Teachers, Students, Governments: Channeling Wild Streams

If you follow the news about Hungary, you will mainly have heard about refugees and fences. However, this isn’t what is actually hottest around here.

A few days ago, Viktor Orbán, Hungarian PM, to everyone’s surprise had a „refugee state of emergency“ announced – a move that is generally assumed to have little to do about actual refugees, but rather to divert attention from and/or prepare legal steps against a demonstration concernding education reforms which is expected to get tens of thousand to go on the streets this Tuesday.

How little politics understands the specific problems of education and teaching can be illustrated by the following example.

In Germany, just about every political actor or commentator demands that migrants, refugees or otherwise, need to integrate into the German society. However, if we look at governmental language integration teachers, we will find overworked and underpaid skilled academicals who, in theory, earn an acceptable hourly wage – only that in reality, since reasonable teachers will almost always spend at least as much time working outside a classroom as inside of one (preparation, corrections, additional commitment), this wage needs to be cut in half per hour. Ultimately, what integration teachers earn is below minimal wage in Germany, for a profession which requires qualification and passion, which is direly needed in the current refugee situation and which everyone agrees on is key in dealing with migration issues. The result is that trained German foreign language teachers move to other, better paid jobs, even though they often would like to do what they studied (teaching is fun!).

The common lack of understanding (if that’s what it is, rather than conscious mismanagement for political gain) is especially problematic because governments have a tendency to centralise education via controversial institutions.

One of these is YÖK, the Turkish high school council. It was founded after a military putsch, or coup d’etat (interestingly, English appears to have no own word for this phenomenon) in 1981. Universities, as seen in the 1960s, are often a breeding pool for political opposition, especially leftist one. To prevent this, YÖK was to take charge of all universities and coordinate them in the sense of the junta. This is called gleichschaltung, another foreign term, coined by the nazis. Sadly for Turkey, YÖK exists until today, being instrumentalised to hinder and align development in Turkish universities according to the behest and political interest of the current government. The leading AKP, for example, used to damn the influence of YÖK when they were opposition, but readily used it for their own means as soon as they assumed charge.

Anti-democratic governments view free education to be their mortal enemy for reasons I will get to later.

Talking of Hungary: Teacher’s protests currently stir up the country, with 20,000 having protested in rain and cold in February and a bigger protest to come this Tuesday, a national holiday in Hungary. The government tries to play down the problems and, in public, implies that the protests would be merely about wages. In fact, however, a number of issues are being addressed, including lacking financial support for schools and teachers, shortages of basic materials such as paper, structural issues such as lacking gyms, too long hours for teachers as well as students, etc.

Too long hours for students?, one might wonder. How can students learn too much?

Well, first of all, if your brain gets stuffed with informations, but you are not given the time to connect and understand what you learned, you might at some point be able to recite the date of any major historical event of your country’s history – but you might never have learned to relate how this is of any importance to your life. A very crass example for this is currently to be found in German media when it comes to the recent success of the right-wing party AfD. Many commentators suggest that, even though it is generally known what happened in Germany in 1933, few people understand how and why it happened and hence, it repeats.

I personally think that there are fundamental differences between then and now and rather draw a line to the anti-migrants pogroms carried out in the early 90s in Eastern Germany, when many people felt left-behind by the development of their time. However, the problem is there; almost everyone in Germany will agree that racism is bad, but few can give you a spontanous explanation of why exactly it is bad for them as white people. „I’m not racist, but [instert racist comment]“ is a dictum in Germany.

This is, however, partially a problem of „how to teach“ rather than „how much to teach“. My real issue here is that, given that a kid needs to focus on school issues for 10 hours a day, there will be no time or energy left to develop own interests and skills and becoming what is generally refered to as a responsible adult. More precisely; children (and adults) learn empathy and pick up on social norms through reading, to a lesser extent through video games, through a much much lesser extent through watching TV. We built our personality, thus gain security, through the hobbies we have as children, be it in the form of which books I’ve read, which sport I practised, which personal traits I mastered, etc. Of course, formal education cannot be replaced by the pursuit of individual interests – in fact, it should help to reflect on these, produce the skills, knowledge and intellectual horizont to harness the free time. But neither can formal education replace individual development.

Having said that, good teachers are tremendously important for a society to function. Our socialisation is what makes almost all of the difference between modern human and cave person, and many teachers play a part in most of our socialisations.

Values and knowledge that are core to understand the world we live in are communicated through literature, through media – and through schools. One can hardly expect that the majority of a population would agree on vaguely the same norms without somewhat coordinated education. Neither is it likely that the broad masses would acquire knowledge and skills necessary in democratic participation via home schooling. Especially for anyone who is not rich, that would be quite a lot to ask. But these factors, as contemporary big-heads such as Steven Pinker claim, bring peace to our world. On a side note, Chomsky argues that the reason why companies are likely to seek cheap labour in Central and Eastern Europe is (next to racism) that the work force here is cheap, but educated. Now, you don’t need a PhD to built a car – but being able to adjust to new hard- and software, as well as new working techniques, pick up on new languages, etc. is kinda helpful.

As seen in the example of YÖK, but also censorship and gleichschaltung in general, governments have long understood how controling teachers can mean shaping the future of a society. And not only them – in the 90s, the PKK in its prime killed Turkish teachers in Kurdish regions to prevent Turkification, and left a generation of Kurds sometimes not even with the ability to read and write, hence without the chance to participate in (Turkish) politics, hence strenghtening the ethnic divide and feudal structures still in existance in some areas in eastern Turkey until today. Also other terrorist organisation such as the Taliban frequently target schools, while in Bangladesh, by controlling the religious Madrassha schools, Islamic scholars gain a vast influence on the society. In the US, home schooling is endorsed by those communities that are afraid of liberal government indoctrination (same, but less successful, goes for „folkish“ nazi groups in Germany), etc.

Which brings me back to Hungary: One of the key issues teachers (and parents) here have with the education reforms of 2010 is the decrease in autonomy and the increased power of KLIK, a government agency that introduced several controversial control measures which saw critics by both major teacher’s unions as well as local teachers, parents etc.

Now, it would be easy to reduce the trouble almost every country has in the education sector on the power hunger of the government. Even though this is clearly a big issue, especially when we talk about centralisation, it is more complicated then that.

On one hand, teachers are kind of an easy group to target and an unlikely bunch to coordinate. They rarely have powerful unions; they often become teachers because they enjoy their profession or to be able to work in their local community, but are very diverse apart of that; they can deal with relatively low wages (relative in comparison to other jobs you could go for with an academical degree) because the work in itself is very rewarding; they don’t produce any physical goods you could sell and hence their value for the economy is very longterm, limiting their support by stronger lobbies, and so on.

Also, what governments fail to see, and this is visible in just about any place in the world, is that (good) teachers are more than textbooks on legs – and likewise, students are not sponges that suck up any liquid ideology you toss them into.

Memorising is not the same as learning. Inspiring teachers, those who have an impact on children and spawn mature citizens, ought to have a certain degree of autonomy in their own education as well as in the way they handle their classroom. Also, at best, they should to be charismatic, intelligent and confident individuals if students are to accept them as role models. Those teachers who seem not to exist outside of the textbook are the least likely to leave a mark.

I personally experienced again and again how my students would take me more serious when they realised that I have experienced things in life and possess considered opinions – even when they disagree with them. (Critically reflecting on authority is a key feature of learning in both memorising as well as application of knowledge, by the way.)

Few doubt that quality standards and a – to an extent – standardised canon should be the core of institutional education. I think they should be. But in reality, we rarely have a situation that there would be too little standardisation (differences in federal curriculae in Germany could be discussed under that aspect). On the other hand, taking autonomy away from teachers and students and replacing it with a long list of things to know can result in many things – but it doesn’t support democratic development, nor does it create empowered individuals.