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Dewey, Martin, and Formative Years Adult Education Movement


Day, M., & Harbour, C.  (2010, May). John Dewey, Everett Dean Martin and the formative years of the American adult education movement.  Paper presented at American Education Research Association Conference, Denver, CO.

John Dewey, Everett Dean Martin and the Formative Years of the

American Adult Education Movement


Michael Day, Professor of Adult Education, University of Wyoming

Clifford P. Harbour, Associate Professor of Adult Education, University of Wyoming


To date, little connection is made between John Dewey, Everett Dean Martin and the formative years of the American adult education movement. Adult education scholars generally portray Dewey as indifferent to adult education. But, Dewey’s correspondence with a New York newspaper editor recommending Martin’s The Meaning of Liberal Education raises interesting questions about these two men and the adult education movement that evolved around them. Perhaps the most interesting question is why a strong advocate for grounding formal education on experience would recommend a book written by a man generally dismissed as an elitist committed to liberal education values? This study explains why Martin’s views may have resonated with Dewey and the values pertaining to adult education the two men seemed to share.


Those who are looking ahead to a new movement in education, adapted to the existing need for a new social order, should think in terms of Education itself rather than in terms of some ‘ism about education, even such an ‘ism as ‘progressivism.’ For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them.

John Dewey, Experience & Education (1938/1963), p.6

In March 1928, Dewey wrote to Marie Meloney, editor of the New York Herald-Tribune Sunday Magazine, and offered his recommendations on recently published texts on education. Dewey said, “I think the best educational books of recent publication are Bode, Modern Educational Theories … Kilpatrick, Education for a Changing Civilization … & Martin, The Meaning of a Liberal Education.” This was not the first time, Dewey recommended Martin’s book. In 1927, the editors of the Journal of the National Education Association approached Dewey and asked, “What book have you recently found especially worthwhile? Something that you have read easily, eagerly, and with profit – either in the field of education or out of it.” (Dewey, 1927, p. 60).  Dewey identified two books; one of them was Martin’s The Meaning of a Liberal Education.

Dewey’s repeated recommendation for Martin’s book is noteworthy.  To date, adult education scholars have failed to note substantive connections between Dewey and Martin. However, the absence of such an acknowledgement is not surprising.  Our initial review of Dewey’s collected works and his correspondence indicates that Dewey did not elaborate upon his recommendation, either to the editors of NEA Journal or to Marie Meloney. So, we asked ourselves, why did Dewey recommend Martin’s book?

Did these authors share important beliefs and positions about the nature and purposes of adult education?  How were their views, related or not, relevant to the development of the American Association for Adult Education?  This paper reports on findings from an ongoing, exploratory study that seeks to answer these questions based on a study of the published works of these two landmark education figures writing during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  To accomplish this objective, we have organized our paper in the following manner. First, we begin with a brief discussion of the Dewey and Martin texts we reviewed along with secondary sources consulted. Second, we provide focused but substantive descriptions of Martin and Dewey. Third, we report on our reviews of two major Dewey works to note their purpose and focus and point to traces of Martin.  Fourth, we examine Martin’s The Meaning of a Liberal Education to note its purpose and focus and then to point to traces of Dewey.  Fifth, we note their significance for scholars interpreting the texts of Martin and Dewey.

The Dewey and Martin Texts and Secondary Sources

Materials consulted for this investigation included primary and secondary texts as well as a variety of archival materials. We conducted initial electronic searches of Dewey’s correspondence and collected works seeking for mention by Dewey (or his correspondents) of Martin, other period adult education scholars, and the American Association for Adult Education.  We also conducted close textual studies of two of Dewey’s books because of their proximity to the publication of Martin’s book. The first was, The Public and Its Problems (1927). This text addresses material first delivered as a series of lectures in January, 1926. The second, How We Think (1933) was a new edition of a book first published in 1910. Other writings by Dewey were also consulted.

In the case of Martin, the primary text examined was The Meaning of a Liberal Education (1926).  However, we also relied upon interviews with people who knew Martin personally. We consulted critiques of Martin and other writings by Martin.

A variety of primary sources were consulted providing insights into the early years of the American adult education movement.  These materials included archival collections and publications pertinent to the formation of the American Association for Adult Education.

Secondary sources for this investigation included: (a) major treatments of the general history of adult education in the United States, including Knowles, 1962, 1977; Stubblefield, 1988; and Stubblefield & Keane, 1999; (b) works regarding Martin, including Day, 1990; and Day & Seckinger, 1987, and (c) interpretations of Dewey, including Boisvert, 1998; Dykhuizen, 1973; Hook 2008/1939; Ryan, 1995; and Westbrook, 1991.

Everett Dean Martin and John Dewey: The Lecturer and the Author

Everett Dean Martin

Everett Dean Martin was trained as a Congregational minister, graduating from the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago when he was 27. From 1906 to 1915, he ministered in Illinois and Iowa. During this time, he also married and had three daughters. Day (1990) noted that during Martin’s ministerial years, he was recognized as an inspiring speaker and a successful writer. Then in 1915, controversy engulfed Martin, he left the ministry, relocated to New York City, and remarried. From 1916 to 1936, Martin reemerged as a successful lecturer and writer, developing a substantial reputation via his association with the People’s Institute – a major center for adult education in New York City. He served as director of the Institute from 1922 to 1934. In 1936 Martin accepted a position as professor of social psychology at Claremont College, in Southern California. Five years later Martin suffered a fatal heart attack at 61 years of age.

Martin’s youngest sister Dorothy (D. Wasson, personal communication, September 20, 1989) remembered him, “As serious, sensitive, possessing a keen sense of humor, dark curly hair and big brown eyes. … I’ve heard that some people refer to Everett as an ivory tower elitist. But that wasn’t it.”  Wasson continued in her description of her brother noting, “he believed in the power of education. Everett was truly a humanist… He felt that everybody should have the opportunity to acquire an education.”  Wasson observed that her brother firmly believed that, “if you could just get people interested in education, you could raise the level of culture.”

Everett White, Martin’s teaching assistant at Claremont College and a successful university teacher himself, recalled Martin as a great communicator and adult educator. He recalled that Martin had an ability to make difficult ideas, “understandable to people without any previous philosophical or historical background or knowledge, which is I suppose what an adult educator ought to be.” (E. White, personal communication, September 20, 1989).

Family members and students were not the only ones who remembered Martin as an inspiring educator. Lola Jean Simpson, reporting for Harpers Magazine in 1929, described both her impressions and those of some audience members attending one of Martin’s Friday evening lectures at Cooper Union. One such impression of an audience member was, “Martin has a way of setting you thinking in new and adventurous lines about things happening right now in this country … Going to the lectures is the most interesting thing I can do.” (p. 778).  A similar endorsement of Martin was offered by Morse Cartwright, executive director of the AAAE from its founding in 1926 to its termination in 1949. Shortly after Martin’s death, Cartwright acknowledged Martin’s numerous contributions to the adult education movement in a memorial for readers published in the Journal of Adult Education.  He wrote, “Dr. Martin was the spiritual father of the American Association for Adult Education (1941, p. 324).  He continued, noting that Martin “served successively as member of [the AAAE] Council, of its Executive Board and Executive Committee, as its President, and as its Chairman” (1941, p. 324).

However, not everyone in the adult education movement supported Martin.  For example, Scudder Klyce, writing to Dewey in 1927, was “astonished” that he would recommend Martin’s book.  Klyce argued that Martin was “a cheap and sensational dogmatist on essentials.” With the passage of time, however, Martin has become viewed less as a sensational dogmatist and more as a puzzling or even paradoxical figure. For example, Stubblefield (1988) wrote that,

Martin’s attitude toward common people was paradoxical. On the one hand he worked with them for almost a quarter of a century, and he held out adult education as their hope. But on the other hand, he held them in contempt, did not believe them capable of governing themselves. (pp. 70 -71)

Whether one regards Martin as a notable author and inspiring or as others have claimed, dogmatic and paradoxical, the historical record confirms that he was a provocative figure who had a great influence on the adult education movement. Our objective in this paper is not to debate his reputation but instead to focus on his writings as these express his position on reflective thinking and then to note their relevancy to the works of another equally provocative figure, John Dewey.

John Dewey

John Dewey, perhaps, needs little introduction. His long and prolific life (1859-1952) established him as the most dominant educational theorist of the first half of the 20th century. In 1939, Sidney Hook published a superb book: John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait, that identified and discussed the major themes in Dewey’s work. Hook studied under Dewey at Columbia University and referred to his professor as “America’s philosopher” (1939, p. XX).  Hook noted that “In America’s intellectual coming of age, no person has played a more important role than John Dewey.” (1939/1980, p. 4). Dewey’s academic success was no doubt facilitated by an extraordinary intellect, a Yankee work ethic, and the benefit of great academic experiences (Ryan, 1995). After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in June of 1884, Dewey accepted a position at the University of Michigan as an Instructor of Philosophy. In 1886 he was appointed as an Assistant Professor and within the next month married Alice Chipman who was herself a recent Michigan graduate. Two years later, however, Dewey accepted a position at the University of Minnesota as Professor in Philosophy but then returned to Michigan as Chair and Professor of the Philosophy Department in 1889. Dewey remained at Michigan until 1894 and during this five years was very productive writing many essays and making many presentations to university, professional, and civic organizations. Dewey’s departure for the University of Chicago in July 1894 marked a critical turning point in Dewey’s work.  While in Chicago, Dewey published works on the application of psychology and anthropology to education and also co-authored his book, Ethics, with J. H. Tufts. During this period Dewey, “rose to prominence as the nation’s leading philosopher of education, a position he occupied until his death a half century later” (Ryan, 1995, p. 119). After making a series of lectures at Columbia University in 1904, Dewey accepted a position at the institution in early 1905 as a Professor of Philosophy.  Columbia was to be Dewey’s primary academic home for the next 25 years and the remainder of his professional life.  During this era, Dewey would publish hundreds of works, many related to adult education, though not specifically written about adult education.

When Dewey died in 1952, interest in his work receded and he was not reintroduced to most philosophers and educators until Richard Rorty published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979. In this text, Rorty (1979) asserted that Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey were “the three most important philosophers of our century….” (p. 5).  Placing Dewey alongside such philosophical luminaries as Wittgenstein and Heidegger greatly enhanced Dewey’s standing in the philosophical community and facilitated similar reintroductions throughout the humanities (e.g., Westbrook, 1991) and the various fields of education. Although Dewey has received only limited attention in the adult education literature, there are threads in this literature revealing his influence and also his attention to the works of adult educators, and most importantly for our purposes, Martin.

Seven years after Dewey’s death, a group of colleagues gathered at the home of Corliss Lamont in New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dewey’s birth. Their conversation about Dewey was audio recorded transcribed, and then published (Lamont, 1959).  Alvin Johnson, then 85 years old and a long time friend of Dewey’s, attended the meeting and was asked if Dewey ever talked about adult education.  Johnson’s response warrants a full presentation here.  He said, 

Not much. He hadn’t a consistent view of adult education. Sometimes he had the opinion that adults are after all children; and what applies to children applies to adults; and as with children, you have to spar around until you find that particular point in the child’s mind that has the germ of growth. So too with adults. He had very little use for those early notions that we had to develop specific types of teaching for adults. With the adult it is of overwhelming importance that the teacher believe what he has to say; that if the teacher has a passion for it, you might catch the adult that way. (pp. 114-115)

But, Johnson continued, “At other times… [Dewey] thought that adult education was a kind of misnomer; it was a way of spending time. He’d lose his interest in it entirely.” (Lamont, 1959, p. 115)

Johnson’s recollections about Dewey are supported by an independent review of some of Dewey’s major works.  For example, in the Public and its Problems (1927/1991), Dewey wrote that, “The period in which education is possible to an effective degree is that of childhood; if this time is not taken advantage of the consequences are irreparable. The neglect can rarely be made up later.” (p. 63).  This passage indicates Dewey believed, a least when writing this particular text, that by the time individuals became adults, habitual ways of thinking and behaving were very resistant to change. But, a great resistance to change is not the same as a lack of capacity and some have exploited this window of opportunity and then articulated Dewey’s position on adult education.

For example, shortly after Dewey’s death in 1952 Progressive Education produced a memorial issue dedicated to Dewey.  Herbert W. Schneider, a student of Dewey’s and then a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, discussed Dewey and his position on adult education.  Schneider (1952) wrote,

My general conclusion about Dewey as an influence in progressive education is that his greatest contribution lies in the field of what might be called adult education. I mean here not the courses which are given here and there to adults, but the faith in a process of reciprocal education among mature minds or at least among minds that aim at maturing. (p. 12)

Kenneth D. Benne was an adult educator who had recognized Dewey’s contributions to the field while he was still alive. Writing in the Adult Education Bulletin, in 1949, the year Dewey celebrated his 90th birthday, Benne recommended Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems as a worthwhile reference for adult educators. Benne was especially interested in Dewey’s reference to the conditions necessary for “democratizing modern life.” (p. 10). More recently, Angela Cross-Durant’s (1981) work in the Journal of Lifelong Education explained the connection between Dewey’s theory of growth and emerging lifelong education initiatives. Cross-Durant wrote, “The spirit of lifelong education may be traced in Dewey’s thought from the late 1890s through 1939.” (1981, p. 123).

In addition to these works, at least two dissertations have been published about Dewey and adult education.  Bogner’s John Dewey’s Theory of Adult Education and Adult Development was published in 1990. Stein’s dissertation, John Dewey and Adult Education was published in 1992.  Although each provides its own account of Dewey’s theory of adult education, neither was of direct consequence for this investigation.

Nevertheless, despite the presence of these works, adult education theorists have had relatively little to say about Dewey given the breadth and depth of his writings. As already noted, although Dewey was a prolific educational theorist (and extremely productive from the mid 1920s to late 1930s when the American adult education was taking shape) he is generally overlooked in the adult education literature. This limited treatment of Dewey is also something of a curiosity because his work place at Columbia University was only ten miles from the main offices for the AAAE, which were located on 5th Avenue.  Even today, leading adult education theorists (e.g., Knowles, 1962/1977; Merriam & Brockett, 2007; Stubblefield & Keane, 1994) usually assign a secondary or bystander role to Dewey.

The significance of these observations, of course, is that although Dewey and Martin were national figures, residents of the same city at the same time, working in closely related fields, and at least somewhat acquainted with the work of one another, adult education theorists have not yet combed through the various texts to see what conceptual relationships might link the two men together.  And, Dewey’s repeated recommendations of Martin’s book suggest such a search may yield intriguing findings and as we report below, it did. 

Selected Dewey Texts and Their Relevancy to Martin and Adult Education

The Public and Its Problems

The Public and its Problems evolved from a series of lectures Dewey delivered in January 1926 at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio.  The lectures and book were written during challenging years for Dewey. At the beginning of 1927 Dewey was a moderately healthy 66 year-old and four years away from retirement.  But, the same was not true for his wife Alice. She had been hospitalized and diagnosed with malaria two years earlier and never fully recovered.  She died in July 1927 after 41 years of marriage.

Dewey’s Kenyon College lectures were presented the same year Lindeman published The Meaning of Adult Education and Martin published The Meaning of a Liberal Education.  Both books helped introduce adult education to the general public and explained its relevancy for modern times. The challenges of modern times were a major issue addressed by Dewey in The Public and its Problems. The decade of the 1920s ushered in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution providing women the right to vote.  And, the decade was also a period of many changes leading to fear and intolerance.  Some of these changes were growing urbanization, expanding media and communications, and greater mobility in travel.  Additionally, there was a fear of communists and racial minorities reflected in the Palmer Raids, stricter immigration laws, and the growth of supremacist organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan.

The1954 edition of the book was 236 pages, with an index, a Forward written by Dewey in 1927 and an Afterword, written by Dewey in 1946. The book was organized into six chapters: (1) Search for the Public, (2) Discovery of the State, (3) The Democratic State, (4) Eclipse of the Public, (5) Search for the Great Community, (6) The Problem of Method. Dewey’s purpose for writing the book was to identify the public’s problems along with the conditions that brought them about. By the term “public”, Dewey referred to an association of people who make up a political state.  As he explained,

The public is organized and made effective by means of representatives who as guardians of custom, as legislators, are executives, judges, etc., care for its especial interests by methods intended to regulate the conjoint actions for individuals and groups. Then and in so far, association adds to itself political organization, and something which may be government comes into being: the public is a political state.  (p. 35)

What were the public’s problems? First, Dewey argued that some problems emerge simply due to the nature of the political state and the nature of human beings themselves. For Dewey, the political state was defined by the following traits: geographical boundaries, rules of law, respect for custom and tradition, and a tendency to treat certain members as dependents or wards of the state, such as children. Human beings, Dewey suggested, are likely the most dependent of all species (dependent longer upon a family unit for safety and nourishment) and this necessitated the need for education. Dewey observed that early learning within the human species is heavily influenced by culture and tradition and that human thought and behavior generally operate under a principle of least effort, that is, a person learns to expend just enough energy to address its basic needs. This principle combined with early cultural indoctrination, revealed why formative ideas and behaviors become habitual ways of thinking and doing and why, later in life, they are so difficult to change. This development of habitual ways of thinking and doing also explain why reflective thinking and the taking stock of behaviors often require a great deal of effort.

Dewey noted that two of the traits of the political state noted above (rules of law, respect for custom and tradition) easily create conflict amongst individuals.  This might happen for instance, when laws favor the interests of some over others and when ideas and actions challenge custom and tradition. When society is populated by a species naturally inclined to habitual ways of thinking and acting it inevitably will be challenged by (a) changing social conditions (urbanization, new immigrants, increased mobility, increases in leisure time, etc.), (b) technological changes (telephone, automobile, airplane, etc.), (c) changes in work (e.g., growth of factories and the mass production of goods), (d) changes in amusements (e.g., movies and radio), and (e) an increased sophistication of opinion makers and abilities to manipulate public opinions.

For Dewey, all of these changes posed special challenges to custom and tradition, to prior ways of thinking and doing things. The public’s response to these changes and challenges can be guided by “fumbling and groping” (blindness and accident) or by intelligence, “guided by knowledge of the conditions” (p. 34). Of course, Dewey favored intelligence as the best path to manage these changes. Examining society as it existed in the mid 1920s, Dewey observed that

the consequence of not applying intelligence to rapid changing conditions was leading to the enslavement of men, women, children in factories in which they are animated machines to tend to inanimate machines. It has maintained sordid slums, flurried and discontented careers, grinding poverty and luxurious wealth, brutal exploitation of nature and man in times of peace and high explosives and noxious gases in times of war. Man, a child in understanding of himself, has placed in his hands physical tools of incalculable power. (p. 175)

So what should people do when faced with these changes and challenges? Dewey argued for increased attention to how energetic and forward looking communities are sustained by active debate, discussion and persuasion. (We should note that the optimistic Dewey often found this vitality in small local communities.)  Most importantly for our purposes, Dewey claimed that active debate, discussion and persuasion could be attained through improved conditions under which inquiry (reflective thinking) can thrive and to find better means for the dissemination of such inquiry.  This, in turn, would help inform and guide the public’s thinking.

Although Dewey did not explicitly discuss adult education in The Public and Its Problems, observations about three human conditions are especially relevant to our discussion below.  These conditions are: age, habits, and learning and we address them now collectively. Dewey had reservations that education for grown-ups would have a great impact and his lack of confidence was due to the force of habits.  As we noted earlier, for Dewey, “the period in which education is possible to an effective degree is that of childhood.” (p. 63).  Accordingly, he cautioned readers that habits are formed early and affect the substance, depth, and openness of thought.  He observed that “Habit is the mainspring of human action, and habits are formed for the most part under the customs of the group” (p. 159) and he continued,

The influence of habit is decisive because all distinctly human action has to be learned, and the very heart, blood and sinews of learning is creation of habitudes. Habits bind us to orderly and established ways of action because they generate ease, skill and interest in things to which we have grown used and because hey instigate fear to walk in different ways, and because they leave us incapacitated for the trial of them. Habit does not preclude the use of thought, but it determines the channels within which it operates.  Thinking is secreted in the interstices of habits. (p. 160)

Still, despite Dewey’s reservations about the impact education could have for adults, he knew human habits can be changed and even dismissed. What we see in The Public and Its Problems, therefore, is a description and explanation of the context in which learning takes place and the challenges that are encountered if humans must work to change their habits of thinking.  And, this topic was a major focus of a centerpiece in Dewey’s work, How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process.

How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process

In her forward to the 1998 edition of How We Think, Maxine Greene noted that today’s technology driven schools are as much in need of Dewey’s guidance as were schools in 1910, when How We Think first appeared, and in 1933 when Dewey substantially revised the text. Dewey’s purpose in writing the text was to have teachers reflect upon their classroom practice and adopt instructional strategies fostering reflective thinking. Dewey argued for an approach to teaching built upon “the native, and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry….” (p. xxi).  Dewey felt conditions surrounding American schools needed to change.  He argued that schools prematurely stifled childhood curiosity and that students were not prepared properly for life’s challenges. Though written primarily for elementary and secondary schoolteachers, Dewey’s ideas are also relevant for university teachers and adult educators.

Though the book’s title is “How we think”, it could also be titled, “How we should think” (see page 280).  For rather than exploring the intricacies of human thought processes, Dewey placed thinking in the context of living and explored the what, why and how of thought. He began with a question, “What is thinking?”  Dewey stated that people think in a variety of ways: unconsciously, imaginatively, dogmatically, and reflectively. When people are awake (and sometimes when they are sleeping), thoughts occur randomly much as a moving “stream of consciousness”, a phrase popularized by William James.  A second type of thinking is encompassed within the idea of imagination (a mental picture of a thing not actually present). Next, there are unquestioned and accepted beliefs that people act upon daily. Included, Dewey wrote, are “all the matters of which we have no sure knowledge and yet which we are sufficiently confident of to act upon and also the matters that we now accept as certainly true, as knowledge, but which nevertheless may be questioned in the future” (p. 6). The fourth kind of thought (and the main focus of the book) is reflective thinking.  Dewey characterized reflective thinking as, “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends.” (p.9)

Dewey identified two important phases of reflective thinking: “(1) a state of doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty, in which thinking originates, and (2) an act of searching, hunting, inquiring, to find material that will resolve the doubt, settle and dispose of the perplexity” (p. 12).  For Dewey, this was the approach young children commonly adopted when confronting novel situations.  This was also the approach scientists used to explore unknowns. Reflective thought, according to Dewey, generally followed a pattern: “suggestion, intellectualization, hypothesis, mental elaboration of the idea, and testing.”  (p.107)

Throughout, this book, Dewey provided illustrations of current school practices that ignored reflective thinking on the part of students and teachers.  These practices, he argued, dull childhood curiosities.  For example, in Chapter Four, “School Conditions and the Training of Thought” (pp. 55-68), Dewey examined classroom pitfalls surrounding the development of skills, knowledge and reasoning.  In the case of reasoning, he observed, teachers generally tended toward too much abstraction and too much isolation of the subject matter.  In the case of skill development, he noted, there is often an overreliance on mechanical processes and the repetition of movements with little attention to context.  And, in the case of knowledge acquisition as this occurs in classrooms, Dewey stated that knowledge and understanding commonly do not go hand-in-hand.  A student could know something without truly understanding it.

Against this backdrop of common school practices, Dewey shared three examples of reflective activity in everyday life.  The first was a practical deliberation about the best form of transportation to use so as to arrive at a meeting on time.  Dewey described this as a decision involving “doing”.  The second was a reflection upon an observation made, a “why is that?” moment and examination.  Dewey’s third example involved an observation leading to experimentation. These three examples, Dewey asserted, represent how reflective thinking occurs naturally and he encouraged teachers to build upon these natural tendencies in students.

Dewey’s most challenging question for teachers was, “Why do what you’re doing?” If the answer was to help students grow, then Dewey provided a number of suggestions for teachers.  First, he said, know your subject matter well so you can concentrate on student learning.   This would help ensure teachers are not overly concerned about “what” they are teaching but “who” they are teaching.  Second, he suggested, be enthusiastic about your subject.  If a teacher is not enthusiastic about his subject, why should his students take an interest in it? Third, Dewey claimed that teachers should possess professional knowledge about student growth and development as well as pedagogic knowledge.  The point here, of course, was that knowledge of teaching alone would be insufficient to promote individual growth.  Fourth, Dewey said a teacher’s lessons should have direction, that is, teachers should know where lessons are going and develop ways to assist students in making connections between subject matter and past experiences. Finally, Dewey recommended that teachers seek balance in how they prepare lessons, integrating the practical and the theoretical, play and work, the mind and the heart (i.e. emotions), past and present, process and product.

At its core, Dewey’s discussion in How We Think was about “natural curiosity”, its significance in maintaining growth, and ways in which teachers design learning activities that nurture, ignore, or stunt natural modes of inquiry.  The promotion of growth was especially important to Dewey because, as he observed, as people age, habitual ways of knowing and doing become calcified, diminishing the need for either curiosity or reflective thinking.  People commonly become complacent and routines set in.  The only way to counter this calcification was to consciously and methodically guide learning, based on the learner’s experience, and the context that gave their life meaning.  In short, learning was hard work.  Children had the advantage of having a teacher.  Adults, on the other hand, had to note the two phases of reflective thinking and then follow the sequential practice described and explained by Dewey.

The Meaning of a Liberal Education (1926)

Everett Dean Martin was 46 years old and in his prime when he wrote The Meaning of a Liberal Education. Photographs of Martin during this period depict a self-assured middle-aged gentleman.  In 1926, the year Martin published this text, he also celebrated the tenth year of his affiliation with the People’s Institute and Cooper Union in New York City.  He was also a member of the executive committee of the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE), founded in the spring of 1926, was involved in structuring some small “Reader’s Round Table” discussion groups in a number of libraries in New York City, and was among the first troupe of teachers of adult educators.

The Meaning of a Liberal Education was Martin’s fourth book (the first three were The Behavior of Crowds: A Psychological Study (1920); The Mystery of Religion: A Study in Social Psychology (1924); and Psychology: What it Has to Teach You About Yourself and Your World. (1924). As was the case with Martin’s earlier books, The Meaning of a Liberal Education was composed primarily of individual lectures initially delivered in New York in the Great Hall of Cooper Union. In comparing The Meaning of a Liberal Education with Eduard Lindeman’s The Meaning of Adult Education, also published in 1926, Evans Clark, in a review for The New York Times Book Review­, considered Martin’s work, by far, the more compelling of the two. According to Clark, Martin “painted one of the most attractive portraits of the educated man in the gallery of modern literature” (1927, p. 1).

In the Preface to The Meaning of a Liberal Education, Martin explained that his purpose in writing the book was to help readers examine the meaning of education. He addressed three broad questions: (a) What is an educated person like? (b) How do they differ from the uneducated? (c) Do they think differently and, if so, why? A brief description of these questions helps highlight the relationship between this work, Dewey’s and their mutual interest in reflective thought.

What is an educated person like?

To answer the question, “what is an educated person?” Martin first provided his definition of education.  He contended there is essence, a deeper meaning to education when applied to adults.  For Martin, adult education was significant because, at its core, it is a spiritual revaluation of life, an awakening.  This awakening was completed, at least in part, by helping people to think reflectively.  Accordingly, Martin stated that the task of adult education

… is to reorient the individual, to enable him to take a richer and more significant view of his experiences, to place him above and not within the system of his beliefs and ideals. If education is not liberalizing, it is not education in the sense of the title of the book. I use the term “liberal” not in the political sense, as if it meant half measures, but in its original sense meaning by a liberal education the kind of education which sets the mind free from the servitude of the crowd and from vulgar self-interests. In this sense, education is simply philosophy at work. It is the search for the “good life.”  Education is itself a way of living. (Martin, 1926, p. viii)

This description showed that for Martin, adult education was more than the mere acquisition of information or a skill.  Instead, Martin contended that, “education must take into account the conditions of… [the learner’s] age. But the educated mind is not a mere creature of its own time. Adult education is emancipation from herd opinion, self-mastery, capacity for self-criticism, suspended judgment, and urbanity” (p. vii).  Accordingly, for Martin, adult education served as a catalyst for intense self-reflection and an opportunity to confront habitual ways of thinking.

For Martin, therefore, an educated person was an individual who knows his own mind, was at home with uncertainty, and recognized that he lived in an unfinished world.  As was the case with Dewey, context was an important aspect of learning.  But, Martin was quick to add – in Deweyan fashion – that adults are not shackled to culture or tradition.  Accordingly, educated adults were always works in progress and never finished products.  For Martin, adults discriminated amongst alternative views and behaviors, wrestled and struggled with ideas, and when necessary, were willing to expend the energy and effort critical thought and reflection demand.

Stated in other words, the educated adult, for Martin was the cultivated amateur. By this Martin meant an individual who was “competent and well-informed, but with all natural and human, wholly at ease with his knowledge and master of his technique; one whose thinking is play and whose mind does not squeak as it runs along.” (p. 66). Martin’s view of the spiritual quality of adult education was not confined to the professional thinker or philosopher.  This potential for an awakening was truly the birthright of all adults.

How do they differ from the uneducated?

When considering the differences between educated and uneducated persons, Martin offered a series of qualification.  Uneducated adults, he stated, were ignorant and passively accepted cultural beliefs and traditions.  But, he added, ignorance in children was tolerable, but not in adults.  Adults, he argued must prevail against ignorance.  Martin (1926) wrote:

We must overcome strong resistances before we may begin to learn some things. We keep ourselves in ignorance because there are facts and truths whose existence we prefer not to admit. The man who strives to educate himself – and no one else can educate him – must win a certain victory over his own nature. He must learn to smile at his dear idols, analyze his every prejudice, scrap if necessary his fondest and most consoling belief, question his presuppositions, and take his chances with the truth. (p. 21)

For Martin, passivity, docility, the unquestioning acceptance of the views of others was a cowardly way to live life. Recognizing that questioning can be a painful process it was a vital component of intellectual growth. It required that adults examine ideas and values that may have seemed assured and settled, opening their mind to uncertainty.

Martin, like Dewey, believed that human beings are predisposed to think and act routinely.  Habitual ways of thinking and doing are natural to the species; it’s one way to conserve energy. To do otherwise is to expand energy, and that takes effort. The cultivated amateur gladly expands the energy, though the outcome of new learning adventures is always unknown, always entails some risks. But these are not the only differences between those who seek adult education (seek to be educated) and those who do not. Martin identified four traits generally hostile to adult education and to an awakening to reflective thinking: “1) a genius for organization; 2) well known utilitarianism; 3) cleverness in finding shortcuts, and 4) a tendency to make propaganda” (p.6).

Genius for organization.  Martin suggested that adults commonly lose sight of the spirit of a concept or activity when drawn to a need to promote it to and for others. Before long the dynamics involved in these efforts, perhaps a new organization, usurp the essence of what the individual felt so committed to in the beginning.  Common values or goals soon tend to be guided by other issues such as maintenance of the association.  As examples, Martin noted the structures employed by organized religion and organized education systems. For Martin, the ends of the cultivated amateur should not be diverted or corrupted by issues surrounding organizational ends.

Well-known utilitarianism. Martin accepted on faith that an intellectual journey is worthwhile for its own sake; it has value because it aids judgment and discrimination. Adult education is “the art of making living itself an art. It is the achievement of human excellence; it transcends both the useful and the ornamental.  It is a way of life, just as truly as the religious life is a way of life, or the moral life, or the single life” (p. 12). Martin claimed that individuals are generally attracted to adult education because they believe it will primarily help them achieve utilitarian objectives. But, Martin believed, this led adult learners to overlook the spiritual quality of what education should also nurture – curious and reflective thinkers.

Cleverness in finding shortcuts.  As noted above, the type of education Martin prescribed requires time and commitment. Another trait of those generally resistant to applying the time and effort self-examination requires is impatience.  Martin (1926) observed, “we are an impatient people, always in a hurry” (p. 16).  Consequently, adults generally want to get in and out of an educational experience as quickly as possible.  Martin added, “what people want is education without effort, ready-made education” (p. 17).  As evidence, Martin shared examples suggesting individuals can achieve “an education” with minimal effort such as outlines of history, condensed books, and easy reading courses.

Tendency to make propaganda.  Martin (1926) addressed this point by observing that few people truly “know the difference between education and advertising…. Press agents are everywhere busy ‘educating the public’ for all sorts of objects; to respect the rights of vested capital, to give money to build cathedrals, to vote a straight party ticket” (p. 19).  The tendency for adults to accept propaganda as truth, to take someone else’s views as gospel, does not pass for education.  In fact, Martin stated that just the opposite was true.  Furthermore, this tendency to make and believe propaganda “serves to make people more superficial and opinionated that they were before.” (p. 19)

Above, we suggested Martin viewed adult education as an awakening, a growing commitment to think reflectively.  But, Martin recognized, that many adults resist this development. Therefore, Martin viewed commitment to reflective thinking as a significant accomplishment, a major achievement of the human spirit.  But, this view in particular sometimes leads Martin’s readers to view him as snobbish and elitist.  In his recognition that some individuals strive for increased understanding and exploration while others do not, he acknowledged that some adults are content with their beliefs, understandings and behavior.  In this state of unquestioning contentment, some individuals are not open to new ideas and therefore cannot be educated.  For Martin, an adult education,

…. has to do with insight, with valuing, with understanding, with the development of the power of discrimination, the ability to make choice amongst the possibilities of experience and to think and act in ways that distinguish men from animals and higher men from lower. The ancients thought of education as the attainment of the virtues, wisdom, courage, temperance, justice. It is the pursuit of that knowledge which gives self-mastery. It is an interest which is never exhausted, but grows always broader and richer. In consists not in learning tricks but in developing ourselves. It is a victory won in some secret chamber of the mind which gradually transforms the whole personality and reveals itself as an indefinable quality in every word andact. It is a spiritual awakening; and if this awakening does not come, a person is not being educated however much he knows. I think it is the inability to win this psychological victory, or the disinclination to make the effort necessary to it, that accounts for the fact that some people cannot be educated.  (pp. 42-43)

The above discussion already implies that some adults are more willing than others to cultivate their thinking and manage their passions. Adults who think reflectively think differently than those who drift along, passively accepting the ideas of others. They tend to discriminate. For Martin, the main differences between adults who think reflectively and those who do not include the following: willingness to doubt and suspend judgment; willingness to view intellect as tool for understanding; willingness to recognize the affect of the social environment on thinking; willingness to form their own judgments; willingness to struggle and wrestle with ideas; and willingness to employ scientific method.


So, why did Dewey recommend Martin’s book?  The answer, we believe, is that Martin’s view of adult education as a spiritual awakening truly resonated with Dewey.  Our discussion above confirms Dewey was an outspoken proponent of reflective thinking – a practice critical to a political democracy.  Because of Dewey’s experience in public education he directed his suggestions primarily to elementary and secondary schoolteachers.  What is certain, however, is that Dewey had an ally in Martin regarding (a) the importance of reflective thought, (b) the human tendency towards habitual ways of thinking and acting, and (c) the importance in stirring adult learners to systematically overcome their habitual ways of thinking and acting.

Dewey may also have greatly appreciated Martin’s passion as an educator as well as his “sparing around” approach, one that stirs an audience to pay attention and to take notice. And, like Dewey, Martin addressed education as a broad and essential dimension of human life and not as experience that was determined by the learner’s age, sex, or race.  Having said this, we are not at all suggesting Dewey and Martin were of one mind on other issues.  To generate reflective thinking, Martin generally would look backward to cultural heritage, good and bad. Heritage, for Martin, became the vehicle for self-examination and critique of contemporary social conditions. For Dewey, the catalyst for reflective thinking was contemporary social conditions. For Dewey, reflective thinking should have consequence, lead directly to a different way of acting. For Martin, reflective thinking was more of a private affair.  Martin also accepted that unconscious impulses work in mysterious ways and may contribute especially to questionable behaviors, as they contribute to “crowd behaviors”.  Dewey did not agree with this perspective.  For him, social conditions and the natural needs of the human species shaped behavior. Also regarding behavior, Martin seemed to primarily stress the impact of mind and emotion whereas Dewey tends to stress the unity of mind, emotion, and body. And, there are likely many more differences between the two men. But, this we do know.  Dewey repeatedly recommended Martin to readers.   Because Martin and Dewey were clearly interested in each other – there also are numerous references to Dewey in Martin’s book – we are more than justified in searching for evidence of Dewey’s influence on the American adult education movement.  In fact, as noted above, Dewey corresponded with many leaders of the AAAE.  Dewey was interested in them and their work.


Besides Martin’s The Meaning of a Liberal Education, Dewey also recommended another book to NEA Journal readers.  This was Jack Black’s 1926 autobiography You Can’t Win.  Black’s book described his life for 30 years as a petty criminal – half of these years in jails or prison. This may have served as a one-two punch by Dewey for readers of the Journal of the NEA. The intellectual struggle experienced by Jack Black contextualizes Martin’s central thesis in the Meaning of a Liberal Education. That is, Jack Black’s story is that of a young, articulate, sensitive youth who turns to a life of petty crime because of changing social conditions as well as a very human primal instinct for survival and satisfaction of needs.  For thirty years Black lived in an underworld and prison culture few adults could comprehend. By the time Black published his autobiography, he had accepted his past and learned how to manage his temptations and break ingrained habits.  Black had learned how to redirect his life.  Dewey’s interest in the Martin and Black books, therefore, is understandable as they each serve as social and individual extensions of his philosophical writing in The Public and Its Problems and How We Think.  That is, Martin’s The Meaning of a Liberal Education underscored the social challenges in becoming a reflective thinker and then articulated the passion needed to develop this ability.  Black’s You Can’t Win demonstrated that individuals can make major changes in their lives, but it’s not easy.


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