Read for yourselves: “Education” – a strategic core of neoliberal rhetoric?

Copy from the former FLOWCAMPUS blog, now dormant …

In advance …

For the purpose of evaluating our certificate survey (thanks to everyone who has participated so far! Very helpful!!), I have started to read up a bit (again) on the technical literature. My questions are:

  • Where does this certification madness come from?
  • Who is driving these developments?
  • Couldn’t that be thought of in a different way?
  • What kind of world do we want to live in?

You already realize: It’s the WHOLE big questions that I like to pursue….

Should you wonder why we do this?!

Well, because we are convinced that a lot of potential is wasted among people to get involved in order to build a more meaningful life for society as a whole and to solve the problems at hand together. Well, for many the existing education and work regime still works quite well, but in view of the increasing precariousness of the working world, there will soon be major upheavals. And basically no one is prepared for that. Precisely because everyone has been serving the education narrative for years – and it ultimately leads to faster and faster hamster wheel races.

Therefore, here are a few excerpts from an article that seems to be a bit polemical at times, but nevertheless shows how this certificate madness could have come about in recent years, while at the same time devaluing what has been achieved. Ultimately, this always happens at the expense of the “educationally poor classes,” as the saying goes today. Who, in turn, like to be called upon to take further (sometimes idiotic) measures to discipline them. The current recipes do not offer a solution to the emerging problems. Feel free to read the article in its entirety. It’s worth it!

Knobloch, Clemens: “Bildung” – ein Strategiekern neoliberaler Rhetorik? In: Jahrbuch für Pädagogik 2013: Krisendiskurse, ed. David Salomon and Edgar Weiß. Frankfurt/M.: Lang. 2013, S. 105-124.

Apparently, the rhetorical charm of educational programming grows and thrives in an environment of rapidly growing social inequalities. There are numerous reasons for this, not least the fact that the broad middle classes addressed by the media like to code their own (still considerable) prosperity as educational advancement (and not as the result of the brief flourishing during the golden years of Fordist capitalism). This is also much more flattering for the individual, because prosperity thus appears to be the result of one’s own efficiency. This increasingly “statuspanic” (Bude 2011) stratum now fears that it will not be able to pass on its hard-won social advantage to its own children. It is, ergo, the main addressee of all rhetoric that conflates education, status, and prosperity (and it is, incidentally, increasingly willing to invest substantial sums of money in securing the status of the next generation if exclusive educational qualifications promise financial and professional advancement). The emblematic phenomenon that has long been familiar from Anglo-Saxon countries is the young academic family that, as soon as their children are born, looks for an apartment where exclusive, still affordable kindergartens and schools beckon in the neighborhood, and this phenomenon is also spreading in this country.

Now, of course, everyone knows that social status, wealth and school or educational intelligence are by no means equally distributed. But everyone also knows that the German school and education system functions as if they were distributed equally. Status and origin advantages are feudalized, made hereditary, and in the process the market-turned-education system plays a thoroughly new and changed role. What is commonly apostrophized as the social permeability of the education system has largely evaporated in recent decades. There is widespread agreement on this among education researchers in all camps. The model of advancement through education is very much anchored in the minds, in the horizon of experience and expectation of the older generation, but in the reality of the younger generation it is almost non-existent.

The historical core of the idea of education is meritocratic. Wealth, status, origin, worldly power, all this is hereditary and ultimately no merit of the individual. Even intelligence is considered to be hereditary, since one is inclined to attribute a great deal to genes. In contrast, one becomes educated only through one’s own performance and activity. Education begins as a meritocratic counter-program to feudal hereditary status (Bollenbeck 1994). This is why the quasi-heritability of Abitur and university degrees (promoted by the German education system) is so easy to scandalize, even though everyone thinks of education not as the purposeless perfection of personality, but as exclusive certificates whose reputation guarantees career entry and advancement.

Of course, we also know today that the historical success of the German educational religion did not lie solely in the promoted ideal of personality, but in the linkage to well-educated civil servants, functional elites, scientists, etc., i.e. also to careers. And a look at the southern countries of the EU shows what the situation really is today with regard to the link between university degrees and career entry. Which, by the way, gives us reason to remember that the discrepancy between good academic training and social esteem on the one hand, and meager pay on the other, was a rather dynamic political factor in the German history of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, the continuing meritocratic suggestion of education is the hard core of all educational rhetoric. The reference to education plays the responsibility for everything that follows from it to the efforts of the individual. The principle of “to each according to his ability” always seems to be guaranteed in the world of education, insofar as it can appear as an ideal world, even though it is of course known that educational qualifications can be “acquired” not only through cognitive but also through financial achievements. The historical charm of the education program lies in the fact that it is a universal offer of participation – with an implicit promise of advancement – directed in principle at everyone. How far this promise has ever been kept is another matter. It will be shown, however, that the rhetorical charm of education continues to draw on these resources to this day.

Educational rhetorics promote and imply the desire for a society in which an individual’s ability and performance determine success and status – and not, conversely, an individual’s success and status determine which educational diplomas he or she can afford. Those who see educational efforts as the royal road to overcoming social inequality are assuming that we already live in such a meritocratic society. Furthermore, although the principle of education is universalistic in its deepest connotative layer, a certain portion of national color has been mixed into this universalism in German educational debates to this day. In the (former) land of poets and thinkers, people are particularly sensitive to insults in the field of education because they still have a lot of confidence here.


This increased willingness to “preemptively upgrade one’s own labor force” may be the only sure result of the brave new education euphoria. In any case, the private providers of more or less exclusive prestigious certificates always benefit from the intensification of competition for educational qualifications. For the attentive discourse observer, it is also worth taking a sideways look at the media narratives in which the lost generation of the Southern European crisis is brought closer to us. Indeed, here Germany is testing for the first time an imperial do-gooder model that we have so far known mainly from the U.S., where the domestic education system is notoriously inadequate to produce a sufficient number of high skills. Of course, it is a moral imperative to help these young people, to give them, as the saying goes, a chance. Symbolic agreements are thus concluded on the training and deployment of these well-qualified workers in Germany, thus not only enjoying a moral dividend, but also skilled workers whose training costs were mainly incurred elsewhere. The further stimulation of competition on the labor markets for the better qualified that this will inevitably entail is not likely to be unwelcome either.


Taken together, this adds up to something like a permanent place for educational competition on the neoliberal activation treadmill. The early education hysteria that is highly widespread in the middle classes, which already treats newborns and preschool children to Chinese lessons and science experiments, alone sufficiently documents how close together the places of fear and desire are in this field. Parents become ambitious project managers of their children’s educational success, and the children themselves get on the self-optimization treadmill of competitive society at an age when they would probably learn more if left to their own devices in the sandbox. In the process, everyone successfully displaces what must inevitably emerge from the intensified competition for educational qualifications: a kind of normal distribution in which the number of winners and losers will, at best, merely reproduce itself at a somewhat higher level. This is really useful for the employers, who have a monopoly on defining the value of educational qualifications, and for the strategists of the educational system’s reputational spread, who can constantly invent and market new prestige brands for the upper sector. The customer in the brave new education system will have to be content with the calumny that even a hamster wheel looks like a career ladder from the inside.

Those who point to the intrinsic and personal value of education in this constellation are right, of course, but they become snobs or cynics, because the dynamics outlined above rapidly implode the residual space that the education system provides for personality formation. In the flow heater for a precarized labor market, non-utilization niches cannot be sustained in the long run. And anyone who offers them will soon be told that they are acting irresponsibly toward their customers and buyers. They believe that they can expect a sustained increase in the value of their labor.


A concept like education becomes a consensus fiction when its connotative-evaluative value is fixed and only its definition may be disputed. This is now the case with education. The advantage that such a constellation offers for mass media communication is obvious: without effort, program texts can be compiled that contain something identifiable for everyone, that arrange fear and desire components in such a way that in the end everyone can nod approvingly.


It could be argued that the orientation of the education system toward global competition, employment and economic requirements is by no means new. What is new, however, is the imperial self-confidence and sense of mission with which the economy’s unrestricted claim to power is also presented in the education system. That real money is also earned in bogus markets is certain, and that accreditation agencies now offer (fee-based) courses in which they teach university teachers and .administrators how best to get their programs accredited is a process in which one does not quite know whether to shout “Corruption!” or simply laugh (cf. Jürgen Kaube, “Tipps und Tricks für Akkrediteure” in the FAZ, June 12, 2013)….


The “operational conformity”, which is created and maintained by targeted permanent observation, reliably ensures that the risks associated with every “doing something different” become unmanageable.


Institutions, after all, not only do what they are supposed to do, they simultaneously generate and nurture the ethos that has been built into them. One may confidently doubt that the graduates of the beautiful new university, who are geared to acquiring the necessary credits as cheaply and efficiently as possible, have the “innovation potential” that industry is supposedly desperately seeking. Moreover, the educational system tells this graduate in no uncertain terms that what matters is the prestige of the certificates earned, not so much his or her performance in a “wayward” discipline. In all seriousness, German universities are trying to become brands, and no one should be surprised that their output is then perceived and judged in the same way as branded goods.


As in other commodity worlds, diversity and variation in the education market is replaced by marginal image and brand differences. Everywhere is the same in it, but it sticks in each case a different logo on it. As in the world of goods, one will by no means be able to safely assume that the Aldi degree is really inferior to the exclusive Gucci degree when it comes to educational certificates. The only thing that is certain is that the latter looks better (and, in case of doubt, cost more). It is also no wonder that the traditional educated classes tend to feel devalued, marginalized and made fun of by this “upgrading” of their affairs. Academic pedagogy has also long recognized that, for all the flourishing educational rhetoric, there is certainly no place of honor for it in the brave new world of education (cf. the contributions in Frost & Rieger-Ladich 2012). However, it also becomes abundantly clear here that a tacit premise is part of the education game, one that is always included but never publicly formulated: That under the guise of education, the exchange value of certificates on the labor market is at stake.


The idea of a general, public and free school and education system, which tends to even out the differences in starting points between classes and strata, is still rhetorically present in the neoliberal state, but in fact it has long since been abandoned. The task of making oneself fit for the labor market to the best of one’s ability and possibilities is, in a sense, reprivatized.


Thus, education as a whole is morphing into a highly practical collusion concept for all involved. There is a tacit agreement that education promotes the solution of all problems. As I said, poverty and social inequality are now called: educationally disadvantaged classes. In the field of education, everyone can articulate his or her very personal group and class interest in such a way that it appears meritocratic and just and, at the same time, comes along morally sound as an overall interest.


Bude (2011: 55) summarizes the connotations conveyed by education in this way: Education sounds more profound than training, more sustainable than upbringing, and more multifaceted than learning. In fact, education still sounds pretty good in public. Especially when you are in the position of defining what should be considered education. At first glance, the highly contradictory juxtaposition of rhetorical mystification and de facto devaluation of educational knowledge merely underscores the definitional monopoly of the markets in the selection of suitable forces in the various sections of the labor market.

Now that’s a start to thinking further about the certificate craze, isn’t it? Coming soon …


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