Mary L. Ely was an early pioneer in the newly established field of adult education. As editor of the Journal of Adult Education, the 1936 Adult Education in Action and the 1948 Handbook for Adult Education, she met and worked with virtually all the men and women who were involved in the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE) from the 1920s until the late 1940s. She was a central figure in this association.
Ely’s nominators said her greatest contribution was as editor of the Journal of Adult Education, the first professional journal in the new field of adult and continuing education. From the journal’s debut in 1929, she was a key player. At the beginning, she co-edited the journal with her director, Morse Cartwright. Within a short time, she became the editor and continued as editor for more than a decade until the Carnegie Corporation funding ended in 1941. Launching a new national journal in a fledgling field was very much a pioneering effort. Inviting authors from all around the United States at a time when the AAAE was only several years old, and when communication and transportation were difficult, was admirable. Five years after the founding of the AAAE and only a short time after the creation of the journal, the country experienced the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. Continuing to publish the journal without wavering during those trying years was most amazing.
Ely managed to solicit articles on a wide range of topics and interests at the time for inclusion in the journal. Under her editorship, in addition to articles by powerful men of the day, women scholars and practitioners alike published articles in the journal. Given that this was at a time less than a decade after American women gained the right to vote, she was an energetic power in the field.
Adult Education in Action, edited by Ely, was a collection of 161 article summaries from the Journal of Adult Education. This book was a synopsis of the scholarly work and practitioner efforts of the field up to that point. Under Ely’s leadership, the book’s contributors included more than 26 percent women, a striking contrast to 10 percent women authors in the 1960 Handbook edited by Malcolm Knowles and only 8 percent women authors in the 1970 Smith, Kidd, Aker Handbook.
With her writing and editing, she made significant contributions as a scholar. Charles A. Beard of Columbia University wrote in the foreword to Adult Education in Action: “Miss Ely is more than a collector of papers. She has been long associated with the adult education movement. She is a source herself – a living document. So we have the marvel of a living source selecting sources for the permanent record!...In selection and organization, [her volume] represents the work of a discriminating mind, experienced in the field of adult education; and at the same time, in content, it reflects the thought of many other minds also concerned with the ideas, interests and activities of the movement.”
In addition to her writing and editing, Ely was also involved with national and international efforts. With Cartwright, she co-authored a definitive paper, Adult Education in the U.S.A., prepared for the third general session of the Institute of Pacific Relations that met in Kyoto, Japan, in late October/early November 1929. Ely traveled to Europe and the Caribbean numerous times. Given her ability to communicate and work with others, she continued to connect people and ideas locally, nationally, and internationally throughout her life.
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