Education for Knocking Things Down

On August 13, 1969 the final radio conversation between two friends, Hellmut Becker (who founded the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin in 1963) and Theodor Adorno (associated with the Frankfurt School since the early 1920s), was broadcast one week after Adorno’s death on August 6, 1969. Becker and Adorno had been conversing on educational questions since 1959. Spontaneous and convivial, these conversations permitted the so subtly refined philosopher Adorno to arrive in the studio, figure out with Becker what they would talk about, and think their way along together.

Their friendship, Robert French and Jem Thomas (“Maturity and education, citizenship and enlightenment: an introduction to Theodor Adorno and Hellmut Becker, ‘Education for maturity and responsibility’”, in History of the Human Sciences, 1999, vol. 12(3), pp. 1-19) observe, was “linked to spontaneity and languages and ideas” (p. 3)—lively, immediate, and intelligible. Friendship may be seen as the pre-eminent relationship able to nurture dialogue where each feels comfortable enough to disagree and delight in the twists and turns of thought. French and Thomas even think that “key friendships” are often at the heart of groups, playing a dynamic role in creative thought and action.

These accomplished thinkers believed that the German school system and the university system were in need of a strong tonic. Becker hoped dearly that the Max-Planck Institute would infuse new life into the school system. Adorno carried deep fears from the Nazi period that the very possibility of critical thinking in the 1950s and 1960s had been smothered by the mass media.

To focus their discussion Becker and Adorno (“Education for maturity and responsibility,” in History of the Human Sciences, 1999, vol. 12 (3), pp. 21-34) accepted Kant’s notion of education as a process for the development of personal and social maturity and responsibility. For them, Kant’s demand that humankind be released from immaturity (German: unmundigkeit) was “extraordinarily up-to-date” (p. 21). Kant wanted persons to break free from being commanded from above (tutelage from guardians and commanders) and find the courage and resolution to rely on themselves.

The “condition of tutelage”—the inability to think for oneself—was linked to the “status of the child.” French and Thomas comment insightfully that Kant thinks that the “growth to maturity and responsibility is a moral education, a process of learning the pleasure of fulfilment of our existence marked by reason and freedom, and also of learning to resist the inclination to inertia” (p. 5). In our own dyspeptic times, inertia has slithered into the make-believe narratives of a media gone mad.

But Becker and Adorno were under no illusions that thinking for one ’s self was easily accomplished. In fact, Becker believed that the German school system divided schools according to “alleged ability, be it high or low” (p. 22). Becker and Adorno did not believe that “ability in humans” was “predetermined” (ibid.). The acquisition of reasoning powers and critical thought depended on appropriate enabling conditions. Children and youth needed access to a widely varied range of educational opportunities.

Becker urges us to recognize that the “linguistic development of the small child in the lower classes” shows that “conditions for lifelong tutelage can be set from the very start of socialization” (ibid.). Even Adorno plunges into the educational literature and, horrified, finds no signs whatsoever of “uncompromising support for education for maturity, which we should be able to take for granted” (ibid.). Germany, Adorno quipped, “may still be left in a state of antiquated mustiness” (p. 23).

These giant intellectuals discover that post-World War II Germany educated for conformity and worshipped before the shrine of order and commitment to the status quo. Scanning the globe, they observe that American education worshipped the adaptive child and the old Soviet Union was captive to authoritarian pedagogical modes. Becker argues strongly that “education for tutelage still rules the world, although the age of enlightenment has been under way some time, and although you could certainly find not only Kant’s works but also in Karl Marx’s the old criticism of this education for tutelage” (p. 25).

Today almost half a century later, education for tutelage still reigns supreme: Becker and Adorno could not have imagined this education commanded from above would attempt to accomplish its nefarious purposes by abandoning the necessity to anchor assertions in facts and evidence. No more facts, just propaganda oozing from every pore of the mass media and too many formal educational institutions.

A fuliginous blanket of untruth and inverted perceptions has descended upon humanity. Adorno claims that society is “other-directed” (one of David Riesman’s categories): people “will swallow anything that’s put in front of them and rammed down their throats by the powers that be, as if the way things just happen to be is the way they have to be” (p. 27).

Reality has been fictionalized. Historical analysis has deformed into myth; truth has been banished from the world; all anchor points have been uprooted. This is our world: all aspects of the de-formation of our thought appear to be the creation of a band of lunatics at a crazed Disney-land writing workshop. At their central commanding post lunatics create the scripts. They then send them to everyone in the outposts who disseminates ideas. Readers think they know what’s going on behind their backs. They do not. What they see is pantomime and fraud.

We are deceived, manipulated, coerced, lied to and bullied as we descend into the eighth level of Dante’s Inferno. Jurgen Habermas captures something of what is happening out there: “Truth can deform into propaganda, authentic insights can be coerced into pseudo-authenticity; and risky, uninformed action can repress prudence.” When this happens in media and schools, we can pronounce democracy’s end and announce a new, unfolding era of the “age of fiction.”

Adorno tosses aside post-World War II educational thought that extolled “adjustment.” This crass orientation “both binds and cuts back the independence which in the same breath it proclaims” (ibid.). A troubled Adorno finds some of his answers to the question of people’s failure to “dare to know” in the psychoanalytic categories of Freud. He argues that the capacity and motivation to think critically against the grain requires grounding in an “autonomous personality.” Neo-liberal commanders detest autonomy; they want grovelling subjects.

His references to the authority of the “father” and the “fatherless society” may grate a little on our gendered sensibility. Perhaps we ought to simply read Adorno’s reference to “father” as stand-in for the parent (or guardian) who stands for truth, fairness and respect for others.

The ability to stand back and reflect, Adorno states, demands that children be raised in families where the father commanded respect and obedience. Thus the child internalizes parental values and can measure their strength against them through rebellion or resistance. Parents do not always live up to their articulated values and appropriate ways to act. Nor does the world outside the home match (or mirror) the values set forth by the parent.

Thus, the dialectical interplay of emulation and resistance creates ego-strength. Children can be self-confident and filled with self-respect. They have strong egos. They have been permitted to speak and voice their ways of seeing. They have been listened to. They can stand tall and not look down, shuffling their feet. They can stand back and reflect on their situations and events in the larger arena of geo-politics. But in Adorno’s fatherless society where the parental guardian does not stand for anything coherent resistance and rebellion become frozen. The ego of the “fatherless child” becomes weakened. There is nothing to be emulated or resisted. They are weak and cannot stand tall and speak truth to Power.

They have not developed the internal capacity for maturity and responsibility. They don’t dare to know and they are vulnerable to a Leader who will replace the missing parental figure to emulate. Submitting to the Great Leader puffs up the weak ego. Now I can stand tall, but can only speak my Commander’s words. In Adorno’s words, maturity requires “certain strength of the ego, of ego-bonding, as it is developed in the mode of the middle-class individual” (p. 29). Thus, the “capacity for maturity and responsibility, for an adult who can ‘knock things down,’ depends on the psychological security of a stable and relatively patriarchal father” (French and Thomas, 1999, p. 8). Here, the “patriarchal father” is a symbol of the parent who remains independent from both state and bourgeois economic bullying and coercion.

Adorno and Becker believe that ego-weakness is “extraordinarily serious” (ibid.). Expressing sympathy for most of us who are unable to get a grip on things, Adorno reminds us that Kant imagined maturity as “dynamic, as in a state of becoming not being (ibid.). However, “whether today we can still say in the same way that we live in an age of enlightenment must be questionable in the light of the enormous pressure which is exerted on people simply through the way the existential world is arranged and also through the methodical control of the whole inner world by the culture industry in its widest way” (ibid.). We must, Adorno admonishes us, “start by recognizing the enormous difficulties blocking maturity in the very way our world is arranged” (pp. 29-30).

Adorno writes about his German world of the late 1960s that is still remarkably helpful for understanding how we reside in the age of fiction. “(T)he social arrangements under which we live remain heteronomous, which means that no individual in today’s society can, on their own, determine the nature of their own existence. That as long as this remains the case, society will continue to mould people through a vast number of different structures and processes in such a way that, living within this heteronomous framework, they swallow and accept everything, without its nature ever being available to their consciousness” (p. 30). Even the shadows on the cave walls are growing dimmer for the dystopic Teddy Adorno.

Staying close to German schools, Becker thinks that schools (which, in fact, can play an important role in enabling maturity and responsibility) ought to abandon their fixed canons and replace them with a “very varied curriculum” with widely differentiated choice. He wants “students themselves, as individuals or as members of a group” to be engaged in “defining their own curriculum and selecting their own syllabus” (p. 30). This would position them to be “better motivated to learn but are also accustomed to events in school being the result of their own decisions and not just predetermined.”

These significant ideas have, of course, being articulated in the critical pedagogical literature over the last forty years (with Henry Giroux marching at the head of this parade). If the socializing agencies (family, school and community surround) command children from above, they are opened to being endlessly duped and fooled in the big bad world out there. Yet Adorno and Becker don’t adequately account for the apparent contradiction that they are denigrating the mass media on a public broadcast and are offering us ideas that have not been fashioned into slogans or commodified. The famed “culture industry”—the least we can say—is not air-tight. There are peep-holes of light that find their way out of the suffocating darkness of control systems.

For his part, Adorno thinks that maturity must need be “established everywhere, really in every single aspect of our lives” (ibid.). But he considers that the “only real concrete form of maturity would consist of those few people who are of a mind to do so working with their energies towards making education an education for protest and for resistance” (pp. 30-31). One fundamental pedagogical task, then, is that we try to “open people’s minds to the fact that they are constantly being deceived, because the mechanism of tutelage has been raised to the status of a universal mundum vult decepi: the world wants to be deceived” (p. 31).

By casting aside any educational systems that perpetuate “false concepts of ability”, Becker thinks that the nurturing of children’s capacity to think for themselves might, at least, lessen their openness to “manipulation and control” (p. 32). Aware of the intense pressure of thought control systems of capitalist pseudo-democracies, Becker observes somewhat sadly that “this mature, responsible individual still runs the constant risk of becoming immature and irresponsible-…”(ibid.).

Adorno takes this question of risk very seriously. Once students and citizens shift “towards maturity” they are “immediately met with indescribable resistance, and all the evil in the world at once finds its most eloquent advocates, who will prove to you that the very thing you are attempting to achieve has either long being overtaken or is utopian or is no longer relevant” (ibid.).

However, Adorno believes fervently that: “Every age produces the expressions which are appropriate to it. And many of these expressions, such as ‘schmaltze’ or ‘knocking something’ are very good. I would advocate most strongly this kind of education for ‘Knocking things down’” (p. 31).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.