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Education and Social Mobility (1982)

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The waves of the debate – who, in fact, belonged to the “ruling class” – did not subside. They crashed all the way up to the highest echelons. The only ones to show absolutely no interest in this matter were the workers and farmers, and the self-employed skilled tradesmen. Unrest greatly rattled the superstructure and led to so-called “useless discussion.” That distracted from the postulated main task: “Raising the material and cultural standard of living of the workers,” which was to be monitored in practice and through agitation. After almost a year, the main task evolved into the Gentleman’s Agreement: We are all workers and do not lack the glory that we should have before the party. Now everyone who earns a salary or wages is a worker and is allowed to consider himself part of the working class. Consequently, at the end of 1980 a local politician was totally justified in announcing on GDR television that exclusively working-class families were moving into the apartments in a newly built housing block in Berlin. One strange thing has remained from the ancestry debate. The candidates for every election, and people honored with medals and decorations, are always introduced with two occupations. Erich Honecker for example: Roofer, chairman of the Council of State of the GDR. The happy coincidence that the first man of the state once belonged to the construction workers’ trade, however, will not tempt any construction worker to utopian wishes.

Knowledge counts in the GDR. Knowledge does not mean power; but knowledge and skills are still attributes. The experience of two world wars still has an effect: “Whatever you have in your head cannot be expropriated.” The tradition of the German workers’ movement since Bebel is ever-present: Education programs have constantly been on the agenda, ever since the 1864 Leipzig Club Day for the “Association of German Workers’ Clubs.” Lenin’s slogan, “Study, study, study,” has been elevated to a popular aphorism. The maxims of the middle classes from the early years of Germany’s industrial society have remained alive: Study in order to be better off, to climb socially. Getting qualifications and continuing education are a part of everyday life in the GDR. People go to night school either to finish up tenth grade or to get their Abitur; or they attend evening or special study programs to obtain a tradesman’s certificate of proficiency or a vocational school degree; and through distance learning programs they can graduate from college. Anyone who drops out of the “unified socialist education system” can find many options to drop back in. There are also partial courses of study, special courses, adult education courses. They are primarily designed to better prepare the worker for the job he already holds. Major companies have their own on-site academies. In 1977, 1,455,300 employees of the socialist economy did some form of continuing education, 573,200 of whom were women. Every company is legally required through the company collective contract (annual agreement between management and unions) to implement a plan to promote women, another to promote young people, and yet another for further qualifications. Filling the plans “with life,” as it is called in the language of the functionaries, is difficult, because it is understandable that fewer women than men are willing and able to burden themselves with additional learning. Legal prerequisites, practical options, and social benefits (additional vacation, financial assistance) are exemplary. They are more favorable for women than for men, and more attractive for mothers with children than for girls. So it is not rare to run into people with two completed vocational trainings, with state certification for several skills, with dual university or college degrees.

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