Marjorie Lamberti. The Politics of Education: Teachers and School Reform in Weimar Germany. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002. vii + 272 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57181-299-5; $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57181-298-8.
Reviewed by John Cornell (Department of History, Butler University)
Published on H-Education (December, 2003)
Culture Wars, German-Style
Culture Wars, German-Style
In the wake of World War I and the Revolution that ended the German empire, elementary teachers assertively enacted progressive reforms in German education. They entered the fray of party politics--largely as Liberals and Social Democrats--and actively supported the beleaguered Weimar Republic. Even when the Nazis emerged as a major threat at the onset of the Depression and took control of Germany in 1933, elementary teachers, for the most part, staunchly resisted Nazi attempts to subvert the educational system for their own ends.
These are the principal conclusions reached by Marjorie Lamberti in her fine study of Weimar educational reform and the intensive political activity surrounding it. To her considerable credit, Lamberti complicates the picture of a German educational sector that was largely receptive to National Socialism. Unlike their university and high school colleagues, German elementary teachers promoted social equality and religious toleration in their schools, backed the beleaguered Republic and the democratic values for which it stood, and initially proved resistant to woolly Nazi pronouncements on education and culture.
For non-Germanists interested in the history of education, Lamberti's book offers insights into educational "culture wars," whose flash-points often seem strikingly familiar: discipline and school prayer, academic standards and accountability, differential funding for elite and lower-class schools, the widespread disparagement of teachers, the touchy politics of parental involvement in school policy, and, above all, highly-charged debates in the media about "values" in education. Lamberti places these controversies securely in their German setting from 1918-1933--a reminder that culture wars are fought in a specific society and not in some timeless ether. But the family resemblance to American educational debates puts our own culture wars in an illuminating perspective.
What is most distinctive about the German setting is the prominence of confessional education: almost all German children at the outset of the Weimar Republic attended publicly-funded Protestant or Catholic (or in some very few cases, Jewish) schools. Lamberti begins her story with the legacy of failed attempts to reform confessional education during the unified German empire. Building on her earlier, excellent work in this field, State, Society, and the Elementary School in Imperial Germany, Lamberti describes the ways in which the assault on Catholic schools in the 1870s and subsequent debates over educational policy in the empire embittered the politics of education, making Catholic minorities, in particular, suspicious of school reform as an attack upon their community identity. In addition to these confessional divisions, Lamberti highlights the existence of exclusive, public-supported elementary schools (Vorschulen) which prepared students from the upper classes for entrance to advanced high schools and, eventually, to university. The result, Lamberti observes, was that the Weimar Republic inherited a school system that was both "confessionally segmented" and "socially stratified" (p. 18).
In the heady days of the Revolution and early years of the Republic, elementary teachers and their professional organization, the German Teachers' Association, were finally able to move on their reform agenda. Their vision was that of a unified public school system (Einheitsschule), one which put children of different faiths and different social classes together. Revolutionary edicts did away with such practices as school inspections by church officials (greatly resented by teachers) and school prayer. The Weimar constitution followed up with articles banning private preparatory schools, mandating inter-confessional tolerance in education, declaring religion to be a school subject like all others, elevating the training of teachers to a university program, and establishing a common school combining students of all beliefs and all classes as the norm (Regelschule). Given the rapid and sweeping introduction of these long-sought reforms, it is no wonder that elementary teachers tended to express "an idealistic and exuberant view of the young republic, and were willing to engage in "intense political activity" in order to make these provisions of the Weimar constitution a reality (pp. 45-46).
All these aspects of the reform agenda were contested during Weimar; many of them were only implemented partially, or not at all. In particular, the churches bristled at the attempt to de-confessionalize education. Making use of ambiguous provisions of the Weimar constitution, church leaders mobilized parents into associations opposed to the new policies. The Catholic School Organization and the Protestant Parents' League developed mass memberships and represented a remarkable, new feature in the German political landscape. Parents who were shocked by the prospect of inter-confessional or secular education distributed (mis-)information about school reforms, sought to evade implementation of the educational articles of the Weimar constitution, and even promoted school strikes directed at particular policies, teachers, or administrators. Lamberti's account of these strikes by angry parents--the most riveting part of her narrative--offers a sobering perspective on the (conservative) social protest and political activism during Weimar, which had the effect of undermining Weimar itself. The "traditionalists," as Lamberti calls the opponents of reform, were able to block early passage of a national school law, which allowed existing arrangements in many confessional schools to remain unchanged.
The teachers were undeterred. Despite setbacks on matters of religion, they managed to introduce major pedagogical reforms throughout the German school system. Education became more socially just with the abolition of the elite preparatory schools and the establishing of four-year basic schools (Grundschulen) which could lead to higher education for any student, including those from the lower classes. The reformers promoted active learning in elementary education, in line with the discoveries of developmental psychologists (especially those from Leipzig). Most importantly, many teachers adopted a more learning-based, individually-oriented, and child-friendly tone in the classroom, breaking with a long tradition of authoritarian instruction and group recitation.
In the case of some two hundred experimental schools, reformers abandoned grading and corporal punishment entirely. These experiments were by no means isolated pedagogical practices, Lamberti argues, but influential and widely-adopted innovations (especially in urban schools) designed to realize progressive education in a democratic state. These pedagogical breakthroughs were overshadowed by the adverse political environment and public discourse concerning education in Weimar. The traditionalists used ambiguous language in the Weimar constitution--itself the product of "political horse-trading" back in 1919 (p. 56)--in order to frustrate implementation of the reform agenda. They inserted language in the highly controversial proposed Reich school bill of 1927 which was at odds with the constitution. The bill was defeated, but it was, as Lamberti calls, it "a victory without euphoria" (p. 181). The debate over the school bill--an excellent example of Lamberti's close attention to specific political controversies and their surviving sources--had made it clear to reformers just how powerful the traditionalists in Weimar's culture wars had become. There is much in this story that is not very pretty, and Lamberti pulls no punches in assigning responsibility. Church leaders--particularly the Catholic bishops--pursued an aggressive course which strained the coalition between the Catholic Center and the Social Democratic parties.
While, much to the consternation of their teacher-constituents, the socialists were inclined to compromise on educational policy in order not to threaten the precarious stability of the government itself, Catholic leaders and the Center Party showed no such restraint. They were willing to insist on their maximalist demands. When mobilizing parents to oppose educational reform, church leaders poisoned public debate by spuriously claiming, for example, that reforms had caused a widespread "flight from elementary school" (p. 155). Traditionalists repeatedly misrepresented the reformers, employing demagogic slogans which "seldom went beyond mockery, vague ideological catchwords, and unsubstantiated generalizations" (p. 157). Ignoring the evidence that many teachers remained personally faithful but did not want to teach religion on a confessional basis, traditionalists tarred those who declined to do so with a single brush as godless secularizers. They similarly disregarded the continuing support by most reform-minded teachers and parents for the inclusion of religion in the curriculum by charactering the inter-confessional common schools as "irreligious schools" (p. 73). When some teachers became active in the Social Democratic Party, traditionalists feared that all reformers were seeking to indoctrinate the lower classes with cultural Bolshevism. In short, by their unwillingness to credit their opponents with anything but the lowest motives, the opponents of reform contributed to the increasingly unreasonable, unrealistic, uncivil tone of Weimar politics. Lamberti could not be more clear in her assessment. "Right-wing clergymen overreacted in their perceptions of hostility to religion and the church within the elementary school teaching profession" (p. 188). "In their perceptions of school politics under the republic, right-wing churchmen overestimated the influence of the partisans of secular schooling with the Majority Social Democratic Party and showed an inability to distinguish between pragmatic and radical Social Democrats and between progressivist pedagogues and doctrinaire left-wing ideologues" (p. 186). The traditionalists, in short, let their ideology blind them to the reality of what most reformers wanted to accomplish.
Lamberti concludes with a final chapter on the emergence of the Nazis into mainstream electoral politics and its consequences for school reform. The German Teachers' Association recognized the threat posed by the Nazis and bravely resisted it. There were traditionalists among the teachers, especially among teachers in "frontier" zones like Silesia, who were all too willing to listen to National Socialist invective. But for the most part, elementary teachers were unlikely to succumb to the bluster of Nazi propaganda. "The active members of the German Teachers' Association resisted the penetration of National Socialism in their profession" (p. 212). Lamberti openly applauds teachers who stood up for progressive reforms and the Republic which had enacted them, and bares the folly of those who managed to find rhetorical common ground with the Nazis. Though modest and understated in its conclusions in this regard, Lamberti's work nonetheless makes it clear that the problem in the political culture of Weimar lay--even before the Nazis emerged as a force--on the anti-democratic right.
The strengths of this well-focused and thoroughly-researched study are many. Lamberti captures the twists and turns of public debate, the uncertainty and contingency of school politics, and the intertwining of school issues with the course of national politics. Reluctant to make sweeping generalizations, she repeatedly qualifies her own arguments by presenting the full range of contemporary opinions. Among the reformers themselves, Lamberti distinguishes between the mainstream of moderates (often active in the German Democratic Party), who saw a continued role for religion in the school curriculum, and their more radical colleagues (often active in the Social Democratic Party), who pushed for a complete separation of church and state. The most valuable and intriguing distinctions Lamberti makes are regional ones. She suggests how the culture wars were contested differently in different parts of Germany. Lamberti pays considerable attention to Saxony, which was the center of progressive education and which saw some of the most determined opposition to reforms. The port cities of Hamburg and Bremen, with their large working-class populations and established middle classes, produced reformers on the far left of the political spectrum. Prussia with its sprawling contrasts--urban and rural, Protestant and Catholic, Polish and German, not to mention most of Germany's Jewish population--provides a good vantage point for Lamberti to survey the complexity of Weimar's culture wars.
There is little to criticize about this well-written monograph. The impact of World War I on subsequent events could have received more treatment. Although Lamberti cites one figure to the effect the unified school system "received its acharter in the trenches" (p. 44), for the most part she relegates the war years to flashbacks or footnotes in her narrative. A chapter or section devoted to the effect of the war upon teachers who would later become reformers (or traditionalists) would have been welcome.
Lamberti could also have paid more attention to gender. Did attitudes toward reform vary between men and women teachers? Did fathers and mothers play different roles in the Catholic School Organization and the Protestant Parents' League? How did the strong involvement of women in elementary education--both as mothers and as teachers--affect the dynamics of the culture wars? These are questions which Lamberti does not pursue.
The Politics of Education: Teachers and School Reform in Weimar Germany tells the fascinating story of elementary teachers who substantially revised German schools. They succeeded in replacing more traditional, authoritarian, rote-learning methods with a child-friendly pedagogy. They succeeded in closing some of the educational gap between rich and poor in Germany's stratified society. But when they attempted to introduce confessionally-tolerant schooling, they conjured up a backlash of church-sponsored, parent-supported, media-hyped reaction. The culture wars fought between educational traditionalists and reformers in Weimar Germany were indicative of the increasingly tense political atmosphere of the Republic. The traditionalists' success in mobilizing popular support to protest the reforms and in manipulating public discourse to create a climate hostile to compromise points to a central political conundrum in Weimar (as well as elsewhere and today): grass-roots democracy can at times be disturbingly un-progressive. "From the school strikes staged by the parents' associations, the teachers knew that democratic control over the schools in the form of parental sovereignty could produce undemocratic outcomes" (p. 174).
The reform-mindedness of Germany's elementary teachers did not prevent an opportunistic rush to join the Nazi party after 1933. Nor did it prevent the incorporation of the German Teachers' Association into the National Socialist Teachers' League. But in the long run, the reformers' vision of an educational system less bound to social and confessional divisions and more oriented to the learning capacities of young children eventually held sway. Lamberti has told their story--and that of the culture wars they brought upon themselves--exceptionaly well.
. State, Society, and the Elementary School in Imperial Germany (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
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John Cornell. Review of Lamberti, Marjorie, The Politics of Education: Teachers and School Reform in Weimar Germany.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.