In every society around the world, adults are the primary decision makers and contributors to the communities they belong too. Community education has always acted as a necessary and vital part of giving individuals the resources, knowledge and experiences necessary to be active and connected members of their society. Community education’s impact is easily seen by investigating the differences in the past from modern community education opportunities on a formal, informal, and non-formal levels.
Throughout American history, adult education and community education have been closely tied in formal, informal, and non-formal settings. In the past, formal education’s role in community education has been geared toward the upper to middle class individuals and has primarily taken the form of intellectual, academic, post-secondary education. Opportunities for adult learners to benefit from these higher education programs have been severely limited by a variety of demographic factors, but especially the adult learner’s place in the higher education community (Kasworm, Sandmann, & Sissel, 449).
Today’s society has “heightened perceptions of the importance of the role of higher education in developing knowledgeable, literate citizens for a postmodern global society” (Kasworm, Sandmann & Sissel, 449). While the limitations posed by adult learners continues to “deemphasize this new majority and neglect adult learners” (Kasworm, Sandmann & Sissel, 449), there is far more opportunity today for increased diversity amongst the formal community education setting than there has in the past. This diversity offers unique perspectives and the sharing of experiences between learners that would have been limited by similar backgrounds and demographic information, such as age and race, in the past. According to Kasworm, Sandmann, and Sissel, “Universities are faced with embracing diverse groups of learners, new sites of learning, new forms and contents of learning and expectations to become engaged with the society that funds them” (p. 460). Community education’s place in formal adult education “can be the forum for adults to “acquire their political knowledge and skills” (p.146)” (Merriam & Brockett, 206). The increased demand for adults in the community to hold certifications and degrees provided by formal education opportunities are often necessary for career advancement, personal development, and impact the decisions made by community members in their everyday lives. In today’s world it is more important than ever to hold higher education degrees and certificates in order for adult community members to compete in the changing workforce.
The increased emphasis on formal education aside, informal experiences offered in a community of learners have shaped adult lives for all of time. From the beginning of time individuals have learned survival skills, societal expectations, and built relationships within their communities based on their informal learning experiences. The simple act of walking into a luncheon with other adult individuals is an informal community education experience. In the past, when formal community education opportunities were not as easily accessible to a majority of adult learners, informal community experiences helped individuals to find their role in a community, make decisions to support themselves and their families, and learn social skills that allowed them to contribute to their community. In every interaction and action performed throughout the day, adult learners are learning by experiencing. Nod Miller states that in the past, “A common assumption underlying much of the theory and practice of adult education is that adults learn throughout their lives, from their work and leisure, from their experience in social and domestic contexts, and from their personal relationships” (p. 72). Although this assumption was made, the importance of informal community education experiences as the first form of education, was neglected, offering very little support to the importance of the informal community learning experiences that shape adults (Miller, 72).
Informal adult education in relationship to adult education is more difficult to measure than the other two education forms but today is argued as having the largest impact on the community as a whole. Every experience an adult has is educating in some way, and this education in the community setting affects how adults interact, cope, communicate, function, and participate in their community environment. The change in attitude towards informal education is evident in Miller’s descriptions of “learning from experience” as he cites some of the functions that this informal learning leads too, including how individuals “make decisions about jobs, holidays, or life partners as a result of weighing up and processing elements of their life experiences and behavior” (Miller, 74). Without these educational experiences, adults would have little basis for many opinions that shape their contribution and relationship to the communities they participate in.
While informal education is the most common form of adult and community education, and formal education is often the most easily identifiable form of community and adult education, nonformal education is the form of community education that people are most likely to explore in a post-secondary development manner. In the past, many adult learners who completed secondary education relied on nonformal community education for professional advancement, personal growth, and a better understanding of the communities and world they lived in.
Nonformal community education takes a variety of forms. In the past, nonformal education was for some adults, the only way of receiving marketable skills which would assist them in procuring jobs and participating in the workforce. Nonformal community education programs offered at churches, agencies, shelters and libraries offered adults the opportunity to learn about their passions, interests, professional skills, religion, etc. These programs all had a functional objective and individuals gained skills and competencies they may not have otherwise learned. In many ways, nonformal community education results in “Communities…[becoming] the site of individual and social learning” (Ewert & Grace, 329).
Today, nonformal community education continues to be the most common form of community and adult education. Local libraries assist adult community members in learning how to use modern technology, assisting different generations in connecting with each other and local professionals in acquiring the skills needed to perform modern job functions. Community members of all ages are encouraged to take first aid courses in nonformal workshop settings, resulting in better prepared communities in the face of medical emergency. Voters are encouraged to attend forums where they can ask questions of candidates and gain more information about their party’s beliefs and objectives. The opportunities presented by these nonformal community education experiences are vastly diversified and are incredibly important in helping adult community members to grow personally, professionally, and also in assisting adult learners in forming opinions and making decisions. These community education opportunities “underlie development practice” and create “dialogue, critique and local ownership of the development process” (Ewert & Grace, 330). This form of community education “can be the forum for adults to “acquire their political knowledge and skills” (p.146).” (Merriam & Brockett, 206), resulting in communities that are better able to problem solve and make decisions.
Separating adult and community education is nearly and impossible task. All adult education is community education, and all educational experiences impact the individual’s community, whether in direct action or adult interaction. The impact of community education then and now has been an integral part in developing strong communities of well rounded, engaged and informed adults better able to be contributing members of the communities they belong too.
Ewert, D., & Grace, K. (2000). Chapter Twenty-One: Adult Education for Community Action. In Handbook of adult and continuing education (New ed., pp. 327-343). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kasworm, C., Sandmann, L., & Sissel, P. (2000). Chapter Twenty-Nine: Adult Learners in Higher Education. In Handbook of adult and continuing education (New ed., pp. 449-464). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Merriam, S., & Brockett, R. (2007). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction (Updated ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Miller, N. (2000). Chapter Five: Learning from Experience in Adult Education. InHandbook of adult and continuing education (New ed., pp. 71-86). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wilson, A. (2000). Handbook of adult and continuing education (New ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
As originally submitted for credit as part of the Corporate & Community Education program at Elmira College.