Six Lessons from a Pioneer in Adult Education: Gordon Selman (1928-2018)

If you have studied adult education, then you know the name Gordon Selman. If you are engaged in adult education, advocacy or citizen engagement work and you don’t know Gordon’s work, then you are missing some essential foundations for your work.


Born on December 4, 1927 and raised in Vancouver where he spent most of his career at the University of British Columbia, Gordon died on January 24, 2018 at the age of 90. His contributions to adult education, social change and citizenship are exceptional and we can learn much from them.

Gordon played many roles in the movement. He was a practitioner and builder of advocacy groups. He was a program planner and administrator, a professor and policy maker and a historian of the adult education movement. He was a prodigious writer – seven books and over 80 academic monographs. His work is based on meticulous research and is essential reading if you want to understand the role of adult education in Canada as a movement for social change through active citizenship.

He was a giant – in his physical stature (6’5”), in his leadership in the field, and in his passion for enabling adults to participate as fully as possible in civil society. In an autobiographical essay entitled “Some Reflections on my Research and Publications” published in the November 2005 issue of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Adult Education (CJSAE, pp.52-81), he lists 85 publications from 1955 to 1995 and weaves his own story with the history of the field in Canada. After 1995, he authored as many works again, both published and unpublished manuscripts. New workers in the field should be sure to mine these rich resources.

It was John Friesen, another great adult educator, who recruited Gordon to UBC in 1964. Gordon was 26 at the time and credits John for his mentorship. He spent 38 years of his prolific career at UBC as extension worker and then professor. Gordon was a team player. He stood with his friends, he empowered them, he collaborated with them and he always credited them for their contributions. They included elders in the field who mentored him during his career, his mother and his wife, his two daughters and his son and a long list of team members whom he cites with gratitude, with whom he pursued relentlessly the recognition of the adult education movement.

Although he presented himself as a quiet and reserved man, Gordon had a warm heart and a contagious smile and approached everyone he met, young or old, with deep respect, to cherish and nurture as a new member of his ever-growing virtual extended family. He was often referred to as one of the three wise men of adult education with his colleagues Roby Kidd and Alan Thomas.

Gordon’s primary interest in practitioners of the field led him to many years of active involvement with the Canadian Association for Adult Education (CAAE). After his retirement, he served, along with Alan Thomas, as a founding member of the Carold Institute (born from the legacy of CAAE and created by funds donated by Clare Clark, a long-time volunteer at the CAAE). Successive generations of Carold Board members thus became part of Gordon’s extended family.

Here are six lessons from Gordon’s life that are relevant for anyone who aspires to be an adult educator, a social change agent or a shift disturber today:

Ground yourself in the roots of the movement

In Gordon’s own words, “Yesterday speaks to today”: Begin, as Gordon did, by paying attention to the lessons learned by those who came before us. Reflect on the influence of particular individuals, on the role of key associations, on the impact of government policy. Consider how adult education made participation possible. Use Gordon’s systematic approach to research and writing to build a solid foundation for your own work.

Focus on practitioners and tell their stories

Gordon devoted himself to reflection on the stories of success and failure in the movement. He understood the power of adult education to boost and sustain social change and democratic participation. See his article entitled The Morale of the People.

Promote the growth of people in the field

Gordon Selman undertook this task first as a programmer and an administrator, then as a social historian of the field of adult education and finally as a professor over a 38-year career at UBC and in his community of family and friends on Bowen Island as well as with a vast network of friends, students, and colleagues in British Columbia and Canada and around the world. By nurturing respectful relationships with workers in the field (colleagues, students and what he termed as “gatekeepers” in organizations and publishing and media outlets), he cultivated the growth of networks that have been essential to the success of the adult education movement. He understood the crucial importance of grounding theory in the lived experience of practitioners.

Be a mentor and find a mentor

Gordon was a mentor to us and to hundreds of other adult educators. Michael Clague, a distinguished adult educator in his own right, describes Gordon’s influence on his career: Gordon and Bert Curtis were my mentors and through them my interest in adult education and world affairs was grounded and given expression that stayed with me the rest of my life. I tried to emulate Gordon’s ability to capture the essence of ideas with such clear eloquence. Alan Thomas was another mentor I met when he was at UBC. I tried my best to replicate these adult educators’ phenomenal ability to provide a succinct, insightful synopsis at the conclusion of conferences etc. Through them I discovered that adult education was my intellectual and vocational home and have thrived on it ever since. Gordon understood that he could not achieve his goals alone. He sought every opportunity he could to encourage, support, mentor and share knowledge.

Link the local, to the national and international

Gordon strived hard to place the story of adult education in British Columbia and Canada in the context of other developments in society, locally and internationally. He explored and highlighted the interlocking relationship between the local, national and international in the social change process. He understood the need to think globally and act locally long before it became a popular aphorism.

Persist and respond to adversity with courage and creativity

In doing work to bring about shift change in society there are many sacrifices, not the least of them is balancing the roles of teacher, parent and volunteer. Gordon wrote a book to explain to his children the important work he was doing and motivated them in following his example. Whenever he wrote an article that created some negative reaction, he wrote another one inspired by what he saw as missing a point or not giving respect to other points of view.


In 2004, Gordon suffered a major stroke. As a result, he could no longer read much but curiously he could still write. So he developed a plan and set out to execute the plan. He wrote three biographical volumes about the life of Oliver Cromwell (the third one for teenage readers). Then he wrote a fictionalized biography of John Thurloe, who was Cromwell’s Secretary of State in the 1650s. He then turned to novels, and began a series of adventure tales “centering on the activities of a fictional government secret agent, Mathew Middleton. This quote from Gordon is a powerful illustration of how he responded to this new challenge: “I also wrote two other books of a fictional kind about Cromwell and his circle. One contains a volume of letters (fictional) among Cromwell and his five closest associates, supposedly written to each other at various points in the period. The second was a series of sustained conversations among the six men which supposedly took place in heaven after the last of them had died, during which they reflected on the events of their lives and times. I found it very stimulating to try to put myself in the places of these six outstanding men and imagine how they would take part in these heavenly conversations.”

We have written a longer article about Gordon, which offers more information and insights about his life and work including:

  • What motivated his research and writing

  • The focus of his six books about the adult education movement

  • His role as a practitioner and community builder

  • His role as a professor

  • The impact he had on some of his students and colleagues

  • His role as a program planner and administrator

  • His commitment to the nurturing women leaders in the movement

  • His role as a policy advocate for adult education

To learn more about Gordon, read this article.

Upon hearing of the death of Gordon Selman, Martha Okot Thomas, daughter of Alan Thomas wrote: “my hope is that Gordon and my Dad sit down for a meal and a drink and continue to share their intellectual discussions and have a few laughs. I know my dad will be glad to greet him.” We hope this blog offers readers an opportunity to share vicariously in that meal and conversation.


CKX is honoured to share this special #CKX6 post written by Michael Cooke and Arpi Hamalian to remember and reflect on the life and contributions of Gordon Selman, a founding member of the Carold Institute.

Michael Cooke is the former Vice President Academic at George Brown College, a former President of the Carold Institute and co-author with Gordon Selman of The Foundations of Adult Education in Canada.

Arpi Hamalian is a distinguished professor of Adult Education at Concordia University and a former President of the Carold Institute. She is a living Rolodex (LinkedIn) for adult educators.