.

Perspective Transformations: 

The Good, the Bad, and the Other


The ongoing development of Transformative Learning (TL) theory includes an ever-growing array of perspectives.  This is a testament to the power of the theory’s underlying concepts and the potential for both broad and specific applicability.  The theory was originally conceived as a normative – or prescriptive – framework that hinted at social action and a movement toward democratic education.  Over time, the range of voices within the TL community has grown to encompass ideas that do not necessarily fit with these earlier normative underpinnings.  This paper highlights two lenses – descriptive and prescriptive – and recommends an explicit identification of the lens being used by authors going forward so that future research and theory development might proceed in a way that is more intentional and transparent.    

Keywords:  transformative learning; perspective transformation; adult development;


Jack Mezirow (1991), the foundational theorist of TL, has used terms like permeable, inclusive, and discriminating to describe perspective transformations.  In fact, these terms have become criteria against which transformations are judged to be either a bona-fide Transformative Learning Experience or another sort of generic transformation not encompassed by Mezirow’s conception of TL.  In short, this area of research, depending on the author, could be labeled as a normative framework. 

While this paper does not take issue with normative theories, the subjectivity inherent in the theories can pose a challenge to researchers attempting to analyze and describe transformations in an adult learning context, and to readers who may or may not be clear about an author’s intentions.  An analysis of Mezirow’s writings demonstrates both normative and non-normative perspectives.  When stripped of the normative descriptors and outcomes associated with Mezirow’s ideation of perspective transformations, a non-normative or descriptive framework emerges that at once both transcends and unifies the diverse views.  Chad Hoggan (2016) also noted this.  This lens compliments the normative lens (hereafter referred to as prescriptive) commonly associated with TL, most notably Mezirow’s description of perspective transformations.   

Donovan et al. (2007), explicitly refer to TL as a “descriptive theory” (p. 3); but unfortunately they do not support their contention beyond simply stating it.  Mezirow, on the other hand, went to great lengths to craft TL as a normative theory of adult learning. Paradoxically, he has been criticized for being both too prescriptive and not prescriptive enough, as will be discussed later in this paper. 

The tenets of Transformative Learning Theory, Critical Theory, and Social Constructivism support the notion that practitioners should identify and divulge their own biases and assumptions.  Without the tools and language that might help facilitate the expression of these biases and assumptions, the epistemological underpinnings of the arguments – and the theories upon which they depend – are undermined.  This can lead to specious arguments, and at its worst can support a continuation or even support of the hegemonic assumptions that these theories claim to challenge.  This paper proposes a set of criteria, in the form of these two categories, or lenses, by which researchers can conduct their own work and critique the work of others.  It is hoped that a more explicit use of these lenses applied to future inquiry and theory development will result in enhanced deliberateness of intent, more transparency in assumptions, and greater clarity of structure in argumentation. 

Anchors of Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative Learning (Mezirow, 1991, 2000; Dirkx, 2000, 2001) is a cornerstone theory in the area of adult learning and education.  It serves as the foundation for several other branches of theory and exists on a continuum of educational theories that both describe the journeys of adults, and serve as a roadmap and framework for practitioners who work with adults (Kegan, 2000; Drago-Severson, 2004b).  Its significance can be measured not only by the number of authors and works that it has influenced in the years since it’s introduction, but also in terms of its impact on those individuals who have used the theory in practice to facilitate perspective transformations and the adults who have experienced the transformation.  Whether one uses the theory to describe a phenomenon or to facilitate individual development, the importance and impact of TL theory on the field of adult education cannot be overstated.   

Jack Mezirow’s conceptualization of Transformative Learning Theory took shape three decades ago when he sought to describe the experiences of women returning to college:

Transformative learning refers to the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference…to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.  (Mezirow and Associates, 2000, pp. 7-8)

Here Mezirow uses words like inclusive, discriminating, open, and true to describe perspective transformations, which are all highly subjective terms.  In addressing such subjectivity, it is easy to become mired in the dichotomy between a rational view – in which some objective truth rules norms – and a relativistic view that allows for any and all perspectives to be taken with equal weight.  This paper agrees with van der Veen (2007), who suggests seeking a balance here by defining rationality as “an interplay of instrumental and normative rationality” (p. 35) as “Productive discussions are neither served by drastic exclusion nor by a “radical rejection of enlightenment” (p. 35).

TL can occur across two domains of learning initially proposed by Habermas:  instrumental—learning to solve problems by manipulating things and people, and communicative—learning what others mean when they communicate (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 10).  Habermas also suggests additional domains, one of which he terms normative learning, which is related to learning the expectations of behavior based on shared values.  By carving out this normative space, Habermas implies that there are, conversely, non-normative types of learning as well. 

Mezirow suggests that a perspective transformation stemsfrom a disorienting dilemma, involves deliberate rational reflection, and implies a linear process.  He defines a meaning perspective – or frame of reference – as a “framework of assumptions” that affects how we perceive and experience the world around us (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 16).  Drago-Severson (2004a) similarly describes transformation as “a gradual, sequential, and incremental process” (p. 31). 

Mezirow has also been critiqued for his structured ideation of the transformation process.  One of the most significant critiques in this regard comes from Dirkx (2000, 2001, 2006), who in turn draws on the work of Boyd and Myers (1988) and brings a Jungian perspective to the theory.  He proposes that TL has a strong affective element and that transformations can stem from everyday normal occurrences.  Dirkx, who assumed a Jungian view, acknowledges the complexities of the human psyche, which is perhaps the key difference between Mezirow’s view of TL and his own. 

Dirkx (2001) also suggests that the process of transformation is convoluted and not so easily captured by such conceptual models.  He also emphasizes the role of emotion and imagination in transformations, suggesting that “by approaching emotionally charged experiences imaginatively rather then [sic] merely conceptually, learners locate and construct…deep meaning, value and quality in the relationship between the text and their own life experiences” (p. 70).  In short, Dirkx notes that different people undergo and experience transformative learning in different ways.  Before defining these new lenses, a look at some of the existing lenses applied to TL may be helpful.

Extant Lenses

In addition to the models proposed by Mezirow and Dirkx, the ever-expanding literature on Transformative Learning (TL) encompasses a number of other constructions.  To help sort them out, Dirkx (1998) suggests four lenses:  a cognitive rational lens (Mezirow, 1991, 2000); a social justice/emancipatory lens (Freire, 2000); a developmental lens (Daloz, 1986, 1999; Kegan, 1982, 1994); and a spiritual lens (Dirkx, 1991, 1998; Healy, 2000).  Yorks and Kasl (2006) propose yet another lens in the form of a wholistic taxonomy, which considers, among other things, expressive ways of knowing and the role of emotion as it relates to TL.

Taylor (in Cranton, 2006), on the other hand, provides two lenses:  individual and sociocultural, based on what he refers to as the locus of learning.  The individual lens encompasses psychocritical, psychodevelopmental, and psychoanalytical perspectives, and the sociocultural encompasses social-emancipatory, cultural-spiritual, race-centric, and planetary perspectives.  Definitions of these terms can be found in the literature and are beyond the scope of this paper, but what is most important to note here is the variety of lenses applied to TL.

The literature still ignores the tension between normative and non-normative aspects of TL and consequently demands additional structures to guide inquiry and give voice to those seeking to expand the theory.  Regardless of the lenses currently used, however, TL began as a normative theory of adult education. 

The Normative Roots of Transformative Learning

Linking socio-political streams of theory with streams of thought in adult education, Mezirow constructed the framework of his theory of Transformative Learning (Brookfield, 2005).  As mentioned previously, Mezirow (1991) also drew from Habermas and extended Habermas’ concern with communicative action to perspective transformation, which in turn expanded Mezirow’s own theoretical conceptions of TL. 

Mezirow (2000) makes one of his most explicit references to social action in stating that adult educators “are committed to efforts to create a more equal set of enabling conditions in our society, to the ideal of social justice” (p. 27).  He also suggests, as does Freire that “adult educators are never neutral…they are cultural activists” (Bell et al., 1990; p. 30).  He goes on to say: “Adult educators…create opportunities and foster norms supporting freer, fuller participation in discourse and in democratic social and political life” (p. 30).  Both he and Freire warn, as will be seen later, educators against indoctrinating students, but these comments nonetheless indicate normative sensibilities. 

Freire (1990), who spent many years working with and advocating for laborers in South America, similarly suggests that conscientization—a term that Mezirow (2000) refers to as “subjective reframing” (p. 23) or a reframing of one’s own assumptions related to power dynamics and sociocultural situation (i.e., oppression)—is attained through an educational process designed to elicit such changes.  Few would argue that both Mezirow and Freire have established anything but prescriptive constructs of transformational learning.  Freire was perhaps more prescriptive in his call for social action, while Mezirow was less so in focusing more on cognition.  To obtain a clearer sense of where the theory bridges prescriptive and descriptive dimensions, however, one must first understand the processes involved.

Learning and the Process of Transformation

The concept of learning is clearly at the heart of Mezirow’s conception of TL.  He writes that learning can happen “by elaborating existing frames of reference, by learning new frames of reference, by transforming points of view, or by transforming habits of mind” (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 19).  One’s meaning perspective in turn affects learning, and provides a context for making meaning.  These meaning perspectives encompass two elements:  habits of mind and points of view.

A habit of mind, according to Mezirow, is a broad set of assumptions related to one of many areas including culture, morality, philosophy, religion or art.  In simple terms, a habit of mind can be seen as an orientation toward a certain way of thinking.  A habit of mind is often expressed as a point of view, which “comprises a cluster of meaning schemes—sets of… expectations, beliefs…and judgments—that…determine how we judge, typify objects, and attribute causality” (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 16).

According to Robert Kegan, among others, perspective transformations occur when we critically reflect upon our assumptions. He refers to this as the subject-object split (1982).  Some of our most deeply held assumptions exist without our awareness, and so we must identify these values that are subject (hidden to us) and make them object in order to critically reflect upon them and presumably change them (Kegan, 1982, 1994).  Changing our most deeply held assumptions is an essential distinction between TL and other types of learning (Mezirow & Associates, 2000). 

In terms of process, Mezirow suggests that critical reflection and reflective discourse are, among other things, at the heart of transformative learning, and they involve “a critical assessment of assumptions.  It leads toward a clearer understanding by tapping collective experience to arrive at a tentative best judgment” (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 11).  Through rational and reflective discourse with others, we can uncover deeply held beliefs and gauge them against the yardstick of their perspectives and the consensus of those we include in this discourse.  This is an important element of the process as it clearly suggests that others can heavily influence the dialog and, hence, the nature of the transformation.  While Dirkx (2001) proposes a much less structured process, he does acknowledge the influence of others.

These questions are rhetorical to a degree because the extent to which the answers can be generalized is uncertain.  In addition, we are once again forced to contend with the complexities introduced by the notion of context.  To help move closer to a greater sense of clarity, it is important to understand what is being transformed and what other sorts of changes occur before, during, and after perspective transformations.  In this regard, the work of Kegan simultaneously complements and stands in juxtaposition to Mezirow’s work. 


Constructive Developmental Theory and Transformations

Constructive-Developmental Theory (CDT) (Cook-Greuter, 1999, 2004; Drago-Severson, 2004a,b; Kegan, 1982, 1994) provides a framework with which to explain the different ways that adults make meaning of the world around them.  CDT builds on Piaget’s (1954a,b) work delineating the developmental stages in childhood.  Kegan calls developmental stages in adults ways of knowing, although Drago-Severson (2004a) interchangeably uses the terms “meaning-making system,” “way of knowing,” and “developmental level.”

In his book In Over Our Heads, Kegan (1994) suggests that the social structures of the modern world have become so complex that we require increasingly complex ways of knowing to help us make sense of them.  He describes six developmental levels through which adults can progress, each level encompassing more complexity than the preceding one.  It is not our fund of knowledge—the amount of knowledge we possess—but rather our ways of knowing, Kegan argues, that need to improve if we are to make meaning of our increasingly complex world.  According to Kegan and Lahey (2001), “we are already well informed, and it is maddeningly insufficient” (p. 232).  In other words, it is not what we know, but how we know.

CDT stems in part from constructivism, which holds that people actively construct their own reality by reflecting on experiences, and not by merely absorbing them passively.  The theory is also developmental in that it suggests that individuals pass through various levels of increasing complexity over a lifetime.  In addition, CDT holds that emotions play a role in adult development, whereas Piaget focused primarily on cognitive development.  In CDT, the process of transformation is as important as any stage occupied by an individual, and the influence of social context on development is equally important.

The movement from one way of knowing to another may entail increasingly complex thought processes, but new questions emerge:  Do such transformations require acceptance of the views of others, or do they simply entail a new way of meaning making in which the subject attempts to understand the views of others?  Can a person undergo a transformative learning experience and come to reject the views of others?  What if those views are or are not in agreement with our own?  The answers to these questions depend in part on who is asked and which lenses that individual applies. 

In light of the normative construct of TL as envisioned by Mezirow and others, one is also led to consider whether some developmental levels, as defined in CDT, are better (more advanced) than others.  Taking an apparently descriptive view, as defined earlier in this paper, Drago-Severson et al. (2001) and Kegan (1994), tell us that one way of knowing is not intrinsically better than another; successive levels are merely more complex and allow for more sophisticated meaning making.  On the other hand, if one agrees that an individual must possess certain cognitive ability to engage in the critical reflection required for a perspective transformation (Merriam, 2004), this indeed implies that some levels are at least qualitatively better than others if not morally or politically.

While these developmental processes are presented as sequential, people of similar ages and phases of their lives may be at different stages in their development.  In addition, as will be discussed below, adults undergoing these changes need different supports and challenges to help them cope with the increasing complexity and ambiguity with which they are confronted.  These supports and challenges are part of what Kegan (1982) and Drago-Severson (2001) describe as the holding environment, and here once again the notion of context demands consideration.


The Challenge of Context

Drago-Severson et al. (2001) describe the role of the holding environment in transformations:

Students with different ways of knowing need different forms of support and challenge from their surrounding contexts to grow.  [These] “holding environments,” when successful, can help students grow to manage better the complexities of their learning and their other social roles.  (pp. 15-16)

She later postulates that one’s way of knowing can in turn influence how one construes and makes use of supports and challenges (2004a).  Therefore, not only does the holding environment impact a person’s learning experience, but one’s way of knowing can in turn influence the way one perceives the holding environment.  One may deduce from this line of reasoning that the holding environment is subordinate to the developmental stage.  In other words, if a person does not see the value of her holding environment due to her current perception of it, then he or she must progress to a new way of knowing in order to recognize the value of those supports and challenges and then make use of them.  It is clear, then, that the holding environment matters.

Taking this a step further, Clark and Wilson (1991) warn against approaching TL from a decontextualized perspective.  They cite Mezirow’s attempt to extrapolate the process seen in the women in his early study to the broader adult population, which caused the theory to lose its original context and hence its meaning.  They conclude that, “context…is integral to the structure of the [TL] theory” (p. 79).  Clark and Wilson also chide Mezirow for “uncritically incorporating [into TL theory]… the hegemonic American values of individualism, rationality and autonomy” (p. 80).  This is not to say that a normative or prescriptive approach should never be taken, but rather that it introduces subjectivity, which by implication is exclusionary.   The process of uncovering our most deeply held assumptions can be arduous and, and ironically some arguments made to support TL reflect the very values that the theory tries to countervail. 

While Mezirow’s early conception of TL was derived from the emancipatory domain, he later expanded the theory to become more broadly descriptive of the processes and outcomes of perspective transformations.  Mezirow (1998) suggests that “the universal constructs of…adult learning are interpreted differently by different cultures and in different time periods.  Choice is rational if one chooses well.  The culture and time determines what ‘well’ means” (p. 2).  Here he recognizes the influence of context and tacitly acknowledges the challenges posed by any normative application of the theory.

The constructive nature of learning suggests that it is context-bound — students’ journeys are all very different.  Harkening back to Habermas, we are compelled to acknowledge that learning cannot be disconnected from its communicative dimension.  All of our contexts, communications, and interrelationships are inherently emotional and subjective (Brookfield, 1993; Heron, 1992).  When these notions are combined, we can conclude that myriad perceptions, learning processes, and outcomes are possible in any given learning or developmental context. 

A key element of context that seems to be downplayed in the literature is the issue of locality.  As mentioned earlier, Taylor (2006) provides two lenses to help frame discussions in this regard.  Social action theory addresses local context to a certain degree, but transformative learning, critical theory, and social action theory all seem to emphasize broader social movements and tend to ignore the impact of micro-environmental factors on learning.  Brookfield (2000), for example, suggests that critical reflection should be aimed at hegemonic assumptions and power dynamics.  Habermas too recognizes that some social action comes from a critique of the consensus of the dominant culture (Van Der Veen, 2007).  When applied at a local or individual level, however, many outcomes are possible and not all transformations will necessarily meet Mezirow’s strict prescriptive criteria. 

What of a young man who is raised in a feminist commune?  Upon critical reflection, he might justifiably come to different conclusions about power dynamics than if he had been raised in an all-male racist environment.  Again, perspective and context are crucial elements in framing transformations and in subsequently judging them from a normative perspective.

The contexts of learners who undergo transformative learning experiences, regardless of the lens or model applied, create challenges in crafting theoretical generalizations.  Such challenges are inherent in the development of any overarching theory that addresses adult learning, but in this case the very values engrained in the theory are in danger of being eradicated – or excavated (Brookfield, 2000) – by the theory’s incapacity to adequately address the myriad outcomes it enables.  This need not be the case, however, if one considers a broader view of TL through the explicit application of a non-prescriptive, or descriptive, lens.

The Descriptive Lens

In concluding his literature review of Transformative Learning, Taylor (2007) calls for, among other things, a “broadening of the definition of a perspective transformation” (p. 1).  A descriptive view of TL allows for such a broadening by allowing for a variety of transformations, normative and otherwise.   While it does not appear that Taylor is suggesting that we strip the theory of its normative orientation, his comment suggests that this might be appropriate at times. 

Mezirow was criticized for broadening the theory, which was seen by some as a distancing from those roots.  One such critique cited his “lack of a coherent, comprehensive theory of social change” (Collard & Law, 1989, p. 102).  Mezirow (1989) responded to this critique in his retort:  “it seems unsupportable to suggest that every perspective transformation must involve a critique of social oppression” (p. 243).  These statements indicate that there may be room for multiple views, and that in fact this might be welcomed.

Mezirow (1991) describes critical reflection as “appraisive rather than prescriptive or designative” (p. 88).  He also points out that “Habermas follows Hegel and Marx in rejecting the notion that a transformed consciousness can be expected to lead automatically to a predictable form of action in a specific situation” (p. 88).  He later adds, “One cannot become emancipated through indoctrination” (p.88).  These statements seem to indicate that he has struggled with the epistemological implications of TL despite his normative intentions. 

There are arguments supporting a number of approaches to the development, analysis, and application of theory as well.  Prange (1999), for example, explicitly discusses the prescriptive versus descriptive contributions made by various organizational learning theories. In highlighting different theorists, she makes a case for a descriptive approach to theory building.  To this end she suggests, among other things, that “one should describe processes and results of organizational learning, rather than undertake a futile attempt at prescriptive generalization” (p. 31).    

Some argue that the use of a descriptive lens applied to perspective transformations is tantamount to a regression to rationality and instrumentalization (van der Veen, 2007).  To lose the normative elements inherent in TL and adult education is to move in a direction that is antithetical to the tenets of the theory itself.  Cunningham (1993) expresses this notion in stating that “democratic adult education should facilitate the production of knowledge by the ‘have-nots’ to counter the official knowledge of the ‘haves’” (Kerka, 1997, p. 2).

Yet another perspective comes from Kegan (2000), who, like Brookfield (2000), makes a compelling argument that the word transformation is in danger of losing its original meaning because of its increasing ubiquity.  He laments that the word “begins to refer to any kind of change or process at all.” (p. 47).  While Kegan may take issue with this diluted meaning, he nevertheless recognizes that the dilution has apparently already happened and that descriptive views are in play, which Hoggan (2016) also notes.

These three perspectives suggest that some action be taken, and in light of this it is incumbent upon researchers to provide new tools that will guide future inquiry without losing sight of the goals of adult learning and education.  The provision for these two new categories – descriptive and prescriptive – may serve this purpose.



This paper advocates for the explicit use of two lenses in the study of Transformative Learning; however, proposing a descriptive lens has its risks.  In building an argument for an explicit delineation as has been presented here, one might conclude that the emphasis of adult education should, like water, take the form of its container; that social change is less important than the analysis applied to justify its proposed outcomes.  However, it is not necessary to subscribe to the term descriptive or the theories encompassed by this lens any more than it is necessary to subscribe to the term bigotry or the behaviors that are encompassed by it.  These terms serve as descriptors that help us to categorize, analyze, and conduct inquiry.  And while these terms vary in their level of subjectivity, they have intrinsic, non-normative value in research as discussed earlier.  A descriptive lens also allows researchers, who are so inclined, to reject transformations that are not aligned with certain models of TL, while simultaneously creating a more expansive space to analyze transformations that fall outside the boundaries set by normative models.

When liberated from its prescriptive constraints, Transformative Learning theory provides a unique framework with which to describe a wide variety of intellectual and emotional journeys.  It has been argued here that many authors only implicitly apply these lenses.  A more explicit use of the terms descriptive and prescriptive as qualifiers—applied not only to transformations and branches of theory, but to other adult education theories as well—provides us with a more robust set of tools with which to describe learning in all its forms. 

A constructivist epistemology demands that researchers in the field of adult education should be explicit about their assumptions, perspectives, and lenses.  Since the proposed lenses are dichotomous, there may be significant implications in that future Transformational Learning theory development and the analysis of perspective transformations may proceed down two or more paths going forward. Some have implicitly argues that his is already happening as mentioned above. Consequently, such lenses and models can help frame new constructs at a broad level, or serve as a metric of sorts against which a given perspective transformation can be judged at a more granular level to be good, bad, or neither.  It is hoped that applying the two proposed lenses will accomplish these goals without diminishing the spirit of social change inherent in Transformative Learning theory.


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Several years ago, a series of profound life changes compelled me to take stock of my values – for myself and my family.  As I began to reflect and put ideas to paper, I found that most of the usual sources of moral and ethical values were lacking in some way.  Modern life is complex to say the least; daily we are faced with competing ideas, pressures, and priories.  This can lead to confusion and inner chaos, which confounds our ability to learn. So in addition to outlining moral values, it was also my goal to seek deeper wisdom as best I could.  

The Ten Commandments I was taught as a child, for example, do not explicitly preclude rape, torture, genocide, slavery, or child abuse. In fact, the Old Testament openly promulgates some of these things, so the bible could not serve as a sole source .  Nonetheless, some big ideas were helpful, so I borrowed a bit from Catholicism and Christianity more broadly.

Buddhism, on the other hand, seemed overly focused on the self, and rests upon the fundamental assumption that all life involves suffering. Suffering is indeed a feature of life, but it can hardly be considered a basic ingredient. However, letting go of attachments to material possessions in particular, sounded like a good idea. So I borrowed from Buddhism as well.

Next, I turned to philosophy.  No matter which avenue one pursues, Philosophy involves much rhetorical gamesmanship and mental gymnastics to be practical (let alone understood!)  Much of philosophy seeks to be logical and correct, often at the expense of a richer and deeper understanding of the human experience. As such it (the academic discipline) lacks warmth and fails to attend to things like love, affect, and empathy. Logic, reason, and epistemological congruence are features of philosophy, not shortcomings. And since philosophy never promised anything more than it does, it cannot be faulted.   Despite the myriad complications, philosophy offers many insights, so some Philosophical constructions were added to the bucket.

So, lacking a single trustworthy source of core values, I referred to a number of sources – including Judaism, Catholicism, Humanism, Buddhism and several philosophers to name several.  As a side note, it was encouraging to find that many faiths, religions, and philosophies from around the world share a number of core values.

With this in mind, I share the resultant set of values with you in the hope that they may assist you in developing your own set of values – or at least provide you with  food for thought.


Loyalty to Family

We can be loyal to those who show us loyalty, but when loyalties conflict, we must side with our nuclear family.  Without family, we are alone in the world, so the family unit must come first. The proverb “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb” implies that loyalty imparts no obligation to maintain toxic or harmful relationships with family members. So cherish your partner and friends, remain duty-bound to brothers and sisters-in-arms, and show loyalty to others when it is earned, but always prioritize your nuclear family unit above all.


Our behaviors reflect how we feel, but they can also affect how we feel. So we must eat well, sleep enough, hydrate, exercise, relax, socialize, learn, and develop.  There is a biopsychosocial interplay involved in everything we feel, think, and do,  So we must strive to be healthy in mind, body, and character and make them a priority in our lives if we are to live healthy and fulfilling lives.


Aggression aimed at us must be met with strength, confidence, courage, and dignity, and without malice. We seek no permission or authority to protect or defend ourselves, but we must never initiate aggression or violence. 


Knowledge is important, so we must learn as much as we can.  However, knowledge, data, news, and information are often subjective and can change quickly.  Wisdom tends to hold up over time, and it emerges from knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Thus, wisdom should be our goal; not simply knowing things, or being “smart”.


Winning without effort offers a hollow victory, so we must give everything our fullest measure of effort. External rewards and recognition can be enjoyable, but it is the level of difficulty and challenge that gives an achievement its true value.  Consequently intrinsic pride and satisfaction should be our goal; not extrinsic rewards, trinkets, or recognition.


Something that has been earned honestly and fairly can never rightly be taken away.  Accepting anything that is not earned is unfair to others (aside from small gifts or genuine acts of kindness).  It is also true that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, meaning that free things often come with tacit expectations or obligations.  Therefore,  we should never accept free things and unearned privileges when it is in our power to do so. Likewise, we must strenuously reject any attempts to besmirch our achievements rightfully earned through merit, talent, or hard work.


Many of life’s most worthy endeavors can be extremely challenging.  When something becomes difficult or discouraging, we must gather our energies and persevere.  As the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” Coupled with hard work and a sound strategy, persistence almost always wins in the long run.  So we must focus on long term results and never quit once we have committed to an endeavor, unless it would cause harm to do otherwise.


Passivity is indicative of weakness, which can lead to harm to ourselves or others; Unwarranted aggression is against our value of non-aggression; and Passive-aggressiveness is a form of revenge, which often involves deception; So we must avoid all three. Instead we must strive to be Assertive at all times. We are neither bullies nor victims, neither predator nor prey.  Thus, we do not shy away from conflicts, but rather we address problems directly, calmly, and confidently with the goal of maximizing fairness and justice for all concerned.


It is normal, natural, and healthy to show concern for others, but our empathy can be exploited and used against us.  Our votes and donations are not always used as intended, and can sometimes lead to devastating consequences to ourselves and others.  We must not allow others to bully, manipulate, or shame us into demonstrating compassion or support – especially when money, votes, power, or control are involved.  People who are overtly and fervently empathetic are to be viewed with extreme suspicion, especially when they are asking for something.


Keep your word,” “Stay true to yourself,” and “Don’t make promises you cannot keep” are all sayings that allude to integrity.   We must remain true to our words and values in the face of threats, bribes, or temptations. Put another way, never make promises you cannot, or do not intend, to keep.  To do otherwise is to risk harming one’s reputation, losing respect, or harming others. Failing to act with integrity can also be a form of passive-aggression, which is contrary to our values.


Justice demands equal measures of fairness, rights, dignity, respect, and opportunity for everyone.  Any ideology that requires force, aggression, intimidation, shaming, bullying, or other forms of manipulation in order to be achieved is antithetical to Justice.  Justice should feel reasonable and fair to everyone involved, even if somewhat painful.  We must strive to be fair and just in our actions, and to never seek revenge, as revenge begets more injustice.


Without reason to guide us, and to help manage the worst of our primitive instincts, civilization would collapse.  This is true in families, countries, communities, and for individuals themselves.  Powerful emotions can add beauty to our lives, but they can also cause chaos and damage. Therefore we must strive to control our most powerful emotions and instincts, lest they control us.  Reason, fairness, and logic should be the primary driver of our words, thoughts, and behaviors, not feelings.


Freedom is the basic state of humanity and is among a handful of human rights that are almost universally considered to be self-evident.  Threats to liberty are threats to our basic human rights.  And since freedom can only be violated by force, coercion, fraud, or deception, it is abhorrent to our values.  Some limits to freedom are necessary, but these limitations must be chosen very carefully, and only by rational competent adults and with the consent of those governed. Therefore, we must never infringe upon the liberty of others, or advocate for such action against others, unless a serious crime or injustice is involved; likewise we should actively resist attempts to infringe on our own liberties or those of others around  us.


The Chinese concept of Yin and Yang best embodies this value.  Feminine vs Masculine, Rest vs Work, and Collective needs vs Individual rights are just a few of many seemingly dichotomous notions that are often framed as “opposites” or  mutually exclusive.  But when given due consideration, they can actually synergistically complement each other.  When one force becomes out of balance with respect to the others (there can be more than just two), injustice or serious long term harm or can result.  We must not give privilege to one thing without attending fairly to the others; we must strive for balance in all we do.

Respect and Trust

Respect and trust are essential elements of emotional intimacy.  Without them, fulfilling relationships and a wholesome happy life are virtually impossible. Therefore, we must offer, to those who are worthy of it, the opportunity to earn our respect and trust; and we should endeavor to earn theirs in return.  We can offer others a basic level of trust and respect initially, but our fullest measures of trust and respect MUST be earned. In order to accomplish this we must set appropriate boundaries, clearly communicate them, and enforce them with calmness and assertiveness.