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Georg Kerschensteiner (1854–1932)

A dominating figure in the German Progressive education movement, Georg Kerschensteiner gained an international reputation as promoter of activity schools, civic instruction, and vocational education.

Born into an impoverished merchant family, Kerschensteiner taught at elementary schools (Volksschule) before he attended gymnasium and university, passed the state examination for secondary school teachers (1881), and earned the Ph.D. degree at the University of Munich (1883). In 1895, after twelve years of teaching at a gymnasium, he was elected school superintendent of Munich, a position he held until his retirement in 1919. In this capacity, he devoted his energies to a reorganization of elementary and vocational education, implementing in particular two innovations: the "activity school" (Arbeitsschule) and the "continuation school" (Fort-bildungsschule). To the activity school, Kerschensteiner introduced workshops, kitchens, laboratories, and school gardens for the upper grades of the elementary school, and developed a kind of project method, with the intent to increase and elevate the students' learning motivation, their problem-solving capacities, their self-esteem, and their moral character. Kerschensteiner's continuation school was a mandatory part-time school for all boys and girls between the ages of fourteen and seventeen who had finished the compulsory eight-year elementary school and were working. As apprentices and young laborers they received eight to ten hours of instruction weekly; in addition to practical training they attended classes in religion, composition, mathematics, and civics–subjects that were taught in close connection with their specific trades.

In this way Kerschensteiner tried to foster their liberal education and further their social advancement; he stressed, however, that the main aim of education had to be citizenship (staatsbürgerliche Erziehung). The activity school and the continuation school were to make useful and purposeful citizens: first, by guiding the student to his proper life work; second, by planting the idea that each vocation had its place in serving society; and third, by teaching the student that through a vocation society grew to a more perfect community. Kerschensteiner appealed to the students' practical bent by building the learning process upon their active participation in work projects and extracurricular activities chosen in accordance with their own interests. Participation and project work were to convert the school from a place of individual and intellectual singularity into a place of practical and socially serviceable plurality.

His work brought him high recognition, making Munich the "pedagogical Mecca" for educators from all over the world. He received invitations to lecture in Europe, Russia, and America; his books were even translated into Turkish, Chinese, and Japanese. An admirer of John Dewey and his foremost interpreter in Germany, Kerschensteiner toured the United States in 1910 on behalf of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education. By this he hastened the most vigorous debate of the Progressive era with Dewey, David Snedden, Charles Prosser, Charles McCarthy as protagonists, resulting in the Munich system of vocational education (e.g. dual control and continuation schools) becoming in part the model for Wisconsin's Cooley Bill of 1911 and the Federal Smith-Hughes Act of 1917.

In England, Switzerland, and Japan his concept of compulsory continuing education had a similar impact on school reform and legislation. From 1912 to 1918 Kerschensteiner was, on the liberal ticket, member of the German Parliament (Reichstag) in Berlin. After his retirement, from 1918 to 1930, he served as professor of education at the University of Munich, publishing numerous books and articles, among them Die Seele des Erziehers und das Problem der Lehrerbildung (1921; The soul of the educator and the problem of teacher education), Theorie der Bildung (1926; Theory of culture), and Theorie der Bildungsorganisation, (1933; Theory of the educational system).

Kerschensteiner's philosophy of education was influenced by contemporary Neoidealists and opposed to the classical ideal of culture as conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Whereas Humboldt (and Dewey for that matter) claimed that general education had to precede specific education, Kerschensteiner maintained that vocational, not general, education was to be the focal center of teaching and the "golden gate to culture and humanity." Only the individual, he claimed, who finds himself through his work can, in the course of his development, become a truly cultivated person. Having worked his way up from humble beginnings, Kerschensteriner based all his educational innovations on a democratic impetus that was designed to overcome the rigid caste structure of German society, break up its inflexible school system, and increase the occupational opportunities for talented youth from the lower classes.

Apart from Die Entwicklung der zeichnerischen Begabung (1905; The development of talent for drawing) and Wesen und Wert des naturwissenschaftlichen Unterrichts (1914; Nature and value of science instruction), his most important books and articles published before World War I are available in English: Education for Citizenship (1911; Die staatsbürgerliche Erziehung der deutschen Jugend [1901]); Three Lectures on Vocational Education (1911): A Comparison of Public Education in Germany and in the United States (1913); The Idea of an Industrial School (1913; Begriff der Arbeitsschule [1912]); The Schools and the Nation (1914; Grundfragen der Schulorganisation [1907]).


BENNETT, CHARLES A. 1937. History of Manual and Industrial Education, 1870–1917. Peoria, IL: Manual Arts Press.

KNOLL, MICHAEL. 1993. "Dewey versus Kerschensteiner. Der Streit um die Einführung der Fort-bildungsschule in den USA, 1910–1917." Pädagogische Rundschau 47:131–145.

LINTON, DEREK S. 1997. "American Responses to German Continuation Schools during the Progressive Era." In German Influences on Education in the United States to 1917, ed. Henry Geitz, et al. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

SIMONS, DIANE. 1966. Georg Kerschensteiner. His Thought and Its Relevance Today. London: Methuen.

TOEWS, EMIL O. 1955. "The Life and Professional Works of Georg Michael Kerschensteiner, 1854–1932." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

WEGNER, ROBERT A. 1978. "Dewey's Ideas in Germany. The Intellectual Response, 1901–1933." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison.


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