What is an "Adult"?

What is an "Adult"?

Let’s think about this question: “What is an ‘adult’?” Further, let’s think about: “What is an adult with reference to the adults whom we teach?”

Some will say a person becomes an adult when they are of voting age, or drinking age. But this “legal definition” varies with virtually every jurisdiction in North America and changes through time. Others say a person becomes an adult when they reach puberty. But this “biological definition” is not very good because we can well ask if a girl who has a baby at age 13 or 14 is suddenly an “adult”? Or if a boy fathering a child at the same age is now an “adult”? Further complicating such definitions are the cultures involved. Cultural diversity is common in our own classrooms and tutoring programs and, as we know, the cultural idea of what “adult” is and “should be” varies widely across cultures.

So, what is an “adult” for the purposes of our field?

Malcolm KnowlesThe widely accepted definition of adult in our field today is one that Malcolm Knowles put forward in the 1970s. Knowles built a major school of thought, what he called “andragogy,” that says adulthood needs to be seen from the viewpoint of the individual—not by society alone. Knowles said: “The psychological definition of adulthood is the point at which individuals perceive themselves to be essentially self-directing [i.e., wanting to make their own decisions for their own lives]” (1980, p. 45). As he points out, “children enter the world in a condition of self-dependency…as they grow, their self-image image develops…they move ever towards more independence” (p. 45). While there are other views and other definitions, in this definition the two critical points for us are:

1. “At the point of adolescence and early adulthood, there is the development of a deep psychological need to be seen by others as being self-directing” (pp. 44-45).

2. “Paradoxically, the experience of youth in schools…freezes them [adolescents] into self-concepts of dependency” (p. 45).

Knowles’s observation is that most adults come into the classroom and sit back “waiting to be taught.” His point is most adults re-assume a stance of learner-dependency because that is their primary frame of reference, as learned in past schooling. Certainly, schooling has a lifelong impact on all of us, but it is an important point for adult literacy. These two “principals” hold some pitfalls for us–these are discussed later.