The Adult Education and Literacy
System (AELS) in the United States:
"What would happen if the whole world would become literate? Answer: not so very much, for the world is by and large structured in such a way that it is capable of absorbing the impact. But if the whole world consisted of literate, autonomous, critical, constructive people, capable of translating ideas into action, individually or collectively - the world would change."-- Johan Galtung (1975) presentation to the International Symposium for Literacy, Persepolis.
It is now 2000. In the quarter century following Galtung's vision of how the world could be changed, the United States has witnessed a phenomenon unprecedented in our nation's educational history. Tens of millions of adults have taken action to change their lives, to become more educated, literate, autonomous, critical, and constructive to change the world around them.
From 1975 through 1999 the number of adults enrolled in the diverse programs funded wholly or in part through the federal government's Division of Adult Education and Literacy increased at an average rate of some 118,000 per year, growing from around 1.2 million in 1975 to over 4.3 million in 1999.
To place these data on adults seeking continuing education in perspective, the Digest of Education Statistics for 1998 points out that in 1998 the K-12 system served some 46.8 million enrollees while the post-secondary, higher education system enrolled about 14.6 million students. In this same year, the adult system of non-credit, non-formal education had enrollments of some 4.2 million, almost ten percent as many enrollees as the entire K-12 system and over a quarter as many enrollees as the higher education system.
What is even more remarkable than the sheer numbers of adults enrolling in adult education and literacy programs is the fact that, for the most part, these adults are the very ones that numerous studies and reports over the decades say do not want or seek continuing education. Most studies of adult education point out that when it comes to education, the "rich get richer," meaning that those with the most education are the ones who seek out more education.