Academic journal article Journal of Adult Education

Connecting Early American Values to the Current Practice of Adult Education

Academic journal article Journal of Adult Education

Connecting Early American Values to the Current Practice of Adult Education

Article excerpt


A historical account is presented of adult education practice by exploring the lives of a few prominent men and women from the 19th century often not associated with the formal adult education movement. These include Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Henry David Thoreau. This article seeks to provide a historical context for the adult education movement in the United States, to discuss some dominant values that seem to have guided the movement, and to examine current values that may be evident in contemporary adult education practice.


Connecting foundational American works to the adult learning setting can be an effective tool for adult educators. Underlying values such as hope and optimism have guided practice since the beginning of the adult education movement in the early 20th century. Values are a fundamental part of successful methodologies; however, they are not always apparent in the minds of those utilizing them. A conscious awareness of these values can provide adult educators with perspectives on what guides their practice and the impact that they may have on their learners. While it is apparent that hope and optimism play an integral role in adult education, recognizing the influence of additional values such as courage can deepen an understanding of the field.

In this article, an overview of the adult education movement is presented as a framework from which to extract values such as hope, optimism, and courage. A few brief biographical sketches of prominent historical figures from the late 19th century to the early 20th century are provided to bridge the values of the past to current practice. These figures have contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the field of adult education. For the purpose of this article, adult education is defined as "where adults acquire knowledge beyond random learning" (Ohliger, 2002, p.14). Hope and optimism are perceived as the common values often underlying the premise of individual transformation and social change. The value of courage is most evident when realism permeates idealistic notions.

History of the Conscious Adult Education Movement

A formal movement for adult education began in the 1920s. However, prior to this conscious movement, many Americans in the 1890s had already realized the overwhelming social changes that had occurred. For example, expanded networks of communication and transportation had created national markets; industrialization had created a new work culture; and urbanization had created new patterns of community life (Stubblefteld & Keane, 1989). In addition, education became part of the Women's Rights Movement, which had developed since the 1840s.

The 19th century provided platforms for adult education to expand. The early Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits provided a stage for lecturers and community members to engage in thought-provoking discussions on political, social, and cultural issues. The goal of these circuits was to offer enlightenment through education to rural, small-town America. Therefore, the Lyceum and Chautauqua can be thought of as a part of early adult education without the formalities that would come later in the 20th century. The Lyceum, itself, had seen the purposes of education change from learning for livelihood to learning for self-improvement, or learning for life (Maxwell, 1998).

With the onset of the 20th century, there was a growing concern for the immigrants that settled in the cities. The establishment of settlement houses incorporated values of hope and optimism with the intention of assisting the working class and immigrants through its educational activities. The philanthropic, civic, and social undertakings of these establishments were attempts to socialize democracy (Addams, 1925/1961).

After World War I, adult education was promoted as a new agency through the efforts of the Carnegie Foundation and Fred Keppel. During the 1920s, the main focus of the movement was to determine its direction. …

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