Knowledgebase Erwachsenenbildung



AutorIn: Stifter, Christian H.
Titel: Theodor W. Adorno and Popular Education or: Lay Education versus Organised Philistinism
Jahr: 2005
Quelle: Streibel, Robert/Vorzellner, Markus (ed.): Adorno hören. Von der Sprache des Denkens (= Edition Volkshochschule), Vienna 2005, p. 111-123.

The most commonly mentioned reproach was that Adorno was very hard to understand. He writes in such a complicated and weird way, which is why a host of Adorno “experts” took care of him and saw him as a guide to their own talkativeness.1

What a post mortem celebrity status: intellectual respects were paid to Theodor W. Adorno for almost a year on his 100th birthday in 2003. Numerous symposia and public or semi-public discussion forums, countless periodical articles and publications, references and mentions on the radio and television (mostly late in the evening) as well as discussions on the Internet took the opportunity to deal with his life, work, influence and the question of the contemporary relevance of his thought. Of course, this was not limited to the German-speaking world, but in Austria, it was left up to the Hietzing adult education centre and the Institute for Science and Art to have remembered this important 20th century philosopher, sociologist and music theorist in the form of two symposia.2

One could almost get the impression in the last year as if Adorno, as one of the last great intellectual icons of the German spirit and German erudition, had henceforth been completely captured by the “culture industry”, which he had analysed in detail, and had been handed over to commercialisation. Of course, only nearly, since no matter how great the media attention on the philosopher who died 34 years ago was, only a few in the future will push ahead and read his works, despite the increased popularity, and this only in part, because the “exertion of the concept” means “thought work”: His works are found as much by chance as those of the philosophers before and after him on the bookshelves of most of [p. 111] the major bookstore chains: philosophy is “out” and psychology and esoteric are “in”.

Be that as it may. The spectrum of jubilant discussions on Adorno reached from veritable attempts to revive dialectical social criticism to solemn homages up to sarcastic dirges on the death of critical theory as such. In terms of content almost everything that can be found in Adorno’s store of ideas was touched upon, garnished and illustrated to some extent with new biographical and anecdotal material.

However, during all of this, Adorno’s theory of education was briefly touched upon at best, as if it were an entirely insignificant side line of his thought, which entirely corresponds with the history of the reception of his work up to now.3 This although Adorno had a strong influence on the anti-authoritarian currents in the educational science of post-war society (e.g. H. J. Heydorn) and a certain educational streak can be found in his entire oeuvre. His critical “Taboos on the Teaching Profession” (1965) has been and still is a required text that future teachers have to read as part of their educational training, but in the scope of his philosophical/sociological discussions, his theory of half-education has attracted little attention in comparison.

That precisely Adorno, who was one of the fiercest critics of popular half-education and the “fresh and cheerful spread of education under the prevalent conditions”4, emerged as an advocate of modern popular education may amaze one, but it, as well as the general significance of educational science in his thought, can be understood from his experience of and reflection on the Holocaust.

Thus Adorno, in contrast to other voices, regarded, for example, the Allies’ re-education5, the mental re-education after 1945 in terms of lived democracy, to be downright fundamental and necessary. At one point, he argued in this regard: “I would go so far as to regard the de-barbarisation of the country to be one of the most important educational goals.”6

The central introductory sentence from his talk called “Education for Maturity” on Hessischer Rundfunk (Hessian radio) of [p. 112] 13 August 1969 clearly presents the key aim of Adorno’s educational theory: “The primary demand of all education is that Auschwitz never happens again. -unresolved- It was the barbarism that all education opposes.”7

Education for Resistance

In connection with this fundamental, democratic preventive role of education against any relapse into barbarism, Adorno differentiated between two types or addressees: on the one hand, child and youth education, and on the other hand, general, social education, “that creates an intellectual, cultural and social climate that doesn’t allow it to happen again”8. It seems to be decisive here that Adorno conceived of “education” – in terms of the Kantian “Sapere aude!” (dare to know) – “in a meaningful way in the first place as critical reflection”9 , as a capability and, at the same time, the courage to oppose the “blinding context” of contemporary social relations as well as “any form of false consciousness and the disguising of reality”10 by means of his own reason.

Adorno – just like the proponents of progressive popular and adult education11 – could only “imagine” a functioning, an actualised, and a really lived democracy as a “society of mature people.”12

In a specific social critical sense, Adorno, who saw the irascible and evil enemy of real education in the general “being-in-the-know”, understood “education” not as the imparting of knowledge, but as the “production of a right consciousness.”13 At this point, it would be expedient to briefly refer to Adorno’s negative ontology, the philosophy of the “Negative Dialectic”, which forms the theoretical frame of reference for his educational considerations.

In his main theoretical work which is pointedly aimed against Hegel, Adorno said that “identity is the primal form of ideology”14, and applied this to both the “instrumental tyranny of the concept” over that which has to be comprehended each time and over the irreducible ineffable, as well as the commodity character of the [p. 113] social sphere, which makes the entirety of the non-identical individuals and work “commensurable” by social exchange as a model of society. The reification, which is equally produced by the temptations of the industrial commodity economy and the logic of capitalistic economy, that is, the basic expressibility of everything by means of the factor of “money”, seemed to be dangerously all-encompassing to him: “The spread of the principle constrains the world to the identical, to totality”15.

According to Adorno’s understanding, education, as opposed to this “false whole,” this false totality of unbridled capitalistic production and consumption that immediately plasters over any opposition with new promises, within which the “fetish character of the commodity” dominates everything and has long since consolidated into a social “blinding context”, would have the “task to strengthen resistance rather than reinforce conformity.”16

In that Adorno conceived of maturity as a “dynamic category”17, the production of the right consciousness in light of the critical diagnosis of social relations meant in the very first place “education for opposition and resistance”18, for the “immunisation”19 primarily of children and youth against the “spreading synthetic philistine culture [ ...] and [ ...] against the reactionary countertendencies”20. In an incomparable tone and implacable radicality, Adorno fully stood on the side of the students against the real school and the systemically determined “professional deformation”21 of their educators: “I would greatly advocate this kind of education of “picking holes in everything”.22

The theoretical background for the resistant education advocated by Adorno is formed by the critique of late capitalistic mass (culture) and the critique of the distinctive formative power of the mass as such: the culture industry. [p. 114]

Critique of Half-Education

“The half-understood and half-experienced is not the preliminary stage of education, but its sworn enemy [ ...]. Unassimilated educational elements reinforce that reification of consciousness that education is to prevent.”23

In his essay on the “Theory of Half-Education”, which was originally planned as a lecture for the conference of the German Society for Sociology in May 1959, Adorno dealt in detail with the “the noticeable symptoms of the decay of education everywhere, even in the class of the educated itself”24 as well as with the process by which “half-education [ ...] has become the dominant form of consciousness at present.”25

This text is not only a hard reckoning with half-education as the “mind in the clutches of the fetish character of the commodity”26, but moreover with the traditional petit bourgeois concept of culture and education as well as the uninterrupted absolutisation of culture in light of “the manifesting tendency beyond all the limits of political systems towards its liquidation.”27

In his critique of mass society and the industrial levelling of culture down to a mindless and soulless thing to be bought off-the-peg, Adorno’s criticism also didn’t leave out the familiar talk about the democratisation of education: “that technology and a higher standard of living readily benefit education in that everything cultural is achieved, is pseudo-democratic salesman ideology [ ...].”28

In other words, and phrased in a bit more poignant way, Adorno stated with regard to the escalating surrogate education: the “fresh and cheerful spread of education under the prevalent conditions is exactly the same as its destruction.”29

Adorno’s scathing criticism of “fresh and cheerful” popularisation is addressed here, among others, to popular education in its traditional popular forms, although it remains to be assumed that he probably never examined the different historical traditional lines and developmental trends of modern popular education in detail [p. 115]. It should therefore come as no surprise that Adorno, to whom everything and anything popular had to seem objectionable, differentiated very little in his fundamental critique of popular education:

“The propertied even had a monopoly on education in a society of technically equals; the dehumanisation by the capitalistic production process refused workers all the preconditions for education, to begin with leisure. Attempts at educational measures to improve this situation turned into caricature. All the so-called popular education – one has keen enough ears in the meantime to avoid this word – suffered from the delusion of being able to revoke this socially dictated exclusion of the proletariat from education by mere education.”30

As it can be seen, half-education as the direct “vis à vis” to real education seemed to be downright synonymous with popular education to Adorno:

“In the climate of half-education, the real reified subject matters of education survive at the expense of its truth content and its living relation to living subjects. This would correspond to its definition to some extent. That its name now has the same antiquated and arrogant ring as popular education doesn’t testify to the disappearance of the phenomenon, but that its counter-concept, education itself, by which alone it would be legible, is actually no longer current.”31

Adorno’s image of (rural32) popular education was – in contrast to (urban) adult education – very obviously influenced by his aversion to the popular/national term “Volk” (people, here popular) of the compound, which appeared suspicious to Adorno for understandable reasons. Besides this, he also found the liberal/educational theory of the reconciliation of the classes questionable, since this seemed to reduce the struggle for economic and social hegemony to the question of access to education and knowledge. However, it remains to be added at this point that the proponents of neutral popular education of the old style were, of course, not so naive as to want to turn the change of social, economic and political conditions into solely a question of education. However, they did see a suitable instrument for liberating people from intellectual oppression and immaturity – with good reason – in the democratisation of knowledge and education. [p. 116]

Adorno had in fact, in contrast to many other intellectuals, such as the later co-founder and first director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, Carl Grünberg33, neither during the time of his stay in Vienna between 1925 and 1926 nor in the time immediately afterward – Adorno emigrated after the revocation of his teaching licence in 1934 via Oxford/England to California in 1938 – direct contact to adult education centres, or at least there is no record of this kind.34

No matter from what springs Adorno’s harsh criticism of traditional popular education may have fed, it obviously wasn’t due to any kind of personal experience – in contrast to the case of adult education after 1945.

Ambivalent Vote for Adult Education

After 1949/50, that is, after his return from his exile in the USA – and all of his remarks on education and media criticism stem from this time period – the situation changed insofar as Adorno now decidedly dealt with questions of education, including adult education, in various contexts.

The talks that Adorno had, among others, with Hellmut Becker35, the then president of the German Association of Adult Education Centers, on Hessischer Rundfunk (Hessian radio) certainly played a central role here. Besides questions of school and youth education, and of media criticism and media education, these talks also touched on general questions of adult education, which Adorno now confronted with attention and respect, possibly aided by the high intellectuality of his interlocutor Hellmut Becker. This, although Adorno here as well as in principle expressed himself rather carefully and at times even a little pessimistically, despite all the support of democratic educational processes. In opposition to the enthusiasm for education of the Enlightenment, he argued: “The idea of a kind of harmony as Humboldt still envisioned it between the educated person and the person who plays an active role in society is no longer to be achieved.”36 And for Adorno, education, understood as a modern [p. 117] service that one books according to one’s interest, seemed to turn into its exact, blatant opposite: “Education, in contrast to the saying from Faust, cannot be earned; earning it and poorly possessing it would be one and the same thing.“37 According to Adorno, unlike in the case of vocational education and training, which can be organised by means of a curriculum, there are not any procedural guidelines in the strict sense for “earning” education:

“For education is precisely that for which there aren’t any real customs; it can only be earned by spontaneous effort and interest, it is not guaranteed by courses alone, and even if it were of the general studies type.”38

However, Adorno sometimes felt that he was clearly misunderstood with regard to his considerations on the theory of education as well as his sharp criticism of mass culture. Thus, he saw himself obliged on the occasion of an invitation from the Department of Culture of the City of Vienna to the Europe Talks in 1963 to precede his paper “Lay Education – Organised Philistinism?” with a “declaration of intention”,39 which was to help dispel any suspicion of an “elitist apologetic” or elitist snobbism. Adorno took this occasion to point out that his critique of mass culture in no way implies the glorification of an old-style humanism, but, on the contrary, he only asks himself what exactly happens when culture is conveyed to the masses within a capitalistic culture industry; therefore, the critique of mass culture was in no way to be understood as a critique of the masses, but as a critique of the culture industry as well as the mass society produced by it. And what he particularly cared about here was to demonstrate “that the masses, precisely in that one seemingly allows them to participate in the so-called cultural assets today, are actually cheated of the content which is what it is about.”40 However, Adorno was fully aware of the danger of being misunderstood by precisely the proponents of schools and adult education when he said: “doubt about the definite educational value of the popularisation of education under the present conditions incurs the suspicion of the reactionary.”41

In the context of the aforesaid, it now seems to be particularly interesting that Adorno, on the occasion of the 2nd Day of German Adult Education Centres in October 1956, which took place in Frankfurt am Main, and at which [p. 118] Hellmut Becker gave a big speech as the newly elected president of the German Association of Adult Education Centres42, wrote a detailed report for the weekly newspaper out of Hamburg, DIE ZEIT. “In an age in which the traditional ideal of education seems to have become more and more questionable as the basis of intellectual education, a problem that cannot be overlooked is also growing for the adult education centre movement”, argued the editorial staff of the ZEIT and therefore invited the “sceptical mind” to take a position on this question. In this newspaper article, Adorno took a public stand for adult education centres and adult education with a clarity that he never did again at any other point. Adorno opened his theoretically inspired, downright spirited plea for adult education – in which, of course, there is almost nothing concrete about the Day of German Adult Education Centres, but instead some elements of his critique of traditional culture and education – with the following opening statement, which deserves to be quoted in full:

“What one calls adult education today, one used to call popular education, and the word sounded condescending, for instance, like the popular concerts of the great symphony orchestras. One imagined education for illiterate people. This estimation was borne by the idea, which was probably already questionable back then, of a firmly established educational structure whose monopoly was guarded by secondary schools and universities. It was deemed to be closed from the first to those who didn’t come from these institutions. That which remained for popular education often consisted of indifference and the marginal and had the character of a drop in the bucket. The stopgap character that adhered to popular education despite all the goodwill, its own quality, corresponded precisely with the role that the official authorities granted it. There is no longer any reason for the arrogance of popular education that survived from this era. It is precisely the academic teacher, who has the opportunity to give lectures at adult education centres and to find, without making concessions, the liveliest participation there, will be the first to recognise how musty and narrow-minded the self-righteous feeling of superiority is in comparison with it. For the questionableness of the traditional concept [p. 119] of education, of which Nietzsche had already become aware, has today really become perfectly clear to everyone. “Substantial” education and popular culture (Volkskultur) have ceased to exist long ago. But the cultural assets, which the happy possessors enjoy as consumers, have in the meantime been so thoroughly degenerated to the culture industry that one should no longer persuade anyone that something good has been done for one by providing one with the so-called intellectual prerequisites to participate.”43

The position adopted here for adult education, for which Adorno intended a specific socio-critical task in the light of the crisis of the old Humboldtian idea of education as well as the crisis of the university as a humanistic educational institution, admittedly reads completely ambivalent here and there: the process of universal stultification seemed to him to progress too powerfully.

Nevertheless, Adorno saw a last place of learning precisely in “progressive adult education”, where “education for criticism and the most ruthless self-criticism” still had a chance to be realised. But here, once again, Adorno in a long original quotation:

“The vital principal of the university is to carry the tension between intellectual substance, tradition and social demand to the extreme. Adult education has to forgot this. It mustn’t give itself any tradition nor try to provide something like a substitute for education, nor to distribute any cultural assets, which do not even work in their own place, in a watered down way. It cannot and shouldn’t fill the gaping holes, but become aware of the situation without historical and institutional reservations. In other words, its role is ‘enlightenment’. The new superstition with which it has to do is the absoluteness and irreversibility of that which is the case. The people yield to it as if the overpowering conditions weren’t themselves man-made. However, the opacity of these conditions, which consists more in the complexity of their apparatus than in their essence, cannot be penetrated. [ ...] To begin with, it -unresolved- has to try to get people to discern the essential in the present society, to show them the real social power relations, dependencies and processes to which [p. 120] they are subordinate. [ ...] Today adult education has already had a good deal of success in tackling the task of doing away with the remnants of National Socialist ideology, which have innocently continued to exist in the consciousness and unconsciousness of countless individuals, clichés and prejudices. In the process, no other world view, no other system is to be preached. What is hardened cannot be dissolved by the gesture of “re-education”, but only by thinking, working and taking stock together.”44

Along the lines of his radical critical approach to thoughtful reflection as an “illusionless critical insight into that which is”, Adorno obviously accepted the loss of traditional education: “Sobriety and traditional education are incompatible.”45

Of course, this is to be understood dialectically in terms of his negative ontology. Helping dissolve what has hardened, effectively counteracting stupidity and lack of judgment by critical reflection, which isn’t ready to accept any ill-considered offers of identity, simply cannot be accomplished without education:

“A situation is to be aimed at that neither conjures up culture, nor conserves what is left of it, nor does away with it, but one that is beyond the opposition of education and lack of education, of culture and nature”46.

This is how Adorno in the light of the all-embracing blessings of the culture industry paradoxically and wonderfully formulated the educational credo promoted by critical negative theory, which can also be considered for contemporary adult education, provided that it still understands itself as enlightenment and not merely as an ideological promise:

“[ ...] thus it is time for the anachronism: to hold fast to education after society has deprived it of its basis. But it doesn’t have any other possibility of surviving other than critical self-reflection on half-education which has become necessary for it.”47


1 Christof Meueler, „Mit Haut und Haaren“ – Reflexionen zur Klassentheorie. Zum Hundertsten von Theodor W. Adorno, Beitrag zu einer Podiumsdiskussion. Taken from:

2 For this cf. Robert Streibel, Lust auf den Luxus des Denkens. Theodor W. Adornos 100. Geburtstag hat auch in Österreich bescheidene Spuren hinterlassen. Bericht über ein Symposium der Volkshochschule Hietzing am 21./22. November 2003. In: Die Österreichische Volkshochschule, Vol. 55., No. 211, 2004, p. 21-26.

3 Cf. S. Fuhrberg, Die Kritik der Halbbildung im Werk Theodor W. Adornos, state examination thesis, Univ. of Essen 1998.

4 Theodor W. Adorno, Theorie der Halbbildung. In: idem, Gesellschaftstheorie und Kulturkritik, Franfurt a. Main, 1975, p. 83.

5 Theodor W. Adorno, Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit (1959). In: idem, Erziehung zu Mündigkeit, Frankfurt a. Main, 1970, p. 15.

6 Theodor W. Adorno Adorno, Erziehung nach Auschwitz. In: idem, Erziehung zu Mündigkeit, l.c., p. 94.

7 ibid., p. 88.

8 ibid., p. 91.

9 ibid., p. 90.

10 Adorno, Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit, l.c., p. 55.

11 Thus, for example, Eduard Leisching (1885-1938) – an art historian by profession, first director of the Austrian Museum for Art and Industry, and together with Ludo Moritz Hartman and Emil Reich a founding father of the Viennese adult education centres – argued with regard to the “neutral” world view of early adult education centre work that one was “afraid of the intellectual liberation of the public”, “correctly assuming that the political would follow at their heels.” Eduard Leisching, Zur Geschichte des Wiener Volksbildungsvereines 1887-1927, Vienna 1927, p. 10.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Erziehung wozu? In: idem, Erziehung zu Mündigkeit, l.c., p. 107.

13 ibid.

14 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt a. Main 1980, p. 151.

15 ibid., p. 149.

16 Adorno, Erziehung wozu?, l.c., p. 110.

17 Adorno, Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, l.c., p. 144.

18 ibid., p. 145.

19 ibid., p. 145.

20 Theodor W. Adorno, Laienkunst – organisierte Banausie? In: Europa-Gespräch 1963. Die Europäische Groß-Stadt. Licht und Irrlicht (Wiener Schriften, ed. Kulturamt der Stadt Wien), Vienna 1964, p. 69.

21 Theodor W. Adorno, Tabus über den Lehrberuf. In: idem, Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, l.c., p. 79.

22 Adorno, Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, l.c., p. 146.

23 Theodor W. Adorno, Theorie der Halbbildung. In: Gesellschaftstheorie und Kulturkritik, Frankfurt a. Main, 1981, p. 84.

24 ibid., p. 66.

25 ibid., p. 67.

26 ibid., p. 81.

27 ibid., p. 92.

28 ibid., p. 82.

29 ibid., p. 83.

30 ibid., p. 72.

31 ibid., p. 75 f.

32 As it is well-known, Adorno had a clearly distanced relationship to the “rural”: “No one is to be reproached for coming from the country, but no one ought to turn it into a merit and insist upon it; whoever doesn’t succeed in emancipating himself from the province is exterritorial to education”. Quoted from: Adorno, Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit, l.c., p. 43.

33 Cf. Karl Grünberg, „Erinnerungen” an den Wiener Volksbildungs-Verein -unresolved-. In: Spurensuche, Vol. 12., 2001, issues 1-4, p. 96-97. Carl Grünberg (1861-1940), historian of law and economics; agricultural economist. Received his doctorate in Vienna in 1886, which is where he also wrote his habilitation in 1894. He became a full professor of political economy in Vienna in 1909 and founded the “Archive for the History of Socialism and the Workers’ Movement” in 1911; besides Felix Weil, he was a co-founder and first director of the Institute for Social Research (1923-1929) at the University of Frankfurt. Grünberg was murdered by the Nazis in 1940. Starting in winter semester 1890/91, Grünberg held lectures at the Vienna Popular Education Association -unresolved-.

34 According to the information of the Adorno Archive in Frankfurt as of September 2003.

35 Prof. Dr. Hellmut Becker (1913-1993), attorney, theoretician of education and culture; son of the researcher of Islam and later Prussian Minister of Education Carl Heinrich Becker. Hellmut Becker was honorary professor for the Sociology of the Educational System at the FU Berlin and took over as director of the Max Planck Institute for Educational Research in Berlin in 1963. From 1956 to 1974 Becker was, besides a number of other capacities, president of the German Association of Adult Education Centres.

36 Adorno, Erziehung wozu?, l.c., p. 118.

37 Adorno, Theorie der Halbbildung, l.c., p. 79.

38 Theodor W. Adorno, Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit. In: idem, Erziehung zu Mündigkeit. Vorträge und Gespräche mit Hellmut Becker 1959-1969. ed. Gerd Kadelbach, Frankfurt a. Main 1970, p. 40.

39 After all, the organiser of the conference, the then director of the Vienna Department of Culture, Dr. Karl Foltinek, came from an adult education centre.

40 Adorno, Laienkunst, l.c., p. 57.

41 Adorno, Theorie der Halbbildung, l.c., p. 83.

42 For this, cf.: Volkshochschule im Westen, issue 2, 1988, p. 76.

43 Theodor W. Adorno, Aufklärung ohne Phrasen. Zum Deutschen Volkshochschultag 1956 – Ersatz für das „Studium Generale?“. In: Die Zeit, No. 41, 11. October 1956, p. 4.

44 ibid.

45 Adorno, Theorie der Halbbildung, l.c., p. 92.

46 ibid., p. 93.

47 ibid., p. 94.