Schooling in Crisis

Rise and Fall of a German-American Success Story

by Bernhard Hemetsberger (Author)
©2022 Thesis 256 Pages


Societies recurrently declare themselves to be in crisis. As crises proceed an educationalization, a delegation of social problems to schools, has been observable since the implementation of public mass schooling in German-speaking countries and the US. However, schools are not able to solve the problems, leading to crisis narratives of schools not delivering. The study identifies a social function of these recurrent crisis narratives in attempts to (re)integrate societies and (re)establish legitimacy of the system. It is firstly, an act to help societies discursively to address their problems and, secondly, to regain a legitimate social order. But what would happen, if this piece were removed, as an increasing number of parents opt out of the public-school system, thus fragmenting it?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • The concept of crisis…
  • … as a consequence of legitimation problems
  • … as failed risk prevention
  • … as a historical concept
  • Absent views
  • What is to be expected?
  • Chapter One Enlightened Absolutism, Reform, and ‘Cosmopolitanism’: Until 1800
  • German challenges in administration
  • Economic restructurings
  • Socio-cultural struggles
  • Basedow’s contribution
  • Constructing public schooling
  • Chapter Two Napoleon, Industrialization and Who’s ‘We’: Until Around 1850
  • Administrative crises
  • Economic crises
  • Socio-cultural changes
  • Fichte’s crisis narrative
  • Horace Mann’s vision
  • Defining missions of public schooling
  • Chapter Three Neo-Absolutism/Republicanism, Liberalism and Nationalization: Until Around 1900
  • Administrative challenges
  • Economic crises
  • Socio-cultural tendencies
  • Nietzsche’s fundamental school critique
  • Two lines of US American school critique
  • Challenging public schooling
  • Chapter Four System Competition, Sputnik and Global Villages: Until Around 1970
  • Administrative crises
  • Economic challenges
  • Socio-cultural changes
  • Vice-Admiral Rickover’s objections
  • Educational catastrophe by Georg Picht
  • Competing public schooling
  • The End? Recurrent Problems, Crisis Language, and Contradictory Redemption
  • Recurrent problems
  • Current crisis perceptions
  • Crisis language
  • Contradictory redemption
  • The end?
  • Bibliography

←12 | 13→


Trust is an important element of our lives. As our knowledge is limited and personally verifiable truths are quite narrow, most of the knowledge is left in a seemingly unmanageable area. Modern states institutionalized the management of risks to life to enable trust that our futures will take a turn for the better. Therefore, many expectations are created and shared in the public about the challenges institutions must face for being trustworthy (Luhmann 2000; Endreß 2002; Hemetsberger 2022). David Labaree (2010: 1) opens his seminal book Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling with an inspirational thesis:

“We Americans have long pinned our hopes on education. It’s the main way we try to express our ideals and solve our problems. We want schools to provide us with good citizens and productive workers; to give us opportunity and reduce inequality; to improve our health, reduce crime, and protect the environment. So, we assign these social missions to schools, and educators gamely agree to carry them out. When the school system inevitably fails to produce the desired results, we ask reformers to fix it. The result, as one pair of scholars has put it, is that school reform in the United States is ‘steady work’. The system never seems to work the way we want it to, but we never give up hope that one day it will succeed if we just keep tinkering.”

My related piece of work is an attempt to explain how these arguments – the mission of school in the interest of the salvation of society – are shared in German-speaking countries and in the United States of America. To get an idea of how old the sharing of the arguments is, I will show how emerging ideas on the crises of Western societies are delegated to schools and how these narratives work as they push schools into crises because they are unable to deliver what they were asked to accomplish. In the end we must ask ourselves, which functions do these processes fulfill, and still occupy for societies? Or, in other words: How long can public schooling stand the pressure? Or even: Are we in the middle of the end of schooling as we know it (Hopmann 2013)?

I argue that crises in schooling are neither isolated nor recent, but are pervasive and historic. For good reason then does this touch the sphere of trust in public schools. Clearly, the analysis is primarily interested in public discourse and not the actual, empirical state of schools. I assume that schooling – like other realities (Berger/Luckmann 1977) – is socially constructed, and reform agendas, claims and disaster warnings are detached from inner-school affairs. From this perspective the Program of International Student Assessment ←13 | 14→(PISA) appears as one current example of a crisis manufacturing tool for participating countries. PISA, by ignoring multiple alternative realities, creates a strong interpretation for public discourse of what schools are for and what should be practiced within them. Much about what happens inside schools is ignored. In line with other tests, the indicators used are based on the belief that numbers and comparisons give insights on, and regulation possibilities for, systems that are hard to manage (Cuban 1991). Gita Steiner-Khamsi (2003) showed that in response to PISA there were media shock waves and scandalization in European countries especially, with Germany in the lead. Berliner and Biddle (1995) analyzed similar tendencies in the US concerning the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) when large-scale assessment studies created the public illusion of schools not doing what they had been asked to do. Besides historical case studies some analytical approaches are available. From a populist and idealist angle, Gert Biesta and his colleague Carl A. Säfström (2011) identified attacks on education and schooling that claimed that both were not delivering what they were supposed to deliver. The populist accusation deriving from simplifying educational concerns is well known. Also widely shared are the overbearing expectations of idealists, promising far-reaching solutions. Both are refuted (e.g., Müller 2016; ex negativo Becker 1972). These two angles may function as analytical lenses, but they do not shed light on their origins or conditions for realization. This history, though, with its individual studies and conceptual approaches remains blurred. Crisis discourse on public schools not delivering may seem contemporary. However, the bemoaning of crisis in education and especially in schooling is even older, and more pervasive and ubiquitous, starting with the implementation of public, compulsory schooling in the Western world.

I appreciate that it is necessary to conduct research on current problems, but if discursive foundations of socially constructed realities are to be analyzed, the only way forward is a historical one, for there is no other reason for discourse than its own history (Landwehr 2009: 97). Hobsbawm (1998: 123) warned against the trend in scientific studies to focus on an apparent single crisis without the context of social transformation. Therefore, a socio-historical approach with comparative elements over the duration of the phenomenon’s existence seemed a promising one for my research. A socio-historical contextualization of discourse means overcoming a ‘classical’ history of ideas or concepts1 in a hermeneutic ←14 | 15→tradition. Thus, one can demonstrate a ‘transformation’ of ideas into ‘existence’ with comparative elements contrasting the phenomena (Tenorth 2009). As I argue for a promising historical design of the study, we should also find reasons for the localities under consideration.

One probably could find crisis narratives on schooling and reform claims worldwide. Especially German-speaking countries and the US share similar developments and reciprocal referrals to what would be best to reform within the respective school system. Goldschmidt (1983) states that until the end of the First World War (1914–1918) German-speaking countries, particularly the former Prussian areas, led the exchanges. Increasingly, both German-speaking countries and the US used the other as the referential region. After the Second World War (1939–1945) the US managed to take on the leading role within this mutual exchange of pedagogical ideas, system arrangements and teacher training methods (Heideking 1997; Weinacht 1997). This book is not so much interested in the question as to who was in an influential position at a particular period of time but uses the evidence in history and selected examples showing that there was strong reciprocal referencing. Neo-institutionalists thus deduced that similarities in schooling were due to the idea that the model of modern schooling had been defined in Europe, adopted in the West, and spread globally (Meyer et al. 1992b). In this context, I follow Hobsbawm (1975a: xi) when he claims that “[n]‌aturally this does not mean that the histories of the countries and peoples neglected in this volume are less interesting or important than those which are included. If its perspective is primarily European [, or more precisely Western; H.B.] […] it is because in this period the world – or at least large parts of it – was transformed from a European, or rather [Western; H.B.] […] base.”

Usually, historical studies develop the topic and the localities as well as the periods on which they focus. Regarding periodization, prerequisites are set of which I would like to highlight at least two: publicity, and schooling as a socially accepted institution. Public discussion on the state of schooling requires publicity and schooling as a socially accepted institution. At the forefront, publicity (Habermas 2013) and compulsory schooling (Van Horn Melton 1988) both appeared in eighteenth-century Europe and nineteenth-century US America, where this research opens.

Publicity, according to Habermas (2013: 69–85), was spreading until the end of the eighteenth century. It was conceived as larger social groups being able to publicly announce personal thoughts and interests using media formats such as newspapers. Primarily the bourgeoisie occupied the public space. As a reading public (Lesepublikum) they were not bound to citizenship in the sense of burgers ←15 | 16→tied to municipal communities. Not even residence was necessary to belong to a social group. They delineated themselves from the nobility, the peasantry, and lower social groups, by means of education and use of the press. A ‘cosmopolitan’ group of inter alia, officials, advocates, doctors, pastors, officers, professors, and teachers, as well as scriveners formed the bourgeoisie. Due to their social positions, financial power, intellectual and public ties, a specific consciousness arose, which led to increasing collective resistance, resentment, and criticism if their interests were challenged. The press became a major medium of expression. It was hence not surprising that criticism grew when their status-securing institution – school – was touched. Here is the first indicator for starting my research at the end of the eighteenth century.

One challenging debate that started in the eighteenth century concerns compulsory schooling. Who is to be educated and to which end? Who should have access and whose advantage is secured? By the end of the century, all German-speaking countries had introduced a certain legal standard on how schooling should be organized and maintained (Van Horn Melton 1988). In the US, debates, and standards, with some earlier precursors (Katz 1976), followed the continental example at the dawn of the nineteenth century (Ramirez/Boli 1987). In this period at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, schooling went from a legal guideline to become a social standard. It was seen as a prerequisite for young people to make the monumental shift from a career of work to a career of schooling. “The idea of sending one’s child to school rather than to work not only was legislated and coercively implemented but also was promoted and voluntarily accepted by increasing numbers of people” (Katz 1976: 23). School attendance in Vienna, for example, rose from 4.665 children being educated in elementary schools in 1771, to 8.039 in 1779, without taking into account around 5.400 pupils receiving private tutoring. Similarly to Prussia, attendance rates in the Austrian countryside increased steadily in the same period from 16 % to 34 % (Van Horn Melton 1988: 220). At the end of the eighteenth century, the increasing social acceptance of schools as useful institutions for upcoming generations solidified. Consequently, if schools were described as not delivering, the connected crisis perception also involved its increasing clientele. In short, if more people trusted schools, their portrayed failure concerned more people. Hence, this is a second indicator for starting my project in this period.

To sum up: publicity was needed for reaching broader social groups and discussing a single topic; additionally, compulsory schooling was becoming socially accepted as was a shared constitutional mindset, i.e., deeply engrained ways of perceiving the relation between the public and its institutions (Hopmann ←16 | 17→20082), legitimately mitigating the risks of life. In this sense, schooling left the private affairs of a few and steadily turned towards a common, hotly debated, and public issue.

Interestingly, since then the whole history of schooling has become full of school criticism. Ever since modern mass schooling, chronic discontent and alternative proposals have led school reform debates (Blankertz 1989; Pfisterer 2003; Reichenbach 2014). To manage the sheer unlimited criticism of public schooling since the end of the eighteenth century, heydays of critique i.e., times of crises were targeted. However, it so happens that as a contingent phenomenon such school critique engenders broader crisis narratives. Like a firecracker sometimes leads to panic in stadiums and at other times causes barely a reaction3, this analysis has no systematic answer to the instigators of crises. In a historical analysis Reinhart Koselleck (1959: 86 f; 1988: 103 f) worked on the point where critique becomes crisis. He argues that within certain historical conditions, ‘fertile ground’ allows for increasing criticism to manifest crisis scenarios. These phases of ‘fertile ground’, when social experiences can no longer be traced back to factual, social, or temporal notions, evoke unsettling social self-reflections (Luhmann/Schorr 2000: 166). When critique drastically increases meeting ‘fertile ground’, crises may appear and provoke a fundamental social reflection. In this sense, the crisis perspective depicts a social contemplation of its self-concept being shaken and in need of being rebuilt. In question is the identity and manner of realization that prevail. Social self-concepts are hard to subsume, as Habermas (1976) showed, but they enable members of a society to define, agree with, delineate, resist, or reject to constitute themselves as individuals within a ‘social identity’.

Crises have therefore a meaning-generating function since a new identity and viable narratives must be found. The included aspects or narratives of crises are of social relevance and prominence to overcome threatening situations (Seeger/Sellnow 2016). Particularly during crisis discourses (Freeden 2017), meaning stays highly precarious, controversial and challenges repeatedly a school’s mission. Moreover, the group of people involved in the process of discussion and identity formation grew historically. One can imagine that the changing scope ←17 | 18→of discourse participants and medial possibilities affect the process of meaning-generation. However, these periods of how crisis is perceived throughout societies are of interest for my work of narrowing down historical periodization and identifying the set of sources to consider.

For a first filtering of suitable sources and separating critique from crisis, a quantitative argument is used to weaken the above-mentioned fuzzy distinctions. Employing tools such as the Google Ngram Viewer4 or Jstor’s database5 with the keywords crisis, schooling, education, reform, and some other variations, a few periods from the end of the eighteenth century onwards appear to be worth examining for an idea of crises discourses, including schools. The exemplary graphs, generated for German (see Graph 1) and US publications (see Graph 2), highlight the heyday of publications on schooling, and indicate the growing public interest in schooling and its social mission.

Graph 1:German publications 1750–2008, covering Schule, Reform, and Krise

Graph 2:US publications 1750–2008, covering school , reform , and crisis

For German-speaking countries the periods around the close of the eighteenth century, the first third of the nineteenth century, the turn of the twentieth century and around the 1970s stand out against the rest of the publications on ←18 | 19→schooling. In the US-English graph, the periods of the 1820s–1840s, around the 1880s and up to the 1930s, and finally the 1950s–1960s show increasing publication rates compared to previous decades. Both graphs indicate a new rise in the 2000s. The graphs may look different as historically differing publication possibilities could have played a role in their shaping (see Thomas 1810; Rarisch 1976; Walden Font 2016). When consulting historiographical works6 on schooling in German-speaking countries and in the US, five periods, represented in the following chapters, overlap with the ones in the graphs. There, similar periods are described as having more school-related debates and reform programs to overcome crises in schooling than at other times.

Eric Hobsbawm (1994) would categorize this study as “a bird’s eye view of history.” Scholarly historians, moreover, would at least expect a more intense discussion and critique of the sources, elaborations on historical conditions or well-defined periods (see Gaddis 2002). Not ignoring these, however, the work’s aim is to depict narratives in very different historical periods dealing with a critique of schooling, its current state of crisis and the consequences feared. Thus, I follow Gaddis (2002: 11) in the need for “compressions and distillations of the past in order to make it usable in the future.” Consequently, historical work in this sense opposes historical reconstructions en detail. The compressions must be illustrative for a deeper understanding of selected sources, which conversely should ←19 | 20→reflect the distilled modes of thinking. The chosen public spokespersons and their hotly debated works are lighthouses within a larger discourse, influenced by and concurrently having an impact on it. It was not my aim to meticulously portray all voices of a discourse but to exemplarily give an impression of a historic debate and ask why then and why the focus was on schools at all. Let’s look at it as a historical passage of birds, migrating seasonally with some stops at important places, i.e., sources. These are only peaks of a mountain range in need of more research to become more sizeable (Hobsbawm 1998: 118). This tour over the mountain tops will be a combination of historical circumstances, social and intellectual changes and their pedagogical counterparts to give insight on ‘discourses’ that are not to be strictly read, for example, as Foucauldian (Foucault 1977) or Habermasian (Habermas 1981a), while not claiming to see everything. I will use the concept of discourse as a descriptive category (Landwehr 2009: 85), as “‘language-in-use’ (language actually used in specific contexts). […] not just as an abstract system (‘grammar’), but in terms of actual utterances or sentences in speech or writing in specific contexts of speaking and hearing or writing and reading” (Gee 2014: 19). Here, “discourse is intended to constitute the ground whereupon to decide what shall count as a fact in the matters under consideration and to determine what mode of comprehension is best suited to the understanding of the facts thus constituted” (White 1978: 3; original emphasis).

The mode of comprehension or “perception of historical time” – as per Koselleck’s (2015: 12) hypothesis – is the difference between past and future that becomes anthropological as experience and expectation. He claims that every historical artefact for a possible future is bound to its specific historical realm of experience (ibid.: 90). Carr (1987: 199) subsumes Koselleck’s questions to “how in a given present the temporal dimensions of past and future are related” or “how the accumulated experience of a given society is related to its expectations, hopes, and prognoses.” Bauman and Bordoni (2014: 109) reformulated that “things linger, even if we do not remember them – let alone recall them, chew them over, debate them. They live in what we do and how we do it. Modernity lives, and so does postmodernity, as its shadow parent/offspring, inner demon and guide.” We now have seen how the study could be framed as a historical project, while the conceptual work will open the question: How do past experiences and future projections culminate in crisis perceptions?←20 | 21→

The concept of crisis…

Crisis, with its strong base in everyday language, is said to be an overburdened word (Freeden 2017) and likewise a complicated category for research. Therefore, my conceptualization is inspired by Roitman (2014: 3) who would neither (over)theorize, define, or essentialize ‘crisis’ to better understand and assess its appropriateness; nor would she argue for a more correct meaning, but would “seek to understand the kinds of work the term ‘crisis’ is or is not doing in the construction of narrative forms.”

I will try to understand crisis in this threefold sense: (a) in a legitimistic frame, (b) as an accusation concerning failed social risk prevention (through schooling), and (c) as a historical lens. The first attempt touches the question as to why crises may appear and have a narrative role, the second pays attention to ways of talking about (narratives of) crises, and the last to historical approaches using crisis as an epistemological tool.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 256 pp., 3 fig. b/w, 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Bernhard Hemetsberger (Author)

Bernhard Hemetsberger is currently PostDoc fellow at the chair of Foundations of Education at the University of the Federal Armed Forces Munich, Germany. He earned his degrees at the University of Vienna, Austria in the fields of Historical and Comparative Research on Education and Schooling. His research interests focus on the educationalization of social problems in a transatlantic perspective, public trust in schooling, and the history of grading and examination practices.


Title: Schooling in Crisis