Economic pressure and globalization have changed the school system. For progress in particular, it is important that education upholds politics and democracy above the logic of the market.

Educational institutions can only work towards equal opportunities if they can offer the right tools for the right career path. Mindfulness exercises in a Zurich school building, November 2022.

Educational institutions can only work towards equal opportunities if they can offer the right tools for the right career path. Mindfulness exercises in a Zurich school building, November 2022.

Karin Hofer / NZZ

The recent complaint by Swiss companies and training companies is symptomatic of the state of education policy today: school grades are not suitable for finding suitable staff, they said. Business associations had carried out a qualitative survey and called for a new grading system with uniform standards in order to be able to select potential employees more efficiently.

Behind this demand is the idea that education and schools should form a kind of anteroom to the human resources department of companies. But why should teachers, students, education politicians and integration officers put themselves at the service of economic exploitation in the future?

This question receives little space in educational debates. Subsequent questions about the right or wrong path to a reform process dominate. For example, when it comes to the technical-administrative or political feasibility of certain requirements. The deeper meaning or civilizing value of a reform, its human-cultural consequences remain unreflected. In general, questions that create distance are avoided, questions that would make it possible to leave the corridor of optimization and exploitation thinking that characterizes so many areas of life today.

International dictate displaces federal politics

Business ethicists such as Peter Ulrich from the University of St. Gallen had already warned years ago that the “primacy of democratic politics and human dignity” must be enforced over any economization. There are also critical business ethicists in the USA, but they do not seem to have any influence on the general trend. International organizations such as the OECD or the Europe-wide Bologna Process have displaced national and federal, democratically legitimated education policy. Current reforms and education programs generally follow international dictates.

The influence of economization is also evident in the so-called New Public Management (NPM), which is used to run administrations today. In the past, there were no head teachers in primary schools. In secondary schools, the convention (the entire body of teachers) acted as a parliament that could make decisions, while the rectorate acted as the executive body. With the NPM, schools became operational units.

School principals now form the management level with decision-making powers, and the teaching staff is an executive body. Teachers have a right to be heard, but nothing more. This means a de-democratization of school structures, contrary to talk of flat hierarchies. Further evidence of economization comes from health surveys and reports from school psychology counseling centers. They document a massive increase in the number of children affected by school anxiety.

Contrary to humanism and the Enlightenment

According to Zurich educationalist Beat Kissling, there is no longer any “input-based” interpersonal design of schools and lessons. The learners are not led to independent thinking in the spirit of humanism and enlightenment. Instead, we are experiencing an “output-based” design that asks less about how people develop mentally and spiritually than about what output they deliver. Such thinking, oriented towards results and measurable performance, naturally requires uniform standards, constant measuring and comparison with appropriate controlling.

Now it is not a problem if academies, schools or education politicians strive for measurable results, or if society expects an output from the school. After all, the school is also there to prepare girls and boys for working life. The Swiss tradition of a strong elementary school stems from the ideal of equal opportunities for learners from all levels of society. This is different from countries with many private schools, where learners with financially strong parents have significantly more opportunities than those from modest backgrounds. Education policy is always also social and economic policy.

However, educational institutions can only work towards equal opportunities if they can offer the right tools for the right career path. What is needed are experienced teachers, not abstinent learning companions or coaches.

Freedom through freedom

A neglected paradox of free societies is that they only remain truly free, creative and progressive if they refrain from structurally forcing this. Intellectual achievements only flourish where free play with the joy of thinking is possible, where people can try things out, challenge themselves and create without constraint. This is the basis of innovation, and innovation leads to competitive advantages of all kinds, be they economic or social. This cannot be initiated by measuring, controlling and output management. First of all, trust in the power of the individual is required. And the realization that measuring and controlling do not mean progress, but mistrust in freedom.

In their research, the English educational scientists Susan L. Robertson and Tore Sorensen point out that reform programs such as those of the OECD aim to use schools and education as a strategic tool of the market society. Students and teachers become part of a “competitive knowledge economy.”

The education system is becoming a place of domestication. It is no longer about making young people capable of freedom and responsibility, for example through intellectual pluralism, by tolerating differing viewpoints, by breaking habits of thought in order to grow through contradiction.

People can only mature as originals in tension with the world, but measurement leads to pressure and fear – ultimately to conformity. The overwhelming creative power of individual freedom is lost. The complete human capitalization of people can at best produce a system of industrious, digitally equipped ants. But the price is the creeping disempowerment and alienation of people.

It would be all the more important to return to humanistic values ​​and to an education system that upholds the primacy of politics and democracy over the logic of the market. This includes understanding teaching as an interpersonal process that allows learners to mature intellectually and socially. This also includes the personal responsibility of the teacher. They must once again be able to have a say in the education system and be enabled to lead classes in a collective effort. This is crucial, beyond abstract specifications of output and controlling.

Globalization confronts the West with competition from anti-freedom systems and worldviews, for example from China or the Arab world. This pressure can only be withstood by a firm belief in freedom, in the unsurpassed advantages of a liberalism that focuses on the individual and his or her development. In the end, such a belief in freedom is nothing other than a belief in man himself. In man as an irreplaceable, unique person with irreplaceable, unique potential.

Giuseppe Gracia is a writer and communications consultant.