Amy D. Rose


Adult education is a practical field, and, as such, most of its research has focused on the improvement of practice rather than on what are traditionally referred to as "foundations" areas of study. This is not to say that historians have ignored the history of educational programs or institutions for adults. In fact, such studies have proliferated, fueled by the convergence of interests of the new social and labor history. Educational historians have also shown interest sparked first by Bailyn's admonishment to look beyond schooling for the sources of education, and later by Cremin's work on the configurations of education. In addition, adult educators themselves have taken a more reflective look at history and attempted to critically examine the past. But as the body of work grows, it becomes more important to define exactly what historical questions are being asked and answered.(1)

One of the problems of working in the history of adult education is that a definition is elusive. Adult education has come to mean so many different things to so many people that it is difficult to develop a common terminology. This is particularly true in historical inquiry. Part of the problem is that the lens used to approach this history of adult education is usually exceedingly narrow. Outside of questions dealing with the beginning of the field, most of the studies have been used simply to show that adult education (or the education of adults) has always existed and to enumerate its many manifestations. Too often the interrelationship between views of the education of children and developments within adult education have been overlooked in an attempt to establish adult education as a unique area of study.(2)

The development of a movement of adult education followed a period of expansion of schooling. Ironically as the definition of the functions of the school broadened, the concept of education itself narrowed, moving inexorably toward becoming a synonym with schooling. Adult education in the 1920s represented a movement on the part of an odd array of progressives and conservatives to take the concept of education out of the realm of the school. Building on Dewey's idea that education takes place throughout life, adult educators sought to identify those influences (outside of the schools) which made life "educative." The reasons behind this movement were complex and involved several factors. Of primary importance was dissatisfaction with children's education and the feeling that society needed to depend on more than this if democracy were to be maintained.

Yet, when historians of adult education have looked at the intellectual roots of the movement, they have stressed the various aspects of the meanings and goals of adult education. While often implicit, the explicit link between concern over the state of children's education and the encouragement of the adult education movement has not been addressed. Not only will such an exploration improve our understanding of the professional adult education movement in the United States during the 1920s, but it will also add to our understanding of educational reform in general during this period. The development of adult education was not an isolated phenomenon, but rather part of a more complex movement to broaden educational impact as a whole, while narrowing the influence of the educational bureaucracy.

This initial effort will begin an examination of some of the attitudes of the prime movers who worked to establish the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE) in 1926. In particular, it will examine the aims of the Carnegie Corporation and its views toward public education. This examination will demonstrate that the movement to build adult education involved an inherent critique of the system of public and higher education which had developed during the postwar period. Finally, some of the views towards adult learning will be discussed within the context of a critique of public education.




Although the education of adults has certainly always existed, until the late 19th century there was little idea that adult education was any different from children’s' education. In fact, the term adult education, itself, was first used in the United States in the 1890s.(3) In the early part of the 20th century, the institutions for the education of adults expanded along with all other educational agencies. Thus, we see the expansion of public adult education programs, university extension, and urban evening colleges during this period. In addition, the influx of immigrants beginning in the 1880s had led to the development of the settlement houses with their expanded educational programs. The education of adults touched many different areas and was closely allied with the nascent social work and public health movements, applied sociology, and the more progressive elements of the traditional academic disciplines. These were all concerned with the problem of how academic knowledge could be conveyed to the public and how behavior could be changed as a result of this new knowledge. The Americanization movement brought these issues to a head as various groups developed conflicting philosophies of acculturation and cultural pluralism.

The Carnegie Corporation entered the discussion on Americanization with a study of the process by which individuals became assimilated. The study, commissioned in 1918 and carried out over the following years, went beyond a study of Americanization classes to encompass an examination of the family, the community, the arts, the media, and other interactions between American and immigrant life in order to uncover which forces encouraged the process and which ones acted negatively.(4) In many ways, the Americanization study stands as a prototype for future Carnegie interest in the education of adults. In its search for the educative aspects of all forms of social interaction, the study went far beyond the strictures normally associated with educational agencies.

In the 1920s the Carnegie Corporation developed a more thorough and systematic policy towards adult education. In 1924 the foundation began to explore the possibility of funding projects in adult education and, in fact, establishing it as a priority area for future grants. Because of a policy mandated by its new President, Frederick P. Keppel, the Corporation set out to consult with leading educators of adults before embarking in its new direction. After a series of meetings held throughout the country, the AAAE was founded in 1926 by a group of adult educators with the blessing of the Carnegie Corporation. While ostensibly an independent organization, it was headed by Morse Cartwright, Keppel's former assistant, and had as its clear purpose the task of making funding recommendations to the Corporation about adult education projects.(5)

While the development of this organization has usually been tied to professionalizing imperatives within the field itself, it is clear that the Carnegie Corporation had other concerns. While some of these related to internal organizational and fiscal pressures, much of the Carnegie focus centered on dissatisfaction with the current system of education within the United States. Adult education was seen as a movement which could rectify some of the problems and shift the educational system away from an ever-increasing bureaucratic structure.




A principal dynamic behind the growth of adult education in the 1920s was a criticism of the expanded educational systems of the postwar period. While criticism of the schools came from various quarters, some of the strongest came from those who later advocated the movement for adult education. Henry Pritchett, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Keppel's predecessor as Acting President of the Carnegie Corporation, emerged as a sharp critic of the educational system of the postwar period. Pritchett's views are important because as Acting President he laid the foundation for the eventual Carnegie interest in adult education. Since the background of the Carnegie interest in adult education has not been adequately explored, many of the reasons for this interest have become obscured.

Pritchett's principal objections to postwar education stemmed from concern with the overexpansion of the school system and the concomitant cost of additional services and programs. These were closely allied to worries about who was attending the nation's schools and colleges as well as what they were learning and whether society would ultimately benefit from the emphasis on mass education. These concerns were echoed in statements emphasizing the loss of local control over education, the denigration of the individual, and the loss of a liberal emphasis in all educational efforts.

Pritchett's critique of the schools was based on a fundamental questioning of the optimistic greeting initially given the expansion of the schools. He viewed the notion that education could solve social problems with disdain. Not only were these problems eluding solution, but the entire educational system was being destroyed in the process. There were too many enrollments, an overemphasis on vocational training, and overspecialization. In addition, expansion had created a massive bureaucratic structure which inhibited creativity and reduced learning to the mere counting of credit.(6)

In two essays included in the Annual Reports of the Carnegie Foundation, Pritchett, laid out the essence of his argument. He was concerned about the rising cost of education and identified what he considered to be the reasons for the current situation. The public education system had become over organized, diffuse and superficial, and unable to teach children what they needed to know to become effective American citizens. New programs funded at a steep cost had added nothing to general learning, but only contributed to what he termed the "intellectual dyspepsia" of schoolchildren.(7)

The basic problem was that the school had taken on too many functions, calling them all "education." Pritchett traced the origins of this phenomenon to the time of the dropping of the classical curriculum and the influx of new students. At heart, the problem of the schools was the fault of the movement toward universal education. This movement had "transformed education." Schools, which had initially prepared the "exceptional boy," had now become the chief agency "for the training of human beings." According to Pritchett, this shift had resulted in a less adequate preparation for the truly exceptiona1.(8)

A principal outcome of this influx of new students was the gradual "bureaucratization" of the school. As a result, the nature of the teacher pupil relationship had changed, as the teacher had ceded primary responsibility for what happened within the classroom. The schools had developed bureaucratic structures antithetical to the notion of the teacher as "the source from which the training and improvement of the pupil is sought." In particular the ability of the teachers to teach had been undermined as the teachers became "submerged" in a bureaucratic structure within which they could not adequately perform their appointed tasks.(9) This transformation had resulted in a loss of individuality and a reliance on such outside techniques as testing, as opposed to individual judgment. In this way, the school had been transformed from a "personal direct agency for the few into a great machine for the many."(10)

Pritchett felt that professional organizations for teachers had added to the bureaucratic turmoil. In his view, teachers' unions undercut the unique responsibility of the teacher, and he urged teachers to recall that "evil in the past has been wrought in other fields by over organization."(11)

In addition, the new bureaucracy with its attendant curriculum and mandatory education requirements had encouraged mediocrity. Pritchett was not totally against universal education; he simply felt that greater attention needed to be paid to its consequences. "If all the children of a nation are to be educated--as they certainly should be--no other plan can be adopted than that of extensive organization. The system involves, however, certain inherent dangers which we should frankly recognize."(12)

The expansion of the schools had led to a great diversity of function. As the schools took on more and more tasks previously performed outside of educational institutions, they became increasingly superficial. The schools had lost sight of what could be accomplished within their boundaries. Through what Pritchett characterized as the "exaggerated enrichment" of the curriculum, students had come to believe that a superficial knowledge of many things replaced a true education. Most important, such an approach gave students "the impression" that they could solve their problems in life and in the country "by the same superficial processes" that had been learned in schoo1.(13)

The crisis was greatest in the high schools and in higher education where expansion had been most dramatic during the postwar period. Such growth resulted in a lack of thorough teaching and learning on many levels. Pritchett was particularly disparaging about the trend toward vocational studies within the high schools. "The notion that trade school training could be made a part of general high school work has served to make soft and flabby the general conception of our people as to what kind of skill and energy are needed for the prosecution of an honorable trade.”(14) Pritchett felt that the movement of vocational studies into the high schools had done a great disservice to the crafts and led adolescents to unrealistic expectations of what they could do with such a diploma. IS He stated his position most unequivocally:

It is not too much to say that the vocational training offered in the high schools has so little of the sharp accurate responsibility of the well-trained technician, and is so poorly related to the facts and circumstances of these vocations, that it is in great measure an educational farce. The teaching of vocations in the high schools is a mistake. These vocations should be taught through trade schools in which the whole spirit and technique of the training partakes of the accuracy, the sharpness, and the skill that alone can give them significance.(16)

According to Pritchett this move to high school vocational training had a devastating effect on labor within the United States. It created a hardship for boys who could not begin to learn a trade until the age of 18 and for the crafts which needed to wait before they could begin an adequate training program.(17)

This dilution of the curriculum had led to a general weakening of intellectual discipline in American society. The schools were no longer able to perform their primary educational functions. The schools had taken on the added responsibilities which heretofore had been in the province of the family. Not only were they inadequately performing their new tasks, but they were also failing to perform their traditional tasks of providing a good basic education.(18)

Most important, all of this had led to an exorbitant increase in the cost of public education. According to one study, carried out by the American Council on Education (ACE) and funded in part by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the cost of public education rose from $500 million in 1910 to $1,200 million by 1920. At the same time that expenditures were increasing in absolute numbers, the percentage of absolute cost paid by the federal and state governments was decreasing. The only area of education which showed a substantial increase in state and federal support was higher education, with a slight increase in the cost of educational administration. As a result, local governments saw their percentage costs increase and were being forced to increase their indebtedness in order to finance education. While the ACE report itself called for greater funding for education as a solution to financial problems facing the nation's education systems, Pritchett drew other conclusions.(19)

Drawing on the data from this study, Pritchett voiced his concern with the heavy tax burden emerging from this growth. He saw the increase in cost as a symptom of a general malaise and felt that the situation would change if the schools returned to an emphasis on "fundamentals."(20) He was not alone in his concern. Pritchett felt that the only way to lessen expenditures was to curtail the functions of the school. Part of the problem lay in fundamental disagreements over the role and purpose of the school. Should children learn a little about everything or learn how to learn? Pritchett strongly emphasized the latter position. Children did need to learn some basics. These included elementary mathematics, government, and knowledge of one's "rights and obligations as a citizen." Education at all levels should emphasize thorough mastery of whatever material was being studied.(21)

Fundamentals most emphatically did not include the acquisition of knowledge. Since education was a form of "intellectual discipline" it included the ability "to bend the mind to a given problem.”(22) Since the schools could not be expected to provide everything, limits on what could be accomplished needed to be set.




Pritchett advocated no less than a total restructuring of the educational system. Vocational instruction needed to be routed back to the trade schools where it belonged. The schools needed to go back to discipline and not teach "culture." In other words, the role of the school was not socialization-this should be gotten from the family and the environment--but rather the disciplining of the mind so that further study would be possible. For example, the study of music in the elementary schools added little to the cultural life of the nation and should be dropped. "This is a subject which can flourish only as it takes root in the cultural life of the people themselves.”(23)

Public education had failed to prepare children for living. By foisting subject-oriented learning on young minds, the schools misrepresented the importance of continuously learning throughout one's life. Pritchett lamented the abandonment of the traditional 19th century curriculum which had emphasized disciplining the mind. This curriculum had been slowly eroding since the late 19th century. The final death knell had been Thorndike's research into the psychology of learning which had raised questions about the possibility of transferring knowledge of one subject to another and thus had, in Pritchett's mind, moved education from an emphasis on learning to one which advocated the study of specific content matter instead. Pritchett felt that this was an inappropriate response to the problems of the traditional curriculum and that the new approach to curriculum neglected the process of learning and ultimately the importance of learning throughout the lifetime. He maintained that a further shift toward lifelong learning was essential.

But this presented an additional problem. If the focus of children's education was to be on the process of learning, how was society to encourage a national culture? Pritchett believed that other institutions could aid in helping to develop the "cultural life of the nation," and the burden on the public schools would be lessened. If children's education was such a failure, it was because the schools could not overcome the environment. The environment itself therefore had to be made more educative. In terms of proposed Carnegie activities, these concerns could be translated into three related areas of concentration: the arts, local community projects, and adult education.

Pritchett was not completely rejecting the contemporary reforms of the educational system-he was merely pushing some of them forward for adult use. Adults, as fully functioning members of society, would not incur the enormous debt that children did in their pursuit of education. Adult education became, in effect, both the embodiment of, and the answer to, progressive reforms. It would include all learning outside of an institutional framework. The education of adults would move into the vacuum created by the limiting of public and university education. Elementary education would be organized around the basic knowledge needed to function within a democracy. These would include English, math, and citizenship. The high school would continue this emphasis, fostering the ability to think and to learn rather than specific content areas. Vocational training would take place in technical institutes and through apprenticeships, and the universities would serve as the training ground of the professions. Once settled into a life pursuit, the adult would be free to pursue knowledge. This then became the function of adult education.

The role of the Carnegie Corporation was to encourage experimentation. Adopting the outlook of progressive education--that education was lifelong and took place under many different circumstances-­the first task was to identify those aspects of life's experiences which were indeed educative. The second step would be to decide what methods worked best in encouraging such learning. The third would be to encourage more experimentation and the development of model projects. Such an approach would identify educational experiences well outside of the traditional purview of the school. Individuals would regain control over their own learning. The role of the Foundation in such a situation was to select, and then aid, the exceptional individual with vision who would be able to implement this truly radical change in the educational system.

One important benefit of such an approach would be the reconsideration of the local community as the primary educative agency within society. From the Carnegie perspective, understanding the nature of experience and how individuals learn from particular types of educational events was closely connected with the goal of returning the locus of control over education to the local community. Since "our education is the product of all our experiences . . . ,”(24) it was important to encourage those kinds of experiences which would have the greatest values. From the Carnegie perspective, communities were an important educative agency which had not been previously utilized. "We have gone far enough to realize that it is the community which is the real unit with which we have to deal and not the type of study in which the individual may be interested."(25) Thus, projects with a distinctly local cast were often funded. These included studies of adult education in rural communities, local drama leagues, and town self surveys. Local councils of adult education such as those in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Brooklyn were also considered to be models and were funded accordingly. (26)




Underlying the Carnegie support of adult education was the basic belief that adults would be better able than children to manage and synthesize new areas of study to which they were exposed. Even those with seemingly quite different approaches to education and its meaning agreed that adults' ability to learn was significantly different from that of children. This belief was predicated on the notion that true learning came from experience.(27)

Contemporary trends in schooling had turned this idea on its head. Traditionally, learning had been in the province of adults; only in modern times had it been made the prerogative of children. The traditional view had held that the more experienced adult mind was better able to assimilate and understand "truth." It was assumed that this truth would reach children and adolescents through the environment. The new approach to learning portrayed knowledge as a seed which could be planted in young minds and would grow over time. This psychology of learning seemed to be inappropriate to many who advocated adult education.(28)

According to the Carnegie leaders' psychology of learning, adolescents, and children were unable to synthesize and thus make sense of the curriculum. Adults, on the other hand, were better able to understand and move beyond the sometimes arbitrary divisions of the curriculum.(29) This ability to synthesize was really the fusion of learning with the experience of living to form a unity, an experience of which the child was incapable.(30) Thus the key to learning, both the adult's and the child's, lay in individual experience. Only adults, however, had the depth of experience necessary to fully deal with all aspects of learning.

Such a discussion boiled down to the argument that only adults could gain from a study of liberal education. For this reason, the true purpose of adult education was not remediation, but rather the prevention of "adult starvation.”(31) The growth of leisure time was perceived as allowing for the possibility of adult education. Whereas previously the structure of work had not allowed most adults the opportunity to overcome the obstacles in the way of learning, the increase in leisure time had brought about an unprecedented possibility. "By adult education we shall in the end create a lay public with a sense of greatness and our science and art will rise to heights hitherto unattainable."(32)

While the process of uniting experience and knowledge was unclear, individuals with quite different points of view could unite under the banner of promoting this liberal form of adult education. For Lindeman, a liberal was a relativist. "The liberal . . . , views life in terms of change, flux, evolution; to him all goals, ends, and values are relative. . . . His interest therefore centers upon means rather than ends.”(33) Yet, inevitably, such an approach focused on method rather than on content, and in so doing, reverted to the criticisms leveled at progressive education in the first place. In addition, the debate created a tension within the field that has still not been resolved.




This has been an admittedly cursory attempt to examine some of the underlying issues affecting the Carnegie Corporation's interest in adult education. By focusing on the inherent critique of children's education, it is hoped that some of the misconceptions concerning the rise of the AAAE can be clarified. While the connections are not completely clear at this point, it is important to understand that the adult education movement did not arise because of reasons relating to the development of a field of practice, but rather as a reaction to and a criticism of the current state of public and university education. We cannot understand the meaning of adult education if we do not see its rise as intimately connected to the concerns of children's education. By concentrating on the adult, the Carnegie Corporation hoped to circumvent the problems of children's education.

Adult education would serve as a creative outlet for those workers who were consigned to the boredom of industrial and technological repetition. No one would be refused the opportunity to learn; yet it would also serve as a reminder that, as Russell stated, "Most doors are closed.”(34) The education offered self-improvement, inner growth, and further understanding, not social mobility.

As time would show, some of the goals of adult education as it emerged were quite clearly contradictory. They represented the Carnegie attempt to synthesize its individualistic philosophy with technological innovation and progressive reform. Emphasis on the individual effort and cooperative action on the local level were part of an effort to counter the growth of governmental bureaucracy. The goals of progressive education remained constant, but they were transposed onto the education of adults, an arena that would be both more conducive to true learning and far cheaper.




1. Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of the American Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960); Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Random Books, 1964); Lawrence Cremin, Public Education (New York: Basic Books, 1976); Harold Stubblefield, Towards A History of Adult Education in America (London: Croom Helm, 1988).


2. Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Education Movement in the U.S., rev. ed. (Huntington, N.Y.: Robert E. Krieger, 1977); C. Hartley Grattan, In Quest of Knowledge (New York: Association Press, 1959).


3. David Stewart, Adult Learning in America: Eduard Lindeman and His Agenda for Lifelong Education (Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger, 1987).


4. Carnegie Corporation, Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Trustees, 12 March 1918. Carnegie Corporation Archives, New York City.

5. Amy D. Rose, "Towards the Diffusion of Knowledge: Professional Adult Education in the 1920s." (Ed.D. diss., Columbia University, Teachers College, 1979).


6. "Annual Report of the AAAE," Journal of Adult Education 1 (1929): 333.


7. Henry Pritchett, "The Rising Cost of Education," 17th Annual Report of the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1921-1922 (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1922), 95.


8. Henry Pritchett, "The Teacher's Responsibility for Our Educational Integrity," 18th Annual Report of the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1922-1923 (New York: Carnegie Foundation, 1923), 78.


9. Ibid., 79.


10. Ibid.


11. Ibid., 91.


12. Ibid., 79.


13. Pritchett, "The Rising Cost," 102 (first quote); 105 (second quote).


14. Ibid., 102.


15. Pritchett, "The Teacher's Responsibility," 86.


16. Pritchett, "The Rising Cost," 102.


17. Pritchett, "The Teacher's Responsibility," 86. 18. Ibid., 82.


19. Mabel Newcomer, Financial Statistics of Public Education in the United States, 1910-1920 (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 10.


20. Pritchett, "The Rising Cost," 107.


21. Ibid., 104.


22. Ibid., 107.


23. Pritchett, "The Teacher's Responsibility," 88.

24. Glenn Frank, "On the Firing Line of Democracy," Journal of Adult Education 1 (February 1929): 24.


25. Frederick P. Keppel, "Adult Education, Today and Tomorrow," in Education for Adults and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1926), 38.


26. "Annual Conference Synopsis, 1929," Journal of Adult Education 1 (1929): 306.


27. Eduard Lindeman, "After Lyceums and Chautauquas What?" Bookman 65 (May 1927): 246-50.


28. Alvin Johnson, "Vitality in Teaching, New School Interpretations of Adult Education," Journal of Adult Education (February 1929): 49; Alvin Johnson, Deliver Us From Dogma (New York: The American Association for Adult Education, 1934), 53.


29. Johnson, Deliver Us From Dogma, 39.

30. A. E. Heath, "Books and Adult Education," Journal of Adult Education 1 (October 1929): 395.


31. Philip Youtz, "The Reader's Round Table, Experimenting with the Library as an Education Center," Journal of Adult Education 1 (April 1929): 162.


32. Johnson, Deliver Us From Dogma, 36.


33. Eduard Lindeman, "The Future of Liberalism," American Review, 4 (May 1926): 268-71.


34. Carnegie Corporation Office Memorandum, (15 December 1925), Series II, Adult Education, No. 18, Digest of Regional Conference on Adult Education, 24. Carnegie Corporation Archives, New York.


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