Adult education as “workshop of democracy”: Germany’s President welcomes adult educators to Berlin


It is a sign of how seriously Germany takes adult education that Joachim Gauck, the country’s President, gave the welcoming speech at the 14th Volkshochschultag. This is particularly good news for adult educators world wide, as it comes a month after President Obama publicly praised the active citizenship tradition in adult education, which I blogged about here.

Gauck’s welcome was uplifting and well-informed, and I give a couple of extracts below. And while he observed the formality of thanking the organisers for their invitation, he added ‘You’ve probablyalready noticed: I’m coming to you very gladly’. The speech made me wish I’d taken the train to Berlin for a couple of days, and I’ll give a sample of it here. As usual, I am sure someone will let me know if I’ve mis-translated!

The President opened with the following two paragraphs:

In times of change, institutions often do well to reflect on their roots and their central essence. Only those who are secure in their identity  can confidently help to shape social change. Let me therefore, before I turn to the digital challenge, which you want to discuss today and tomorrow, first remember Max Hirsch, the liberal union leader and pioneer of community colleges.

It was Max Hirsch who in 1878 founded in Berlin the first Volkshochschule in Germany, the Humboldt Academy. The goals he sought back then are still valid, even if we would formulate it differently today. Hirsch wanted to spread ‘higher, genuinely scientific education’ and, as he said, in ‘in all parts of the population’. He wanted a thematically wide range, namely, literally ‘for those who require thorough instruction’. Finally, he wanted to provide every individual with the opportunity to develop through education into a mature, responsible citizen. Into a citizen who is equally committed to their own personal and professional development and for the community in which he lives.

Gauck then spoke about what he sees as the chief characteristics of the Volkshochschulen. They are, he said, open to all; they are pluralistic and bring different cultures together; they are civically engaged, with social and political responsibilities. He spoke highly of the adult education movement’s support for refugees. He then alluded to the conference theme of digital inclusion, and spoke of its potential for reinforcing as well as changing the nature of adult education. He praised the online portal Ich will Deutsch lernen, created by the German Volkshochschul Association to support the integration courses run by local Volkshochschulen.

His concluding paragraph is worth translating in full:

Community colleges are vibrant institutions, as is demonstrated not least by the theme of this congress. You can help create social change, precisely because you stand on a stable foundation of values and are firmly rooted in local communities. Our civil society needs such institutions, now and in the future. I encourage you, therefore:  continue to keep your ear close to the pulse of the times, try out new things, and have difficult debates. And stay as you were and how you are: Open to all, diverse and civically engaged.

Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor who was part of the oppositional neues Forum movement in East Germany, and he has a track record as a campaigner against racism and xenophobia. He has said that he won’t be seeking a second term of office, which seems a shame, but it is striking that he – like several of his predecessors – has played a very open role in public debate rather than striking the sorts of postures which party leaders are required to do (though nominated to his post by the Greens and Social Democrats, he is no aligned with any party himself).

I’m also wondering whether a largely ceremonial President is the way to go in a future British Republic. It’s very striking that Ireland and Germany have had some thoughtful and interesting characters in the role, and I suspect this is because it attracts people who have something to say, rather than those who have schemed and fought their way to the top of a party heirarchy. There is a debate in Germany over whether the post should be abolished; I rather hope it isn’t.


2 thoughts on “Adult education as “workshop of democracy”: Germany’s President welcomes adult educators to Berlin

  1. Very interesting! I had never heard of Max Hirsch, but I did study Grundtvig and the folk school adaptations in North America over the past century. Any good resources on his initial initiatives in English? I met some of the VHS organizers in Montreal last year at ICAE and was very impressed by their commitment to adult education and international development.

    • Hi!
      There is an old, but still good article in English:
      Wayne G. Pirtle : “German Adult Education Following the Unification of 1871” In: Adult Education Quarterly, January 1973; vol. 23, 2: pp. 99-114. See quote below.

      Kind regards
      Bernd Käpplinger

      “Shortly after the founding of the Society for the Diffusion of Adult
      Education in 1871, a Dr. Max Hirsch wrote a pamphlet on a plan for the founding of an institution for popular lecture series in science, which he sent to individuals throughout Germany who had shown an interest in adult education. Almost all the contemporary political parties were represented in this group (8:6). In his pamphlet, Hirsch recommended the establishment of an educational institution that would offer adult education that would be independent of state, church, party, and formalism of any kind. The program would be designed as education for the elevation of the general public and would be available to all levels of society. All fields of human knowledge would be represented
      in its offerings, which would reflect the universality of knowledge.
      The only facet of adult education to be excluded was vocational training (8:46).
      The pamphlet received a favorable response from its recipients, and on November 9, 1878, a group gathered in Berlin and voted unanimously to establish an institution for adult education which would be called the Humboldt Academy in honor of the Humboldt brothers, Wilhelm and Alexander. Within a period of several weeks the Humboldt Academy had acquired 350 individual members as well as a number of corporate members, such as clubs and organizations. The Academy was to be financed by membership dues and donations from its members (8:6).
      On January 13, 1879, the Academy was formally opened, and it was on this occasion that the first reference appears to a German folk college (Volkshochschule ) as a description of the new Humboldt Academy (6:46). The term was undoubtedly borrowed from the Danish folk colleges that existed in Schleswig-Holstein. The word folk ( Folkelig ) in Danish had a positive connotation, implying noble and elevating traits in a people. In German, however, the word Volk was often used in a derogatory sense, which contributed a negative image to the term folk college that, try as adult educators would, it was never to lose completely. As late as 1921 Christian Franckner wrote that there rests in the word, folk college, a curse and God permitting we must find
      another word to replace it for this great institution (6:46).
      Initially, the Humboldt Academy offered no practical courses&dquo; or vocational training, which also tended to preclude the participation of the working class. In the early years of its existence, fewer than three per cent of its participants were workers (21 :84). The Academy did, however, offer lecture series that dealt with one topic in depth. By the mid-1880s a variety of liberal arts and vocational courses were being scheduled in addition to the traditional lecture series. Thus, the Humboldt
      Academy came to be distinguished from other adult education
      institutions by its inclusion of systematic course work as an adjunct to the lecture format. Although this scheme had been tried before on a small scale in the labor education associations, never before had it been characteristic of a large institution for adult education. The growth in courses and participants was steady, so that by 1896 Max Hirsch could boast that no country in the world offered a more extensive program in adult education than Germany through its Humboldt Academy in Berlin.”

      Could mail a scan of the full article to you if you let me know where to mail to?

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