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A Journey Through the Emergence of Adult Education

The model used for adult education was popularized and broadly applied during the pandemic, but distance, flexible learning isn’t appropriate for all populations, and its effectiveness is lessened if the school has no experience with it.

Before becoming president of Thomas Edison State University in 1982—a role he held for 35 years—Dr. George Pruitt was an executive vice-president at CAEL. In his new book, From Protest to President, a Social Justice Journey through the Emergence of Adult Education and the Birth of Distance Learning, Dr. Pruitt describes CAEL as a movement and reflects on his leadership roles in much larger movements, from civil rights to the adult learner movement from which CAEL, Thomas Edison State University and several other adult-focused institutions sprung. Dr. Pruitt recently spoke with CAEL about his book for our blog, and he will participate in a “fireside chat” webinar with CAEL president Earl Buford in February. I hope you will join us. In the meantime, below are some thoughts we asked him to share with our EvoLLLution audience.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you decide to write the book?

Dr. George Pruitt (GP): It was at the urging of a lot of friends and colleagues who kept saying, “You need to write a book.” I’ve spent over 50 years in experiential learning, and I’ve built up quite a portfolio. What do you do with that portfolio? You pass it on, so it can benefit other people. I hope there are things in my story that will be instructive and useful to others.

Evo: You write about how CAEL and several institutions dedicated to adult learners were all born from the same movement. How did your time at CAEL help prepare you for your longtime presidency at Thomas Edison State University?

GP: CAEL should get more credit for a lot of important research on characteristics and attributes of adult learning. If you look at the work of K. Patricia Cross, Harold “Bud” Hodgekinson, Arthur Chickering, Malcolm Knowles, Morris Keeton (and I could go on), that literature didn’t exist before CAEL. When institutions like Thomas Edison, Empire State, New York Regents and Minnesota Metropolitan were created, they weren’t just pulled out of thin air. The things they did were based on a very solid body of research on adult learners.

I worry about the institutions that were not born out of the CAEL movement but decided to serve the adult learner market. They’re not grounded in the fundamental research, which is the tent pole for the adult learning movement. If not for CAEL, that tentpole would never have been created. 

Evo: How do you see the adult learning movement supporting the broader effort to advance social justice?

GP: One of the bedrocks of social justice is equity. If you follow the logical extension of that, the future and quality of our nation are based on our citizens’ human capital. How can you have a great future if you’re leaving a good part of the citizenry out of the capital development process? I don’t believe that everybody necessarily has to go to college, but everybody needs access to institutions that develop their human capital to the limits of their potential. The idea that that’s the province of 18- to 22-year-olds, and just 30% of the population, doesn’t make sense. You want to have the rest of our society—age, race, gender, all of that—involved in the human capital development enterprise. The whole adult education movement is a matter of societal survival and social justice.

Evo: CAEL was founded around credit for prior learning. Although we have a long way to go to see CPL reach its full potential, you stress the importance of continually adapting. What excites you about the future for CAEL?

CAEL has an extraordinarily bright future finding meaningful ways to develop capacity in our population and workforce. If you’re into workforce development and training, why would you want to spend time and energy teaching people things they already know? It makes sense to have some kind of prior learning assessment mechanism to understand what the starting baseline is for different people. CAEL’s ability to apply its concept of continuous learning in various forms that, once assessed, can be applied so people aren’t treated as templates is a wonderful arena to continue leadership and apply beyond higher education.

CAEL needs to stay in the quality assurance business because there has been great abuse of prior learning assessment by practitioners who don’t understand it. Every time I hear someone say, “credit for life experience,” I cringe. I’ve seen good, well-intentioned people in charge, who don’t know how to do it well, then it loses credibility and the abuse tarnishes the entire enterprise. CAEL needs to stay at the forefront and be aggressive in advocating standards, so practitioners can understand what’s good practice and what isn’t and be unapologetic about calling out institutions and people as needed.

One of the good and bad things about the response to the pandemic was distance education. People have seen that applied to the wrong student constituency. It was never intended for school-aged kids, and I’m afraid that that’s going to tarnish remote learning because it’s not effective for them. That’s unfortunate because, like any tool applied appropriately and correctly, it’s extraordinarily effective. All the research and data show it is. CAEL needs to be in the discussion about differentiating good practice among different constituencies and applications and stress the importance of committing to quality and standards, so these practices aren’t abused or lose favor.

Evo: You write about the apparent gap between what students study and the careers in which they end up. Given your points about higher ed’s role to build individual capacity and develop soft skills, which employers continue to value within a rapidly evolving workplace, do you think this gap and the “Is college worth it?” debate are misunderstood?

GP: The last time I looked at the data—and it’s been a while—27% of the people in the United States had occupations related to their undergraduate major in college, which means 73% of us—including me—had careers that had absolutely nothing to do with the discipline they studied in college. Something colleges do, which I’ve worked against for as long as I’ve been in higher education, is expect 18-year-olds to know what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. Colleges don’t do anything in the intervening period to help them figure that out. That’s one of the biggest anxieties college graduates experience. Something we did at Morgan State that I’m proud of changed this. Usually, you’d go to the placement office as a senior to find a job. We created the Center for Career Development, but we started working with freshmen to try to align their interests and aptitudes with careers they might explore. You want graduates to be educated, not only in their studies but also in who they are, what their talents and assets are and how they fit into the world of work. Very few colleges do that—but they should.

Evo: On the other hand, do you think colleges could do more to tangibly link their programs with work-relevant skills?

GP: Yes, I think colleges could do a lot more to align their students’ competencies and interests with the world of work, so the college experience becomes much more efficient in helping students narrow or expand their options. I love what I did, but if I didn’t go the way I did, I thought hospital administration might have been a good area for me, too. I love the sciences, health care and all the things involved with it. But I also have an aptitude and love for managing large, complex organizations. I’ve been on several hospital boards, and I thought this would have been a fun place to work because it married my skills and talents and interests. I’d never heard of hospital administration in college or growing up. I didn’t know there was a profession and a separate skill set for that. There was this professional community I would have loved to join that I had no clue existed. Most college students are naive and stunted in their understanding of how broad and diverse the world of work is—and how they fit into it. That’s something colleges need to attend to, and few of them do. The technical schools do a better job of it. CAEL can be a catalyst to work in that area.

Evo: Do you think colleges should embrace the rise of work-based learning as a both/and opportunity to align programs and build partnerships or as an either/or risk to their traditional business model?

GP: I think it’s an opportunity. Enlightened corporations understand the value of workplace learning. The old AT&T, Ma Bell, had enormous investments in workplace learning. In the book, I mention that the HR vice-president of Illinois Bell told me they assumed that a college graduate had no skills useful to the phone company except the ability to learn. They would then teach you the phone company. They had a special investment in workplace education, and they were one of CAEL’s early corporate partners because they understood what CAEL was trying to do and embraced it.

When I was at CAEL, the data showed that there corporations spent more money on postsecondary education than all the colleges in the country combined. Corporations have always understood the need to educate and train their workforce. They also understood that the quality of their workforce was their major competitive advantage. They’ve always invested in it, and CAEL has a future as a bridge between the two sectors.

Evo: What gives you the most hope for the future of postsecondary education?

GP: My optimism comes from the fact that usually when the country gets stressed, it responds and reacts in positive ways. If you look at the arc of the country, it had some dark periods, but the resilience and reliance of the American people and the institutions they support is evident. Over time, when the ship gets knocked over, it rights itself. I do fundamentally believe and hope in the collective wisdom and energy of the people of this country—that when they are tested, they respond and rise to the challenge.

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