Adult education is not new…

I did, a few weeks back, advise that I would offer information that demonstrates that the trend towards adult education is neither new, nor that advanced.  As I prepared something I recalled what I wrote for another task; the following is from a section on historical adult education approaches.

The modern adult education movement began in the early 20th Century when the term “adult education” began to “appear in literature” around 1916 (Hart, 1927, p.vii).  Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011) indicate that the thrust to understand how adults learn began in the late 1800s with “Hermman Ebbinghaus, Edward Thorndike, and John Dewey” (Knowles, Holton and Swanson, 2011, p 19) and moving through to modern day researchers including “Sharan Merriam” and “Stephen Brookfield” (Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011, p.20). 

While those theorists identified by Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011) were focussing on how, and to some degree, if adults can continue to learn; others discussed not so much the how, but the why. 

For example Cranage, in the Cambridge Essays of Adult Education (1920) counsels readers to consider “adult education as including the whole being, whether it increases the money-earning powers or not” (p.17).  Cranage’s essay focuses on the need for man to be continually educated beyond “mere knowledge most of us need more ‘mental gymnastics’ than we got in childhood” (p.18).   Cranage asserts that the purpose of adult education is “to struggle against the shallow lazyness” (p.20).  Cranage argues that “[T]here are the strongest moral reasons why, on personal and social grounds, adults should continue their education, but human nature is so constituted that such reasons must be reinforced by an appeal to the imagination and the interest” (Cranage, 1920, p.20).   And “without adult education, therefore, our national and municipal affairs will be managed ignorantly, our poor will not be treated with wisdom and sympathy” (Cranage, 1920, p.24).   Therefore, “the meaning of adult education, then, is the continued effort to learn by those past school age whether busily employed or not in earning their livelihood; its purpose is to produce and sustain the healthy mind in the healthy body” (Cranage, 1920, p.34).

Hart, (1927, p. vii) continued this theme by asserting that the “siege is on: the human race must really educate itself, or perish.”  Hart (1927) further opined that the education of the adult will aid in removing the evils of the world inflicted not by children but adults.  Another who was writing around the same time as Hart, and also advocating the why and how of adult education was Eduard C. Lindeman who is regarded as the “elder statesman” of the adult learning movement (Brookfield, 2001, p. 94). 

In his 1926 essay The Meaning of Adult Education, Lindeman devotes a chapter, entitled “In terms of Method”, to the theme of how to educate adults.  The ideas proposed have been “supported – and enriched – by experience and research ever since” (Knowles, 1980, p. 18).  While not a prescriptive instructional text on ‘how’ to educate adults, Lindeman’s chapter cautions against the development of subjects for the purpose of developing a traditional education scheme where “knowledge … is neatly divided into subjects which in turn are parceled out to students… because the subjects fit into a traditional scheme” (Lindeman, 1926, p. 173). 

The strongest approach, according to Lindeman, was for adult education to function contrary to the role of the “conventional educational systems” where “both teacher and text attempt to make situations fit subjects whereas the demand is to make subjects serve situations” (p.194).  He cautions the adult educator against any “preconceived kind of conduct” and that teachers of adults, on the other hand, will need to be alert in learning how the practical experiences of life can enliven subjects” (pp. 193-4).  As such, Lindeman (1926) demands a “new kind of text-book” that meets “the demand to make subjects serve situations” (p.194).

Do you agree with these authors?  Do you think much has changed since the early 1900s?  Can you see a move toward making subjects serve situations, or do we still have subjects where we need to work out how they fit in with us?

Let me know, leave a comment.



Brookfield, S. (2001).  Eduard Lindeman. In P. Jarvis (Ed), Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult & Continuing Education (pp. 94-112).  London, UK: Kogan Page.

Cranage, (Rev.) D. H. S.  (1920). The Purpose And Meaning Of Adult Education.  In R. St John Parry (Ed).  Cambridge Essays on Adult Education.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, J.K. (1927).  Adult Education.  New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Knowles, M.S. (1980).  The modern practice of adult education. From Pedagogy to Andragogy.  Chicago, IL:AP/Follett.

Knowles, M.S, Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2011).  The Adult Learner.  Burlingtom, MA: Butterworth-Heinnemann

Lindeman, E.C. (1926).  The meaning of adult education.  New York, NY: New Republic, Inc.



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