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.