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The Meaning of Adult Education: The Contemporary Relevance of Edward Lindeman

by Stephen Brookfield - 1984

Eduard Lindeman's book, "The Meaning of Adult Education," and its continued importance in higher education is discussed. Lindeman's thoughts on adult education and its social function and aesthetic relevance are explored. The use of discussion groups as a method of educational discourse is advocated. (Source: ERIC)

A version of this article appeared as “Adult Education and the Democratic Imperative: The Vision of Eduard Lindeman as a Contemporary Charter for Adult Education,” in Studies in Adult Education (UK), 15 (1983)

Readers of contemporary professional adult education literature will seek in vain for elements of the visionary, the messianic, or the inspirational. The natural tendency of researchers and practitioners in an applied discipline is to focus on narrow professional concerns, and such a concentration is compounded in an era characterized by subscription to monetary policy and the application of Darwinian ethics of survival to what is held to be the marketplace of education, The self-financing nature of much adult education provision encourages this application of economic criteria to the judgment of the educational worth of many initiatives. The successful professional is the one who attracts government funding for special projects, whose enrollment statistics are impressive, and who spawns new and successful programs with envy-producing alacrity.

The acceptance of such criteria as judgments of educational worth also permeates much research activity in the field. Hence, notions as to what constitutes important research become fused with professional concerns regarding the institutional requirement for a balanced or profit-oriented budget. The prevalence of doctoral theses and research articles on participation in adult education, particularly in the United States, can be seen as reflecting this emphasis on institutional survival. To ascertain the characteristics of our student clientele and to proceed to explore strategies by which we might both retain current participants and attract nonparticipants is, admittedly, a research problem. Application of these findings, however, means that budgets, programs, and jobs can be safeguarded and it is hard not to suspect that the prospect of the institutional applicability of such results did not constitute the strongest motivation for conducting the original research.

Despite the predominance of technique-orientated manuals of instruction and program development, some writers and ideas possess such speculative potency that their intrusion into the professional consciousness of adult education cannot be denied. Paulo Freire is one such writer; Ivan Illich, Everett Reimer, and Myles Horton are others. In Canada the writings and activities of Moses Coady are revered for their radical humanism, while one of the most weighty contributions to the literature of British adult education is the oft-cited 1919 Report. This report, published by the Ministry of Reconstruction after World War 1, envisaged adult education as a permanent national necessity and many of its premises have been reformulated in European writings on recurrent, lifelong, and permanent education.

The single work in American adult education that can justly lay claim to the status of a visionary charter for the field is Eduard Lindeman’s The Meaning of Adult Education.1 Originally published in 1926, surprisingly neglected by the standard history of American adult education,2 and now out of print for several years, it is the one tract in the field to which the term classic can correctly be applied. To merit such acclaim a book must meet two criteria. First, it should have an enduring relevance in that it addresses perennial concerns using concepts and theories that have contemporary meaning and application. Second, it should induce a paradigm shift in the way in which the study of a field is conceptualized and undertaken. On both counts Lindeman’s work satisfies these criteria admirably.

Lindeman certainly does not possess the substantive range and intellectual power of a Weber, Freud, or Keynes. Nonetheless, within the admittedly much narrower field of adult education, he has played a role in creating the framework within which discourse takes place similar to that performed by these three thinkers in the social sciences. These thinkers framed their ideas when their respective disciplines were in what was almost a preparadigmatic state. They defined the agenda of investigative priorities; they created the language to be used in this investigation, and in so doing generated concepts that still possess heuristic and hermeneutic potency.

This article considers the central features of Lindeman’s conceptual Weltanschauung; that is, the principles he identified as endemic to the practice of adult education, his thoughts regarding its social function and aesthetic relevance, and the medium through which its power was to be realized. Although these ideas will be related to concepts and concerns more recently prevalent within adult education, the intention is not to consign The Meaning of Adult Education to the lumber room of intellectual history. It is a misconception to view Lindeman’s work as important purely because his emphasis on education as life and living artistically is a precursor to the notion of experiential learning, or because his emphasis on collaborative learning within small groups contains strong andragogical elements. His ideas must be considered on their own merits as autonomous treatments of perennial adult education concerns and dilemmas, not as building blocks in supposedly more sophisticated intellectual constructs. Although this article traces connections between Lindeman’s work and later themes and theorists within adult education, this should not be interpreted as a belief that the more recent an idea or concept the greater its intellectual clarity. As Kidd acknowledged when assessing The Meaning of Adult Education over twenty years ago, we need to read Lindeman not from a sense of duty to the intellectual heritage of adult education, but for the book’s power to illuminate the present and reveal the future.3


As has been the case with other thinkers with independent minds of insight and originality, Lindeman received scant formal education. His explorations in the fields of sociology, philosophy, and social work were grounded in a real-life acquaintance with a variety of occupations—youth counselor, shipbuilder, nurseryman, journalist, farmhand, government official. His work was read by social workers rather than by adult educators (he was professor of Social Philosophy at the New York School of Social Work, Columbia University, in the 1940s), and an attention to the social relevance of educational practice underscored all his writings. Kidd compared him with Nikita Khrushchev, remarking that both men were “almost equally innocent of what formal schooling ought to give to any youth” and yet both, nonetheless, “made extraordinary use of their opportunities for education in adult life.“4

This appreciation of the experiential dimension to learning was undoubtedly reflected in the four principles held by Lindeman to be endemic to adult education. The first of these—the oft-quoted aphorism “Education is Life” –might appear to critics of simplistic progressivism to be a trite and meaningless truism. However, Lindeman was far too sophisticated a thinker to nail his colors to a humanistically impeccable but conceptually empty epithet. Education was life because “the whole of life is learning, therefore education can have no endings” (p. 5). To conceive of education as a preparation for an unknown future was to condemn teachers to pedagogic stasis and to view the act of learning as appropriate only to the stages of childhood and adolescence.

The second principle of adult education was that it was of a nonvocational character. Lindeman believed that “adult education more accurately defined begins where vocational education leaves off” (p. 5). In a passage that recalls the condemnation of industrialism by nineteenth-century social critics such as John Ruskin and William Morris, Lindeman lamented that

the possibilities of enriching the activities of labor itself grow less for all workers who manipulate automatic machines. If the good life, the life interfused with meaning and with joy, is to come to these, opportunities for expressing more of the total personality than is called forth by machines will be needed. (p. 5)

The era of specialization was one that encouraged the development of fractional personalities and adult education was seen as a creative counter force to the dehumanization of workers in the industrial era.

Lindeman’s third principle of adult education—that we emphasize situations, not subjects, in our teaching- was a direct expression of a Deweyan progressivism. Adult education began at the point at which adults found themselves needing to adjust to new situations. This notion was allied to the fourth cardinal principle, which emphasized the primacy of the learner. In a passage evoking the praxis of, in turn, Carl Rogers and Paulo Freire, Lindeman asserted that “all genuine education will keep doing and thinking together” and that “experience is the adult learner’s living textbook” (p. 7). Such self-fulfillment could not, however, be attained in splendid isolation. Hence, an individual’s self-actualization was predicated on social change, since adult learners “want also to change the social order so that vital personalities will be creating a new environment in which their aspirations may be properly expressed” (p. 9).


In the last decade or so the European idea of recurrent, continuing, and permanent education and the American idea of lifelong learning have become part of the adult educator’s litany of revered and unquestioned axioms. One of the most potent elements of Lindeman’s work, judged by the measure of its contemporary relevance, is his rejection of what has been called the “front-end” model of educational provision. He condemned “all static concepts of education which relegate the learning process to the period of youth” as well as the view that education was “a mere preparation for an unknown kind of future living” (p. 4). Connected to this critique of education as coterminous with childhood and adolescence, he also railed against what he saw as the stifling formalism of higher education. In terms that would later be echoed by such social critics and deschoolers as Goodman, Illich, and Reimer, Lindeman displayed a profound mistrust of what he viewed as the deleterious effects of rigid curricula and authoritarian pedagogy. Rather than viewing higher education as the apex of intellectual aspiration, he saw the college graduate as being most in need of adult education.

Higher education was repugnant to Lindeman because it reduced the aesthetic and imaginative dimensions of human experience as expressed in an appreciation of art, music, and literature to an acquaintance with “packets neatly bound, easily digested, selected from the best academic stocks, and guaranteed not to interfere with the serious business of life” (p. 66). This routinized paying of respects to the goddess of classicism was seen as a form of inoculation into the official culture. Narrow scholarship was contrasted with learning, and academic degrees, formal study, and accumulation of facts were all superficial criteria by which to judge the quality of educational experience.

This condemnation of the sterile formalism of academe is unfortunate if it encourages people to view Lindeman as someone concerned solely with integrating the affective and cognitive dimensions of educational experience. Paterson5 and Lawson6 have paid eloquent testimony to the manner in which adult education can foster the development of high-level skills of conceptual analysis and critical thought, and the independent scholars surveyed by Gross.7 and Brookfield8 demonstrate that scholarly excellence need not be equated with narrow and uncreative conformity.


It is in his analysis of the power foci in Western societies that Lindeman comes closest to consideration as a prime candidate for canonization as the second patron saint (along with Freire) of radical adult educators. The much-vaunted “Great Society” that was the United States in the 1920s was seen by Lindeman as “a vast network of power groups, each vying with the other for supremacy” (p. 26). As evidence of this radical perspective, consider the following articulation of a conflict model of society:

Nationalism and imperialism are merely outward manifestations of this “pseudo-power” which degrades us all; beneath these more glamorous units lies the pervading economic structure of our civilization based upon a doubtful competitive ethic and avowedly designed to benefit the crafty, the strong and the truculent. . . . Warfare is the rule of the game. (p. 26)

Taken along with his comments on the debilitating dualism inherent in capitalism— “that my advantage must mean your disability; that efficacy for me can exist only through your disqualification” (p. 28)—Lindeman’s thought constitutes a condemnation of the capitalist ethic that would not have seemed inappropriate in the writings of the New Left or the Frankfurt school of critical social theorists.

Of greatest concern to Lindeman as an educator, however, was the prospect of an infusion of capitalist ethics into the educational system. At the prospect of such an eventuality he offered an apocalyptic vision of revolution as a possible reaction to the stultifying presence of the capitalist ethic within education.

We may, for example, so far exaggerate the incentives and motives which are derived from capitalism and profit production as to cause the entire educational system to become a direct response to this system and to lead to its further emphasis. . . . If this system, both on its economic and educational sides, becomes too rigid and too oppressive and incapable of sincere self-criticism, nothing short of violent revolution will suffice to change its direction. (p. 49)

It should be emphasized that Lindeman was speculating on the possible nature of American society if certain perceptible trends became ossified into institutional forms. While acknowledging that “even educators ought not to lose sight of the fact that revolutions are occasionally necessary” (p. 49), he regarded revolution as fundamentally anti-educational. Revolutions occurred only when the true learning process had disappeared in society and a revolution was an indication that a society had lost faith in intelligence.

One specific educational sin, the responsibility for which could be laid at the door of capitalism, was the emphasis on curriculum development at the expense of pedagogic method. Lindeman expressed surprise that “schoolmen now find their center of interest in curriculum-making,” an activity he held to be “the process of transforming the school into a department-store bargain counter” (p. 113). The importance of curriculum development reflected the centrality of subject teaching, which Lindeman condemned as “a method which is compatible with a perverted and shallow pragmatism and profitable to an industrial order which requires technicians, not educated men and women” (p. 113).

Despite the force of this critique, Lindeman did not despair of the prospects for peaceful change in the industrial and educational spheres. In order to manage a modern economy he believed in “a revolution of the mind” to develop “cleaner motives, sharper intellectual insights and finer wills” (p. 27) among workers. He was optimistic that workers’ education, which he regarded as “the most vital sector of the adult education movement” (p. 27), would lead to “the displacement of the use of force by intelligence” (p. 27). This would result in workers’ discovering “better motives” for production and turn the labor union movement into a creating rather than a fighting organization.

We can see, then, that Lindeman stopped short of advocating a fundamental restructuring of society in his prescriptions for reform. The worker-employer divide remained unchallenged and reform took place within the framework of a private-enterprise system of production. Production accords with a collaborative, social—democratic mode— “power over” is transposed into “power with” in industry (p. 27). In the light of the condemnatory force of his analysis of capitalism, these reforms—a revolution in workers’ minds to find finer meanings and better motives for production—seem curiously and uncharacteristically timid. As we shall see in the succeeding section, however, Lindeman did not subscribe to the individualist ethic of Paterson9 and Lawson,10 whereby an individual’s development of critical skill and intellectual awareness takes place without any reference to social issues. To Lindeman a necessary condition for changing consciousness was the engagement by the individual in some form of collective social action.


In what ought to be recognized as a seminal contribution to our literature, Lindeman, in a 1945 article, urged American sociologists to consider the investigation of the social significance of adult education as a research priority of first importance. In that same piece he offered perhaps his clearest statement as to the irreducible connection between adult education and social action:

Adult education . . . turns out to be the most reliable instrument for social actionists. . . . When they substitute something other than intelligence and reason, social action soon emanates as sheer power and soon degenerates into habits which tend toward an anti-democratic direction. Every social action group should at the same time be an adult education group, and I go even so far as to believe that all successful adult education groups sooner or later become social action groups.11

The conceptual underpinnings of this fusion of the individual and social dimensions of educational activity can be detected at several points in The Meaning of Adult Education. Most fundamentally, Lindeman regarded calls to overcome individualism as gratuitous. Individuals were caught within social milieux and were forced to be social by virtue of their enlarging needs. To Lindeman, the alarm expressed by Riesman12 at the growing self-centered privatization of urban life would have been regarded as misplaced and unwarranted. He would also have rejected the documentation by industrial sociologists of the privatized life-styles of blue-collar auto workers in the 1950s and 1960s as conceptual and empirical nonsense.13

Adult education served as the catalyst for collective enterprise in three ways: (1) by revealing the nature of the social process, (2) by replacing warring interests with creative conflict, and (3) by making the collective life an educational experience. The first two functions were important to counteract the acceptance of the nonsensical (to Lindeman) doctrine of individualism. He regarded objectivity as being lost as soon as individual conduct was seen as separate from social behavior and felt such a perception encouraged the pursuit of individual interests without regard to broader social concerns.

The exercise of creative conflict was seen most appositely in the arena of labor relations. If education prompted an awareness of the socially derived nature of individual conscience and conduct, then the destructive concealment of true motives characterizing labor relations would be replaced by “open democracy” — “the assumption that what we want is worth wanting, possesses sufficient integrity to stand comparison and is capable of making its way on merits and not through coercion” (p. 102). The social function of adult education and its contribution to societal evolution was summarized thus:

Adult education will become an agency of progress if its short-time goal of self-improvement can be made compatible with a long-time, experimental but resolute policy of changing the social order. Changing individuals in continuous adjustment to changing social functions-this is the bilateral though unified purpose of adult learning. (p. 105)

As with his proposal for a revolution of workers’ minds, this outline of the social role of adult education seems strangely muted. Lindeman offers only the scantiest indication as to the form of social order he deems desirable and the emphasis on changing individuals to adjust to new societal imperatives is reminiscent of a pragmatic authoritarianism rather than egalitarian philosophy. If we allow changing societal functions to be the guide for individual conduct, then we are guilty of as serious a conceptual confusion—this time of social holism—as the individualism condemned by Lindeman himself. Societal functions do not exist in a normative vacuum. Certainly, manifest social functions of the kind outlined by Merton14 are prescribed by dominant groups and institutional leaders and represent the interests of elite sectors in a society. When we read other major writings of Lindeman, however, it is evident that he opposed societal imperatives that were authoritarian in the sense of emanating from a dominant group. Indeed, in a host of other books and papers he undertook a detailed elaboration of his version of social democracy.15


Lindeman was never afraid to inject a note of acerbic vituperation into his writing and no better example of this can be found than his castigation of artistic snobbery. He condemned the way in which artistic appreciation “remains the inherited prerogative of a coterie of so-called cultured people” (p. 66) and he scorned the indoctrination of students with preconceived notions of correct criteria for judging good music, painting, or literature. The adult educator was placed in the role of a folk cultural champion and adult education was charged with bringing forth new cultural values, with opposing academic sterility regarding the correct enjoyment of art, even with giving American art a new impetus. By dispensing with formalized notions of what constituted “high” culture, adult education could, at the very least, “aid greatly in the much-needed procedure of transforming a growing artistic snobbery into an indigenous folk-expression. . . . In short, adult education may justly be expected to do something toward democratizing art” (p. 66).

One dimension of this democratization would take the form of a skepticism regarding criteria of excellence and standards of appreciation derived from European cultural circles. Rather in the manner of those Canadians who are ever wary of the cultural imperialism of the United States, Lindeman thought that an indigenous American artistic culture—grounded in, judged by, and reflective of the American experience—would develop only if the European cultural hegemony were rejected.

As well as connecting adult education to the resurgence of an indigenous form of American folk art, Lindeman also believed it should enhance the affective and expressive dimensions of personality. Adult education should “teach people how to make their thinking glow with the warmth of honest feeling” (p. 67) and “aid in delivering us from that abject fear of expressing our quick and enthusiastic enjoyments—the fear to which we have become habituated under the discipline of professional criticism” (p. 70). In his emphasis on adult education as enhancing the individual’s power to make direct aesthetic connection with creative art, and to discover and release qualities of “intrinsic sensibility,” Lindeman calls to mind those twentieth-century writers and critics (particularly D. H. Lawrence) who feared the diminution of the spontaneous spirit by the rise of industrialism.

A third way in which adult education could assist in the democratization of art was in the promotion of a realization that “life is also one of the creative arts” and that “we can all live artistically” (p. 59). Seventy years earlier, Whitman had advised young Americans to “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.“16 Lindeman subscribed wholly to this notion of life as an aesthetic creation with a creative act being the adding of a new quality to experience. His advocacy of a fusion of art and life is outlined in the following passage:

A well-organized and adequately expressed life deserves to be called beautiful no less than a well-conceived statue. Aesthetics suffers by reason of its artificial isolation, its exclusiveness. Beauty is not discovered solely by contemplation of beautiful objects; beauty is experiencing. (p. 55)


Finally, Lindeman regarded adult education as possessing certain pedagogical features that fitted it uniquely to achieve the social changes and altered states of aesthetic consciousness he desired. Indeed, he held a concentration on method to be more important than curriculum development. Only if adult educators were “to devote their major concern to method and not content” (p. 114) would a difference of quality in the use of intelligence result. Such a dualism of method and content would, of course, be rejected by analytic philosophers of education such as Peters,17 Paterson18 and Lawson.19 To these thinkers an activity may be considered educational only if the curriculum comprises bodies of knowledge deemed intrinsically worthwhile. They would agree with Lindeman, however, that educational activities must also be characterized by morally acceptable pedagogic procedures. Those subscribing to the Freirean critique of education would also object to the idea that content and method could be separated, since to them the problem-posing process and the bringing of assumptions into critical consciousness can be accomplished only through an analysis of individual and collective experience. The subject matter and pedagogical method are fused and separation becomes conceptual and practical nonsense.

We have already seen that Lindeman accepted the Deweyan notion of education as coterminous with the understanding and analysis of life situations. In undertaking analysis of these situations Lindeman regarded education as a method comprising the inculcation of a set of skills replicable for the understanding of a range of situations. Hence, “Education is a method for giving situations a setting, for analyzing complex wholes into manageable, understandable parts” (p. 115). This idea of students’ developing a set of analytical procedures to be applied in a range of settings is a conceptual precursor to the notion of mathetics, of learning to learn, currently fashionable among some adult educators.20 We should note, however, that not all adult educators place themselves within this tradition of Deweyan progressivism. Kenneth Lawson, for example, has dismissed the idea of a learning situation as “so general as to be of little or no value as a guide to educational practice or as an indicator of the kind of situation that is educationally relevant.“21

The medium through which these replicable, situational-analysis skills would be developed among adults was, according to Lindeman, the discussion group. He wrote enthusiastically of the Danish Folk High School and British workers’ education movements, both of which relied on study circles and tutorial groups as their modes of educational discourse. The small discussion circle was a pedagogic setting unique to the analysis of individual and collective situations.

Small groups of aspiring adults who desire to keep their minds fresh and vigorous; who begin to learn by confronting pertinent situations; who dig down into the reservoirs of their experience before resorting to texts and secondary facts; who are led in the discussion by teachers who are also seekers after wisdom and not oracles: this constitutes the setting for adult education, the modern quest for life’s meaning. (p. 7)

We can see that Lindeman is historically quite correct in judging the small discussion circle to be the medium of educational transaction most beloved of adult educators. In North American adult education it is the Junto groups, the Lyceums, the Farm Forum, and living-room learning initiatives such as the 1950s Great Books program that come nearest to constituting a distinct and identifiable tradition. In Britain, Paterson22 has commented that advocacy of the discussion method is one of the chief articles in the catechism of liberal adult education and the discussion method is probably the major tool in the training process for new adult educators in both countries.

At the end of World War II Lindeman reiterated his belief in the effectiveness of the discussion group as a force for societal rejuvenation. In the paper “World Peace through Adult Education,” he declared that “if we genuinely want understanding and a good peace, we must quickly bring into existence an adult education movement which springs from the ‘grass roots’ of American life” (p. 23). This movement would have as its focus the neighborhood discussion group, which was not only “essential for democratic life” but also constituted “the finest available medium for dealing with controversial issues” (p. 23). Such groups would combat propaganda, develop flexible modes of thought, and encourage the development of natural leadership as a challenge to “artificial” and “arbitrary” leadership.

In an illustration of the curious dualism that sometimes characterizes the field of adult education, a recent Delphi study undertaken by Ilsley asked ten adult education professors at different universities to nominate the most important books in the literature of the field.23 A program development manual24 dealing with needs assessment, instructional design, and evaluation tied for first place with Lindeman’s The Meaning of Adult Education. Despite the fact that this book has been out of print for several years, it seems that it commands a revered status in the minds of adult education professors. A recent conference presentation, for example, described the book as “the best and most cogent synthesis of adult education as a living activity that has been written to date.“25

What is more important than this measure of professional acclaim, however, is the book’s power to inspire successive generations of graduate students, many of whom pay eloquent testimony to the work’s capacity to provoke and challenge on matters of contemporary moment. It is not just that the book explores perennial concerns—the relationship between adult education and collective social action, the need to liberate adults from officially imposed strictures concerning the criteria of “good” art, the dangers of accepting the profit motive as the prime mover in educational enterprises, and the vigorous advocacy of education as a lifelong process. It is that its author has the courage to speak forcibly on these issues, the stylistic elegance to grant his reflections both power and grace, and, ultimately, the visionary capacity to inspire.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 3, 1984, p. 513-524
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 870, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 3:36:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Stephen Brookfield
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    STEPHEN BROOKFIELD, assistant professor of adult and continuing education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has worked in adult education in Britain (for the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education) and in Canada (as assistant professor of adult education at the University of British Columbia). His book Adult Learners, Adult Education and the Community is being published by Teachers College Press in Spring 1984.
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