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Education of the Homo Oeconomicus

by Philipp Wolter Tuesday, Jun. 07, 2011 at 4:31 AM

The school system should not only produce students with a narrowed economic view. Society consists of more than the sum of benefit-maximizing individuals.An economic system with fewer income differences, regulated financial markets and welfare state brings greater stability.


By Philipp Wolter

[This article published in the journal “Mitbestimmung” of the Hans Boeckler foundation 5/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, Philipp Wolter is an editor of the Hans Boeckler foundation.]

Economic associations conquer schools with their ideas about economic education. What would counter-strategies look like? This question haunts teachers and unionists.

“There is no such thing as society.” With these words, Margaret Thatcher once described the foundation of the neoliberal thought-system. There is no society, only individuals. “That no supra-individual public interest can be established follows from the individualistic norm.” So our children learn today in social studies and economics instruction from a textbook of the Westermann publishing house.

Wage policy is the theme in another chapter of the little volume “The Functions of the State in a Free Enterprise System.” Firstly, the conventional productivity-oriented concept is presented. Secondly, a “cost-neutral wage policy” once proposed by the council of experts is emphasized. In the former, the share of employees in the national income is kept constant. The latter focuses on stabilizing profits. While productivity-oriented wage policy is stressed with the reference that “disagreement” among unions and management only prevails over this concept, the model of the council of experts is described as “developed by science” and characterized by “rejection of unions,” these nuances communicate a clear message: what economic reason commands breaks down in the unions.


Why does a respectable schoolbook publisher obliged to the command of worldview neutrality present such tendentious texts to students and teachers? The book was published by the in-service training for teachers’ project “Economic education online” of the Institute for Economic Education at the University of Oldenburg…

What about unions and critical economic voices? The two hardly occur in the economic concepts that employer-friendly networks try to channel into the schools in the most different ways. The book is only one example of the many teaching materials guided by business interests that are brought forth by associations and institutes. Economic associations are now going a step further. They demand an independent economics as a compulsory subject in all general education schools.

For the unions, it is high time to react to prevent the school system “producing persons with a narrowed economic view,” Oscar Negt declares. Negt struck the nerve of listeners at the meeting “What our children think about the economy” at the beginning of April 2011 in the IG-BCE educational institution Bad Munder. The social philosopher and reform educator turned against the way economic education is often pursued as the mere application of optimization calculations. In this technical-operational discussion of economic questions, he sees a step on the way to the “scholastic destruction of critical capacity.” Negt underlines what is cut short: “the sense of justice and the sense of possibility,” the ability to develop alternatives to what seemingly has no alternatives. Discernment or ability to judge is different from application knowledge. Democracy needs political citizens, employers who go into schools and make consumers and workers, not citizens.

The statements of Gerd Famulla, former director at the Institute for Politics and the Economy at the University of Flinsburg described the activities of different economic initiatives at the meeting that are all in the same vein. The 1999 memorandum of the stock exchange institute sought to make the stock market appealing to young people. The “core curriculum” presented by the bank association in 2008 reduced the life reality of students to economic decisions. In October 2010 a standardized nationwide compulso9ry subject economics was demanded…

According to Famulla, heads should be filled with a “prefabricated knowledge.” There should be simple models with unequivocal solutions, not any reflection about different ways of looking at things. The life worlds of students and ethical problems would be faded out. What makes a good life? This question will not be raised. The cause of the homo oeconomicus – assumed as a reference model – is clear: benefit-maximization. “Students should learn as early as possible to apply the efficiency-calculus to themselves,” Famulla says. The model of the future, the “entrepreneurial self,” is stressed. The personally responsible entrepreneur who seeks “profit and less welfare state” is emphasized.


Political and sociological education may not continue to be repressed to make room for BMW and VW. The participants of the meeting organized by the Hans Boeckler foundation and the DGB study group “School and the World of Work” agree. Society consists of more than the sum of benefit-maximizing individuals. Communicating this to students growing up in an environment of bank advertisements is increasingly difficult… Teachers do not object in principle to economic customers – as long as space exists for critical confrontation with current themes.

The economy must not be inescapably dogmatic and neoclassical. Achim Truger from the Hans Boeckler foundation emphasized this in his address on the Euro crisis. Truger was not stingy in criticizing the economic guild. He regards the next crisis as programmed for lack of readiness to learn on the part of experts advising politics. An economic system with fewer income differences, regulated financial markets and a strong welfare state brings greater stability. Nothing can be read of this today in the study materials provided by the bank associations and the insurance economy.

“I cannot tell my students anything about efficient markets in the middle of the financial crisis.” Many sociology teachers face this problem. Other meeting participants criticize the far-reaching fading out of power structures in the mainstream economy. Whoever makes power structures a theme is guilty and regarded as a crackpot in the teaching staff. Teachers are in a difficult position for other reasons. “I don’t feel trained for the economy,” a female teacher lamented.

Could an independent compulsory subject economy lead in the long term to better teacher training and more competent and more critical educators? Birgit Weber, professor of social economics with a focus on economic education at the University of Koln, doubts this. With economy as a compulsory subject, the economic faculties would probably completely take over teacher training. Still preparation for a life as a come-of-age consumer, employed person and creative citizen is not its main goal. Didactic principles like connection to social reality or critical and responsible discernment are marginalized. Preparation for economic facts often occurs in integrated subjects like labor studies or social studies in special meetings for future teachers and non-economists. With a compulsory subject, seminars thematicize what young persons should learn about the economy. This may soon be superfluous.

The superior force of business associations active in school policy must be very great. The DGB unions are alarmed. Marianne Demmer and Edelraud Glanzer of IG BCE agree: economic education should not be limited to business interests. Critical scholars like Birgit Weber and Gerd Famulla formulate counter-opinions to the expert opinions of trade and industry with their “Initiative for a Better Economic Education.” What must be done is clear. Firstly, expert circles must bring the question about the contents of economic education into the public political debate. Secondly, concrete alternatives should be developed enabling students and teachers to think beyond the purely operational perspective. The silent advance of employer-friendly education contents can be slowed down.

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