Throughout history, adult education has played a role in many significant social, cultural, and political movements. With regard to this role, one of the most prominent theorists within the field, Malcolm Knowles (as cited in Merriam and Brockett, 2007) suggests that that ideals and methodologies often associated with adult education have tended to become more prominent in “response to specific needs” (p. 9). Similarly, democratic ideals have often emerged when the needs of individuals have met in some manner. Both adult education and democracy have traditionally focused on supporting the growth, freedom, and development of the individual as well as the larger community and society. This author would argue that the individual, social, and organizational philosophical concepts associated with adult education are directly related to and have played a significant role in the growth and development of democratic principles over time.
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Before one may effectively examine the significance of the relationship between adult education and democracy, it is important to have a clear understanding of the components of each individual concept. Democracy is a concept that emphasizes the rights, freedoms, and ultimate power of the individual. Democratic ideals, principles, and practices sustain and protect these rights and freedoms. As Ellis (1993) attempts to argue the importance of education and the participation of informed citizens within the democratic process, he contends that the true purpose of the democracy is to improve the lives of citizens as opposed to it being simply a demonstration of power and authority of those in high positions. Chickering (2008) takes a somewhat critical approach to viewing current aspects of the democratic society, and argues that in order for the fundamental principles of democracy to be effective, systematic changes and a greater emphasis on personal and community development should occur. He suggests that these changes will encourage and allow all individuals to able to play a more role in the democratic process. It is important to note that although democratic ideals have existed for centuries and are considered the preferred form of government by many, a number of democratically related concepts are not universally valued. In some cultures, they actually serve a source of conflict for many individuals and groups for a variety of reasons.
Democracy lends heavily on the idea that individuals are capable of creating and maintaining an effective government through informed decision-making and continued participation in the process. Ellis (1993) argues that “On the whole people are only able to participate effectively when they have acquired through education the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are essential for active and meaningful participation” (Education for Participation, para. 3). Many adult education theorists contend that adult education is one of the most effective means of developing informed and active participants within a democracy. John Dewey was one of the most prominent figures associated with the progressive movement in education and his ideas influenced a number of recognized figures within the field of adult education. Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) suggest that Dewey believed that democracy was essentially a collective form of existence that was dependent on education to sustain growth and development.
Adult education is grounded in the idea that one should never stop learning and emphasizes practices and methods of educating individuals who are considered adults. Much of the field’s focus revolves around improving outcomes for both individuals and the larger community. Although somewhat broad in nature, the primary purpose of adult education is the foster change. From a historical perspective, adult education has been prominent for centuries. From the methods used by Socrates to the current use of social networking to aid in the spread of democratic ideas, adult education has significantly influenced society and culture. Grattan (1955) noted that adult education focuses on individuals “in the business of life” (p. 7). This argument is central to associating adult education with democracy because adults often have the power, means, and ability to create and maintain significant change within their own lives and the lives of others. Adult education focuses its attention on those in this position of power and democracy depends on their consistent and meaningful participation.
The connection between adult education and democracy exists within the shared goals of each concept. According to Proulx (1993) “Adult education is a process through which groups and individuals become able to play a significant role in protecting their rights and building a society which reflects their reality” (Introduction, para. 5). Adult education has been used to build upon and support the individual and collective freedoms at the core of a democracy. Through education, citizens may become more aware of fundamental governmental processes, unfair practices, and the importance of participation. Adult education may also encourage citizens to take advantage of opportunities that have the potential to improve their financial, emotional, and social outcomes. Throughout adult education literature, authors and theorists consistently contend that, in addition to addressing individual outcomes, adult education also affects larger communities and the culture as a whole. With regard to democracy, this author would argue that without the principles of adult education to engage and maintain an informed citizenry, democratic ideals would be more difficult to sustain and authoritarian controlled governments would have a greater prominence in our society.
As previously stated, an important theme within the field of adult education is the consistent focus on the growth and development of the individual, community, and ultimately society. Many of the philosophies associated with adult education revolve around these components. Merriam and Brockett (2007) suggest that understanding the philosophies associated with adult education will help individuals to more effectively grasp the innate values and true nature of the field. Although many aspects of the various philosophies encompassed under the umbrella of adult education differ, there are a number of similarities. Each philosophy emphasizes the importance of learning and active participation the learning process. The prominent philosophies also recognize that education is a powerful tool for change. However, the proposed outcomes and the believed impact resulting from these changes sometimes differ between the philosophies. Some focus primarily on the individual while others focus on organizational and/or societal outcomes. This author would argue that democracy’s relationship to adult education is significant and unavoidable regardless of philosophically touted outcome.
Early adult educators, prominent philosophers, and the architects of democracy in both the United States and around the world ascribed to the adult education philosophy of liberal education. Much of the adult education’s early history is rooted within philosophical perspective. According to Merriam and Brockett (2007), those approaching adult education from the liberal perspective contend that the goal of education should be to support the creation of “informed, cultured, and moral citizens” (p. 33). By becoming knowledgeable about a variety of subjects, the individual citizen is believed to become more well rounded, able to address issues, and solve problems more effectively. Democracy requires the individuals with a strong knowledge base and problem-solving ability to remain fluid and effectively adapt over time.
As previously stated, the architects of democracy from both a theoretical and more a practical standpoint supported the principles of adult education and designed democracies to revolve around educated and informed citizens who could effectively address the issues of the day. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhibited many of the previously noted characteristics as they supported the growth of democracy within the United States. Franklin’s success and development may be attributed to liberal adult education and is a prime example of the potential positive impact that democratic rights and freedoms can have on society through the individual. He was an inventor, politician, world traveler, and adult education pioneer with the development of his Junto group. When discussing Franklin’s support for education during a comprehensive review of his political theory Rossiter (1952) states, “Franklin’s faith in education had a dozen outlets. The American Philosophical Society, The Library Company, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Franklin Funds of Boston and Philadelphia are present-day reminders of his high regard for formal and informal education of all classes, ages, and conditions of men” (p. 269). The support and participation in liberal adult education by Franklin and others during the formation in the United States played a major role in the success and development of democracy in this country.
Another prominent philosophical perspective within the field of adult education emphasizes personal and social improvement. Within this perspective, the focus is on the individual and his or her social circles and/or community. Eduard Lindeman was an adult educator, social worker, and author who often discussed the expounded upon the relationship between adult education and democracy in terms of an informed citizenry and active participation in the democratic process. “Without responsible participation, democracy cannot exist nor endure. And responsible participation implies that the citizen is informed” (Lindeman, 1956, p. 154). Lindeman’s ideas suggest a clear connection between adult education and democracy and suggest that democracy necessitates that individuals be knowledgeable in order to for the individual and society to be successful. Adult educators work to meet the needs outlined by democratic principles on a regular basis. Titus (2010) describes specific methods associated with adult education that are believed to be effective in terms of educating citizens about democracy and the political process. He suggests that observational and experiential learning may be particularly effective because they allow the individual to become directly involved a process that is sometimes complex. These methods also emphasize both the personal and social aspects of adult education.
Individual self-actualization is another philosophy associated with adult education. This perspective specifically focuses on the individual’s development and growth into his or her best possible self. Knowles is a key figure within the individual self-actualization perspective. According to Darkenwald and Merriam (1982), Knowles emphasized the “liberation” of the individual and believed that society’s primary purpose was to serve as “a vehicle for providing a full range of choices to a potential participant” (p. 47). Knowles is directly supporting the basic principles of democracy with this contention. Societies provide the framework from which the individual operates. In authoritarian cultures, the individual’s choices and the opportunities are limited; however, democracies allow citizens the freedom to become whomever they choose to be. Upon further examination, this author contends that both individual self-actualization and democracy tend to assume that individuals are good and will make choices that will benefit themselves, their communities, and the larger society.
Some within the field of adult education contend that social change should be the primary focus of adult education initiatives and have worked tirelessly to use education as a means of societal change. Although somewhat different in their ideologies, many of the major philosophies within the field of adult education emphasize some aspect of social action or social change. Social Transformation is a philosophical perspective that places a great deal of emphasis on empowering oppressed individuals with an overall goal of fostering transformative cultural and/or societal changes. One of the primary figures within this philosophical perspective of adult education was Paulo Friere. Although his may not be directly associated with all democratic principles, much of Friere’s work revolved around educating oppressed individuals with the intention of providing them with the knowledge to recognize their rights as individuals and the need for change. Providing individuals with the knowledge to foster change and encourage freedom is analogous with the democratic principals previously noted. According to Darkenwald and Merriam (1982), Friere believed that “to be human is to seek to guides one’s own destiny” (p. 60). He truly believed that significant societal changes were possible by supporting and educating the individual, and he worked much of his life to provide these supports to his people.
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The problems and oppression endured by African Americans within the United States is somewhat similar to those described by Friere in his writings. Although the United States was founded on the democratic principles previously described, this particular portion of the population was segregated, demeaned, and not allowed to have the same rights as others for centuries. These oppressive actions were contrary to the freedom-focused democratic principals established by the founding fathers. Those who benefited from the labor of African Americans recognized that education would have changed the status quo and, as a result, fought vehemently against improved educational opportunities for African Americans. For many of these oppressed individuals, adult education was the only means attaining an education. Throughout history, many prominent and influential African Americans, such as Booker T. Washington, relied on adult education to gain the tools necessary to obtain the rights and freedoms that were suppose to be at the core of a democracy.
Another example of an African American adult educator attempting to support individual learning and ultimately societal freedom was Alain Lock. He was a professor who spent a great deal of time developing programs and organization adult education initiatives that were geared toward the African American population. According to Gyant (1988), Locke believed that “learning must be meaningful and must relate to one’s own experience” (p. 104). Adapting the educational environment to focus on the individual’s experiences is one of the key principles associated with adult education. As previously suggested, participation is one of the primary factors in a successful democracy. Adults, particularly from marginalized backgrounds, often do not feel connected with the larger society. Adult education improves the democratic process for these individuals by altering the conversation to fit their needs. This author believes that adapting educational practices with regard to democratic and political processes will increase engagement, and ultimately participation among targeted groups. Historically, adult education has proven to be an effective means increasing awareness for individual rights of immigrants, women, and others minority groups.
This author would also argue that the organizational effectiveness philosophy, as it relates to adult education, may be associated with the growth and development of democratic principals and ideas. Those who approach adult education from the organizational effectiveness perspective contend that supporting and improving practices for both individuals and organizations will eventually lead to improved outcomes individual workers, the organization, eventually the larger society. Casey (2003) contends that the increased autonomy and freedom in the workplace that typically results from adhering to adult education principles “reflects and encourages the revitalization of models of civil, democratic society.” Individuals spend a good portion of their lives within the work environment. Through knowledge and skills gained within the workplace, individuals often learn to become increasingly independent and knowledgeable, and many participate in adult education programs in hopes of improving their quality of life and becoming more successful. In terms of affiliation, a number of people tend to associate themselves with larger groups or communities in relation to their particular work environment. All of these factors suggest that the workplace permeates through several aspects of an individual’s life and is often associated with the ability to achieve better outcomes. Democratic principles encourage and accommodate individual growth and development while adult education is often the means by which it occurs.
Industrial growth and development had a signification impact on both democracy and the field of adult education. With increased opportunity, the freedoms and rights supported by democracy were more accessible to a larger portion of the population. This accessibility fostered demographic and cultural changes. Many African Americans moved to the industrial parts of the county in search of jobs and the promise of a better life for themselves and their families. Immigrants also moved to this country for similar reasons, and women increasingly began to pursue available opportunities within the workplace. During this transitional phase, adult education became increasingly prominent in both the workplace and within the larger community as a means of addressing the needs of the changing population. According to Merriam and Brockett (2007), the emphasis of adult education began to shift somewhat from the more liberal perspective to providing increased organizational and community support (p. 35). Individuals needed to be trained to complete assigned tasks within the workplace, many immigrants participated in courses that were touted as a means of helping them acclimate to the dominant culture, and increased attention was given to teaching individuals in need of basic academic skills. Ultimately, adult education, organizational effectiveness, and democracy can interconnect and play a role in shaping society as well as supporting the citizens within a democracy
Adult education is a field that is consistently changing and adapting to address the needs of individuals and communities. Some of the significant changes involve the infusion of technologies, such as social networking, that are often used as a means of providing and spreading information. This technology has been instrumental in the spread and growth of democratic ideals in several Middle Eastern countries. Technology and the internet are making it more difficult to control the spread of information. As citizens of these countries become more informed, they are beginning to call for many of the rights and freedoms associated with democracy. As previously noted, this author believes that the basis of democracy is an informed citizenry and increased participation. Although the medium has changed, adult education is continuing to support the democratic process around the world.
From a theoretical perspective, much of the field’s focus has become increasingly geared towards theories such as postmodernism and critical theory. One goal underlying this trend within the field of adult education is to continuously evaluate and determine if commonly accepted concepts, such as democracy are actually effective and inclusive. Similar to other adult education perspectives, the goal is to bring about change and develop more effective programming that addresses the needs of all individuals. Adult educators have increasingly become focused on encouraging the learner to critically assess traditionally accepted processes, and consider the positive and negative effects that these processes have on various cultural, ethnic, or other potentially marginalized groups.
Adult educators have begun to challenge the status quo, as well as policies and practices that are believed to be ineffective and unfair. This author believes that these challenges and the questioning of “authority” are excellent examples of the manner in which an effective democracy works. The power to question and create change should be given to the individual. In his discussion of critical adult education in terms of democracy, Martin (2003) suggests that adult educators should “expand our notions of what it means to be active citizens in a democratic society” (p. 566). Although the field of adult education is consistently changing, adult educators and theorists are continuing to prompt citizens to take action and participate in the process.
Adult education is a field that encompasses a number of philosophies and ideals that are aimed at supporting improved individual, community, and societal outcomes. Democracy is a framework through which individuals are provided with the opportunities and freedoms to seek these improved outcomes. Through an examination of the major philosophies associated with adult education, this author has demonstrated the close relationship between adult education and democracy. Despite their differences, each philosophical perspective under the umbrella of adult education is directly related to the development of an informed citizenry. Adults have the power to foster change, and democracy is dependent on the participation of citizens who are knowledgeable about the issues facing both themselves and society. Throughout history, adult education has supported democratic principles by expanding ideas and providing information to citizens. This exploration into the nature of democracy and adult education has demonstrated that adult education is a crucial and necessary component of democratic process.
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