Democracy needs education
According to Johannes Masing, judge at the German federal court of justice, “no political order is as closely interwoven with education as democracy”. For democracy assumed that “all citizens are substantially equal” and built on “confidence in the power of judgement which allows for political questions to be dealt on their own merits”. Education in a democracy must thus develop this power of judgement as the basis for democratic self-determination. In a state which defines itself as a democratic republic (article 20, clause 1 of the German constitution), education and the education system play a central role because public affairs are a matter for the people (“res publica, res populi”, Cicero). The authority of the state resides in the people (article 20, clause 2 of the German constitution).
Education must therefore make it possible for this authority of the state to be exercised appropriately and with humane responsibility. For democracy is based on the open dialogue of citizens who endeavour to see what is right for the common good. Hence education is also a human right, as is set out in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It must be accessible to all citizens irrespective of possessions in order to enable independence and responsibility in their thinking and actions.
Democratic self-determination does not mean “co-determination” or “participation” but the shaping of the body politic by the sovereign themselves. In a democracy the people do not “reign” over themselves and are not under the rule of representatives elected every few years: democracy must be direct, immediate and on a small scale if it is to realise the will of the citizens.
In a concept of freedom understood in a republican way, individual self-determination and the common good are not contradictory but are mutually dependent. Freedom, reason, communality and responsibility are indivisibly connected.
This personal image of the human being also determines the German constitution (Basic Law): “The image of the human being in the Basic Law is not of an isolated sovereign individual; the Basic Law rather decided in favour of the tension between individual and community in the sense of the relatedness and connectedness of the person with the community without thereby infringing their intrinsic value” (Federal Court of Justice 4, 7, p. 15f.). Accordingly, education in state-maintained schools must serve the personal development of the individual and place it in a never conflict-free and a reflective relationship with the requirements of society and cultural traditions.
Personal education, professional qualification and cultural traditions are not, therefore, contradictory but have to be placed in a meaningful relationship; they must not become one-sided in any direction.
Economism as a governance technique
The enforcement of economist logic in the German-speaking education system is not therefore primarily aimed at privatisation and generating profits but at displacing the personal image of the human being with the controllable human being. Hence neoliberal economism is at its core an indirect governance technique which can be understood as part of a “façade” of democracy and the “deep state”. Its implementation is based on a strategic approach which started in the 1930s. The economists of the “Chicago School of Economics” played a definitive role in this respect. They promoted a very narrow view of all human fields of life which can be called “economism” because it reduces all human behaviour to the rational weighing up of advantage.
The Nobel Prize winner Gary S. Becker claims in his book The Economic Approach to Human Behaviorthat all human behaviour can be explained with an economic model, be it in family, religion, art, the criminal justice system, legal system or, as here, education and the education system. This approach, which breaks with all moral principles, was not conceived as a scientific theory but as a normative model intended to reshape reality: what doesn’t exist shall thus come into existence. Human beings were to become as modelled by a theory out of touch with reality: “This is about the practical goal of relieving the individual as far as possible completely of any moral requirements so that they are allowed to act out their alleged need for the strict maximisation of self-interest,” writes Peter Ulrich. Standard textbooks of economics today communicate this model to students worldwide in a manipulative way, as Silja Graupe shows: they no longer learn to distinguish between model and reality. And research in moral psychology can show that this shapes moral thinking and actions particularly in young people.
The economisation of all fields of life could also be described as a kind of re-education programme which has as its goal to create a human being who functions according to the economic model: the logic of the market becomes the logic of life. The market is no longer a part of society but all of society functions in accordance with the logic of the market – even where no monetary profit can be generated.
The main actors since the 1960s in this conversion have been the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which primarily uses PISA to influence schools, and since the 1990s the EU (primarily with the Bologna reforms). Think tanks like the Bertelsmann Foundation provide the national transmission belt for these plans in both fields: they adapt the neoliberal ideology as a governance technique in the above sense and implement it in the relevant programmes for the education system. To this end they use the means of “soft governance”, a form of indirect control without democratic legitimacy.
The OECD sees such indirect influence as “the most efficient way to influence the behaviour of sovereign states”. At the working level of schools, the new way of thinking is implemented with the manipulative techniques of “change management”.
As long ago as 1961, the OECD named its goals quite openly at a key conference in Washington. The education system today quite self-evidently had the task “to prepare people for the economy like material goods and machinery. The education system occupies an equal position with motorways, steelworks and factories for artificial fertiliser”.
Accordingly education was an “economic investment” in people and hence teachers are referred to as “production factors” and pupils as “raw material”. A general education provided the “ability for constant adaptation”; it should “enable thinking, i.e. rethinking and processing others’ and new ideas”. The foundation for the present skills concept was laid at that time already; education was to be primarily the ability to adapt, and “thinking” only the comprehension of the ideas of others.
But the crucial part in the OECD report then follows in the formulation of the actual goal of the operation to economise education, namely its cultural uprooting: “School should create the foundation for attitudes, desires and expectations which bring a nation to endeavour to progress, think and act economically. This means no less than that millions of people should be detached from a way of life which for centuries and millennia has determined their lives. Everything that was so far done in school and education in these countries pursued social and religious aims which primarily [...] afforded resignation and spiritual comfort; things which directly run counter to any concepts of economic progress. Changing these centuries-old attitudes is perhaps the most difficult but also most urgent task of education …”
At the start of the neoliberal transformation of the education system fifty years ago, the OECD made clear: economisation is a programme of cultural uprooting by means of intellectual re-education.
The German participant at this conference passed on his new “knowledge” about an economised education system to Georg Picht who, by following it up with the announcement of an “educational disaster” in the 1960s, ensured the first wave of the economisation of education in Germany.
The historian of education, Daniel Tröhler, has studied the events in the early phase of the 1960s in greater detail using original sources. According to the latter, the OECD executed the imperialist ambitions of the USA which aimed “in the West – like the Soviet Union in the East – for a homogenous world under its leadership”. “Development” was not “simply conceived as the further development of what already existed […], but as the adaptation to a model which should be followed”.
The central mode of action of such neoliberal re-education is to suggest that there is “no alternative”. That is why it is important to keep insisting on the alternatives to this logic: human beings are people not homines oeconomici to be controlled. Democracy cannot be replaced with the market. Education aims for humanity and maturity not “competent” adaptation.
An image of human beings as people still forms the foundation of constitutions and school guidelines. It must therefore continue to be theoretically elucidated, publicly demanded and realised in educational practice. Teachers have the dual obligation, as citizens and with their responsibility for young people, to contribute to all three levels.
About the author: Dr. Jochen Krautz is professor of art education at the University of Wuppertal. Alongside his research in art education, he has worked for a long time on the critical analysis of developments in education policy.