Dr. Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958) lived in a time of great economic, political, and social change. Through her actions and her writing, she had a great impact as an educational reformer and social activist in the true tradition of adult education. She was a model of a capable woman at a time when women were often relegated to the sidelines; she mentored and encouraged others throughout her life.
Fisher earned her PhD from Columbia University in 1904 and was well acquainted with Frederick Keppel, former dean at Columbia and president of the Carnegie Corporation that funded the new American Association of Adult Education (AAAE) in the 1920s. Fisher was already a well-established author with 16 books to her credit when Keppel asked her to write a book about the field of adult and continuing education. The book that resulted, Why Stop Learning?, was published in 1927. This work, along with her other major title, Learn or Perish, were important contributions to the field, particularly in the early years as the association was just being established, serving to spread and promote adult education to the general public.
Fisher was active in critical roles in the new American Association of Adult Education (AAAE), from its beginning in 1926, and served for almost two decades. She was a leader, serving as the association’s only woman president. Her writing went beyond her two major titles and popularized the new adult education movement. Between 1930 and 1941, she contributed numerous articles to the Journal of Adult Education on topics ranging from parent education to the past and future of adult education. She also wrote two books that popularized Montessori’s teachings in the United States, contributed chapters to Adult Education in Action, and even has a speech in the Library of Congress collection.
Like others in the early adult education movement, part of Fisher’s motivation to be involved in adult education was to promote democracy and she worked in various ways toward this aim. While not formally part of the adult education movement, hundreds of thousands of Americans subscribed to the popular Book-of-the-Month Club. It was an important resource that made literature widely available for the general public and introduced many authors to U.S. society. She was the only woman on the selection committee, serving from 1926 until 1951, reading thousands of books during that time, even as her eyesight diminished.
In 1921, Fisher was elected to the Vermont Board of Education – again the first woman. She wrote and published many books for children; the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award continues to honor her name. Another major contribution was that she brought the Montessori Method to the US. By the end of her life, she had written dozens of fiction and nonfiction books and had served on numerous local and national committees. She received honorary degrees from nine institutions and was named by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the ten most influential women in the United States.
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