There is much in question about the future of higher education, but one trend is clear: the average age of undergraduates is rising. As a college degree replaces a high school degree as the basis for more jobs and the possibility of economic stability, more people are starting or returning to finish undergraduate degrees, regardless of age. A 2017 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the future of enrollment showing that community colleges are expanding to meet this demand; for-profit and non-profit institutions are hurrying to create online-only options for those degree-seekers unable to move or uninterested in residential college experiences; and even traditional universities are working to attract and retain older students.

Given its founding mission as education for “grown up and responsible men and women,” as the proposal put it, the New School should be at the forefront of this trend. Instead, our history as the only institution created specifically to educate adults is rarely, if ever, remarked upon now. From a high of 30,000 non-degree students per year in the 1970s, the New School counts barely 1,400 continuing education students out of 13,000 students as of 2016. Financial and academic concerns triggered this transformation — degree students pay far more than non-degree students and there was a growing belief that a course on “Backgammon for Beginners” might weaken the image of a course on “General Semiotics,” both offered in Spring 1976. But what might this first concentration on adult education tell us about how to meet the forecasted changes in enrollment?

Certainly one key aspect of the school’s founding was to assert that the aim of education was learning rather than certification. In this, the New School was not particularly original. Opportunities for education outside of degree-granting institutions had long existed, from lectures in churches to vocational training at workplaces and women’s clubs that met in homes to discuss books. This desire to learn more often had career impact in mind, as in vocational instruction, or the filling of leisure time, as in book clubs. The New School differed in that in the midst of an exponential interest in vocational instruction such as bookkeeping and typing, it established itself as a place of learning devoted to “the electric fire of thought,” as Charles Beard, one of the founders, declared in the Journal of Adult Education in 1930. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act directed federal money to vocational education and job training. In 1919, the New School dedicated itself to the “intelligent study of the living tissues of society,” according to Emily James Putnam, the only woman to teach one of the first seven lectures who reported on the school’s beginning in the New Republic in February 1920. There was virtually no attention to any technical job skill in the early years of the school. In fact, a 1952 internal report stated that the “primary concern of the founders in establishing a school appears to have been the welfare of society rather than the development of the individual student.”

The intellectuals at the New Republic who dominated the organizing committee of the school had clearly absorbed the admonitions launched in Thorstein Veblen’s 1918 The Higher Learning in America and the prescriptions suggested in John Dewey’s 1916 Democracy and Education. Veblen attacked the growing influence of business on universities through trustees and administrators beholden to them, as its first (though finally rejected) subtitle made clear: “A Study in Total Depravity.” The proposal for the New School baldly declared that there was no need for administrators at all; faculty were to be given full responsibility for the running of the school. That did not last beyond the first few years and, instead, students gained both more attention, particularly in shaping curricula to meet their interests. This reflected an unconventional approach that Veblen might not have completely supported — he left in 1926 — but also did not reinvent a business approach to education. (Even in 1952, the lack of an endowment was praised as not making the school a “prisoner to property.”)

Dewey’s vision of learning across a lifetime held more sway in the ideals of the school. A 1929 report declared that the school’s success proved the need for “higher adult education”: “The time-honored conception of education as essentially an adolescent monopoly is giving way throughout the country to the saner conception of education as a continuous intellectual exercise and stimulus, a necessity of civilized living.” The New School was not the typical kind of adult education aimed at those who might not have ever earned a college degree, though. In fact, the majority of its students had “the advantages of a college education or its equivalent.”

This intellectual orientation stood out amidst a wave of funding and formalization of adult education that generally focused on vocational training. The Carnegie Corporation moved its giving from the formation of libraries to adult education in 1924 and, two years later, the first professional organization, the American Association for Adult Education, was formed. The New School was part of a larger shift in adult education towards the arts in the 1920s and 1930s but still distanced itself from the more common women’s clubs, university extension programs, and lecture circuits. What distinguished the New School was its contempt for certification, its students’ voluntary desire for learning, and its intellectual rather than vocational or therapeutic orientation.

This distinctive stance served the New School well for decades, as it established itself in its own building on 12th Street in 1931. The focus on intellectual freedoms also gave it an ideological basis for being able to respond with alacrity in the face of growing authoritarianism in Europe to become a haven for refugee scholars. The necessity of graduate degrees to employ those scholars led then to the development of its first undergraduate degree begun in 1944, designed for adults, aimed at returning soldiers whose education might have been interrupted.

By 1950, however, increasing attention among New School administrators as to what adult education meant suggested that the school might have been losing its distinction. Alvin Johnson, the retired but still influential first director of the school, and Hans Simons, its president at the time, wrote memos to each other in February 1953 articulating a vision of adult education (now archived in the Vera List Center). Johnson proposed a systematized curricular path that could begin from attention to personal development (psychology, human relations) to “problems of the citizen” (rights and responsibilities in a democracy, international relations), then to economic life and “enrichment,” characterized as “arts and amateurism.” (None of this was fully realized although Johnson’s ideas clearly relate to the programs and courses of the Human Relations Center begun in 1951, and demonstrate the shift in attention to the “development of the individual student” rather than just “the welfare of society.”) Even the Graduate Faculty dean, Hans Staudinger, insisted a few years later that its programs also served this mission, especially since the vast majority of students in their courses were not pursuing degrees. “Higher adult education is the one function that justifies our existence,” Simons affirmed to Johnson.

Expanding the physical footprint of the school instantiated the dilemma. After purchasing the two brownstones west of 66 West 12th Street in 1955, a New School bulletin stated that there would soon be a small, permanent faculty trained in teaching adults, a years-long wish of Simons’. This was in some way a capitulation to the further professionalization of adult education. Simon’s 1959 letters to the Century Foundation (archived in the New York Public Library) indicate that the grant the foundation had provided to support the school in hiring six “adult teachers full-time” had instead been devoted to the building fund. The creation of the Institute of Retired Professionals (IRP) in 1962 may have been the closest incarnation of a methods-based approach to adult education with its peer learning model.

The formation of the IRP, though, was also an indication of the further splintering of students at the New School. By the 1960s adult education had morphed into “continuing education,” indicative of the further loosening of the category that became even more capacious and vague. It could be vocational training or earning certification; it could be entirely leisurely or filling in gaps before proceeding to a graduate program. At the New School, backgammon and cooking were offered alongside semiotics and political philosophy by the 1970s and undergraduate degree programs had become the focus of innovation and experimentation. The intention to serve the “serious” adult student did not end; it just became less of an overriding emphasis as the school diversified to include more degree programs, from the merger with Parsons in 1970 to graduate programs in non-profit management and urban policy and media studies in 1975.

The definition of “higher adult education” remains fuzzy. Applied to students, is it an indication of age or experience or employment or family responsibilities or the need to take courses in the evening or financial independence or some combination thereof? Applied to pedagogy, is it peer learning or self-design or experiential or project-based learning? Applied to an institution, is it about job-training or entertainment or certification or degrees? Most of these characteristics can be found at the New School, then and now. But it might be useful to also embrace again — and revivify — the term adult education.

In 1932, Horace Kallen, one of the longest-serving and most prolific faculty members of the school, wrote a small pamphlet titled College Prolongs Infancy. The title is more provocative than the text, which outlines the increased number of people going to college at that time because of the rise in life expectancy and wealth alongside the growth of cities and a “drive toward democracy.” Kallen then excoriated the idea of college as an extension of home, where adults “conduct […] themselves like children.” This is a simplistic rendering of what is a more complex situation and transition. And yet. The idea that college exists as an in-between place and time on the road from childhood to adulthood has only expanded in recent times. Helicopter parents control curricular choices; campus security often serves as gatekeepers keeping town or city police at bay.

So what if we took up Kallen’s provocation as a shift to consider our entire university to be conducting higher adult education? How might seeing all our students as adults create new paths of integration of our many parts? The New School claims to be a school focused on the future. What would that future look like if we took our mission to be the education of adults — in all of the proliferating definitions of what that might mean? Perhaps adult education has always been more an idea than a method or demographic — the idea of trusting students to know that learning is an end in itself, rather than a specific step or stage. If there is any hope for triggering “the electric fire of thought,” it may lie in that.

Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at the New School and the author of A Place For Us: “West Side Story” and New York (University of Chicago Press, 2016).