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Adult Education

Adult Education

Forms and methods


Research and theory


The term “adult education” has come into general use within the last half century to identify two different but related phenomena: a field of social activity and an emerging discipline in social science. Although different, these phenomena are interdependent. The discipline finds its subject of study in the field, which is, in turn, dependent upon the discipline for its development.

The field of adult education has been identified and defined in various ways. Most definitions include all learning by adults, from the casual incidental learning that may occur in the natural societal setting to the systematic learning accomplished in a formal instructional setting. Thus, the field of adult education may include “all the activities with an educational purpose that are carried on by people engaged in the ordinary business of life” (Bryson 1936, pp. 3–4). This aspect of adult education may be designated by several alternate synonyms: continuous learning, adult schools, education of adults, lifelong learning, night schools, further education, extension, and continuing education.

The discipline of adult education is concerned with the study of those educational activities for adults that occur in the formal instructional setting. Consequently, it can be defined more precisely: “Adult education is the action of an external educational agent in purposefully ordering behavior into planned systematic experiences that can result in learning for those for whom such activity is supplemental to their primary role in society, and which involves some continuity in an exchange relationship between the agent and the learner so that the educational process is under constant supervision and direction” (Verner 1962, pp. 2–3).

Forms and methods

Educational activities specifically for adults, while found in all societies, have assumed different forms as a result of differing needs for learning in different cultural situations. Consequently, there are no specific forms of adult education common to all cultures. The various forms that develop in differing cultures are the methods whereby a society provides for the education of adults. Methods that come into existence within a specific culture cannot be transferred readily to a dissimilar culture, nor will they survive long in their original setting unless the method is adapted to changes in the culture. This condition explains the extensive diversity encountered in adult education from one place to another and from one era to another. The forms of adult education common to Western society grew out of English culture, and many methods that originated in England in the eighteenth century spread elsewhere in Western society as English culture was diffused. Even in Western society, however, certain methods have developed that have not been transferred successfully from one place to another.

The earliest systematic education of adults in England concentrated on literacy. It was thought that the poor were sinful because they were illiterate and that by learning to read the Bible they could save themselves from sin. In Wales, Griffith Jones operated his peripatetic Welsh charity schools from 1740 to 1770 to teach adults to read the Bible; Robert Raikes organized Sunday schools in 1780 for secular and moral education; and Robert Owen included adult education in his model villages (Kelly 1962). The volume of such activity was sufficient for the American Quaker Thomas Pole to publish his history of adult schools in 1814 and to revise and reprint it in 1816.

It was in the United States that the concept of adult literacy became utilitarian rather than moralistic. Literacy education was accepted as a public responsibility with the extension of the function of the public school to include night schools for illiterate adults, both native and foreign born (Grattan 1955). Such night schools are now found in virtually every community; however, the original concept has been expanded to include every subject of study. Night schools have become respectable middle-class institutions, no longer associated solely with the poor and ignorant in the public mind.

As a result of the changing needs of the nineteenth century, different forms of adult education arose in different cultural settings. Adult education has flourished in the Scandinavian countries, England, and the United States more than elsewhere. In Denmark originated the predominantly cultural folk schools, which spread throughout northern Europe but did not take root successfully in other countries (Lund 1949).

The industrial revolution in England emphasized the need for education for workingmen. Mechanics institutes were established in the early nineteenth century, but after a period of intensive growth in major population centers both in England and the United States they began to decline. Very few now survive and none in their original form (Kelly 1957).

Several distinctive methods of adult education originated in the United States—some of which have survived and spread elsewhere, while some have not. Among those now virtually extinct are the lyceum, founded by Josiah Holbrook in New England in 1826, and the chautauqua, which started in New York State in 1874. The lyceum lasted some twenty years and was generally limited to the northeastern states (Bode 1956). The chautauqua, on the other hand, survived until 1930, flourishing in a number of local centers across the country (Gould 1961). The traveling or tent chautauqua was the leading source of culture and education for rural America for at least a quarter of a century (Harrison 1958). In both instances the inability of the method to adapt to changing conditions in the culture resulted in its abandonment, and although some remnants may have survived, they have no real similarity to the original idea.

University extension is an administrative pattern of adult education that originated in England in 1873 and has spread everywhere that the English university concept has been diffused (Peers 1958). It was introduced in the United States in the 1890s and has developed more extensively in that country than elsewhere. University extension employs a variety of methods, including correspondence study, extension classes, short courses, workshops, and any other method that will extend educational opportunities to adults on a university level.

A by-product of university extension, the evening college, has spread throughout the United States in urban centers (McMahon 1959). Both university-extension and evening-college concepts are being adapted to conditions in newly developing nations.

Individual study by correspondence is one of the older forms of adult education. The idea originated in Berlin in 1856 but had its greatest development in the United States after William Rainey Harper organized the first university-sponsored correspondence study in 1890 at the University of Chicago. As a method for adult study, correspondence has many advantages, for adults are not excluded from learning by reasons of geographical isolation or physical disability. It is difficult, however, and requires a high degree of motivation that few adults can sustain for the time required to complete a correspondence course. In the United States the armed forces use correspondence instruction, and there are a number of private proprietary correspondence schools. Because of the exceedingly low rate of successful course completions many universities are discontinuing this phase of their adult-education programs.

The Cooperative Agricultural and Home Economics Extension Service of the United States is another method of adult education that has spread elsewhere in the world. It began officially in 1914 after its feasibility had been amply demonstrated by unofficial organizations (Brunner & Yang 1949). Originally its efforts were confined exclusively to teaching and demonstrating improved agricultural and homemaking processes that had been attested by the research of state colleges of agriculture, through which the service operated. As it gained the confidence of rural people and as rural living conditions changed, the Extension Service was urged to broaden the program. First steps in this direction were the inclusion of instruction in marketing and the formation of cooperatives. Today, most states include community development, health, recreation, public affairs, and liberal-arts studies as part of the program of the Cooperative Extension Service. No single pattern of adult education anywhere has produced the phenomenal changes that the Extension Service has brought about in rural America since its inception.

Radio and television have been used extensively for the diffusion of information, but less successfully, on the whole, for adult education. Formal courses in some subjects have been broadcast over both media by university instructors, as in the surprisingly popular “sunrise semester” shows on television. Such courses are usually combined with correspondence study. The Canadian Farm Radio Forum enjoyed many successful years by combining group listening and discussion. Some universities operate their own broadcasting stations, and some communities operate nonprofit educational television stations. State-owned systems, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, have developed extensive programs of high quality aimed at adult audiences, as well as daytime school broadcasts.

Adult education is spreading rapidly to the underdeveloped nations, and many of the methods of adult education developed in Western society are being adapted to different cultures. Some kinds of activity for adults in fundamental and literacy education, in agriculture, health, vocational training, and community development are appearing in these newer nations through the assistance of world organizations and aid programs of developed nations.


The first adult-education association on record was established in England in 1903 as a student organization designed to promote educational activities for adults (Stocks 1953). In the United States a general national association was organized in 1926 as an outgrowth of earlier, more specialized professional organizations (Knowles 1962). At present there are numerous voluntary associations in the United States and other countries, which both serve specialized groups and act as general coordinating bodies in adult education.

Adult education does not fit properly into any one system, theory, or institutional structure because it is found in all institutions and systems; however, the degree of involvement varies. In rare cases, adult education is the primary function of the institution. Often, as in the case of schools and universities, adult education is an extension of the primary function of the institution. The most common form of adult education, however, is found in those institutions for which it serves as a means of accomplishing some primary function, as in the case of public or private agencies for health, welfare, business, or industry (Verner 1964, pp. 11–17).

The peripheral nature of adult education is a persuasive factor explaining its episodic history. The origin, evolution, and extinction of adulteducation programs provide fertile ground for a study of institutions.


For actual participants adult education is a socializing experience, even though motivation may vary. For some, adult education compensates for basic deficiencies in their equipment for functioning in their environment. Thus, immigrants may enroll in language courses that will help them adapt to their new society.

A growing number of adults enlist in a wide variety of educational activities designed to enrich their lives through art, music, or literature or to improve their competence as citizens through a better understanding of world affairs. Many activities are designed to enhance the use and enjoyment of leisure (Handbook . . . 1960). Most adult educational effort, however, could be characterized as vocational or technical.

What may be called the liberal-arts, sociopolitical, and recreational aspects of adult education, as distinguished from the vocational, are chiefly found in the developed and more affluent societies. In the newly developing countries emphasis is placed on fundamental and vocational education.

The process of socialization within adult education is conditioned to some extent by its marginal character. Since it is not institutionalized in a single system, it is less bound by tradition and can be related more quickly to social and technological changes than the more formalized educational programs. The main contribution of adult education to socialization comes through the interaction among people within its groups and between them and the knowledge they study.

A recent American study estimates that about 25 million adults engage in educational activities listed under 60 different categories of subjects; two-thirds of the participants attend formal courses, and the rest engage in independent study, frequently by correspondence (Johnstone 1964). The enrollment figure is twice as high in other considered estimates, based on organizational reports, many of which may be guesses or liberal estimates and few if any of which take account of duplications in enrollment. It is doubtful that any precise measure of participation in adult education can be achieved because of the dispersion of the activity throughout the society.

There appears to be little difference between the sexes in their enlistment in adult education, although women are in a very slight majority. By age, the largest number of adult-education participants are in the third and fourth decades of life, with those between 40 and 59 years of age close behind. Only one in 12 of the sample of participants was over 60 years of age, though that age group constitutes more than one-seventh of the population. The increasing numbers and proportion of the aged in the population are often used as an argument to gain support for adult education, but the ways of overcoming the handicaps of age have clearly not been found. Marriage appears to be no bar. Over one-fifth of the participants had three or more children. The same proportion were childless. Unemployed and retired persons made up only 3 per cent of the total registered in courses. Full-time workers accounted for 60 per cent, and another tenth were working part-time. Almost 25 per cent of the participants were in the professional and technical occupational categories, with 18 per cent listed as craftsmen and foremen. Industrial operatives and service workers each accounted for 10 per cent of the enrollees.

As might be expected, vocational subjects were the most favored by men of all ages, especially those under 35 years of age. For women, courses in home and family life were in first or second place for all age groups, especially those under 35, with recreational, academic, and vocational courses following closely in that order. The first two of these three subjects were in either second or third place among men under 55, but with sharply lower proportions than among women.

The largest proportion of participants, 36 per cent, had had no formal education after high-school graduation. Twenty per cent had had some college experience but had not graduated. Eighteen per cent were graduates or had had graduate-school experience. It follows that adult education was reaching barely one-fourth of the educationally disadvantaged. Socioeconomic status may be one explanation for this result, since the higher the income category above $6,000 per year, the larger the proportion participating in adult education. Below the $4,000 level the proportions were in reverse order.

In one sense, the primary objective of adult education is to reduce the cultural lag. This lag has resulted from the rapid changes of the last two centuries affecting the philosophies and conduct of government, the improvements in technologies with the attendant instabilities in age-old occupations, the intensity of specialization through science and—especially in developed countries—the opportunities for more leisure, and finally, a growing complexity of human relationships.

Adult educators try desperately to meet needs arising from these phenomena, but the needs outstrip both the resources and personnel required. Furthermore, adult education has become a middle-class activity, attracting those with more, rather than less, education; consequently it tends to widen the gap between the two groups (London et al. 1963). This tendency is reinforced by those institutions involved in adult education, since they are unintentionally selective of their clientele and eliminate those from the lower socioeconomic levels. University-extension programs are directed toward those with some college or better, and public night schools appeal primarily to those with some high school or better. The Cooperative Extension Service works with higher-status farmers and only occasionally with those on the bottom. Thus, although adult education in Western civilization originated as a medium for reducing the gap between the higher and lower strata, it now tends to widen it. Those in society with the greatest need for the kinds of educational opportunities adult education can provide are least served by it (Brunner et al. 1959, pp. 89–118).

Research and theory

As an emerging field of social science research, adult education has not yet established any considerable body of research literature. The practitioners in the field are so pressed by public demands for education that they have little inclination to accomplish more than essential service studies. Thus, much of the research extant is concerned with localized surveys of needs and resources or status surveys to indicate what is going on in an area. The fundamental research in adult education is supplied largely by other disciplines—particularly by sociology and psychology. Such research, however, is usually peripheral to the central concerns of adult education and is of value to it only as a by-product not always foreseen in the original design of the study. This can be seen, for example, in much of the diffusion research produced by rural sociology. The absence of any neatly defined universe that can be identified as adult-education research is inevitable in a field that is as young as adult education and is so heterogeneous in its interests, programs, and practices.

Although certain aspects of adult education have been studied in some depth, it has not always been to the extent that permits valid generalizations; nor has adult education been adequately conceptualized so as to indicate fruitful lines of investigation. Most of the existing research is descriptive and consists largely of surveys. The earliest known survey was published in 1814 (Pole 1814) and revised in 1851 (Hudson 1851). Since then there have been literally thousands of local surveys of one kind or another involving one or another institution, but this material has never been used to show any trends or general development in the field.

Local historical studies are almost as numerous as local status surveys. Such studies are particularly popular as subjects of graduate research (Little 1961). These treat the history of adult education within an area or an institution, but there are too few historical studies that integrate, analyze, and interpret the historical evolution of adult education as a persistent social activity. In this respect adult education offers a wealth of data for a historian or a historical sociologist to investigate.

Case studies are another common form of research utilized in adult education. The earliest such study was a report of an experiment in teaching adults to read, published in England in 1816 (Account. . . 1816). This might also be considered the earliest experimental study. Numerous similar studies were made in the early development of adult education, but few case studies are produced now.

The major concerns of adult education include participation, organization, adult learning, program planning, instructional processes, and evaluation. These are also the major areas of research, and while some studies have been made in each area, by and large they tend to stand in isolation. Participation has been studied more than any other area of interest, and such research is closely related to similar sociological studies. These studies are sufficiently extensive to provide some valid generalizations about the characteristics of active participants in adult-education programs. The generalizations produced through research in adult education are generally consistent with the ones resulting from social participation studies; however, different institutions providing adult-education activities tend to attract different kinds of people to their programs. In spite of its scope, participation research does not yet answer some crucial adult-education questions: why do adults participate? why do they select the kinds of educational activities they do? and why do certain kinds of adults fail to participate in any further education? Answers to questions of this sort are necessary in order to plan educational programs suited to all kinds of adult learners (Brunner et al. 1959, chapter 6).

There is very little research that helps understand the structure and organization of adult education. Carefully designed historical studies could contribute much knowledge to this area. Similarly, studies of institutions designed to include adult education are needed. The most significant recent study in the latter category was made by Clark (1956); this produced his theory of marginality, which goes a long way toward explaining the episodic nature of adult education. This marginality is a function of several factors. Adult education has become an additional responsibility of established educational institutions quite recently and lacks both controls and compulsions. Because it is viewed as peripheral, neither administrators nor their boards fully accept it as a normal function of the institution, and it is a part-time, hence a secondary, activity, both for instructors and instructed. Adult education is thus handicapped in building normal institutional loyalties or institutionalized power to resist budget cutting or to answer criticisms. Among private organizations adult education is just one of many tools useful in achieving organizational objectives and is not considered an end in itself, justifying the expenditure of resources.

Since adult education is a social phenomenon that does not fit established theories of social organization and since it is a massive and persistent form of social activity, it warrants the serious attention of sociologists.

The instructional processes used in educating adults have been studied extensively by sociology, psychology, and pedagogy. Because of the numerous uncontrolled variables in an instructional situation each study is virtually an independent entity, with few generalizations resulting. This is due, in part, to the lack of precise conceptualization of the instructional situation and processes; so that different studies have employed differing concepts. It is noticeable in diffusion research, where the effectiveness of processes is measured by the rates of adoption of new practices. This research indicates that a higher rate of adoption occurs with an increase in the number of processes used, but it does not say precisely which processes are clearly the most effective (Rogers 1962).

Certain specific educational processes have been studied more thoroughly than others. Lewin (1942) made a major contribution in his pioneer study comparing the effectiveness of lecture and discussion in changing food habits. Such comparative studies have become numerous since then (Brunner et al. 1959, chapter 10). In particular, the studies by Hill (1960) and Kaplan (1960) have identified the relationship between certain socioeconomic characteristics and the effective use of educational processes. Other educational processes have also been studied, but not as extensively as lecture and discussion (Brunner et al. 1959, chapter 9).

One barrier to effective research in this area of educational processes is the confusion between the diffusion of information and education [seeDiffusion, article oninterpersonal influence]. This is especially obvious in the acceptance and adoption studies by rural sociologists, where such a differentiation is implied but not clearly conceptualized in the research design (Wilson & Gallup 1955). Verner (1963) has drawn a sharp distinction between diffusion and education in developing his theory of adult educational processes. Diffusion involves the dissemination of information, such as research on proven practices, without specific concern for learning or the understanding of the theory behind the research. Thus, such learning as may result from diffusion occurs largely by chance and is rarely complete or transferable. Education, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with learning and the learning process through the management of specific instructional situations. Both diffusion and education are used by institutions and organizations concerned with introducing change, but adult education involves only the latter. This distinction permits a more precise research design by providing a needed conceptual differentiation between diffusion and education and among the instructional processes utilized, so that adoption rates can be related specifically to the process that brought about adult education (Verner 1962).

Since adult education is largely an activity involving groups, group research is of the utmost importance to the field. Some research in this area has been done by adult educators; however, most of the research pertinent to adult education is done by sociologists and social psychologists. From such research—which often uses adult-education groups for study—the dynamics of the instructional group are beginning to emerge and such factors as group size and interpersonal interaction are becoming clarified (Brunner et al. 1959, chapter 12). Jensen (1963) has developed a set of sociopsychological principles for guiding adult instruction that are derived from group research.

Although research in adult education is largely descriptive and widely dispersed, it offers more fundamental knowledge than is generally recognized owing to the lack of any really adequate systematic analysis and the paucity of theory. Brunner and others (1959) have made the only attempt at systematic integration, but this is by no means inclusive or adequate. There are numerous bibliographies of adult-education literature that list a wide variety of works, but there is no single source for research literature (Handbook . . . 1960, chapter 14). With the slow and persistent development of adult education in the graduate curriculum the future growth of research and theory seems assured.

Edmund deS. Brunner and Coolie Verner

[Other relevant material may be found inEducation; Socialization; Universities.]


Account of the Origin, Principles, Proceedings and Results of an Institution for Teaching Adults to Read, Established in the Contiguous Parts of Bucks and Berks in 1814. 1816 Windsor (England): Knight.

Adult Education. 1950–1959 Review of Educational Research 20:161–250; 23:191–283; 29:221–234.

Aker, George F. 1965 Adult Education Procedures, Methods and Techniques; A Classified and Annotated Bibliography: 1953–1963. Syracuse Univ., The Library of Continuing Education and Univ. College of Syracuse Univ.

Bode, Carl 1956 The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Brunner, Edmund des.; and Yang, Hsin-pao 1949 Rural America and the Extension Service: A History and Critique of the Cooperative Agricultural and Home Economics Extension Service. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Brunner, Edmund des. et al. 1959 An Overview of Adult Education Research. Chicago: Adult Education Association.

Bryson, Lyman 1936 Adult Education. New York: American Book.

Clark, Burton R. 1956 Adult Education in Transition: A Study of Institutional Security. University of California Publications in Sociology and Social Institutions, Vol. 1, No. 2. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Gould, Joseph E. 1961 The Chautauqua Movement: An Episode in the Continuing American Revolution. New York: State Univ. of New York.

Grattan, Clinton H. 1955 In Quest of Knowledge: A Historical Perspective on Adult Education. New York: Association Press.

Handbook of Adult Education in the United States. 1960 New York: American Association for Adult Education. → See especially Chapter 14, “The Literature of Adult Education,” by Coolie Verner.

Harrison, Harry P. 1958 Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua. New York: Hastings House.

Hill, Richard 1960 A Comparative Study of Lecture and Discussion Methods. White Plains, N.Y.: Fund for Adult Education.

Houle, Cyril D. 1962 The Doctorate in Adult Education 1961. Adult Education 12:131–135.

Hudson, James W. 1851 The History of Adult Education. London: Longmans.

Jensen, Gale E. 1963 Socio—Psychological Foundations of Adult Learning. Pages 20–30 in Irving Lorge et al., Psychology of Adults. Chicago: Adult Education Association.

Jensen, Gale; Liveright, A. A.; and Hallenbeck, Wilbur (editors) 1964 Adult Education: Outlines of an Emerging Field of University Study. Washington: Adult Education Association.

Johnstone, John W. C. 1964 Volunteers for Learning. Chicago: Aldine.

Kaplan, Abraham A. 1960 Study Discussion in the Liberal Arts. White Plains, N.Y.: Fund for Adult Education.

Karbe, Walther; and Richter, Ernst 1962 Bibliographie zur Erwachsenenbildung im deutschen Sprachgebiet. Braunschweig (Germany): Westermann.

Kelly, thomas (1952) 1962 A Select Bibliography of Adult Education in Great Britain. 2d ed. London: National Institute of Adult Education.

Kelly, thomas 1957 George Birkbeck: Pioneer of Adult Education. Liverpool Univ. Press.

Kelly, thomas 1962 A History of Adult Education in Great Britain. Liverpool Univ. Press.

Knowles, Malcolm 1962 The Adult Education Movement in the United States. New York: Holt.

Lewin, Kurt 1942 The Relative Effectiveness of a Method of Group Discussion for Changing Food Habits. Unpublished report. National Research Council.

Little, Lawrence C. (1961) 1963 A Bibliography of Doctoral Dissertations on Adults and Adult Education. Rev. ed. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

London, Jack; Wenkert, Robert; and Hagstrom, Warren D. 1963 Adult Education and Social Class. Berkeley: Survey Research Center, Univ. of California.

Lund, Ragnar (editor) (1949) 1952 Scandinavian Adult Education: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden. 2d ed. Copenhagen: Danske forlag.

McMahon, Ernest E. (1959) 1960 The Emerging Evening College. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mezirow, Jack D.; and BERRY, DOROTHEA 1960 The Literature of Liberal Adult Education: 1945–1957. New York: Scarecrow.

Miller, Harry L. 1964 Teaching and Learning in Adult Education. New York: Macmillan.

National University Extension Association 1953 University Extension in the United States. University: Univ. of Alabama Press.

Peers, Robert 1958 Adult Education: A Comparative Study. London: Routledge; New York: Humanities.

Pole, Thomas (1814) 1816 History of the Origin and Progress of Adult Schools: With an Account of Some of the Beneficial Effects Already Produced on the Moral Character of the Labouring Poor. 2d ed. Bristol (England): The Author.

Ranganathan, Shiyali R. 1952 Social Education Literature for Authors, Artists, Publishers, Teachers, Librarians and Governments. Delhi: Atma Ram.

Rogers, Everett M. 1962 Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.

Stocks, Mary Danvers 1953 The Workers’ Educational Association: The First Fifty Years. London: Allen & Unwin.

Unesco 1952 Universities in Adult Education. Problems in Education, No. 4. Paris: UNESCO.

Verner, Coolie 1962 A Conceptual Scheme for the Identification and Classification of Processes for Adult Education. Chicago: Adult Education Association.

Verner, Coolie 1963 Concepts and Limitations. Pages 229–240 in James R. Kidd (editor), Learning and Society: Readings in Canadian Adult Education. Toronto: Canadian Association for Adult Education.

Verner, Coolie 1964 Adult Education. Washington: Center for Applied Research in Education.

Wilson, Meredith C.; and Gallup, Gladys 1955 Extension Teaching Methods and Other Factors That Influence Adoption of Agricultural and Home Economic Practices. Washington: Government Printing Office.

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adult education

adult education, extension of educational opportunities to those adults beyond the age of general public education who feel a need for further training of any sort, also known as continuing education.

Forms of Adult Education

Contemporary adult education can take many different forms. Colleges and universities have instituted evening programs, extension work, courses without credit, corresponence courses, distance learning programs (with courses transmitted to numerous locations), and online courses; community colleges have been especially active in this area. Organizations designed to relieve illiteracy are instrumental in adult education, as are the schools established to teach the English language and American customs to the foreign-born. Adult education is also sponsored by corporations, labor unions, and private institutes. The field now embraces such diverse areas as vocational education, high-school equivalency, parent education, adult basic education (including literacy training), physical and emotional development, practical arts, applied science, and recreation as well as the traditional academic, business, and professional subjects. Each year millions of Americans take such a course or program.

At the local level, public schools have been active in furnishing facilities and assistance to private adult education groups in many communities. Community centers, political and economic action associations, and dramatic, musical, and artistic groups are regarded by many as adult education activities. Great Books groups (est. 1947), in which adults read and discuss a specified list of volumes, grew out of great books seminars at Chicago and Columbia universities and St. John's College. In many places the local public library sponsors such groups.


Only in the past two centuries has the field of adult education acquired definite organization. Its relatively recent development results from numerous social trends—the general spread of public education, the intensification of economic competition with a resulting premium on skills, the complexities of national and international politics demanding constant study, the stimulating effects of urbanization, the opportunity offered by increased leisure time, and increased interest in educational activities on the part of many older men and women. Modern and formal adult education probably originated in European political groups and, after the Industrial Revolution, in vocational classes for workers. Continuation schools for workers in Germany and Switzerland were common. The folk high school in Denmark, founded by Bishop Grundtvig, stressed intellectual studies, and the Adult Schools of the Society of Friends in England (1845) fostered the education of the poor.

The earliest American forms of adult education were the public lectures given in the lyceum (c.1826) and the Lowell Institute of Boston endowed by John Lowell (1836). In 1873 the Chautauqua movement introduced the discussion group and modified lecture system. Free public lectures supported by the Dept. of Education of New York City were inaugurated in 1904. In 1926 the Carnegie Corporation organized the American Association for Adult Education, which later became the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A. In 1982 it merged with the National Association for Public Continuing Adult Education to form the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. This group, through its research and publications, works not only to promote education as a lifelong learning process but also to systematize the methods and philosophy of the field. The 21st cent. has seen the increasing development of online courses offered for free (without credit); the courses are offered in forms ranging from lecture videos and podcasts to text materials unsupplemented by any form of multimedia.

Federal funding and support for adult education have been provided through the Vocational Education Act (1963), the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), the Manpower Act (1965), the Adult Education Act (1966, amended 1970), the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (1973), the Lifelong Learning Act (1976), and for a broader spectrum of learners by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act (1984). The Office of Vocational and Adult Education, under the U.S. Dept. of Education, administers grant, contract, and technical assistance programs for adult education, literacy, and occupational training. Most federal funding for these programs is administered through the states, counties, and individual communities. Other major federal providers of adult education are the Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Defense.


See C. H. Grattan, In Quest of Knowledge (1955, repr. 1971); D. N. Portman, The University and the Public (1979); P. Jarvis, Adult and Continuing Education (1990); and M. S. Knowles, A History of the Adult Education Movement in the United States (rev. ed. 1994).

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A person who by virtue of attaining a certain age, generally eighteen, is regarded in the eyes of the law as being able to manage his or her own affairs.

The age specified by law, called the legal age of majority, indicates that a person acquires full legal capacity to be bound by various documents, such as contracts and deeds, that he or she makes with others and to commit other legal acts such as voting in elections and entering marriage. The age at which a person becomes an adult varies from state to state and often varies within a state, depending upon the nature of the action taken by the person. Thus, a person wishing to obtain a license to operate a motor vehicle may be considered an adult at age sixteen, but may not reach adulthood until age eighteen for purposes of marriage, or age twenty-one for purposes of purchasing intoxicating liquors.

Anyone who has not reached the age of adulthood is legally considered an infant.

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a·dult / əˈdəlt; ˈadˌəlt/ • n. a person who is fully grown or developed. ∎  a fully developed animal. ∎  Law a person who has reached the age of majority. See majority (sense 2). • adj. (of a person or animal) fully grown or developed. ∎  of or for adult people: adult education. ∎  emotionally and mentally mature. ∎  sexually explicit or pornographic (used euphemistically to refer to a movie, book, or magazine). DERIVATIVES: a·dult·hood / -ˌhoŏd/ n.

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adult adj. XVI, sb. XVII. — L. adultus, pp. of adolēscere (see ADOLESCENT); cf. F. adulte.

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"adult." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"adult." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (December 11, 2017).

"adult." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from


adult •gestalt • asphalt •belt, Celt, dealt, dwelt, felt, gelt, knelt, melt, misdealt, pelt, Scheldt, smelt, spelt, svelte, veld, welt •fan belt • seat belt • lifebelt • sunbelt •rust belt • Copperbelt • heartfelt •underfelt • backveld • bushveld •Roosevelt •atilt, built, gilt, guilt, hilt, jilt, kilt, lilt, quilt, silt, spilt, stilt, tilt, upbuilt, wilt •Vanderbilt • volte •assault, Balt, exalt, fault, halt, malt, salt, smalt, vault •cobalt • stringhalt • basalt •somersault • polevault •bolt, colt, dolt, holt, jolt, moult (US molt), poult, smolt, volt •deadbolt • Humboldt • thunderbolt •megavolt • spoilt • Iseult •consult, cult, exult, indult, insult, penult, result, ult •adult • occult • tumult • catapult •difficult • Hasselt

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"adult." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"adult." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 11, 2017).

"adult." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from