Parental upbringing in capitalism – <br> teaching decency and success Ruthless Criticism
[Translation of a lecture by Rolf Röhrig, Nürnberg 2009]

Parental upbringing in capitalism –
teaching decency and success

“The first half of our lives are ruined by our parents and the second half by our children.” (Clarence Darrow)

If you ask yourself what education really is, then for education theorists it’s a clear thing. If you ask a professor of education or look in a book, you will find something like this: “Education is the purposeful and deliberate establishment of desired behaviors, values, and norms.” Now even if I don’t know much about education, that could be the starting point for a critique. After all, the desired behaviors that are being discussed here are not those that the individual wants, but that the society wants from the individual. This is as good as getting people to agree to purposes and behavior patterns. And secondly this sentence says that it is values and norms that are to be conveyed – not judgments. Values and norms include such noble titles as human dignity, democracy, perhaps human rights, and in bourgeois thinking this is the unquestionably valid basis for all further reasoning and argumentation. This is not justified and presented as correct or useful. So that fits very well with the goal of orienting people toward goals and giving them intellectual tools that have not themselves been tested by reasonable judgments. In this education program, they are talking about something like the ideal of manipulation. Apparently, they don’t think that young people should learn something, be given the elements of education, knowledge, judgments, so that once they experience the society in which they live, they can check whether they like the place or not. Such a procedure would make any agreement with behavior and purposes superfluous. However, where agreement marks the starting point, it is obviously questionable whether the required consent will materialize, or at least one does not want to take the chance that consent to this society for which people are being educated will materialize so easily. This is how the world of pedagogy introduces learning.

But what parents do, even without a degree in pedagogy, is in one respect not far removed from what pedagogy formulates as the goal of education. Parents have a similar idea: they want to shape and mold their child according to their ideas, with the aim of making this child fit for life, so that it will succeed in this world and be decent. Of course, this goal, this vision, is not followed from day one, because they have other worries. They have to deal with a small dependent being who needs all kinds of help in body and mind; everyone knows this. They have to give it help with eating and feeding, with walking and talking. Help and guidance is needed because they are dealing with an absence of independence. And I want to mention the flip side right away to avoid any wrong anticipations: Not only is help and guidance needed, but also restriction. The famous hot plate that everyone knows about; it is a no-go zone. One has to restrict children when they reach for it. That’s another thing you do as a sensible adult who is guiding a child. I say this in advance to make clear that the criticism I want to make of bourgeois education, or of education under capitalism, is not intended as an accusation that restriction take place, which is sometimes very necessary, but of the reasons and purposes for which it takes place – that is what deserves to be criticized.

Once this phase is over and the little one has outgrown its diapers, then the parents’ goal of shaping this toddler begins. When it comes to the question of which school he should go to, then the whole thing gets going and the parents certainly have a wide range of ideas. Some are of the opinion that the little one will be like his father and that he might be a good craftsman some day, so he should go to a trade school. The better off families who look at their offspring and think he might be an intellectual or have the entrepreneurial spirit in his blood, say he must go to a science high school and maybe become a business school graduate. Then there are certainly others who think that they have spawned a sensitive artist type; maybe he will then be a victim of the Waldorf School. So the range of what parents think, how and for what they form their offspring, may be broad, but the goal is identical: to shape the little person in such a way that he succeeds in life and goes through the world decently, i.e. respects the law and morals and customs. The little boy or girl is to become fit for life. And this fitness for life is initially an abstraction – “life” – but it immediately draws our attention to this very specific life that is the norm in our society. The life that takes place in this country and for which the little ones are prepared is what is in store for them: The broad field of preschool, education, and later the professions and the labor market: what is called education and the market economy. The little ones are to be made fit for this. And with that, a standpoint is taken toward the child, let’s call it a him now, which boils down to the following: One wants to get him to do things and prepare him, equip him, so that he proves himself in something that has not even been subjected to a critical judgment or that one has asked oneself and perhaps justifiably decided: It is also worth proving oneself in.

To give you an idea of what I mean by this: You look at the world of education, of schools, and you realize: oops, this education system is has several levels. There are these so-called grade schools and there are colleges and graduate schools. And this might raise the unbiased question: why is it actually like that? Why doesn’t everyone get the same amount of knowledge? Why do some people go home with a high school diploma and others go on to further education to a PhD? That’s a question that doesn’t occur to parents; instead, their practical view of the world is: “Study hard so you aren’t a loser.” Because they know from their own experience that a lack of education also ruins one’s chances in life. Those who learn the least have the worst jobs. They have to do the dirtiest and most strenuous work and have the least money. That could be another question: Why, if they already have less knowledge, do these people also have to live worse? That looks like a double punishment. Such questions are not asked, but one wants to make sure that one is not one of the losers. Let your eyes wander further into the world that follows school, to the job market. Perhaps it could be obvious that there is an undeniable peculiarity.

Everyone strives to find a decent job and make a living. But there are still millions who are unemployed, who have no income, who have nothing to live on. Although they are willing and able to work. Why is it that way? Parents have a very different point of view. This is not the question they ask, but rather they ask the child to make an effort so that he does not end up unemployed and one of the losers. The goal that parents set for themselves when they want to make their little one fit for life includes something like, let’s call it, theoretical neglect. This argument comes from the point of view that the world of competition that is ahead – in education, later on the job market – is supposed to be useful for the success of the child, and it is assumed to be useful even though it has never been checked as to whether it really is useful. If they did that, doubts would be appropriate. Education, this first field of competition into which child is prepared, is, after all, to put it briefly in thesis form, something like the production of differences in knowledge. The conveyance of the elements of education by schools follows the principle that in the end those who know the least are deprived the most from more education. Those who are finished at the level of high school, i.e. those who have learned the least, are not given special care so that they can learn more, but are excluded even though they know the least. In general, if you simply look at the entire quasi-architecture of the tiered school system as a quantitative dosage, how many schools there are, how many junior colleges, how many graduate schools – it does something like anticipate for an entire generation the amount of respective educational qualifications that are needed.

Obviously, nobody thinks it is necessary to see who from which year goes how far or how far they want to go. Even those who claim that merit is responsible for who goes how far in education are not at all bothered by the fact that the capacities of the school system in principle and essentially determine the number of respective dropouts year after year, generation after generation. And this is not because teachers or education authorities are malicious; it’s much meaner. This follows a purpose in this society; it is intentional and serves an aim that matters in this world: The educational hierarchy that is formed in this school system is a pre-sorting of the coming generation for the professional hierarchy, with the certificate that one acquires or does not acquire in the schools. It decides at which level of competition one no longer applies on the labor market. So if you have your high school diploma in your pocket and haven’t made it any higher, you simply don’t apply to be head of human resources at Deutsche Bank. The demand for the number of professional positions in this hierarchy is not only on the side of quantity – how many people are in demand? – as well as a gratuity – what do you pay for it? – but is clearly defined by the needs of capitalist enterprises. And to put it in a nutshell: if you look at these capitalist enterprises, you can extrapolate and say: Maybe ten thousand personnel managers and twenty thousand business administrators are needed every year. But 30 million people are needed who work as laborers or unskilled workers on the assembly line. This proportionality in capitalist enterprises – where, apart from a few elite functionaries, the majority must do a lot of work for little money – also defines a roughly corresponding proportion in the educational program. That’s why it’s there. So there is a purposefully created distinction, a division into winners and losers, already in the education program and then later on the labor market.

And parents tend not to draw the conclusion from this divorce into winners and losers as to why such a thing is constantly being produced and striven for in this society, and whether this does not perhaps also cast a bad light on the living conditions for which one is preparing their children. Instead, parents tend to draw a completely different conclusion. They think: if there are winners and losers, then it might work out, then you can still make it, then you can get to the top if you just make the right effort. There are always people with good degrees and good professional positions. This goal is based on a fallacy. Namely, that the effort the little ones are instructed to make – “try your best” – is not only the means of competing, but also something like a guarantee of success. It is not. Effort is required, but it is not a criterion for success. That’s not the way it is in school. Teachers can confirm this from how they correct their classwork. If there are too many As and Bs on tests, then the bar is reset so that a more differentiated performance picture emerges; and in principle this famous Gaussian bell curve is approximated because one wants to achieve a separation, a dosage of knowledge elements and differences. This is the intended result. And you can’t get around this by citing the exceptional cases which do exist. Of course, it is possible for a working class child to make it up the ladder to graduate school and get a degree and maybe become an engineer or CEO. That does happen. And there is also the opposite career path where a lawyer’s son parties too hard at school and then ends up somewhere as a craftsman or on an assembly line. Who ends up in which of the two big containers, here the elite and there the masses, can be influenced to a certain extent by the effort that individuals make. But these two containers themselves, the elite here and the masses there, the quantity they are filled with, that in itself is a precondition and guideline which cannot be eliminated by any competitive effort. This quantity, this proportionality, and the contrast between these functions, remains.

Parents want to educate their children and qualify them to be competitive for this world, so the question arises as to what actually qualifies parents for this. As a rule, they have studied neither education nor competition, but they say what qualifies them for this is nothing other than their own experience, their own practice as a competitive subject. The standards they themselves have learned to accept, to endorse, the attitudes they have acquired in the course of their lives is the reservoir from which they draw when they raise their children. And to that extent – this is also a thesis for what follows – parents are something like agents of competition. But not out of love of competition, but out of love for their child. The vast majority of parents take the view that they want their child to have a better life one day, and that’s why they try so hard to raise it. And then there is this sigh: “I want my child to have it better than us some day.” This is actually an admission. It says that there are millions of people who are losers in this competition, and parents who talk like this actually count themselves among them. They admit it when they take stock at the age of 30 or 40: “Life has not turned out the way I wanted it to, the way that seems good and fulfilling to me. I want a better life for my children.” So instead of criticizing living conditions in this market economy and the competition they have gone through, they prefer to take it on themselves to protect their child from the damage they have more or less felt in their own bodies. In a way, the unreasonableness of this system is accepted as a reasonable basis for life and as a guideline for bringing up their children. And this contradiction can be seen in how they raise them. And this is what I want to show in three or four chapters on the stuff that has to be dealt with in raising a child. The first chapter will deal with the will and childish desire; the second with knowledge and childish curiosity; the third with the interests that germinate in young people and youthful rebellion; and the fourth is an outlook on the first field of competition as it becomes practiced: school.

1. The will and childish desire

The desires of the little ones are quite clear and direct in the beginning: breast, pacifier, rattle. That’s roughly what happens in this sphere until the children grow up a bit and their needs become more elaborate. You can see this in kids’ rooms, because they almost look like a section of the world market. There are innocent needs in the children’s world for toys or computers or whatever. Alongside these innocent needs, there are harmful ones. For example, at this age, kids tend to make whole meals out of ice cream and Coca-Cola – that’s not good. And besides that, there is perhaps a third category: unreasonable needs. There are kids who absolutely have to have Nike shoes or a Diesel hat, designer brands. And bigger kids might have to have a Rolex watch or at least an imitation. You find stuff like that in the kids’ world, and when you look at the way these kids walk, you realize that the signal has become a pleasure item. They show off with these clothes. Showing off is a need that one discovers already in the world of kids. A custom or bad habit that is not limited to them but is common practice in this world of competition. The people who throw themselves into the competition and strive for their success achieve very different results. Some become professors or politicians, others only garbage collectors.

And people get the wrong idea from that. Why do people come to such different results even though they are all the same and want the same thing? Their idea is that this is merely a reflection of the different qualities that people have in themselves as persons, their talents or gifts, the excellence of their personality. People associate the competitive success they achieve or miss with the quality of their personality and tell themselves that what one earns in the monetary sense corresponds to what he deserves in the moral sense. Those who do poorly have always felt the need to compensate for the lack of success which denies them their personal shine by creating or faking it in other fields because they too want to be a successful person. And those who are successful do not have to be free of braggadocio. They do this on top of everything else because in doing so they exaggerate their professional success and demonstrate the excellence of their personality. This need to distinguish oneself as a person – even compensating for the damages suffered by faking success in other fields so that one shines as a person – has already been discovered in themselves and in their environment by little humans who have not even entered the world of competition in all its stages yet. There is a thing like this among children. Showing off is reflected in the need for things that one can use to distinguish oneself from one’s peers. The attraction of having it is that the others don’t have it.

If I look at these three categories – simple needs next to harmful and unreasonable ones – this gives a care provider quite a lot to do. One has to sort and separate. With the ice cream, one has to object and say it is harmful. A Rolex watch is not wrong, but the motive out of which it is wanted is criticizable. The way parents deal with this variety of children’s needs bears the marks of competition just as much as the child’s needs themselves are already marked by this competition. On the first: Criticism is omitted where it would be necessary. It doesn’t happen very often that parents criticize their children for showing off. As a rule, the reason is that parents themselves are known to show off. This is something like a national sport. Well-off parents like to put a Daimler Benz or Audi six-cylinder in front of their garage so that the neighbors will really start talking. When parents discuss child raising issues among themselves, even the children themselves are the stuff for statements like: “Ours was already 3.8 kilos at birth” or “When ours gets in the sandbox, the others listen to him.” They distinguish themselves from each other, for example, with the stuff of successful offspring. So criticism is omitted where it would actually be necessary. On the other hand, there is the reverse: criticism where, in my opinion, it is completely out of place. This applies to the simple needs of children. Parents like to give children something good when they want something because it is their children to whom they are giving a good thing, of course. But for the vast majority, this generosity reaches the limits of a tight budget at a very early stage. It’s a competitive result of the fact that in many households the pay package doesn’t go very far, and certainly doesn’t go very far toward fulfilling a child’s wishes. And the way parents deal with this situation qualifies them to be agents of sacrifice. How? What is missing in this situation is parents giving themselves an account or an idea about why they are in this situation. Why is it that the wages they bring home are not enough to fulfill their child’s wishes? Yes, one would have to take a look at the substance of capitalist wealth, which turns out to be all the more abundant the less those who must create it with their effort earn. That would be something to start thinking about. But not only do parents not do this kind of thinking, as a rule they do not even admit the fact honestly. As a rule, they don’t honestly say to the child: “I don’t have the money. I’m afraid you’ll have to do without. I can’t pay for it.”

It is much more common for parents to portray doing without as a virtue: it is good to do without, it is virtuous, and the desire is all too often said to be unreasonable. When parents argue with their kids for annoying them with their desires, for example, they often say: “You don’t always have to have everything.” Theoretically speaking, this is a completely wrong argument because what is wanted was not everything, but something. In arguing for doing without, a content is now imputed to the desire, “everything,” which makes it look purely unreasonable to want something. So a wrong argument is given only to dismiss the child’s desire as a stupidity which of course one will not give in to. Yes, one can do this with kids, but when they get bigger, and especially in the better off homes, then of course one has to make a different, more elaborate argument; they say to their kids: “Do you really want to be addicted to consumerism?” Who wants to be something like that? That sounds shitty. The want is presented as being compelled and renouncing the material need is something like gaining intellectual freedom. This is the way they argue. But the argument about consumerism is actually not that difficult to refute. It assumes that people’s needs in this society are in principle well served and that the big mistake people are making is that, because their desires are excessive, they allow themselves be talked into overtime or extra shifts in order to consume yet more things they actually don’t need. But if this is how to interpret being an addict – even more time at the plant to make more money to satisfy yet another need – then it can actually be seen from this that the insinuation of the whole argument is not true at all. Because if you have to do that – work more in order to satisfy an additional need – then you can obviously be extorted into working more because consumption is not as satisfying as it is made out to be. But this is how people are addressed: Consumerism is evil, free yourself from your needs, that’s noble. Renunciation is glorified as a virtue.

And at Christmas this oddity, this doubling, always takes place unabashedly side by side. On the one hand, every night the news reports the retail trade is brisk, the cash registers are ringing, business is going wonderfully. And at the same time, the virtue of renunciation is preached. Both side by side. And as paradoxical as it may sound, it makes sense in this world. Because the fact that retail sales are increasing, that the economy is growing, that the country and its economy are getting richer fits with the fact that people are by and large doing without and baking smaller pies because they are the ones who have to produce this growth with their hard work and modesty in terms of wages. That’s how demanding and preaching wealth and sacrifice fit beside each other. And at Christmas this spiritual attitude of humility is developed into a national holiday; all of Christmas is about the virtue of renunciation – already in the nativity play and the way the whole story goes, if you remember, the Most High is brought into the world in a very small manger, so that you can see that there is another way, and a quite simple one. And when this is conveyed to kids as the virtue of modesty, then – at least that’s how it was in my time, I don’t know about now – there are transitions of a terrible kind in the parental home. The kids are told they should please not buy expensive Armani perfume with their expensive allowance, here the dreaded belt is used again, it also goes up to a different level, in all modesty.

This virtue of renunciation is not even limited to the poor. The rich themselves are also familiar with this argument, although they do not suffer from a lack of money at all, but uphold the virtue. Rich people, doctors, also use this tone with their children. The rich can be as stingy as can be, because they give their children the argument: depriving yourself is necessary because it is a good preparation for the hardships in life. They make a judgment about what this world is actually about. Not a reasonably planned supply in which the hardworking stiffs have a good life, but in which you enter into a competition where it is a completely open question how well you will do and whether you can live from the results of your work. That’s one side. And on the other side, when these well-to-do people talk about their own situation in life over a glass of red wine, they know that they have to make it clear to the young: roasted pigeons will not fly into your mouth. They want to argue that only real achievement leads to success. In doing so, they exaggerate their own success. That it is all a result of achievement – whether they got it from speculation or inherited it from their grandmother is another matter. Success comes from achievement, and that’s what the younger generation has to do in the first place in order to get something.

This sermon about the virtue of renunciation extends all the way to how children are taught to present their wants and needs in the first place, as expressed in the use of modal verbs. For example, if a child says “I want that” to formulate his needs, he gets reprimanded. What is he told to say? – “I would like that.” That is what everybody learns. But what does it actually teach you? First of all, the will, the “I want,” doesn't count in its own right. “I would like” withdraws the will, the need, to the mere form of a possibility, to a desire. What then does it depend on, for the wish to become a reality? On the fact that a higher authority, one above me, says yes to it, grants the license. This mode from “I want” to “I would like,” withdrawing the interest into a mere possibility which is made dependent on a higher authority for its validity – this is what is called the school of life because it anticipates a system of state in which precisely this mode counts. This is in fact the same as later in real life for adults – the pursuit of interests can only be done while respecting the highest barriers. With every action one has to ask oneself: Am I allowed to do this or is this wrong? Is it in line with the law or not? And by the way, you don’t need to worry now, the law that the action is in line with is not what it’s often made out to be. It’s not about keeping evil away from people. It’s a state regulation, yes, but that it keeps evil away from people, no. For example, it is not a crime to throw a thousand people out on the street and fire them; that is perfectly legal. It is not a crime for the landlord to evict a tenant because he can no longer pay for his apartment because he has lost his job; that is also legal.

Then there is another life lesson that must be taught to children, another barrier that must be heeded in their future existence as a competitive subject and citizen. This is the matter of property. It is imperative that children learn the difference between mine and yours. They must understand what property is all about, and in this respect parents are also agents of property in their upbringing. What is property actually? We tried to write it down in short punchy sentences like the following: “It is the exclusion of a third party from having a thing at their disposal, regardless of whether the thing that the other person is excluded from is being used or not.” A simpler version to make it clear: The owner of the house that is vacant excludes others from having it at their disposal; they are not allowed to use it. Regardless of whether he himself is living in it or not. That’s why it’s so strange that we have vacant buildings next to homeless people and no one thinks that this could be easily combined, that those who don’t have a place to live could move into the empty one. That is out of the question. This property, with its exclusion from use, is something that is totally essential in capitalism. It is something like the productive force of an entire mode of production. Because those who have ownership over important things such as means of production – not only food, but the means to produce food – face another group, the propertyless, who are excluded from property. But they are dependent on the means of production being set in motion so that they can make a living for themselves. That is a relationship of blackmail in which the owners of the means of production purchase propertyless workers for a wage so as to have their own property increased.

This is how all of capitalism with its labor market gets going through a state-supported blackmail relationship. Property is something like the sacred cow of the market economy and therefore absolutely belongs in every child’s room. But how do parents teach this to their children? They don’t lecture them about ownership and exclusion from having it at one’s disposal. They do it quite differently. For example, when Max and Mort ride a bike, it goes like this: Max sits on the bike and Mort watches the whole spectacle and wants to ride it too and tugs at the bike. Then his mother comes out and says, “That’s not possible, it only has one saddle, and besides, it’s his bike.” What does a child learn from this intervention? He learns, first of all, that the point of ownership – that the bicycle is his – is to ensure the unbothered use of the thing. “If you tug on this bicycle and prevent him from riding it, then he can’t use this thing; it’s only for one person to use.” So the undisturbed use of a thing seems to be the point of property. But to use the thing, possession is not at all necessary, because the thing itself determines that only one person at a time can use it. The nature of the thing determines the exclusivity of use, and there are a few things like that in the world. It’s the same with an ice cream that gets eaten. But if you live in conditions like today’s capitalist conditions, if a lot of people are poor and do not have access to ice cream or bicycles, then the ownership of things whose use does not have to be protected makes its own sense. It is not due the thing and its use, but due to poverty. However, it is not the full truth about property that it is to protect usage. And that’s why there is another step in the training effort, which shows one: Aha, there is still more to learn and to respect about property. If Max goes on vacation and leaves his bicycle in the basement and Mort thinks, “Now I can ride the bike” and his mother catches him, what will she say? “You can’t, it’s his, you always have to ask first.” So what does he learn now? He learns that you always have to ask first, that the right to have the thing at one’s exclusive disposal matters more than the right to use it. He could now make use of the thing; the other person is not there and won’t be disturbed by him using it. But the exclusion from use is more important. The child must learn this and take it with him on his life journey in the future world of competition. Let’s do to a second chapter and leave the world of desires and move on to knowledge.

2. Knowledge and childish curiosity

One of the peculiarities about children who have not yet been spoiled by school is that they want to know everything. They ask their “why” questions all say long, and for a while parents are delighted because they think they’ve given birth to a very bright little squirt. But at some point they reach their limits and get annoyed. And then come such nasty retorts as: “Don't ask so many questions,” “Don’t act so dumb.” What’s going on? Well, first of all, the child’s interest in asking such questions is itself worth explaining. Children deal with the world in such a way that they make it the material of their imagination – after all, they are not scientists. They model the world according to their subjective ideas and play. They do this in different ways. If you’ve just seen a cowboy movie, you run outside with a gun belt and put on a hat and play cowboy. Whatever children do, they deal imaginatively with reality and not infrequently experience a contradiction. For example, the sun sets early and spoils the game, or the snow on the field is a welcome addition to the game. Children find out that the world is not simply the material of their subjective imagination and doesn’t conform to what their imaginations want it to be. Rather, the world follows its own objective laws. That’s why children want to know why it’s snowing now or why the sun is setting, because it has abruptly interrupted their play. And then one becomes familiar with a reaction from these kids in which, as soon as one starts explaining why, when it’s halfway through, they then fidget impatiently back and forth and want to get going again, because actually the thirst for knowledge seems to them like an unreasonable interruption of their interest in playing. Yes, when children behave like this, you will have to point out to them that this is a contradiction: Either-or. Either you want to know why it is getting dark, then you have to distance yourself for a moment from your interest in playing longer, or you don’t – then you shouldn’t ask. So children leave things in this kind of unfinishedness, whatever you want to call it, and it also deserves criticism. You have to make children aware of this: If you want to know something, then take your thirst for knowledge seriously. 

As a rule parents are dumb – and just so nobody takes this as an insult to their honor, I also include myself in this. Who can really say why stones fall to the ground and what gravity is all about? Why electricity actually comes out of the socket and what it has to do with electrons and neutrons and protons? Maybe you listened for the bell in the school, maybe you never heard a proper explanation, in any case your are a largely cut off from knowledge and bombarded with stupidity in a society in which this knowledge does exist in libraries and on hard drives. However, it is not one of the goals of this society to provide knowledge to everybody. That’s how it is, you're stupid yourself, that’s how you treat children, and that could actually be a criticism of the whole system for which they are raised. But that’s why they are raised and why parents take a different approach. Instead of criticizing the society that bombards them with stupidity, they hide their own ignorance. This is the first exercise. “Why is it snowing?” the child asks. I had to learn – probably most of you did too: “Frau Holle is shaking out the sheets.” “Why is the sun going down?” – “It’s going to sleep.” It’s a type of explanation that’s actually a crime against the child. Because the child is offered something as an explanation that resides entirely within the child’s subjective world of imagination from which the child was simply trying to get away from with his question. He wanted an explanation and not to be referred back to his familiar picture of what the world looks like. Such an approach simply does not take seriously what the child is asking, but one presents oneself as someone who can provide information. Or this point of view is also popular with parents: “You won’t understand that yet.” That’s a sentence that really deserves an analysis. A child should understand this sentence. But the sunset isn’t explained. The child is expected to understand the sunset, which he does not understand, but should understand that he can’t understand it. A sentence like that is scientific theory three times over. “You don’t understand that yet” – it would be much easier to take a melon and an orange – you need projectiles of unequal size – to calculate the orbit and the size of the stars. You will have to do this at some point. Instead, people say, “You can’t understand that yet.” Or almost a stereotype of the interaction – which is always presented semi-ironically, but definitely reflects the real situation – the famous parenting question: “Why is the banana curved?” – “Because.” It is always quoted because with the question “why is the banana curved?” parents want to say that children are constantly asking nonsense questions and that’s why they answer: “Because.” First of all, the fact that is calling for an explanation is itself presented as its own explanation. This is a tautology. “Why is the banana curved?” – “Because it’s curved: that’s why.” So that’s the mistake in this kind of answer. But it’s also a stupidity on top of that to simply dismiss the question as stupid. Confidentially: It is a fruit that grows on hanging stems from the bottom up, and through photochemistry strives toward light. And as everyone knows, the fruit is long and thick. And as it grows, it strives toward the light on the one hand – in a 45° angle – and on the other hand gravity pulls down on this fruit. The result of these two forces is the curvature of the banana. So the question is not stupid at all.

However, parents don’t just master this technique to conceal their own ignorance, they master the more far-reaching transition of using the question-answer technique to present moral messages. For example, when children are rebuffed with the argument: “Be good and don’t ask so many questions,” children learn a life lesson. They learn that good children are compliant children. And if you are not good, you will get in trouble with an authority. That’s what they learn. And the authority means its decree so seriously that it sees obedience as something that should actually become second nature to the pupil. Listen to how parents sometimes scold their children: “Can't you hear?” – that’s what they say if obedience isn’t immediately forthcoming on being told. “Can’t you hear?” – they express rebelliousness as a hearing loss. They simply assume that the will of the child is calibrated for obedience like its second nature. But if the child does not obey, then the adult can’t explain it as a different content of the child’s will, but only as a defect of the auditory organ. Of course, this argument has its ironic side, but it conveys the serious content: obedience has to be a natural character of the child, or one that is as good as a natural character.

Now to underline this: What have children actually learned about the cosmos and the plant world in this dialogue I have presented? Nothing. But they have learned an important life lesson. They have learned that it is not what someone says that is decisive and deserves respect, but who says something that decides whether or not they have to show respect. When an authority says something, it deserves respect for its own sake. And lo and behold, this tenet applies far beyond the parental home. It applies equally to the world of adults who live in a modern constitutional state. This is basically how the state treats its citizens when it imposes laws on them. Laws are not valid because of the superior reasoning power of the authority that enacts them, but because of the superior power of the one who enacts them. And the state also calls itself – shamelessly, one might say – a monopoly on the use of force. And that’s why things are valid, not because it has the most convincing arguments in contrast to ours or those of others. Now, to the third chapter – the logic is simple, the child keeps getting bigger, so now on interests and youthful rebellion:

3. Interests and youthful rebellion

The interest in parenting, i.e. in tampering with desire and knowledge and childlike curiosity, is a laborious affair that costs time and money, and training the little nuisance is exhausting. But no matter how burdensome the child’s biological and intellectual dependence may be, the independence they acquire as they grow up does not relieve parents of the burden, but rather increases it. Parents know that when children grow into adolescents, a whole new attribute marks their status; that is, when they start pursuing their own interests for the first time, they are called “headstrong.” That is an interesting attribute about another’s will, because that’s actually to be expected of a will, that it pursues its own purposes, that it gives and chooses its own content. When parents comment on this as a new status or oddity, they want to say: this will no longer lets itself be assigned its content from the outside, as was the case when they were little. It now gives itself its own content – and that leads to conflicts, to opposition. Parents express this when they say: “Puberty is a difficult age.” They act as if rebelliousness is something like a natural phase that later disappears. In reality, different or conflicting interests clash, making the wills clear to see. Which paths does this obstinacy take? The range of interests isn’t that terrible. They go to the disco, take alcohol and drugs, boys chase girls and vice versa. That’s the range of interests that buds forth.

These interests include, for example, binge drinking. I learned from the newspaper that this is a real sport among young people. A lot of them die from it. Young people get together, put a funnel down their throats, get drunk on vodka, and bet on who can keep standing the longest. Delirium is considered a distinction and they compete for it. That’s what they do. One has to say: Yes, they have been brought up extremely successfully. They have heeded the advice: “Be a real man,” “Distinguish yourself,” “Be a stud.” Their only misconduct is that they do this distinguishing themselves in front of others in a sideshow of competition, not at school or at work – no, at binge drinking. One would have to say that the standards with which these young people have been tormented deserve criticism, in all fields. In school competition as well as in professional competition and in binge drinking. But that’s far from parents minds because they revere the standard so much: “Be somebody,” “Stand out from the rest,” “Be a winner, not a loser.”

Girls might not be out binge drinking, but they also bring problems into their parent’s house. One good night out and their whole life is ruined. Pregnancy is a perennial issue in the conflict of interests with parents. That in itself could serve as a pointer to the absurdity of how life is organized in this world. One nice night and life is over, the girl is pregnant, the girl has a child, she can’t finish school, can’t get a job, and she ends up a single parent on welfare somewhere in the limbo of poverty. Many lives take that path. Does it really have to be like this? Yes, because in this world the material burden of raising children is bound by law to the biological producer. But the same authority that does this is at the same time not responsible for providing this biological producer with material means so that she can make ends meet for her little one. One would have to say: a system like this deserves to be criticized. It is unreasonable to put people in a working world that makes their livelihood an extremely precarious and doubtful matter and can turn the mere fact of a birth into a death sentence as far as their career path is concerned. Criticism of this system is far from the parents' minds. They don't want to raise any objection to this reality, but always try to make their child succeed in this reality or to protect her from the harm that lurks in this reality. In their own way, they actually admit that the whole system they are raising them for is a smorgasbord of sources of harm that they need to protect their children from. And they even coin their own jargon for this. When you leave home – it gets annoying because you hear it every time – parents say: “Take care of yourself.” There’s a sweet side to this, which is meant kindly. But it also has a bad side because it’s stupid to say. Nobody walks out the front door with the attitude, “I am not going to take care of myself today.” It’s not advice to be followed. It just testifies to the fact that this whole social system for which children are being prepared is also, from the preparers’ point of view, a collection of dangers that threaten the offspring.

And if we fast forward to 10 or 20 years later, the children who have now grown into adults have strange memories. As children they were annoyed that their parents were not only constantly giving them instructions, but also telling them: “Take care of yourself. This world is dangerous.” After they themselves have spent a few years going through adult life, they then take a very nostalgic look back at the family. They come home, usually on birthdays or Christmas, and talk about the family as a true haven of security. They like to remember how they were given hot chocolate next to their mother’s warm stove; how they were kept apart from the wicked world in a caring domestic atmosphere in which they felt good all around. This is said by the same people talk, as children or adolescents, criticized the family as if it were a prison. Looking back, they talk like that. And what a crazy train of thought that is! The hardships they experienced in coming of age into adulthood doesn’t set them on the path to criticizing capitalism and its hardships, but a longing to return to the status of immaturity. So this is how the grown up creatures actually match their progenitors.

One last word about methods of child raising that parents use to actually make their standards and stipulations more pursuasive. I have already said that it is out of the question to criticize the child’s behavior or misconceptions. Nor is criticizing the system in which the child is raised the strong suit of parents. Instead, authority demands obedience, and this has its own techniques. For example, in the homes of liberal-minded parents, the old man says to his son, “I used to be the same way.” The authority advertises trust and doesn't mean: “Go ahead, I did it too,” but wants to say, “Quit it, I did.” Or he says, “We are your parents, we mean the best for you.” By this he wants to say that a prohibition should be accepted as an argument, not because of the persuasiveness of the argument, but because of the authority from whom it comes, who means well for the child, so that the order will be accepted as well-founded. In more disadvantaged families, threats of sanction may still be around. Everybody knows the saying, “As long as you are living under our roof” followed by threats of grounding or taking away an allowance. But a more enlightened tone is probably appropriate in more modern families. Today, for example, people prefer to say, “We will make an arrangement,” and the aim of the arrangement is the pupil’s guilty conscience if he doesn’t comply, which is something like a substitute for a beating. They forego repression for the effect of repression. This is the modern enlightened consciousness. So these were three stages for bringing up children in the parental home, which is and wants to be preparation for the first practical field of proving oneself in competition: school.

4. School – the first field of competition in practice

School is the first test. The parents have established the essential prerequisites for schooling in that the children usually have their bodily functions under control, a basic command of language, and can wait for the bus. They know that one owes obedience to authority, and they mostly know the difference between mine and yours, or at least try to. And now begins their schooling, which is not just more of the same in education or physical training. The school is no longer this training program of the parental home, but something fundamentally different and new in one respect: School education pursues a selection process that decides the child’s future path in life and has an official character. The imparting of learning, knowledge, and the recording of successes which now takes place sets the course of the child’s life, it is official, and in this respect not an issue that can simply be left to the parents. Because the love of the parents reaches so far that they probably couldn’t send their child on the road to a career as a janitor. This must already be made valid and irrevocable by official certificates through a selection process. That’s what the school does. And the little ones who were so curious to know that they kept asking “why” questions (as in my first section) soon lose their curiosity in school. It is not because learning is so unpleasant, but because learning in school drives out their thirst for knowledge. After all, the basis for carrying out the selection process uses as its instrument the fact that learning in school takes place under a time dictate. The requirement is that everyone must learn the same amount of material in the same amount of time. Already this banal circumstance ensures that differences in knowledge are produced. It is not written on the forehead of the fraction calculations that one has to figure it out in three months. There are people who have different difficulties with the material, and also different prerequisites. People who come from a humble home do not yet have any knowledge of the alphabet or numbers, unlike the children who come from educated families. It is clear that learning under the dictates of time produces graded differences in knowledge among the children and these are in fact the intended result of school, as can be seen from grading. Indeed, grades seek to discover gaps in knowledge, not to close them, but to sanction them. Bad grades ensure first getting kicked out of class and having to stay after school, and when they pile up this also means leaving the institution and getting stuck in the lower rungs of the educational hierarchy. This brings about what I wanted to express in my sentence at the beginning. Selection can be seen from the fact that those who actually need to learn the most are excluded the most. In this respect, it is clear that the will to learn as well as unwillingness or reluctance to learn is the result of this type of school instruction. The will to learn remains because the chances of success depend on the report card, and the unwillingness to learn sets in to the extent that it becomes clear that the grades are blackmail for an interest whose success is not supposed to occur – at least not for everyone. Then people are stuck in a school and say to themselves: What the heck, school learning is pointless.

When parents look at what school does to their child, this usually gives rise two kinds of false criticism. Either they criticize their child for laziness as a reason for his or her poor performance, or they criticize the school on the grounds that the classes are too big and there aren’t enough teachers. In any case, a criticism of the first big world of competition for which they are being educated doesn’t materialize, that is, of the selection process that is being carried out for a purpose in this society, which is the pre-sorting of human material for exploitation. The only thought they come up with is to save their own child from being screened out, and they even put up with overtime for this – which can be seen in the fact that the tutoring institutes flourish whenever the number of unemployed increases.


This brings me to a conclusion which summarizes what education accomplishes. What does education do in capitalism? Perhaps measured by the grand ambitions of the parents who have set themselves the task of shaping their children so that he becomes suited for life and has success in life and at the same time maintains decency. What does education do? Practically and mentally prepare the young for competition, dose elements of knowledge, pass on skills and attitudes – that’s what education does. But what does it decide about the child’s path in life? One has to say: materially, very little. They are given the tools and means to compete, but there is no guarantee of success. Mass layoffs take place every day, a plant closes overnight and two thousand people are on the street, even though they know just as much as they did yesterday, even though the good advice they received from their parents has not changed. People who went to the university and became IT specialists are not IT engineers today, but cab drivers. Simply because SAP has gone to India. The material success that people thought they could get with a solid education is disgraced because capital, with its demands in terms of needs, decides whether and how many people are to be employed and under what conditions, and which ones and how many are not.

The mental tools that education has given us may survive such defeats. Even those who have been laid off say: “Layoffs only happen because of all the mismanagement.” They have learned that defeats come only from failures and breaches of duty, never from the purpose of the system. Such false judgments also do not accomplish what educators think they are accomplishing. Namely, anchoring something like a determinant in the child. None of these false judgments that educators give to children along the way comes about without the will and consciousness of the young child. After all, the guidelines that one learns in the parental home must also be made one’s own. And what educators set out to achieve – something like a determination of the mental condition of their people – remains an ideal that is not possible in practice. That’s what they mean when they say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” or “My upbringing made me who I am.” Conversely, there is a sigh from critical people who think, “I can’t escape my genes.” That’s not true, even if educators have been talking at you for 20 years. Everyone can refute the proposition; if an argument makes sense to them, they make it their own. If it doesn’t make sense to them, they have their own reasons for not embracing it. In any case, it is his intellectual act and not the continuing effect of a tradition of upbringing.