When the history professor Jörn Leonhard recently told his class about decolonization after World War II, an older student stood up and corrected him.
A former chief physician said to the university lecturer: “Young man, I need to clarify this. You weren’t even there when this happened. I, on the other hand, experienced it live, close to de Gaulle!”
A growing number of professors in Germany are having similar moments, when an elderly student asserts that they know the subject matter better, believing a direct historical account trumps everything else. The witness is always the enemy of the historian, an old German saying goes.
If that is really true, then Germany’s historians could have a problem: Senior citizens are making up an increasing segment of the country’s 34,000 guest students at universities. More than half of them are over 60 years old. There are almost as many women as men and this number is increasing. Altogether 55,000 older people are enrolled out of a total student body of 2.7 million.
By far the most popular subject is history. Some 4,600 guest students were drawn to lectures in the subject during the 2013-14 academic year. Philosophy and business were also popular. Around 10,000 older people are estimated to be studying history in some fashion.
“For the past four or five years the number of senior students has been rising steadily,“ said Mr. Leonhard, professor for Western European history at the University of Freiburg. For decades, students have been able to take classes on Saturdays in the southwestern German city. Every week, there are lectures open to the public for free. But many older students want more: sophisticated lectures and young students around them. “They don’t want to be surrounded only by older people,” Mr. Leonhard said.
Older students have two important resources: time and money. “They usually arrive well prepared for the lectures,“ the professor said. “And they usually carry an iPad, not a simple note pad. They are usually the first ones who ask my secretary when I will finally upload my lectures onto the cloud.”
Many courses resemble multimedia shows and on the Internet there are many links which the retirees love to use. They are also allowed to partake in excursions for which they would have to pay a lot of money if they weren’t students.
They are particularly interested in the eras which they have lived through themselves or which their parents have lived through. “In a lecture about the First World War, about a third of all 400 students were older students,” the professor said. But what happens if an elderly student threatens the lecturer’s authority? “You need to intervene sharply and say: I have the power here,” Mr. Leonhardt said.
What a dilemma. Those who ignore historical witnesses may be seen as academic snobs. But a witness account does not replace the work of a historian. A historian needs to consult many sources before he or she makes a judgment.
A colleague of Mr. Leonhard named Martin Sabrow knows this problem very well. “The story of the 20th century touches us personally. In everyone of us there is a witness and a historian,” he said. The 60-year-old is a co-director at the center for contemporary history at Humboldt University in Berlin.