A brief history of continuing education

Tue, Jun 18,2013 @ 10:56 AM
by Kathryn Lynch-Morin |

The history of continuing education

Continuing Education, or Adult Education, in the U.S. has evolved very differently than formal schooling.

Historically, adult education programs have arisen to meet specific needs, not as part of an overall design of education for the country.

Read on for some of the historical highlights of continuing education:

  • Benjamin Franklin is sometimes referred to as the father of adult education in the United States. In 1727, he formed a weekly discussion group called the Junto.
  • The lyceum movement, which flourished between 1826 and 1839, was started by Josiah Holbrook and comprised a series of lectures and town forums throughout the small towns of New England, and later extended to other parts of the country.
  • Through a series of Congressional acts in the period between the Civil War and World War I, the Cooperative Extension System, a nationwide, non-credit educational network, was formed. The system still operates today by providing research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.
  • The Chautauqua Movement, which began with the formation of a summer camp for Sunday school teachers in 1847, quickly evolved to include adult education in the fields of art, culture, science and politics. Chautauquas were established across the East and Midwest, and traveling Chautauquas began visiting rural communities. Millions of people attended a Chautauqua before the movement ended in mid-1920s.
  • In the fall of 1911, Cora Wilson Stewart started the first of Kentucky’s moonlight schools, teaching adults to read and write. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 Kentucky adults learned to read and write at a moonlight school by 1915.
  • In 1927 Myles Horton founded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where poor mountain people, blacks, labor leaders, coal miners and others could attend and learn from each other.
  • Freedom Schools, which sprung up in the south during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, educated adult African Americans on their voting rights.
  • The first Free University opened at the University of California Berkeley in the fall of 1964, with the concept anyone could teach, anyone could learn and any subject could be offered. Courses were upgraded and offered without credit. The idea became so popular that free universities spread to more than 300 campuses and eventually were started as independent entities in communities across North America.
  • Beginning the in 1970s, the same time the term ‘continuing education’ became popular, universities and colleges expanded the variety and scope of non-credit offerings. Within 30 years, the number of adults participating in this kind of continuing education would triple.
  • Today, studies show people with undergraduate degrees or some college are the most likely to participate in continuing education.

As the world continues to change, so too will continuing education. And, at this rate, it is likely continuing education will be more important than ever before. 

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