Adult Education in the American Experience: From the Colonial Period to the Present

reviewed by Rae W. Rohfeld - 1996

coverTitle: Adult Education in the American Experience: From the Colonial Period to the Present
Author(s): Harold Stubblefield, Patrick Keane
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787900257, Pages: 397, Year: 1994
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†The authors have tried to fill a noticeable gap in the literature of adult education with this historical survey of educative activities for adults in America. Earlier histories by M. S. Knowles (1977), H. C. Grattan (1971), and J. T. Adams (1944) were limited in their definition of the field, lacked inclusiveness, and were dated in perspective. This book provides a wealth of descriptive information about ways adults have pursued their education. However, we still await a history with a strong conceptual base that both reflects our understanding of what adult education means and, simultaneously, contributes to the development of that meaning.

The wide range of activities discussed is the striking feature of the volume. The authors relate numerous means of learning, formal and informal, as they became activities through which people or organizations sought to meet their goals.

Defining adult education has frequently been a challenge, and it has often been difficult to see what is not included. The authors tell us that to identify what is and is not adult education "we drew upon Creminís . . . definition of education as an intentional and organized activity to transmit or to acquire knowledge, skills, or attitudes" (p. 9). This definition is very broad. Thus, the authors discuss, within their social and historical contexts, self-study opportunities, apprenticeships, discussion groups, lectures, classes, mechanics institutes, lyceums, Chautauqua, community organizing activities, the civil rights movement, sensitivity training, and assertiveness training, to name only some of the activities covered. They also distinguish between those programs that opened new vistas for participants and those that maintained participants in roles limited by race, class, or gender, thus acknowledging critical scholarship not considered in the earlier histories.

Several questions come to mind that would help further define adult education and clarify its development. First and foremost, reading this history raises the question of what adulthood is. One reads about apprenticeships in the colonial period, young ladiesí academies in the late eighteenth century, youth programs in the New Deal. What makes the students in these settings adults? One might accept the idea that people who take on "adult responsibilities"ófor example, working, homemaking, farmingówill be considered adults. But some of the activities addressed here seem to involve preparation for such roles. Examining changing conceptions of childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age could help us clarify what we mean by adult education.

A second question that emerges from this book is whether we should not distinguish between tools for information and learning and the programs or activities through which people learn. Many chapters discuss new types of materials, implying that these were important elements of adult education: for example, almanacs, pamphlets, popular books, magazines, radio and television shows. Yet surely having these resources available and using them in planned activity for learning are different. This is the case even in individual self-education. Eschewing a rendition of materials and programs in favor of analyses of relationships between new resources and ways of using them for educational purposes could be fruitful in understanding the development of adult education.

Third, as historians analyze educational activities and programs, it seems important to probe the educational and pedagogical components of those programs. Beyond understanding the social context of the programs and knowing the programmatic activities, we need to explore the links between purposes, strategies, and impacts of various educational activities. Such analysis will help us understand how the country has shaped both education that liberates and education that controls. This book makes it clear that both are part of our past.

The authorsí contribution has been to bring together 300 years of activities, organizations, and people under a broad definition of adult education. The book provides a good overview and is a useful reference. It is valuable both for adult educators seeking understanding of their past and for others wishing to learn how Americans have incorporated learning into their lives. The text also leaves us aware of the need for more historical research and stronger conceptualization. In recent years a few adult educators, trained also as historians, have begun to produce important monographs and articles providing new interpretations of our past. As this group of historians continues to work and teach, the prospects for increasing knowledge of the history of adult education grow stronger.


Adams, J. T. (1944). Frontiers of American culture: A study of adult education in a democracy. New York: Scribnerís.

Grattan, C. H. (1971). In quest of knowledge. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times.

Knowles, M. S. (1977). A history of the adult education movement in the United States. Melbourne, FL: Krieger.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 1, 1996, p. 184-186 ID Number: 9650, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:12:46 PM

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