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The Rise of the Adult Education and Literacy System in the United States: 1600-2000

Volume 3: Chapter Two
Thomas G. Sticht

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In this chapter, Thomas Sticht provides a history of the U.S. Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) from Colonial America forward, outlining significant events, institutions and people. Sticht notes four themes that represent critical social forces involved in the formation of the AELS:

1) the role of the U.S. military in providing instruction and gathering information on language and literacy abilities of adults, which stimulated political action to benefit adult literacy education

2) a shift in adult education from a middle class activity for self-improvement to charitable education for the benefit of the undereducated and mostly lower economic classes

3) immigration and the need created by it for a system of adult education to provide instruction in the English language and American culture

4) the persistent debate over the role of adult education as liberal education versus human resources development

In addition to these recurring themes, Sticht points out the salience of the definitions of what constitutes "literacy" and who is considered an "adult" and how these definitions have changed over time.

In his historical overview, Sticht discusses adult education in the colonial and early national periods. He highlights the significance of the first commitment of government resources for teaching literacy skills to troops of the Continental Army and the Navy's participation in teaching literacy to seamen. Turning to the nineteenth century, Sticht reviews important milestones such as the development of the Lyceum movement, which served as a model for adult study and learning, as well as the rise of the national system of state-supported schools and the parallel growth in evening schools for youth and adults. The author also points out the growth of learning opportunities for African Americans during and after the Civil War. In addition, Sticht describes the rise of settlement houses that provided basic education and English language training to immigrants, serving as forerunners of community-based groups that provide ABE services today.

In examining the twentieth century, Sticht notes the rise of the Americanization movement, moonlight schools, and the development of numerous organizations and institutions that became involved in adult education in various ways. The author highlights the tension that became more pronounced, and continues today, over the role of adult education as liberal education or human resource development. Finally, he concludes the chapter by tracing the development of key federal legislation in support of adult education, from the Adult Education Act of 1966 through the National Literacy Act of 1991 and Workforce Investment Act of 1998.

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Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL