Creative Social Engineering? Reform Initiatives in Vocational Education and Professional Orientation (ca. 1880-1930)

Despite obvious connections between the industrial sector and that of technical-vocational schooling and training (cf. Blankertz, 1969) the historical importance of industry-related entrepreneurship for education in the whole of Europe remains underappreciated. In social-cultural and educational historiography alike States and/or Churches, rather than the industry and associated networks, tend to be connected to attempts at societal reform (see, e.g. de Swaan, 1988). Yet, in many European countries evidence can be found of industrialist initiatives preceding those from a governmental or congregational side.
In view of economic interests and related values like efficiency, rationalization, etc., captains of industry needed to be innovative, and therefore also creative. In order to achieve innovation, however, actors from the economic sphere required input from the outside and in particular from the arts (literature, painting, philosophy, design, etc.). A key hypothesis of this paper, then, is that protagonists of the industry and the artistic-intellectual milieus of which they became part, were far less dependent on the formal structures that characterized state and denominational institutes’ organization. From a somewhat informal stage of society they may indeed have been able to act in a much more problem-focused manner. Whether this led to truly creative and innovative solutions remains a question to be answered. Some key players, in each case, were at once active in economy, politics, popular media and intellectual circles, which may well have enabled them to force through ideas at all levels, using alternative strategies in function of what they were aiming at.
In Luxembourg – the point of departure of this paper – one such aim around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the integration of new social groups (chiefly immigrant workers) into a rapidly changing society, including the allocation of their ‘proper’ place within the social fabric. Assumed to have been established at least partly to serve this purpose were mining schools, technical-vocational schools and associated professional orientation centres. Concretely, the paper will study reform initiatives like these undertaken in The Grand Duchy and investigate to what extent they creatively combined existing elements from neigbouring countries and constituted innovative solutions. Luxembourg and its industrial-intellectual sphere will thereby be considered as points of circulation and transformation, as crossroads of ideas at the heart of Western Europe. Case studies investigated, like the ‘Institut Émile Metz’ in Dommeldange suggest this is warranted. Thus, a ‘psycho-physiological laboratory’ attached to this institution inscribed itself in debates on ‘psychometrics’, inspired by ‘pedology’, ‘pedological psychology’, ‘experimental pedagogy’, ‘child study’, etc. (cf. Depaepe, 1993), and refering back to the ‘social physics’ made popular by Adolphe Quetelet as of the mid-1830s.
Images, perhaps more than textual sources, visualize, propagate and/or question such currents in the area studied. Thus, for instance, unique glassplate negatives from a 2,248 unit large collection give insight into representations with regard to ‘experimental’ testing of students’ aptitude, etc., at the Dommeldange school. As part of a ‘perspectivist’ approach, such visual sources will be analyzed critically alongside textual ones.


The subject and focus of this paper cannot be confined to national borders. From the primary and secondary sources consulted so far, it is abundantly clear that the historical actors behind the reform initiatives mentioned, as well as the ideas inspiring them, were of importance transnationally and of relevance for the whole of Western Europe in particular. From a methodological point of view, the paper will therefore draw inspiration from such concepts as ‘entangled’/‘shared’ history, ‘Kulturtransfer’ and ‘histoire croisée’, as put forth by scholars like Michel Espagne (2000), Matthias Middell (2001), Sebastian Konrad & Shalini Randeira (2002), Bénédikte Zimmermann & Michael Werner (2006). In dealing with visual material, this contribution will in turn follow two (related) approaches. The first approach stresses epistemological aspects of imagery and identifies pictures as a medium of perceiving, creating and questioning social-cultural realities (cf. e.g.: Boehm, 1999; Thyssen, 2007; Priem, 2009). The second consists of a documentary method inspired by Erwin Panofsky, which combines iconographical description with iconological/iconic interpretation and at the same time emphasizes analysis of image series as horizons of comparison.

Expected Outcomes

An expected outcome of this paper is that initiatives in the domain of technical-vocational education and professional orientation in Luxembourg, as elsewhere, were based on two rationales: a moral-utopian one, inspired by ideas of social critics like Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen (e.g.: Bartier, 1985; Cunliffe & Erreygers, 2001), and one connected to beliefs in efficiency and rationality. Furthermore, it is expected that the reform initatives investigated in this paper were not to any notable extent distinctively ‘new’ or ‘Luxembourgian’. Elements were likely borrowed from neighbouring or other European countries, but then perhaps ‘creatively’ adapted to local circumstances. Another expected outcome is that from research in the domain mentioned, an interconnectedness or interdependence of economy (efficiency, rationality, etc.) and creativity (in view of innovation) emerges, in which educationally conceived initiatives from the industry and associated artistic-intellectual circles played a key role.

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