Adult Education (Earlier)

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The term "adult education" was coined in England in 1810 in reference to promotion of adult literacy. Across the Atlantic, adult education emerged in the nineteenth century as a means to enculturate recently arrived immigrants in the United States and Canada. During the early twentieth century, adult education primarily referred to vocational training for the labor force and academic programs for adults who had not completed primary or secondary school. The term lifelong learning, when used to refer to an organized program, often is used synonymously with adult education. The idea of lifelong learning as a means of ensuring personal and community development for all adults throughout adulthood emerged in the early twentieth century. Development of government policy and funding for lifelong learning programs began in the post World War II years and expanded through the 1960s and 1970s.

The Third International Conference on Adult Education held in Tokyo from 25 July to 7 August 1972 provided a new impetus for the growth of adult education and lifelong learning programs in North America and around the globe during the latter part of the twentieth century. As a result of work accomplished during the international conference, a recommendation on the development of adult education was adopted by UNESCO in 1976 that set forth the first international standards regarding adult education.

The UNESCO recommendation defined adult education as: the entire body of organized educational processes, whatever the content, level, and method, whether formal or otherwise, whether they prolong or replace initial education in schools, colleges, and universities as well as in apprenticeship, whereby persons regarded as adult by the society to which they belong develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge, improve their technical or professional qualifications or turn them in a new direction, and bring about changes in their attitudes or behavior in the twofold perspective of full personal development and participation in balanced and independent social, economic, and cultural development.

The recommendation also called for the recognition of adult education as an integral component of lifelong learning that extends through the individual's lifespan, restructuring of current educational systems to incorporate adult education, and development of opportunities for learning external to the current educational system. In contemporary America, adult education is used to refer to adult basic education, vocational-technical education, and community-based continuing education or lifelong learning programs. In this article, adult education refers to the latter.

The pairing of community recreation services and adult education began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the early twentieth century. In 1911, Wisconsin became the first state to pass legislation providing for public support of adult education and community recreation programs. Dorothy Enderis, a pioneer in community recreation and adult education, used this legislation in Milwaukee to bring to fruition her vision of adult education and productive community recreation extending from the school system into the community. Milwaukee, the "City of the Lighted Schoolhouse," became a model for communities throughout the nation as an expansive adult education and community recreation program developed with the Milwaukee Public School system. During the latter half of the twentieth century, municipal parks and recreation departments around the country followed the lead of Milwaukee and developed adult education programs. In the early 2000s, adult education was a mainstay of municipal recreation services.

The Chautaugua Movement

The Chautauqua Institution, located on a 750-acre site beside Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York, was founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller and John Heyl. Although at first organized to train Methodist Sunday School teachers, the leadership and audience quickly included many Protestant denominations and became a center for adult education in a summer vacation setting. From almost the beginning, it offered short courses in music, art, religion, and physical training. By 1880, the Chautauqua Institution also presented prominent lecturers and discussions of current affairs and international issues as well as science and literature. Music grew in importance, with a symphony orchestra program offered regularly from 1920 and opera from 1929. From the 1920s, various New York universities have conducted summer courses at the Chautauqua Institution. Although in decline since the 1930s, in the early twenty-first century about 7,500 persons participated daily during the nine-week summer school. Some 100 lecturers spoke each year at Chautauqua Institution summer gatherings and special programs continued for youth and children, combining adult education with a family vacation in a camp-like setting.

In addition, inspired by the original Chautauqua Institute, were traveling chautauquas that appeared first in Iowa in 1904 under the leadership of Keith Vawter. Growing out of the city-based lyceum movement of popular lecturers and dramatic presentations, the traveling or tent chautauqua introduced mostly small town Americans to a variety of preachers, politicians, poets, and actors who were booked in regional circuits. Local chautauqua organizers, often educators and professional people, guaranteed ticket sales and publicized the five- to seven-day event. Farmers as well as townspeople gathered, often under tents, to hear dramatic readings of Shakespeare or inspirational speakers such as the politician William Jennings Bryan or preacher Billy Sunday. Music groups, especially concert bands, also were prominent on the programs.

Although many speakers were entertaining, and crowds eagerly anticipated Chautauqua Week as a release from the boring routine of farm and small town life, organizers saw their mission as educational by providing upto-date information about world affairs, science, and art as well as platforms for reformers—especially prohibition and woman's suffrage. Themes of patriotism and moral uplift appealed to the mostly white middle class audiences.

The traveling chautauquas declined in the 1920s with the advent of radio that offered more assessable means of obtaining entertaining education. The moralistic and self-improving ethos of the movement also appealed less to audiences. Despite efforts to make programs more entertaining (for example, with more humor and music), the Great Depression ended the movement's traveling shows.

Modern Adult Education

In 1999, approximately 45 percent of adults 17 years of age and older participated in some type of adult education program. More than one-third of participants were involved in basic or vocational education. The remaining participants sought a multiplicity of personally motivated outcomes from their experiences, including outcomes related to leisure. Adult education is directly linked to leisure as individuals utilize education programs to learn about leisure and also enjoy educational programs as leisure experiences. Leisure interests of individuals may reflect innate characteristics, but those interests and related skills are developed through learning. For many individuals, a primary motivation for leisure is personal development—a significant outcome of learning. Individuals are driven to seek experiences that increase their understanding of themselves and the world around them, enhance personal skills, and provide novelty. Communitybased adult education programs are an excellent tool for meeting these needs.

Community-based adult education programs are offered through a variety of providers, including municipal parks and recreation departments, college and university continuing education programs, vocational and technical school programs, nonprofit organizations, local governments through adult education and community centers, hospitals and health centers, cooperative extension, libraries, museums, and Internet services. Financial support generally originates from one or a combination of the following sources: subsidies from sponsoring organizations, participant fees, auxiliary enterprises and sales or other fundraising activities, private grants, corporate sponsorships, and government funds. Adult education programs also serve as a revenue stream for the day-today operation of community-based organizations. Adult education programs usually are offered in the evening and vary in duration from two-hour workshops to semester-long courses. The subject matter of adult education programs usually falls into one of two categories:

  • • Responsibilities and Tasks of Adult Life—This topical area includes an array of issues related to day to day living, including: family roles, career development, personal development, leisure, travel, hobbies, spiritual development, and living in a community.
  • • Society—The focus of programs in this category range from issues specific to the local community to matters of international concern. Politics, innovations in technology, health-care advances, and a wide range of social concerns are popular subjects in contemporary adult education programs.

The scope of community-based adult education programs has expanded since the 1960s to reflect the diverse interest and lifestyles of the population of the United States.

An area of significant growth in adult education is programming designed for older adults. Senior centers and recreation programs offer an assortment of courses and workshops. Popular topics include technology, health, genealogy, arts and crafts, personal development, literature, and current events. Elderhostel is an international travel education organization that offers a remarkably diverse program of one to two week intensive, learning experiences at locations around the world. The Elderhostel Institute Network is a voluntary association of more than 220 Institutes for Learning in Retirement. Each of the institutes is affiliated with a college or university and directed by a group of older adults. On-line learning programs are offered by AARP and other providers. The number and variety of education programs for older adults will expand with the growth of the older population over the next several decades.

See also: Church Socials, Leisure Education, Rational Recreation and Self-Improvement


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Caffarella, Rosemary. Planning Programs for Adult Learners: A Practical Guide for Educators, Trainers, and Staff Developers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Camenson, Blythe. Opportunities in Adult Education Careers. Lincolnwood, Ill.: VGM Career Horizons, 2000.

Cookson, Peter, ed. Program Planning for the Training and Continuing Education of Adults: North American Perspectives. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger Publishing Company, 1998.

Edginton, Christopher, Debra Jordan, Donald DeGraaf, and Susan Edginton. Leisure and Life Satisfaction. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002.

Godbey, Geoffrey. Leisure in Your Life: An Exploration. State College, Pa.: Venture Publishing, 2003.

Hooyman, Nancy, and H. Asuman Kiyak. Social Gerontology: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

Nancy Brattain Rogers