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Adult Education

Updated on October 23, 2009

Adult Education, in its broadest meaning, includes all experiences that help mature men and women acquire new knowledge, understandings, skills, attitudes, interests, or values. In this sense it encompasses practically all life experiences, individual or group, that result in learning. Thus it includes reading books, listening to music, talking with people, and even learning from the daily experiences of family life and work. In a more technical sense, the phrase "adult education" is used to denote planned or organized activities carried on by adults for the purpose of self-improvement. In this restricted meaning it encompasses organized classes, study-groups, lecture series, planned reading programs, systematic discussions, conferences, institutes, and similar activities.

In more recent years, the term continuing education has been widely used. While it is often used interchangeably with "adult education", there is a difference in emphasis. Adult education is the more comprehensive term, including kinds of educational activity that are primarily remedial (literacy education, for example), as well as continuing education, which suggests formal educational activity that could not be carried on at an earlier age. For example, part-time courses in business methods for office workers come under the heading of continuing education. Students in such courses have probably completed high school or other training.

Scope of the Adult Education Movement

In the broad sense then, adult education includes the activity of people learning together, the process by which individuals learn systematically from daily experiences, and a popular movement that combines all these activities and processes. The movement is dedicated to the improvement of the adult learning process, the extension of opportunities for adults to learn, and the development of ways to raise the general cultural level.

As one of the fastest-growing movements in modern society, adult education became the educational frontier of the 20th century. Several forces have worked together to make adult education a significant factor in modern social progress and unprecedented growth in the 21st century. Perhaps the foremost is the increased pace of change. Changes in technological processes, in communications, in knowledge, in social organization, and in patterns of living are so frequent and continuous that modern man must constantly learn new ideas, new facts, new skills, and new attitudes in order to keep up with the progress of society.

Another force in the advancement of adult education is the rising proportion of older people in the population. In 1850, for example, youths under 20 accounted for over half the population of the United States, but in 1930 they constituted under two fifths of the total. By 1980 they will probably represent about a quarter of the population. The percentage of people over 45 more than doubled between 1850 and 1950. In 1965 one out of every 11 Americans was over 65 years of age. These older people have time for informal and formal study, and many of them are interested in learning new skills and meeting new ideas.

A third force is the shortened work week, which provides leisure hours in which adults below retirement age can pursue cultural interests. Still another force is what has been called the "third communications revolution", exemplified in radio, television, inexpensive newspapers, paperback books, weekly magazines, and other media that bring world events and great ideas into the common man's living room. There are, perhaps, other forces as well, but underneath them all is the drive for self-betterment that has flowered in this century as a basic ingredient of life.

National Patterns

The origin of the adult education movement can be traced to ancient times. Many of the great teachers of the past-Confucius, Isaiah, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus - were teachers of mature men and women more than of children. Not until the 19th century, however, did adult education begin to take shape as a formal, organized movement in many nations of the world.

The movement has taken different forms in different countries. In Denmark it has been largely institutionalized in the folk high schools. These schools (sometimes called "people's colleges") were devised specifically to refashion the national culture by giving courses to young adults. In Sweden it has been essentially a working-class movement spearheaded by labor unions, cooperative associations, temperance societies, and the Social Democratic party. To generalize about western Europe, the principal institutional forms of adult education include the folk high school, the residential college, the tutorial class, and the study circle.

The adult education movement in Britain has been characterized by a drive for further education of the working class, sponsored by labor unions, voluntary associations, local education authorities, and universities. Since 1944, adult education in Britain has had the liberal support of the government.

In Communist countries, the government-sponsored movement largely involves political indoctrination. The governments of most developing nations of Asia and Africa sponsor adult education programs to raise the literacy rate and to coordinate and extend opportunities for broadening education. As was the case after the establishment of the United States, there is a need in these countries to create through education a politically responsive citizenry, able to cope with the problems of self-government.

In Argentina, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries, the unioersidad popular (popular university) is an adult education center, not connected with the formal university structure, that offers noncredit educational opportunities in a variety of fields. The Mexican government has brought the museum to a high level of excellence as an educational institution. Unidades (unions or associations), operated by the Institute of Social Security, offer adult education opportunities and other services for thousands of people in and around the large cities of the country.

In the United States, adult education has become a diversified movement, carried on by a wide variety of agencies for many different purposes. A process of adult education, perhaps one of the most important in the history of the United States, was going on during the colonial period, when the colonists were learning, through participation in town meetings, colonial legislatures, and other governmental activities, to use the tools of liberty and self-government.

Probably no undertaking of any society ever staked more on the ability of adults to learn than did the founding of the American republic. For the new United States could survive only if it succeeded in transforming an entire people from subjects of a monarchy to active citizens of a republic, from a people used to being governed by an aristocracy to a people able to govern themselves. The means by which this gigantic adult education task was accomplished were informal, and in a sense unplanned. They included town meetings, cracker-barrel discussions, committees of correspondence, pamphlets, editorials, books, speeches, poems, and plays, which explored the issues and ideas of democracy. The American Revolution was thus a social and intellectual revolution, as well as a political one.

One important development that fostered adult education in the United States, as elsewhere, was the progress of the age of science. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War there was a vast upsurge of secular thought and of interest in the natural sciences that produced an eager quest for knowledge. This urge for the diffusion of knowledge was expressed in many ways.

Numerous institutions were founded, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1780; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in 1791; the Boston Mechanics Institute, in 1826; the Franklin Institute, in New Haven, in 1828; the first library supported by public taxation, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833 (the first legislation enabling a municipality to establish and maintain a public library was passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 1848, in reference to Boston); the Lowell Institute, in Boston, in 1836; the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, in 1846; the Young Men's Christian Association, in 1851 (transplanted from England); Cooper Union, in New York City, in 1859; the land grant colleges (provided for in the Merrill Act of 1862); and the first women's club, in 1866.

Methods and Programs

Extensive experimentation and research into the problems of adult education have added much to the knowledge of this field. In 1928, Edward L. Thorndike of Columbia University published Adult Learning, a report of research proving that the ability of adults to learn declined very little with age. The success of this endeavor evoked a flurry of studies in the 1930's, sponsored by the American Association for Adult Education. Following World War II, the focus of research shifted to studies of the process of learning in groups. Out of this came a large body of literature on "group dynamics". A wide variety of new methods of teaching adults resulted from these studies. Lectures have been largely replaced by group discussions, field trips, motion pictures, and other audiovisual aids, including recordings. Learning tends to be keyed to problems, experiences, and common daily needs, rather than to abstract subject matter.

Technological developments applied to education constitute another force working for change. The widespread use of television in connection with discussion groups, adaptation of "open line" radio broadcasts for educational purposes, long distance telephone conferences (telectures), programmed learning systems, and study carrels (library areas for individual study) are introducing flexibility and variety into the field of adult education as they are in other areas. Not to mention the explosion of adult education online. The Internet has thrown open the doors of accessibility to all people everywhere.

Perhaps the most visible characteristic of the modern era in adult education is its expansion in institutions outside the formal educational system. Churches and synagogues have developed adult study groups in their Sunday Schools and established week-night programs of general studies that command a regular attendance of millions of people. Labor unions have broadened their concern for the education of members beyond that required for union membership alone and have multiplied participation in union adult education activities. The health and welfare agencies see adult education as a major means of achieving their purposes, as do business and industry. Adult education is rapidly expanding into other sectors of American life through such agencies as the American Hospital Association, the National Council of Churches, the American Medical Association, the National Life Underwriters Association, and others seeking to provide extensive programs for the continuing education of professional people.

From the perspective of history, the character of the adult education movement has been greatly influenced by the changing needs of society. The process of adult education, even when not known by that name, has been a principal instrument for meeting these needs—the need for developing citizen-rulers, for increasing industrial skills, for Americanizing waves of immigrants, for constructively using leisure time, and for readjusting and reintegrating alienated sectors of society into American life. In former times adult education grew mainly during periods of crisis, but after World War II its growth was both rapid and continuous.

Numbers Participating. To measure the scope of adult education statistically, it is necessary to limit its definition to continuous (as against sporadic) experiences organized specifically for adult learning. Even with this limited definition, however, it is practically impossible to obtain reliable statistics. Attendance rosters are kept by relatively few adult education organizations, and no systematic method for reporting enrollment exists.

Fairly meaningful estimates have been made by projecting from samples of adult educational groupings, as well as by analyzing actual enrollment reports. These estimates do not take into account the fact that some individuals may participate in more than one type of activity. Even so, they indicate that the number of persons involved in adult education in the United States increased from nearly 15 million in 1924 to over 49 million in 1955. In general, the major portion of the total in these years came from enrollment in agricultural extension programs. The significant increase from the mid-1930's to the mid-1950's, however, came from the vastly increased activity of religious institutions in the adult education arena.

According to a study by the National Opinion Research Center, a considerably smaller figure of approximately 25 million persons in adult education was established for 1961. The difference between this later study and the earlier ones lies primarily in the definitions used and in the methods of collecting data. Therefore, these studies are not really comparable. The older studies indicated that probably more than one third of all adult citizens participated in some form of organized educational activity in 1955. With the dramatic upsurge of participation in adult education that resulted from continuing prosperity, massive tax support, and the "War on Poverty", it is certain that current participation is considerably higher than the most optimistic of the earlier figures.

Another index of the scope of adult education is the number of persons engaged as administrators, supervisors, or part-time and volunteer leaders and teachers in providing educational opportunities for adults. Reliable estimates are available for only a relatively few adult education agencies, but these suggest that adult educators constitute an emerging corps of considerable importance.

In the late 1960's there were approximately 16,000 full-time and 2,000,000 part-time workers involved in agricultural extension, 4,000 full-time and 150,000 part-time in public school adult education programs, and 1,500 full-time and 50,000 part-time in university extension and evening college programs. (Corresponding figures for the mid-1950's were approximately 12,000 full-time and 1,150,000 part-time in agricultural extension programs, 2,500 full-time and 83,500 part-time in public school adult education programs, and 1,000 full-time and 35,000 part-time in university extension and evening college programs.) Reliable estimates of the number of persons involved in providing adult education services through libraries, educational radio and television, and national health and welfare agencies were not available.

Available figures for programs of all kinds in the mid-1950's showed a total of about 48,600 full-time workers and 2,789,500 part-time workers. At that time it was assumed that an equal number were employed in programs for which figures were not available, bringing the actual total to about 100,000 full-time and over 5 million part-time workers. Total estimates for the late 1960's, based on the same assumption, came to about 150,000 full-time workers and 6 million part-time workers.


The most noticeable trend in adult education in the second half of the 20th century is expansion. Projecting the curve of growth of the second quarter of the century into the third quarter, it can be anticipated that by 1975 over one half of all adults in the United States will be participating in some form of organized learning activity. It is becoming accepted in the national culture that it is as normal - and essential - for adults to keep learning as it is for children to go to school.

There is, further, a trend toward the professionalization of adult education. The notion is spreading that there are special skills and knowledge involved in teaching adults and that special training is required to produce successful adult educators. Whereas in 1935 only one United States university offered a doctoral degree in adult education, in the mid-1960's 21 universities offered such degrees, and many others offered special courses or maintained special institutes. In addition, many adult educational agencies have evolved intensive in-service training programs for part-time and volunteer leaders and teachers.

Increasing attention is being given to research in the field of adult education. The social sciences are conducting action-research in community organization, group behavior, and education for the aging. Knowledge about adult learning and social change is accumulating rapidly, but the surface has as yet only been scratched.

There is a growing concern, as well, for the development of common aims and a social philosophy that will reconcile such apparent differences as those between "individual-centered" and "social-centered" education, or "content vs. method" or "liberal vs. vocational" adult education. Through the process of exploring such issues as these, the goals of adult education are becoming clarified.

Finally, the basic conception of adult education is broadening. Adult education is extending out of the classroom into the marketplace. Evidences of this trend can be found in the rapid expansion of adult education as a major undertaking of noneducational institutions. It is also apparent in the shift of emphasis away from academic subjects toward life problems, and in the greater emphasis being given by the universities and public schools to off-campus community services.


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