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Biography of Malcolm Shepherd Knowles Essay


Malcolm Shepherd was one of the highly prominent individuals in adult education in the United States. In the early 1950s, he became the Executive Director of the Adult Education of the US. He pioneered the writing of the first reports on informal adult education. In addition, his attempts to innovate an exceptional basis for learning via the andragogy strategy gained popularity and was adopted by many learning institutions.

Moreover, Malcolm Knowles together with his wife Hulda wrote admired works on self-direction and group works (Hale, 2011). His biography is a source of inspiration for educationists, researchers, and students. This paper reviews his life, contribution, and accomplishments.

Malcolm Knowles’ Upbringing and Early Life

Malcolm was born in 1913 and raised in Montana. He seems to have had a happy childhood. Malcolm regularly went together with his father, who was a veterinarian, on visits to ranches. Knowles says they engaged in rigorous discussions regarding all sorts of subjects while driving back and forth the different locations.

They often discussed the right and wrong, sources of happiness for children, politics, and religion. He also says he often felt accompanied rather than an inferior whenever they were on the journeys since his father often sought his opinions first before saying what he thought (Knowles, 1984).

Malcolm Knowles says that his mother helped him be considerate, affectionate, and courteous. His schooling also reinforced the virtues in him. He was involved in scouting activities. As a result, he learnt over fifty merit badges and executed leadership roles. The knowledge he acquired in the scouting process was important in his development in high schools and in the life after school (Knowles, 1984).

On successful completion of high school education, Malcolm Knowles got a scholarship to Harvard. He took courses in philosophy, literature, ethics, history, political science, and international law. He was persuaded by the lecturing of his philosophy tutor Alfred North Whitehead.

His extracurricular activities were of great significance to him. Further, he held crucial leadership positions in the institution. He was elected the president of the Harvard Club and president of the Phillips Brooks House. He also became the general secretary of the New England Model of Nations. Involvement in charity work got him in a boy’s club.

Knowles also met his wife Hulda at Harvard while doing charity work. Her father was working for Detroit and an active unionist. Knowles was pleased to learn that Hulda’s father and he had identical value systems, and proceeded to marry his daughter (Smith, 2002).

Malcolm Knowles’ Adulthood and Career Life

At the outset, Malcolm registered in the Fletcher School and Diplomacy and took a course in Foreign Service. He passed the Foreign Service assessment test. Nevertheless, he was asked to wait for three years to be employed. He married in 1934 and needed a job urgently.

Therefore, he joined the National Youth Administration (NYA) in Massachusetts. He was required to identify the skills needed by local organizations, prepare an appropriate courses, and register youths to the courses. He worked hard to meet these objectives. While carrying out his duties, he met Eduard Linderman, an education supervisor in NYA. Eduard eventually became his mentor (Smith, 2002).

In 1940, Knowles was asked by Boston TMCA to become director of education for an ‘Adult Association School’. He joined the Navy in 1943 and started studying extensively on different subjects regarding adult education. He also took the job of director of adult education at the Central Chicago YMCA. Cyril O. Houle was his adviser at the university. Houle’s profound devotion to scholarship was of great importance to Knowles.

Apart from Houle, Carl Rogers influenced the life of Knowles. He enrolled in a group-counseling seminar where Rogers was an associate. Rogers created a deep sense of responsibility in him. As a result, he learned to differentiate the role of a facilitator from that of a teacher (Knowles, 1984).

Malcolm attained his MA in 1949. In the following year, he published his first book Informal Adult Education. In 1951, he was appointed the executive director of the lately established Adult Education Association (AEA) in the United States. In 1952 and 1954, he often attended summer sessions of the National Training Laboratories.

The thinking of the founders of the organization influenced the way of life of Knowle’s family. After attending the sessions for a while, Malcolm and his wife Hulda co-authored books on leadership and group dynamics. Malcolm worked for AEA for nine years and left after putting the organization on the right course of professional excellence (Hales, 2011).

In 1959, Malcolm joined the staff of Boston University as an associate professor. He worked hard to improve academic standards in the university and launched an education program that pleased the institution’s stakeholders. He therefore stayed in the University for 14 years. During his stay in the institution, he published books such as The Adult Learner and The Modern Practice of Adult Education.

These books cemented his position at the axis of adult education discussions in the US. Further, they help him popularized the concept of andragogy. Because of the publications, his recognition as a major consultant in adult education increased extensively. Therefore, he got more opportunities to work with established organizations.

In 1974, Knowles developed courses for the North Carolina State University. He used the opportunity to develop courses based on the model of andragogy, which he had innovated. While working at the institution, he revised his key books and published a new one titled Self Directed Learning (Mezirow, 1991).

Ultimately, after contributing towards the development of new educational methods and gaining a lot of recognition for his selflessness, Malcolm Knowles retired in 1979. However, despite the retirement, he continued to involve in diverse consultancies and management of workshops for a range of agencies. He got the opportunity to write more articles and books. Malcolm finally succumbed to a stroke on Thanksgiving Day, 1997, at his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas (Smith, 2002).


Malcolm S. Knowles was committed to the establishment of friendly informal learning conditions. He pointed to the necessity of using experience and professionalism efficiently. He thought that pedagogy, a method for teaching children, could not make life easy for adult learners.

He therefore introduced andragogy because it allows adults to pursue knowledge that they believe are essential. The method also compels adult instructors to approach their tasks as facilitators, allows adults to have control over the learning process, and encourages instructors to consider all adult learners as responsible individuals (Merriam and Caffarella, 1991).

The new concepts have been influencing the transformation of methodologies adults the world over. Malcolm’s upbringing, his schooling days, and the contribution of his wife must have been highly essential in his career development. A person requires exceptional character, skills, and education to influence significantly critical aspects of the society such as education and social development.


Hale, K. (2011). Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy. Learning Theories ETC547 Spring 2011. Retrieved from

Knowles, M. S. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1991). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, M. K. (2002). Malcolm Knowles, Informal Adult Education, Self-direction and Andragogy. The Informal Education. Retrieved from

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