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How the economic doctrine of salvation is changing education

by Daniel Nuebold Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021 at 7:41 PM

Economy always takes place in social contexts - even more: It is itself a result of social contexts. In this respect, a discussion in the context of sociology, culture or politics is essential. However, this insight is already missing in academic economics.

How the economic doctrine of salvation is changing education

by Daniel Nübold

[This article published in 2016 is translated from the German on the Internet, Wirtschaft als Schulfach? |]

In Baden-Württemberg, economics has been on the curriculum as a new subject since this school year. Other German states are also considering corresponding education policy plans. However, economic topics are already being taught in other subjects, especially in interdisciplinary subjects such as social sciences and history. This is not the only reason why economics, as a separate subject, should remain fiction.

One example of a subject area that has been separated from the previous canon of subjects and established as a separate subject is ethics. Beyond the subject of religion, it sheds light on perspectives beyond Christian doctrine by considering this specific religion as one among many and, in addition, incorporating philosophical theories. Another example is the - so far only conceived - subject of media, which is to treat an understanding of media and media-analytical skills more strongly than is currently the case in German, English or art, where media-theoretical aspects are treated rather stepmotherly.

Economics as an intellectual monoculture

Both subjects deepen and broaden their respective thematic focus. This is the fundamental difference to the concept of economics as a school subject. By decoupling economic topics from other subjects, the wealth of references becomes smaller rather than larger. As a result, economics presents itself as a system of doctrines that is equally decoupled from other areas of society. But this is not exactly what it is. Economy always takes place in social contexts - even more: It is itself a result of social contexts. In this respect, a discussion in the context of sociology, culture or politics is essential. However, this insight is already missing in academic economics, the intellectual foundation of a subject like economics. Its neoclassically dominated theory sees itself as a natural science, which means that its subject area is located far away from social contexts. With its self-contained system of reductionist theorems, it perceives non-economic elements, if at all, only as disruptive influences, such as politics in the form of tariffs, taxes or trade-restricting regulations.

As a school subject, economics would be a kind of economics light. One may fear that students would learn the basics of economics and business administration as constants of human nature - and not as the result of a social and historical development. This is likely to happen if teaching staff, for their part, are to be trained in economics within the framework of academic economics. Teaching materials are already increasingly being provided by neoliberal-oriented institutions, which are taking advantage of the lack of appropriate textbooks in this way.

The new subjects are likely to be well received by many students. For example, the following tweet from early 2015, which once again fueled the discussion about a school subject in economics, was strongly received:

"I'm almost 18 and have no idea about taxes, rent or insurance. But I can write a poetry analysis. In four languages."

The economization of the concept of education

It's a snapshot that makes it clear: even schoolchildren see themselves as the very market subject ("homo oeconomicus") that economics imagines. This attitude is likely to be further reinforced by the new subject of economics. Even at a young age, students are sensitized to a behavior that economics initially merely assumes, but then expects of people. As (not only) students comply with this expectation, the action-theoretical assumptions of economic theory become reality.

It has been found in university economics students that they tend to take more liberal economic positions after graduation than they did at the beginning of their studies. This change in attitudes was found to be much stronger and clearer than among students of other disciplines (ifo Institute for Economic Research: Does the field of study influence students' political attitudes?) If economics were a comparable school subject, liberal economic ideas would probably meet with even greater approval; after all, younger people question teaching content in this respect even less. Such an ideological foundation would have corresponding effects on the further socialization of adolescents.

Like the introduction of the turbo baccalaureate and the conversion of courses of study to bachelor's and master's degrees in the course of the Bologna reform, the establishment of the new subject has consequences for the fundamental understanding of education. With the establishment of an economistic conceptual apparatus, another building block is being put in place to educate people now in their function as economic subjects and not as individuals who shape themselves in the Humboldtian sense. The tweeting student's demands for competencies in "taxes, rent or insurance" are only understandable for a world in which economic efficiency is the preferred category of thought. Concrete, instrumental knowledge of action is becoming increasingly important in it. The school is supposed to play the role of a competence mediator. And this in an environment in which teachers complain that they have to take on more and more educational tasks that previously lay with the family and the students' immediate living environment. As a result of the attack of general economization on the field of education, classical education à la Humboldt is being pushed out of the curriculum. But the fact that the ability to write a poem analysis (gladly also in four languages) is connected with the ability to develop a complex thought and to express it linguistically - this reveals no direct economic value and therefore threatens to drop out of an economically dominated educational canon.

Interdisciplinarity as the top priority

There is much more to the discussion about economics as an independent school subject than a mere question of school policy. It is, first, a question about the state of economic theory formation and the social classification of economics and, second, a question about the understanding of education.

The current state of affairs, in which economic topics find their way into subjects on an interdisciplinary basis, is more likely to help students understand economics as the result of a social and historical development - and not, conversely, to see society as a byproduct of economic, "natural" principles, as is the case in mainstream economics. Rather, it harms understanding of economics to condense it into a single subject. As long as academic economics is limited to ideologically legitimizing the economic system in its capitalist form and thereby equally reproducing it, it will turn education into training and thus degrade it into a dependent function of that system.

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