What is education?

From which school system our children will benefit most in their future lives?

by Professor Dr Konrad Paul Liessmann*

The future of our youths matters to all of us. Therefore education as “Bildung”, the key to this future, is constantly talked about. There is hardly another term used as universally in as many combinations as the term “education”. Narratives in the education discourse business abound with education facilities, education chances, education justice, education reforms, education catastrophes, education experts, education ministers, education losers, education winners and other education combinations and the constantly changing education concepts and education visions have been established as prime assets of public interest for a long time. People get increasingly concerned about questions such as: should kindergartens be regarded as places of education, which country had which position in the latest PISA test, what are the consequences of re-orientating education towards gaining competences rather than knowledge, how should educational deficits of immigrants and of people who are socially discriminated against be dealt with, which kind of education makes children fit for the workforce requirements of the future, how can resources of hidden talents be located and skimmed, is the digitisation of education and the equipment of schools with tablets the way to salvation, will the role of the teacher vanish and be replaced by that of the learning companion, coach, or social expert, is it still necessary to gain knowledge at all in the age of information – these questions may be proliferated at will.

“Societal consensus about what should be understood by education has been lost a long time ago: mastering basic cultural techniques, workplace-oriented qualifications, soft skills, competence training, development of one’s personality, the ability to orient oneself, the ability to participate politically, schooling for a sense of responsibility, schooling for values, production of higher number of academicians or rather just teaching knowledge: all is education and education is anything. However, if an entity becomes all, it is nothing. The term “education” has been reduced to an empty shell, which may be filled by
anybody according to their political or economic interests, at will. A reorientation towards the foundations of what education means, what it should aim for but also its limitations, is urgently needed.”

Many demands on politics …

All this will not leave society unchanged and different groups of people with different interests flock to different dimensions of education. Let us focus on the area where responsibility for all aspects of education is most readily accepted, which is politics. Given their inclination to generosity it comes as no surprise that a German (lady) chancellor has even proclaimed an “education republic” years ago. Easy as such a proclamation of the “education republic” is, filling the construct with content afterwards is much harder. Ministers and high-ranking officials face considerable problems there. They get harassed from all sides to do the right thing. Sometimes by the public, sometimes by the media, later the experts, or the numerous endowments and testing consortia, sometimes high school students on twitter, then again powerful institutions, all of whom demand the right reforms from politicians, the right initiatives, the right didactics, the right universities, the right schools and the right post-school education – and “right” refers to the respective narrow views and ideologies of those who demand in all cases.  

… and the zeitgeist problem

First and foremost, education politics is struggling with the very zeitgeist which they had created themselves in many instances and which now restricts their options in the political arena. This zeitgeist articulates istelf in phrases which education politicians are always ready to provide for the people, such as: education is the most important resource for a country poor in natural resources, education must never exclude anybody, education is responsible for all aspects of inclusion and integration, education can level out social deficits, education is the key to a fulfilled future, education creates advantages in the competition for everybody, education protects against political rabble-rousers and their all too simple answers and that education will succeed in all of this if it gets modernised and focussed on digitalisation and competences. This way education politicians get victimised by their own dogmas. They simply make too many promises which others – teachers and pupils, lecturers and students – are supposed to keep. Most of the time this does not end well and the pressure increases further.

One “reform” after the other

The quality of any education politician seems to be defined by the quantity of institutional reforms he or she has launched, completed or at least done research on. In order to prevent the looming education catastrophe, education politicians like to equate education with its reform, especially in Germany. Any given education method is therefore stylised into another reform project and recommended to education politics. And since appearing as a reform obstructor would amount to a political death sentence, after the reform is always before the reform, curricula are constantly amended, adapted, redefined or completely rewritten. Teaching methods are relentlessly adjusted to the fury of educational reform on the one hand, and to technical innovation on the other, school types and fields of study are produced in big numbers, teaching subjects redefined, wildly clustered together, abolished or called into question, teachers are no longer trained to transfer knowledge and cultural techniques but to gain social competencies, of whatever kind, and everybody involved is subject to a process of constant unsettling. This makes governance easy, but education hard. The fact that the latter does, actually, still succeed in many instances should be attributed to many people involved in and exposed to the problem who quietly ignore the goals of their politicians and do what they think is right and what they used to do for years rather than to the successes of education politicians.

“Supposedly, competence orientation and digitisation make children fit for the workplaces of the future. Never mind that education should never be restricted to the categories of economics, this claim holds true only in a very limited sense. Those who want to school only for competencies seem to forget that they are only the means, not the goal, in the endeavour to gain the knowledge and struggle with those questions which characterise our culture in all its tensions and will shape it in future.”

Dominance of “empirical education research” … and never mention “instruction”

Politics likes to invoke science. So does education politics. Therefore, hardly another branch of science experienced such a rise in recent years as empirical education research.
On the one hand this was achieved by a simple rebranding: pedagogues and educationists became education researchers. No doubt this sounds much more impressive. And while those who know the etymology of pedagogy will recognise the boy in this term, the child which needs to be led on the right path, the very term “education” has a sinister connotation for most people since the 1960s. Only “anti-authoritarian education” was just acceptable, and today the very endeavour to educate young people seems to challenge the belief in children’s gifts and talents which can hardly wait to thrive without further assistance, and to challenge the autonomy of the little subjects which seems to be threatened by the instructions of a teacher. The education researcher got rid of all these troublesome and ambiguous connotations: doing research on or about education is obviously much better than asking oneself how a young generation can be taught and educated.  
On the other hand, the careers of education researchers are based on a simple but intriguing concept: You do not have to know what education is, just measure it. Therefore, anything remotely related to education is measured, day-in, day-out.

Measure, keep measuring, and measure some more

The object of measurement may be that what happens anyway or that what has been pre-arranged in an artificial setting for the purpose of measurement. Everything will generate data which then in turn can be offered as tools of decision making to the education politicians. And for that reason, a real frenzy of testing, evaluating, comparing, checking, correlating and prognosticating has been going on for some time now. The learning results of three-year-olds are tested as comprehensively as the key competencies of 15-year-olds, international studies will compare team competencies of the youths as well as mathematical abilities of the elderly, financial spending per pupil is calculated as well as life work time of teachers with and without breaks, maturation exam marks have to be compared meticulously pre and post the centralisation of maturation exams, as well as the time length of studies pre and post the introduction of Bologna reform compatible curricula.

“Education experts” and their worldview

Those data have to be gathered, evaluated, interpreted and translated into the practice. Education has long ceased to be a matter of the educated and become one of the education experts instead. And there is plenty of those. Never before in history have so many people understood so much about education as today. Editorial offices, parents’ meetings, the antechambers of the powerful are all crawling with education experts, as are TV talk shows, the feuilleton and university campuses. In their former lives they may have been psychologists or brain researchers, philosophers or entrepreneurs, physicists or esotericists, now they know how education will work at last. They all share some defining basic convictions despite their different backgrounds. Most of them are good Rousseauists, which means they are convinced that new-borns, babies and toddlers are all wonderful, comprehensively competent, multi-talented and creative beings, who are constantly corrupted, twisted, broken and destroyed by an out-dated education system.  In the world of the education expert the only way how all men are equal is in their uniqueness. All are multi-talented, but everyone in his or her peculiar way. Under such premises it comes as no surprise that the pedagogical zeitgeist, assisted by genetics and brain research, fears nothing more than the mean, the average and the ordinary. Normality is the new spectre haunting our time, which has decreed uniqueness to be normal: anything but falling into the normality trap, anything but being ordinary, the global competition demands outstanding performance. The slogan: “We can’t afford to waste our talents” reveals the true meaning of this alleged love of children.

“First and foremost there is one fact that speaks against the assumption that digitisation prepares the pupils for their future workplaces: Digitisation means that as many work processes as possible are automatised and/or integrated into networks. All these technologies will depend on a handful of expert technicians minding and maintaining them, but the best chances will be offered to those young people who have acquired skills and knowledge which either cannot be automatised or who are able to critically reflect upon and oversee automatisation.”

“Not one stone shall be left upon the other”

All education experts share a common critical attitude towards the recent education facilities: those are out-dated, breathing the spirit of 19th century military barracks where one teacher instructs his pupils while standing in front of them, individual pupils are neither recognised nor encouraged in their special abilities, the brave new world of technical opportunities is totally ignored in these facilities and creativity is utterly destroyed. For this reason, the education expert is not satisfied with one or to reforms, no, he demands the “education revolution”. Not one stone shall be left upon the other, everything must change: the way how people learn, what they learn, where they learn it and with whom. Phantasy has no restrictions here and anything goes in the world of imagination. Two aspects are crucial in this regard: the increasing identification of learning and life and in the same process the abolishment of teachers and schools. If there is nothing left pupils could be instructed about, because only such questions are relevant which concern the young lives directly, then the teacher becomes superfluous. He or she has nothing left to teach and life instructs itself on its own anyway. Well, not quite on its own – some supervision might help after all. If some education experts had their will teachers would mutate into coaches, “learning companions”, and the pupils into “learning partners”. This is a relationship on equal footing, the learning companion offers his assistance only if the learning partner actively asks for it. Basically, the pupil learns by expanding his inner self, autonomously, self-determined, and in addition to that he also controls his own progress in learning. That things do not quite work out that way in real life, because it overstrains children and youths especially from socially disadvantaged backgrounds with low affinity towards education – the experts could not care less.

New pedagogical belief systems

The education experts and their followers in politics and in the public have succeeded to establish some pedagogical belief systems which can no longer be challenged in public without being regarded as hopelessly reactionary.  This includes the popular hypotheses that there is nothing worse than teacher-centered teaching (by one teacher in front of a class) and nothing better than project work, this also includes the conviction that everything would crumble and disappear once the age group classes were dissolved, this includes the suggestion that schematised teaching hours were of the devil, this includes the belief that education should be individualised but teaching should be collectivised “team-teaching”, this includes the strong opinion that number marks were unjust but verbal evaluations which give in to the zeitgeist, the expectations of parents and the phraseology of empathy were just, this also includes the imagination that traditional subjects and disciplines should be dissolved and replaced by problem oriented networks, clusters, topic fields and theme bundles.

Fight the “reform deadlock” …

The applied version of the education expert is the education reformer. He or she tries to implement suggestions. Sometimes he is positioned in government, sometimes in advisory bodies attached to ministries of science, education or schooling, sometimes he belongs to the inner circle of state education bureaucracies, sometimes he is a freelancer. In their former lives they were teachers or lecturers in didactics, school directors or secretaries in a political party, sometimes corporate consultants or coaches. They identify progress with reform, and the more reforms there are, the better the world gets. However, the world, and especially the world of education sometimes proves stubborn, with an inclination against reform, so all around him he sees reform deadlock and he keeps fighting relentlessly against those obstructors and reform nihilists. He himself embraces reform, of course, so he knows progress to be on his side. Because two things will never happen in a modern society, and this encourages him in all his reform efforts: standstill and return to the status quo ante.

… with questionable “educational reforms”

We owe several achievements to the educational reformers: The Bologna Process, the competence-oriented Curriculum Plus, the Curriculum 21, three-dimensional competence grids, unreadable module handbooks and the continuous creation of new school types. We owe the change of teaching methods to them, the wonderful invention of project classes and, quite recently, the milestone achievement of autonomous learning. This corresponds happily with the flipped classroom, meaning that the young self-learners gain their competencies on their own at home, autonomously, and then come to school to discuss any still open questions with their learning companion. This is not really as innovative as it may appear in the propagandistic rhetoric, but nobody would have called it “Flipped Classroom” if pupils had read a text by Franz Kafka, for instance, and later discussed it in class.

The newest hype: “digitisation”

You cannot make all this up so easily, and therefore the percentage of education reformers, in relation to the total population of the Federal Republic of Germany, is steadily increasing. The most recent reform project the education reformers are pursuing is digitisation – in close cooperation with the digital industries and related endowments they rebrand software writing as a new cultural technique called coding and propagate the social network bubbles as the new and pedagogically relevant reality. One might say this is kafkaesque. However, Kafka has disappeared from the curricula.

“The term education has become an empty shell” …

In the sociological arena a finding is reflected which can be diagnosed in the discourses as well: the very term “education” has lost all its former sharpness. Societal consensus about what should be understood by education has been lost a long time ago: mastering basic cultural techniques, workplace-oriented qualifications, soft skills, competence training, development of one’s personality, the ability to orient oneself, the ability to participate politically, schooling for a sense of responsibility, schooling for values, production of higher number of academicians or rather just teaching knowledge: all is education and education is anything. However, if an entity becomes all, it is nothing. The term “education” has been reduced to an empty shell, which may be filled by
anybody according to their political or economic interests, at will. A reorientation towards the foundations of what education means, what it should aim for but also its limitations, is urgently needed.

… which gets now loaded with ideology

However, there is still a different spiel going on. In the first act a crisis of the education system is discovered, based on highly questionable criteria and usually sketch-like abbreviated test results, the second act repeats the mantra of necessary reform yet another time and propagates the above-mentioned fashionable proposals. In the third act, suddenly, everybody knows how education will succeed. And how is that? By focussing on digitisation, social equality, inclusion, all-day-school, good catering and teachers undergoing a training which assumes that teachers do not have to know a lot about the subject they are teaching. Not too many players pay attention to the fact that all these good ideas deal with all sorts of things – the interests of Internet corporations, fake statistics, social-romantic utopias and impressive exam results – rather than education. And even less of them will notice that quite a few of these concepts contradict and are being pushed against the very empirical data which are normally cited and invoked all the time under the headline of evidence-based educational politics. In other words: the reality of education is ignored for ideological reasons. Worse results of tablet and laptop classes as compared with non-digitised teaching get ignored as well as the problems which the inclusion imperative has created for all involved and affected. The public should also get used to the conclusion that reading and cognition deficits of children and adolescents does have something to do with the disastrous simplification didactics, which does everything to establish a simplified version of education light, from the notorious orthography reform to “simple language”. As long as only euphemisms are acceptable in discussions about education no serious exchange of arguments is possible.

“Education has something to do with the development of personalities, with the tradition of the spiritual foundations our civilisation rests upon, […] All knowledge, all expertise which is gained, practiced, trained and developed in the course of education does not only serve to integrate a human being into a pre-established world of technics and economy, but it is also pre-condition to grow a mature person. As the critical educationist Heinz-Joachim Heydorn put it, whose legacy has been wrongly forgotten, ultimately education as ‘Bildung’ always remains the attempt to make man human, an attempt which keeps focussed on the undisguised humanness, despite all kinds of biased training, job oriented qualification and market oriented grooming of talents – an attempt which nobody can be sure will ever succeed. But it is the only attempt worth trying.”

“Competence orientation” instead of Wilhelm von Humboldt

The turn towards competence gaining, brought about by the PISA tests and the accompanying reduction of education to a handful of skills, and the hope, that digitisation will en passant solve all social and didactic problems in the classroom, all the ties have been severed to the dimensions which belong to the idea of comprehensive human education, as Wilhelm von Humboldt had demanded already, today more important than ever. This concept entails not only the basic cultural techniques – no education in themselves but part of its pre-conditions – but also those decisive abilities and pieces of knowledge some education reformers would love to get rid of. The very core of what used to be regarded as general education – dead and living languages, historical knowledge, literary and aesthetic skills and knowledge, cultural and religious awareness, moral sensibility – does not mean a thing in PISA. How narrowminded has one to be to accept the PISA test as an indicator for the state of education?
Supposedly, competence orientation and digitisation make children fit for the workplaces of the future. Never mind that education should never be restricted to the categories of economics, this claim holds true only in a very limited sense. Those who want to school only for competencies seem to forget that they are only the means, not the goal, in the endeavour to gain the knowledge and struggle with those questions which characterise our culture in all its tensions and will shape it in future. As Hegel already knew, the spirit of young people, free and curious as it usually is, needs an object to analyse, a problem to nurture on, sharpen, get enthusiastic about, grow and work itself out. This object, i.e. the question what the content of the lessons should be – this should be the matter of education debates rather than which organisational framework and social constellation classes should have, with which chances and technical equipment pupils learn or do not learn. He or she who learns the wrong thing in an individualised manner, with laptop and learning companion, still learns the wrong thing.

“Digitisation” is not a good preparation for the world of practical work

This can be demonstrated with the recent hype around digitisation of education. Apart from all the important counter-arguments of learning psychology against a too early exposure to digital devices in class, apart from the equally important argument that a distance towards social networks and the digital pseudo-reality needs to be rooted in the analogue world in order to be able to critisise them as it is always rightfully demanded, first and foremost there is one fact that speaks against the assumption that digitisation prepares the pupils for their future workplaces: Digitisation means that as many work processes as possible are automatised and/or integrated into networks. All these technologies will depend on a handful of expert technicians minding and maintaining them, but the best chances will be offered to those young people who have acquired skills and knowledge which either cannot be automatised or who are able to critically reflect upon and oversee automatisation. It would be the real task of education politics to establish a concept for that, which could very well be based on the idea of the humanities.

But what is education really?

It goes without saying: One should not expect the idea of education to solve all problems of this world now and in future. Education is no secular substitute for the religious promises of eternal salvation, even though education experts sometimes like to pose as a new salvator mundi. Still education cannot be narrowed down to mere qualification measures, formal certification procedures, unnecessary artificial competitions, ideologically motivated distribution of chances, enhancement of the number of graduates at any costs and competence production. Education has something to do with the development of personalities, with the tradition of the spiritual foundations our civilisation rests upon, and it has to do with the knowledge, abilities, techniques and skills a self-reliant, mature citizen needs to orient himself in our society and contribute to shape its future. Standards and norms are therefore something education always has to deal and work with, including the critical appraisal of canonical artworks, texts and theories. The idea of competitiveness may be worth reactivating, goals may be set and knowledge be taught and examined – not for the sake of some testing or competence criteria that should be satisfied, but because the logic of a certain subject, the requirements of a certain content, the structure of a given object, the acuteness of a problem demand it. Caring for the cause of education means to distance oneself from the rituals of artificial competition rhetoric as well as from only ostensibly empathic mentality pedagogy.

To make man human

All knowledge, all expertise which is gained, practiced, trained and developed in the course of education does not only serve to integrate a human being into a pre-established world of technics and economy, but it is also pre-condition to grow a mature person. As the critical educationist Heinz-Joachim Heydorn put it, whose legacy has been wrongly forgotten, ultimately education as “Bildung” always remains the attempt to make man human, an attempt which keeps focussed on the undisguised humanness, despite all kinds of biased training, job oriented qualification and market oriented grooming of talents – an attempt which nobody can be sure will ever succeed. But it is the only attempt worth trying.    •

*    Konrad Paul Liessmann is a professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, essayist and cultural journalist. In 2003 he received the Honorary Prize of the Austrian Book Trade and in 2010 the Donauland Non-Fiction Book Prize. He has published a number of books, including “Geisterstunde. Die Praxis der Unbildung. Eine Streitschrift” (2014). The text reproduces a lecture given by Professor Liessmann at the University of Applied Sciences St. Gallen on 21 November 2018.

(Translation Current Concerns)