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Secondary Illiterates: The Crisis of Education in Western Industrial Countries

Robert Kurz | 11.06.2004 16:38 | Education | World

"European literacy and the schooling of society were not generous civilizing gifts to people but part of that process described in the critical literature with the term `inner colonialization'..Infrastructural institutions like the postal service, the water supply, the public health system and education are not market enterprises but overall social conditions of the market economy.."Other articles by R.Kurz are on


The Crisis of Education in Western Industrial Countries

By Robert Kurz

[This article originally published in: Folha March 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

In the history of colonialism, the West represented itself as the superior civilization in relation to the rest of the world in the cultural sense and not only technically and economically. The western ideologues of the 19th and first half of the 20th century spoke of “the white man’s burden” that he took on himself to delight the world with his blessings. First after the 2nd World War, a criticism of “eurocentrism” began in the western intelligentsia. The independent cultural achievements of the “others” were discovered after their accomplishments were thoroughly destroyed over several centuries. This was an acknowledgment for the museum and the guilty memory.

De-colonialization obviously did not bring any renewal of the old, long eviscerated cultures that are still instrumentalized today for an ideological identity. Instead the post-colonial social movements and states of the South oriented themselves in the western model in every way, beginning with the political category of the “nation” to the modern civil or middle-class legal form and administrative rationality. The campaign of literacy and the installation of a school- and educational system according to western standards were part of that emulation.

On first view the literacy and educational offensive were great emancipatory achievements. Who would deny that the elementary cultural equipment of reading and writing are indispensable prerequisites for civilizing progress? How can the mediation of knowledge and education be than positive? The substance of knowledge and the form of mediation are central. In this regard, the genesis of the western educational system was in no way completely emancipatory. European literacy and the “schooling” of society were not generous civilizing gifts to people but part of that progress described in the critical literature with the term “inner colonialization”. The outward subjugation of the world by the West went along with an inner preparation of western people as “material” of capitalist exploitation. The intellectual training and conduct orienting all of life in “abstract labor” (Marx) and universal competition were important and went beyond forceful disciplining. Both the institutional forms of education “for the people” and the mediated themes served this goal of “internalizing” a capitalist job profile.

The “higher” education for the youth of the middle class elite is only seemingly different. The rising generation for the executive floors in the economy, politics and culture should receive the most universal knowledge and be encouraged to philosophical reflection beyond capitalism’s immediate practical demands. In Germany, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) even created a neo-humanist educational ideal that understood the universal development of the mind as an end-in-itself that should not be degraded to a functionalist “training” for pre-given goals. However educational ideals of this kind were not oriented to criticism but to the intellectual indulgence of a middle class that had not completely delegated its self-confidence to the functional mechanisms “of the system” or allowed itself the luxury of a supposedly “pure” education, research and cultural self-image.

The post-colonial states of the South reproduced the western ideals of education, both the functionally reduced education for the “people” and the higher, “pure” education for the elites. This occurred along with the rest of the capitalist institutions. The education offensive of the nations in the so-called 3rd world reached its limits just as the paradigm of “equalizing modernization” collapsed since the 1980s in the process of globalization and the world crisis of the 3rd industrial revolution. A modern education with respected schools, universities, research institutes and cultural institutions can only be financed when the corresponding national economy is competitive on the world market.

In expanding regions of the world, the school system and education dissolve together with the economy. As there are “ghost factories” that fall below the standard of the world market, only exist nominally and hardly produce anything, there are also “ghost schools” and “ghost universities” where there isn’t real teaching and research any more. The rate of literacy declines not only in Afghanistan and Somalia.

Education shares this fate with most other infrastructures or public services. A certain economic logic underlies the problem. By their nature, infra-structural institutions like the postal service, water supply, public health system and education are not market enterprises but overall social conditions of the market economy. Seen economically, infra-structural institutions entail business costs, communal costs, dead costs or “faux frais” (Marx) of capitalist reproduction. Businesses presuppose certain qualifications including the most elementary ability to read and write for workers found on the labor market. This base qualification does not arise by nature (although it is treated like a natural, free resource by businesses). Social expenditures are necessary.

Businesses can only calculate their immediate operational costs. By their nature, they are not competent for aggregate social costs. Therefore the state usually assumes the operation and costs of infrastructures including education. This is a secondary, derived financing. Capitalist market incomes (profits, wages, fees) are taxed by the state to carry on the public services with this siphoned-off money.

The development of productive forces produces a fatal connection that was hardly considered in the past. The more the production of businesses becomes mechanized and the greater the share of practical capital (technology), the higher becomes the degree of socialization and the greater the importance of the infrastructure, education and training. Under the aspect of private capitalist calculation, the actual goal, the operational production for profit, is frustrated so to speak by the overall social framing conditions. The communal social costs or “dead costs” (from an operational standpoint) increase disproportionally. In this way, a chronic financing problem arises for the growing and necessary infrastructures. In other words, the degree of socialization produced by capitalism opposes capitalism itself. This problem is a special manifestation of a secular crisis.

In the 3rd industrial revolution of microelectronics, this problem intensifies in the course of a structural crisis of the markets. On the operational plane, a large number of workers are made superfluous since no re-absorption is possible any more through expansion of the markets. The state can tax wages less and less and in addition must finance the unemployment. At the same time transnational corporations in the process of globalization escape the fiscal grasp of the state in the “oases” of countries that do not tax or hardly tax foreign investors. The long precarious indebtedness of the state machine explodes. Financing public services and infrastructures is put in question although the practical demands on these areas grow through the same 3rd industrial revolution. Thus we face an intensifying inner contradiction of the system.

In a quasi-natural course of this crisis, both capacities of production and public sectors are idle or shut down for lack of profitability or “financing”. The state machine is increasingly reduced to a restrictive management of people and resources, to its role as a power structure. The costs for domestic and foreign “security” rise continuously while costs for infrastructure provisions are driven down. In other words, the anti-social, anti-civilization barbaric core of the modern age appears as the “civilizing surplus” like medicine, care, education, culture and so forth successively disappear.

While the West under the leadership of the US produces a new crisis-colonialism and ideologically invokes the “rescue of civilization” motif, it denies itself in its own inner conditions through an anti-civilizing development. Education and the cultural institutions decay in western countries today similar to the crisis regions of the South. Bearers of education, training and culture in this part of the world are mostly the communes and provinces. For these lower levels of state administration, the financial crisis in the West is just as advanced as for central states of the 3rd world. In the schools, the plaster falls from the walls and teaching aids are out of date. Resources for training are eliminated. Whole series of the cultural niche production are liquidated. The Sunday addresses of politicians on the necessity of an education offensive in the “global competition” stand in crass opposition to reality. Young persons are dismissed from schools and universities who cannot master the essential cultural equipment and the larger connections. They are “secondary illiterates” who read and write scantily while not understanding and using the contents. Despite universal compulsory education, primary or complete illiteracy is advancing even in the US and Germany.

Politics and administration react stereotypically to the crisis contradictions with paradigmatic measures. As in all other areas, the first paradigm is called “privatization”. However private schools, private universities and other private educational institutions active in marketing are obviously not public infrastructures but are oriented in a minority of a solvent clientele. Student fees are raised in public schools and universities and teaching aids are no longer free.

The second paradigm is closely related to this tendency, namely intensified propaganda for an elite education. Practically this means that normal schools and normal universities go to seed to concentrate state resources on a few elite institutions. These conditions that have long been usual in the US are now spreading in the whole western world. Nevertheless the intellectual level of the whole society inevitably falls when education depends on ability to pay. Private stipends cannot compensate for the loss in universal public services. The social reservoir in intellectual gifts is wasted.

The third paradigm disables the apparent crisis management, namely the functionalist reduction of education and research to immediate economic commercialization. Schools and universities are allied more directly and strongly to “the economy, guided by operational criteria and adjusted substantively to market conformism. The motto – Whatever you study is always business management – is seemingly true! Economic totalitarianism has come to education. This means that the cultural self-indulgence of the capitalist elites disappears together with the last remnants of the Humboldt educational ideal. The capitalist elites reduce themselves to “functional idiots of the system”. The intellectual capacity for distance, the prerequisite for governing complex processes, dissolves. The new “elite” denies itself.

What happens to the fallow intellectual potential of society that can no longer be recalled? When education for the great multitude is crassly driven down, its past function of disciplining also becomes defunct. A “secondary illiteracy” occurs along with a “subversive intelligence” that no longer follows the demands of economic totalitarianism. The capitalist crisis management of education and knowledge could unintentionally bring about a new intellectual counter-culture.

Robert Kurz
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