Published: 26-12-2011, 10:04

Rewriting the History of Adult Education: The Search for Narrative Structures


In collections of university libraries worldwide, one can locate relatively small sections of volumes pertinent to the history of adult education. Such volumes may include monographs and edited volumes with reference to the broad picture of the history of adult education and specific periods in the development of adult education, studies of particular institutions and organizations at national and local levels, biographies of important individuals, and the celebration of specific institutions in jubilee volumes. Essentially, these volumes will relate to the history of the country where the library is located. A much smaller number of volumes will relate to the history of adult education in other countries, while comparative histories will indeed be relatively scarce items. Even rarer will be volumes in foreign languages about the history of adult education in other countries.

Irrespective of their geographical scope or the period covered, the core question with regard to all histories of adult education involves the structure of the historical narratives which endeavor to tell the story of the development of the institutions and practices regarded as constituting adult education.There are two key issues with regard to the structure of historical narratives, namely: (1) the circumscription of the field of study in terms of the social and cultural phenomena recognized as comprising adult education, and, (2) the delineation of important eras or formative periods in the development of adult education.

Circumscription of the Area of Study

The definitions of adult education used in historical narratives raise fundamental questions with regard to the phenomena which are included in or excluded from historical studies of adult education. National histories tend to be constructed in terms of some sense of an adult education movement which is regarded as a clearly definable social system comprising the individuals, institutions, and associations which have been responsible for the development of adult education through time. This perspective views adult education as a field of readily recognizable activities which constitute the national system of institutional providers which emerged within a sequential process of historical development. These historical narratives take three major forms. First, they may trace the emergence and development of organizations and practices in the form of institutional histories at national, regional, and local levels. Second, they may be organized around significant individuals who are regarded as the great innovators and reformers in adult education. Third, they may narrate the development of successive periods of philanthropic initiatives, intervention by governments, legislation, and public funding of the provision of adult education. Such narratives are constructed in terms of institutional success which tends to result in an unproblematic narrative of the development of wellknown institutions or practices. In this manner, historical studies tend to comprise the selective construction of a lineage for the growth of remembered institutional forms of adult education. These selective historical narratives are often recorded in terms of those forms of adult education which constitute the national tradition of adult education practices. Consciously or unconsciously, these selective accounts of successful and enduring institutions actively exclude the unremembered, the inconvenient, and the historically embarrassing.

Historical narratives of adult education as the story of successful formal institutions, however, actively exclude a vast range of social and cultural phenomena in the more diverse spheres of nonformal and informal adult education. Although historical research must necessarily devote considerable attention to the detailed study of the institutions, significant historical actors, and the development of public policy, historical accounts of the development of adult education must necessarily lead out to the general history of society. Such an approach must lead away from the specific and historically bounded contexts of institutional history into the broader economic, political, social, and cultural history. One of the most striking features of the literature on the history of adult education, for example, is the widespread evidence of the significant contribution made by social, political, and cultural movements to the development of adult education practices. It is necessary, therefore, to identify historical studies which analyze the historical relationships between social movements and the development of adult education in terms of the broader patterns of economic, social, political, and cultural change beyond the institutional realms of adult education.

The broader and more diverse range of social and cultural phenomena identified here as the legitimate object of study for the historian of adult education can be best understood in terms of the social organization of communication and learning. The term social organization refers here to the complex range of institutions, social movements, and groups which were involved in the historically specific development of adult education. This opens up the field of historical description and analysis of adult education practices in terms of the social organization of communication and learning in which adults were either organized by others or organized themselves for the purposes of disseminating and acquiring knowledge, skills, and sensitivities. Some of these institutions, movements, and groups will be recognized immediately as adult education, while others were embedded in the economic, political, or cultural dimensions of social life. Reconstruction of the ideas, institutions, and practices associated with adult education has, thus, to be pursued in terms of the social relationships involved in the social organization of communication and learning. The historical development of adult education institutions and practices is a socially structured process within societies, and this is a question of dominance and dependence in the history of social, political, economic, and cultural relationships. Innovation is sometimes undertaken by dominant social groups, but it may also be carried out by alternative or oppositional social groups and movements. This results in a more inclusive understanding of the range of nonformal and informal adult education at a distance from adult education institutions.

Periods in the History of Adult Education

Historical narratives are characterized by the marked consistency with which they relate the development of adult educational institutions and practices in terms of a number of specific eras or formative historical periods. The standard institutional histories tend to be formulated in terms of the notion of eras which describe periods of major changes in the institutional development of adult education. Such eras can also be regarded as formative periods of high levels of activity in the development of adult education institutions and practices. In terms of evidence-based empirical indices of activity, such formative periods are characterized, first, by high rates of innovation associated with the development of new institutions and practices; second, the significant expansion in the numbers of adults involved in organized learning activities; third, the opening up of participation in organized learning to new social groups or publics; and, fourth, significant levels of interest in developments taking place in other countries.The latter phenomenonwas expressed in reports of visits, translations of foreign texts, and articles in contemporary journals. Formative periods were interspersed, however, with periods with a low conjuncture in terms of innovation and change. This indicates the need to recognize the historical reality of breaks and shifts in historical development rather than the gradual unbroken line of the development of institutions and practices.

European and Anglo-Saxon literatures, for example, tend to reconstruct the history of adult education in terms of four significant formative periods.

The first of these periods was associated with the Protestant Reformation in northwestern and Central Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century. Development of the organization of adult learning activities in this period was influenced by the invention of the printing press, the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, Bible study groups, and high levels of adult literacy. A reading public emerged which gave rise to the demand for books, new literary forms such as devotional books, books of manners, and the first encyclopedias of knowledge. This was associated with new forms for the distribution of the printed word by colporteurs, booksellers, circulating libraries, and reading circles. In the Catholic areas of Southern Europe, however, the Counter Reformation was marked by the Baroque rejection of the promotion of literacy among the general population and the emphasis upon visual imagery rather than the written word. This geographical division between Northern and Southern Europe was expressed in very different dynamics in the development of adult education. These dynamics subsequently exerted their influence in the different strands of European expansion and colonialism in other continents. They continue to exert their influence in contemporary problems of illiteracy in many countries throughout the world.

From the mid-eighteenth century onward, a second formative period in the development of organized adult education throughout Europe and in the American colonies can be identified. The so-called Enlightenment movement, which marked the start of the European modernization process, was in effect a transnational social and cultural movement which gave priority to education, for both children and adults, in the improvement of society together with an emphasis upon virtue and individual moral behavior in the service of the common good. Historical research provides evidence of the activities of the state and voluntary societies and associations in the development of elementary education; the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; encouragement of the rational improvement of commerce, manufactures, and agriculture; the stimulation of literature, poetry, and drama; the organization of lectures and scientific demonstrations; circulating and lending libraries. The first adult schools were established in this period. The development of an active publishing trade and the further growth and diversification of the reading public was expressed in the periodical press, newspapers, and the growth of a political press. One of the most manifest consequences of this period throughout Europe and the American colonies was the development of radical political movements, often organized in the form of corresponding societies. These movements demanded democratic rights and freedom of speech on behalf of both the commercial middle class and the artisan class in opposition to the closed oligarchies of dominant regimes. Such radical groups and their adult education activities were frequently repressed through the prohibition of the printing and selling of books and pamphlets in the vernacular. Banned books in French, such as the Encyclopaedia by Diderot and d’Alembert, were printed in The Netherlands and smuggled to France, while books in the Greek language were banned by the Ottoman authorities and were secretly imported from the printing presses of Budapest. This phenomenon of underground adult learning has remained a significant dimension of adult education in later periods of repression. The long-term repercussions of the French Revolution in 1789, which in itself fueled radical movements throughout Europe, resulted in the emergence of nation-states in the early nineteenth century. The cultivation of national identity led to the emphasis upon the development of national systems of elementary education and the organization of improving educational activities for adults. This was associated with the need to exert more rigorous control upon the self-organized learning undertaken by the common man, and the need to instruct adults in their rights and duties as responsible citizens of the new nation-states. In the longer term, this formative period, throughout Europe, experienced its nemesis in the revolutions of 1848 and their subsequent repression throughout Europe. This resulted in the emigration of many radicals together with the active export of many forms of self-organized adult education, from German in particular, to the other European countries and the United States.

The period between the 1870s and 1930s has been designated in the literature as a third important formative period. This period was characterized by industrialization and urbanization which contributed to the emergence of the organized working class, a militant women’s movement, and the struggle for the right to vote. This resulted, on the one hand, in the development of independent adult educational activities organized by socialist, communist, and anarchist political parties, together with the trade unions and the women’s movement. The period witnessed a significant expansion of independent workingclass forms of provision such as the workingmen’s associations, Workers’ Educational Association, workers’ houses, workers’ book clubs, workers’ travel associations, Lenin and Marx houses, and the diverse range of educational initiatives associated with the Second Communist International. On the other hand, there was a range of educational responses to this challenge by conservative and liberal parties, together with the hierarchies of the Catholic and Protestant churches. This resulted in the development of new institutional forms for the provision of adult education such as university extension, university settlements or cocalled Toynbee work, the arts and crafts movement, folk houses, popular universities, public libraries, together with the folk high schools in Scandinavia, and other forms of residential education elsewhere. These forms of adult education provision were largely intended to provide educational solutions to the social question of the emergent working class, and they promoted reformist solutions to widespread concerns with urban housing, family life, working conditions, sanitation and health, prostitution, and alcohol abuse. Inherent to this conflict between adult education sponsored by independent working class and middle class was the issue of educating citizens to make use of the extension of the right to vote following World War I. Civic education became a key theme in adult education provision as was clearly demonstrated in the institutionalization of University Extension in the English-speakingworld and the development of adult education institutions throughout Europe.These institutions placed the emphasis upon liberal adult education and also focused upon new didactic methods, such as reformist pedagogy in Weimar Germany and elsewhere.

This period also witnessed the development of concern of well-intentioned employers with new forms for the dissemination of scientific and technological knowledge to their employees. From the 1851 Great Exhibition onward, there had been efforts to bring employers and workers together in continuing education, learning in the workplace, and putative forms of vocational education and training. On the one hand, employers sought to establish industrial museums, perhaps badly named, which were intended to make new technological knowledge and production methods available to the working population by way of public demonstrations and short courses. Universities became involved in this process with the development of University Extension services devoted to the needs of agriculture and industry. On the other hand, elementary forms of vocational education and training developed with an emphasis upon technical drawing so that skilled workers could gain insights into the working of new machinery and production processes. At the same time, there was a growing concern with the changing employment patterns of women’s participation in paid work. Initiatives by the women’s movement in the 1890s were enhanced by the experience of World War I when women took the places in factories of men who were at the front. This often resulted in vigorous debates about the occupations which were appropriate to women and their needs for vocational training beyond the traditional domestic spheres of caring, cooking, sewing, and nursing. Following the Civil War in Finland, for example, there were attempts to retrain women as electricians and plumbers rather than as weavers and seamstresses.

Of particular significance later in this period were the consequences of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the end of World War I, the national independence movements following the peace treaties, and the rise of Fascism and National Socialism during the 1930s. The first All-Soviet conference on adult education was held in 1918 and the keynote address was given by Lenin, who did not fail to name the enemies of the revolution. The carnage caused by World War I resulted in significant interest worldwide in the role of adult education in the promotion of peace and international solidarity. The 1920s witnessed the establishment of numerous international associations, the first world conferences on adult education, and the establishment of international institutions such as the International Peoples’ College in Ellsinore. The peace settlements of Versailles and Trianon broke up the territories of the Tsarist Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires and granted national independence to many countries in the Baltic region, Central Europe, and the Balkans. In these newly independent nations, adult education became a battleground during the 1920s and 1930s between democratic and nationalist political factions. Fascist and National Socialist regimes were responsible during the 1920s and 1930s for the reorganization of adult education in the service of the state in Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Spain, together with other countries in Central Europe and the Balkans. This latter development had fundamental consequences for the organization of adult learning throughout Europe, which included the development of settlements and work camps for the ideological socialization of movement adherents, in particular, the emphasis upon youth movements, together with the so-called re-socialization of recalcitrant radicals such as intellectuals, social democrats, and communists. The first concentration camps established in Germany in 1933 were intended to re-socialize the recalcitrant through hard labor. At the same time, many refugees took their reformist pedagogy with them to other countries and became innovative forces within other adult education systems.

The period between the late 1950s and the present day can be regarded as the fourth and significantly complex formative period which has fundamentally reshaped the organization of adult educational institutions and practices, especially in the global context. On the one hand, the end of World War II led, in the longer term, to the emergence of national independence movements in the remnants of the British and French empires in Africa and Asia. This process of contested decolonization involved the recognition of a new role for adult education in nation building and economic development in the Third World which was driven by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its institutes. A series of world conferences, namely Ellsinore (1949), Montreal (1960), Tokyo (1972), Paris (1985), and Hamburg (1997) focused on the role of adult education in postcolonial nations. The emphasis upon the importance of literacy for development gave rise to the repression of emancipation movements in many countries in South and Central America. On the other hand, the end of World War II gave rise in Europe to the Soviet hegemony in the Baltic, Balkan, and Central European countries. Adult education was put to work there in the service of the communist revolution and priority, especially in terms of the access of adults to higher education, was given to party members, women, the military, workers, and farmers.

In Western Europe, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the late 1960s and the 1970s were marked by the development of compensatory educational opportunities for adults. This involved second-chance and secondway adult education, with an emphasis upon outreach work to the nonparticipants in adult education, which was associated with the development of nonformal and informal community-based forms of adult learning. In addition to the rapid expansion of evening and day institutes for adults during this period, there was a major expansion of distance learning for adults and in particular the establishment of open universities worldwide. Important policy concepts at international and national levels during this period referred to lifelong, permanent, and recurrent education in terms of the redistribution of educational opportunities throughout the life span.

From the mid-1980s onward, however, this largely social-democratic-driven reform agenda to expand educational opportunities for adults was displaced in Europe, indeed worldwide, by the resurgence of neoliberal ideologies. There emerged a renewal of interest in vocational education and training for adults as the core learning message of the global economy. The resurgent interest in lifelong learning has been largely informed by the need to ensure the competitiveness of national economies in the global market, employability of the workforce, the integration of immigrants, demographic change, and the graying of populations in postindustrial societies. This has resulted worldwide in policy narratives which talk in terms of a learning for earning ideology, which is focused on developing the competences required by individuals in order to survive in volatile economic markets. Traditional priorities in adult education, such as the promotion of citizenship and social capital, have been increasingly marginalized.The individualization of learning has increasingly replaced the collective acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes via social movements, community education, and regional development. Individual survival, rather than collective learning to improve the quality of life of communities, now dominates lifelong learning policies. Key policy issues now emphasize individual learning rather than the political economy of promoting structures of opportunity for disadvantaged groups in society.

On the one hand, learning in the workplace has now become the dominant understanding of the development of adult education in the early twenty-first century. The retreat of the state, as the motor of the welfare state and the public responsibility for the redistribution of educational opportunities for adults, has led to the withdrawal of subsidies for many traditional forms of adult education and the privatization of many forms of provision, while the emphasis has shifted toward individual responsibility for investments in adult learning. This now often results in the negation of the very real educational needs of the indigenous unskilled proletariat who is left to fend for itself, or who is encouraged to participate in the commercial learning marketplace and Internet. On the other hand, global mass migration has more recently contributed to the core question of the integration of immigrants and the challenge of Islam as the educational issue in multicultural societies. A largely unresearched area of this multicultural context is the role of the mosque as a learning environment for immigrants in Western societies.


The larger question raised here is the degree to which histories written from Anglo-Saxon perspectives is relevant to the larger canvas of the global dimension of the development of adult education. This raises the almost un-investigated area of the dynamics of empires, colonialism, and postcolonialism in the worldwide development of adult education. The available standard works on the history of adult education have been largely written in terms of selective national histories, which in some small measure examine the colonial tradition of European expansion. Postcolonial understandings of the development of adult education are only now emerging as narratives of resistance in the old empires together with the processes of decolonization, national independence, and indigenous identities. There are many more such examples of adults learning in difficult circumstances, whether above ground or underground, whether in adult education institutes, on the barricades, or in prison. Indeed, the phenomenon of underground adult education, often organized by the learners themselves in the face of oppressive forces remains a recurrent, but inadequately researched, theme in the history of adult education in most countries.

Historical description and explanations of the development of the social phenomena commonly known as adult education need to be more firmly rooted in the conscious use of theories and concepts from the social sciences and cultural studies. This is not an argument for the deconstruction and marginalization of the reform discourses which have dominated historical narratives about the development of institutions and practices associated with adult education in most countries. It is a critique of the strong element of celebration, the search for genealogies, and the construction of lineages in historical narratives about adult educational institutions and practices. The history of adult education is not real history when its narratives produce collections of the valued national antiques of institutionalized adult education from the past. It is necessary to recognize the complex levels at which critical historical analysis and interpretation can enter the debate and reconstruct dominant narratives. If the history of adult education is about the pioneers and their reputations, it is also about the forgotten and the defeated, even the uncomfortable and inconvenient reminders of the past. If it is about social reformers and formal institutional provision, it is also about social and cultural movements and their contributions to the social organization of nonformal and informal learning. If it is about the latter, it is also about ideologies and struggles between social groups to control communication and learning in the public sphere. If it is about ideologies and struggles in the public sphere, it is also about the formation of publics, popular expectations, and responses. If it is about the latter, it is also about the experiences of the autodidact and the learning biographies of resistance. All these aspects have to be provided with a theoretical perspective in order to achieve more insightful understandings of the construction of historical narratives. The history of adult education in its broader social and cultural contexts still has to be written. This will be the history of the individual and collective learning activities undertaken by adults in order to survive in difficult times and struggles to change society.

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