The farmer, the mechanic, the manufacturer, the merchant, the sailor, the soldier … must be educated.
--Philip Lindsley, president of the University of Nashville, 1825
Since the early days of the Republic, adult Americans have been seeking ways to further educate themselves after their (successful or unsuccessful) formal education is over. For intellectual stimulation, social benefit, or occupational advancement through the learning of specific job skills, we as a people seem driven toward self-improvement and have created a staggering number of ways, both superficial and substantial, to achieve it: from self-help books to correspondence courses to continuous incarnations of mutual improvement societies (lyceums, mechanics’ institutes, chautauquas) to classes in university extension.
Unions such as the Knights of Labor and farmers’ political organizations, most notably the Grange, had considerable educational programs. There was the public library movement, and agricultural extension, and experimental colleges for working people. Private occupational or proprietary schools arose and grew. The public community college began in 1901 and expanded rapidly through the mid-20th century, and the G.I. Bill opened two- and four-year colleges to a remarkable number of returning veterans, changing the nature of American higher education in the process. There are literacy programs, and workforce development initiatives, and adult schools that offer everything from basic education to courses on local geography, French cooking, and navigating the Internet. And now some prestigious universities are offering free online courses in the sciences and humanities.
As historian Joseph Kett put it in The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties, a sweeping account of this multi-strand tradition, in the same way that “democracy seems only to whet appetites for more democracy,” so too “each advance in educational opportunity” sparks desire for more education.
I have spent the last two years in a poor, urban community college with some of the current participants in this long tradition of self improvement. Many of the reasons this new generation are at the college are deeply troubling: inadequate K-12 schools, limited youth and apprenticeship programs, unemployment, and the effects of poverty on neighborhoods and families. They are seeking a second chance at education because, in various ways, their first go at it was unsuccessful.
Sam is sitting outside of the college’s library, talking to two older women. I know him from the welding program I have been observing. He has been doing so well, that, with the recommendation of several of his instructors, he got a job tutoring in the Reading Center. That’s where he met these women, Dorothy and Zoe. Sam is helping Dorothy figure out what classes to take next term, so I talk briefly to Zoe – blue nail polish, cigarette, animated – about the basic skills courses she has to take. She gets serious and says she wants to learn math, finally learn it. She likes coming to the college, she continues, “didn’t know it would be this good.” She waves her hand across the area with the coffee cart, the library benches, the stairs to the humanities building. “I like it. This is nice.”
Sam and I excuse ourselves and walk into humanities, where his English class will start in a few minutes. He tells me that the work in the Reading Center has blown him away. What an honor it is to help people – especially people older than him – develop a skill that they’ll use the rest of their lives. He is thinking about getting a bachelor’s degree in counseling or adult education that will enable him to continue to do this work, to help other people become better-educated. Maybe he can support himself as a welder while he’s in school. “Who knows,” he says. “I never thought I’d be doing this.”
There is a lot riding on the success of Sam, Zoe, and Dorothy, for them and for our economic and social structure. Yet in these recessionary times, the influx of all these students – many in need of academic remediation and other services – is a source of great consternation to policy makers and educational administrators. Just about everything I’ve read or heard on the topic frames it as a problem.
While acknowledging the significant budgetary and institutional challenges involved, it is also possible, shifting to the historical perspective provided by Joseph Kett, to view the swelling enrollments in a positive light. This new population is more diverse – especially by race and ethnicity – than most of those who have participated in these types of educational movements and institutions in the past. They represent an advance in educational opportunity, an example of educational democracy whetting the appetite for more access, more possibility, more of a chance to learn new skills, master new bodies of knowledge.
A phrase you'll read in educational tracts from right after the Revolutionary War and into the 1820s and 1830s is "the general diffusion of knowledge," a call to spread learning across the young Republic. Though expressed in sweeping terms, this democratizing of knowledge didn't apply to all, either by law or because of the realities of social stratification. Sam and company are pursuing their goals within the constraints of the social order as well, but opportunities are open to them that weren't there for their forebears, and they are embracing these opportunities.
There is much talk in our time of the United States becoming a “learning society.” Management consultants write about “organizational learning,” and adult development experts champion “lifelong learning.” The focus of this talk tends to be on professionals, and managers, and people with a baccalaureate degree and beyond – mostly members of the middle and upper-middle classes. But if we’re serious about our country being a learning society, then we need to include all of its members.
Will our colleges provide people like Sam, Dorothy, and Zoe with the kinds of instruction and services they need? Will there be decent work for them at the end of their journey? Will we give these students a vital second chance – and through them realize the second time around a broad-scale societal commitment to the general diffusion of knowledge? We live up to our egalitarian ideals when the answer is yes.