While there is a strong tendency in educational policy and research to explore and ensure how education can be made to function better, that is, more effectively and efficiently in relation to certain agendas and purposes, Mollenhauer enters the discussion from the opposite end of the spectrum by asking how we should understand and appreciate what he refers to as the dysfunctionality of education. By this term, he means the situation where education is precisely not delivering on the agendas set for it and therefore, from the point of view of such agendas, appears as dysfunctional. The question he asks is whether this situation just presents a problem that needs to be solved, or whether it might be the case that the apparent dysfunctionality of education vis-à-vis the context surrounding it actually reveals something important about education itself.
One argument in favour of the “societal dysfunctionality” of education, Mollenhauer contends, is the idea that education can never just be about the insertion of the new generation into the existing social order – education as adaptation – but also has a role to play in helping children and young people to find their own position in society – education as emancipation (see Mollenhauer 1968, pp. 22–23). Regarded from this angle, the role of education is not just to secure the continuation of the past and the present; it also needs to have an orientation towards the future, particularly with the intention of keeping the future “open” for the new generation rather than determining their future for them. In this line of thinking, which is already visible in the work of 18th-century authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Nicolas de Condorcet (see Mollenhauer 1968, pp. 26–27), the new generation is not simply seen as a “recruitment pool” for society, as Mollenhauer puts it (ibid., p. 24), just as education is not simply there to “fill” this pool, as it were.
It is important to see, however, that Mollenhauer’s analysis of the dysfunctional side of education is not an argument for a romantic view of education in which a choice in favour of the new generation is seen as a choice against society. The danger with such a view, Mollenhauer argues, is that it isolates education from society and thus thinks of emancipation as something entirely focused on individual children and their development, without paying attention to societal dynamics and settings. According to Mollenhauer, such a disconnection of education from society – known in the literature as the creation of an educational “province” – was the main problem with German educational thought and practice in the first decades of the 20th century. It made education vulnerable for ideological misappropriation, which is exactly what happened with education in Germany during the rise of Nazism.
Mollenhauer concludes, therefore, that with regard to the relationship between education and society, the question is not how we can protect education from society, but how we should understand the relationship between the two, if, that is, we do not want to think of this relationship in purely functional terms – education as an instrument for society’s agendas – but also do not want to disconnect education from society. In order to address this question, Mollenhauer turns to social theory, arguing that the question of the relationship between school and society is not just a matter for educational theory but also requires societal analysis.
Mollenhauer’s own exploration takes him to a comparison between the structural-functionalism of American sociologist Talcott Parsons and the work of Charles Wright Mills.Footnote 10 Central to Parsons’ work is the idea that social stability depends on the existence of shared values. Social stability thus requires value consensus, but we might also say that social stability appears as value consensus. On this assumption, education’s dysfunctionality vis-à-vis society’s consensus can only be seen as a threat to social stability, and thus becomes more or less a problem that needs to be solved by trying to align education more strongly with society’s values. One could even say that this assumption makes education appear as the key institution for bringing about society’s value consensus. Education, in other words, thus becomes a key institution for the normative socialisation of the new generation (ibid., pp. 28–29).
Whereas for Parsons social plurality poses a threat to the social order, Mills starts from the opposite assumption, by arguing that the existence of value plurality and even of a conflict of values is part of society’s normality. Value plurality is, in other words, not a problem that needs to be solved, but rather part and parcel of what (a) society is. According to Mollenhauer, this brings into view that the idea that society is only possible on the basis of a value consensus is an ideological view which is largely at odds with the idea of society as a democratic society (ibid., pp. 30–31). The word “largely” is important here, because a democratic society is neither value-free, nor is it an “anarchy of values”. Rather, a democratic society is bound by a particular set of political values, namely those of liberty, equality and solidarity, except that in a democratic society there is an ongoing question about what such values mean in practice (on this, see Mouffe 2000, 2005). Such values are political because they are there to make a plurality of values – or in the language of political liberalism: a plurality of “conceptions of the good life” – possible.
Against this background Mollenhauer argues that conflict and antagonism, particularly with regard to the question of education’s “agenda”, should not be seen as dysfunctional “moments” of an otherwise functioning system, but should rather be seen as constitutive of educational practices (Mollenhauer 1968, p. 35) – provided, of course, such practices are interested in democracy. This is why he argues that education in schools and other settings should be understood in terms of the interaction between a “multiplicity of fields” (ibid.), and not in terms of unity and consensus around a singular vision or agenda. This is so for the sake of education – which should never be reduced to mere adjustment of the new generation to an existing societal “order” – and for the sake of democracy – which should never strive for value consensus on the assumption that society would not be possible without it.
The point I wish to emphasise here is that the educational and the democratic dimensions of the argument are both important. And this is even more so with regard to the question of the relationship between education and society.Footnote 11 After all, if we only engage with this question in terms of democracy, we may end up with a multiplicity of agendas for education, all of which, on their own, might still see education as an instrument for delivering these agendas. To put it differently: the democratic case against a singular agenda for education is not, in itself, a sufficient response to the instrumentalisation of education. It is only when the educational argument is brought in – that is, the idea that education can never be about the insertion of the new generation into particular societal orders – that education’s “own” interest, as it were, can be pursued. It is only when this interest is brought into play that it becomes possible for education to resist attempts to turn it into a perfect instrument for the socialisation of the new generation. And it is only when this interest is brought into play that it becomes possible to see where and why education has a “duty to resist”, as French educational scholar Philippe Meirieu put it (see Meirieu 2007).
James Donald very helpfully captured these issues under the heading of the “problem of education” (see Donald 1992). On the one hand, the idea of the problem of education refers to the fact that so many of the bigger and smaller ambitions for education tend to fail, that is, they have a propensity for never being able to be realised completely. But rather than seeing this as a problem that needs to be solved, Donald suggests that this particular problem, that is, the ongoing inability of education to become a perfect instrument, is actually the very point of education. It is where education differs from indoctrination and manipulation, and this has everything to do with the fact that education, unlike indoctrination and manipulation, is interested in the freedom and agency of those who take part in it, rather than seeing their freedom and agency as “issues” that need to be eradicated.Footnote 12
Donald makes his case with reference to Sigmund Freud’s observation that education is one of the three “impossible professions” (Freud 1937) where one can never be certain about the outcome of one’s actions (as educator). For Freud, the other two impossible professions are politics and psychoanalysis, and the reason why they are impossible is not because they lack technical efficacy, but because they have an orientation towards other human beings as subjects of their own life, not as objects of more or less effective interventions. In this regard the field of education might perhaps best be compared to the field of law, not just because both fields operate on the assumption that human beings are free agents who can take responsibility for their own actions – without that assumption both fields would immediately become meaningless – but also because both fields never give up hope that human beings will take their freedom seriously and will indeed be able to take their freedom seriously.