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Between Pleasure and Pain: How Shame Motivates Adults to Resume Study

posted on 13.02.2019, 21:59 by Steven Butcher
This thesis examines the relationship between shame and educational aspirations. As a study into the motivations of adult learners it supplements literature which shows that adults return to study out of concerns over employment and career opportunities, changes to personal circumstances, and treats o self-esteem, personal-development and social status. While there is no sense in which I am critical of these findings, I would argue they tend to overlook, or certainly understate, the influence that shame-anxiety may have upon these judgements.
Giddens' (1991:163) definition of shame constitutes the focal point of my thesis in that the desire of an education can stem from the threat shame presents to the coherency of identity. Four arguments flow from this. Firstly, I show that shamefulness ensures that education remains what Munns, Nanholy and Thomas (2000) refer to as 'unfinished business', - that is, as something to which the participants are compelled to return. Secondly, I show that their determination is indicative of education's capacity to instil feelings of personal virtue and I adopt an Aristotelian ethical framework in order to develop this claim. I then focus upon two men who have chosen to drop out of university and I argue that education is more likely to be abandoned when its activity is no longer integral to maintaining a productive and meaningful identity.
Finally I turn my attention to family life. Have established that shameful feelings are inseparable from the value attributed to education, I show how familial expectations produce a sense of failure in those without tertiary qualifications.
The study focuses upon the life-experiences of eight mature age students, all of who returned to study via preparatory courses offered within the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) sector of an Australian university. All took part in an extended interview focussing up on their employment, education, and family experiences. These show that the participants' biographies are marked by deep and abiding feelings of personal inadequacy which are redressed through tertiary education. As an inquiry into the joys and sorrows of mature age study, it illustrates that value of life-long learning, measured not so much in instrumental terms, but as a struggle for meaning, dignity, and human happiness.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Anita Devos

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Department of Education

Degree Type



Faculty of Education

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