Education and Middle-Class Society in Imperial Austria, 1848-1918

TitleEducation and Middle-Class Society in Imperial Austria, 1848-1918
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialCohen, Gary B.
PublisherWest Lafayette, Ind. : Purdue University Press
ISBN Number1557530874
Review year


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As Gary Cohen claims, historians of the Habsburg Monarchy have put “strong emphasis on politics, diplomacy and high culture” and tend to stress the failings of the middle class and its values and also its division into competing ethnic groups (pp.2-4). This image is painted while “relatively little is known about the recruitment and formation of the educated elites,” the topic of his book Education and Middle-Class Society in Imperial Austria 1848-1918 (pp.6-9). The seven decades Cohen writes on brought “growth in recruitment and changes in the social and ethnic recruitment of students.” The decades after the 1850s also “involved major transformations in popular attitudes regarding advanced education and the social functions of the educational institutions” (pp.10-11). The Habsburg Monarchy’s achievements in education were widely respected, ranked high and left a valuable legacy (p.267). In this book, Cohen treats the Austrian half (i.e. the territories outside the Hungarian kingdom) of the Monarchy separately and focuses primarily on the Alpine and Bohemian lands, the political and economic core, which is justified since Prague and Vienna had more than half of the enrolling students on the higher level.

Austrian enrollments in secondary and higher education at the beginning of the twentieth century were among the highest, Austria was 4th in Europe (p.55, p.58). The increase in sixty years in terms of enrollment numbers was almost six-fold in gymnasiums, Realschulen and universities. The inclusiveness of these institutions more than doubled. Throughout the era, education was a growing concern which can be seen also from the fact that the spending in education increased from below 2.5% to 3.6% of the budget (p.72). In fact, the pace of expansion was faster than that of Prussia, which meant that Austria caught up in relative enrollment numbers while it remained clearly less developed than Prussia (to illustrate this: the Austrian growth national product/capita stood at 57% of Germany’s in 1913) (p.252). In other words, Austria’s education evolved faster than its economic and social structures (p.207).

Presenting this story of dynamic development, Cohen counters the widespread image of the conservative Austria barely surviving the great number of crises it had to face. He claims that alongside a modern system of education Austria developed modern civil administration, justice, public health, and transportation systems. Cohen identifies the three defects of Austrian education as the tardiness of curricular reform, its centralization and bureaucratised administration and the often poor pedagogy, but he claims that these shortcomings were not specific to Austria (p.266).

Cohen traces not only the growth of the student body in absolute and relative numbers in Austria between 1848 and 1918 but also analyses the changes in progressiveness (i.e. the changing chances of various social classes to receive education beyond the primary level). His conclusion is that while inclusiveness doubled, recruitment from various classes changed only “gradually and subtly,” the progressiveness of Austrian education did not increase significantly. Social differentiations were strong and persistent. Whether the expansion brought any democratization is difficult to decide. The poorer strata of urban under-classes and peasants remained largely excluded and were not better off than a century earlier (p.131). Modernization and industrialization brought small shopkeepers and independent craft producers into a more difficult situation. The self-recruitment of the educated did not decline, remained at around 25-30 %, unlike in Prussia where it fell from 40-50 to 20 % prior to the First World War. Sons of propertied families and students from the lower middle classes became more represented over time. While the sons of propertied fathers constituted an even higher percent of Germany’s student population, in Austria the old lower middle classes were much more represented (especially in technical colleges) alongside sons of farmers, leaseholders and wageworkers – who remained almost completely excluded in Germany. The rise of new middle classes (of managerial employees, clerks and school teachers) was slower in Vienna than in Prussia, where they their sons accounted for 32 % of the students in 1910 compared to 18 % in Vienna (p.185). These facts illustrate the relative backwardness of Austria’s social structure, and that it was generally lagging behind Germany (p.205).

Cohen debates the widespread belief that elite education was provided only for the elites. The middle classes made most use of the increasing opportunities for education that accompanied Austria’s modernization. While education in Austria remained elitist since it recruited a very limited percent of the population and advanced education brought considerable privilege and prestige to the majority of these students, many of the graduates came from relatively humble origins (p.127). Recruitment of students broadly embraced the middle strata (p.130). Education had a range of functions for a variegated constituency, served “students from a range of upper-, middle-, and lower-middle-class backgrounds along with a few from the laboring class who had a wide range of aspirations” (p.214). The lower forms in particular were serving broad functions. In short, the purposes and the clientele of elite education were less elitist than previously supposed (p.104).

Cohen calls for a more differentiated view that includes the highly important semi-educated segment of society, the “Bildungskleinbürgertum” (p.263). Moreover, Cohen claims that it could not have been the school experience that separated the educated from the others since many more students enrolled than actually completed their studies. The views and aims of this large group must have been different from the rest and, moreover, they were confronted exactly through schools with the views and aims of those who went on to become members of the educated elite. What is more, many graduates went on to careers of relatively limited income and moderate status (p.128).

Of special interest in the Austrian case are the evolving chances of the various linguistic, ethnic and religious groups to enjoy the benefits of undertaking secondary and higher education. (Cohen explains that the difference in statistics between linguistic and ethnic groups can be basically attributed to the Jews, who were linguistically German, Polish, etc., but ethnically Jewish, “incidentally” also their religion.) The increase in the representation of formerly under-privileged linguistic and religious groups were more significant than the changes in progressiveness in terms of social classes. With the over-representation of Germans on the decline, the Czechs and the Poles were catching up and even managed to overtake the German group according to a number of indicators (namely, Poles’ relative representation in universities and classical gymnasiums, Czechs’ in technical education). The Jewish and Protestant religious minorities both became clearly over-represented. Cohen claims that these facts mean the linguistic and religious barriers were weakening. Moreover, the fact that Austria’s educational institutes improved faster than its economic and social structures can partly be attributed to ethnic competition, which “surely contributed to the growth,” but, as Cohen maintains, the role of this “should not be overestimated, it was only part of a complex, evolving social and political matrix” (pp.91-92).

This era of the transformation of Austrian education beginning with the spring of nations in 1848 and ending with the de facto dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1918 can be divided into four periods. The neo-absolutists’ improvement of the quality of education through reforms was followed by the liberal rule coinciding with the years of the economic boom of the 1860s and 1870s when the quality as well as the quantity of education increased. The growth was spectacular after 1867, when the ministry was also reinstituted. The total number of gymnasiums increased by 30 %, while the number of Realschulen by 38 % in the five years between 1871 and 1876 (p.67). In higher education the founding of new institutions played no major role, the establishment of new faculties was the common practice (p.81).The number of students in Realschulen doubled in ten years. The density of schools varied greatly across the territories of Monarchy. Lower Austria, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia were best off (p.69). There was an important turn in the development of the German-Czech conflict around 1865 as well. Separate institutions began to replace parallel ones. In the 1880s a more conservative approach was adopted by the Taaffe government. They had the incentive to halt the expansion of education, attempted to “divert” students to undertake vocational training. [There was a widespread belief in the advantages of attending academic secondary schools: while only 2% worked in educated professions 4.1% attended such schools (p.105).] Enrollments ballooned again after the mid-1890s, at the time of dynamic economic expansion (p.90). At this time, unlike in the immediate post-1867 years, the fastest growth rates could be recorded in the poor regions of Austria, for example in Bukovina.

By this time “the state could do little to control the rising popular aspirations,” their powers to control change gradually eroded and “popular aspiration had something of their own dynamic” (p.94). Not only was there substantial population growth and economic development in this period, popular aspirations also changed alongside the needs of the government (p.7). Reform programs could only work slowly and had to reconcile the requirements of scientific education with practical training, of academic freedom with a well-rounded program and budget constrains with popular aspirations. By the turn of the century mass parties and broadly based interest groups tended to campaign for more education while parents increasingly considered it to be their children’s right to enter academic secondary schools (p.110 and p.125). That different political visions could exercise only limited impact on the development of education is further proven by the fact that the neo-absolutists and the liberals “shared much of their goals” derived from painful humiliations bringing the awareness of backwardness (p.53). Having a fairly inelastic system and the authorities providing half-hearted answers to the calls for reform, no drastic changes were implemented in regards to secondary schools. Even though there was a movement towards greater equality (which was shown, among other things, by the introduction of approved state examinations in 1878 and the title “doctorate of technical sciences” for technical college graduates in 1901) the ideal of a unified school was not met, the system remained segmented (p.124).

Changes in the educational sector had their own dynamic and rhythm, were not simply synchronous with the principal waves of demographic and economic growth. Institutional, cultural and political factors also have to be taken into account. Processes within the educational system itself caused cycles of shortage, expansion, and oversupply (p.250). In times of recession the demand for technical education declines, at peak of economic booms attendance in the technical colleges ballooned: development progressed in waves (p.76). In the decade 1865-75 Realschule enrollments nearly doubled (p.68), but in the 1880s popular confidence diminished in these institutions (p.70). At the time of the economic expansion of 1895 to 1910, Realschulen were increasing faster again. Increasing demand for education could occur during periods of general economic expansion as well as in times of economic downturns, since recession could imply moves towards higher qualifications (p.253). 

Economic development does not explain the growth of education in Galicia. Agriculture and commerce remained poor and there was little industry while competition (from Ukrainians and Jews) was rising for the Poles. They remained in a good political position though and protected and proved their status through education that enabled them to enter the state service and have careers in legal practice (pp.257-8). All in all, Galicia had high figures in education in general but low ones in technical education. Cohen could have compared the Poles and the Czechs more extensively since the differences between the two groups were really significant. While there was only 1.4 university student per 1 technical student among the Czechs, the ration stood at 3.8 to 1 among the Poles (p.157). This difference strongly proves Cohen’s point that Realschule attendance depended on industrial and commercial development. Even though the geographical proximity of schools certainly also influenced the different choices Poles and Czechs made. 40

Interest in sectors varied considerably between ethnic groups, religious denominations and social classes as well. Technical colleges’ clientele consisted largely of sons of lower middle class families. Sons of educated and propertied fathers showed preferences for law (pp.188-190). Protestants showed more interest in craft manufacture and in modern industry. Jews were particularly overrepresented in medicine. Besides being heavily underrepresented, Ukranians often had aspirations not higher than becoming members of the clergy or the lower ranks of the bureaucracy. While Czechs and the Germans made rather similar choices with Germans being somewhat more traditionalistic (p.156), Slovenes and Poles often stayed with law. In general, higher education in Austria was heavily skewed towards legal studies compared to Germany where only half the proportion of students were enrolled in faculties of law prior to the outbreak of the First World War [51% in Austria compared to 25% in Germany, (p.85)]. Cohen also makes the point that law competed for students directly with medicine and gained much after 1890, after the popularity of medicine passed its highest point (p.87).

Cohen’s book has many valuable insights on the representation of various social classes and occupational groups but it fails to expose the development of Austria’s social structure. For example, we are surprised to read that while he writes on the rise of the new middle classes, their proportional representation in education slightly decreased (p.204). He recurrently makes comparisons between the occupational background of Czech, German and Jewish students which remain unintelligible without the data on the composition of these populations. While it might be a significant fact that one-third to one-half of the German university students were from lower middle-class background while sixty to seventy percent of the Czechs and the Jews, making sense of this information is not possible only through this book – Cohen admits that these data “would have to be measured against changing occupational and class composition” (p.203).
Education and Middle-Class Society in Imperial Austria 1848-1918 analyses education as the effect of social position and pays little attention to how students from various groups ended up. The supposition that educational institutes did not work as powerful “correctives” of social inequalities is proven by the facts that fifty to seventy percent of higher government officials were sons of educated and propertied fathers and two-third of the free professionals also reproduced (p.209). In Cohen’s book the impact of origin on completing remains unexplored. Education might have served students from a range of upper-, middle-, and lower-middle-class backgrounds along with a few from the laboring class, the chances of students from various background must have differed considerably within the institutes.

Cohen does not discuss inter-generational career paths of various groups, which is the key to understanding the social mobility of groups relative to others. For instance, his treatment of the question of Jewish schooling and overrepresentation is rather superficial. He points to the well-known facts of Jews’ emancipationist ideology, liberal value system, political demands, respect for learning and education and simply argues that Jews were “like Czechs and Protestants.” He does not deal with the specific ways Jews achieved upward social mobility through education. There were significant differences between Jewish and Gentile inter-generational paths. When he claims that Jewish enrollment fell sharply towards the end of the Monarchy’s days, he does not explain this at all (p.166). Referring to the different demographic behavior of Jews and Gentiles would have gone far in accounting for this decline. (This is so since Jews acquired “modern demographic behavior” somewhat earlier than the rest of the population. This meant that their death rates fell earlier, their birth rates also soon began to decline, leading first to faster demographic growth of the Jewish part of the population than of the rest and then to a slower one, turning into a “negative natural growth rate” already in the inter-war period. This also meant that Jewish families were smaller on average around the turn of the 19th and 20th century. They had higher chances of educating their fewer children in proportional terms, but having fewer children also meant declining overall representation in schools.)

On the question when and how the role and status of education was increasing/ decreasing, Cohen remains ambiguous. While claiming that the role of education was increasing throughout most of the book, he closes his narrative with remarks on the inflation of titles. He simultaneously claims that educational titles generally conferred prestige and privilege and that many students’ ambitions were unfulfilled, and in spite of their degrees their social positions were frustrating. Similarly ambiguous is his evaluation of the quality of Austrian education. While praising the achievements in general, he paints a rather unfavorable image of authoritarian schools with tyrannical teachers that taught outmoded, irrelevant material and required memorization without reasoning. From this description we gather that schools often “offered” harmful experiences to their students (p.109), and studying on the higher education could be “alienating for many.”

Another shortcoming of the book is that while Cohen announces at the beginning to deal with the issue of urban-rural differences, he does not. The impact of geography in general is not properly accounted for. For instance, the constant greater interest Czech students showed in technical education certainly had to be with the density of such institutes in their language and in the Czech lands.

While Cohen frequently uses Germany, and Prussia in particular, to offer comparisons and assess the development of the Austrian system of education, the comparison is not systematically made. He refers to the advantages of Prussia in terms of its level of development but neither the differences in the social structures of the two places, nor the similarities and differences in the status and ideals of the university is explored. Moreover, instead of comparing all of Austria (including Bukovina, Dalmatia, etc.) with Germany and Prussia, Lower Austria or Bohemia might have served better. While it is true that the German-speaking Austrians shared much the same culture as the Germans of Germany, can one maintain the same about the university culture of other, more peripheral places in Austria?

Cohen does not offer other comparisons, even though they could have yielded interesting results. He is satisfied with the general claim that “Austrian developments were largely similar to those of other countries.” The aggressive, authoritarian and directive modernization of the 1850s accompanied with the determination to “keep demand and supply in balance at all costs” resembles the approach of Czarist Russia. Remarks on France with a comparable level of economic development but, entirely unlike Austria, with paradigmatic success in the building of the unified modern French nation (in which process the role of the education system was certainly significant), are entirely absent.

The question whether the expansion of education served as an integrating, unifying force or it contributed to the dissolution of the Monarchy is a fundamental one and Cohen leaves it unaddressed. While he remarks on “the weakening of barriers between the various ethnic and religious groups,” he does not the deal with the construction of new barriers, not irrespective of the expansion of education. His discussion of the issue of nationalist ideology in and through schools is sketchy and vague. For example, in one and the same paragraph he writes that “student organisations and the political activity of professors contributed significantly to the expression and propagation of national loyalties” and that we “should not overestimate the impact of… education in propagandizing for the nationalist causes or in winning new supporters” (p.243). He mentions that Czech nationalism was strongly pro-education and was the also largely the nationalism of the educated but the questions remain on the type of nationalism incorporated in teaching and the atmosphere of the various Austria universities. On the obligatory demonstrations of Austrian patriotism he simply states that Czechs in retrospect “liked to claim that hardly any of them sang the Austrian anthem” (p.242). This question is more important than to merit only one such remark on (probably distorted) memories. How much hatred and disloyalty was expressed toward the Monarchy, when and how and, ultimately, why? Were Czech students opponents of the Monarchy all the way as Cohen’s (probably misleading) quote seems to suggest? In other words, to what extent did educational institutions catering for segregated ethnic constituencies become instrument in the growing struggles for status and power? To relate Imperial Austrian education to its proper political context we need answers to these questions. 

Writing on the newly emerging student associations of various kinds Cohen leaves the question of the development and relative strength of these associations aside, only enumerates them. He mentions the increasingly radical German nationalism of some groups of students but fails to account for its source and societal base (p.238). Not only does Cohen forget about the essential questions of the students’ support for the Monarchy, the spread of modern political anti-Semitism merits no attention in his book – a poison largely mixed together in the “human laboratories” of universities. Cohen’s is the story of an increasingly fair society, where class barriers remain largely unchanged but the sources of ethnic and religious conflicts “objectively weaken.” Knowing that exactly these divisions (that were objectively weakening) caused the dissolution of the Monarchy, the issue of the political preferences of students and changes over time deserve more attention than Education and Middle-Class Society in Imperial Austria 1848-1918 devotes to them.

On the level of narration, the book could have benefited from being more clearly focused. Cohen articulates no central thesis. He suggests that the middle-classes of Austria were stronger and more unified than it has often been suspected. Just how strong and unified they were and how this relates to education Cohen makes no explicit claim about. At the same time, a greater number of points are repeatedly made: that “changes in the social recruitment were gradual” is mentioned four times in Chapter Five, that students had “diverse purposes” and that the “student body was heterogeneous” an equal number of times in Chapter Six and the point that there was “growing popular appetite for education” is made at least a dozen times throughout the book. Cohen recites figure after figure in his text, information one could also gather from tables, and he often does not include more than a small number of anecdotes to illustrate his points. Because of this the text is likely to feel too dry for the taste of the general reader.

In conclusion, Cohen conducted valuable research in a largely unexplored field and his bookEducation and Middle-Class Society in Imperial Austria 1848-1918 includes a large number of previously unknown and highly interesting facts. He made a relevant contribution to our understanding of the unprecedented transformation of education in Imperial Austria after 1848. At the same time, he remains ambiguous on crucial, controversial issues or leaves them unaddressed. While reciting a plethora of figures in his narrative, at times he fails to offer appropriate explanations and makes no systematic assessments. In short, Cohen’s book is invaluable as a source of information on its topic, still, much of the reflection about education in Imperial Austria and its effects on social and political developments is yet to be done.