Critical Adult Learning Theory and “The First Grader”

La Escalera by Andrea Bogdan (2017)

This article was co-written by Dillon Frechen, a fellow 2nd-year Student Affairs graduate student at Michigan State University.


The First Grader tackles issues of PTSD and historical violence through colonialism and eurocentrism and the role of shame in adult education. The film takes the story of Maruge, a Kenyan, who is 84 years old and seeks to learn to read. He fought against the British and loyalists in a civil war, where his wife and children were murdered, and he was incarcerated for many years. He was tortured. The film also follows his first grade teacher, Jane, who is overwhelmed by the demands parents have for their children’s educations, yet feels obligated to educate Maruge in light of his sacrifice to make all of Kenya free.


Colonialism and eurocentrism are both in the film and in a large body of adult learning literature (Brookfield, 2014; Fasokun et al., 2005; Ahl, 2006). Particularly, scholars are critical of how the issues of violence due to colonialism do not disappear. Like in The First Grader, these issues are not based purely on race and tribal affiliation — rather we must ask ourselves as educators what new power structures have taken root in a post-colonial world.

Author Jamaica Kincaid (1988), an Antiguan (former British colony) writes “have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all people like me seem to have learned from [Europeans] is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly . . . how to corrupt our societies and how to be tyrants?”


Shame, too, plays an important role in the film and in adult education literature. Fasokun et al. (2005), share that age plays a central role in African and Kenyan societies; elders are respected for their wisdom. Maruge is very old, yet many in the film shame him for taking resources away from children in his pursuit of his education. The children are repeatedly referred to in the film as the future of Kenya. His old age takes away from their learning, they argue.

Walker (2017) outlines that shame is not purely a detriment — shame can be used as a motivational factor to learn. We see this in Marurge, who wants to learn to read after many years so he may read a letter from the president; ashamed that as an old man, after fighting for freedom, he cannot read. We also see shame motivate Jane, who feels obligated to teach Maruge to read because she recognizes the privileges she has, and how wrong it would be to deny Maruge.

But shame can have such a “paralyzing” effect (Walker, 2017, p. 362). Maruge, who is literally disfigured by Kenya’s shameful history of violence and war, initially is paralyzed by his shame of not being able to read. But we as the viewer, along with Jane, can flip the narrative: how can we utilize our collective shame as a tool to help one another? As Ahl (2006) puts it, in framing the discussion about who deserves to learn we should examine “who states this is a problem, and why” (p. 385).


Sandlin (2005) writes that at it’s very roots, andragogy is “the art and science of helping adults learn” (p. 25). There is a certain amount of transferability between continental experiences. Additionally, Sandlin (2005) highlights the self-actualizing potential of adult education. In the film, we see this with Maruge’s goal to be able to read on his own in order to reflect the goal that he fought for: a free Kenya.

Merriam and Bierema (2014) demonstrate how there are many different forms of adult education, such Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence's or the value of spirit in learning. We see this through song and dance in the film, among Maruge and the children, and the songs about freedom from the British that seemingly all, young and old, know the words to. Critical thinking, another core tenant to adult education (Merriam & Bierema, 2014), is shown in the film as well, as Maruge and others in the film look past racial and tribal violence, evaluating who they are now does not have to be informed by the sins of their past.

And yet, we must also be critical of theory placed upon this film. Kennedy (2002) writes that purely western perspectives about motivation do not always translate to other cultures. Sandlin (2005) outlines common critiques of andragogy, highlighting:

  1. Learning is not apolitical.
  2. What barriers or cultural contexts are ignored by theory?

These critiques are echoed by other scholars as well. Merriam and Bierema (2014) question what privileges we fail to account for. Maruge continuously calls other characters and power systems out for not holding up the promises of the revolution, or the promise of free education for all. Education remains a system of privilege, even in the film.

And the very question of who learns, and why, is central to the film as it is highlighted by different scholars (Kilgore, 2001; Ahl, 2006; hooks, 1994). Do critical theories take into account all the systemic forms of oppression most of the planet faces?


We feel a logical next step for Maruge is to become an adult literacy educator himself. Such would be transformative in that Maruge would make meaning of his own adult literacy experience (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). Maruge’s original purpose to learn was his desire to read the letter from the President of Kenya. Learning for Maruge was largely emancipatory, yet even upon achieving his initial goal he realized his learning was not complete. He is both a peer and a hero in the eyes of his people. While he has the respect and adoration of many, he also has suffered greatly to earn such status.

Part of transformative learning involves overcoming current ways of viewing the world in favor of a more nuanced understanding of how the past and present intersect. Fasokun et al. (2005) and Maruge both repeat the same Kenyan saying: a people denied history is a people denied dignity. Maruge’s education gives him the power to confront the injustices and his PTSD from tribal violence. The outlet of the classroom has Maruge to believe the power is not in violence, but rather “in the pen.” In literacy.


Education has yet to cope with systemic oppression and historical violence. We in America quickly forget what was felt here (we are only 50 years removed from Jim Crow laws), and are almost immune from the immense suffering that occurs daily all around the globe. Maruge’s experience is sadly not unique, but is quickly being forgotten. How can higher education spaces be more inclusive of the experiences of those who have experienced trauma? It seems that we have so much to learn from such experiences, yet altogether, veterans, older populations, and those who have experienced trauma are sometimes treated like damaged goods who don’t fit neatly into the boxes we would like to put them in.

How do we cope with issues of civil war and the forgotten ones who fight for us? Consider the forever war in Afghanistan. Americans are so far removed and shielded from the responsibility for the systemic suffering we have created and that many of our service members will be forced to endure in silence forever.

How do we account for changing K-12 Education? The pressure and expectation of our needs for post-secondary credentials has accelerated and condensed the need for exploratory and self-directed learning. The stakes have never been higher, yet K-12 is tasked with performing more with less.

And lastly, how do we account for the changing nature of relationships and dating? Generations past never used dating apps, but now our relationships are far less authentic and more transnational. Following. Liking. Subscribing. A consumer culture of instant gratification that higher education has few answers for. How do these symptoms influence student attitudes towards learning and mastering certain subjects?


The First Grader shows us a world of power and privilege that education only scratches the surface of. Our observations of what is missing from the current educational landscape demonstrate the generational differences apparent in both the film and in our context.

Going forward, we must ask ourselves continuously how our practices are influenced by historical violence, changing power dynamics, and the generations to come. We are reminded of the painting included in this article — La Escalera — and how education has the power to act as a way to climb forward. Yet the ladder means little if we are not critical of the steps we take and where we land upon.


Ahl, H. (2006). Motivation in adult education: A problem solver or a euphemism for direction and control? International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25(4), 385–405.

Bogdan, A. (2017). La Escalera [Painting]. Retrieved from

Brookfield, S. (2014). Racializing the discourse of adult education. International Journal of Adult Vocational Education and Technology, 5(4), 20–41.

Fasokun, T. O., Katahoire, A., & Oduaran, A. B. (2005). The psychology of adult learning in Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: UNESCO and Pearson Education South Africa.

Feuer, S., & Harding, R. (Producers) & Chadwick, J. (Director). (2010). The first grader [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: BBC Films.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Kennedy, P. (2002). Learning cultures and learning styles: Myth-understandings about adult (Hong Kong) Chinese learners. Journal of Studies in International Education, 15(2), 124–145.

Kilgore, D. W. (2001). Critical and postmodern perspectives on adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 53–61.

Kincaid, J. (1988). A small place. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L.L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sandlin, J. A. (2005). Andragogy and its discontents: An analysis of andragogy from three critical perspectives. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 14, 25–42.

Walker, J. (2017). Shame and transformation in the theory and practice of adult learning and education. Journal of Transformative Education, 15(4), 357–374.