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Education as Tranquilizer

by Christoph Butterwegge Thursday, Mar. 11, 2010 at 6:24 PM

"A false strategy of combating poverty results inevitably from a flawed analysis of the causes of poverty. Whoever culturalizes the problem relies on education reforms without repairing the structural causes.."


On the Key Ideology of the “Knowledge Society”

By Christoph Butterwegge

[This article published in: Junge Welt 12/16/2009 is translated from the German on the Internet|butterwegge.

. Christoph Butterwegge teaches political science at the University of Koln.]

Inhabitants of a western industrial country that understands itself as an “economic location,” “export world master” and “knowledge society” no longer see education as the possibility for world knowledge or personality development but merely as a means for their vocational training, for economic interests of exploitation or for the goal of asserting or improving themselves on the labor market. In public discourse, education is simultaneously promoted as the cure-all for all the main political evils: (child-) poverty, (youth-) unemployment, moral decline of families, loss of values, decline and fall of society and growing social inequality. This ideology will be refuted here in the example of poverty. This ideology produces the false blaming of minorities and makes difficult realizing meaningful alternatives of social change.

After the sociologist Jutta Allmendinger introduced the term in the expert German debate, people spoke increasingly of “education poverty” and acted as though a good school education or vocational training could prevent youths without jobs. Doubtlessly education deficits often prevent young persons from immediately gaining a foothold in the overstrained labor market. The poverty of families also frequently leads to their children not attending school or leaving without graduating. Poverty in the family often leads to education deficits of the children. A poor or inadequate high school experience reduces chances of gainful employment but is hardly disadvantageous for the well-being of a person when he or she has capital or is wealthy.

For the Dortmund social statistician Walter Kramer who starts from the neoliberal “human capital theory,” a high level of education and poverty per se exclude one another. “A good university education is a valuable asset. An engineering graduate, even if temporarily without work and living from less than 938 euro a month, is never poor any more than the hundreds of thousands of students who do not live at home and with their student financial assistance are counted statistically in the poor of our country.” What distinguishes the engineering graduate from students in a transitional status with chances of advancing is the fact that he can gain a professional foothold again even after long-lasting unemployment. Many people who learn so little with the work of their hands that they can hardly feed themselves and their families are not only poorly educated. Persons in the German low-wage sector are mainly people who have displaced less qualified persons in the course of the growing competition over jobs.


Obviously poverty is more than lack of money that could be remedied by financial allocations. Politicians emphasize this again and again to avoid spending to fight poverty. Poverty is not merely reflected as a chronic minus in the bank account or a gaping void in the change purse. Poverty leads to many handicaps, handicaps and strains in education-, cu9lture- and leisure-time and in the areas of health care and housing. This fact has always made it easier for the materially better-off to regularly mock the poor according to the motto “money doesn’t make one happy.” Some commentators are even seduced to subjectivize, individualize or biographize poverty and reduce it to socialization or “cultural or education distance.”

In a guest commentary for Die Zeit (12/17/2003) under the cynical title “The Great Devouring.” Paul Nolte said the main problem was mass consumption of fast food and television, not poverty. If one believes the Berlin historian, the loss of cultural values and norms in neglecting considerateness is the cause of the problem, not material privations and reduced benefits. A comparatively high material care of the lower class is different from social and cultural neglect…

The Stern editor blew the same horn on December 16, 2004 under the title “The Real Misery.” He claimed today’s lower class do not suffer any distress: “Misery is not poverty in the change purse but poverty in spirit. The lower class does not lack money but education. A culturally abridged idea of poverty makes no sense any more than an economistically abridged idea of poverty. The phenomenon must be grasped in its whole complexity. The problem cannot be understood without considering the key role of material goods for the existence, respect and esteem of a person in today’s capitalism. Paradoxically the towering importance of money and its halfway even and just distribution to different population groups is questioned since the supply and status of individuals are impacted by a continuous economization, privatization and commercialization in nearly all areas of society…

Germany is a divided land. However its division does not run along economic lines. There is a cultural division. Poverty does not make one sick. Rather the bad state of health of the lower class can be ascribed to lack of discipline. In the past, politics, society and social scientists believed the lifestyles of the lower class were a result of poverty. The opposite is true: “Poverty is a consequence of a way of conduct and of the business culture.”


Whoever refers back the poverty phenomenon to a fortified “culture of poverty” and reduces it to a culture problem misuses a key term of the American cultural anthropologist Oscar Lewis. During the 1950s and 1960s, the poor (in Latin America and US immigrants) developed survival skills under the most adverse social conditions enabling them to relate without losing their self-esteem. Lewis understood poverty as a life-form passed on from generation to generation and was far removed from fading out the dominant economic and political conditions. He knew the class-determination of pauperization and social marginalization processes.

The ideological resolution of the poverty problem often reduced to a pseudo-social and subjective dimension commonly occurs in middle class features sections by means of pedagogization. Contrary to such half-truths, education- and culture poverty are primarily consequences of material privations and do not reflect any poverty culture. Michael Harrington connected the discourse of the dominant achievement ideology and underscored its function of justifying the existing polarized social structure. “If the lower class is ultimately responsible for its fate because it does not appropriate any education and leads an undisciplined lifestyle and the elites owe their position only to their individual accomplishment, the poverty- and income-conditions of a society are only an inescapable consequence of the different efforts of individual citizens and thus legitimate.”


A false strategy of combating poverty results inevitably from a flawed analysis of the causes of poverty. Whoever culturalizes the problem and identifies the main cause of poverty in education deficits of their own making relies on education reforms and measures of further education without correcting the structural causes. The reduction or avoidance of new “education poverty” certainly remains an important social-political task. The poverty problem is not over. Poverty cannot be solved in a mono-causal or one-dimensional way, that is only by means of (social-) pedagogy. This is especially true when education is reduced to (vocational) training, that is in the sense of the economic exploitation of “human capital” through which “one’s” economic location is instrumentalized by powerful capital interests.

Jutta Allmendinger and Stephan Leibfried constructed an antithesis between a traditional kind of “supplementary balancing social policy” and a modern orientation of social policy that invests for the education of “human capital.” Seniors and younger persons oppose one another and a “(distribution) battle of generations” for scarce budgetary funds threatens. Whoever speaks of a “continuing development of human capital” in connection with education processes intentionally or unintentionally encourages inhumanity.

Elisabeth Niejahr summarized the dubious ideas in an editorial in Die Zeit titled “School, not Support. Social is What Creates Education” (12/22/2003). According to the PISA study, scholastic achievements in Germany are more closely tied to one’s origin than in any other industrial state. This international comparison of academic accomplishments that only gained public attention in Germany reveals that the material resources and social conditions under which someone learns are decisive for educational success. Niejahr turned the tables by declaring life-chances can hardly be separated from education chances: “Whoever is well-educated earns more, lives longer and healthier. He recovers more quickly from life risks like termination, sickness, divorce or unemployment.” “A natural rivalry exists between spending for young and old students and pensioners, spectacle frames and apprenticeships,” Niejahr said. That is why “genuine social reformers” campaign for shifting budgetary funds from social policy to education- and family policy.

Matthias Platzack, temporary SPD chief, explained his model of the “precautionary welfare state” in “Spiegel” on April 10, 2006, the day he surprisingly resigned this office after an acute hearing loss. He demanded “more public investment in social services, education and knowledge, innovation and infrastructure” but remained comparatively vague regarding goals and measures for attaining these goals: “The precautionary welfare state for the 21st century invests in people and their abilities. Such a welfare state promotes employment and prevents poverty. It cushions those impacted by demographic chance and recognizes the existential importance of education for individual persons and for the future of our society. Such a welfare state is a partner, not manager of people. It marks offers to develop their strengths, activates persons to form their life in their own responsibility. The precautionary welfare state is not a growth obstacle but a productive economic force. It must be financed differently and less through social security contributions.”


“Today we should bid farewell to the welfare state and turn to the social education state. (…) The welfare state in its past configuration is not viable any more and cannot be financed. Therefore the welfare state must not merely be recognized; it needs a new foundation.” The former economics and labor minister Wolfgang Clement said this in campaigning (“World on Sunday,” 5/14/2006). By a “social education state,” Clement understood creating equal chances for vocational training and continuing education for all citizens so they can react to the constantly changing demands of the labor market from their own strength and responsibility. “School education and vocational training, science and research are the motors of economic and social progress. They lead to the knowledge society of the 21st century. We must invest and not make fresh demands. A social net must be built that only becomes more threadbare the more we make increased demands.”…

The Koln Institute of the German Economy makes it very simple when it reduces poverty chiefly to unemployment and concludes unceremoniously: “Unemployment is a result of deficient education. Therefore a good school education is the best protection against income poverty.” What is undoubtedly good for individual vocational ascent under favorable circumstances fails as a social panacea. If all persons received better education possibilities – which would be very desirable -, they would compete for the few training positions or jobs on a higher level but not with better chances. Consequently there will be more taxi-drivers with high school diplomas or college degrees but hardly less poverty.

When terminated after a decade-long activity as a qualified engineer, one experiences a rather short transitional period. A good training does not protect one from poverty, the rapid fall to the minimum level of German unemployment benefits II. A better education increases competitiveness on the labor market and poverty as social phenomena. To reach this goal, redistribution of work, income and assets is necessary.

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