“Liberty, Fraternity, Labour” : histories of adult education in Germany

What we take for granted today had to be gained in tiny steps, had to be fought for in endless campaigns: learning to read; having something to read; learning to write; being free to write what you think; learning to think critically to start with. Striving for a better social position than the one you were born in; expanding the struggle to those less fortunate than you without patronising them; going beyond elementary schooling or bettering yourself through continuing education.

Ticket with man in blue shirt and red hat and neckerchief; motto: Freiheit, Brüderlichkeit, Arbeit.“Liberty, Fraternity, Labour”. Entrance ticket of the Cologne Workers’ Association (1848), founded for the ‘enlightenment and education’ of the working class. — Photograph: By Unknown author (Unknown source) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Some books are worth their weight in gold. Some annexes which scholars have poured years of sweat and sighs into deserve to be enlarged and put up as a frieze in classrooms. The beginnings of adult education in Germany in 250 pages with 100 pages of annotations may not be everyone’s idea of a good-night story, but the book offers a fascinating insight into social and political life two hundred years ago. In Germany, the struggle for equality, liberty, and democracy was inextricably linked with the struggle for national unity and identity.

In 1959, Frolinde Balser followed up the manifold roots of adult education: from patriotic fraternities to early communist and socialist movements, from Sunday schools to philanthropic efforts, from mechanics’ institutions to literary circles, and of course to public libraries – don’t take libraries for granted! In a table to fold out, she pulled her research together, with the milestones of adult education matched up to the first public libraries and essential publications, such as encyclopaedia and handbooks.

Encyclopaedia in large volumes, in black leather with golden lettering and ornamentation.The Newsam Library at the UCL Institute of Education is one of only five libraries in the UK to hold this study by Balser: Die Anfänge der Erwachsenenbildung in Deutschland in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts : eine kultursoziologische Deutung. Even with a limited knowledge of German, the work might be of great value to you, thanks to the author’s abstracts of her chapters and that final overview of institutions and events.

The Brockhaus, the German-language equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. 14th ed., 1896. — Photograph: –jha- [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons.

The entire 19th and 20th century of adult education in Germany are covered by Olbrich’s and Siebert’s study of 2001, also new to our collection and otherwise available only at Cambridge University and the British Library. Josef Olbrich picks apart the agendas of colleges for adults: Catholic, Communist, Jewish, Fascist… The reconstruction and ‘re-education’ after the wars are followed by the contrasting histories of the two states on German territory, the reunification and slow adaptation, internationalisation and globalisation.

Digital technology, however, is barely on the horizon – this is how much the world has changed in less than a generation! I vividly remember trying, together with a colleague at an adult education centre, to operate a video recorder less than 25 years ago. We watched the tape being sucked into the machine and were not sure how we could get it out again!

Baroque building of subdued elegance on square.


Headquarters of the city adult education college (Volkshochschule) at the Chancellor’s Palace in Fulda, Germany. — Photograph: By Mattes [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.


Horst Siebert, who contributed the chapter on the GDR, also compared the education systems of the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic in a compact paperback. Half of Bildungspraxis in Deutschland (1970) is devoted to school and university and the other half to adult and continuing education. Perhaps social science researchers need to give more space to the latter?

Also hitting the library shelves is a festschrift for Ulrich Teichler of 2008, a collection of studies on higher education and indeed on the field of higher education studies. Some of the papers are in English, and so, of course, are many of Teichler’s own publications. Just have a look at the UCL-wide catalogue Explore or the nationwide catalogue Copac to find more English-language texts.

Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that “rapid mass production is not fit for a solid intellectual product” caught my eye. How does it fit in with current tendencies to teach to the test, force everyone through degrees, offer ‘massive’ online courses… and just stuff ourselves with masses of information? Besides school and college education, adult education must be taken seriously; it deserves resources and reflection. These works in the Newsam Library give us plenty of historical detail and plenty of theoretical background.

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