Adult Education in Germany from the Middle Ages to 1980

Martin R. Textor


Adult education in Germany has a long and interesting history. Up to the period of the Enlightment, adult education occurred in an uninstitutionalised form. During the Middle Ages the Church was the most important educational power. Because of its mission of salvation it had to offer religious instruction to all people regardless of their age and social standing. It also required from all men and women that they learn the Creed and certain prayers. Because of this the Church was supported by worldly powers, such as Charlemagne.

During the period of Renaissance men recognized their individuality and began to emancipate themselves from the Church, seeking orientation of the Greek and Roman cultures, German history, the natural sciences, and their own cognitive abilities. At that time intellectuality was recognized as a new way of life - adult education took place by means of self-instruction in informal groups of intellectuals discussing literature and scientific developments.

During the Reformation the Lutherans demanded from their followers that they strive for their own understanding of the Bible. However, they were not only asked to reflect upon and interpret its contents but also to be responsible for each other's faith. Thus they were required to further each other's understanding of biblical teachings by discussing them in informal meetings.

The period of Enlightment brought with it a strong emphasis on reason and scientific knowledge. Its representatives wanted to free the world from prejudice and superstition through education and information-giving. They planned to bring harmony and order to the world by teaching men to rely on reason, on their own perceptions, and on critical inquiry. In order to reach their goals they addressed citizens and peasants by means of the following:

  1. Weekly magazines like Justus Möser's Osnabrücker Anzeigen. They informed about problems of the time, offered professional advice, counselled with respect to personal problems, drew attention to prevalent prejudices, and tried to further the welfare of the state and society.
  2. Books about history, law, professional instruction, parent education, etc. which were addressed to the reader's reason.
  3. Encyclopaedias which contained extensive information on all branches of knowledge or on parent-education (Salzmann, Basedow), the science of education, etc. They were supposed to offer universal knowledge to their readers and allow them systematic self-instruction.

All these publications served to permit lifelong learning - a goal of Enlightenment as demanded by Comenius and Leibniz, for example.

At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the l9th century there was again a strong emphasis on education - even philosophers and poets (Herder, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Goethe, Schiller, etc.) wrote about it. Man was no longer seen as a solely rational being as before but in his totality and individuality. He was made responsible for his own education which was seen as a never-ending, lifelong process. By self-education he was supposed to perfect himself as a moral and spiritual being, to achieve a harmonious inner form, and to develop all his strengths, dispositions and sides of his personality.

This was the time of the rise of the bourgeoisie which emancipated itself into a great intellectual movement. Its leaders criticized the absolutistic state and the traditional structure of society. Two of their most prominent demands were 'Nationalerziehung' (education for a nation) and 'Volksbildung' (education of the people). The latter was used (in a slightly different sense) for depicting the education of adults till the end of the Second World War when it was replaced by the term 'Erwachsenenbildung' (adult education). At that time, 'Volksbildung' by means of compulsory and adult education for all was supposed to improve the fate of the underprivileged lower classes, to reform society, and to prepare men for democracy, freedom, and political responsibilities. But there was also a strong emphasis on moral and religious education which should lead to the realization of humanity and the striving for what is right, positive and valuable. 'Nationalerziehung' was supposed to help in the formation of a nation by focusing on the similarities between the dozens of small states into which Germany was divided at that time, by emphasizing the specific characteristics of the German nation, and by instilling the same identity in all its people. Education was not only deemed necessary for fighting regional divisions but also for fighting the social differences. An undivided society was supposed to be formed out of the nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie and peasantry by education.

In 1794 Prussia, as the first large German state, permitted the foundation of clubs and societies. These took over many tasks with respect to adult education, to 'Volksbildung' and 'Nationalerziehung'. For example, the so-called 'museum societies' established reading rooms and offered lectures or discussions about scientific topics. Music clubs were preoccupied with preparing concerts, supporting orchestras and forming choirs, while the organizations of the Freemasons spread philosophy and classical literature. The Freemasons and the sports clubs also tried to surpass the barriers set by social class, religion and the division of Germany into small states. Artisans, craftsmen and farmers founded clubs and societies which not only represented their interests but also offered vocational training and the use of their libraries. They often initiated the formation of Sunday schools which taught adults who lacked education and gave others knowledge needed to work as artisans or tradesmen. The Catholic Church founded reading clubs and libraries by which it tried to fight the ideas of Enlightment or to popularise their interpretation by Sailer and von Wessenberg.

Industrialization and social change

With the beginning and during the course of industrialization, adult education played an ever more important role, especially in the fields of vocational, workers' and political education. The bourgeoisie determined the development of science, culture and the economy. It identified itself with nationalism, and felt the obligation to unite the German states, to establish a free and democratic constitution, and to take over the government. While the bourgeoisie gained more and more power, the growing number of workers suffered more and more from lack of education, longer working hours, declining income, deteriorating living conditions, and the exploitation of their wives and children. Even worse, they lost the support of the bourgeoisie in their struggle for social change because the bourgeoisie felt threatened by them. Even the artisans separated themselves from the workers because they bad a different life-style and thought of themselves as privileged, better educated and better paid.

While visiting German clubs in Paris and London, travelling artisans were confronted with early socialist thought and the idea of workers' clubs. By 1843, after returning to Germany, they had founded clubs and educational societies for workers. At the beginning most members were craftsmen as they had a stronger feeling of solidarity and identity than factory workers who mostly came from the countryside. They put great emphasis on education since they considered it to be the best way to reach the same social positions as the bourgeoisie. Thus these societies offered vocational training and instruction on a wide variety of subjects. In addition their members instilled an atmosphere of brotherly affection in each other, reinforcing the idea of solidarity and the wish to fight for a better and gratuitous school system, a recognized place in society and more political and social rights. By 1854 most workers' clubs (except for those of the churches) were forbidden because of their political goals. Governments became increasingly repressive and education was seen as the privilege of the ruling classes. In 1859 the formation of workers' clubs and societies was permitted again. Four years later 54 clubs organized themselves into the 'Verband deutscher Arbeitervereine'. These clubs followed the example of their precursors by focusing on the education of their members (mostly artisans and journeymen). Thus they offered courses in reading and writing, in bookkeeping, trading, drawing, etc. and tried to help them help themselves and to improve their social standing. These clubs usually bad good connections with the liberal parties.

In contrast the 'Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein' - a workers' club founded by Lassalle in 1863 - aimed at political change. Its goals were to develop class consciousness in workers, to make their disadvantageous position in society obvious to them, to educate them about human rights, and to make them fight for equal voting rights. In 1868 this position was strengthened when Bebel made the majority of workers' societies accept the programme of the International Workers' Association as drafted by Marx. One of the consequences was the foundation of the Socialdemocratic Workers' Party, a more radical and socialist organization than Lassalle's. Its educational programme was formulated by Liebknecht in 1872. Rejecting the liberal notion that 'knowledge is power he postulated that 'power is knowledge'. Only after the revolution, after having gained the political power, and after having changed the existing division of labour with all its negative consequences, would free and equal education for all be possible. Therefore, social democrats decided to focus on political education only. In their meetings and by means of leaflets and journals they emphasized the exploitation of workers, educated them on social problems and the unjust structure of society, instilled class consciousness into them and tried to mobilize them for a revolution. By the turn of the century the training of functionaries became another focus of adult education in the social democratic Workers' Party and in the 'free' unions related to them.

Partly as a counter-movement to the socialist workers' clubs and partly out of concern for the workers' plight, the Catholic Church also became involved in the field of adult education. In 1846 Kolping organized the first Catholic club for journeymen and artisans which was the beginning of the 'Kolpingwerk', which still exists today. Such clubs offered religious and practical instruction, educational lectures and discussions as well as opportunities for reading, singing and social gatherings. They were conceptualised as a power against socialism and the bad influences of pubs. In 1848 Bishop von Ketteler announced that it was the responsibility of the Catholic Church to solve social problems. Thus he asked for an education that would motivate workers to lead a Christian life, to orient themselves to values, to take social actions, and to help one another. Partly because of his teachings the first Catholic workers' clubs were founded in the same year. In 1880 Brandts and Hitze formed the organization 'Arbeiterwohl' (called 'Volksverein für das katholische Deutschland' since 1890) which in 1921 already had 695.000 members. It tried to further the religious, moral and economic well-being of workers and to integrate them into society, distributed the social teachings of the Catholic Church and fought against socialism and revolutionary thought. To these ends, leaflets about actual political events were published, lectures and courses were offered, instructional material was distributed, and the work of local organizations supported. By 1872 - the year in which the 'Kulturkampf' (fight against the Catholic Church) began in Prussia - the religious and moral education of all Catholics was stressed.

Workers' clubs of the Lutheran Church were of less importance. They were founded in 1848 and reached their peak in 1900 with 100.000 members. Mostly they were conservative, anti-socialist and pro-business. Usually, their function was seen in providing religious instruction. The clubs for young men which were founded by Wichern also offered courses on the German language, history and geography, as well as group singing, reading, and interpreting of newspapers. By 1890 Christian unions were founded by Catholics and Lutherans which also focused on political education (social reforms) and provided courses for its functionaries.

Another counter-movement was the activity by industrialists in the field of adult education. They not only offered vocational training for those who began to work for them but also for those seeking a higher or another position in the factory or in management. Several employers also supported liberal workers' clubs or established schools on their premises for workers and their relatives. A declaration which had considerable impact on adult education was published by Harkort in 1848. He stressed the importance of better schooling and adult education for industrial and scientific progress.

In 1871 the 'Gesellschaft für Verbreitung von Volksbildung' (Society for Propagation of Volksbildung) was founded. It was one of the greatest and most prominent organizations in the field of adult education. In 1911 it encompassed 1.434 libraries and reading clubs, 539 educational clubs, 324 professional clubs, 278 citizens' clubs, 171 co-operatives, 205 workers' clubs, 128 youth clubs, and many other clubs. It stressed the importance of education and enlightment - although out of fear of the growing proletariat, of revolution and socialism, it was also quite conservative. Thus differences in educational levels were regarded as the main cause of the differences between bourgeoisie, peasants and workers, whose inhuman living conditions were neglected. This also meant that in contrast to most workers' clubs, political education was lacking. However, education was also seen as a means of integrating the lower social classes and uniting all Germans by an invisible band of the same culture, history, literature, art and spiritual life - but rarely were workers reached.

Goals of the 'Gesellschaft für Verbreitung von Volksbildung' were the continuing education of individuals of the lower classes so that they would be better prepared for their tasks in the community, in the state and in society. Moreover, due to the ever-growing demands of the job, the cultural and the political systems, education was seen as a lifelong process. Thus lectures were offered in order to help the individual acquire more knowledge, train his intellectual abilities, sharpen his judgement, develop all his dispositions, talents and interests, and organize them into a harmonious whole. In these lectures, which usually were not related to each other, scientific knowledge and the contents of higher education were popularised and presented in an uncritical, clear and easy-to-understand way. The selection of lectures was left to the individual without any counselling because he was seen as responsible for himself and his education. As this society and its member institutions tried to be neutral and tolerant, few lectures about political and religious topics were offered. In 1910, the society founded the journal Volksbildungsarchiv which helped to see its tasks in a more critical and scientific way and which improved the work of the member organizations by information-giving.

Around the turn of the century the first 'Volkshochschulen' were established as institutions of the liberal bourgeoisie - adult education centres which are nowadays most important in West Germany. They emphasized the importance of adult education as a separate branch of the educational system and tried to place it on a foundation of research results. 'Volkshochschulen' offered courses and lectures in the evening which served to popularise scientific knowledge, and they also paid attention to literature, music and vocational training.

In these decades theatre and concert clubs were also founded which offered less expensive tickets for performances to their members. By 1896 many professors offered lectures for everybody which were presented in an easy-to-understand way. Thus they tried to popularise the results of their research. However, this movement lost its momentum after the turn of the century because of the resistance of the university system and the growing scepticism of educators and workers with respect to the sciences.

Looking back, one can differentiate between four reasons for the development of adult education in Germany according to Matzat (1964):

  1. Emancipation of human individuality. The individuals freed themselves from the net of commitments, norms, values, behaviour patterns. and traditions, they emphasized their own perceptive and intellectual powers, sought their own goals and values, strove for individual self-perfection, and tried to form their fully-developed abilities and talents into a harmonious whole.
  2. Emancipation of the bourgeoisie. The citizens fought for human rights, democracy and political power. They focused on 'Nationalerziehung' and 'Volksbildung', in order to gain - with the help of adult education - the abilities needed for taking over political responsibility. Education was also regarded as a characteristic of the bourgeoisie and as a means of climbing up the social ladder.
  3. Emancipation of the sciences. Scientists and intellectuals strove for truth and independent research. They wanted to spread scientific knowledge among all people by popularising it.
  4. Emancipation of the workers and the industrial system. Adult education was seen either as a means of continuing vocational training, for improving the social standing of workers, or as a means of mobilizing them in order to fight for their rights, for socialism and for better living conditions.

Thus four social movements determined the goals and contents of adult education: personality development, political education, scientific education and vocational training. It also helped in the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society by aiding in the acquisition of reading, writing and counting skills.

Weimar Republic

The period of the Weimar Republic was a time of crisis. The democratic system, the structure of the economy and the bourgeois society were not accepted by all Germans. It was a time of class struggle, great ideological fights, pessimism in the prevalent culture, and scepticism in science. However, there was also a great belief in the powers of education leading to new theories and to a spirit of experimentation. Adult education was recognized as a separate branch of the educational system by the government and the public. Moreover, in accordance with provisions in the constitution of the Weimer Republic, adult education was promoted and financially supported by the states, without being controlled by them. This also led to the delineation of the profession of adult educators. In 1927 the 'Deutsche Schule für Volksforschung und Erwachsenenbildung' (School for Research on the German People and Adult Education) was founded. With the financial support of the government it served for the instruction and continuing training of adult educators as well as for research purposes.

During the Weimar Republic the 'Neue Richtung der freien Volksbildung' (New Direction of Free Education of the People - 'free' in this context meant that it did not belong to the churches, unions, etc.) flourished in the 'Gesellschaft für Verbreitung von Volksbildung'. This movement was represented by Picht, von Erdberg, Flitner, Bäuerle and others who met once a year in the 'Hohenrodter Bund' in order to discuss central questions of adult education (e.g. group formation and leadership). Their theories, ideas and criticisms were published in the Journals Volksbildungsarchiv, Die Arbeitsgemeinschaft (after 1920) and Freie Volksbildung (after 1926). This movement of adult education differed from those of the decades before in the following ways:

  1. It was no longer extensive. The 'Neue Richtung' strove for depth, thoroughness and effectiveness in its work. Well-planned courses on one topic were offered instead of unrelated lectures.
  2. It was no longer purely intellectual. All abilities and all sides of the personality of students were to be developed. For example, they were given the chance to exercise their creative talents in courses on music, drawing, dance and handicrafts.
  3. It no longer focussed solely on science and culture. The contents of courses were selected according to the needs, interests and existential questions of the students. The focus was partly on real problems and life situations in which individual adults needed some help, advice and guidance. Thus courses were offered on child-rearing, family life and religion. Since science and technology were seen negatively, contacts with universities and the involvement of professors in adult education were terminated. Moreover, vocational and technical instruction were de-emphasized.
  4. It not longer strove for neutrality. Teachers and students were allowed to express their political, ideological and religious views. For example, the political goals of workers and socialist ideas were no longer fought against. Thus no topics were excluded. However, teachers and students were required to be tolerant and to show understanding for another position, as all opinions were seen as equal. This led to little discussion of ideological matters. Moreover, due to this tolerance and pluralism of views there was no firm belief in democracy shared by all, and little resistance to National Socialist ideas.
  5. Lectures became a much less important part of adult education. Lectures were now regarded as leading to passivity, to diminished receptivity and lack of reflection. Instead, teamwork was seen as the most appropriate method of preserving the students' individuality and autonomous thinking and of encouraging an exchange of opinions, experiences and ideas by individuals of equal standing. Teamwork was also seen as a method which allowed students to acquire knowledge and learning techniques by themselves in an intensive intellectual process.

Encouraging people from all social classes to meet and discuss with each other was also supposed to help in the formation of one German people, one nation and one culture. Social education and teamwork were seen as a means of resolving the differences between social classes and those due to different levels of education. In particular, workers should be integrated in the German community, helped in the actualisation of their intellectual and spiritual strengths, and motivated to cultural achievements. Adult education of the 'Neue Richtung' was also aimed at spiritual unity, rejuvenation of the German people, and at emphasizing the characteristics of German thinking, feeling and acting.

During the Weimar Republic the 'Volkshochschulen' flourished, as they were financially supported by the states, which regarded them as permitting national, cultural and political integration as well as providing a new start after the 'Kaiserreich'. By 1927 there were already 215 of these institutions which offered evening courses on a wide variety of subjects and sometimes arranged them in sequences. They were open to the public; in 1927 about 35% of their students were workers and artisans, and about 45% were women.

The work of many 'Volkshochschulen' was determined by the 'Neue Richtung'. Most of their students came from the bourgeoisie. Other 'Volkshochschulen' were influenced by Neo-Romantic thought as represented by Flitner. He stressed that society was divided between educated individuals and uneducated ones whom he called 'lays'. By 'lay education' in 'educational communities' he planned to bridge this division. He also demanded that the impeded forces of the German nation and culture should be freed and German thinking furthered. Another group of 'Volkshochschulen' was influenced by extremely nationalist thought as spread by Tanzmann. He put even more emphasis on the special nature and character of the Germans and planned to nurture it and to develop it into its purest form. He also stressed leadership education and the development of bellicose traits.

A fourth group of 'Volkshochschulen' was oriented toward socialist and Marxist thought. Influenced by Heller, Rermberg and Hermes (the so-called 'Leipziger Richtung') they focused on the political education of workers. They criticized capitalism and the unjust structure of society, tried to raise workers' class consciousness, and planned to prepare them for the revolution, for taking over political responsibility, and for transforming society. Thereby, they took the life situation of workers, their way of thinking and their level of education into account. After the Depression a fifth group of 'Volkshochschulen' was formed which was influenced by Weniger and Tillich. This group stressed Existentialistic thought, i.e. it asked for the meaning of life. Thus, in many courses philosophical, religious and ideological topics were discussed. There were also 'Volkshochschulen' which were oriented toward the Catholic or Lutheran Church.

In 1927 the 'Reichsverband der deutschen Volkshochschulen' (an organization of all German 'Volkshochschulen') was founded. It tried to get more financial support from the state, concentrated on research and tried to improve the qualification of adult teachers. In 1931 it defined the 'Volkshochschule' as an institution which offers intensive education to adults (especially to those with lower educational qualifications), is led by qualified teachers, regularly offers courses, and involves its students in the lessons by taking their expectations, thoughts and experience into account ('Prerower Formel').

During the last years of the Weimar Republic the 'Neue Richtung' and the Neo-Romantic movement lost much of their influence. There was also less emphasis on political education, on counselling and guidance, and on teamwork as a method of adult education. Instead, the 'Volkshochschulen' focused on vocational training and on activities for one's leisure time. Because of the Depression they also concentrated on social work by offering courses for the unemployed during the day or by organizing camps where manual work was combined with discussions about politics and social problems. In general, fewer workers were reached, however, and the 'Volkshochschulen' became more and more bourgeois institutions.

During the period of the Weimar Republic, 'Heimvolkshochschulen' also flourished (first established in 1905). There were similar institutions in Scandinavia - the first of which was founded by the Danish bishop Grundtvig in the early l9th century. 'Heimvolkshochschulen' were usually situated in the countryside and offered (several) month- or week-long courses mostly to the rural population of their region. The students lived at the centre, took part in its administration, and participated in activities offered during leisure time. The courses were very intensive and effective. They usually dealt with general education or covered a wide range of historical, social and political topics. Most 'Heimvolkshochschulen' also aimed at bringing together people of different classes and at making them search for similarities. Therefore, teamwork was often employed as an educational method. In 1927 there were 52 'Heimvolkshochschulen' of which 32 were Protestant. Between 1918 and 1933 many Catholic centres were also founded. In general, adult education by the Catholic Church at that time emphasized inner as well as joint experience and emotions. A spirit of community and love, a longing for the good, and positive sentiments were all to be cultivated. Besides religious and general instruction, political education was stressed. Of great importance was the establishment of the 'Zentral-Bildungsausschuß der katholischen Gesamtverbände Deutschlands' (Central Committee on Education of Catholic Organizations in Germany) in 1919 and the first congress on education in 1925. At this conference, Catholic adult teachers sought their own position in contrast to the 'Neue Richtung' and other movements.

In the Weimar Republic socialist adult teachers tried to change the consciousness and psychological make-up of workers. They aimed at educating them for solidarity and socialism, for mass organizing and the fight for equal rights. However, the unions were the major force in the field of workers' education. They offered evening courses on a wide variety of subjects to their members. As they suddenly had to shoulder part of the responsibility in companies, factories, chambers of commerce and government agencies after the First World War, there was a great need for trained functionaries. They had to have a deep knowledge of the fields of public administration, social welfare, law, economics and socialism. Moreover, they had to be able to substantiate their standpoint with respect to actual political topics. Thus most educational efforts of the unions focused on the training of functionaries. For example, in 1921 the 'Akademie der Arbeit' (Academy of Work) was founded at the University of Frankfurt at the suggestion of Professor Sinzheimer. It offered nine-month and longer courses for leading functionaries and prepared them for high positions in the unions, in government and local authorities. Similar schools were founded in Berlin and Düsseldorf. However, they received little help from the universities as most professors were conservative.

Third Reich

While adult education flourished in the Weimar Republic, it declined during the Third Reich. The government no longer regarded it as a separate part of the educational system but as a way to spend one's leisure time and to spread German culture. Thus it was either allocated to the organization 'Kraft durch Freude' (Strength through Joy) which offered holiday trips, sports, general education and courses on German culture to everybody, or to the 'Reichsministerium für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung' (Reich Ministry for Science, Education and 'Volksbildung') where adult education belonged to the field of cultural care.

Most institutions of workers' education, a number of 'Heimvolkshochschulen' and many Catholic and Protestant educational organizations were liquidated by the Nazis, while the work of the rest was closely observed and controlled. The 'Reichsverband der Deutschen Volkshochschulen' was dissolved and all 'Volkshochschulen' and similar institutions were joined in the 'Deutsche Volksbildungswerk'. They were organized according to the Führer principle: their courses had to be approved by 'Kraft durch Freude' and a party organization, their work was controlled by Nazi functionaries, and many adult teachers received continuing education at party schools.

In the Third Reich 'Volksbildungsstätten' (Centres for 'Volksbildung') were founded by the government. They were established in cities and more and more in larger companies and plants. For example, while there were 218 'Volksbildungsstätten' in 1937, by 1941 there were about 300 in factories and companies alone. During the war some of them also operated in the Wehrmacht and in occupied countries. All of them offered courses, lectures, teamwork, guided tours, trips, exhibitions, etc. Adult education in the form of visits to plays and concerts, lectures on art and music, and facilities for lending records was offered by the 'NS-Kulturgemeinde' (Nazi Cultural Community). And in the fields of vocational and technical instruction, and also in general and political education, the government increasingly sponsored correspondence courses which often led to certificates. Such courses were also sent to soldiers at the front. In order to co-ordinate these manifold activities and further the co-operation between these different institutions, the 'Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft für Erwachsenenbildung' (a Reich committee on adult education) was founded in 1937. It defined adult education as a joint task of state, party and community. Therefore, activities in this field by private and religious institutions were forbidden. Thus the Catholic and Lutheran Churches had to concentrate on religious instruction. Only a few 'Volkshochschulen' owned by cities and some institutions in the countryside managed to preserve part of their independence.

Adult education in the Third Reich was determined by National Socialism. Its main goal was to spread Nazi ideology. Moreover, it had to stress the greatness of the German people, their character, history, folklore and culture. Adult education was supposed to train the mind and foster leadership abilities, promote a healthy life-style (sports), influence attitudes, and instil the will to fight against the enemies of the Third Reich, to conquer new land for the ever-growing German population, and to encourage self-sacrifice for Germany. Adult education usually took place in the form of lectures, teamwork and excursions. Most topics referred to German history, culture and folklore or Nazi ideology.

West Germany

After the Second World War Germany was occupied by the Allied Forces. Many factories and apartment buildings and much of the infrastructure had been destroyed. Most Germans suffered from poverty, hunger and overcrowded living conditions. They learned about the whole range of atrocities committed by the Nazis. However, most did not come to terms with the past. They wanted to forget about it and they concentrated on rebuilding their homes and factories. Moreover, most repressed their knowledge about the atrocities committed, about their own contributions to the rise of the Nazis, and about the positions they had held in the party, its sub-organizations, and in the state. Many also exonerated themselves by attributing the deprivations they suffered to the occupational forces.

The end of the Third Reich meant a new beginning for adult education. At first, small groups met in houses or in church buildings with the permission of the occupying troops. By 1947 many 'Volkshochschulen' were re-established by municipalities following demands by the Allied Forces who regarded them as a means of democratic re-education. At the beginning there were problems with respect to the lack of space, sufficient funding and adequate personnel, as most adult teachers had to undergo a period of denazification. Many Germans rejected them owing to their focus on democratic re-education which was seen as something forced upon them by the occupation troops. In general, 'Volkshochschulen' were not very successful in helping students to learn about democracy and acquire democratic behaviour. Nor did they help them to master their past as there was little analysis of the causes and impact of National Socialism, which was seen as a 'dark force'. Thus, after 1950 there was a sharp decline of courses on politics and society - in 1972 they only encompassed 4% of all courses offered.

In 1948 'Volkshochschulen' and similar institutions situated in the Soviet-occupied zone were nationalized and had to submit to socialist ideology. From then on adult education took a different course of development in East Germany (which cannot be described here owing to space limitations).

In the winter semester of 1947/48 the first courses on adult education at German universities were offered by Blättner and Weinstock. In 1953 the 'Institut für Erwachsenenbildung' (Institute for Adult Education) was founded in Münster. The Institute offered continuing education to Catholic adult teachers and did research. This was followed by the establishment of the 'Deutsches Institut zur Förderung des industriellen Führungsnachwuchses' (German Institute to Further the Rising Generation of Industrial Managers) in 1955 which does research on the training of young managers and provides education on better methods of instruction, the use of the media, etc., and the 'Institute of the German Economy' began to develop models of adult education. In 1957 the 'Pädagogische Forschungsstelle für wissenschaftliche Dienstleistungen' (Pedagogical Research Agency for Scientific Services), which does research for 'Volkshochschulen', was founded. Thus, adult education became more and more influenced by science and research.

During the 1950s much discussion about the theory of adult education took place between Picht, Borinski and Mockrauer. On the one side Picht stipulated (as he already had done before 1936) that the German people were falling to pieces and into decay. He demanded that this development had to be stopped by 'Volksbildung' which was supposed to lead to the fusion of the German people and the 'Geist' (spirit, culture) as well as to the community of all Germans. On the other side Borinski and Mockrauer criticized adult education in general, which they characterized as not presenting a clear image to the public, as legitimising the political and social system existing at the time and as being unscientific and subjective. Instead, Borinski conceptualised a theory of adult education which takes the fast development of society, science and industry as well as the negative influences of the economic system, technology and the mass media (alienation) into account. Considering the needs, difficulties and experiences of adults he demanded that adult education should offer help in dealing with life problems, lead to more human and moral behaviour, further the emancipation of workers, and make men and society more democratic.

In the 1950s adult education in 'Volkshochschulen' became more realistic and pragmatic. They offered leisure-time activities, vocational instruction, and help in case of personal problems. Moreover, they aimed at making their students become partners as well as democratic citizens, and encouraged appreciation of other cultures. Adult education, now seen as a separate period in the process of lifelong education, also became more professional. Thus didactic and methodical principles were taken into consideration more often. In 1953 the 'Deutscher Volkshochschulverband' was founded as an organization of all West German 'Volkshochschulen'. It soon became one of the most important and influential institutions in the field of adult education. Its demand that 'Volkshochschulen' get a monopoly in this field was widely discussed but only partly realized. By 1956 there was also some co-operation with universities. Thus courses were offered by professors at 'Volkshochschulen' in the cities or at their outposts in the countryside. After the Second World War many 'Heimvolkshochschulen' were re-established, and in 1960 there were 55 altogether - 17 Catholic and 15 Protestant. These offer courses which may be two weeks or five months long, preparing for certificates or dealing with politics, history, economics, etc.

There was also some co-operation between 'Volkshochschulen' and unions. In 1949 the 'Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund' (an organization of all German unions) was founded and it soon concentrated on the continuing education of functionaries, shop-stewards and youth representatives. Its goal is to prepare students for positions in member unions, companies, factories and administrations in which they have to execute their rights according to the codetermination laws and represent the interests and demands of employees. Thus they have to learn about politics, economics, law and social sciences. The 'Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund' and its member unions also offer workers' education in these fields as well as continuing education for a wide range of technical, commercial and administrative jobs.

In the 1950s more and more factories, companies and organizations in industry also began to offer continuing education to managers, white-collar and blue-collar workers. Most courses aimed at updating their knowledge, teaching them new skills, preparing them for better positions or for innovations, and at informing them about modern developments in economics, politics and society. Also general knowledge and personal enrichment were sometimes stressed. Similar courses were offered by co-operatives, chambers of commerce and chambers of trade.

The Catholic and Lutheran Churches also became more and more active in the field of adult education. Their activities usually focused on theology and religion, parental education and family enrichment. Matters of conscience and faith as well as methods of child-rearing, individual problems and interpersonal conflicts were discussed in lectures and work-groups. The reality of life, scientific knowledge and social conditions were explored from the vantage point of Christian teaching, values and norms. In general most activities aimed at strengthening faith and making individuals live a Christian life. In order to achieve their goals, the churches founded many different institutions of adult education, for example local educational and cultural centres or - in the case of the Catholic Church - the 'Katholische Arbeiterbewegung' (Movement of Catholic Workers), the 'Katholische Landvolkbewegung' (Movement of the Catholic Rural Population), 'Akademien' (offering courses for prominent members of the different spheres of society), and 'Soziale Seminare' (dealing with social politics). In order to co-ordinate the work of these and other institutions catering to similar or different population groups the 'Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft für katholische Erwachsenenbildung' (1957) and the 'Deutsche Evangelische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Erwachsenenbildung' (1961) were founded.

The 1960s - a time in which the rapid political changes of the years before were consolidated, in which the great boom of the German economy was followed by the first recession, and in which the student revolution occurred - began with a very influential statement (1960) on adult education by the 'Deutscher Ausschuß für das Erziehungs- und Bildungswesen' (an agency formed by the federal government and the states to advise them on education and the educational system). It declared that adult education is a separate and important part of the educational system because lifelong learning is required from everybody since the world and society are constantly changing. It succeeds the state school system and continues its work. Therefore, it deserves to be financed by the states. Because 'Volkshochschulen' as municipal institutions were favoured in this important statement, representatives of the churches and their adult education centres protested and demanded equal rights and uniform conditions for public funding. In the declaration of the 'Deutscher Ausschuß' and in a statement (1964) of the permanent conference of ministers of education, the involvement of universities in adult education (with respect to research and courses offered) and the training of adult teachers at universities was asked for. This led to the establishment of chairs on adult education at many universities. Other declarations of government agencies and statements by organizations were concerned with the lack of adult education in the rural areas, the introduction of systematic courses leading to certificates or graduation, the importance of continuing vocational training, and the co-operation between 'Volkshochschulen', TV and radio.

In the 1960s new theories of adult education were developed which took the knowledge of social psychology and group dynamics (Brocher), human development and life stages (Pöggeler, Schulz), the growing need for better qualifications in the business field (Knoll, Siebert), and the consequences of lacking education in lower classes (Negt) into account. In many theories the results of research on learning and motivation were also considered. Of great importance were publications on the history of adult education and the conditions determining its development (Balser, Vogel).

In the 1960s and early '70s empirical research on adult education boomed. It was found that about 10% of German adults were well informed about the availability of adult education centres and made use of them consciously. Another 25% sometimes but rarely participated. In general, more individuals from cities, from upper social classes and with a higher level of education took part in courses. In the so-called Göttinger and Hildesheim studies it was found that adults observed a lack of education personally (about a third of them), in their family and private life (a quarter), or at work (another quarter). Asked, however, which undertakings or functions they attributed to 'Volkshochschulen', they mostly stressed continuing vocational training, systematic study in certain fields, discussion of political and social topics, and the wish to learn from science and research. Thus adults seem to expect more help from 'Volkshochschulen' with respect to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, or they believe that they can improve their personal and interpersonal lives only by changing their job performance. In general, members of lower social classes tend to regard adult education as a means of improving their social position, of gaining a better job, of acquiring more knowledge, or of learning how to behave well, while members of upper classes see it as a means of improving their personal life, of making up their mind with respect to values, or of being together with other people and discussing different topics with them (Strzelewicz, 1979; Schulenberg, 1981).

In the early '70s - a time of great experimentation and hope in education which was seen as a means of improving the competitiveness of the economy and the chances of members of lower socio-economic classes - there were two government statements about the entire educational system of West Germany. In the 'Strukturplan für das Bildungswesen' (Plan for the Structure of the Educational System) (1970) by the advisory 'Deutscher Bildungsrat', the term 'continuing education' was introduced which encompassed adult education, continuing vocational training and the retraining of adults for new jobs. It meant the 'continuation or resumption of organized learning'. Emphasizing rational and useful learning instead of 'Bildung', the 'Deutscher Bildungsrat' stressed the connections between the school system and continuing education. Thus the latter was seen as a means of updating the knowledge acquired at school or at the university and as a way of attaining better qualifications (also for members of lower classes). The 'Deutscher Bildungsrat' visualized a system of courses which build up on each other, have the same contents everywhere, and allow the successive acquisition of certificates recognized by employers and the state. Therefore, it demanded that the institutions of continuing education should coordinate their activities at local and regional levels.

In the 'Bildungsgesamtplan' (Plan for the Entire Educational System) (1973) of the 'Bund-Länder-Kommission für Bildungsplanung' (Commission for Educational Planning of the Federal Government and the States), adult education was defined as systematic learning and the maximization of information. There was much emphasis on vocational training and scientific knowledge which should be related to political education and general knowledge in order to further the total development of the adult student. Continuing education was regarded as the fourth part of the educational system. It was accepted that it took place in many different private and public institutions which were equal and should enjoy equal rights, e.g. with respect to funding. Of great importance was that the federal government, the states and the communities committed themselves to sponsor adult education. Thus in 1979 1.900 million Deutschmarks (about £530 million sterling) of public funds were spent in this field (Knoll, 1980), mostly by the states since they are responsible for education according to the 'Grundgesetz' (constitution). Therefore, most state legislatures passed laws on adult education regulating its funding and the cooperation of different institutions. Continuing vocational training and adaptation to rapid technical and economical changes were usually stressed. Provisions were often made with respect to providing more continuing education to the rural areas where it was lacking or even non-existent.

In the 1970s there was a greater concentration on adult education at many universities, and many new professorships were created. A new department on adult education was founded in the 'Deutsche Gesellschaft für Erziehungswissenschaft' (German Society for Science of Education). All of this led to the development of a great number of theories on continuing education. As they cannot be described in detail here, owing to space limitations, they are simply classified as follows:

  1. Personalistic theories (Bailauf, Groothoff, Mader, Olbrich, Prokop, Tietgens). They are oriented towards philosophy, especially towards the philosophy of Enlightment and Neohumanism. Quite often concepts from role-theory, symbolic interactionism and systems theory are used. Theorists emphasize that adult education has to focus on the individual and help him develop all sides of his personality, balance his personal and social identity, distance himself from his roles, and fulfil adequate role demands. It should prepare him for concrete tasks, change cognitive schemes, and teach social as well as democratic attitudes and behaviours. Moreover, the needs, values and motives of individuals have to be discussed; counselling and help with personal problems have to be offered. Thereby, the life situations, experiences, and orientations of adults, the development of identity, and the right of self-determination are taken into account and the organization, structure, and impact of systems (including that of adult education) are analysed. The main focus is on the dialogue and cooperation between students in which they should strive for objectivity, impartiality and humaneness.
  2. Christian adult education (Emeis, Erlinghagen, Henrich, Pöggeler, Pöhlmann, Spitzner). Here adult education is seen as an answer to individual problems and wants. Thus it should offer counselling and guidance, parent education and family enrichment, help at problematic phases of one's life (birth of a child, wedding, old age), and further the welfare of the underprivileged. Discussions and lectures on theology and faith have to spread the gospel, clarify values and help individuals find a sense of life. Moreover, world-wide problems like the menace of atomic war, the underdevelopment of the Third World, and environmental protection have to be discussed.
  3. Market-oriented theories (Knoll, Schulenberg, Siebert). These theorists start from the presupposition that the demand of individuals and society for adult education has to be satisfied. Therefore, they analyse the manifest and latent demand for and supply of education. They also do a lot of empirical research. By adult education they plan to teach the knowledge, skills and competencies needed by individuals owing to the fast changes in society, industry and business administration. Thus they stress vocational training as well as instruction on natural sciences and technology. Moreover, it should be possible to acquire qualifications usually offered by schools in adult education.
  4. Emancipatory theories (Borinski, Dieckmann, Dikau, Strzelewicz). With the assumption that West Germany is a technocracy these theorists describe social problems, the dangers of the present economic and bureaucratic system, and the psychic burdens of the individual due to anonymity, stress and the need to achieve. They want to democratise society and industry. introduce social reform, help the disadvantaged, and make life and work more humane. They try to reach their goals in adult education by combining continuing vocational training with political and workers' education. On the one hand, students should learn to master new technologies, acquire necessary competencies, and become self-confident, flexible and productive. On the other hand, they should learn to analyse the social structure, the connections between technology, economy and politics, and the legitimacy of power in industry and the administration. Students should discuss their experiences, problems and needs in an unconstrained and informal discourse. Thus they have to be regarded as equal to adult teachers, that is they should participate in determining the goals and contents of their courses. The democratisation of adult education centres should lead to learning without pressures and anxiety. This can be furthered by taking the life situations, needs and interests of adults as well as group processes into account. These theorists usually favour public centres ('Volkshochschulen') which should become like state schools. They also realize that they can only reach their goals by gaining control of continuing vocational training.
  5. Neo-Marxist theories (Axmacher, Markert, Negt, Weick). These theorists start from a Marxist analysis of society and economy. They criticize present adult education as legitimising capitalism, indoctrinating individuals to the class system and focusing on vocational training. Instead they stress political education which should begin with helping workers analyse their job experiences, discussing the negative consequences of the technological development, and recognizing the capitalistic order of the German economy and the class structure of society. Then students should learn to visualize alternatives and strive for them.

Most theories have had little impact on the practice of adult education. This is partly due to one-sidedness, incompleteness, unclear conceptualisations and the use of unintelligible formulations. Most theories are very abstract and, therefore, have little relevance to practical application. Moreover, they are very often impractical as they ignore the goals, interests and demands of adult students which are quite constant and which cannot be influenced to a great extent. Many theorists have little contact with adult teachers because they do not work in centres for continuing education. Thus they have no regard for their experience, knowledge and wishes (for example, to learn about didactics, teaching methods, and the use of the media) and they ignore the reality of these institutions (for example, the lack of funds and qualified personnel).

More or less the same is true with respect to empirical research on adult education. Its results are usually ignored by practitioners as they are too general or abstract, irrelevant or open to many interpretations. The wishes and ideas of adult teachers are disregarded; they want to know about adult learning, ways to increase motivation, effective teaching methods, and the efficiency of continuing education. The negative (and reasonable) attitude of practitioners toward academic theories and research is generalized towards adult teachers who have studied at universities. These are regarded as unqualified and incompetent because they are too theoretically oriented, too impractical and prejudiced. Thus most full-time adult teachers come from different fields and receive their teaching qualifications from practical work or by continuing education offered by their institutions. However, most teachers only teach one or two courses in the evening either out of interest or because they want to supplement their income.

During the last decades adult education has become an important and full-fledged part of the educational system. Continuing education is offered by federal and state administrations, the 'Bundeswehr' (armed forces), municipalities, 'Volkshochschulen', industry, unions, churches, commercial centres and many other institutions open to everybody or to certain groups. This leads to competitiveness and to some replication of efforts and makes it difficult for prospective students to orient themselves. However, this also means that all needs and wishes of adults with respect to continuing education can be satisfied. Due to the lack of funds the public sector is no longer as active in the field of adult education as it was. Moreover, the number of students is now more or less constant and new groups of prospective students (e.g. from lower classes, unemployed workers, retired people) are very difficult to reach. Thus adult education in West Germany has now entered a phase of stagnation and consolidation.


Aus: International Journal of Lifelong Education 1986, 5 (4), S. 279-296


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