College Quarterly
Winter 2010 - Volume 13 Number 1
Reviews The Quest for Modern Vocational Education – Georg Kerschensteiner between Dewey, Weber and Simmel
Philip Gonon
New York: Peter Lang, 2009

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The title of this book is a little intimidating, especially for those who may be unfamiliar with modern European research, policies and practices in the field of vocational education. As well, it may not immediately engage those who have not kept up with (or were ever introduced to) discussions of such nineteenth and early twentieth-century polymaths as John Dewey (1850-1952), Max Weber (1864-1920) and Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Finally, the name of Georg Kerschensteiner (1854-1932) may not fall trippingly from the lips of even those contemporary educators who imagine themselves quite up-to-date and in no desperate need to appreciate the musings of a German educator of almost a century ago. They would be wrong to take any of these as excuses to avoid this important study.

Georg Kerschensteiner was a towering presence in the controversial pedagogical debates of his day, and those debates boom and echo. In few areas is the adage about those forgetting the past being obliged to repeat it more apposite than in education.

Annoying buzzwords and catchphrases are seldom the same from year to year and are rarely worth repeating even once. Nevertheless, enduring issues and the various positions adopted and expressed about them must constantly be revisited even if they are tiresomely familiar. The reason is that, no matter what words are used to discuss ongoing “challenges” and “solutions,” the innately contested concept, theory and practice of teaching and learning are matters about which a total consensus cannot and should not be achieved. Though it can be frustrating to fight the same battles again and again, with no victory complete and no defeat total, we should value the ongoing contests for they are evidence that there is still life in our profession and, incidentally, in us.

Significant pendulum swings occur, of course, but they oscillate within much the same kind of clock. Total paradigmatic shifts from analog to digital, for example, are rare and sometimes barely noticeable until it is too late to stop them. More often, we encounter more or less manageable dilemmas. Should we emphasize general education or job training? Are the arts an unaffordable frill? How does education best contribute to a sense of personal and social responsibility? What is the place of controversial social issues in the classroom?

Of these questions, however, the one that is most frequently argued is the proper relationship between education and work. Whether from the perspective of the individual student (Will my studies get me a job?) or from that of society (Will our programs “grow the economy” in “an increasingly competitive world market”?), we hear the same tiresome mantras repeated in the same speeches, books, magazines and newspapers. Even if the chanting stopped today, the echoes would persist. And, since the chants are unlikely to die down, it may be time or past time to go to the roots of the music, to listen to some old tunes if only to gain perspective on the new and perhaps to alert us to the fact that new, “cutting-edge” theories are often just the recycled scribblings of some antique sociologist and that the current versions are of much poorer stuff.

In this case, Gonon brings the estimable work of Dewey, Weber and Simmel to our attention, both as they influenced Georg Kerschensteiner (1854-1932) and as they might have relevance today. When these three gentlemen thought and wrote, the industrial revolution had pretty much wreaked its havoc on traditional European and on much of North American society. Industrial capitalism was well on the way to destroying ancient aristocracies and traditional patterns of life. Edmund Burke’s great fear and Karl Marx’s great hope were being fully realized. Burke (1729-1797) worried that “all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life … are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.” Marx (1818-1883) celebrated this social cold shower and hoped the “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions [and] everlasting uncertainty” would set the stage for the revolution he believed was necessary to bring about a genuinely humane society. Meanwhile, with a little more detachment, Dewey, Weber and Simmel, spent much of their Earthly time sorting out what the effects of nineteenth-century transformations would be. Kerschensteiner, their contemporary, applied their insights and left a legacy that is worth examining, both for its creative insights and, not least, because of the warning flags it raises.

The problem for Kerschensteiner is similar to our own. In light of an increasingly complex economy with sophisticated machinery and complicated tasks, the education of the workforce is essential for a strong economy. On the other hand, in a time of increasing opportunities for public involvement in political and social life, cultural literacy and preparation for the requirements of citizenship demand at least an exposure to the liberal arts. How is a proper balance to be achieved?

From the American philosopher John Dewey, Kerschensteiner took ideas of child-centred education and school organization around the concepts of activity and work. Vocational training, however, was not simply a matter of learning how to use tools. Concrete action was also an important pedagogical instrument. Kerschensteiner disdained what he considered to be the crass elements of utilitarianism and pragmatism. He was carefully selective, and he rooted his ideas in the somewhat frightening notion that we can only learn from “others in as much as they speak the language of our soul.” That said, Kerschensteiner believed that the preparation of the student for a life of work was the fundamental aim of schooling. It was not, however, merely the acquisition of specific “hands-on” skills, but also learning to work in a community and to develop moral character that was stressed. These factors, writes author Philipp Gonon, “lead to the demand for civic education for future citizens of the state.” For us, this logic works as well; what remains open for discussion is how the education for citizenship is to be fashioned, who will be the guardians of civic instruction and, of course, who will guard the guardians.

Gonon inquires next into the influence of Max Weber and what he calls the “alternative to liberal education.” As it happened, though Weber and Kerschensteiner were prominent in their respective fields of sociology and pedagogy at very much the same time and in the same place, Gonon reports that they had little directly to do with one another. They were, however, intrigued by and drawn to the same transformational pattern: social modernization. Kerschensteiner, originally a teacher of physics and mathematics, expressed a commitment to practical education and to education in the Humanities as a result of his interest in ethics. He added, however, an explicitly political dimension by expecting each person, regardless of their work, to contribute to “a homogenous ‘culture state’” and to acquire “the ability to make such a contribution … through civic education.” Weber fit into this project by elaborating the concepts of “science as a vocation” and “politics as a vocation.” Kerschensteiner adds “education as a vocation.”

In our society, the word “vocation” has lost much of its meaning. Especially when we speak of “vocational education,” we mean something fairly mundane. To us, vocational education is nothing more than job training; however, the original meaning of the term was a “calling” often of the sort said to be experienced by people being “called” by their deity to join the clergy. More than a job, a vocation is a moral commitment and perhaps even a destiny.

It would no doubt distress Weber to learn that, in (post)modern society, science and politics are seldom regarded as a deep personal commitments undertaken for the good of humanity. There are certainly some scientists and, no doubt, some politicians who feel deeply and altruistically about their path in life; more often, I fear, the motivations for pursuing such careers are mixed and perhaps merely opportunistic. At the turn of the deadly twentieth century and fully in the embrace of a modernizing Germany, there was a good deal more idealism in play.

Gonon’s description and analysis of Weber was, to me, one of the best parts of the book—both in terms of the development of Kerschensteiner’s ideas and in its own right. The connections which he draws between Weber, the history of education and the relationship between German and American education is fascinating, especially when seen in the light of education as a calling and, quite frankly, as an act of love—for the student and the society.

Choosing his heroes among men such as Fichte, Goethe and Bismarck, Georg Kerschensteiner lionized the great Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). It was, however, the sociology Georg Simmel who may have had the greater immediate impact. Gonon speaks of the significance of Simmel’s “discourse of life and form” as a blueprint for Georg Kerschensteiner’s philosophy of education. My previous experience with Simmel had been limited to a treatment of this free-wheeling sociological pioneer in a single course in sociological theory back in 1968. It was therefore gratifying to be directed toward a new understanding and appreciation of his work. While I had understood Simmel mainly as a forerunner of several subspecies of the discipline such as structuralism and symbolic interactionism as well as specific subfields such as urban sociology, I was reminded of his passionate concern with passion, love and romance and, of course, education.

Simmel starts from the premises explicated in his 1911 volume Philosophische Kultur” which carried on in the Romantic tradition of Hegel and Schelling and articulated the idea of lebensphilosophie, a “life philosophy” with a kindred spirit in Henri Bergson’s notion of élan vital. Sometimes bordering on a type of education that would, in Antonio Gramsci’s hands, confront “alienation” in traditional Marxist terms, Kerschensteiner prefers the incorporation of the sensual, the love of community and the practical arts of a socially useful life.

All of this is, despite superficial appearance, pertinent to contemporary pedagogical debate. Not only are the old arguments being renewed (if they had ever been even temporarily set aside), but they are being carried on with a vengeance. Gonon has offered a sympathetic, but not uncritical assessment of Georg Kerschensteiner. Comparing our time to his can be unnerving, considering that his life ended just one year before Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich. It is therefore unwise to force close comparisons, but at the same time it is apt to keep certain parallels in mind.

Philipp Gonon brings many threads together in his closing chapter, including the direct application of Kerschensteiner’s work to the vocational education discourse underway in the United States of America (and elsewhere) today. If his book gives us a useful sign on the highway of the future, it is this: Proceed with Caution.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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