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Halbbildung: Imperialism and education

Halbbildung: Imperialism and education
by Trevor Maddock

With the current Education Minister, Julia Gillard endorsing the New York system for ranking schools based on student performance, some critical reflection is not just timely but essential. The twentieth century German philosopher, Theodor Adorno described the product of the modern education system as Halbbildung. The word doesn’t have a ready equivalent in English, for the idea of “half-education” does not quite capture its meaning, although it points ominously in the direction in which the current system is going. Adorno might have been alluding to Minister Gillard’s proposals for reforming Australian education when he wrote that, “Isolated reforms alone are inadequate, however necessary they may be. Occasionally these reforms even reinforce the crisis of declining intellectual standards” (Theorie der Halbbildung, p. 93). This last phrase, a “crisis of declining intellectual standards”, more than aptly describes the current condition of education in Australia, while the idea that reforms may reinforce the decline in standards points to a major concern over the Gillard proposals: that they are no more than the latest in a bevy of corporate reforms, each of which has made general education worse than it was before.

The idea of Bildung comes from German enlightenment thought. The Humboldt model of the university, which was realised in the University of Berlin in the first decade of the nineteenth century, was intended to provide the facilities whereby Bildung was achieved. The model drew on the ideals of an all-round education, of critical research after the truth, and of academic freedom, effectively liberating university education from government control. Prior to the Humboldt reforms, German universities comprised four faculties. Three – theology, law and medicine – were higher faculties dedicated to state goals, while the lower faculty, philosophy, uniquely pursued the truth. The Humboldt model dissolved this distinction, with all faculties pursuing the self-enculturation of the individual: Bildung. Even if we do not have a word for it in English, we know that this is the goal, the only legitimate goal, of the liberal idea of education. Humboldt’s reforms represented the flowering of this idea. They had but a short flowering season, however, and bloomed only once.

I began my tertiary education in the 1970s, during the Whitlam era, and I might have been forgiven for thinking that liberal ideas were receiving a second flowering. In South Australia, the Whitlam reforms coincided with Director General of Education, Alby Jones’ famous Freedom and Authority memorandum, which effectively placed curriculum development in the hands of teachers. Wattle Park Teachers’ Centre, an old Teachers College campus, was dedicated to facilitating this process. As I began my studies I was surrounded by other mature-age students, all taking advantage of the financial support to take up tertiary study provided by the Whitlam administration. The College of Advanced Education I attended was largely staffed by academics from the old Wattle Park College, many of whom were hand-picked by the noted Australian author Colin Thiele, the college principal, who was in many ways a Humboldt incarnate. Tutorials of between six and twelve people could go on for two, or two and a half hours, until someone suddenly remembered that they had another class. The pedagogical and the social blended seamlessly. I still have contact with some of my teachers, now long-retired. The Philosophy of Education Department, about six or eight people, offered full three-year programmes in philosophy of education and general philosophy. Students abounded. Then, in 1979, for the first time all education graduates were not automatically employed in teaching. The Education Department introduced interviews and selection criteria for choosing potential teachers. The number of people studying philosophy immediately shrank to a mere handful. Practical knowledge had suddenly become the important qualification.

The Whitlam reforms were part of a revolution sweeping the world in the 1960s, taking all in its wake, including so-called “Communist” China and the Vatican. Nothing was left untouched. Student and worker bodies enthusiastically embraced the new ideas and values. A thousand flowers were allowed to bloom, as long as they weren’t the old floral varieties. This is what a revolution is: a complete change in social standards and perceptions. The liberation of ideas can be a mechanism for achieving such transformations and they were so used throughout the world at this time. The reconstruction phase after World War Two, with its Keynesian welfare principles, was completed. Now a revolutionary change in thinking was needed in order to return the world to the programme of economic development interrupted by all the death and destruction. The Whitlam faction of the Australian Labor Party did its part by quietly severing control of the parliamentary wing from the body of the party. With the OECD supervising, everything was in place for the complete corporate restructuring of the public sector.

If all this sounds like a conspiracy that is because that is exactly what it is, a conspiracy. Corporatism is by its very nature conspiratorial. Corporate administration requires that the leaders of institutions come together to form an accord, where agreement is reached over common goals. Prime Minister Hawke employed this strategy in the 1980s, although the exercise was largely for ideological purposes. Mussolini similarly employed it. Accords of actual significance are generally formed behind closed doors, however. The accord stage is participatory and democratic. When it is completed, the task for the various leaders is to return to their institutions and put mechanisms in place to achieve these goals. The leaders have relative autonomy in how they achieve their aims.

During my time in tertiary education, the sector was under continual review. The reviews had strong corporate involvement, some headed by corporate leaders, and thus the values of the corporation progressively became the values of teacher-education. History and philosophy of education were reduced to one subject in a teaching award and then further reduced to a part of one subject. Finally they disappeared altogether. Of the disciplinary basis of teacher-education, only psychology remained, and not for long. Each review, each effort to make educational system more accountable, more relevant, changed what we understand by education. Testability became the key criterion for all worthwhile knowledge, while tradition, in the form of the philosophical canon, was expunged from the curriculum.

Broadly liberal values have not merely been displaced by corporate ones, however, but the administrative structures aimed at achieving liberal values have been replaced with corporate structures. The collegial structure of Australia’s universities is no more. It was no simple exercise; the liberal academics had to go; indeed, everyone had to go who might resist the new structures and practices. In the institution in which I received my first tertiary education, those over forty-five were offered lucrative inducements to go, and most accepted. More or less brutal strategies were used in repeating this success throughout Australia. The Keating Administration altered academics’ redundancy provisions and in the first year of the Howard Administration these provisions were put into effect and for the first time in Australian history tenured academics were made redundant. Such developments mirror key features of the Nazi education reforms after 1933, where there was a greatly increased emphasis on practical knowledge and almost all senior academics were removed from the universities.

When I was a student in the 1970s tutorials typically ranged in number of from six to twelve people and went for an hour. Questions were set on a previous lecture and weekly readings. Today, the tutorial has largely been replaced by a weekly two-hour seminar, nominally of about twenty-five students; the actual numbers may extend to fifty or more. The students are divided into groups and on any particular week one of these groups gives a presentation to the others. In the seminars I have experienced, the emphasis has typically been on presentation, with much use of audio-visual and computer equipment. They often reflected a desire to entertain; some were even quite theatrical. This emphasis on presentation often masked a meagre content. There was little space for intervention by the tutor or for group discussion. Students were generally bored with the content presented in lectures, readings and seminars, which was intellectually slight and over-used. The academic staff did their best but were over-worked and under-prepared, in comparison with the education I received thirty years before. There are fewer senior academics to support the development of the younger generation, who are left to reinvent the wheel.

This is Halbbildung: it is not half-education but the denial of education. Each step in the dismantling of the system through which I was educated, each step in the process from education to Halbbildung, has been marked by the rhetoric of standards and testing. With the implementation of each review standards plunged further into the depths of Halbbildung. Good luck! Get all the private education for your kiddies that you can. It’s not going to make any difference. A double dose of Halbbildung will never equal an education.

The effort to abandon tradition and convert education into practical training, which has driven the corporate review of education since the 1960s, has a history born in the early decades of the 19th century, as the state came to intervene in the marketplace, thus ending the liberal era of capitalism. Full details of this development are to be found in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Volume 2). The first modern education act was the Irish Education Act of 1847, passed in a British parliament in order to make economic conditions in Ireland the same as those in Britain, re-educating the Irish people. The goal of British imperialism was to make economic conditions abroad the same as they were in Britain. Ireland was its first victim but not its last. The South Australian Education Act of 1851 was based on the Irish Education Act, as was the 1875 Education Act, where efficiency became a manifest concern (see: Pavla Miller, Long Division: State Schooling in South Australia, Wakefield Press, 1986). In the universities, the philosophical tradition leading up to Hegel was abandoned and philosophy reconfigured as the clarification of language. It came to be seen as a kind of pre-science that needed to exist only as long as it took to hand over all its functions to science proper.

The Gillard proposals amount to no more than the latest attempt to achieve imperialist, corporate goals. The Education Minister maintains that “performance at the higher levels of achievement is static or declining”, but it is the Parliamentary wing of the Australian Labor Party, more than any other association, that has directed the transformation of Australian education over the past four decades. How is a further review of education which again focuses solely on an assessment-lead pedagogy going to bring about any improvement? The Gillard proposals will only make things worse.

The Minister sees egalitarian virtues in the New York system (Webdiary, 26/11/23008), whereas it has been criticised for actually increasing inequalities (see the work of Jennifer Booher-Jennings, much of which is available on the Web). In an environment where funding is determined by improvements in assessment performance, schools are focusing on those students who are just below pass level and directing resources into the intensive training of these people while neglecting other classroom groups, namely, those who will pass the tests anyway and those who are well below pass level. These two groups miss out in the New York system, which is about results. An improvement in results is achieved and that is all that can be said. The so-called “gifted” miss out, as do those disadvantaged minority groups, who predominate in the group of students who are well below pass levels. But none of these arguments will dissuade the Minister. After all, the goals of educational reform have already been set.


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Dangerous breed of intellectual

It is an interesting read Trevor Maddock. and I've taken time to enjoy it and digest the content before responding.  It appears that you are one of that most dangerous breed of intellectuals by which I mean an organic class intellectual.  The Whitlam reforms allowed the working class access to tertiary education and the consequences continue to unfold.  A minority were profoundly radicalised while the majority behaved as could have been expected.

Your comments on developments in tertiary education are probably entirely correct.  I particularly enjoy the reflexive voice that points to key critical texts that engaged you as well as your own direct experiences.  Praxis, of course.  

There is, however, a problem that stalks your ideas which is that if the benefits of rigorous philosophical education are as great as you suggest then how is it that the tertiary insitutions of Australia and the educated classes who populate them have failed entirely to resist  the process of dumbing down that you outline? Managerialism, the attack on collegial structures, the collapse of intellectual standards are those things against which an educated workforce ought to have defended rigorously.  But it hasn't.  The professoriat in particular has been disgracefully quiescent. 

Was it mere self interest to which they gave way?  And, if so, what does this say about the education they received?

The Gatekeepers you not

Education is a product, always has been. People involved with the industry always try avoid the fact. Yes, it's a more noble product than most, a product all the same.

There's nothing wrong with education being more relevant to industry. That is after all, where the customers will spend the majority of their lives.

Education "pre writers golden period" was exclusively for the upper-class with a few over achieving plebs thrown in (scholarships). Best not to totally dilute the gene pool. The "opening up" of education has led to the more market practical. For most, it's a necessity.

Closer working with industry is the possible saviour. There's been a trend in many large companies toward untainted product. Get them young, talented and untainted. The GE way, the Apple way, the Microsoft way etc etc etc. Indeed the Long-Term Capital Management way.

A national High School draft system would be corporatism. And it's certainly not beyond the realms of future possibility.

night wol

Two things.

A rereading of Pat Donnelly's post I described as "courageous" has me a little puzzled at what seems a certain hostility toward Dr Maddock's comments, tho.

Surely he is allowed, as a relative expert even obliged, to point out a potentially disturbing social trend buttressed with an adequate description of the likely "mechanics", Pat?

What to do about is a separate problem, but if the diagnosis is right, pessimism must be overcome.

Coming from an educated person, such a comment may inspire resulting thought amongst folk who would have ignored the likes of us, had we so commented. To some, the existence of a problem will be confirmed, for example.

Is the point Maddock makes not that our system may be not only be inefficient, this itself indicative of a breakdown of social rationale and capacity to"read" reality but a trend that contributes to the loss of substantial well being for many, and many to come, if left unexamined?

For my part, have just spent an interesting hour or two pondering mulling over an accessible article by Douglas Kellner, the highly reputed American social critic, entitled,

"From 1984 to One Dimensional Man: Critical Reflections on Orwell and Marcuse", circa 1990.( can't link it)

Which in itself becomes interesting now, apart from its subject matter, as the sort of historical signpost essay, as to civilisational trends that it itself identifies in the work of earlier writers like Huxley, Orwell, Gramschi, Marcuse, Arendt and others through to the emergent Foucault.


Immediately after sending previous post found my self musing on the specific instance mentioned by Dr Maddock: the Gillard "reforms".

A classical eco rat/neo lib misappropriation of the meaning of a word, in this case "reform", whereby the goals of what the rational public understands to be "reform "are inverted to the opposite of what that understanding would be.

Eco rationalism selects a component and contents itself with dealing with this component in internal isolation and in isolation from the overall system. In short, the goals are actually fairly unprepossessing, involving the system getting its pound of flesh from workers, but ignores the operation of the given component in relation to the whole.

Education becomes almost a vice to be punished rather than a vital input feeding into overall community success, including actually informing business activity rather than itself being informed by the whims of vested interests.

This is because the current corporate mindset regards community as an obstacle to satisfaction of personal appetite or an asset to be harvested, rather than as an entity of growing genuine; thru better education, ie, which facilitates in turn everyone maximising their human potential.

As I said previously, its like ecology.

It is not seen as a basis on which all else can survive and prosper, an underpinning of a real economy, since a healthy micro economy in a now unhealthy system- but merely a resource to be plundered by "the individual"- provided those pesky scientists,"real" economists and Greens can shunted aside.

A bureaucrat or politician or capitalists idea of reform will surprisingly often turn out to be an opposite of what a rational person would think it be, actually involving the hijacking of something useful for eventually suspect, short-sighted motives better explained by far-right libertarians and their big business/ man of property sponsors- and the results and rationale are alike often bizarre at best.

Consider the ABC, as one example. It is no longer seen as a didactic instrument. It is "reformed" to provide financial inputs into the system of reappropriation, eg "pay its way",as if it was some sort of poor relation, at the expense of its original and more valuable role.


Very interesting and followed up courageously by Pat Donnelly.

Of course, Pat's comment re "The joint stock company must be reined in..." immediately rang bells, fitting in with what an English lecturer at Ad Uni, Rosemary Moore, once explained to us, as it involved the government legislative interventions of the nineteenth century at the time when government was appropriated from feudalism to capitalism by it (my reading), concerning specifically the doctrine of "limited liability" .

In essence, the state was turned into a playground for corporatism, by a perversion of liberal thought replicated in our time thru neoliberalism and globalisation. The most recent exemplar of that mentality is the Meredith Hellicar, et al, example, demonstrating how corporates regard themselves as separate, alienated from, over and above the rest of humanity and free to plunder and pillage at will with the only loyalty belonging to whatever group of corporate conquistadors you belong with.

We are now a province of an empire. We are taxed more and more whilst fed on toxic"culture" to support the Repressive Tolerant excesses of Wall St and the Military Academic Industrial complex leading to bloodshed out in the wild(Asian) west. The Economy of Excess is only one of a number of disheartening stratagems, of course, but "comfortably numb" disempowerment is an oddly disconcerting phenomena for the likes of us, just the same. Reminded we are slaves, we learn that refugees and immigrants are foreign "others" to be fended off, rather than kindred members of the same dispersed class; we also learn that we don't need an education, so best to demolish despised education, which only gets in the way of "growth" and "jobs" (for the boys!?), same as hindrances like the environment and public broadcasting. And eventually health, food and housing basics, when we are really stupefied, also (hence the dim half- realisation motivating suspicion of refugees and migrants: " they" are another means, thru job market competition, of also eventually having "us" at the same life level as all the offshore victims of the system).

I sort of remember the end of the Roman Empire as couched in some what similar terms.

As for tutes,etc, I remember these descending to a state of near farce in exactly the way Dr Maddock describes during my mature aged stay during the early part of the decade.

An academic recently related to me the conditions under which academics must currently labour and truly believe Maddock's descriptions of what appears to be the ritual humiliation of the best people in our society, on behalf of Labor Right cretins, corporate thugs, university instrumentalist bureaucrats and Tory fascist obscurantist elitists.



Yes, but what do we replace it with? Schooling was successfully, or otherwise, adopted as a result of Prussian military and industrial achievment. They had schools. So the rest of the world took on their system.

I prefer to teach children to read and use libraries and the internet. No "schooling". I was turned off by school. Slow and repetitive. Some socialization is necessary. This too may be taught. And those who fail can become taxi-drivers etc. Testing has to take place to establish if they can read and how well they comprehend. Now with technology, the assessment of a student could merely consist of a condensed record of what they looked at and tested themselves on the web. So would web based tests on what was on that web page be an answer to over employment in the education sector? Would a video of a charismatic and entertaining super or uber teacher on various topics be enough by way of instruction? Very industrial, eh?

Certainly it would suit much of the content based subjects. And it would suit world standards on these subjects. A world full of betas and gammas. And a few alphas thrown in. Like it or not we exist because we measure everything we can. And we use, employ, philosophers for those we cannot. I would see learning to be a lifelong thing not needing special buildings except for special young talents. Some learn by listening, others by reading, others by speaking. Some only by doing. No failures, just categories where scarcity still means that the most in demand get the most, but with efficiency, we can lift all boats, no? 

The joint stock company must be reined in as far as banking and other services are concerned. Bankruptcy for the participants will focus the mind and help prevent fraud. Corporate needs will be met by the market and the state has an interest in a well educated work force if it is reliant on corporate and employment taxes. Altering this might make the world happier, but who would want that? Surely you listen and look at the adverts and other conditioning sources? Materialism is joy! Strength through profit!

What was your point, exactly?

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