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Examing Core Values

Day, M., & Amstutz, D.  (2003).  Beyond philosophical identification: Examining core values in adult education.  Proceedings of the Adult Education Research Conference, (pp.91-96). San Francisco: San Francisco State University.

Beyond Philosophical Identification:  Examining Core Values in

Adult Education

Michael Day, Professor Adult & Post Secondary Education, University of Wyoming

Donna D. Amstutz, Associate Professor Adult & Post Secondary Education, University of Wyoming

Abstract:  Two issues regarding philosophies currently used in the adult education literature are examined:  the current classification system, and a basic assumption regarding parameters imposed on guiding beliefs.  Seven core values are suggested as alternatives: cultural custodianship, useful knowledge, spiritual connectedness, personal existence, individual/group growth, social reconstruction, and scientific scholarship


Values guide our lives and shape our approach to adult education.  They are our core beliefs about life’s meaning and purpose.  Mostly learned, values are formed by our upbringing, relationships with significant others, and the places we reside.  Each of us is a composite of varying values and, not too surprisingly, we carry those values into our classrooms.  In the adult education literature, discussions related to values commonly link them to specific philosophic traditions.  A reflection of this connection appears in the recent observation by Tisdale and Taylor (2002) that, “One’s educational philosophy is imbedded both in what one believes about teaching and learning and what one actually does in their practice” (p. 6).  Though we are in full agreement with the principle of what is being said, we are uncomfortable with suggestions that some set of philosophic traditions may actually exist and that it is they that guide practice.  Much like Rose’s (2001) observation that the classification of philosophies in adult education has become “reified and rigid” (p. 20) attempts to compartmentalize and identify philosophies often hinders critical analysis of guiding beliefs and predispositions.  As Dewey (1938/1963) cautioned over sixty years ago, preoccupation with ’isms (such as progressivism) impedes the serious discussion of issues and may actually limit truly reflective practice (p.6). This paper provides an alternative way of conceptualizing the connections between beliefs and practice.

In the following discussion, two issues regarding philosophies generally embedded in the adult education literature are examined:  the current classification system of philosophic traditions, and a basic assumption regarding the parameters imposed on guiding beliefs.  But, prior to this discussion, some contextual material is presented.  The area of educational philosophy has been of concern to adult educators ever since the founding of the American Association for Adult Education in 1926.  Two pivotal works appeared that very year: Eduard Lindeman’s The Meaning of Adult Education and Everett Dean Martin’s The Meaning of a Liberal Education.  Lindeman’s work has become source material for what is still called the progressive education tradition; the other, by Martin (1926), provided material for what is often still refereed to as the liberal tradition.  Ten years later Lyman Bryson (1936) authored the first adult education textbook, simply called Adult Education in which he articulated five functions of practice.  At this time a classification of philosophies was not provided but these five functions (also referred to as types) already resembled future philosophical orientations: Remedial, Occupational, Relational, Liberal, and Political.  Bergevin in 1967 acknowledged that varying philosophies of adult education existed but did not specifically identify them. Rather, he advanced his own “recognizing the value of preserving the uniqueness of individuals and groups within a reasonably discipline social context” p. 4.  It wasn’t until the publication of John Elias and Sharan Merriam’s Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education (1980) that adult education philosophies were generally categorized into six thought systems: Liberal, Progressive, Behaviorist, Humanistic, Radical, and Analytic.  For the past twenty years, this work guided our thinking about and discussions pertaining to adult education philosophies.

Classification Issues

As suggested above, the current classifications of philosophies in adult education such as those provided by Elias and Merriam (1980, 1994), as well as Merriam (1977), and Zinn (1999) may not be as useful and meaningful for adult education practice as alternative ways of conceptualizing the connections between our beliefs and practice.  A philosophical classification whether it is liberal, progressive, behaviorist, humanist, perennialist, essentialist, social reconstructionist, etc. seems to suggest that adult educators are already reflections of particular adult education philosophies.  In an introduction to a special issue of Adult Learning, Price (2001) reiterated the work of Elias and Merriam (1994) who conceptualized the six “enduring” philosophical traditions noted above.  An essential problem with identifying oneself as holding a particular philosophical orientation is that such a designation may not actually indicate the types of values a person holds.   Apps (1985) indicated that a problem of identification with one of the traditional philosophical schools of thought is that,

They can prevent analysis and original thought.  Once one reads through a description of these various philosophers, the tendency is to try to fit one’s own philosophy into one of these established philosophies.  Once one has done so, the inclination is to become comfortable with this new found intellectual home and stop questioning and challenging and constantly searching for new positions (pp. 72-73).

To say that one is a humanist (which many adult educators have a proclivity to do) does not indicate that that person might also hold specific spiritual values or that he or she also values social reconstruction.  This central problem with simple philosophical identification creates many misunderstandings.  For example, a human resource specialist may identify his or herself as a behaviorist but that label would not usually convey that the same person might also hold values of cultural custodianship.  To discuss values held instead of philosophical identification more clearly indicates to others a person’s worldview.

The philosophies typically identified in adult education are often placed in systems that preclude multiple ways of thinking.  For example some people classify essentialism and humanism as teacher-centered; progressivism and existentialism as student-centered;  perennialism as subject centered; and social reconstructionism as society-centered.  Another common classification places six philosophical orientations to teaching and learning on a continuum:

Teacher centered:                                                                                            Student-centered:

Focus on Subject                                                                                     Focus on Self and Society


Perennialism,  Essentialism,  Behaviorism,  Progressivism,  Existentialism,  Reconstructionism

However, we suggest that holding one set of beliefs does not eliminate the possibility of holding additional belief-sets.  Thus one can value reconstructionism and at the same time also value perennialism for its emphasis on development of timeless virtues such as justice and temperance.


Limited Parameter Issues

The philosophies typically identified in adult education are also placed in systems that commonly acknowledge only two dimensions of interactions, those between the individual and society.  Within a perennialist orientation, for example, one might suggest that a society determines proper moral, social, and political characteristics (often based upon its past values) and then consciously strives to develop these characteristics in youth via its educational system.  In an essentialist philosophy, society once more can be viewed as a determiner of contemporary values; but in this case formal education may be designed to assist individuals to be successful participants.   In a existentialist orientation, it is the individual, not the society, that is the major determiner of proper behavior.  We can go on; the point is adult education philosophies tend to only recognize potential tensions that exist between the social group and the individual.  But what about the relationship that exists between individuals, the societies to which they belong, and the natural world in which they reside?   It is time this dimension also becomes a part of the discussion pertaining to values and adult education practice.

Over twenty years ago, Cunningham (1982) indicated that people often hold contradictory and inconsistent views: “It is not problematic that inconsistencies occur when a thoughtfully conceived system of values is put into practice.  What is worrisome is that continuing educators develop and operate programs without a clearly visualized set of values in which the adult learner and societal well-being are central concerns” (p. 85) (emphasis added).  Brookfield (1998) in his discussion of moral learning in adults pointed out the “regressions, contradictions, repetition and confusion” (p. 5) that adults struggle with to determine moral decisions probably based on the values formed from both their positive and negative experiences.  These two examples indicate a problem with the ways in which we currently conceptualize philosophical orientations.  Both Cunningham and Brookfield acknowledge the contradictions one faces when critically assessing a value-oriented decision.

The current description of philosophies also seems to be particularly Western in orientation.  Philosophical systems need to reflect the broadening of views that many educators in our field have embraced.  For instance, if one holds a philosophy that values the unity she or he believes exists among all things (a common Native American and Eastern value), where is that reflected in the current system?  Eastern values (admittedly a generalization) often offer multiple viewpoints from which to critically assess one’s values.  The Eastern idea that wisdom begins with the inner world and then reaches to the outer world of action questions the Western world’s most basic commitments to science and rationality.  For example, Buddhism emphasizes harmony in the universe where one does not attempt to change forces.  Confucian, Hindu, Shinto and Taoist thought offer alternative value systems that need to be recognized as holding potential for Westerners to move toward more holistic philosophical views.  Native American thought varies widely among the more than 500 acknowledged tribes.  However, they seem to hold in common the value that pursuit of knowledge should be subordinate to a respect for the natural universe.  African thought also reflects vast diversity. Many African cultures hold a philosophy that values nonrational thought.  Feelings and personal relationships are viewed as important components in seeking knowledge and wisdom (Nieto, 1992).  Communal culture and working cooperatively with others rather than independently are values that underlie many African philosophies.   These desirable characteristics need to be reflected in our value systems.

Core Values in Adult Education

Given the problem within adult education literature discussed above, we suggest a different view of value orientations than those captured in existing philosophic rhetoric. Identified below are seven core values that either seem apparent in adult education practice or are sometimes implied:  cultural custodianship, useful knowledge, spiritual connectedness, personal existence, individual/group growth, social reconstruction, and scientific scholarship.  These values recognize varying interactions between individuals, the societies in which they reside and the natural environment that may nourish physical, moral, and spiritual growth.  These values can morph into prominence, can decrease with new understandings or lay dormant until an issue arises that promotes reconsideration of one’s values.  Following are brief descriptions of each of these seven core values.

Cultural custodianship.  This orientation conjures up ideas within a culture that maintains significance from generation to generation and from epoch to epoch, e.g. ideas about excellence, the good life, and life’s purpose.  There are specific ideas in a culture’s history and literature that articulate appropriate traits for that culture.  Adult educators with a cultural custodianship perspective typically stress ideas in the classroom.  These educators treat reverently the “higher” achievements of their culture (in art, history, literature philosophy, religion, etc.) and conclude that embedded in these cultural expressions are eternal truths.  Such educators likely encourage their students to develop their minds through challenging reading and discussion.  They may employ Socratic dialogue to foster disciplined thinking.  Examples of adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are Mortimer Adler, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, and Everett Dean Martin.

Useful knowledge.  This orientation stems in part from colonial times and stresses practical material.  It suggests there are certain skills and knowledge individuals should master to be successful in life.  Those who share these values may believe that teachers should be experts in their content area and know how to teach it.  Educators with a useful knowledge orientation commonly stress practical material they believe is useful in life.  Generally, these educators value concrete knowledge and skills more than abstract ideas.  They tend to utilize direct instruction as a primary teaching method, allow time for students to apply what they’ve learned, and frequently evaluate student progress.  These educators likely encourage their students to master course content; they frequently lecture, demonstrate, and check for understanding.  A few adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are Benjamin Franklin, Justin Morrill, and Booker T. Washington.

Spiritual connectedness.  This orientation is significantly different than the previous two.  Rather than an emphasis on culture (past or present, ideas or practical material) this orientation stresses the world humans did not create.  It stresses both the natural and spiritual world and the unity of all things.  It suggests there is an attitude and awareness individuals adopt to understand and feel their place in the world.  In this view, teachers should explore spiritual (not necessarily religious) things with their students.    Educators with a spiritual connectedness perspective commonly stress the unity they feel exists among all things.  Though they may recognize the material and cultural context of contemporary life, they also acknowledge the spiritual dimension of life.  They tend to emphasize connections amongst all things and design lessons that encourage time spent in communion with both the natural and spiritual world:  watching, listening, feeling, contemplating, and being.  Such educators likely spend lots of time outside their classrooms.  A few adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are John Muir, Chief Joseph, and Sitting Bull.

Personal existence.  This orientation stresses the individual, often viewed in opposition to the norms, values, and expectations of society.  This orientation stresses responsibility for choices made as acts of free will, views intuition and emotion as useful vehicles for understanding and accepts uncertainty in life.  Those who share these values may believe that teachers should provide lots of choices for student in order to minimize conformity.  Educators with a personal existence perspective commonly provide numerous options for students in both planning and attaining course objectives; individualized learning contracts may be very popular.  These educators feel especially uncomfortable with direct instruction, manipulating student behavior, and utilizing any form of standardized testing.  A few adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Malcolm Knowles.

Individual/Group growth.  This orientation views change as natural and progress as both inevitable and desirable, a continuing evolution of society fueled by new problems and situations.  Key to this perspective is the belief that the basic building block of learning is the previous experience of students and that education is a social endeavor.  People valuing this perspective may believe that teachers should develop lessons that expose students to new and novel situations/problems.  Educators with an individual/group growth perspective, commonly stress the evolutionary and social nature of learning.  They generally develop lessons that expose students to new and novel situations/problems, begin lessons by tapping into the previous experience of their students, and utilize various forms of group learning activities.  They may also treat truth as organic (i.e., constantly evolving) and apply scientific methods to problem solving.  A few adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are Susan B. Anthony, John Dewey, Eduard Lindeman, and James Adams.

  Social reconstruction.  Rather than satisfaction with the status quo, this orientation is often critical of behaviors adopted by the social group.  These individuals tend to seek forms of transformation by attacking their society’s power structures and its various vested interest groups.  Those who share these values may believe that teachers should primarily nurture and support skepticism and critical awareness.  Educators with a social reconstruction perspective commonly seek transformation in how students view their world.  They examine with their students (via critical discussions) the societal underpinnings that may support and nurture attitudes and behaviors, such as those that perpetuate injustices and inequalities.  They tend to also engage students in forms of political action to change these practices.  A few adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paulo Freire, and Myles Horton.

Scientific scholarship.  This orientation is rooted in the belief that positive knowledge (based on natural phenomena as verified by empirical science) is a more useful mode of knowledge than either theology or metaphysics.  Those who share this value believe that life should be viewed through a scientific lens and that teachers should adopt a scientific approach to instruction.  Educators with a scientific scholarship perspective commonly stress experimentation (for themselves and their students) and shape learning environments so students are more likely to achieve specific outcomes.  They also tend to begin instruction with clear expectations (instructional objectives).  Today, computer-aided instruction is often used to guide learning and provide instant feedback.  A few adult educators who seem to have possessed this perspective are Herbert Spencer, Edward L. Thorndike, B. F. Skinner, and Robert Gagne.


How educators apply these values to their daily practice is not always evident.  However, the same can be said of philosophic orientation.  It may not be that the identification of core values takes the place of philosophy; rather, the naming of the values on which practice is based provides a broader perspective to be identified, demonstrated and applied.  It is often suggested that an examination of values provides two opportunities for educators:  one is the opportunity to explore how consistent our teaching methods are with the values we have adopted; the other is the opportunity to measure our level of satisfaction with those values.  It can also be argued that such examination is one of the most meaningful activities in which adult educators can engage.


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