Helmuth Dolff

The Volkshochschulen and their International Links

The German Adult Education Association has chosen “Worldwide Adult Education – New Dimensions of Education” as the theme of the 4th German Adult Education Conference. The purpose of doing so is to demonstrate, after 20 years of expansion at home, that it sees its mani­fold activities as part of adult education throughout the world. And while the saying by von Weizsäcker, the physicist and philosopher, that “there is no national foreign policy any more – only world domestic policy” is becoming increasingly true in all fields of life, it can certainly be applied, using different criteria, to those working in adult education. The ­problems facing us today, whether we practise adult education in highly developed industrialized countries or developing countries, whether in the democratic societies of the West or the socialist societies of the East, are becoming increasingly similar. The aims and intentions may differ, but the factors determining what methods and teaching styles are used, are coming ever more to resemble each other.

Awareness of international interconnections is growing in adult education more precipitately than in almost any other field of education. ­Appreciation of the need for international links, and interest in them, are increasing rapidly throughout the world, not only in the highly ­industrialized areas of Europe and North America, but more particularly in developing countries. There is no usual pattern for arrangements in this sector, as there is in school or university education, for example: adult education has to pay far greater attention to sociological, economic and social circumstances, and to find ways of working that are suited to these. The German community adult education ­centres – the Volkshochschulen – can make a particular contribution to the development of these international links. After the Second World War, when their provision usually took the form of evening and residential courses, they had to develop new modern methods, teaching aids and models of organization. These have now earned considerable respect in friendly European and American countries, and they result in a constantly rising number of requests for assistance from developing countries.

The Volkshochschulen have always seen their obligations in this field as part of their overall educational role and therefore as part of their political responsibility in the broadest sense. In its report on “The Situation and Role of German Adult Education”, the German Committee has stated the reasons for this in apposite terms: “This [political] ­situation is by no means restricted to the Federal Republic of Germany or to Europe. The tensions in world politics have become dangerously acute precisely because humanity has long since grown together ­into one unit. People are all in the same boat, and the basic circumstances, developments and forces of the world affect the existence of each and every one of us, since humanity subsists in a state of indivisible, ­mutual dependency. No true political education can therefore any longer ­ignore issues raised by colonialism, the awakening nations of Africa and Asia, our solidarity with developing countries, or the spiritual and religious changes being experienced by the older cultures that have been ­overtaken by technological civilization.”

Adult education, which is usually taken up by people who are critical and politically aware, can easily start from this angle. However, it is ­evident that we are still woefully negligent of and ill prepared for this task. We still feel the painful legacy of the National Socialist years, especially in the Volkshochschulen, when no international exchange of experience was possible and all international contacts were lost, and we now generally lack the personnel to relaunch or restart them. Furthermore, German is no longer a world language, and we usually have to work in a foreign language, usually English or French. The Volkshochschulen were and still are obliged to rely largely on their own initiatives. Most of the support which has come to be taken for granted in other fields of education, in universities and schools, technical colleges and youth work, is almost totally lacking in the Volkshochschulen. This may reflect the fact that the continual expansion in international dialogue and exchange, which has been considerable in recent years, has gone largely unremarked and has sometimes attracted more attention and recognition abroad than in the Federal Republic itself. We take it as a sign of friendly solidarity that adult educators from 20 countries are here among us now, discussing with us common concerns and problems.

Allow me to mention briefly a few aspects of our international work, and to describe some others more fully, in order to give you a picture of the international links which Volkshochschulen have today formed with like-minded persons.

First, there is our contribution to international bodies concerned with adult education, such as UNESCO, the Council of Europe, ILO and FAO, to mention the most important organizations of which the Federal Republic is a member. In all of these, we are among the principal funders, but one needs to have attended meetings oneself in order to appreciate how effortlessly we are outshone by small states with the least funding power but the greatest commitment. The Federal ­Republic pays, but its heart is not in it. That is why we are always ­welcomed individually as valued participants and staff members, while the country as a whole plays little part in the many and varied activities of these organizations. A separate ministerial department is merited, since the division of responsibility between the Federal and Land ­governments dissipates our efforts. Nonetheless, the Volkshochschulen were represented when UNESCO set out in 1949 in Elsinore, Denmark, to establish a position in response to the totally new field of adult education that was suddenly coming into being. While the agenda was then largely concerned with a relatively small number of issues of teaching methodology, and the majority of the participants were European, the young states in Africa, Asia and Latin America stepped forward at the 2nd International Conference held in 1960 in Montreal, Canada, in order to discuss their huge problems, to learn, and to make demands and requests. They sensed then that the efforts of the highly developed countries to build up their own adult education systems implied a willingness to help and to work with others, and that even in industrialized countries, adult education was a vital issue. ­Montreal was and is the brightest beacon of the solidarity which has subsequently grown up between adult educators throughout the world, even of the creation of a worldwide camaraderie of like-minded ­people, whose professional support for one another is experienced daily by the Volkshochschulen.

Cooperation has also developed between non-governmental organizations, which may be less well funded but are free of the problems referred to in the government context and have the opportunity to make better use of professional input. Among the NGOs in question are the Asian-South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession and the International Congress for University Adult Education. The Volkshochschulen, thanks to their professionalism, play a respected role in all of these.

In recent years, specialist European conferences have been held in the Federal Republic at our initiative on “Regional Planning and Adult ­Education”, “Adult Education in Rural Areas”, “Adult Education in Residential Institutions” (together with colleagues from the United States and Canada), “Adult Education in the Armed Forces” and “Adult ­Education, Social Work and Leisure”, to name only some of the most significant. The lessons learnt from these, and the recommendations arising from them, have not only provided valuable input into our own work, but have also had a major influence on the international debate about these issues.

The problem of the failure to include the adult education sector in ­intergovernmental cultural agreements is perhaps not immediately relevant here, but should not be omitted. It is a worldwide problem, and is probably due solely to the dislike or lack of understanding of the ­so-called “Third Arena of Foreign Policy” felt by the “real” diplomats. The sector has in fact grown to embrace anything which goes beyond the fine arts, the universities, and so-called youth exchanges and ­exchanges of workers.

Exchanges of experience with neighbouring countries and the United States, and the desire to learn from one another, began immediately after the war. A whole series of Volkshochschulen owe their existence primarily to orders issued by the occupying powers, and subsequently to the active support of colleagues and friends in France, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Switzerland. Let me at this point thank in ­particular Joseph Rovan from France and Sven Söderquist from ­Sweden – both of whom are here with us today – as representatives of many others. They were among our international friends at zero hour, and without them we could not now have spoken of genuine cooperation and trust. At that time we eagerly learnt from the long unbroken tradition of experience abroad. At the same time, we had to create something new that would fit the situation in Germany. We achieved solutions which now sometimes enable us to give back a little of what we then received.

We in the DVV have had to realise that it is neither within our powers nor part of our role to develop exchange programmes on a numerically large scale. Our work with other countries has focused rather on:

  • advising adult education centres on programming
  • preparing and conducting study visits by German experts abroad, so that they have the opportunity to learn about new developments
  • fostering contacts with friendly adult education organizations abroad and the cultural departments of embassies
  • devising programmes for groups of foreign professionals visiting Germany, and looking after them during their visits
  • organizing and running international conferences and meetings and, increasingly in recent years, helping to establish adult education in developing countries. I shall discuss this last point more ­fully later on.

The complex links abroad of the Volkshochschulen reflect the variety and range of their activities. It is not possible to list them all within this paper. Let me merely mention that there are bilateral, ongoing links with adult education institutions in around 50 countries in the world, some of which are based on long-standing agreements. However, this whole area is still in its infancy, there is a general lack of public support, and we ourselves do not yet accept as a matter of course that such links have a positive effect on our work at home. Just as we require future full-time staff to have several years of additional training in adult education, and sometimes a period of practical training, after a first university degree, we should see it as an asset for new recruits to have had experience abroad and should strive towards making it the norm for staff in post in adult education to spend time working or studying abroad. We need this fresh air from outside if we are not to become provincial. The nationalist consciousness of being a major world province is no protection.

Let me now turn to our involvement in the field that is commonly ­referred to as educational assistance for developing countries. The very ­expression can lead to misunderstandings. While we may in material terms be the donors, activities in this field bring so many new lessons and experiences that are of value in our own situation that the ­relationship should be seen rather as cooperation in adult education development.

After years of searching for the right form of development assistance, we in the Federal Republic are nonetheless still in the early stages of a process that embraces the entire world, the scale and future of which are still largely unfathomable. This is true of the spheres of technology and economics, and very definitely (I will use the expression once more) of that of educational assistance. And yet this sphere is indissolubly linked with social and economic development. One might almost say that it is an absolute prerequisite for development. However, success can only really be measured over decades, and is barely discernible, given the rapid pace of our lives. Frequently, we have therefore succumbed to the temptation of neglecting this field in favour of more visible projects that are more easily demonstrated and of limited duration. If this is a reproof, given the complexity of the whole issue, then it must apply to donor and recipient countries alike. But as all those involved come to be more realistic, the recognition is slowly dawning that the interdependency between the various aspects of development calls for overall planning, and that education must occupy a prominent place. This brings me to the particular problem that educational institutions in the Federal Republic may be dealing with notions of “planning” and “education” which are not practised in our own country. We have, so to speak, to develop the tools at the same time as using them to resolve the question. The Volkshochschulen in particular, which have not yet reached their final form in Germany, need constantly to rethink and to search systematically for new ways of working and ­methods of supporting teaching. These may in turn have some relevance to our response to the situation in developing countries.

Even before the term “developing countries” became current, there was probably no Volkshochschule programme in which the problems in the young, struggling nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America did not ­occupy a major place. Political, cultural and racial issues were taken up very early on in our Volkshochschulen. This area has now become a permanent part of the programme, and is increasingly being taught by people from the developing countries themselves. Courses, short courses, meetings, lectures, discussions and international clubs are some of the many ways in which these global issues are addressed here in Germany. But all this is still not enough to spread knowledge of the true facts among broad sections of the population, so that they can overcome all the misconceptions, all the propaganda and all the self-perpetuating prejudices, and can understand that these issues concern us as nearly as things happening in our own country. The world of ­today is indivisible, and what is done or not done in this field affects the lives of each and every one of us.

In 1965, the scientific advisory committee of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation published an “Educational Assistance Report”, which attracted surprisingly little attention and comment, given its significance. It was, in the view of its authors, “a first attempt to design, on the basis of all available previous experience, an overall set of recommendations for assistance in the field of education and training in developing countries.” The significance of the report was then overshadowed by the election campaign, but all those concerned should ensure that this document, every detail of which is significant, does not remain purely a source of quotations for academic papers, but actually guides our actions. We in the Volkshochschulen would do well to base our own involvement on the thoughts gathered there. They ­provide both confirmation of what has gone before and encouragement for further systematic development.

Let me sum up once more in conclusion. The brief report which I have been able to give you only reflects some of the most significant developments, but not the true breadth of our international links. There should have been far fuller discussion of the contacts with our Scandinavian, British and American friends, which are growing ever closer, of the increasingly active interchange with Eastern European adult education institutions, of the wide-ranging and open collaboration with our French partner organizations, and of much more besides. Much of this has come to be taken for granted, so that we no longer regard it as work with other countries. But one thing is certain: there are no grounds for self-congratulation. We still have a long way to go before

  • international cooperation is regarded not merely as an occasional extra in adult education by the public authorities and the majority of our staff, but as the norm
  • we have access to the organizational arrangements which are ­everyday features of this work in schools and higher education.

Let us therefore hope that this 4th Adult Education Conference is a further step in the right direction.