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The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990.

Adult education in America has traditionally attracted little interest among scholars and except for the works of Herbert B. Adams and Charles R. Mann, written nearly a century ago, no historian until now has provided a comprehensive history of the subject. Initially, Joseph F. Kett did not set out to write such a history but he has responded to this need and has succeeded admirably in writing the first in-depth history of adult education from the late colonial period to the present.

Kett limits his study to what Americans defined broadly as self-education, which is described appropriately in the title as "the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties." Historically, adult education is linked to the tradition of self-improvement which has a long and complex history in America. As Kett indicates, it encompasses everything from gentlemen's clubs and mutual improvement societies in the eighteenth century to mechanics' institutes, library societies, women's clubs, the Chautauqua Assembly and its offshoots, university extension programmes, correspondence schools, all in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and most recently to corporate training programmes and community college adult classes.

Over the two hundred and fifty years that provide the context for Kett's study, adult education has undergone a number of transformations. In the colonial period, as Kett documents, formal schooling was limited and even under the best of circumstances the education of Americans was discontinuous. To the extent that Americans could regard themselves as educated this meant that they were largely self-taught. Yet, the lack of opportunities for formal education in no way dampened Americans' desire to become educated. Colonial Americans were inspired by the same ideals of classical and Renaissance learning that played so central a role in European culture and, in America, such learning was a mark of urban civility and gentleman status.

In post-revolutionary America republican and democratic sentiments inspired the growth of adult education as well as mass public education. In their wisdom and patriotism republican educators grasped the importance of educating the country's citizens and preparing the most talented of them for public service. As in the previous period, the most popular kind of education stressed the traditional liberal arts curriculum. Most educators believed that the rigorous study of literature, history, and philosophy trained the mind and elevated the soul. Others debated the pros and cons of liberal as opposed to more "useful" kinds of knowledge, particularly in the context of their efforts to create some kind of universal education. By the early nineteenth century the debate over the content of adult education centred on the desire to extend educational opportunities to the growing industrial classes. The most prominent educational reformers of this period aimed at democratizing education. Leaders like Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Benjamin Rush all agreed that there was no intrinsic conflict between liberal, useful and even popular education. Eventually the desire to open higher education to the common people led congress to pass the Morrill, or Land Grant College, Act in 1862. This landmark legislation represented the first national effort to provide "liberal and practical education" to the "industrial classes." The nature of the relationship between these two forms of education, as Kett well states, was left deliberately vague and as the succeeding decades proved, Land Grant Colleges were less than successful in developing scientific education in relation to agriculture and mechanical arts. Enrolments at most of these institutions lagged below capacity throughout most of the remaining decades of the nineteenth century and the majority of students pursued traditional liberal arts programmes.

Significantly, the Land Grant Colleges attracted a proportionately large number of women. This was part of the general trend throughout this period and by the 1890s, women made up 36 per cent of all college students and they were among the most prominent leaders as well as the largest clientele of adult education.

Kett's treatment of the role of women in adult education is one of the best sections of his book. He clearly demonstrates their prominent role in all the important institutions of popular education in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. A central aspect of Kett's treatment of the influence of women in adult education involves their decisive role in the Chautauqua Assembly and its offshoots including the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Clubs, the first national experiment in correspondence education. Kett notes that by 1894 the C.L.S.C. had 225,000 students enroled in correspondence classes. This clearly marked a new interest in adult education and, for women especially, it demonstrated that literacy was seen as the first step along the road to self-improvement and equality. Kett traces the influence of women in the seminal transformation from the nineteenth century preoccupation with self-culture and the Arnoldian conception of culture-study as a means of enriching and elevating the mind to the more relevant study of social issues and the reform of society. This led to the educational programmes of the progressive era that were more sensitive to the immediate needs and interests of the people. Accompanying this trend was the widespread interest in vocational education, a trend that led, ironically, to the growth of public adult education as a form of private enterprise and the selling of knowledge as a commodity.

Kett's study breaks new ground in social and cultural history and it will prove useful and interesting reading to a variety of specialists in these areas. It should also be of interest to educators and educational planners, especially legislatures and university and college administrators. Although Kett provides a well researched history, with a thorough analysis of the issues, his treatment is not always balanced. His excellent discussion of the role of women in adult education stands in sharp contrast to his scant treatment of the efforts among blacks to acquire adult education and training. Kett devotes barely one paragraph to Booker T. Washington and his historic Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Surely, the struggles of no other group in America better capture the meaning of Kett's title. Indeed, for them we might add that the pursuit of knowledge took place under the greatest of difficulties.

Kett's book is eloquently written and well organized. There is, however, considerable overlap between several of his chapters and he has a tendency to return to topics already covered. Chapters four through seven, for example, cover roughly the period 1820-1930; yet, they do not present to the reader a clear chapter by chapter chronological progression. Kett chooses instead to treat a series of related topics in an overlapping and repetitive chronological sequence. Thus, chapter five spans the period 1870-1900; chapter six covers the period 1890-1900 and chapter seven returns again to 1870 and carries the discussion forward to 1930. This organization works well if readers follow the entire text in several sittings but for most readers it will, no doubt, result in some confusion, if not frustration.

Graham Reynolds University College of Cape Breton
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Author:Reynolds, Graham
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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