adult education

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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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