What Kind of Society Does the School Need? Redefining the Democratic Work of Education in Impatient Times


In many places around the world the modern school is under a relentless pressure to perform and the standards for such performance are increasingly being set by the global education measurement industry. All this puts a pressure on schools, teachers and students but also on policy makers and politicians, who all seem to have been caught up in a global educational rat-race. There is a discourse of panic about educational quality, which seems to drive an insatiable need for improvement, geared towards ever narrower definitions of what counts as education and what counts in education. The surprising result is that the modern school is increasingly seen as a problem, with high levels of dissatisfaction amongst teachers, students, politicians, the media and the public at large, who all want something better from the school, although they disagree about what this may look like. The question this raises is whether it is time to give up on the modern schools and its promise and hand it over to Pearson, Google and other educational capitalists, or whether we should try again and, if so, where we might go. The reflections I offer in this paper are primarily meant to think again about the relationship between the school and society, arguing for a more ‘obstinate’ school and a more ‘patient’ society. I argue that whether such a recalibration of the relationship between school and society is possible, is ultimately a test of the democratic quality of society itself.

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  1. 1.

    See http://www.iso.org/iso/pub100080.pdf Accessed 16 April 2019.

  2. 2.

    In Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde had Lord Darlington quip that a cynic was “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

  3. 3.

    The principle of ‘picking up by hanging around’ has been made popular by Lave and Wenger under the label of legitimate peripheral participation (see Lave and Wenger 1991).

  4. 4.

    On the problem of perfection see Biesta (in press).

  5. 5.

    Hannah Arendt writes: “Now school is by no means the world and must not pretend to be; it is rather the institution that we interpose between the private domain of home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world possible at all”. (Arendt 1977, pp. 188–189).

  6. 6.

    In the UNs Millennium Development Goals, to be reached by 2015, goal number 2 was that of achieving universal primary education. In the Sustainable Development Goals, set in 2015 and to be achieved by 2030, the educational goal has become that of ‘quality education,’ operationalised as the goal of ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” and promoting “lifelong learning opportunities for all”.


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I would like to thank Christoph Teschers for alerting me to the brilliant question posed by Eckart Liebau, which forms the main title of this paper and also a major point of inspiration.

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Correspondence to Gert Biesta.

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Biesta, G. What Kind of Society Does the School Need? Redefining the Democratic Work of Education in Impatient Times. Stud Philos Educ 38, 657–668 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-019-09675-y

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  • The modern school
  • The welfare state
  • Democracy
  • Quality
  • Performativity
  • The impulse society