About the necessity to consider the ethical and cultural dimensions in the education debate

Thoughts about “Witching Hour – The Practice of Non-education”, a book worth reading by Konrad Paul Liessmann

by Urs Knoblauch, cultural publisher and high school teacher, Fruthwilen TG

Parents and teachers’ organizations, but especially representatives of the business world keep complaining about the lack of necessary values, when schooling, education and teaching curricula are discussed.  In some instances the required skills, commitment and enthusiasm for a cause are also missing. In these discussions the central tasks of schools and parents are always put to consideration: Why do we actually need a good education? Parents and professional representatives ask political questions, too: What are all those millions of tax money spent on?
Especially with regard to the on-going discussion about the centralistic Curriculum 21, which is being planned for 21 Swiss cantons, the book “Geister­stunde» (Witching hour) by Prof Konrad Paul Liessmann1 makes a valuable contribution to this important debate of democratic and state-political opinion formation. The author teaches at the Institute of Philosophy of the University of Vienna, he is an essayist and cultural publisher. In 2003, he was awarded the Honorary Price of the Austrian Book Market and in 2010 the Donau­land Non-Fiction Book Price. He is the editor of the book series “Philosophicum Lech”. His two most recent publications were entitled “Das Universum der Dinge” (The Universe of things) (2010) and “Lob der Grenze” (Praise of the boundary) (2012).

Thinking about the meaning of education

It is most welcome and necessary that another public figure voices his opinions here, a man who is familiar with and actually teaches the values and issues of European, humanistic and Christian-occidental educational culture in their significance for our present and future times. His book offers important stimulations when thinking about the essentials of education, learning and culture. “Nobody seems to know any longer what education means, but everybody demands to reform it”, Professor Liessmann states, “an entire market has emerged where education researchers and experts, agencies, test institutes, lobbies and last but not least educational politicians of all parties perform their business and sometimes their mischief”. In separate chapters the author presents practical examples in easily understandable language: “Current trends in classrooms and lecture halls, in seminaries and editorial offices, in the virtual and real-political worlds” are scrutinized with a sharp, pointed and urgently necessary criticism.
The reader can draw valuable conclusions about on-going debates in the schooling and educational sectors as well as about the culture business in general. All this shows the necessity to comprehend and to clearly define issues and facts and to weigh them carefully from a culture-historical perspective instead of surrendering them to arbitrariness or even worse to the lobbyists. Liessmann describes the developments of “Pisa and Bologna” as an “educational catastrophe” accompanied by the educational experts: “It is creepy: Whenever national educational systems are evaluated, PISA results are published, each time when the annual OECD ‘Education at a Glance’ report repeats its dire prognosis for Germany and Austria, scolding  the low  academician rate and the inequality of chances in schools, he or she will most certainly pop up out of nowhere: the educational expert. Nobody can tell what qualifies him or her to be called an expert, being in most instances a graduate of the very educational system that is criticized on national  television screens […]” (p. 30)
A lot of valuable achievements were carelessly thrown over-board in Switzerland when the well-proven cantonal teachers’ seminaries and schools of applied arts were transformed into universities. Theory-biased academicians (often from Germany) were put in charge without sufficient practical experience. Many seasoned school practitioners on the other hand were marginalized despite their being well-versed in Swiss school tradition, now it becomes more and more apparent that they left a void behind them.
The great achievements of our Swiss technicians, engineers, farmers, craftsmen, artists and scholars were possible with the old traditional school, with simple means, big classes and without any education expert industry. (see “Eigenständig, innovativ und weltoffen – dem Ausbildungs- und Werkplatz Schweiz Sorge tragen” in Current Concerns No. 37/38 of 20.12.2013)
Valuable concepts and ideas in the same direction are summarized by Prof. Liessmann in the chapters “Competent non-sense – the disappearance of knowledge” and “Twilight of the subjects”, where he analyzes the new tendency to lump various distinct subjects together into a “new indiscipline”. The subject “history” for-instance is supposed to disappear in Switzerland. Another Chapter entitled “PowerPoint-karaoke” shows the inflationary consumerist attitude in classrooms towards pre-fabricated diagrams, figures and effects with ever growing and often absurd use of computers and the internet in schools. The pupils are left alone and abandoned to the electronic media.  
Konrad Paul Liessmann describes a situation in the fictional “Zentralen Intelligenz Agentur” (resemblance to the “central intelligence agency” is not totally coincidental) as of 2006: “It is creepy; on a screen a wild cluster of pictures, texts, diagrams and objects can be seen, arrows pop up, point at something and disappear again, speech bubbles grow and burst, and in front of the screen a young fellow with a microphone in hand or a headset on his ears keeps talking and talking […]” (p. 78) Useful as it may be for certain special tasks, the tool of PowerPoint has overwhelmed all other traditional ways of presentation in schools and universities. Now many teachers and lecturers demand individual presentations again with simple tools such as blackboard or overhead projector. Liessmann points out that quite often there is no substantial learning effect associated with the new presentation techniques. “PowerPoint is the symptom of a development which goes hand in hand with technization and medialization of the education system from the beginning, and culminates in the conviction that all deficits may be compensated by new technical devices.” (p. 79) This shows that we are all in danger of becoming “slaves” of this booming technology. What about our human dignity? “De-celeration”, restraint and less consumerism is what should be encouraged here. Calm perseverance when working at a project, without constant assessment pressure, is crucial in all areas.  That way the learning process strengthens the whole personality of the pupil. Methodological multiplicity is maintained. Orientation towards reality is certainly more sustainable and culturally more valuable for the students than the current practice. Liessmann summarizes: “Non-education is practiced at its best, where competencies are conveyed, tests are filled in, where team-teaching, modular teaching and international comparisons are in.”

Schools and curricula don’t have to be streamlined to suit the Zeitgeist

Readers of this book will start thinking. How did all this come about? Values, ethical foundations and orientation towards norms are just disappearing and are not taught any longer at school. Religion and the Church are losing influence.  Society defines itself as modern and secular but ignores its own educational and cultural foundations. This creates a dangerous vacuum which may be targeted for exploitation by certain interest groups.  Consumption of images and movies has reached alarming levels. Especially schools are flooded by electronic imagery, stimulus satiation, hectic and activism which have to be pushed back.
After the 1960/70ies had seen the destruction of basic social values and standards, the French anti-humanists joined forces with the so-called postmodern philosophy in the 1980ies. Especially in the area of culture, deconstruction has been practiced ever since, for decades now.
Works and masterpieces, universal values, standards and morals are dissected into fragments in theatres, art and literature, and these fragments re-interpreted and reframed. Cultural-historical contexts are getting lost and all holistic views of culture and human dignity are also intentionally being lost. Orientation towards objective reality is being rejected, theories and explanatory models are leading lives of their own. Logic, reason and a careful guided progression from simple to more complex matters in teaching are neglected on purpose.  This dogmatic laissez-faire and relativism eventually lead to nihilism, in which no values are to be universally respected any longer. Even historiography is deconstructed and this tendency has even entered school curricula by now. Pre-fabricated internet fragments are more and more the basis of work at school and enhance the detrimental developments, which need to be reversed and corrected urgently.
In various chapters of the book “Geisterstunde” it becomes apparent, that what is supposed to be implemented with the current school curricula reforms is obviously the EU and OECD agenda, although not openly declared! Teachers and students are forced into an economistic, “operationalist” way of learning which must be regarded as alien to schools. With “individualisation” and “self-organized learning” pupils are left alone and can rarely benefit from the thinking of their class-mates. That way the intended “competencies” may easily degenerate into pseudo-competencies and professionalism into dilettantism.
This obvious transformation of our schoolsystem into Anglo-American models, which are by no means any better, must not be tolerated. Our youths just deserve better. Our country needs an ambitious school and education system. To this day we still have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates. It’s just impossible, that after nine years more and more pupils lack the skills to absolve a training course in our dual professional training system envied world-wide, and to contribute responsibly to social life in their communities.

Necessary reflection on the essentials in school, at home and in society



(Kopie 1)

The interpersonal relationships between teachers and pupils, in the class communities, mutual trust, good didactics and participation in the working process are of utmost importance and have to gain more influence again.  The traditional canon of subjects has to be the fundament. Once again, ethical and moral values and norms have to be taught, inspired and exemplified in daily life. There are golden rules of the Christian-occidental culture, imperatives and universal values, which are necessary pre-conditions for living together. All cultures have established such values. They are based on the social nature of man and natural law and are supposed to serve both the common and personal good.  In interpersonal relations in the families and later at school these values shape the development of personalities from early childhood on. In the Unesco, the UN charter of human rights, several conventions, state constitutions and school laws these cultural and ethical basic values have been laid down. In Article 1 of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights the peoples of all cultures have agreed on the necessity of an education towards peace and the basic values of liberty, equality and fraternity, after the horrors of two world wars in 1948: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This defines the ethical aims and common goals of all subjects, in all institutions of culture, schooling and education. Children and youths should leave school well-equipped for their later tasks in family, professional and social life. That way schools fulfill their cultural and state-political obligations in our society.       •

Literature: Konrad Paul Liessmann: Geisterstunde. Die Praxis der Unbildung. Eine Streitschrift, Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna 2014