historical movements in education

This paper was written for CCE 554 (Foundations of Continuing Education) in November 2008.

In this review of the Liberal, Progressive, Behaviorist, Humanistic and Radical Adult Education movements, the historical context is examined with an exploration of the key concepts from each movement. One way to approach the tensions and distinctions between the educational movements an examination of the interactions each has with democratic principles and ideals.

Liberal Education Movement. W.R. Connor describes the goals and purposes of a liberal education to involve “the skills of freedom” (p. 8), which include “the ability to read texts closely, an alertness to turn of phrase or shift of argument, clear thinking and effective argument in all their forms, good writing, an understanding of how individual communities in the past have dealt with practical challenges and moral perplexities, alertness to the ironies of history, the ability to imagine the situation of others and to assess the responses most likely to prove effective” (p. 8). Liberal education focuses on liberating the individual’s capacity for critical and independent thinking, but was historically reserved to the elite members of Greek society during the “democratic” period that the early foundations of Liberal Education emerged (p. 4).

Stubblefield and Keane (1989) write that despite the ideals of the American brand of equality in the post-colonial period, the tradition of education for elite members of society continued during the colonial period, although the elite class expanded to include the majority of white males (p. 27-28).  Stubblefield and Keane appear to assign the blame for this inequality on “Puritan ideals” and the predominance of English culture in the colonies, which helped shape the “question for the immediate future” into how to broaden access to educational opportunity for white males, as opposed to “broadening the scope of opportunities” for all people. (p.28). However, “some adult education did develop in response to conflicting objectives” from democratic principles, including “abolitionist cells” and “secret religious meetings” that were formed “in opposition to the status quo” (p.28).

Robert M. Hutchins (1953) attributes the historical shift within liberal education to the influence of democratic principles, writing “Liberal education was the education of rulers” and “Democracy makes every man a ruler,” which according to Hutchins, means “every ruler, that is, every citizen, should have a liberal education.” (p.8) For Hutchins, the goal of liberal education is to “learn to think” independently, and thereby protect democracy (p.10).

Stubblefield and Keane (1989) note that new initiatives in liberal education developed in the 1950s, such as the Great Books programs developed by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (p.35).  The Ford Foundation developed “an even broader vision” of liberal education, with a goal to “equip adults as citizens in a free society” (p.35).

Progressive Education Movement. Stubblefield and Keane (1989) describe post-Civil War developments in American education to include the Chautauqua movement and the philanthropically-funded expansion of libraries “for the working and middle class.” (p. 30).  By the late 1800s, social justice movements “took specific organizational form” and combined “education and political action” into “interpersonal and communication networks” that led to an “ideology of reform.” (p.30)

Stubblefield and Keane (1989) identify the beginning of the Progressive Education movement in the 1890s, as infrastructure and economic developments profoundly altered the culture and “community life” in America (p.30).  Improvements in communication and transportation, as well as the rise of industrialization and urbanization created an “interdependent” American society (p.30)

Stubblefield and Keane (1994) write that “[t]he adverse conditions of city life, factory, and immigration inspired “progressivism,” which “[a]lthough quite diverse in their political agendas, progressive reformers agreed that people are responsible for each other and for establishing new social organizations to create a more human society.” (p.171)

Stubblefield and Keane (1989) assert that “World War I brought a halt to progressive reform” and that in 1919 “the red scare, a wave of national hysteria about communism, swept the nation.” (p.31).  They describe a “new era of reform” that marks the beginning of the “modern period of adult education,” starting with the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression (p.32).  From the end of World War I through the beginning of World War II, adult education began to be considered “a new agency in American life,” and that this conceptualization of adult education was significantly promoted by the Carnegie Foundation, including its financing of the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE) (p.32).

Within the AAAE, the debate between the liberal education tradition and the progressive movement could be seen in whether the purpose of education was to include social action (p.32).  On one side of the debate was Morse A. Cartwright, an executive director of the AAAE in the 1920s, who sided with liberal educators and opposed attempts to promote adult education “for specific purposes” and “social action.” (p.32).  The other side of the debate included scholars such as Eduard C. Lindeman, who “advanced a conception of adult education as social education” (p.32).

David Stewart (1987) writes that Lindeman’s view of the relationship between adult education and the protection of democracy appears to have been strongly related to Lindeman’s concern that “the United States had the most to fear from fascism” (p.172), and based on his extensive study of Mussolini, who was seen by Lindeman as attempting to “get rid of corruption in Italy by getting rid of freedom” (p.172, citing Lindeman, 1952).  In addition, Stewart describes Lindeman’s reaction to Hitler in 1945, when Lindeman “saw at first hand the human ruins of Europe,” which sent Lindeman into a “deep depression” (p.174).  Lindeman also traveled to Russia in 1932 (p.176, citing Gessner, 1956) and became a vocal critic of Lenin’s communism (p.177), although he was also “deeply troubled about the companionship of American democracy with capitalism (p.178).

Stewart notes that “[d]uring the 1930s, fascism made fast gains at the expense of the democracies” and that “Lindeman felt compelled to respond on behalf of democratic values” (p.173).  Stewart describes Lindeman’s vision of democracy as “based on “shared experience,” as Dewey termed it” (p.173) and that “the process of sharing experience was “in essence one of communication.” (p.173, citing Lindeman, n.d.).  In Lindeman’s vision for democracy, “[d]ifferences were welcome, “because freedom to express difference is one of the conditions of growth for the individual and progress for society.” (p.174, citing Lindeman, 1936).

Humanistic Education Movement. Sharan Merriam (1984) notes that Carl Rogers is a representative of the Humanistic Movement (p.67), and that Rogers wrote in 1967 that “[t]he only man who is educated is the man who has learned how to learn”(p.69). Robert Carlson writes that Malcolm Knowles, “reflecting the increasingly popular thinking of Carl Rogers,” wrote that the “function of the teacher is to guide the student into the kind of experiences that will enable him (sic) to develop his own natural potentialities.”

Carlson notes that Knowles’ “espoused goal has been to advance the cause of the individual and of American democracy” and that Knowles developed the term “andragogy,” which Carlson describes as “both label and package for his product, self-directed learning.” Carlson distinguishes Knowles from “the early progressives” in how Knowles viewed the role of a teacher, who “would not impose on adults.”

Elias and Merriam (2005) write that humanism is “a broad philosophical point of view that holds sacred the dignity and autonomy of human beings” (p.111) and that “humanistic psychology developed from a reaction to behaviorism” (p.115).

Behaviorist Education Movement. Stubblefield and Keane (1989) write that after World War II, “the United States became a knowledge economy in which the acquisition and application of information was the foundation of work” (34) and “continuing education” became necessary for those engaged in “knowledge work” to “keep up with new developments in their fields and to learn new skills and disciplines.” (34).  In the 1950s, corporations established a “wide range of educational programs” with a goal of “enhancing productivity” (34).

Jack Mezirow writes in 1981 that “Behaviorism has become a strongly institutionalized ideology in both psychology and education” (p.131), and states, “If you were to ask most professionals in adult education to outline how they would conceptualize program development, the model would probably be one which sets educational objectives in terms of specific behaviors to be acquired as dictated by a task to be accomplished.” (p.131).   The Behaviorist Education movement appears well-suited to meet the needs of economic forces that place a premium on specific results from education.

Merriam (1984) describes B.F. Skinner as “widely known for his views on behavior and society,” which include his assertion that “human behavior is shaped by the environment” (p.51). Writing in 1973, B.F. Skinner asserts that “what we call the behaviour of the human organism is no more free than its digestion, gestation, immunization, or any other physiological process.” (pp.62-63). B.F. Skinner asserts that the “practical problem in continuing the struggle for freedom and dignity is not to destroy controlling forces but to change them” (p.63), noting that implicit in the concept of freedom was the “right to do as we please provided we do not infringe similar rights in others,” (pp.63-64), which Skinner sees as an example of “internalized environmental sanctions.” (p.64).

B.F. Skinner writes that “by the nineteenth century, the controlling force of the environment was clearly recognized.” (p.65). Skinner notes that ”Bentham and Marx have been called behaviourists,” but Skinner objects due to their emphasis on “first determining consciousness” which he feels “clouded the relation” between the environment and behavior (p.65). Skinner has a similar critique of the Liberal Education movement, characterizing “Plato’s supposed discovery” as “one of the great diversions” from understanding the role of the environment upon behavior (pp.56-57). Skinner believes that “the problems we face are not to be found in men and women but in the world in which they live, especially in those social environments we call cultures.” (p.66). The Behaviorist movement appears fundamentally opposed to the democratic spirits of the Liberal, Progressive, Humanistic and Radical movements. Skinner admits that his theory is “reminiscent of various forms of totalitarian statism” (p.63).

Stubblefield and Keane (1989) note that “[w]ith the changing social conditions of the 1960s, new ways of thinking about adult education began to appear under labels such as lifelong education, lifelong learning, and recurrent education” (p.35).  In addition, the 1960s saw the rise of community colleges as a “powerful educational force” (p.34) by “providing an open door to social and economic opportunities for minorities and the disadvantaged.” (p.34), although critics found the programs “limited in effect” and “used to settle social unrest.” (p.34).

Radical. Stubblefield and Keane (1989) write that the impact of adult education designed to foster social justice movements can be seen in the 1950s and 1960s, with the seemingly Progressive and Radical idea that “those who struggled for justice came to understand their situation and to gain a sense of their own power to change it” (p.34).

Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that “[p]roblem-posing education, as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that men subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation” (p.111) and asserts that “[p]roblem-posing education does not and cannot serve the interests of the oppressor. No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?” (p.111).


Elements of each learning theory can be seen in how I learned about these movements. To write this paper, I immersed myself in the literature, read texts closely, practiced writing skills and paid attention to historical references, all of which are aspects of Liberal Education as described by W.R. Connor (p.8). From the standpoint of Progressive and Radical educators, my focus on the interplay of education and democratic principles is a critical analysis to conduct (e.g. Stewart (1987), p. 172, Elias and Merriam (2005) p.153). The Humanistic Movement offers insight into the somewhat painful reaction I had to the page limit imposed on this assignment – while Liberal Educators (such as Plato, as described by Elias and Merriam (2005, p.18)) would see this as a signal that I am learning, a Humanistic educator would see my reaction as related, at least in part, to my learning needs (Elias and Merriam, 2005, p.124).

At this early stage, with so many new concepts to tackle, I would have preferred to make a private wiki (Wikipedia, 2008), and create the concise density of information through the use of hyperlinks. The front page of the wiki could have been limited to eight pages of text, but the links would offer access to the depth of my research and developing ideas. Overall, Behaviorism best explains how I learned about these movements for the purposes of this paper – the goal of getting a good grade directed my attempts to comply with the outline of directives for this assignment. According to B.F. Skinner, “spontaneous” reflections are a distraction (p.63) that would interfere with my ability to stay within the page limit and learn a specific skill. My research and learning process felt blunted as I sought to avoid the “distraction” of self-directed learning, which for me, generally involves creating interwoven online materials as a way to learn in depth about complex subjects.


Carlson, R. (n.d.) Malcolm Knowles: Apostle of Andragogy. Retrieved on October 30, 2008, from http://www.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/resources/malcolmknowles.cfm

Connor, W.R.(n.d.) Liberal Arts Education in the Twenty-First Century. American Academy for Liberal Education Keynote Remarks, Kenan Center Quality Assurance Conference. Retrieved on November 3, 2008, from http://www.aale.org/pdf/connor.pdf

Elias, J.L, Merriam, S.B. (2005) Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education. (3rd Ed.) Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.

Freire, P. (1984) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). Selected Writings On Philosophy And Adult Education (pp.103-112). Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Hutchins, R. M. (1984) The Conflict in Education. In Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). Selected Writings On Philosophy And Adult Education (pp.7-11). Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Merriam, S.B. (1984). Selected Writings On Philosophy And Adult Education. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Mezirow, J. (1984). A Critical Theory of Adult Learning And Education. In Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). Selected Writings On Philosophy And Adult Education (pp.123 -139). Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Rogers, C. R. (1984). The Interpersonal Relationship in the Facilitation of Learning. In Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). Selected Writings On Philosophy And Adult Education (pp. 67 – 70). Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Skinner, B.F. (1984) The Steep and Thorny Way to a Science of Behaviour.  In Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). Selected Writings On Philosophy And Adult Education (pp.51 -66). Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Stewart, D.W. (1987) Adult Learning in America : Eduard Lindeman and His Agenda for Lifelong Education.  Malabar, Florida: Kriegar Publishing Company.

Stubblefield, H.W., Keane, P. (1989) The History of Adult and Continuing Education. Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, by Sharan B. Merriam and Phyllis M. Cunningham, San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Stubblefield, H.W., Keane, P. (1994) Adult Education in the American Experience: From the Colonial Period to the Present.. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Wiki. (n.d). Retrieved November 7, 2008, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki


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