What Is The Purpose of Adult Education

Albert Einstein once suggested “intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” Sure, children have an insatiable appetite and ability to learn, but what about adults? Once adults exit the formal education process, do they continue to learn? Retain their curiosity? Acquire new skills? Measurable answers to these questions may be difficult to cull. Yet, if the U.S. is to collectively grapple with issues such as justice within education, they must be asked.

Adult Education Theory

The late education theorist Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) made his career out of asking what the purpose of adult education is and should be. The widely published Knowles popularized the term andragogy, which is linguistically understood to mean “the art of teaching adults.” However, through his research Knowles developed theories that supported andragogical methods for learners of all ages. Knowles came to believe that andragogy is best exemplified in the position and paradigm of the learner. Whereas students and teachers depend on each other in a pedagogical learning environment, the students transition into more self-directed roles of both teaching and learning in andragogical ones.

But how is an adult suddenly to become a self-directed, andragogical learner when he or she has only experienced the dependent, pedagogical model throughout his or her formal education?


Randy Task, the president and CEO of GED Testing Services, says there are 40 million adults in the U.S. without a high school diploma. He explains that 60 percent of jobs currently require at least a high school level of education—and he projects that that percentage will increase to 73 percent by 2020. For those who did complete high school and moved on to higher education, the average debt of degree and non-degree students was $23,300 in 2011 with 10 percent owing more than $54,000; another 3 percent owed more than $100,000.

These numbers may not generate the necessary incentives for adult learners to pursue further education, so it is important to consider the ways in which policies and programs have incentivized adult education. Within the Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), adult education and literacy programs are promoted to “help American adults get the basic skills they need to be productive workers, family members, and citizens.” Within this broad mission adult basic education, adult secondary education, and English language acquisition are posited as the major focus areas for the Department.

When wisdom ceases to cry out in the public square, learning ceases.

The OVAE derives much of its budgetary authority from the twice-renewed Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1984. The most recent version of the bill, the Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, maintained previous provisions for adult career and technical education within an annual budget of $1.9 billion annually. Within the OVAE’s appropriation, the Career and Technical Education (CTE) National Programs delivers grants to each state to assist with customized adult education initiatives. The equity of the grant program is suspect, however, as a state like Alabama (6.8 percent unemployment) receives $2.05 per person while Wisconsin (7 percent unemployment) receives just $1.05 per person.


Although the distribution of grants and adult education funding certainly deserves evaluation, it is worth keeping in mind that these programs are designed to provide opportunities that lead to success. Time Magazine published a compelling article earlier this month on the progress of this pursuit in America. The article suggests that “all human beings come equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse...but it’s Americans who have codified the idea, written it into the Declaration of Independence and made it a central mandate of the national character.” Most likely borrowing from John Locke, Thomas Jefferson understood this mandate of the national character in the following manner:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Questions of opportunity and the pursuit of happiness are incredibly congruous to challenges facing cities such as the now-bankrupt Detroit. For those who are unemployed, how will they regain their jobs? How will they learn new skills to adjust to the changing local economy? Where will they go to for this education? What will be the cost?

Education theorists tend to coalesce around four primary purposes of education:

  • To facilitate change in a dynamic society

  • To support and maintain the good social order

  • To promote productivity

  • To enhance personal growth

As is demonstrated above, many of the arguments for enhancing adult education are economic ones. But can adult education be understood, improved, and expanded on economic grounds alone?

During the months of June and July, the Shared Justice Editorial Team has raised important questions on education issues including foreign education aidvouchersimmigration reformunpaid internshipsstandardized tests, and disabled students. Learning is at the core of each of these issues. We began this series on education in June by asking, Have we lost the tools of learning? We close this series on education by considering the purpose of education. If there is any measure of agreement or commonality in these articles, it is the notion that learning is necessary in all stages of life; young and old, poor and rich, and in sickness and in health.

I’m persuaded that, as Christians, our responsibility is to find ways to ensure the fulfillment of the proverb that says, “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” When wisdom ceases to cry out in the public square, learning ceases. And when learning ceases, so does the pursuit of opportunity and happiness.

 -Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.