Principles of education What Is Education And What Purpose Should It Serve?

Auditoritum Maximum of the University in Cottbus; Photo: Sascha Nehls
Auditoritum Maximum of the University in Cottbus | Photo (detail): Sascha Nehls/CC BY-SA

It is an undisputed fact – education is one of life’s most valuable assets. When it comes however to deciding what education actually is and what purpose it should serve, opinions often differ very widely indeed. For some it is first and foremost a cultural and character-forming end in itself, for others it is above all an economic resource and an indispensable means of societal participation for the individual.

For quite some time education in Germany has been a major controversial issue that has triggered a good deal of political and public debate. Since the 19th century in Germany - a country that values culture (Kulturnation) - education has on the one hand played a particular role in the way society sees itself (conventional society), on the other hand however its economic significance is becoming more and more obvious. Germany’s most important “raw materials” are the knowledge and education of its people. As more and more emphasis is now being placed on considering the usefulness of education the old Humboldtian principle of education has come under extreme pressure.

The Humboldtian Principle of Education

The idea that education is an end in itself that comes to fruition with the full development of the human being and fulfilment of his or her potential is often linked with the name Wilhelm von Humboldt. The idea however is much older, as old in fact as philosophy itself. Plato himself, in his allegory of the cave, describes the path taken by the human being in his quest for knowledge as a process that envelops the person as a whole - the rise from the darkness of mere opinion and externally imposed ignorance to the light of knowledge not only entails an increase in useable knowledge, but also brings about a deeply spiritual change.

Alexander von Humboldt; © Lorenz ViereckeEducation is not merely “useful”, it is the thing that makes the human being a human being. The same emphatic understanding was what guided the thinkers of the Enlightenment – despite all the differences – in connection with the notion of the autonomous individual. The courage to make use of one’s own mind, as Kant’s “campaign slogan for the Enlightenment” went, is the foundation for the human being’s self-liberation that strives towards morality, self-determination and responsibility – of a human being that sees himself as an end in himself. Humboldt also felt committed to this aim and thus demanded that universities, as places of free teaching and comprehensive education, be kept free of political influences as well as economic dependencies. In the 19th century the idea of personal development became an important element in the self-perception of the culturally-oriented classes.

Education as training – usefulness instead of an end in itself

The shift away from this ideal is not a recent development. Natural scientists and technical progress have not just achieved an enormous increase in knowledge in their own particular fields, but have also contributed to a “scientification” of our technical civilisation that can only be managed with the help of specialist knowledge and the right training. Science, like economics, above all needs specialists. There is no room here for any holistic educational ideals. On top of this there is also an ever growing need in society to think about the usefulness of things - a need that primarily assesses knowledge and education by means of capitalist exploitation criteria. For example, what added monetary value is to be gained from educational investment? How is society going to profit from the sharing of a certain kind of knowledge? Education is viewed as training and specialist learning that is to be exploited and is only really interesting in the form of a return on “human capital”.

The way education is discussed has also become much more economics-related – as has been registered by the people who, when choosing a training course or a university course, orient themselves (unavoidably) to the labour market and to corporate expectations. The fact that these days employees are even confronted with the demand for “lifelong learning”, once again emphasising the increased significance of knowledge, is probably going to remove us even more from Humboldt’s educational ideals. “Personal development” is going to be a luxury.

From a “Kulturnation” to an knowledge society

For quite some time now the aforementioned developments have been coming in for severe criticism that more often than not is tinged with cultural pessimism - the decline of old educational ideals at times seems to part of a general demise of the Western World. Dumbing down, superficiality and materialism to name but a few of the symptoms. The educated classes of former times lived from a canon of classical educational standards and it had an influence on the public self-perception of the “Kulturnation”.

It might seem that this has been lost for ever, but there might however be another way of interpreting it. The old concept of education was extremely elitist and contributed substantially to separating the members of the educated classes from the “mob”. The vast majority of the population never had, and will continue not to have, a really equal chance to access any form of sophisticated, advanced culture. Incidentally - in democratic societies this has given rise to a question of fairness that deserves to be taken very seriously. The fact that our culture today is being strongly affected by mainstream tastes could in fact also be interpreted as a form of democratisation. Furthermore it has become more and more controversial, whether and how, due to their very nature, sophisticated educational objectives can be unequivocally determined. The enormous propagation and pluralisation of knowledge and forms of cultural expression have made it more and more difficult to establish something like an educational canon that could somehow be bindingly relied on.

Knowledge and education are more important than ever - but in the individualised and digitalised knowledge society they are morphing more and more into objects of highly individual forms of appropriation. The ideal of personal development has in no way disappeared from the scene or become obsolete, but is now going down completely different roads and now has doubtlessly to be conceived anew - compared to the way it was conceived in Humboldt’s time. There is however one thing the old and the new educational ideals have in common - they both reject the logics of crude economic exploitation. Whether this idea will prevail depends primarily on the critical awareness of an informed public - on the ability and the will to make use of one’s own mind, on what else but - education.