Can education change societies


Jutta Allmendinger

Prof. Jutta Allmendinger, Ph.D., born in Mannheim in 1956, is President of the Berlin Science Center for Social Research and Professor of Educational Sociology and Labor Market Research at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her work focuses on educational research as well as labor market and life course research. Recently she published: “Schoolwork. How we need to change the education system to do justice to our children ”.

About the connection between education and social participation in today's society

Education is essential for individual life chances. It is considered a civil and even a human right. At the same time, it is intended to promote economic development and social integration. Individual and social demands on them are, however, sometimes difficult to combine and have always been the cause of educational policy disputes.

Students at the Georg-August University in Göttingen (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

A few days ago I received a letter describing a small incident. The author reported: “I was sitting at the hairdresser's and heard a 12-year-old girl say to the hairdresser:“ My father said that if you can't do anything, you become a hairdresser! ”The girl had absolutely no idea what her hairdresser was , with a completed apprenticeship, who works over 40 hours a week and gets little money, must have felt. I said to the girl: "Greet your father and tell him that he will not be able to teach you what respect means. Incidentally, one should never insult whoever has the scissors in hand. "The letter ended with a question for me:" Isn't that the school's job too? "

Seneca already formulated the sentence in the first century of our era: Non vitae, sed scholae discimus - translated: We do not learn for life, but for school - and thus criticized the school. It conveys knowledge that is only needed in school itself. More recently this sentence has been changed: Non scholae, sed vitae discimus - for life we ​​should learn. But what exactly does that mean? Should gainful employment be in the foreground? So should school-based learning primarily prepare for the job, secure later economic livelihood and social status? Or do we mean "life" in its breadth? Should school learning therefore be directed beyond economic exploitation aspects towards personality development, towards adaptation to social values ​​and social integration? These questions have always been passionately argued, as they represent very different interests and expectations that are brought to the school.

"Shoemaker, stick to your last" - education as a class privilege

The German answer to this question was formulated unequivocally by Prince Otto von Bismarck, the then Reich Chancellor, in 1890: "Our high schools are attended by too many young people who are not advised of a learned profession either by talent or by their parents' past The result is the overcrowding of all learned subjects and the breeding of a state-dangerous proletariat of educated people "(cf. Bismarck 1890 after Führ 1997). For Bismarck, the direct interests of the state and business are in the foreground. He put education in their service and thus set narrow limits to state education. He refused to want the most extensive education possible for everyone and instead pursued socio-political goals in the 1880s with the Reich Insurance Acts. As a result, in Germany - unlike in the Anglo-Saxon countries, for example - education and social policy were strictly separated. The emerging welfare state neglected educational policy, which was considered to be preventive Social policy enables citizens to participate in society. Instead, the welfare state focused on that follow-up Social policy. It is aimed at repairing emergencies and for a long time endeavors to secure and maintain the social status that has been achieved. "Shoemaker, stick to your last" - this motto was firmly anchored and institutionalized in educational and social policy at the time the Reich was founded.

Education as a civil right

In the middle of the 20th century a different understanding of education increasingly came to the fore. Ralf Dahrendorf (1965) formulates clearly: "Education policy is much more than a maid of economic policy", "Education is a civil right", it is a basic social right. In modern societies, education is seen as an essential element of democratization and emancipation. Access to and acquisition of education should be based exclusively on meritocratic principles, i.e. performance-based: Status, prestige and power should therefore be based on individual performance and not on inherited status. The orientation of education towards the labor market is also coming under pressure. Understood as a civil right, education can and should be demanded beyond the aspects of exploitation. More than 40 years later, Vernor Muñoz, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur, takes up this demand. He speaks of education as a human right and states that Germany violates it. In the developed European welfare state of the 20th century, education, social security and political participation tend to become equal dimensions of a citizenship right (Marshall 1992). Education and social policy are not opposed to one another; they form two equally necessary pillars of the welfare state.

What do we mean by education?

Empirical educational research measures education mainly with two indicators: the school leaving certificate, i.e. the certificate acquired, and with cognitive competencies, i.e. the skills measured (through performance tests) in areas such as reading, mathematics or science. In both cases - certificates as well as competencies - education can be understood as something one has at one's disposal. And just as one can see in the case of economic goods that they are unevenly distributed, the social distribution can also be considered for education: then people with the highest possible school leaving qualification, the Abitur, are well educated, people without school qualifications are poorly educated. In terms of cognitive skills, people in the lowest skill level - so-called 'functionally illiterate' - can be regarded as poorly educated; accordingly, people in the highest skill level are highly educated. It is important that the two dimensions do not necessarily coincide. There are people with high cognitive skills and low school-leaving qualifications, and vice versa. Then, however, the principle of fair performance appears to have been violated. After all, it is considered unfair for someone to receive a lower certificate even though they - compared to others - achieve higher levels of performance or results. We'll come back to that.

Who Achieves High Education?

Attending school after parents graduate (more on this ...)
Source: Based on the microcensus (2009). Calculations by Marcel Helbig, WZB. Graphic: Benjamin Erfurth
(& copy Federal Agency for Civic Education / bpb, Berlin Science Center for Social Research / WZB)
Over the past six decades, the proportion of pupils in secondary schools has fallen sharply, while the proportion in secondary schools and grammar schools has increased significantly. In the case of large regional differences, between 20 and 38 percent of all schoolchildren today receive university entrance qualifications. Does this expansion of secondary schools mean that the children of socially disadvantaged parents also have a good chance of graduating from high school and taking up a university education? Do children from different social classes now have comparable opportunities? No. Even today we see marked differences in the educational opportunities of children, which can be traced back to their origins. To name just a few figures: 45 out of 100 children from non-academic families make it into upper secondary school and 24 into universities. For every 100 children from academic households there are 81 and 71 children respectively (BMBF 2010). Such numbers do not necessarily prove that our schools violate the mantra of fairness through achievement. This would only be the case if children systematically do not receive a high school recommendation despite their potential, or vice versa, receive one although the performance is rather mediocre. However, if one compares the transition recommendation and the measured performance, this is exactly what is often the case: "Working-class children" generally have to show higher cognitive skills in order to receive a recommendation from a high school than children of academics. But there is also something else: Children from socially disadvantaged homes are usually less supported than other children - by parents, relatives, teachers, through their neighborhood and their networks. They visit day care centers and kindergartens less often. This concentration of disadvantages leads to barely repairable differences in educational success and thus almost inevitably to unequal life chances.

Is education worth it?

Life is more than gainful employment. The income from education can be seen in almost all areas of life: health, life expectancy, happiness, partnerships, social integration, participation, mobility, opportunities for shaping the life course. People with a university entrance qualification smoke less, are less likely to be overweight and suffer from diseases such as stroke or diabetes, and they are more active in sport than people with a lower level of education. Likewise, people with a higher level of education are more often politically active and socially engaged.

However, since gainful employment is the key to social participation in many ways, it is above all worthwhile to take a closer look at the connection between education and employment: People with a higher school leaving certificate have a significantly lower risk of being unemployed than people with a low qualification. They also earn a much higher income in their jobs. But why is that so?

Skills-specific unemployment rates 1975-2011
(More on this...)
(bpb) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
This question may seem trivial at first, but there is no scientific consensus on the answer. Rather, there are very different - even contradicting - attempts to explain the advantages that people with higher education have on the labor market. This is how the one formulated by economists works Human capital approach (Becker 1964; Schultz 1963) assumes that education translates directly into productivity on the labor market: According to this, employers prefer to employ more highly educated people because they are more productive due to their abilities and skills. Therefore, these people also achieve better professional positions and earn higher incomes. Against that goes Signal approach (Spence 1974) assumes that it is not the actual skills that are decisive, but rather the educational qualifications: people do not necessarily have to be more productive to get better jobs and higher incomes. First of all, education is what countsgraduation, since employers see this as a signal for the qualification of their applicants. especially the Conflict theory (Bowles / Gintis 2000) even completely denies performance-related elements: It assumes that schools allow themselves to be co-opted by social elites. By setting supposedly neutral performance standards, which, however, are much more difficult to meet for children from socially less privileged backgrounds, the school systematically favors children from higher classes. In doing so, it creates social inequality and legitimizes it under the guise of equal opportunities for all. Schools are with it "the central justification factory for social inequality in modern society "(Beck 1988: 265).

Germany as a republic of education

Education is very important in modern society. It decisively decides on life chances and enables people to lead a self-determined life. The increasing proportion of people with a migration background and an overall greater diversity of society require a high degree of willingness to integrate on the part of everyone - schools must also make their contribution. Dahrendorf is right: Education is more than the "maid of the economy". Nevertheless: we also need education as a motor for the economic development and innovation of tomorrow. "An educational emergency is an economic emergency," wrote Georg Picht 50 years ago. The job market is changing. The need for highly qualified people will continue to rise, and it is very likely that the low-skilled will find it increasingly difficult to find a job.

All of this makes it clear: Education policy is a cross-cutting task. It affects almost all political areas, in particular economic, labor market and social policy and is therefore one of the most important political shaping areas. Above all, it has to focus much more strongly than before on an area that appears to be particularly resistant to change in Germany: the reduction of low levels of education. The education system must provide basic education that enables cultural and social participation all equally to guarantee. For centuries, Germany could apparently afford poor education. This is the only way to explain that schools are largely far removed from socio-educational assistance, that they select early and that comparatively little is invested in preventive social and labor market policy. We know what to do.


  • Beck, Ulrich (1988). Antidotes. Organized irresponsibility. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • Becker, Gary (1964). Human capital. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • BMBF 2010. The economic and social situation of students in the Federal Republic of Germany 2009. Bonn / Berlin.
  • Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis (2000). Does Schooling Raise Earnings by Making People Smarter? In: Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles and Steven Durlauf (Eds.), Meritocracy and Economic Inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp.118-136.
  • Bismarck, Otto Fürst von (1890). On the danger of an academic proletariat: Immediate submission of March 16, 1890. According to Christoph Führ (1997). Educational history and policy. Cologne: Böhlau.
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf (1965). Education is a civil right. Plea for an active education policy. Hamburg: Nannen.
  • Marshall, Thomas H. (1992). Citizenship Rights and Social Classes. In: Elmar Rieger (Ed.), Civil Rights and Social Classes. On the sociology of the welfare state. Frankfurt a. M .: Campus, p. 33.94
  • Schultz, Theodore W. (1963). The Economic Value of Education. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Spence, Andrew M. (1974). Market Signaling: Informational Transfer in Hiring and Related Screening Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.