Most basically defined, adult education is the intentional, systematic process of teaching and learning by which persons who occupy adult roles acquire new values, attitudes, knowledge, skills, and disciplines. As a concept, ”adult education” demarcates a subfield of education that is distinct from the latter’s historical and still general identification with the formal schooling of youth in primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities. Once lacking the central social significance long recognized for this formal schooling, adult education expanded rapidly after 1950. Changing social, economic, and demographic forces occasioned new educational forms and organizations and new levels of adult participation in existing forms. Adult education is now so widespread and important a feature of societies worldwide that it increasingly occupies the attention of social scientists, policy makers, businesses, and the public.


Adult education now permeates modern societies. It does not do so, however, with the kind of public funding, legislative sanction, organizational cohesion, and standardization of practice that have made universal schooling a highly visible and central institution. Precise substantive definition and classification of adult education is frustrated by the great and changing variety that characterizes the field (Courtney 1989). The complex circumstances of adult life and development lead to the informal, nonformal, and formal pursuit of education for many different purposes. In response to an intricate array of social, economic, and political conditions, formal and nonformal organizations— from multi-state international agencies to corporations to local recreational clubs—support and develop adult education programs. In consequence, an eclectic set of professions, occupations, disciplines, and practices forms the division of adult education labor.

Adults seek a wide variety of educational goals. These include basic literacy and work readiness skills; knowledge and technical competencies required for entering and improving performance of occupational, avocational, and recreational roles; credentials for status attainment; information for the improvement of family life, health, and psychological well-being; knowledge, values, and disciplines for spiritual growth and intellectual enrichment; and tools for addressing community problems and advancing political and social-action agendas. An equally diverse set of organizations and groups provides such education.A large and rapidly expanding nonformal sector (i.e., educational organizations that are not a part of the formal school and college system), now mobilizes very considerable resources to educate adults. Businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations train employees to enhance productivity, organizational effectiveness, and client satisfaction, to spur innovation in products and services, and as an employment benefit to attract workers. Proprietary schools and training companies seek profits by providing similar training to both businesses and individuals. National, regional, and local governments fund adult education programs to reduce welfare dependency and promote economic development. Political parties and special-interest groups deliver adult education designed to foster either dominant or insurgent civic values, knowledge, and action. Professional associations sponsor and certify continuing education to maintain and enhance member competence, ensure the value of their credentials, and maintain market advantages for their members.

Other major providers of nonformal education programs that expressly target adults include unions; churches; libraries, and museums; the armed forces; prison systems; charitable, fraternal, service, and cultural associations; and the health care industry. The formal educational system itself no longer serves only the young. Community school adjuncts to primary and secondary schools teach basic literacy, prepare adults for high school equivalency exams, and offer classes in subjects ranging from the latest computer software to traditional arts and crafts. Colleges and universities now educate almost as many adults as youth; in the United States almost half of all college students are adults above twenty-five years of age. With increasing frequency, these students study in divisions of colleges and universities specifically dedicated to adults.

The functional and organizational diversity of adult education is mirrored in its professions and occupations. Those working in the field include the administrators, researchers, and professors in university graduate programs that train adult educators and maintain adult education as an academic discipline. Teachers and student-service personnel in university, governmental, and proprietary organizations deliver graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education to adults. Managers, trainers, and associated marketing and support personnel staff the employee, technical, and professional training industry. Adult literacy and basic education practitioners form a specialization of their own. Professional activists, organizers, and volunteers consciously include adult education in the portfolio of skills that they apply to pursuits ranging across the full spectrum of ideologies and interests. Policy analysts, planners, researchers, and administrators staff the adult education divisions of international organizations, national and regional governments, and independent foundations and development agencies.

While those who occupy these professional statuses and roles are clearly doing adult education, not all identify themselves as adult educators or, even when sharing this identity, see themselves as engaged in similar practice. The field is conceptually, theoretically, and pedagogically heterogeneous both within and among its many sectors. Role identity and performance differences based in organizational setting and population served are compounded by differences in fundamental aims and methods. One of the sharpest divides is between many in the ”training and development” industry and those in academia and elsewhere who identify with ”adult education” as a discipline, as a profession and, sometimes, as a social movement.

Training and development specialists tend to define their task as cultivating human resources and capital that can be used productively for the purposes of businesses, armed forces, government agencies, and other formal organizations. For training line employees, and all employees in technical areas, they tend to emphasize teaching and learning methodologies that maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of individual acquisition of skill sets that can be easily and usefully applied to well-established performance objectives. For executive and managerial development, they tend to emphasize leadership, team, problem-solving, strategy, and change management competencies in the context of developing general organizational learning, effectiveness, and continuous quality improvement (Craig 1996).

Those who identify themselves as adult educators, on the other hand, tend to emphasize theories and methods designed to ”facilitate” individual transformation and development. Variants of the facilitation model advocated by the adult education profession include the following: one perspective focuses on the special characteristics of learning in adulthood, and on ”andragogy” as a new type of specifically adult teaching and learning distinct from pedagogy, as critical to successful adult education (Knowles 1980); another emphasizes adult life circumstances and experiences as key variables (Knox 1986); a third sees facilitating new critical and alternative thinking as the key to successful adult transformation (Brookfield 1987); and yet another sees adult education as active, consciousness-transforming engagement with social conditions to produce individual liberation and progressive social change (Coben, Kincheloe, and Cohen 1998). Common to all of the facilitation approaches is the ideal of adult education as a democratic, participatory process wherein adult educators facilitate active learning and critical reflection for which adult learners themselves assume a large measure of responsibility and direction.

Theoretical and ideological differences among adult education practitioners draw sharper lines than does their actual practice. Active learning techniques through which concepts, information, and skills are acquired in the course of real or simulated practical problem solving, strongly advocated by professional adult educators, have been embraced by the corporate training and development industry. Educational technology tools such as interactive, computer-based learning modules and Web-based tutorials, tools most robustly developed by the training industry, enable precisely the kind of independent, self-directed learning celebrated by the adult education profession. In most of its settings and branches, adult educators of all types deploy the entire array of pedagogies from rote memorization to classic lecture-recitation to the creation of self-sustaining ”learning communities.” Few central methodological tendencies demarcate distinct factions within the field, or the field itself from other types of education. Visible variants, such as the training and facilitation models, serve only partially to distinguish different segments of the field; and even these differences stem more from the particular histories, conditions, aims, and clients of those segments than from distinct disciplines, theories, or methods. Other methodological tendencies, such as widespread reliance on adult experience and self-direction as foundational for instructional design and delivery, reflect differences between adult and childhood learning more than a distinctly adult pedagogy (Merriam and Cafferella 1991).

Adult learning has several well-established characteristics that distinguish it from learning earlier in the life cycle: greater importance of clear practical relevance for learning, even of higher-order reasoning skills; the relatively rich stock of experience and knowledge to which adults relate new learning; ”learner” or ”student” as a role secondary to and embedded in adult familial, occupational and social roles; and the application of adult levels of responsibility and self-direction to the learning process. Indeed, at the level of practice, the learning characteristics of those being educated (i.e., adults) serve to distinguish adult education as a distinct field much more clearly than do distinctively adult educators, organizations, or methods.


The remarkable variety of contemporary adult education directly reflects complexity in the social environment and the necessities and rewards associated with mastering that complexity. Like schooling, adult education emerged and developed in response to the social, economic, political, cultural, and demographic forces that produced increasing structural and functional differentiation as one of the few clear trends in human social evolution. As social roles and practices proliferated, conveying the skills, knowledge, and disciplines that they embodied required the intentional and organized teaching and learning that is education. As productivity, wealth, power, and status became more dependent on the mastery and application of knowledge, education to acquire it increasingly occupied the interest and resources of individuals and groups.

The long and discontinuous trajectory of increasing social complexity within and among human societies yielded very little formal and nonformal adult education before the advent of industrialism. Prior to the Neolithic revolution, education of any type was rare; informal socialization without conscious, systematic intent to train or study sufficed for most cultural transmission and role acquisition. Agrarian, state-organized societies, especially the early and late classical civilizations of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, developed the first formal and nonformal schooling in response to the increasing complexity of knowledge, administration, social control, and production. This schooling was delivered by professional tutors and early versions of primary and secondary schools to educate the children of political, military, and religious aristocracies for their rulership roles; in schools and colleges to train bureaucratic and religious functionaries, professionals in law and medicine, and the elite in the liberal arts; and by nonformal systems of apprenticeship, such as the medieval guilds, for specialized crafts and trades. Although there are many examples of adults seeking informal education from adepts in the arts, religion, and natural philosophy, the educational systems of agrarian societies were devoted mostly to preparation for adult roles.

The widespread and diverse adult education of the present era emerged in response to the development of modern, urban, scientifically and technologically complex societies. Education became an important and dynamic institutional sector, one that gradually extended its territory from basic schooling for the literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge necessary to market relationships, industrial production, and democratic politics to adult continuing education for advanced professional workers in the theoretical and applied sciences. With some exceptions, the pattern of extension was from earlier to later stages of the life cycle (finally yielding education for learning that is ”lifelong”) from the upper to the lower reaches of class and status hierarchies (yielding ”universal education”) and from informal education occurring in avocational and domestic contexts, to nonformal education conducted by voluntary organizations to increasingly institutionalized formal systems.

Prior to industrialization, informal and nonformal adult education was relatively widespread in Europe, especially in England and North America, and especially among the growing urban middle class of artisans and merchants. As this new middle class sought to acquire its share of the growing stock of culture, and as literacy spread and became intrinsic to social and economic participation, adults increasingly engaged in self-directed study (aided by a publishing explosion that included a growing number of ”how-to” handbooks) participated in informal study groups, and established cultural institutes and lyceums that delivered public lectures and evening courses of study.

Systematic efforts to spread adult education to the working class and the general population emerged during the process of industrialization. Until the last decades of the nineteenth century, these were almost entirely voluntary efforts devoted to democratization, social amelioration, and social movement goals. In both Britain and the United States, mechanics’ institutes, some with libraries, museums, and laboratories, delivered education in applied science, taught mechanical skills, and conducted public lectures on contemporary issues. In Scandinavia, ”folk high schools” performed similar functions. Religious groups conducted literacy campaigns among the new urban masses and established adult educational forums in organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Women’s suffrage groups, labor unions, abolitionists, socialists, and many others developed educational programs both to develop their members and as an organizing tool. After 1860 and until World War I, efforts to popularize education among adults continued in various ways: in an extensive network of lyceums, rural and urban Chautauquas and settlement homes; in educational efforts to aid and acculturate immigrants to the burgeoning industrial cities; and in post-slavery self-improvement efforts of African Americans. These middle- and working-class adult education activities received considerable support and extension from the spread of public libraries.

In most societies, state support for and sponsorship of adult education has always been scant in comparison to that for schooling children and adolescents. Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism included modest adult educational efforts designed to selectively spread literacy and educate indigenous peoples as functionaries for colonial administrations. Some higher-level adult education of the type delivered by the mechanics’ and folk institutes received public funding, especially in Nordic societies where leisure time and adult continuing education were well provisioned by the state. With the Hatch Act of 1887 and enabling legislation in 1914, American land-grant universities were charged with developing ”extension” services to deliver a wide range of educational and technical assistance to farmers and rural populations. The agricultural extension model later expanded to include technical training and assistance for industry, and night schools and continuing education for adults. Public funding for these developments was minimal; extension services beyond the land-grant mandate, to the present, have usually been expected to operate as fiscally self-supporting units.

Robust state support for adult education occurred only in the socialist societies that emerged after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Beginning with the mass literacy campaign initiated by the Bolsheviks, adult education was an important priority of the Soviet regime (Lee 1998). It established a large and wide-ranging formal adult continuing education system, with branches in virtually all institutional sectors of Soviet life. It was intended to foster ideological allegiance to the Soviet system, develop the Soviet workforce, spread socialist culture, and foster progress in sports and the arts. A nonformal, decentralized system of ”people’s universities” paralleled and reinforced the formal system. After World War II, Soviet-style adult education was transplanted to most of its Eastern European satellites and, usually in severely truncated form, to the developing societies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that followed the Soviet model. After the communist victory in 1949, China began its own mass literacy campaign for adults. Later it developed a near-universal system of ”spare-time” and other adult schools that trained students for very specific political, economic, and cultural roles in the new society, and for political and ideological conformity to the tenets and goals of the revolution. In the decade following 1966, China conducted one of the largest and most disastrous adult education programs in history. The Cultural Revolution spawned a severe and mandatory form of experiential learning that replaced much of higher education by sending professionals and officials with suspect class pedigrees, intellectuals, professors, and students into agricultural villages and factories to be reeducated by proletarian labor and incessant exposure to Mao-sanctioned communist propaganda.

In spite of the social control service to the dominant regime that it was designed to deliver, socialist adult education played a very significant role in the rapid industrialization and modernization of agrarian Russia and China. In the market societies of the West, the unplanned and longer-term realization of such development did not entail centralized efforts to transform adults for new roles. The systems of political and social control did not generally require the systematic and continuous indoctrination of adults. Thus, until the second half of the twentieth century, adult education in the West remained largely a function of individual and small group informal education, voluntary and philanthropic organizations, relatively small government efforts, specialty units of the system of formal schooling, and small training programs in proprietary schools and businesses.


After 1950, adult education grew in scale and organization. The pattern of this growth involved a shift from adult education delivered by community-based organizations to that provided by formal educational institutions and the training industry. Demand for education among adults grew because of increasing rates of technological innovation, professional specialization, organizational complexity, knowledge intensiveness in goods-and-services production, and rising credential requirements for employment. Adults returned to secondary and postsecondary education in steadily increasing numbers. In the United States, the GI Bill sent the first large wave of these new students into colleges and universities after World War II (Olson 1974). In the 1960s and 1970s new or expanded units of formal education were organized to accommodate and recruit adult students in both Europe and the United States: college adult degree programs, open universities, evening colleges, programs for accrediting experientially based adult learning, and government and school-district sponsored adult high school completion programs.

Higher education attendance among adults continued to accelerate in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of several factors: multiple stop-in, stop-out college career paths; rapid obsolescence of knowledge and associated multiple career changes throughout a lengthening cycle of life and work; increased requirements and rewards for specialized graduate, certificate, and technical education; and, most significantly, the large returning student population among Baby Boom adults. In turn, the growing market of adult students spawned new forms of higher education. In the 1990s, the for-profit, fully accredited University of Phoenix became the largest private university in the United States, with over 65,000 adult graduate and undergraduate students (Winston 1999). Phoenix provides a library that is entirely electronic, uses both branch campuses in strip malls and office buildings and Internet-delivered courses to provide education nationwide, and employs only forty-five full-time faculty and more than 4,500 adjuncts. Internationally, ”mega-universities,” such as Britain’s Open University and China’s TV University—100,000 and 500,000 students respectively—deliver education to adults through diffuse networks of distance education technologies and part-time local mentors. Collectively, the new virtual (i.e. based entirely on the Internet), distance, for-profit, and mega-universities, all oriented primarily to adults, are beginning to significantly alter the structure and practice of higher education worldwide.

Training and development programs witnessed similar growth after World War II under the impact of a combination of forces. New technologies, especially those associated with information technology production and use, and increased rates of innovation, required education for entirely new skill sets and for continuous upgrading of existing knowledge. Increased job mobility required more new worker training. More intense, global economic competition and new understandings of the contribution of training to productivity and profitability led to greater training investments by firms, agencies, and individuals.

The growing volume of adult training is delivered in many forms and sectors of society and has important consequences. In the advanced industrial societies of Europe and Asia, training and development systems, usually involving employers, unions, and governments, provide training in a substantial majority of firms and to most workers (Lynch 1994). Yearly participation rates by both firms and individuals are highest in the European and Japanese systems and may be an important factor in their high rates of productivity growth. Even in the more diffuse U.S. system with lower participation, over 60 percent of adults between twenty-eight and fifty years of age had participated in some variety of part-time adult education or training by the early 1990s (Hight 1998). Workplace training alone became a $60-billion a year industry with 53,000 providers (Martin 1998). Some firms supply most of their own training through another new institutional form of adult education, the ”corporate university.” With curricula ranging from basic employee orientation to the most advanced technical and business subjects, several of these universities are now fully accredited to grant baccalaureate and graduate degrees. As the U.S. military’s reliance on technologically complex strategies, tactics, logistics and equipment grew, it became the largest single provider of training in the United States. Even with post-Cold War downsizing, the military’s adult training activities remain significant contributors to labor-force development, especially in computer, electronics, and mechanical specialties (Barley 1998). Higher education institutions are also major training providers. Collectively, college and university adult continuing and professional education now rivals or surpasses the volume of military training (Gose 1999). Harvard serves over 60,000 adults each year in continuing education classes. New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers more than one hundred certificate programs and has revenues of over $90-million a year. The involvement of universities in the expansion of training presents something of a paradox. In many instances, the new training complex is endowing its adult students with professional and industry certifications that are beginning to rival standard degrees as the credentials of both individual and employer choice. This training may also be working significant changes in the social structure. Considerable evidence suggests that a large measure of the growing income inequality characteristic of advanced industrial societies is a function of technological change and associated wage premiums paid for workers with the kind of technical credentials and competencies that much of the new training is designed to deliver (Bassie 1999).

Contemporary developing societies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America contain all of the forms of adult education found in the West, as well as forms of popular adult education now only minimally present there. While virtually all of the less developed societies have succeeded in establishing systems of primary, secondary, and higher education for youth, participation rates vary widely among and within them. Some Latin American countries, for example, have higher college attendance rates than their European counterparts while many poor children never enter or complete primary school (Arnove et al. 1996). In such contexts, adult education is often bifurcated (Torres 1990). The poor are served by literacy programs, popular education efforts developed by local nongovernmental organizations, and the health and technical education programs of international agencies. Middle and upper classes participate in corporate training, government-sponsored adult higher education, and professional continuing education programs that are little different from and, in the case of training delivered distance education technologies and global firms, exactly the same as those found in the most advanced societies. However, under the impact of globalization, the distinctions among higher education, human resource training, and popular education are softening. There is a growing recognition among education professionals and policy makers that widespread and inclusive lifelong learning is a critical common good (Walters 1997).

Lifelong learning and adult education that is on a par with schooling are increasingly articulated goals of social policy. The United Nations concluded its fifth Conference on Adult Education in 1997 with a call for worldwide lifelong learning to promote social and economic development, empower women, support cultural diversity, and incorporate new information technologies. Adult education and training is now a central focus of the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) development policy, planning, and programs. The European Union designated 1996 the ”European Year of Lifelong Learning” and established the European Lifelong Learning Initiative to research, coordinate, and develop lifelong learning policies and programs throughout Europe. In 1997, the Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners, representing U.S. business, labor, government, and education interests, called for policies that would ensure equity of access to lifelong learning, optimize the use of new technologies, reorganize the education and training system into one providing comprehensive lifelong learning, and commit private and public resources sufficient to these ends. The federal administration established a yearly summit on lifelong learning to pursue implementation of these goals. Similar policy formation and advocacy is now widespread at the local level, and cities recognize the importance of lifelong learning to workforce development and urban economic viability in the new ”knowledge economy.” It remains to be seen whether the new focus on adult education policy will result in the kind of resource deployment or accessible, comprehensive system for lifelong learning recommended by most analysis.


The sociology of education has traditionally focused on the processes, structures, and effects of schooling, with very little attention to adult education. Thus, there is no scholarly or applied field, no distinct body of theory or research that can be properly labeled ”the sociology of adult education.” Expositions of a sociology of adult education that do exist tend to be general characterizations of the field in terms drawn from general sociological and schooling literature (e.g., Rubenson 1989; Jarvis 1985). Certainly much of this is applicable. Adult education presents many opportunities for sociological interpretation in terms of the functionalist, conflict, reproductive, or postmodernist educational models applied to schooling; in terms of adult education’s impact on social mobility, status attainment, and distributional equity; or in terms of its contribution to organizational effectiveness, social welfare, or economic development. The small body of sociological research in the area takes just such an approach, focusing on issues such as: the patterns and causes of adult enrollment in higher education (e.g., Jacobs and Stoner-Eby 1998); the consequences of women’s return to higher education (e.g., Felmlee 1988); and the patterns of access to and provision of employer-provided training (e.g., Jacobs, Lukens, and Useem 1996). However, neither the extent nor the depth of sociological study in the area matches its potential importance.

Adult education is clearly no longer a social activity marginal to schooling. The information-technology revolution, the knowledge society, the learning organization, and the increasingly critical concern of individuals and organizations with the development and control of human and knowledge capital are representative of trends that are bringing adult education into the mainstream of social interest, analysis, and policy. Responses to these trends for which adult education is central include new and powerful forms of higher education, new determinants of the structure and process of social inequality, new bases for economic and social development, and new conceptions of the relationship of education to the human life cycle. Many opportunities for the application of sociological theory, research, and practice to adult education await realization.

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