Erhard Schlutz

Volkshochschulen and Internationalism

I do not know whether the average Volkshochschule course participant would spontaneously link the notion of “internationalism” with the Volkshochschule. Perhaps, if asked more closely, he or she would say “Oh, you mean foreign languages which you can learn at the Volkshochschule …”; and as a matter of fact “internationalism” was the title of one of the working groups at the conference which dealt with foreign language teaching at the Volkshochschulen. However the “inter”, the “between”, the “with one another” was also the concern of other working groups which were occupied with Europe, global responsibility and intercultural learning.

Considering the fact that Volkshochschulen are foreign language experts, it was particularly clear to the speakers in several of these groups that the foreign language interpreting service was poor. Whispered English translations for our foreign guests were in general the rule, their own contributions, however, generally spoken in English, were not translated back into German. The “Wessis” of course looked knowingly… thought was not wasted on the East Germans and East Europeans. The Volkshochschulen with their foreign language arsenal should learn from this.

The working group “Europe – Cooperation between the Volkshochschulen and Comparable Institutions” proceeded in the most concrete manner, I believe, although I of course did not attend all talks in full. Adult education organisations from Austria, Switzerland, England, the Netherlands, Southern Europe, the Baltic States, the CIS and the Ukraine, from Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland introduced themselves. The absence of a structured or standardised comparison of the differing situations in the individual countries was sadly obvious however. The call for better co-operation between comparable institutions and associations in Europe was clear, as was the plea to the European Commission to rethink its structures. Demands for Europe were ­discussed in one paper. The problem at the core here was “How can unsynchronised developments in Europe be brought together in one common catalogue of demands by the adult education institutions and interest groups?” Or, as expressed in the following question, “Is the concern of the institutionally supported German Volkshochschulen, that the EC could lead to total project support and thus to a total reduction in institutional support, understandable for other countries?” As the Austrian colleague said: “There is a lot of intercultural learning still necessary here.”

The other working groups were occupied with exactly this sort of learning. Working Group IV on “internationalism”, which we have already mentioned, apparently found it easy to maintain internationalism but did not make it easy for themselves however. The principal speaker first of all encouraged the Volkshochschulen: “The language certificates were epoch-making, also as far as internationalism was concerned. The Volkshochschulen have hidden their light under a bushel.” – But the Volkshochschulen should also pursue new targets, particularly that of “acting internationally”. This led to some questioning: “What could be meant here?” Being multilingual at a professional level, teaching about foreign countries using native speakers, even more study trips – but with what sort of people and teachers can this be done? Here, in Kassel a language lecturer earns DM26.40 an hour – DM17 after taxation!

Apart from this not so pleasant reality however, it was correctly stated that to bring the people together to talk to one another is the social ­responsibility of the Volkshochschulen and that in this respect the principle of “acting internationally” should be applied in practice.

The other working groups found it heavier going. Perhaps they had more reason to.

The working group “Global Responsibility – Adult Education and One World” focused on the question of how one can make the third, the fourth, the fifth or just the one world a theme of German adult education in the Volkshochschulen. Fundamental problems of the North-South question were also dealt with, prompted by foreign guests, but one always returned to the question: “Well, how can this be put into practice, how can we bring these problems closer to the course participants?

Horst Siebert made concrete suggestions on this, the IIZ made suggestions, course participants made suggestions: modest suggestions on the theme of cultural education, suggestions on target group work (on the question, for example, of the variations in the status of women in different countries), suggestions for linking the individual, immediate environment with the rest of the world, or suggestions for so-called gentle tourism – of course different to that offered by travel agencies – with detailed preparatory and follow-up courses at the Volkshochschule etc.

Siebert’s warning should be taken seriously: if one tries to burden potential participants with moral feelings of guilt this could probably lead to the opposite of what one intends, that is, not to clarification and interest but to absence and repression. Siebert showed that even intellectuals – that is, teachers, educationalists and Volkshochschule directors such as myself – master the mechanisms of repression well; he also saw these at work in substitute actions such as donations or demonstrations for the Third World or in one-sided labelling, for example, when one blames monopoly capitalism alone for the situation in the Third World. He did not want to say that such statements do not contain a certain truth but warned about overlooking the real problems when ­using such sweeping statements.

These warnings appeared in Hilmar Hoffmann’s talk at the beginning of the working group “Intercultural Learning”. This carried the subtitle: “On the reality of a sublime target”. In the discussion which followed, there was more talk about the sublime than the reality. Hilmar Hoffmann warned, in view of the current violence against foreigners, about the resistance and rationalisation of the problem on the part of the people who dissociated themselves from those hostile to foreigners. The changes in Central Europe as a result of immigration and the world-wide migration movements concerned everyone, not only emotionally but also economically. Whilst some people reacted helplessly with open hostility, intellectuals took refuge in cynicism or exaggeration. They projected right wing radicalism on to certain small groups. These small groups, Hoffmann proved by means of several studies, cannot be converted with educational means or moral judgements. They have to be given a chance to form their own identity which, in or through the Volkshochschule, can only take place by means of listening. The possibilities of the Volkshochschule, according to Hoffmann, and also those of tourism (which as he showed usually sends people home without their gaining any worldly understanding) should be seen modestly and realistically. It was probably more important to create a cultural or contra-cultural milieu in adult education than to deal opportunistically with current themes, even those, I would like to add, which begin with the prefix “inter”.

Instead of devoting more time to these more modest and realistic possibilities, however, the discussion peaked (I don’t know what sort of dynamics was at work here) and began to look at apparently more demanding and profound questions. For example: “Does intercultural learning mean a complete acceptance of the other? Or isn’t the need to react to what one feels to be inhuman behaviour, justifiable?” Here the suppression of women in certain cultures was mentioned. Such considerations became interesting when participants began to look at themselves. In this way one participant discovered to his astonishment that in observing the behaviour of foreign men towards their wives he had developed a kind of “humane anger” which he later queried as perhaps justification for a personal, secret racism. The discussion of the working group ended then with the question: “What does interculturalism have to do with us? Don’t we have to begin with ourselves and question ourselves first?”

However important such a question and an opinion are, as a conclusion for a professional discussion on intercultural learning they are somewhat disappointing. Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether there are too few forums for discussion here which help in reaching understanding on such questions. It remained open what Volkshochschulen can ­actually achieve in intercultural education. In this context the self-observation of one woman participant was interesting. She presented several examples which had made her aware of her own emotionally charged prejudices by recalling “learned” knowledge about foreign ­cultures. She cautioned against underestimating the knowledge of other cultures and societies and thus the mediation of ­knowledge which the Volkshochschule carries out.

I would like to summarise my impressions and questions:

  1. Europe is growing together, that is clear, also in adult education. However we have to know more about adult education in other countries.
  2. The learning of foreign languages and the language certificates are still an important chapter in internationalism in the Volkshochschulen but the formal target of the capability to communicate has to be reconsidered with the following question in mind: “How can understanding, not only formal fluency, be promoted?”
  3. The question of how we can actually gain, and pass on to the course participants, understanding for the Third World was for me the most difficult question in this context. It became clear to me how important the work of our “Institute for International Cooperation” is.
  4. Big words (“global”, “one world”, in particular big words with the prefix “inter-”) have to be realistically scrutinised with regard to the role and possibilities of the Volkshochschule. Education and organised learning (this is a generally known fact but it has to be repeated again and again) cannot solve all global problems. Large slogans contain the inherent danger that they ward off, suppress and rationalise fundamental problems instead of taking a modest look at them, for example with the questions in mind which we always seek to pose: “What can the Volkshochschule do in the way of concrete services for immigrants, how can it assist in making the recognition of school certificates and alternative examinations possible? How can the Volkshochschule create, as prompted by Hilmar Hoffmann, a cultural milieu of understanding in every course?”
  5. The fundamental question of all world-wide problems of understanding, (that is all “inter-”problems, for these are the problems of understanding) seems to me to be: “What interest should and can the majority or dominant group have in getting to know, understanding and even learning from others ... and these others may be foreigners, people in the former GDR, the elderly (intergenerational learning), youth subcultures and the Third World?” If this is not clarified, in detail, with the help of practical experiments, then we will produce only a pseudo-idealism (“all people should understand each other!”) which is perhaps good enough for conferences such as this but which will not produce anything concrete.

Finally allow me two further questions directed at the way we see ourselves and thus perhaps more of a personal commentary.

The Volkshochschule helps people here and those travelling abroad to get to know foreign cultures and to profit from them. However, this may also strengthen the European attitude of being able to regard the world as a cultural booty which the modern Narcissus can plunder at will and may allow one to develop the megalomaniac feeling of being omnipotent and omnipresent in the world. To what extent does the Volkshochschule contribute to such a feeling?

And the reverse side to this danger of post-modern arbitrariness is the careless shedding of one’s own historical background and values. Allow me to comment here on an excerpt from the discussion. One of the working groups named human rights as an example of “objectionable” Western claims, to universal acclaim, as their declaration had not helped many groups in history, but had merely confirmed the dominance of a certain bourgeois, Western, male, upper class view. Now I believe that if human rights were ideologically used against others, one would have to ask whether justice as an idea has failed for the reason that it has been violated daily. One should recall Willi Strlewicz here, who wrote his book on the declaration of human rights in exile and who later consistently cautioned that adult education should not seek justification for its daily work. For this was already covered by the notion of human rights in the 18th century and the only justification which we really needed. Human rights can be understood as a court of appeal for the weak. This provides, as it were, for education for all, education of all and education by all, that is, the general education of humanity. If we reject this universalism as Eurocentric then I would like to ask in conclusion: “Don’t we reject together with human rights an important force for resistance, leaving the world to submit to the ruling rational universalism of money, of culture as industry and of global ­environmental destruction?”