The Purposes and Philosophies of Adult Education

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Idealistically, one would imagine that from a thoroughly considered, vigorously researched and empirically supported foundation there would spring a well-developed theory which, in turn, would spawn a comprehensive system of practical application. However, in practice, the real-world concerns often take precedence over the theoretical and themselves give rise to solutions and innovations that are later incorporated into a supporting philosophy. According to Beder, with regard to adult education, “Philosophy for the most part has developed from purpose, because adult education has been more affected by the social function it serves than by the thought systems associated with it” (Merriam & Cunningham. 1989, p. 38). In other words, philosophy has derived from purpose rather than the normally accepted and logical converse.

Based on the rapid growth and of society and the corresponding specialized division of labor, further education became a necessary aspect of the adult working experience. Thus, adult education evolved as a natural social function responsive to the needs of the changing environment. Once fully ingrained in society a philosophy consistent with the ideologies of the group naturally developed around the goals and objectives of the endeavor of adult education.

Four Basic Purposes of Adult Education

1) To Facilitate Change in a Dynamic Society

Education beyond the common schools developed and persists as a natural response to the demands of a fast-paced, rapidly changing social, political and technological environment. While this seems like a reality for the decade of the 1990s and the future, Beder points out that this reasoning has resounded since the 1920s when the adult education movement emerged. He states specifically, “this purpose of adult education derives directly from adults’ need to remain current in the wake of rapid change and increasing knowledge” (Merriam & Cunningham. 1989, p. 39). Likewise, the emergence of adult education as a social institution in and of itself facilitated change in several social dimensions. Thus, adult education has served as both a response to and a factor of change in various aspects of society.

2) To Support and Maintain the Good Social Order

This perspective on the purpose of American education embraces the notion of supporting and maintaining the fabric of democracy — the American opinion of “good social order”. The argument follows that a democratic society depends on the active and informed participation of a rational, critical and educated population. The roots of the concept of a life-long learning can be glimpsed in the emphatic statement, “The preservation of our civilization depends upon the ability of our democracy to suspend judgment until all the facts are known, to resist prejudices, to permit intellect to rule over feelings. The sort of education that cultivates such ability must be continuous and common to all people through the whole of the United States” (Baker, 1936, p.11). In this way, adult education serves the nation as well as serving the individual.

3) To Promote Productivity

The purpose of promoting productivity arises from the natural progressive development of adult education as a social institution responding to the demands of the work force. At the organizational level “adult education is conducted to enhance individual performance as a means toward increasing organizational effectiveness” (Merriam & Cunningham, 1989, p. 41). This is manifested in current programs under the headings of human resource development and like terms, which serve the purpose of increasing employee competence through training, education and/or development programs.

From a broader perspective, adult education is “used to promote productivity at the societal level . . . in support of the general economy” (Merriam & Cunningham. 1989, p. 41). The basic assumption is that the benefits of further education represent a social investment that serves to stimulate economic growth of the society at large. Beder argues that the collective benefit derived from a more educated and competent population merits the allocation of public funds for its sustenance.

4) To Enhance Personal Growth

Personal growth has long been considered a primary purpose of adult education. Early perspectives considered continuing education to be part of the holistic development of individuals — a view that certainly continues to have merit today. Current trends in thought also focus on the pursuit and achievement of goals as related to adult education. Another contemporary viewpoint cites “perspective transformation” as an important evolutionary purpose of adult education, stating, “through education adults can undergo entire shifts in consciousness that result in their perceiving themselves and society in completely new and more positive ways” (Merriam & Cunningham, 1989, p. 44). Additionally, adult education programs focused on personal growth can be categorized as operating on the relational, self-actualization or enrichment levels depending on the specific learning goals of the program.

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Philosophical Traditions

1) Liberal-Progressive

The liberal progressive tradition of adult education is closely related to the previously described purpose of supporting and maintaining good social order and democratic principles. While this perspective combines aspects of the liberal and the progressive viewpoints because of their overall commonality in goal, their specific focus and method of goal attainment varies. According the Beder, the liberal philosophy, “focuses on cultivation of the intellect, which includes a knowledge of facts, a systematic grasp of a subject matter or discipline, and the ability to critically assess and analyze” and where “the teacher is viewed as the master of the subject matter who is charged with transferring knowledge to neophyte learners” (Merriam & Cunningham, 1989, p. 44–45). Alternatively, the progressive philosophy holds that, “learning should proceed from experience — from the situations of adults themselves rather than from abstract or disciplined-based subject matter” and focused on a “highly learner-centered form of education involving the teacher as a guide and facilitator rather than as the guardian of knowledge” (Merriam & Cunningham, 1989, p. 45). Together, these philosophies support the purpose of facilitating change and progressive advancement in society.

2) Countercritique

The countercritique philosophy, often equated to Marxism, focuses on reform and the relation of education to society by calling for a “substantial re-ordering of the social system” (Merriam & Cunningham, 1989, p. 45). Following the philosophy of Marx, the countercritque perspective emphasizes class conflict and social inequalities and considers education as the major vehicle used for transmitting and sustaining the ideological status quo. As such, this reformist philosophy challenges adult education to empower individuals and groups to develop a critical consciousness which transforms rather than replicates and sustains the existing oppressive social structure.

3) Personal Growth

The personal growth philosophy reflects the humanistic orientation and emphasizes human choice, control and creativity. This orientation argues that “the objective of adult education is to assist learners in making choices that maximize their human potential” (Merriam & Cunningham. 1989, p. 47). As such, the learners are responsible for their own learning experience and maintain control over the learning process. Unlike the other philosophies this viewpoint focuses on the individual learner rather that the larger reference group or society as a whole. This philosophy was espoused in the development of the concept of andragogy and the related attention given to the unique characteristics, motivations and behaviors of adult learners.


Baker, N. D. (1936). “To base our judgement on facts.” In Ely, M. (Ed.), Adult education in action. New York: George Grady Press.

Merriam, S. B. & Cunningham, P. H. (Eds.). (1989). Handbook of adult and continuing education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology

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