Christian Wulff

At the Adult Education Conference, the largest German conference on Adult Education, hosted by the German Adult Education Association every five years, as a rule,the current President of the Federal Republic of Germany is a guest. His presence enhances the event and along with that the work of the Adult Education Centres and Adult Education in general. But it doesn’t always get support as strong as it got this time when President Christian Wulff spoke to the people who attended the XIIIth Adult Education Conference on May 12, 2011 in Berlin.

Volkshochschulen are Schools for the Whole Life

In the treasure trove of German proverbs there are some which, although very old, are not necessarily true. One such proverb is an expression that every German knows: “Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr.” The English equivalent for this is: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. And the literal translation is: What Johnny doesn’t learn as a child, John will never learn as an adult.

This saying is often used to drum the importance of school into children, to impress upon them how important it is to learn things at an early age, and to bring home the message that it is in childhood and youth that they have the irrecoverable chance to learn for life.

As a reminder and warning, the message may still be valid to a degree. Whatever motivates children and young people to learn and to make an effort to improve their chances in life is not bad for a start. But if it serves to discourage people from trying to further their education as adults, we should strike it from our memory as quickly and completely as possible.

It is true that the brain is most receptive to learning when we are young, and that we may never learn as quickly and as thoroughly as we do in our youth. The experiences we make as youngsters are, indeed, those which are the most formative – those which have the longest and most lasting impact on our lives. And it is during our younger years that we acquire most of the knowledge that carries us through life and helps us make our way in the world.

But brain and cognition research has long since proven that intensive and fruitful learning can also occur after youth. Studies even show that we are better able to separate important from unimportant information, and useful from useless knowledge when we are adults; that as adults we therefore tend to be more goal-oriented in our behaviour and, above all, more motivated to learn than when we are young.

The truth of this fact, however, is not only apparent in recent research findings. It has long been established in our country through the tremendous success experi- enced by the German Adult Education Centres, the Volkshochschulen.

Literally every single day, the Volkshochschulen, with their hundreds of institutions and their thousands of instructors and learners, prove that learning is a never-ending process, a process that never has to stop – and never should stop.

Every single day, the Volkshochschulen are living proof of the fact that everyone, regardless of education, ethnic background, creed, or age, is hungry for knowl- edge, for continuing education and training, for language proficiency, for creativity, for social competence, and for personal development.

Every single day, the Volkshochschulen are living proof that people enjoy learn- ing, that they gladly make the effort to get ahead – to advance their careers, to gain new knowledge or cultural experience, to improve their practical life skills. No one is required to attend courses at the Volkshochschule. People learn of their own free will, for their own benefit – without compulsion, without obligation.

The President of the Federal Republic of Germany




The President of the Federal Republic of Germany
Source: Heidi Scherm


And, last but not least, every single day the Volkshochschulen are living proof of the fact that the best kind of education is the kind that caters to the needs of the people. As dynamic systems, the Volkshochschulen themselves are continually learning and developing. They are an example of the interplay between supply and demand. They register changes in what is wanted and expected from education. They are sensitive to the changes that people undergo as they plan their lives and chart their futures.

In short: the Volkshochschulen keep pace with the times because they stay closely attuned to what people want from education.

The German Adult Education Conferences, like the one which brings us together here today, regularly illustrate this process of reorientation. They are an occasion to exchange experiences, to discuss new trends in society, to examine new concepts, and to deliberate and decide common goals.

These conferences are a unique kind of social laboratory. The planning that takes place here is not remote and abstract. On the contrary: People from Volkshochschulen all over Germany bring concrete examples of their everyday practice to the discussion table here and compare their experiences with one another. They are here to discuss in clear and goal-oriented terms the best ways to meet the educational needs of the people and to satisfy the educational requirements of contemporary society.

And because this is so, let it be said without reservation that the Volkshochschulen and their Adult Education Conferences perform a highly valued service for our communities. For this express my sincere gratitude.

I would like to highlight a few special points in this context, considering that it is always preferable to be specific when saying thank you. Point number one: the Volkshochschulen are schools for democracy. That is already clear from their history. It was during Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic, that the Volkshochschulen got their start and began to flourish. For two reasons in particular, democracy and national education are twin concepts.

First: It is not a person’s ethnic background, nor his or her class membership that counts in a democracy. In a democracy everyone should have the chance to take part in society according to his or her individual needs and abilities, to “partici- pate”, as it is called in professional circles. This means that everyone should have access to education. And that everyone, regardless of their level of formal schooling or training, should be allowed to continue learning and to further their development.

And second: Democracy needs responsible citizens, educated, informed, and enlightened citizens; citizens who can form their own opinions; citizens who, as Kant so validly put it, can use their own reason. In this broad and inclusive sense,

the Volkshochschulen stand for further education and training. Not only do they provide knowledge and information; they also foster awareness of social and political responsibility.

The range of courses and functions offered by the Volkshochschulen demonstrate without a doubt that we live in a community – a democracy – whose institutions are meant to serve the public so that every individual may develop his or her capaci- ties and find his or her place in society. Each community, in turn, therefore counts on the help, the ideas, the concern, and the commitment of its members in order to keep functioning and developing in the common interest. In short, here as well: Living Volkshochschulen are indicators of a living democracy, of a democracy that is being lived.

Point number two: Volkshochschulen are local institutions. They are learning centres that belong to our municipalities. They bring together people who are neigh- bours, people who live and interact in the same community. In this sense they are a vital impetus for life within a municipality, a city district, or a local neighbourhood. Budget savings must not begin at their expense. It is right for the Volkshochschulen to finance their operations from their income to a degree. It is also right for people to pay for learning opportunities that are tailored to their personal needs.

But tuition fees must not be set so high as to become an unaffordable barrier for many people who would otherwise like to attend. Volkshochschulen can do well with project grants. They are important and helpful. Targeted subsidies of limited duration can set many wheels in motion. But the Volkshochschulen also need a dependable and sustainable source of financing that allows for longer-term plan- ning and safeguards their future.

As meeting places for local communities, as learning centres that belong in a very special way to our cities, towns, and municipalities, the Volkshochschulen must not contribute to segregation. Courses at the Volkshochschulen are precisely the place where people from different social milieus and different classes can meet and interact. That is what gives these functions their unique character, and that is how they should stay in the future.

In short: Volkshochschulen are communal learning centres with which the entire community must be able to identify. We must always be aware that, in essence, their purpose is to serve the common good.

Point number three is a corollary of the last point: Volkshochschulen are centres of integration. Language courses naturally have a central place on the curriculum. Of key importance here are not just the foreign language courses, but also, and especially, the German language courses that are designed for foreigners and migrants.

Plenary session



Plenary session
Source: Heidi Scherm


But the subject of integration covers more than just language learning. Integration grows here day by day. Day by day, a society of many different origins grows together here in the courses on music and art, in the various branches of the natural sciences, but also, and especially, in the projects and courses related to history, society, and political science.

Last but not least, it is necessary that the Volkshochschulen engage people in dialogue on religion and faith, and also on political convictions and goals. Integration is not a topic for idle chatter, and not a subject that is likely to come up on its own. It takes knowledge and awareness of others. It takes critical analysis. And it takes dialogue and discussion, dialogue and discussion that must not be left to academic circles and professional conferences in air conditioned hotels. Such encounters must take place in the course of daily life between people who will meet one another on the street tomorrow and the day after, people who live together in the same community. Volkshochschulen are a good place for such encounters.

In short, once again: Volkshochschulen are centres of integration, places where what belongs together comes together, where people learn together, from and with one another, through discussion and dialogue.

And one final point which I consider very important: Volkshochschulen are centres for Lifelong Learning. This is true in two respects: First, they are learning centres where education is understood in very broad and inclusive terms. Lifelong Learning is not only about knowledge and abilities, but also about life experience and self- determination. It is about self-reflection, social and family responsibilities, creativity; about the ability to gain cultural experience, competence in cultural expression, history awareness, and political consciousness. Education at the Volkshochschulen addresses the person as a whole.

And second: As centres for Lifelong Learning, Volkshochschulen are places where people are never too old to learn. Everyone grows older, but the world does not stand still. It keeps on developing from day to day at breakneck speed. The knowledge and skills we need to succeed in life are not acquired for once and for all. As our society becomes progressively older, older people are increasingly shaping our communities. This makes it all the more important that they have the chance to pursue further education and training.

There are many things and skills that Johnny could not have learned as a child because back then, or even until just very recently, they simply did not exist. For John, the adult, it has become essential to be able to learn things that once may have actually been impossible for little Johnny to even imagine. Learning as an adult, continuing to learn, finding a new orientation in life, being able to keep pace with the times, these are possibilities which the Volkshochschulen offer, possibilities which they need to offer now more than ever.

I am very grateful to the Volkshochschulen for offering a place where generations can come together. There are also things, by the way, that the younger generation can learn from their elders. The older generation has life experience, a sense of direction, and, yes, even wisdom. These are things that do not become obsolete.

In short, once again: Volkshochschulen are centres for Lifelong Learning. All hu- man abilities are fostered here and no one is too old to learn here.

You still have much to accomplish, so I want to close now. But first I would like to tell you once again how much I appreciate your work, how much I appreciate what you are doing for our country, for your cities and for each and every individual who attends a Volkshochschule. Many thanks to you for all your efforts. May you come away from this Adult Education Conference fortified, and may you return with new motivation to your important and challenging, but certainly also very fulfilling work.




Arrival of the President
Source: Heidi Scherm



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