Un Educated Society
In Schuttertal, a community in the depths of Black Forest, there is a small elementary school that is now regarded as one of the best schools in Germany. While schools in rural areas fight over students, here children from all over the region come to this community of just under 3200 souls in Baden-Württemberg. So, what makes this school different?
Philosophizing is an incredibly good building block for democratic learning. When we understand others better, we are also more tolerant.
—German School Award Elementary School Schuttertal
In the Baden dialect, an effervescent young girl says, “We have three school buildings, and all three schools do philosophy.”
What is happiness? Who am I? What are friends? What do we need for a good life? The school is the first certified “philosophizing elementary school” in Baden-Württemberg, and it takes appreciative togetherness as the foundation of education. With the “Philosophizing with Children” project, principal Susanne Junker leads the elementary school in the small community, which includes three campuses, thirteen teachers, and 130 students. “Sometimes, I think that we now have a real argument that welds us together. Then I know: yes, it’s worth it,” Junker says, describing the school’s viewpoint. It couldn’t be described more aptly than in the laudation for the winner of the German School Award 2020:
It’s a bit of an adventure to travel to a narrow, dark Black Forest valley—and to experience a highly vibrant school there: Because what often has to be painstakingly achieved at other schools happens here as a matter of course, because it simply has to be: Inclusion, differentiation, individual learning paths and tracks, fostering highly diverse interests and idiosyncrasies, cooperation, encouraging and challenging work and achievement, and school development with a common thread.
Every child from the village is accepted and taken seriously. Exact questioning, listening, and further thinking are valued and impressively cultivated in this model school. This is also reflected in the children’s intensive participation in school life. They confidently negotiate their interests in assemblies and assume responsibility, regulating their interaction with one another. With its staying power and optimism, the school has a great community-building radiance in and beyond the community—it isn’t just a village school but a school world.
12,000 kilometers away from the dark Black Forest in sunny Bali, we find another equally fascinating educational institution: Green School. It was opened after two years of hard work, in 2008, by John and Cynthia Hardy. The first ninety students encountered a more or less open and free curriculum on sustainability. The goal was to train “green leaders” for the future of our planet. From all over the world, the new ecological hipster families flocked to the heart of the island with their “everywhere office.” This is where the philosophy of a jewelry millionaire meets the natural purity of the green island. But Green School is anything but an aloof philanthropic feel-good concept; here, the future of education is on the visionary agenda. Economy and ecology go hand in hand. Offshoots already exist in New Zealand, South Africa, and Mexico.
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The fact the first graduates didn’t find the continuation of the old system easy was possibly due in part to its utopian ideas—and the inertia of the system in which we are presently trapped. Finite “old-school” educational models meet a fluid world, and they too will need to adapt. When I visited the school in Indonesia in 2018, the curriculum was adapted to ensure adaptability and some system relevance in the “broken old world.” Dynamically, the rigidity of the given educational structures was dealt with here. Green School has thus become a recognized educational institution. What has emerged is a curriculum for sustainability through collaborative and entrepreneurial learning in a natural environment where children practice “food-to-table” on a daily basis. If they want meat for lunch, they also have to kill the pig themselves. It’s not surprising, then, that students overwhelmingly choose alternative diets. This concept is meeting with a great response, with all sites now welcoming nine hundred students each year. Out of Green School come confident changemakers who live and think nature but who also gain knowledge in science and technology. This isn’t achieved by simply reactively moving classes from blackboard to Zoom calls. In a rapidly changing world, where it’s impossible to predict what technologies will be on the rise in the future, children must learn to teach themselves, collaborate with classmates to find solutions, and explore the information jungle with curiosity. Green School students aren’t fed knowledge; they learn skills and develop attitudes and values. These form the basis for shaping their own futures in a more connected global community. Such bright spots and initiatives inspire hope. Hope for a different way of dealing with education.
The Ignorant Knowledge Society
Although new educational concepts are always emerging, for the most part, we’re dealing with a society worldwide that takes a traditional approach to education. In which absolutes are manifested. In which emphasis is placed not on learning, on togetherness, or on the well-being of future generations but on optimizing the individual, preparing for careers, and competing against “the others.” This is how we’re conceited. Our society is conceited. We think we’re educated. But in the end, we’re only imagining it.
The term education is hollowed out and meaningless. Tragically, it has become a pretentious term. It is flirted with and bandied about: “educational republic,” “we must invest more in education,” “educational initiative,” “education is the key to success . . .” But none of these statements lead to more education. They have nothing to do with education. They misuse the notion associated with the term education. The ignorance makes itself clear. We live in a society decoupled from the concept and understanding of education and the ideal associated with it.
We want to serve history only to the extent that it serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate.
The opposite of an educational society is the current knowledge society. The knowledge society does not lead to more education. The increasing importance of science has led to a loss of the importance of education. Citability, favorability, and popular and monetarily successful hypotheses overshadow the search for truth. This is the great paradox we face and it clouds our thinking.
But why has it come to this? Over the course of the last fifty years, a fatal information society has been created. In the jungle of information and data, the pre-validated and factual knowledge society is now to be created by technology. In the next ten years, the marginal cost of intelligence and thus of knowledge will move toward zero through a technologically democratized omniscience. That this development is brutal and fast is clear to most at the latest with the public entry of AI and the first insights with ChatGPT, Bing, and its emerging counterparts.
Our (mis)belief is that with the social rise of (scientific) knowledge, education is gaining importance. Knowledge in the form of facts, theories, schools of thought, and rules has done just the opposite. We have lost ourselves in the fatal information society that we maintain through technology and our absolutes of knowledge. Those institutions that have the mandate to impart this knowledge we understand as educational institutions.
But they don’t live up to this claim. The supposed temples of education have long since detached themselves from the meaning of their existence to flicker as will-o’-the-wisps of a lost idea of education. On the altars of the holy halls of the information society, static knowledge is worshipped, while “living” isn’t even granted access. But education needs both: the static and that which overcomes it. The so-called universities of the information society may be up-to-date and supporting pillars of the knowledge society, but they have little to do with education itself.
Instead of education, conceit has become firmly established in our institutions. The conceptualization becomes a label for institutions and people. It has been reduced to a slogan that has taken hold. The label becomes more important than the content. In promotional brochures spruced up with glossy paper, in cute commercial clips, or on sweatshirts bearing the logo of the alma mater in question, conceit has found its prominent place. We become advertising pillars of “education”—the visualization of education as compensation for the absence of education. The conceit is the death blow of education. Instead of sustainable learning, growing, and understanding, it’s called visualizing and liking. I like, I don’t like—beauty over substance. It’s the image that counts. Even in mathematics and physics, aesthetic models and hypotheses are preferred. We need this compensation because it gives us stability and support, but at the same time, it makes us rigid and creates a (deceptive) calm. We die surrounded by beauty but don’t bring about progress throughout our lives.
We make absolute the rigid knowledge we are taught in these institutions. It is learned for the one (final) test. (Limited) knowledge becomes a qualification, and education becomes a (social) degree. Today’s educational system is a finite model that is geared toward storing data. Only, we humans are bad as a storage medium. The system puts the learner in a direct comparison with a much more powerful knowledge storage medium today, viz., our all-knowing pocket buddy with “connection.” We learn for the exam and for graduation, for finality, but live in infinity, which only death ends. We speak of lifelong learning but understand it to be the maximization of memory units—exams—not the path to a higher understanding of the world in which we live. Storing information for the one exam. However, a short-term stored large vocabulary never replaces the mind. Grading, graduation, then the beginning of life.
In an ecologically changing society, knowledge is becoming the new oil. The growing demands for higher education and qualifications favor higher education in particular. Everything is aimed at achieving educational degrees, and we think of ourselves as educated. An inflation of academization has taken hold in our societies. In Germany, former apprenticed professions can now only be practiced on the basis of a degree.
The fact that more and more people are gaining access to knowledge is extremely positive and gratifying. It’s an enrichment for everyone. And yet, never before has it been easier to know something; never before has it been more difficult to understand something, according to the perceived paradox.
The freedom to know ultimately leads to the bondage of knowledge. We make our acquired knowledge absolute and are thus trapped in our own self-evident truths. Standardized by our school of thought, which leads us to an academic title, we complete our (education) and see the world through this single lens. We consolidate our worldview. Through its reductive orientation, this perceived knowledge blinds us to the diversity of approaches to the world. We take this view for granted and fail to recognize the other perspectives. A holistic perspective of the world is thus impeded, which also puts our intellectual independence in crisis. We’re dependent on our acquired knowledge. This gives us the framework for how we see the world and move in it—and thus ultimately how we see ourselves. All the while, there is a lack of understanding of the world.
We respond to the increasing differentiation and complexity of society within the framework of “education” with precisely this differentiation and complexity. We can only react to the differentiation of the world in a small or fragmentary way. We try to do justice to the complexity and differentiation of the world with ever more and highly differentiated finite educational degrees, which are only about storing information. We acquire, as the Austrian philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann impressively states, only fragments of information. At the same time, educational institutions pursue the goal of “more supply, more money.” Enrollment is capitalized. Thus, one now has the feeling that there is a course of study for every small subject area, from everyday culture and health to the technology of cosmetics and detergents to walking science (promenadology). However, the differentiation is accompanied by self-contained systems, by which we are standardized in our point of view. How is such heterogeneity of closed knowledge to form the basis for understanding?
We have an educational system that, with its degrees, trains fragmentary specialist idiots. In the polis, idiotes were persons who kept out of public-political affairs. The present specialized idiot is also a private person. He has made himself comfortable in his house of fragmentary knowledge and doesn’t intend to open the door to enter the public—a self-proclaimed expert who may soon count himself among a dying breed. He doesn’t want to face the unknown of the public because he’s afraid of disorientation. The world is too big for him, too complex, too ambiguous, too unclear. The fragmentary knowledge, with its specific thought patterns, gives him support and orientation. He doesn’t want to lose this. If he does dare to step out into the public, he reacts exclusively confrontationally—he is trapped in his self-evidence. The orientation made possible by fragmentary knowledge leads to the incapacitation of the man who understands. The standardized knowledge guides him and restricts him in his thinking and acting. Consequently, the knowledge society has counter-enlightenment features. At this point, we should recall Immanuel Kant’s definition of enlightenment:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. “Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.
This other, of which Kant speaks, is the fragmentary knowledge elevated to absoluteness. “Expert idiots” lead their followers into the captivity of their own self-evident facts, which tempt them to act in a very limited way. The “filter bubble” isn’t only a phenomenon of the digital but is also evident in the analog, in “education.”
The knowledge society is a product of the technological optimization society, in which, despite the activation and the spirit of optimism of the sixties of the last century, people are essentially forced into rigid and predetermined life courses. The life plan is already fixed in childhood. One knows what awaits one in life: the job awaits. Thus, the knowledge society, which has grown to absoluteness, serves to promote the economy and economic growth. On a controlled and measurable educational path, people enter a life of conformity. This is the radical antithesis of the idea of enlightenment. While education today can be equated to passing tests, it is stripped of all curiosity and creativity. It kills personal interest and the desire to understand. A successful and usable degree is the motivator on the “educational path.” If education serves the economy and the promotion of the gross domestic product, education pays on human capital—it becomes economic. But the role of education cannot be, at its core, to serve the economy. Education must first and foremost serve people and social coexistence. So, we must first fix society before we fix capitalism. To do that, we must start with education.
In Praise of the Uneducated
In the end, it’s not about what is thought or said but about thinking itself. That is education. The problem: In the knowledge society, no one wants to admit mistakes. It’s about the manifestation of one’s own opinion—about the absolutization of “knowledge.” It’s about fame, roles, votes, and ego.
We need to limit the importance of science in favor of education. As philosopher Hans Blumenberg says, this has nothing to do with contempt for science. Science is fundamentally important to our society and our lives, no question, but to education, it contributes only a part. It gives us access to the world. We must therefore not make scientific knowledge absolute in the context of education. After all, specialized knowledge that focuses on uncovering details can produce disorienting effects because it loses sight of the general direction. The contradictions of the world cannot be resolved by science. Scientifically based knowledge cannot replace the self-education of man. But what does self-education mean and what do we need for it? Either we failed and were forced to adjust our answers or we realized that our assumptions were wrong. Today, however, everything happens too fast.
But in crises, this becomes transparent. One’s own will to improve, with a simultaneous critical approach to one’s own knowledge, as well as a great curiosity for new insights: that must be the basis. It’s not wrong to be an expert in a field, as long as you don’t claim to be an expert in terms of knowledge. Transparently communicating what you know and what you don’t know and being aware of the limitations of your own knowledge characterizes an openness to true advancement. Admitting the limitations of one’s knowledge characterizes the spirit of a professional amateur.
The term shoshin (a beginner’s mind) from Zen Buddhism describes the principle of an uneducated person. The down-to-earth attitude of a well-read person who has realized how little one can know absolutely or of a person who has understood that nothingness plays an essential role in both metaphysics and epistemology. I know that I know nothing. It must no longer be primarily a matter of passing on stored information through self-appointed experts as modern “parrots.” Rather, thinking itself must take center stage. A fitting antidote to this, and also symbolic of infected thinking, was the link between faith communities and science during the vaccination campaign in the USA. Evangelical Christians—with a predominantly Trumpian worldview—confronted science. Aptly, US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel commented on the media debate within the faith-based community, saying, “I understand they want to go to Heaven, but it’s not a competition.” When such a discrepancy arises within a religious group from what we have learned together, we recognize the scope of being trapped in our own taken-for-grantedness.
The novice is not unlike the uneducated. For Hannah Arendt, natality—bornness—is to be understood as the basic condition of human existence and is based on her observation that “the newcomer has the capacity to make a new beginning himself, that is, to act.” We come into the world as uneducated human beings. We haven’t yet been formed by the world—by the reality in which we move. Only in the confrontation with our appropriation of the world do we unfold and become someone. We form ourselves. This is what Humboldt understood by education. An opening to the world: world comprehensibility. This is the promise of education—the promise of intellectual independence. This is closely related to learning. The ability that has been lost to us—or perhaps never taught to us—is learning itself. We are born curious and interested; we are taught the logos. Instead of providing enlightenment—a true enlightenment—we move towards a filtered endarkenment. As the uneducated, we don’t yet have a filtered view of the world or ourselves. This allows for a very special freedom. One is educated when one hasn’t only been formed by reality but also when one represents an attitude that characterizes the uneducated. This contradictoriness characterizes the educated.
In a knowledge society, where one’s knowledge is taken for education and is set—absolute—the uneducated is the only way to education. If we equate knowledge to education, we can’t avoid activating the uneducated. Why should we do that? The mindset and values of the uneducated characterize the educated in today’s knowledge society. The need to grow, the critical approach to what exists, and curiosity and openness to the other are the attributes that characterize an educated person. But these attributes have lost their importance in the knowledge society, in which one’s own knowledge is set absolute.
Fetishizing knowledge, Theodor W. Adorno, one of the main representatives of the Critical Theory (also known as the Frankfurt School), characterizes the so-called half-educated person. The half-educated man has acquired the same knowledge that an educated man has, but the half-educated man doesn’t know how to understand phenomena in their vitality. Instead, he approaches them mechanistically. The half-educated man is rigid in his thinking and knowledge. He doesn’t understand how to put knowledge into larger meaningful contexts. Instead, it is half-digested knowledge for its own sake. Education that sets and absolutizes itself has already become semi-education—namely intellectual culture as an end in itself. Education thus becomes an attitude, a mere figurehead of social affiliation in our society of self-optimization. The mere fetish-like collecting of highlights of intellectual knowledge replaces the penetrating understanding out of concrete, factually motivated interest in the world. Such education is rigid, lacking dynamism and liveliness.
The half-educated person who feasts on his own knowledge is a narcissist. He is consequently biased in his view of the world. He views the world only against the background of his own knowledge. This, in turn, distinguishes him from the uneducated. The latter looks at the world with an unbiased view and is free of any narcissism. The mere not-knowing allows such an immediate relationship with the world. The unknowing person lets himself be involved with the world and isn’t restricted by his thought structures. The relationship to the world appears freer to the uneducated. He recognizes the contradictions and the simultaneities that shape our reality.
Our present time, however, is too focused on intellectual conformity, which stirs up resentment. The narcissistic knower faces the other with aversion. This other exposes him in his not-knowing, from which he protects himself with his hooded sweatshirt adorned with a university logo. Therefore, the semi-literate person develops a resentment of all ignorance—of the unknown. This attitude of resentment prevents openness to the other. This openness also has something to do with courage, because it is closely related to one’s own vulnerability. By being open to the other—to what isn’t yet known—I’m also open to my own change: to the transformation of what exists. The supposedly educated person doesn’t have this courage because, from his perspective, he not only exposes his ignorance but, above all else, because he doesn’t want to make himself vulnerable. He doesn’t want to give up his own self-evident facts in which he has made himself comfortable.
For Adorno, education denotes a tension or dialectic between the two moments of spirit and adaptation—between intellectual independence from social or natural constraints and the mutual involvement of people in shaping their living conditions. But there is a danger that one of these two moments becomes detached from the other—that education is suggested and degenerates into half-education. We need knowledge, but we also need not-knowing, openness in every respect—intellectual openness. This dialectical tension is now deeply overshadowed by the side of adaptation. There is a fundamental imbalance.
Education is consequently characterized by a striving for balance. More precisely, education aims at a dynamic equilibrium. This allows us to become and facilitates the process of change. Education is consequently a permanent becoming. For this, it needs the rigidity and the dynamism. We need the rigid knowledge as well as the critical handling of knowledge and the openness to the new, the different, the independent. The latter characterizes the uneducated. We must strive to educate ourselves. But at the same time, we must not lose the attitude that comes with “uneducation.” Only the attitude of uneducation ultimately leads to education. Uneducation and education thus stand in a dialectical relationship with each other.
Education is an open process. It’s infused with worldliness. Through the world, we become. In the confrontation with the world, development takes place. We educate ourselves but never reach an end. We will never fully understand the world or ourselves. However, we should try to do so.
This makes it clear that the very concept of an educational degree, which is handed out with the now inflationary bachelor’s and master’s degrees, is a contradiction in terms. How can one graduate with something that cannot be graduated at all? That is only possible in a world in which we haven’t understood what education truly means. Humboldt’s and Arendt’s understanding of the world implies education is a process. For both, education cannot be considered achieved at a certain point in time. Education is an open model, or as Hans Blumenberg says, “Education isn’t an arsenal; education is a horizon.” And the horizon is the world. Since, against this background, education cannot be understood as something finite; it becomes an end in itself: consequently, education must be understood as something infinite. Guiding concepts are emancipation and autonomy. In particular, the concept of education of the Enlightenment was, as a “motor of emancipation (thought), a prerequisite for the exit of man from an immaturity, however indebted.” Noam Chomsky uses an apt anecdote for this from a longtime MIT colleague who, when asked by freshmen what they needed to cover in their first semester, replied, “It is not important what we cover but what you discover.”
Weltbildung – World Education
Our educational institutions are built on hierarchical models of the Industrial Revolution. The military, administration, bureaucracy, and roles/hierarchy served as blueprints for this. The buildings have their models in barracks, prisons, and factories as structuring principles for people’s actions. The educational system is oriented toward mediocrity as well as standardization and numbering. However, this doesn’t promote the openness, curiosity, and interest of each individual, which are fundamental to education. It makes no sense that all students today learn math, sports, music, and art at the same speed and in the same way in school. Yet, this is how we seem to understand education. As the father of a daughter who is now in high school, I often ask myself not only why learning is done this way but also why certain material taught in school needs to be learned at all. Surely it must be about much more than acquiring knowledge? We do need knowledge, but that isn’t enough if we want to enable our children to be educated.
We need to radically rethink education. Radical because education in the knowledge society is reduced to knowledge. We urgently need the attitude of the uneducated. More uneducation for education. Our educational institutions must recognize the added value of uneducation for themselves. At first glance, there cannot be a greater contradiction. In the end, though, it is only a supposed contradiction that we have to live in order to start on the path to a dynamic equilibrium. It must be the task of the so-called educational institutions to enable this path of balance between education and non-education.
Ultimately, it’s about learning itself. We must learn to learn but also teach to teach. Education is free and open to the future. Individuals must be empowered to learn on their own. This is the basis for opening up to the future. Educational institutions must enable individuals to follow this path of learning. And that means learning to understand, to think, and to reflect. The path of learning is the respective path of life. This is lifelong learning.
One who embraces the philosophy of lifelong learning, according to ancient tradition, always questions one’s own knowledge and is open to change. It thus puts itself up for disposition. The desire to understand, to reflect, and to revise what we already know should be our driving force. This is what educational institutions should understand and convey as their purpose because they must see themselves as humanistic. Their mission has the life of the individual as its basis. But we can’t make our educational institutions do this by “reframing” them. We must start at zero.
American philosopher Richard Rorty argues for an educational, rather than an epistemological, approach. This division represents the problem we face when it comes to education. Epistemological philosophy is concerned with conceptual clarification, while formative philosophy is situated in the contestation between different perspectives and horizons of thought. It enables the ability to tolerate diversity. It is characterized by an open eye for the other. It looks at a wide horizon—that of the world in which we live. Thereby the interest in knowledge is always already given. So, it doesn’t exclude the claim of epistemological philosophy. Instead, it integrates this claim. For epistemic philosophy is about understanding. But understanding is much broader than in the framework of epistemological philosophy. It sees the diversity of the world.
The enterprise of educating (ourselves and others) may consist of the hermeneutic activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture or historical epoch, or between our own subject and some other discipline that seems to be pursuing incommensurable goals with an incommensurable vocabulary.
Education is thus tasked, according to Rorty, “to lead us out of our old selves, to help us become other beings.” Education is consequently understood here as a process—a journey. A path that cannot be completed. This also distinguishes the educating philosopher from the systematic philosophers:
Great systematic philosophers, like great scientists, build for eternity. Great formative philosophers smash for the sake of their own generation. Systematic philosophers want to lead their subject along the safe path of a science. Fine philosophers want to preserve the wonder that poets can sometimes evoke-the wonder that there is something new under the sun, something that is not absorbed in accurately representing what is already there, something that (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can hardly be described.
We, therefore, need—as Rorty postulates—the educative philosophy whose horizon is the world with all its contradictions, simultaneities, and the unknown as the basis of our educational institutions. Education takes place against the background of our world. Education is therefore always coupled with the world. We need a new start. An approach that focuses on diversity. Or for a start, at the very least, we need to visit Schuttertal or Bali en masse. Only by way of liberation from the “self-evident” and confronting the system itself can we arrive at an understanding of the world. Education is always the liberation from self-evidence. Education is therefore a matter of Weltbildung—world education.