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Commonplace Book


Michael Day, professor of adult education, University of Wyoming

I originally completed On This Date: A Common Place Book for Teachers in 1998; you can access the entire work via the above pdf file.  It took nearly two years to complete and the only editor I had was me.  That was truly unfortunate because by the time I was ready to edit it thoroughly the software was no longer available; it was too big a project for a do over.  In 2011, I did rewrite the preface (below), but you’ll have to endure the typos.  Sorry.

Custodians of a Rich Legacy: Some Notes From a Commonplace Book


“I have never had illusions about the value of my individual contribution!  I realized early that what a man or a woman does is built on what those who have gone before have done, that its real value depends on making the matter in hand a little clearer, a little sounder for those who come after.  Nobody begins or ends anything.  Each person is a link, weak or strong, in an endless chain.  One of our gravest mistakes is persuading ourselves that nobody has passed this way before.” 

Ida M. Tarbell, 1939

The Beginning

In the summer of 1979, a small group of adult education graduate students at the University of Michigan (myself included) approached our department chair, Larry Berlin, with a request.  Having sampled the roots of the field of adult education in a general survey course, and fascinated by the evolution of adult education practice, we asked for additional opportunities to study our discipline’s past.   Since no graduate course in the history of adult education was offered, we sought Larry’s assistance.  He suggested we form an informal discussion group with no academic credit attached.  Larry was willing to help select readings and assist where he could, provided we read the assigned works and participated actively in the discussions.  We all agreed.  Within a few weeks, initial works were chosen, books were ordered, and plans were made to meet twice a month in the fall.  So began an adventure that lasted for many years and that was among the most meaningful learning episodes of my life.

Today, I cannot remember for sure which books we discussed first.  Vaguely, I remember The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Rosten, The Federalist Papers by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Democracy in America by Tocqueville and Twenty Years at Hull House by Addams.  However, there may have been others; we read so many works the next few years.  What I remember most was the relaxed setting (lounging on living room floors) and Larry’s selection of works I had not anticipated.  The group, like me, expected titles to have some immediate application to adult education theory and practice.  And they sort of did, but they did so via some lofty topics such as the purpose of government; the meaning of justice; and whether equality, freedom, democracy and liberty can all coexist in a society.  Usually, but not always, Larry generated some direct linkages between the readings and the field of adult education.  But it didn’t seem to matter.  More importantly, we were examining and reflecting upon the human condition.

In addition, Larry often provided some context for the reading.  If the discussion book was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Larry shared some thoughts on life in the American colonies preceding the Revolutionary War: social conditions, who did what and with what tools or information.  Larry also liberally sprinkled in speculation as to why things occurred as they did.  What emerged was the realization that history was neither remote nor inconsequential.  I also came to appreciate the youthful, dynamic nature of our nation.

Why Study the Roots of the Adult Education Profession?

Through these lively discussions, my relationship to the field of adult education gained depth and meaning.  Throughout our evening conversations, I learned to truly appreciate and celebrate the true essence of adult education — the nobility of the learning spirit nestled quietly within us all.

But, what practical benefit is derived from studying the history of adult education?  When I consider this question, three reasons come quickly to mind: such exposure ignites curiosity, embodies life’s fundamentals, and provides an adhesive for connectedness. Allow me briefly to explain.

Ignites inquiry.

I find it extremely difficult to approach history and not have my curiosity aroused.  For example, why couldn’t women in the United States vote in national elections until the 20th century; when and why were junior colleges constructed; why were American settlers allowed to take the land of Indian nations; what attracted so many people to the West?  History is the fascinating story of what happened when, where, and how, and is packed with speculation about why.  Unfortunately, when individuals are compelled to study history as the memorization of facts and events, tedium rather than curiosity often results.

Embodies life’s fundamentals.

Next, the study of history also embodies life’s fundamentals.  History is packed with relevance because it records the collective experiences of a people with much in common.  For example, those who fought for independence (American Indians as well as colonists), who attended to family and hearth, and who labored for social justice, all shared the basic insecurities surrounding life.  They commonly pondered questions regarding purpose, the seemingly endless challenges posed by social and technological change, the demands of family and community, and the always fragile balance stemming from the desires of the individual and expectations of social groups.  Though each experience remains unique to time and place, still, challenges confronting life are strikingly familiar.

To this end, I nudge students in my foundation of adult education course to read biographies.  Biographies add “living flesh” to the study of historical periods, serve to trigger inquisitiveness, and assist in connecting people to events and to each other.  A biography of Frederick Douglass, for example, covers nearly the entire 19th century (1817-1895) and brings to center stage the industrialization of this nation, education, civil strife and social issues of equality for African-Americans and for women.

I also ask students to construct Personal Timelines. In the Timelines, students are encouraged to consider their own life against the backdrop of historical and personally significant events. They are also challenged to examine their family histories and to connect family members to the historical happenings of the past.  Genealogy can help link us meaningfully to the past:  was grandmother alive during the 1920s and if so what were (are) her recollections. Attention to our ancestors can truly humanize the study of history.

Serves as an adhesive for connectedness.

Thirdly, history provides a natural adhesive for connectedness amongst people, events, technology, and social decisions.  Consider for a moment ones proximity to the actual roots of our society’s government, laws, manners, and approach to education.  Some of you may only be four to five life spans removed from the American Revolutionary War.  Take the children of John Dewey for example.  Dewey lived from 1859 to 1952, his father fought in the American Civil War, and his father’s father may have lived during George Washington’s lifetime.  Dewey’s life intersected with such notable figures as Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) who was forty-one years of age at the beginning of the Civil War, and Anthony was six years of age when Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of The Declaration of Independence, died.  We are a young nation!

I tend to believe a major source of disinterest in the history of one’s profession rests with a general disinterest in history.  Over time, far too many adults absorbed the sensation that history lacks pertinence, that history offers little more than a laborious listing of events.  Tedious hours spent in uninspiring history classes contributed to a sort of “history myopia” that some individuals carry over to their profession.  This sentiment is unfortunate because history, like life itself, is packed with relevance!

Constructing a Commonplace Book

Beginning with my participation in Larry’s discussion group, I developed a keen interest in connecting the general spirit of adult education to other movements in education, including preschool, elementary, secondary, and higher education.  In addition, I was drawn to the role of education in the general achievements of the human spirit, both in the enrichment of life and in the promotion of increased opportunities for others to do the same, regardless of gender, race or class.  In part, these interests shaped On This Date: A Commonplace Book for Teachers, best described as a modern commonplace book. (Available as a pdf file)

Today, we do not hear a lot about commonplace books, but during the 18th and 19th centuries they were popular with “privileged” men and women.  The books took many forms.  On the surface commonplace books appeared as a cross between private diaries and collections of popular quotations.  Indeed, generally they were personal undertakings that recorded significant moments in people’s lives as well as significant thoughts copied directly from the writings of others.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, recorded quotations from Milton and Shakespeare in his commonplace book.  But, a commonplace book was often more than a simple recording of events and other peoples’ thoughts; captured within its pages were personal insights.  Like a carefully prepared photo album that brings together images associated with affection and remembrance, a commonplace book could pull together inspiring ideals.

During my personal journey to understand the meaning and significance of adult education, I have come across some very remarkable people.  I view them as neighbors of sorts.  They range from theorists and writers such as John Dewey and Mortimer Adler to the many men and women who fought or continue to fight specifically for social justice, for example, for a more level economic playing field so the democratization of educational opportunity could become more real than imaginary.

From those who first shared their homes, their land, with settlers from across the big water (like the Powhatan nation of the land that became known as Virginia); to the early settlers who cared deeply about justice in a new world (like the Puritan Anne Hutchinson, punished, excommunicated, and banished to the New England wilderness for her beliefs); to the early patriots who sacrificed security for principle (Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington); to the cries of “Liberty for All”, regardless of race or gender (Frances Wright, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth); to all the social reformers, including school reformers, who experimented with, promoted, and even risked personal comfort for ideals (Horace Mann, Robert Owen, Maria Montessori, Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Cesar Chavez, Helen Hunt Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Abiko Kyutaro, Myles Horton, and so many others).  From them all, a rich legacy emerged, and adult educators are the custodians of this legacy.  A commonplace book seemed a natural place to record moments from and expressions of this legacy.

Further, like some of you, I enjoy listening to a variety of music, including rock and classical.  I especially enjoy programs that recognize specific composers and performers on their birthdays and attempt to weave and relate historical events to works of music.  Such programs, for me, tend to celebrate both life and music.  Yet, though I enjoy such programs, they also serve as a minor source of frustration.  Unlike the radio announcer, I cannot, on a daily basis, identify individuals from the legacy of adult education noted above, and celebrate their achievements.  This too is why I decided to construct a commonplace book; at my fingertips would be a ready resource to guide remembrance of those who accomplished much during their lives.

Over the years I have identified more than a thousand individuals, events and writings that embody our adult education legacy.  These illustrations have not come primarily from the deeds and histories of individuals commonly associated with the teaching of adults.  Rather they come from individuals whose thoughts and deeds go to the very core of what it means to live and to learn in a society that professes “liberty and justice for all.”

Roots of the adult education profession.

The roots of the adult education profession branch out in a number of directions.  Foremost, for many adult educators, are theorists who have contributed to understandings associated with best practice. However, these roots stretch in other directions as well.  Adult education in a democracy guided by the original principles of the Declaration of Independence and made increasingly inclusive during the past two hundred years implies that all people (regardless of gender, race or social class) are created equal.  All are entitled to certain rights: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equal access to learning (the best practice adult educators can provide).  Therefore, the roots of adult educators also include those who fought for social justice and equality of opportunity without whom daily educational efforts ring hollow.

Educational roots also include a host of people who recognize that learning throughout life is not just a luxury for the few, or a when-I-get-to-it or a what’s-in-it-for-me proposition.  Rather, it is an obligation that free people assume and must value.  Over fifty years ago Harry Overstreet suggested in The Mature Mind (1949) that the true business of us all is to mature:

To mature psychologically as well as physically, to mature along the line of what is unique (in us all) and what we healthily share with others who also continue the maturing process throughout life.  This is the maturity concept.  This is the concept that challenges us in the twentieth century, and that offers us hope.


What Overstreet emphasized shortly after the end of the Second World War, remains true today.  Roots of the adult education profession include those who have made lifetime learning a priority; included would be people like Jane Smith, Alain Locke, Paulo Freire, Malcom Knowles, and Ida Tarbell.

Also, the roots of adult educators include those who fought valiantly to protect their culture from intrusion and encroachment of chauvinistic peoples: American Indians such as Chief Seattle, Sitting Bull, and Chief Joseph.  The historical record teaches us is that a nation is as capable of belligerence, arrogance and cruelty, as it is of greatness.


Custodians of a Rich Legacy

As implied earlier, we, as adult educators, are custodians of a rich legacy. What is to become of it?  In part, this is why I set out to construct the commonplace book:  to capture the richness of our collective heritage and to serve as a daily reminder of work still to come.

For me, the commonplace book serves as a daily conduit to the past.  It seeks to capture the human spirit and personal triumphs of the adult education profession.  It is designed as a calendar with daily references to the birth or the death of individuals whose lives illustrate principles by which our nation has grown.  The book summons the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s graceful phrase, and it allows these voices to be heard repeatedly.

Also included in the commonplace book are quotations and images (scanned drawings) of a number of individuals I find especially interesting, and a selected chronology from 1700 to 1999, highlighting events nationally, socially, and from the field of adult education; a complete list of sources for both the images and the quotations is provided.  Finally, a selective name index and life span chronology are provided at the end of the commonplace book.

A diverse group of individuals are included in the book; from corset makers to industrialists; from naturalists to classicists; from utopians to scientists; suffragists, ministers, university professors, migrant workers, librarians, nurses, diplomats, etc.  Taken as a whole, this group may help expand the connectedness of adult educators to their roots.  I do not wish to imply, however, that those whom I have selected are more significant than those whom you might choose.  I encourage you to add freely to the selection and thus personalize the book.

Many themes are woven throughout the commonplace book, but those that speak most directly to me stress understanding and humility, acknowledge doubt, and promote reflection and growth throughout life.  I appreciate educators who acknowledge all they do not know, who model inquisitiveness, and who view themselves, as did Ida Tarbell, as a link in an endless cultural chain.  Symbolically, it is the torch of doubt, questioning, and understanding that adult educators hold, not the torch of truth.  Gathered together within the pages of this commonplace book are individuals who often dared to doubt and dared to question.

In closing, adult education is a very special profession.  Resting upon the shoulders of all adult educators are the dreams and hopes of many who have gone before.  Though aspirations of the past may rest gently upon their shoulders, adult educators should not mistake softness for the task before them.  Adult educators possess the strength and tools to continue constructing more just and more mature social environments. They (we) are indeed custodians of a rich legacy.


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