Disclaimer: I work in Google's Policy Team, developing multistakeholder cooperations for internet governance & policy themes, hence I want to point out that all the opinions and ruminations on this blog are mine, not Google's.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Democracy, Nietzsche and Higher Education

I have expressed my disillusion and mounting disrespect for what has become of democracy in our days. On various occasions I have argued that a meritocracy (wikipedia entry), or what Plato described as the wise philosophy king, would be a more rational and sustainable system. That is because a meritocratic leadership or wise king would not be as prone to populist opportunism and short term thinking (as is the case in our current state of affairs).

I lately come to revise this believe as I am (literally) listening to Nietzsche (sitting in the train with a recording of Zarathustra [german mp3 auf anfrage] on my iPod). Nietzsche, who detests the weak, declares that the übermensch, who is ‘beyond good and evil’ [english public domain audio-book], should engage in a constant good war, turns out to be the true ideological architect behind the Nazis. Nietzsche has reminded me about the superior power of the primeval human condition – self interest.

The rule of the majority - democracy - is the only cure (proven to work) against the egomaniac drives of all individuals. I still see all the flaws of the democratic rule we have, and I still believe that the weighting of influence according merit makes a lot of sense (and is actually already present to a certain imperfect degree), but the issue really is to have interested, educated and participating citizens in a democracy. And this is where I want to put the emphasis of this text and elaborate the argument for more ‘cultural citizenship’ (Delanty, 2001) education.

The phenomenon I want to critique is, that the trend to streamline education to the point where it is (only) effective vocational training, preparing people to perform a market demanded job, has gone so far as to cut and rationalize away most ‘cultural citizenship’ education. Because the programs are shorter, while having to transmit the same amount of disciplinary knowledge, there is arguably very little time for the students to engage in citizens education (developing informed opinion about political/axiological issues) and participation (organize and participate in constructive critical discourse).

If we follow the late capitalist tendency to have universities (and after that schools) serve the demands of the (free) market (ever faster training of oven-ready workers), while neglecting the demands of democracy, we will end up in a system where the most charismatic (read entertaining) and populist (read doing most for the majority instead of the smart) politician will win elections.

I believe that education must be a free public good implemented by autonomous institutions, which (next to delivering vocational training) engage citizens in learning about today’s pressing problems and foster their active participation in tackling them. Hence the implicit opinion that a) the WTO should not succeed in making education a globally tradable service just like any other but that b) it is the any nation states best investment to ensure good education and research. May they cut on military and police surveillance budgets for a change!

Highly recommended:

Delanty, G. (2001). Challenging knowledge : the university in the knowledge society. Buckingham [England] ; Phildelphia, PA: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.


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