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Talks by John Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

Does Adult Education Exist?

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First, some personal words about what appears to be the chief topic of this symposium: graduate study in adult education. It was at UCLA in the early 1960s, when I began working on my doctorate in adult education (after an abortive attempt at the University of Chicago with Cy Houle), I encountered a professor of adult education who offers a model, if we must have one, for graduate study. His name is Wat Dickerman. Others who studied with him will confirm this appraisal. For instance, John Niemi at Northern Illinois University or Web Cotton and Ira Winn, professors in the California State University system. Wat has passed on now, but when he headed the grad program at UCLA he nurtured us all in his easy going, relaxed way. He encouraged discussion in all his classes -- with a difference. I remember one time when I was off on one of my long rambling diatribes: "Shut up," he explained.

Wat suggested before I begin course work I immediately pick a dissertation topic, one I would be passionately interested in, because as I got close to finishing the degree, the nit-picking dissertation work, and other requirements, would make me thoroughly sick of the whole process. So, said Wat, I had the best chance of finishing the work and retaining my sanity, if I started out with a topic I was enthusiastic about.

He was 100 percent right. While others struggled with classes, proposals, and research for up to ten or more years, I finished all the course work and my dissertation in under two years, while working part-time! I picked the two areas I had been most intensely involved with as an adult educator: discussion groups and educational radio (an aspect of the second theme of this symposium, instructional technology). Meanwhile, Wat often helped to relax us all, while enjoying himself, by playing the washtub bass in a jug band.

A word of caution, however: Recently a grad student came to see me for help on another dissertation topic I'm deeply interested in. I spent many hours with her giving her the advantage of all my "wisdom," which she seemed eager to benefit from. I included Wat's advice about settling on a topic of strong meaning to her. When her dissertation ended up with only one brief reference to the material I had loaned her, imagine my deep chagrin. Thus my ego had triumphed over my "wisdom."

Rambling Criticisms Since the Late 1950s

Since the late 1950s I've presented rambling criticisms of something called "adult education". But it wasn't until the early 1990s that I began to conclude that "adult education" doesn't even exist. In Mike Collins' 1992 book Adult Education as Vocation, he writes that his own "critical commentary raises questions that unsettle claims supporting adult education as a distinguishable, legitimized field of practice." It set me thinking. Maybe adult education is not "a distinguishable, legitimized field of practice."

Then I read Malcolm Knowles' tribute to the late Sam Brightman, founding editor of the newsletter Adult & Continuing Education Today: "I have long felt that his contribution to the literature of our field had a special value because it conveyed what 'real' people were perceiving about us."

Sam once said, "If we could see ourselves as others see us, we would change our ways." How do others see us? When "real" people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm associated with adult education. They respond with either a puzzled look or some remark about a program they know: literacy, HRD, agricultural extension, whatever. No one has ever commented, "Oh, that's a distinguishable, legitimized field of practice." So if we change our ways, after seeing ourselves as others see us, we will stop thinking of ourselves as part of a field and start thinking of fields (plural) or of particular programs.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Adult education is not the fabled elephant the blind men label differently when they feel its trunk, tail, or legs. No, adult educations are many different animals that we blind folk touch separately. Oh, these animals have lots in common as all animals do, but they are not one species. Their behavior is sometimes similar in response to social pressures and personal temptations, but--to mix a metaphor--that doesn't put them all in the same boat.

"They Call It Continuing Education"

If my viewpoint sounds strange, try this on for size. Millions of real people watch Andy Rooney every Sunday evening on CBS's 60 Minutes. Here's Rooney: "Drug companies trying to get doctors to prescribe their medicine will fly a group of them to a fancy resort over the weekend, give them a lecture for an hour or so, and the rest of the time the doctors can go out and play. They call it continuing education."

The drug companies and the doctors call this continuing education. It is, because anyone can call anything continuing education. If you're uncomfortable with that relaxed view, consider that there is no law anywhere that decides what continuing education is or isn't. Also The Institute for Adult Education in Los Angeles produces pornographic films. There are thousands of examples of professionals enjoying tax deductible vacations with a few hours of continuing education thrown in. Some have been investigated by other networks besides CBS. They are not in the same ballpark as more traditional programs, so let's label each as an example of continuing educations.

Summer Vacations for Adult Students

More dollars and more personnel are devoted to adult education programs than all other education programs--elementary, secondary, and higher--combined. I've been saying this for years. In 1989 Malcolm Knowles concluded: "On October 23, 1983, adult education became the largest single sector of education in America." But these millions of adult students (90 million in 1999 according to the U.S. Department of Education) aren't in a distinguishable field. The only common field they're in is one called "adult," because of their age. If we think of adult educations, not adult education, then our work is in particular fields or programs, not some indefinable field.

In my view, it's good that people in general do not recognize the existence of adult education in the same way they do compulsory schooling for children. If they did, it would mean American society has become even more oppressive, because the lock step of compulsory education would then last a lifetime for all citizens all the time, except, of course, for summer vacations. With infant schooling now popular and mandatory continuing education taking over everywhere, we've come very close to womb-to-tomb education.

What Should We Do?

Well, what should we do? There are at least three possibilities, given effective resistance against womb-to-tomb schooling is unlikely: First, we can recognize "adult education" is a collective noun and adopt a British practice of following a collective noun with a plural verb. For example, "Adult education are where adults acquire knowledge beyond random learning."

Second, instead of lumping all adult educators together, we can take the suggestions of the late Senator Hayakawa and say "adult education1," "adult education2," etc. Wrote Hayakawa in his landmark book, Language in Thought and Action: "The term [adult education] tells what the individuals have in common, the numbers remind us that each is different. A rule can then be formulated as a general guide: Cow1 is not cow2; politician1 is not politician2, and so on. This rule forces us to consider the facts when we might leap to conclusions we might regret. Cow1 is not cow2 reminds us that no word has the same meaning twice."

Third, we can consider Mike Collins view who proposed seeing adult education as a vocation. He hoped thereby to add ethical and critical dimensions to our work. The idea of a vocation may appeal to those of us who don't want to be part of a profession or a business. Vocation originally meant someone called by God to a special spiritual mission. Today, many leave out by God and spiritual (I don't).

Who, Besides the Emperor, Wears No Clothes?

After I wrote the above I performed several more literature searches on the meaning and history of vocation and related terms. In addition, I sent an early draft to several colleagues for comment. As a result I am far less enthusiastic about the word vocation. As one authority concludes, "Vocation has been described as 'one of the lordliest of words,' and as 'the supreme category of religion'; but no word is more frequently misunderstood, or more frequently misused."

Part of the problem is that vocation is a word used differently in two realms that we don't usually connect: religion and science. But in The Religion of Technology David F. Noble very definitely connects the Christian religion to the growth of the elitist power of science. Though the term vocation started as a religious one, by the time of the Enlightenment it was being used by scientists to describe their motivation to work. The religious history of vocation can be traced roughly through the beliefs in the Old Testament and those of St. Paul, St. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans. The scientific or humanist history of the term is even more ambiguous. In social science and among those who adhere to it in adult education, Max Weber is the font of meaning about vocation.

I have two problems with this reliance on Weber. First, though some deny it, Weber's lack of humor is typical of almost all the authorities--secular and religious--on vocation. This is a fatal failing as far as I'm concerned. The grimness of Weber and others renders them lifeless. Second, Weber appears to have a narrow historical view that would endow all adult educators with those qualities of the "founder father" of adult education in America, Benjamin Franklin. Weber concludes, "The earning of money is the real Alpha and Omega of Franklin's ethic."

Of all the views on vocation, I find the most cogent those of the radical Catholic peacemakers, Dan Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. Biblically, claims Berrigan, we are called to a vocation to "makes justice among nations." McAlister concludes that in common usage vocation is a possession, just a source of income, while calling means "people on a mission." Berrigan and McAllister's views are most simply expressed, I believe, in a poem by Robert Frost:

"My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation ...
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done?
For Heaven and the future's sakes."

The current state of institutional churches, however, is generally depressing. If for those of us in adult education, vocation, profession, or business won't do, then we are left without any way to ethically characterize our work. Are we all blind, naked emperors searching for an elephant to feel?

If Hope Is White, What Color Is Courage?

These viewpoints may seem totally devoid of hope, and so they may be. But hope--actually expectation--has been for too long the packaged product adult educators--both entrepreneurial and radical--peddle. Perhaps instead we should offer courage. It can't be sold, and we can't claim to possess it ourselves. Courage is not foolhardy and finds healthy confirmation only in group action. So if we want to offer it we must join in the action.

Let our fresh directions then come from:
"Vows begin when hope dies" (Leonardo da Vinci);
"Courage lost, all is lost" (Goethe).

The Educator As Agitator

To conclude these ramblings, I'd like to do two things. First, go back to the earliest article I ever had published on adult education. And then, comment briefly on the second theme of this conference, Instructional Technology.

The first thing I wrote appeared in the September 1958 issue of Adult Leadership and was then anthologized in a pamphlet called Issues in Dispute about the role of the adult educator: "The only goals worth pursuing are unattainable ones: happiness, perfection, a truly democratic society. A person becomes an educator to work toward such goals with his own special talent. That talent does not include the ability to persuade others to act. If it did, he would be better off as a politician."

How I wish in the intervening years I had remembered those words when I butted my head against the establishment in attempts to persuade people to act against such obscenities as the American involvement in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. On the other hand, maybe I did partially succeed in persuading others to think about those crazy wars, which was what I said in 1958 was "the educator's special talent, the ability to move others to think." On this theme I concluded, "He is neither a priest nor a prophet, but an agitator in the best sense. He is not an agitator against, but an agitator for--for a thinking crusade. The educator helps others to think by prodding, provoking, and jabbing them. Others begin to think because he sets an example. They see him grapple with the truth and try to present all sides of the most controversial of issues. They see that he gets into trouble (C. Wright Mills says we will all have to get into trouble if we are to break through the iron curtain separating political realities from fantasies). They see that he is frustrated in his attempt. They see him fail. But they notice that he still stands on his two feet."

The Naïve Optimism of Adult Educators about Instructional Technology

Since I wrote that in 1958, I have been frustrated and failed many times. I have not only been knocked off my feet, but also knocked myself off my feet by some of my foolish ways. One of my foolish ways was to try to get adult educators to think about all the optimism in their writing on instructional technology, the second theme of this symposium.

I have been involved in instructional technology since the mid-1930s. I was a teenager in junior high school then, writing and acting in educational radio programs for the Detroit Public School's broadcasts on the local CBS station.

I won't bore you with all my involvements in instructional technology since the mid-1930s, but my personal optimism--firmly expressed in my technological doctoral dissertation--began to fade in the mid-1960s. In 1967 I chaired the interest group, Mass Media & Adult Education, of the national Adult Education Association. In the newsletter for the section I started then, I began to encounter many examples of how instructional technology, far from being a neutral tool, was essentially a tool of the power elite to keep the rest of us in line. I reached the same conclusion in my 500 page bibliography Garland published, Media and Adult Learning, which if quality had been the main criterion, would have been a pamphlet.

So I began to resist such heedless high tech terms as "distance education," noting that Ambrose Bierce said "Distance is the only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs and keep." And "Open University" saying that "The jaws of the alligator and the mouth of the bottomless pit are also open."

I was tempted at times to replace my own naïve optimism with pessimism, but was saved from that trap by my discovery of thousands of examples of the creative use of imagination in adult education contexts in novels, short stories, poems, plays, movies, television sitcoms, and cartoons. This discovery helped me to see that one way to get beyond the takeover of adult education by optimistic corporate interests might be to kid them. Not to take them too seriously.

In a way it meant a return to my first experience with instructional technology back in junior high school in the mid-1930s. The first play I wrote for radio then was an adaptation of the Greek myth, "The Midas Touch." "I'm going to be the richest man in the world," King Midas said when he was granted a single wish by a god. Midas had wished that everything he touched turned to gold. But he soon regretted his short-sighted wish when his food, water, cat, and even his own daughter were transformed into gold. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his famous rendition of the myth, presents this intriguing adult education principle: "People always grow more and more foolish, unless they take care to grow wiser and wiser." The greedy dangerous optimism of King Midas is modeled in the enthusiasms of high tech lovers. Also in Max Weber's comment: "The earning of money is the real Alpha and Omega of Benjamin Franklin's ethic." One surprising discovery I made when going through search engines on the web for the term "Midas Touch" was that most of the "hits" assume the touch is an unmitigated good with no downsides.

My most recent foray into high tech appeared in an article on the millennium published in The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education. I had hoped there that the frenzy over the problems with Y2K would lesson some of the optimism. But despite trillions of dollars in associated costs, we blithely entered the year 2000. As adult education professor Von Pittman correctly predicted in 1987: "I shudder to think what it will be like at the turn of the century. We will undoubtedly bring new meaning to the word 'trite.'"

Please note: If the above strikes you as the work of a mean-spirited, cantankerous, fuddy-duddy theorist, you're in good company, because I've been so labeled in recent publications. If you want to add your own labels, comment for further correspondence, receive a more conventional autobiography, or obtain a reference list with citations which there wasn't room to provide here, please contact me.

© Copyright 2004 John

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