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History of Adult Education

Updated on May 26, 2010

Between the Civil War and World War I a great number of organizations devoted to adult education were established throughout the United States. The American penchant for "joining", which Alexis de Tocqueville had observed in the 1830's, reached its peak in this period, and most of the institutions providing educational opportunities for adults trace their origins to this era.

One of the notable of these was the Chautauqua Institution. Established in 1874 in Chautauqua, N.Y., as a summer school for Sunday school teachers, this organization rapidly broadened its program to include literature, science, history, and other subjects of general culture. Its Literary and Scientific Circle, founded in 1878, grew into a nationwide system of home study connected with local reading circles, and popularized a new adult education form—the correspondence course. For many years the traveling Chautauquas, inspired but not sponsored by the Institution, carried cultural stimulation into American towns and villages.

The years between the Civil War and World War I also witnessed the founding of large numbers of welfare agencies, including settlement houses, the Salvation Army, and family welfare societies; youth agencies such as the Young Women's Christian Association, the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew associations, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls; service organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Al-trusa, and the Lions; and health agencies such as the National Tuberculosis Association, the American Social Hygiene Association, and the American Red Cross. All of these are concerned with the education of adults as volunteers, members, or clients.

During this period there was also a phenomenal growth of large-scale voluntary associations with primarily adult educational purposes. These included the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the American Association of University Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, B'nai B'rith, and many others. Labor unions, manufacturers' associations, trade associations, and other groups were organized around economic interests to promote the education of their members and of the public. A small but vital movement of independent adult schools, following the lead of Cooper Union, was stimulated by the founding of the Watkins Institute, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1855.

One of the most popular and far-reaching innovations of this era was the idea of systematic learning by correspondence. Pioneered by Chautauqua, the idea was rapidly developed by private correspondence schools and correspondence divisions in the universities. Standards and practices of private correspondence schools have been improved and systematized by the National Home Study Council, a national accrediting agency established in 1926. Privately operated trade and technical schools also have established a national organization for this purpose. Millions of Americans have received further education through correspondence.

The established educational institutions—the public schools, colleges, and universities—developed extensive adult education programs. Evening classes for adults had been instituted in a few scattered communities before the Civil War; but the evening school did not become a set part of the public school program until later in the century, when massive waves of immigration created a serious problem of Americanization. In 1889 an appropriation of $15,000 for evening lectures in the city schools was included for the first time in the regular New York City budget. By the beginning of World War I some of the states were initiating the establishment of statewide systems of evening schools, with continuous state assistance.

The idea that a university has a responsibility for the education of the adult citizens of its community culminated around the turn of the century in the establishment of university extension courses. The University of the State of New York received the first state appropriation for university extension in 1891, and the first national conference on university extension \^s held the same year. When the University of Chicago opened in 1892, university extension was included as a formal, permanent division of the university.

The modern model of university extension was created at the University of Wisconsin in 1906. There, emphasis was shifted from academic and cultural subjects to a broad program covering all areas concerned with the problems of the people and the state—agriculture, industry, politics, social problems, and moral problems. Following the broad pattern set at Wisconsin, extension divisions have been organized in the majority of colleges and universities of the United States.

Another development began in this period that has greatly affected the character of the adult education movement in the United States. Agencies and leaders of adult education began to form associations according to type of institution, occupational interest, or type of subject matter, for the purpose of promoting the advancement of their particular interests. Examples of these early associations are the American Public Health Association, the American Library Association, the Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities, the National University Extension Association, and the American Home Economics Association. Although most of these associations were not concerned exclusively with adult education, and they did not call it by that name, the concept was an important phase of their work.

Two significant facts about this early pattern of organization of the adult education movement stand out: (1) adult education developed as an adjunct of some other kind of activity, rather than as a distinct activity with independent character; and (2) individuals and agencies concerned with the education of adults developed intercommunication and loyalties around specialized interests before there was any consciousness of general national aims. The emerging pattern of the adult education movement thus took the form of a designless mosaic, rich in diversity but devoid of unity.

The modern era of adult education began during World War I, when new forces diversifying the movement were introduced. One of the most powerful of these forces was the entrance of the federal government into the direct support of certain phases of adult education. The initial move was made in 1914 with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, providing federal funds to supplement state funds in establishing and operating a cooperative agricultural extension service.

The program of federal aid has become one of the largest single enterprises in adult education, and its impact on American society and culture has been massive. By the mid-1960's there were at least 16,000 county agents, home demonstration agents, and subject-matter specialists influencing millions of farm families by some phase of extension work. Since its inception, the federal program of extension and vocational courses and community farm organizations has been an integral part of the revolutionary modernization of rural life, brought about by vast technological improvements.

The federal government also responded to the need for skilled industrial workers in war industries during World War I. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 made federal funds available to augment state and local appropriations for the expansion of vocational education in agriculture and the mechanical arts, principally through the public schools. These funds were augmented further during the depression of the 1930's with the passage of the George-Deen Act. Also during the depression, the federal government supported a wide variety of adult educational activities by the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The government also provided one of the most dramatic examples of community adult education through the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Since World War II, and especially since 1960, the role of the federal government has grown so enormously that it is transforming the entire picture of adult education in the United States. Beginning with the GI Bill of Rights for veterans of World War II, Congress has consistently extended educational opportunities for veterans of the military services. Apart from its combat training program, the Department of Defense operates one of the largest national programs of adult or continuing education in the country. The department cooperates with universities, schools, and other nonprofit agencies through tuition subsidies and other financial assistance programs. According to a directory of federal government agencies supporting or engaged in adult education, released by the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., by the mid-1960's almost 100 federal agencies were collectively spending well over a billion dollars a year for adult or continuing education.

This rapid growth stems both from the acceptance of adult education by federal agencies as essential to their programs and from the spate of new legislation passed in the 1960's. One of the outstanding pieces of legislation was the Manpower Act of 1965 (amending the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962). Aimed chiefly at school dropouts under 22 years of age, the 1965 act provided training allowances for people in approved training programs and provided support for job programs as well as research and experimental programs. Private training facilities were to be used extensively, and considerable attention was given to counseling and placement, foreshadowing another probable major development in structured adult education programs. In 1966 eligibility for these benefits was extended to men over 45.

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (amended in subsequent years) was largely an experimental crash program to uplift the poverty-stricken through urban and rural training centers and educational programs closely allied to social services. Separate funds for adult basic education in public schools were made available in 1964 through this act and in 1966 through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Title I of the Higher Education Act of 1965 authorized funds for public and private institutions of higher education for use in programs designed to help solve community problems. The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, established in 1965, provides funds for adult and other educational activities. The International Education Act of 1966 was designed chiefly to establish university centers to improve teaching about international affairs. The act also set up a program of fellowships and demonstration grants directed toward making adult educational activity more effective.

While more time must pass  before  the full impact of the massive growth of federal involvement in adult education can be accurately assessed, some trends are apparent. Aside from funds for facilities (particularly for libraries, universities, and television stations), the bulk of federal funds are being channeled through state systems or established institutions. A smaller portion (rarely as much as 20 percent) for demonstration purposes or training programs is awarded directly by the federal agency involved. The rapid growth of adult education further supports the conviction that education will be the top "growth industry" in the United States for the rest of the 20th century, and that the nation's economic prosperity will to a large extent depend on the continuing success of the adult education movement.

Another force influencing modern adult education is the pressure toward national coordination of activities. Until 1924 the term "adult education" was almost unknown. Agencies in the field were unrelated and had no common name for their work. In 1924, however, Frederick P. Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, initiated a drive toward an integrated movement in the United States, patterned after similar movements in Europe. Under Keppel's leadership, conferences were held with leaders of various agencies, resulting in the formation of the American Association for Adult Education in 1926. During its 25 years of existence, the association was a national clearinghouse for information about adult education. It conducted annual conferences, published the quarterly Journal of Adult Education (1929-1950), sponsored many studies, and published many books. Its most notable publications were the series "Studies in the Social Significance of Adult Education". The association, comprised of about 3,000 members, was generously financed by the Carnegie Corporation for most of its existence.

In 1921, five years before the founding of the American Association for Adult Education, a Department of Immigrant Education was established in the National Education Association.

Originally composed of administrators and teachers engaged in educating immigrants, the department broadened its scope and in 1924 became the Department of Adult Education. For several years the department's members were drawn exclusively from the public school field, but in 1927 it was expanded to include personnel from both public and private programs.

Because of extensive overlapping, the Department of Adult Education and the American Association for Adult Education merged to form the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., in Columbus, Ohio, on May 14, 1951. This association acts through annual and regional conferences to stimulate research and support improved professional programs for the training of adult educators. The AEA also publishes numerous books and pamphlets as well as three periodicals—the monthly Adult Leadership and two quarterlies, Adult Education and Washington Newsletter. The AEA works to develop communication and coordination among the major organizations serving different areas of the field.

Two other organizations, with limited membership, were established at the same time as the AEA. The first, the National Association for Public School Adult Education, includes persons directly employed in or related to public school programs of adult education. The second, the Council of National Organizations for Adult Education, derives most of its members from national voluntary organizations. The entry of the American Council on Education and the American Association of Junior Colleges into the adult education field in the mid-1960's further underscored the growing concern for such programs evinced by long-established formal educational institutions.

The impulse toward coordination and cooperation is expressed at the local level by general-purpose adult education associations in most of the states and many larger cities. The growth of regional associations was formerly sporadic, but they now seem certain to increase steadily in size and influence. In 1965 the AEA created the Council of State Associations to enable these units to work closely together in planning and carrying out their programs.

The community development movement has been closely allied with adult education. Immediately after World War II this program sought to raise cultural levels by community action on pressing problems. It sought to broaden individual development through community development. While this is still an important program in Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and other states with many relatively small, impoverished communities, the movement has shifted much of its attention to the urban scene in line with the modern trend toward rapid urbanization.

One of the most widespread forms of urban community development is the program of community self-help. Adopted by the Community Action Program of the Office of Economic Opportunity, this program encourages citizens of depressed neighborhoods to band together in self-help projects for the improvement of ghettos and other poverty-blighted areas. Several large religious organizations have also adopted this type of program. As part of an effort by the United Nations and its affiliated agencies to provide means for an international exchange of experiences, UNESCO has established a Regional Community Development Training Center for Latin America at Patzcuaro, Mexico. Moreover, the Adult Education Association has convened several national and inter-American conferences on community development.

Private foundations also have given large-scale support to adult education. This movement was initiated by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which had contributed greatly to the American Association for Adult Education, especially to the writing and publication of literature on adult education. The Kellogg Foundation has also given active support to special projects, particularly to centers for continuing education at Michigan State University, the universities of Georgia, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, and the University of Chicago. A trend toward regional cooperation in university work was begun by a Kellogg grant to the University of New Hampshire for the establishment of the New England Center for Continuing Education. The New England Center is designed to bring about cooperation and coordinate plans for the continuing education programs of the six New England state universities.

For a time, the Ford Foundation exercised a major influence on adult education through its Fund for Adult Education, established in 1951. Separate grants to most of Ford's independent organizations (such as this fund) were discontinued in the late 1950's, and Ford today has no strong program of direct support for adult education. During its existence the Fund for Adult Education championed liberal education, study-discussion programs, and educational television, helping to secure the allocation of many TV channels for educational and community purposes. Perhaps its major legacy was the establishment of National Educational Television (NET) as a programming and production center for the growing complex of noncommercial stations. In 1966 the Ford Foundation announced plans to spend $10 million on linking noncommercial television channels in the United States via satellites, coaxial cables, and microwave relays, thus creating an additional national network.

Another force at work since World War I has been state aid for public school adult education in the form of tax funds and service bureaus. By the mid-1960's each of the 50 states had a special unit or individual assigned to providing services for public school adult education. While much of the funding of this program has come from the Adult Basic Education Program included in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the growing trend is toward more increased state support for a broader range of offerings in the public school program. Expenditures for public school adult education approached the billion dollar mark in the late 1960's for the first time.


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