Malcolm Knowles Biography

Malcolm Knowles

This is a fascinating biography of Malcolm Knowles, full of personal details that add valuable context to understanding of andragogy as a theory and set of guidelines for practice. Several biographies alluded to his background in Scouting, but this was the first I remember reading about the specifics of his winning a trip to the International Jamboree:

His campaign for the scouting prize had not been hit or miss. He had developed a technique that would help him compete effectively. He drew a large chart with a separate square for each day of the nine month contest. In these squares he systematically planned out the activities he would perform during the year to win the badges. Finding a technique that worked for him, he was convinced it could work for others. “My mother trained me to be systematical,” the sixteen-year-old Malcolm told readers of Boys Life, the scouting magazine, as he shared with them the self-directing technology that won him the trip. “Make your chart this way, fellows, and you will see how easily you can get your ‘fifty.'” He laboriously and mechanistically delineated how to do it. “My original chart, “he told the scouts, “was made out of beaverboard, two by three feet. I had it nailed at the foot of my bed, where it was the first thing I saw upon waking.”

The article also contains some interesting background on Knowles’ experience at Boston University.

His graduate program prospered. Student numbers proliferated. The fact that Knowles, with the help of a tiny adult education faculty, was supervising an extraordinarily large number of dissertations and theses, however, did not set well with many Boston University academics who questioned the granting of degrees for self-directed, or as they might have termed it, undirected learning. Knowles was carving out a national image for Boston University in adult education. Soon, though, a new administration dedicated to a traditional view of graduate work and scholarship questioned whether the reputation Knowles was building was the one that the administration favored for the university.

In the midst of his triumph, his beachhead in academe came under withering fire in 1972 from higher ground, the top administration at Boston University. The new president, John Silber, was unimpressed with andragogy. It seemed to him that too few professors were supervising too many dissertations, that the graduate program in adult education was structured more for students to learn from each other than from the professors, and that democratic process was more valued than intellectual discipline.

The article is posted on the site of the Adult Education program at National-Louis University. The program is unusual, if not unique, among US doctoral programs because of its clearly articulated philosophy of practice:

The ACE Doctoral Program, offered within the College of Arts and Sciences, provides a forum for critical reflection on adult education practice. The future of our economy, and of democracy itself, rests on an informed and critical populace. Weekend and residential sessions, together with web-based support provide the resources for educators of adults–teachers, organizers, trainers and “grass-roots” activists who, through their work, seek to contribute to the emergence of a productive society grounded in equity and justice.

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