We have infused an unnecessary sense of urgency into the process of getting an education. Despite all of the rhetoric within educational circles regarding the importance of “life-long learning,” we treat education as a process that must be more or less completed before students enter the “real world” of adulthood. We focus nearly all of the resources of our systems of public education on students between the ages of five and eighteen. If opportunities to attend classes in public schools free of charge were available to people at any age, we could afford to let younger students have considerably more latitude regarding the time frame for completing the requirements for a high school diploma. Drop-outs would be less of a problem if they could drop back into the system with relative ease later in life. The option of completing high school on a part-time basis with day, evening, or week-end classes would make it easier for people to complete their high school education even if they were working full time.
There are already millions of adults who were short-changed, or who short- changed themselves, during their years in school. These adult members of our society have educational needs every bit as pressing as the needs of younger people. In a world where vital information is often conveyed in writing, illiteracy can be hazardous as well as frustrating. Individuals who cannot read well enough to follow the directions on a bottle of medicine may inadvertently harm their children or themselves. The inability to comprehend the terms of agreements we are required to sign, in order to lease or purchase a home or a car, or to obtain credit, can be frustrating and costly. Many of the products that can make our lives easier or more enjoyable come with instruction manuals that can be challenging even for highly literate individuals. (And, of course, we don’t even want to mention the instructions for filling out our tax forms.) Some problems are most effectively addressed by writing a letter. That option is not open to people who lack the ability to communicate effectively in writing.
There have always been, and there always will be, some students who leave school without acquiring the skills necessary to live independently, productively, and/or happily. At the present time there are programs available to help combat adult illiteracy, but there are gaping holes in the “safety net” these programs pro- vide. Getting help with innumeracy and other life skills is even more difficult. We should provide programs through our public schools for people who need additional help in meeting the natural requirements that life imposes. Most importantly, adult members of our society should have the opportunity to learn fundamental skills whenever they recognize the need to learn them, even if that time does not come until they are over twenty-one years of age.
Much of what is taught in high school would, in many cases, prove to be of greater interest to more mature individuals. Some people who are not particularly interested in literature, history, and other elements of a liberal arts education, as teens, become more interested when they get older. Opportunities for personal growth and development should be available to people of all ages. The easy availability of educational programs and classes for students of all ages would make it considerably more likely that members of our society would engage in meaningful educational activities throughout their lives.
Allowing adults to attend high school during the regular school day would have the added benefit of altering the climate within our schools in a positive manner. Those teens who are not yet as mature as they should be, would be less likely to engage in childish misbehavior with more adults around them. The presence of adults would provide role models for students who may have to work harder or longer to master certain skills. Adults in high school classrooms would also provide a compelling example of life-long learning. The life experiences they bring to the classroom, could enrich the learning environment for their fellow students, as well as for teachers.