Sean Courtney




Between the First and Second World Wars, adult education as an object of conscious reflection and policymaking was born. That story has been told elsewhere with sufficient emphasis that the year 1926, the year the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE) was formed (March 26 and 27, in Chicago), is now a permanent part of our modern history.(1) Obviously, neither in that year, nor soon after, did the actual practice of adult education change substantially as a result of this one event. Nevertheless, the twenties were significant because in that decade came the first doctorates dealing with the adult learner and the establishment of the first departments of adult education.(2) At a time when the future of graduate studies in adult education is in flux, partly as a result of debate over the identity of the field and its claims to distinctness as a body of knowledge, it is useful to explore the origins of the field as it first began to define itself: for what it said about itself, what it chose to study and call research, and how it went about doing that research.

There is another purpose to this paper. This conference has as its focus, not merely the evolution of adult education between the Wars, but the history and evolution of workers' education and other forms of adult education with a liberatory tendency. By exploring early influences on the formation of adult education theory we can also see in what ways liberatory or reformist tendencies entered the field of research and were a major factor in determining the direction of that research until the end of the 1950s. This paper presents and explores the history of a brief period when interdisciplinary studies flourished. It is part of a larger dialogue, to explore the ideas and social forces which shaped adult education thinking at a time when national leaders, policymakers, and academics were beginning to take adult education as a social movement seriously.

Almost the first subject for analysis discovered by this newly self-conscious field was participation. Defining the scope of the field and identifying who was involved in it went hand-in-hand. Already in 1926, the first "thorough" survey of participants in adult education and their reasons for participation had been conducted by Marsh in Buffalo. Other surveys were conducted across the country in quick succession.(3) Participation became a regular object of research and discussion throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and, though it has continued to dominate the field right up to the present time, by the middle of the 1960s, the way the "question" of participation was being framed had changed significantly.(4)

This paper explores the influence of social science on adult education theory, particularly with respect to the subject of participation. The period covered by this paper is roughly contained by the publication of two books, Frank Lorimer's The Making of Minds in a Metropolitan Area, in 1931, and Edmund Brunner's Overview of Adult Education Research, in 1959. Between those two dates, the influence of a newly emerging field of sociology on adult education was at its strongest. Sociology gave adult education a subject for research, an attitude towards methodology, and an approach to its subject matter which fitted naturally with the emerging ideology of adult education. At a time when consensus around the agenda for adult education research and theory may be shifting, it is worth exploring these early influences on adult education theory.(5)




American sociology is a child of many forces, the complex product of which lies beyond the present study. It first arose in Europe as a "protest against the spirit of capitalism"(6) and is associated with the names of Saint-Simon and Comte in France and Spencer in Great Britain. It was Comte who gave it the name, "sociology." This protest consisted, in large part, of a rejection of the "armchair" philosophers, just as behaviorism at a later day was seen as a rejection of a similarly-seated psychology. Rejection of classicism entailed a strong urge to go out and study the real conditions of real people, to gather facts, "statistics" as they were later called, and explain them through application of the fiercest and most precise standards of the new human sciences. The purpose of this analysis was not, however, merely to explain. In many quarters it was indivisibly coupled with reformist zeal, with a desire to counter revolution in some cases, but mostly with a desire to bring about orderly change in society by studying how society works and feeding that information to political leaders and policymakers. Later there would be a split between those who wished above all to study, and those for whom research had to be linked with practice. It is safe to say that adult education was conceived by many as an example of the latter tendency, a practical application of the principles of social science to the amelioration of social problems.

The roots of American sociology lie in the influence of British sociology, which was, itself, rooted in conditions arising out of the Industrial Revolution, and in the Social Science Movement which had swept America in the early and middle 1800s. First, and under the influence of Saint-Simon, Hegel, and Comte, many utopian colonies were established, beginning in the early 1800s and lasting until the Civil War, based on the principles of how societies are formed and how they can function better. It was, writes Bernard, a "practical experimental sociology,"(7) fired above all else by a deep desire to revolutionalize social life and bring about a heaven on earth. Second, a new kind of transcendentalism, associated with Emerson and the Concord group, arose in New England and became grafted onto the fight against slavery. This latter movement, perhaps more than any other, lay behind the founding of the American Social Science Association, destined to lead the battle for social reform from the end of the Civil War until the 1880s. "It too was sociological only by grace of its appeal from the armchair to human events and by virtue of its interest in humanitarianism and reform."(8) Third, and the only one of the three to call itself "sociology," was a movement which arose in the South and which, drawing on the writings of Comte in the area of politics, was anxious to defend its slave institutions.

All three had elements in common, elements that fueled the eventual appearance of sociology as a scientific discipline: a "passion for social reform and an adoration of science."(9) The emergence of sociology in American universities could also be traced to the appearance of key works by Lester Ward and Herbert Spencer, the influence of the German universities,

and the "practical need for exact knowledge of actual social conditions and workable methods of perfecting the social organization and controlling ameliorative agencies."(10) The first course to bear the name of sociology was taught by William Graham Sumner at Yale in 1875-76. Sumner, though the father of American Social Darwinism, was not praised for his effort. It was not until 1885 that Indiana University offered the first "entirely separate" course bearing the title of sociology. Finally, in 1892 the University of Chicago became the first institution of higher learning to establish a separate department of sociology.(11)

Despite this growing acceptance, however, sociology was far from being considered respectable: "It produced a new and barbarous terminology going very often far beyond what was necessary for accurate expression and frequently the intrinsically trivial subject matters were unredeemed by connection with any important problems."(12) The earlier social scientists had combined reformism with a strong desire to apply scientific principles to an understanding of the individual in society. Few, if any, of the early writers came to the subject out of mere intellectual curiosity. Lester Ward (1841-­1913), considered by many to be the father of American sociology, prefaced famous Dynamic Sociology with a declaration of commitment to social progress. "My thesis is that the subject matter of sociology is human achievement. It is not what men are but what they do,(13) that needs to be studied.

By the turn of the century, however, there was a significant split between those who saw social science(14) as a movement to use science to people's lives and those who were principally concerned with the development of scientific theory. The first group went on to become leading reformers and social workers; the second joined the ranks of academic sociology. Among this latter group the "descriptive passion," as Shils called it, was strong:

Enthusiasm about first-hand contact with human beings or with data reporting the activities of human beings--an indispensable condition the development of sociology--did not often become associated with equally necessary enthusiasm to test important hypotheses.(15)

This need to do original research and to abandon the armchair led to a preoccupation with methodology. The first academically-trained armed with the techniques of statistics and the case study, were eager to lay hold of concrete reality and to describe, classify, and catalogue it in all its bewildering variety. Earlier research was mainly historical and statistical. With the invention of correlation by Francis Galton in the 1880s, it was becoming increasingly possible to subject ever more complicated social facts determinate, scientific measurement. After the early 1900s, the historical method gradually slipped out of favor and was replaced by statistical and the case study.

It was characteristic of these studies that they were not motivated by a central scientific problem or by any clearly-defined hypothesis. They represented simply an attempt "to see the life of the community as a whole" in all its concreteness.(16)

The above quote is important for two reasons. First, it was this climate of methodological zeal which influenced the earliest research on "participation in adult education" (PAE). To call such research "descriptive," which is now the vogue, is to condemn it, whereas at that time it would have been to accord it the highest honor; it would have meant studies undertaken within the most rigorous standards of scientific objectivity. Second, sociologists' eagerness to study the whole community influenced the earliest PAE surveys, suggesting that to be properly understood, as both a practical and theoretical problem, PAE had to be seen in terms of a matrix of forces. Undoubtedly, some of these forces were educational, but many more were of a social, political, and economic nature which had little to do with education, as such, and much more to do with the way society translated itself, its power, and priorities down to the community level and through the community to the individuals who were its members. It is this second factor which is missing from most recent approaches to the "question" of PAE and which this study was partly designed to redress.




Because social science first took hold in the newer universities of the Midwest and in major metropolitan areas such as New York, it was natural that "urban sociology" and the "community study" should become the "two leading lines of development of research and speculation".(17) We find this emphasis on urbanism and community life in some of the better known introductory textbooks of the time, e.g., Robert McIver's (1937) Society (for whom sociology was the "relationships of social beings as they cohere into systems and as they change in response to all the conditions that affect human life"), and Park and Burgess' (1924) Science of Society. We find it also in the ground-breaking empirical studies of the time, e.g., the Lynd's (1929) Middletown, and Lundberg, Komarovsky, and McInerny's (1934) Leisure: A Suburban Study.

A theme running through both urban and community studies was that of “social participation” in all its many and varied forms. Whole communities were subject to scrutiny--churches, rural life, professional associations, trade unions, and immigrant populations were described and classified, as were the various aspects of cultural and artistic life, and even the affairs of government--everything from the most formally organized structures to the most informal type of family and casual interaction.

The concept of social participation first appeared in the academic literature in C. R. Henderson's "The Place and Function of Voluntary Associations," published in the first issue of the American Journal of Sociology in 1895.(18) As if to confirm its commitment to this issue, the editorial stated: "In our age the fact of human association is more obtrusive and relatively more influential than in any previous epoch."(19) Moreover, the net was cast very widely, for participation could be linked conceptually with the most intransigent problems of the world polity as in Lemmert's (1943) "Social Participation and Total War" or with highest forms of abstraction as in Boodin's (1921) "The Law of Social Participation."(20)

Social participation research must be judged against this backdrop of opposition between science and reform, between science for political purposes versus science for disinterested ends. In its earliest phase the reformist tendency was strong. It is evident in many of the early works on social participation, including those of Queen, Chapin, and Anderson in the 1930s and 1940s. Here obstacles to social participation were symptoms of "Social Pathology," the title of an important study by Queen and Gruener, published in 1941. The subject of the latter was the wide variation in the extent of participation among American adults: There were firstly, real "joiners" who were involved with a variety of organizations and activities; secondly, those for whom informal friendship networks, but not formal organizations, were a significant aspect of their lives; and thirdly, a minority who were veritable recluses. For Queen, the "social problem" dimension to social participation had to do, not merely with the lack of involvement in community life by those who were otherwise able to participate, but with actual impediments to participation by those who otherwise were interested, e.g., the physically impaired.

The proliferation of research on social relationships and community life must also be understood, naturally enough, against the backdrop of immigration which, between the late 1800s and America's entry into the First World War, brought to these shores larger numbers of foreigners than had ever come before. Sociologists were interested in these new groups--how the assimilated, how they changed--and in the associations and media they created to help them adjust to their new home while keeping their own culture alive. It is important also to bear in mind that much of the institutional history of adult education in this century grew out of the movement to "Americanize" the immigrant.(21)




One can find the influence of sociological methodology on the earliest research in adult education more than one can find the influence of contemporary sociological thinking and its sense of social problems. And where it exists, that influence attests to an intriguing overlap between the concerns of the new social sciences and the form adult education was beginning to take in the period between the Great War and the onset of the Depression. Ozanne, for example, grouped PAE surveys which had been undertaken up to 1934 into three categories: there was the "institutional survey" which was limited to listing the agencies offering adult education in a given area; a "student analysis" survey, which went beyond that and looked at participants and their motives; and a (poorly labeled) "socio-economic" survey whose "objective has been to study the community itself in order to discover what the educational needs and potentialities of its adult population are".(22) It was this latter survey which bore the signs of sociological thinking, for it went beyond merely enumerative and client analyses and attempted a more comprehensive understanding of the community itself and how it functioned.

For example, the first comprehensive and systematic survey of PAE in the United States was undertaken with the larger community in mind. Frank Lorimer, a sociologist,(23) was commissioned by the Board of Adult Education to survey the borough of Brooklyn and study its provisions for adult education. This should have been the "institutional" survey as defined by Ozanne. However, as the study progressed, it became apparent that it is impossible to make an adequate general study of the place of education in the lives of adults in a modern city without attending to the whole interplay of economic, cultural and social factors in the development of individual personalities [emphasis added].(24)

Lorimer's language and its context evoked the kind of rhetoric sociologists were employing to justify the large-scale studies then beginning to proliferate in the U.S. It is in the studies which predate and set the stage for Middletown. It is in Warner's Yankee City, whose field work was conducted between 1930 and 1935.

Lorimer's study is also unique in the research annals for its attempt to correlate PAE with other forms of educational and cultural expression: reading and library habits, readership of “quality” newspapers and magazines, artistic interests, concert, theater and museum attendance, and radio preferences. Though explicable in terms of contemporary community studies, this orientation is largely lost in current attempts to explore and explain PAE. A similar set of intentions motivated Kaplan's study of Springfield, Massachusetts during 1943 and 1944. He too went beyond mere PAE to study these other forms of cultural expression and, like Lorimer, to find relationships between one kind of sociocultural activity, e.g., PAE, and another, e.g., museum and library attendance.

The influence of sociology, however, went beyond methodology and theoretical orientation. It suffused the justificatory discourse within which the study is situated. Lorimer, for example, began his discussion with a contrast between traditional, more stable ways of life, and modern society with its characteristics of rapid change and complexity. There was much talk of the challenge of technology, the "terrific strain" put on the modern adult mind by "our economic and social organization" which involves "unprecedented dangers, wars, cycles of expansion and depression, and social conflicts."(25) Moreover, modern individuals were also faced with unprecedented economic and cultural choices; and it was important that they be educated to make these choices wisely and in ways which promoted community as well as individual welfare.

The survival and defense of democracy naturally made their appearance also.26 Quoting Alvin Johnson to echo a sentiment typical of its day, Kaplan wrote:

In the long run, stability together with progress is not possible except under essentially democratic conditions. But we cannot have real democracy unless we have political intelligence and common ideals. We cannot have intelligence and common ideals without adult education.(27)

As he conceived and justified it, Kaplan's survey of the capital of Massachusetts was an attempt to study democracy at work in the lives and social activities of individual men and women.

Contemporary sociologists who included adult education within their list of concerns interpreted its mission along similar lines. Lundberg, Komarovsky, and McInerny (1934), for example, have a chapter in their ground-breaking study of leisure patterns in a New York suburb which begins with the case for adult education. The importance of adult education, as they saw it, grew largely "as a result of the increasing tempo of social change."(28) Their language continued in a vein which suggests that little has changed in the rhetoric which defends the necessity of adult education to this day. In traditional societies, the argument continued, we could count on the knowledge needed to live and work remaining current for most of our working lives. Today (in the 1930s) this was not the case. Knowledge became obsolete quickly, and the changing pace of industrialization made it more important than ever that adults learn how to learn.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the sociological tendency is in the writings of Edmund De Schweinitz Brunner, principal author of the first anthology of adult education research, published in 1959. Born in 1889, Brunner spent much of his professional life as a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Throughout his career he wrote prolifically in the area of religious and rural sociology. He became director of the (Rockefeller) Institute of Social and Religious Research in 1921, and during his tenure the institute published extensively in the area of community and village sociology, to which Brunner himself contributed a number of volumes.(29) It was through Brunner that John Newberry came to write the draft chapter on participation for the Overview of Adult Education Research, published in 1959. Newberry was a sociologist by training, and most of the literature reviewed for that chapter seems first to have appeared in Newberry's dissertation, a study of voluntary associations. Newberry continued his affiliation with adult education when he authored a paper on participation with Coolie Verner, for a collection published in 1965. Many of the same references appear in both the original chapter and the collaboration with Verner. Some of these very same references can be found in PAE studies written by other authors at about the same time.

A possibly more intriguing crossover between the interests of sociologists and adult educators can be found outside of the area of PAE. Most students of the field are aware of C. Hartley Grattan and his history of adult education. Less well-known is the fact that the study of Australia was the first love of this free-lance writer turned academic; his interest in adult education came later. Grattan attended Clark College, where he studied with Harry Elmer Barnes, sociologist, noted dissident, and author of the influential work, An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Grattan left Clark College in 1923 and went to work for H. L. Menken, editor of the American Mercury. Later he worked at the Carnegie Corporation for Frederick Keppel, who is credited with starting the AAAE. Grattan's specialty at the time was Australian studies. Still later, he became a professor at the University of Texas.

Barnes renewed his friendship with his erstwhile student and helped Grattan publish, Why We Fought, which supported Barnes's view criticizing American entry into the Great War. Intriguingly, this paper appeared in an anthology edited by Barnes and titled, In Quest of Truth and Justice. Grattan's history of adult education, the first of its kind, was of course titled, In Quest of Knowledge.

No work has yet been done on the influences which expressed themselves in Grattan's history, given that he had no model on which to rely and no previous account against which to react. However, we can infer some of these influences by comparing similar ideas. A significant one was the emphasis on diffusion of knowledge which is expressed most eloquently in the writings of Lester Ward, and whom Grattan later excerpted for his American Ideas About Adult Education.




This study grew out of concerns about the "pedigree" of the problem of participation within adult education theory. Here the focus was on the historical dimensions of that pedigree. Two questions arise in this regard, one concerning methodology, the second concerning theory and interpretation. On the first question, my attempt to establish an intertwining between sociology and adult education theory has been based on a selection of primary research sources. However, even given my contention that there was much more research of a "reflective nature" than has ordinarily been ascribed to that period, nevertheless the sample is small and open to other interpretations. While I may invoke Webster Cotton(30) to support the position taken in this paper, I invite colleagues who have studied contemporary professional journals of adult education to join this discussion and present their positions.

Of greater importance to me, however, is the question of interpretation. What are we to make of the influence of sociology on adult education theory during the formative period of modern adult education and does this issue have relevance for us today? I raise this question though historians often, and quite rightly, shudder at the "relevance" shibboleth, because it is important in the context of this conference and what may come of it.

On the issue of interpretation, Fisher (1983) has advanced the thesis that philanthropic foundations are designed to "maintain the social order rather than to alter it" Furthermore, according to Fisher, before and during the period covered by this study, roughly from the first decade of this century until the Second World War, certain foundations were important in the "production and reproduction of cultural hegemony." Finally, to understand the emergence of paradigms and the socialization of academics and intellectuals, a "critical conflict" rather than "developmental" or "Kuhnian" model is needed.(31) While Fisher's analysis and perspective take us beyond the scope of the present study, it ought to be considered for two major reasons. First, critical conflict models are largely absent from adult education history, despite their obvious relevance. Second, much of the interpretative history of the AAAE (e.g., Rockhill) could benefit from Fisher's framework.

Fisher has made the argument that philanthropic foundations, standing between the classes and the social uncertainty of the new century, helped shape the new order and restore faith in capitalism. In so doing, institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation laid the groundwork for the emergence of a professional, technically-trained cadre of intellectuals who were generally more interested in studying social problems than in solving them. These were the new social scientists and they became, according to Fisher's argument, supporters of the status quo, especially when- that support was needed most, after the onset of the Depression.

It would not be hard to find, as in the case of Brunner and Grattan, evidence for this thesis as applied to adult education. Brunner's work benefited from support of the Rockefeller Foundation, while Grattan worked "at the Carnegie Foundation at a crucial point in adult education history. This being the case, we ought not then be surprised that sociology might have been an important, though overlooked, source of influence on adult education because both adult education and the newly forming social sciences shared the same supporting factors: a) powerful capitalists, anxious to preserve their wealth by preserving the world order which had made it possible; and b) philanthropic foundations through which they channeled their concerns. Thus, it is not so much that sociology influenced adult education theory as that sociology and adult education "benefited" from certain social and political forces which set them in motion at the same time and gave them their justificatory discourse and hegemonically-oriented agenda.

Though beyond the scope of the data presented here, the precise form taken by the new social sciences had much to do with an emergent middle class, its close identification with professionalism as the best kind of occupation (and a substitute for the religious vocation?), and the solution of social problems by objective and scientific, rather than political or religious, means. If this is so, then contemporary attitudes towards adult education and its role in society would have smacked of the same concerns. It would not then be so much a question of whether sociology influenced adult education and how this influence was realized, but more a question of how adult education and social science, in this early phase, were part of a larger social project influenced by Progressivism, by the emergence of the middle class and the professions, and by the desire to have social problems analyzed and "solved" while maintaining the status quo.




1. It is interesting that the importance of the AAAE is underlined in the only two full-length histories of the adult education movement in the United States, those of Knowles and Grattan, and that both men had associations with that organization. Knowles was executive director of the Association from 1951 to 1959. Less well-known is the fact that C. Hartley Grattan worked for Keppel at the Carnegie Corporation at the time the foundation was considering setting up the AAAE. Newer histories by Rockhill, Stubblefield, and Rose (see below) are re-examining the role of Carnegie in the early years of the AAAE's existence.


2. While the first doctorate in adult education is usually associated with Columbia University and the year of that event given as 1935, the first dissertations with the adult 'mind' or adult education as their principal focus go back, at least, to 1918 and a study by Cecial Cheverton at Boston University (Comprehensive Dissertation Index, 1861-1972, Education volume, p. 198).


3. J. Ozanne, Regional Surveys of Adult Education (New York: American Association for Adult Education, 1934).


4. Despite this interest, however, less than 20% of published work on the subject of 'social participation' appeared in sociology journals up to the 1950s, while over half of all research on this subject was published between 1950 and 1959. These calculations are derived from J. Edwards and A. Booth, Social Participation in Urban Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1973).


5. S. Courtney, "Visible Learning: Adult Education and the Question of Participation" (Ed.D. diss., Northern Illinois University, 1984); S. Courtney, Why Adults Learn: Towards a Theory of Participation in Adult Education (London: Routledge, in press). Those references provide a further elaboration of the genesis of participation research and its connections with adult education.


6. L. L. Bernard, "Some Historical and Recent Trends of Sociology in the United States," The Southwestern Political and Social Science Quarterly 9 (December 1928): 265.


7. Ibid., 266.


8. Ibid., 267.


9. L. L. Bernard and J. Bernard, Origins of American Sociology: The Social Science Movement in the United States (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1943), 846.


10. F. L. Tolman, "The Study of Sociology in the Institutions of Learning in the United States," American Journal of Sociology 7 (1902): 797.


11. Bernard, "Some Historical and Recent Trends," 272, 281.


12. E. Shils, The Present State of American Sociology (New York: The Free Press, 1948), 2.


13. H. E. Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 174.


14. Social science was then defined to include economics, sociology, and political science. See D. Fisher, "The Role of Philanthropic Foundations in the Reproduction and Production of Hegemony: Rockefeller Foundations and the Social Sciences," Sociology (the journal of the British Sociological Association) 17 (May 1983): 210.


15. Shils, The Present State of American Sociology, 2.


16. Ibid., 8.


17. Ibid., 7.


18. Henderson headed the department of Ecclesiastical Sociology, one of the two branches into which the independent department of sociology later split, at the University of Chicago (Bernard, 1928, p. 281).


19. American Journal of Sociology, I (1895): 1.


20. J. E. Boodin, "The Law of Social Participation, "American Sociological Review 27 (1921): 22-53; E. M. Lemmert, "Social Participation and Total War," American Sociological Review 8 (1943): 531-36.


21. B. Clark, Adult Education in Transition: A Case of Institutional Insecurity (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1972).


22. Ozanne, Regional Surveys, 8.


23. F. Lorimer, The Making of Minds in a Metropolitan Area (New York: Macmillan, 1931), foreword. Lorimer was formerly a lecturer in social theory at Wellsley College.


24. Ibid., 11.


25. Ibid., 3.


26. The issue of democracy and its defense as 'symbolic legitimation' of adult education is addressed by Rockhill in R. Taylor, K. Rockhill, and R. Fieldhouse, University Adult Education in England and the USA (London: Croom Helm, 1985).


27. A. Kaplan, Socioeconomic Circumstances and Adult Participation (New York: Teachers College, 1943), 1.


28. G. Lundberg, M. Komarovsky, and M. McInerny, Leisure: A Suburban Studx (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934),307.


29. See the 1958 edition of Current Biography. p. 668. A native of Pennsylvania, Brunner was also President of the Rural Sociological Society, 1945 and member of the prestigious Sociological Research Association, 1950.


30. W. Cotton, On Behalf of Adult Education: A Historical Examination of the Supporting Literature (Chicago: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults, no. 56).       


31. Fisher, "The Role of Philanthropic Foundations," 206-7.




Return to Breaking New Ground index


Return to Kellogg Project opening page


Return to Roger Hiemstra’s opening page