Approaches to Education in the Context of the European Crisis – Jan de Jong

A short article on ‘Approaches to Education in the Context of the European Crisis’, based on a presentation given last June at the INIE Conference “Entrepreneurial Approaches to Education’ in Krakow. The article is an overview of three different possible attitudes to education, giving some key ideas how this can be conceptualized. One of the arguments put forward is based on an interpretation of  Marcel Mauss’ ‘gift-theory’, and arguing that values should be primary goals rather than utilities and that education should be one of those values. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it, and again, comments, responses (both short and long) and remarks are more than welcome!

Approaches to Education in the Context of the European Crisis

Jan de Jong, 9/11/14

(based on presentation at INIE conference, “Entrepreneurial Approaches to Education”, Krakow, June 5, 2014)

     In this short essay, I would like to argue that there are several different approaches one can take to education. This can for example be seen in the attitude towards education within the European Union, in particular with regards to the Eurocrisis, the recent economic crisis in the Eurozone. Three possible approaches towards education in the EU, all three of which can be used as a response to the Eurocrisis, will be outlined.

Education in ‘Europe 2020’

     The first approach is based on the European Commission’s strategy for the years 2010-2020, called ‘Europe 2020’ (all quotes in this paragraph are from the policy document on this). In this strategy, which was to replace the Lisbon strategy of the previous 10 years, 5 EU-wide targets for the year 2020 were outlined in order to ‘successfully exit the crisis’ (preface). Education is one of these targets and in the official policy document education is mentioned quite often. This approach is linked to themes such as employability, entrepreneurship and economy, as it becomes clear in this document that education is a way of facilitating ‘the entry of young people to the labor market’ (p. 3), of ‘promoting entrepreneurship’ (p. 11) and a way to ‘help employability’ (p.13). This entrepreneurial perspective on education is very result-based, focusing on real-term results in unemployment numbers, poverty levels and general well-being. Education is seen as something that in a way serves the economy and economic goals, using education to foster entrepreneurship and thus solve the European crisis. Put in a different way, education is seen as a means to an economic goal.

Education and European Identity

     Whereas the first approach directly targets the economic effects of the crisis, the other two approaches both try and find a remedy for more fundamental problems within the EU. One of these is the lack of a ‘European identity’ and the second approach that I want to mention here focuses on the creation of a European identity, citizenship and community, or even on the idea of a European nationalism. In the contemporary discourse on nationalism, it is generally accepted that nations are not pre-existing entities but rather, to use Benedict Anderson’s famous term, ‘imagined communities’. Jürgen Habermas, in his plea for the creation of a federal European state, argues similarly that ‘national consciousness and social solidarity were only gradually produced’ (Habermas, 1999). He argues that in the creation of a European federal state, or even in the further strengthening of the European Union as it is, it would be essential to put a similar effort into the creation of a European identity. Education could and should play a major role in this. Examples of how this can be done are various and varied. One way would be through exchange programs, such as Erasmus Mundus/Erasmus, that allow for direct communication and hopefully value transmission between people from different countries in the European Union.

     Another way of using education to create a European identity is through ‘creating’ a European history, which can be done through focusing on transnational European histories and stressing the homogeneity of the different European countries through their histories. Despite the fact that when looking at the histories of European countries, the differences will most probably be more striking than the similarities, there are certain events or phenomena that can be seen as European, and that have been experienced in a similar way throughout at least a big part of Europe. This ranges from the system of feudalism in medieval times to the creation of nation-states in the 19th century and from the Revolutions of 1848 to common European experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, the Second World War or even related to the Holocaust. Whereas these events are not necessarily positive and instead often horrendous, they do present us with experiences that were shared throughout large parts of Europe. Focusing on these experiences in education could create a higher awareness of some sort of homogeneous ‘European History’, which could be one way of strengthening the idea of a ‘European Identity’.

Education and Gift-theory: values first

     The third approach focuses on another ‘fundamental’ issue that has been used to criticize the EU ever since its foundation, namely the lack of ‘European solidarity’, something that is linked to but distinct from the issue of identity. The discourse on solidarity has a long history and there are many different ways in which this can be interpreted. In this presentation, I will shortly present an example of this by using the concept of solidarity as given by Marcel Mauss in his gift-theory, which was later further explored by among others Alain Caillé and David Graeber. Although gift-theory has a long and impressive academic history, most famously figuring in the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss and following from him, Karl Polanyi, the interpretations of Graeber and Caille are in a different direction. Mauss’s article, The Gift’, an anthropological text on  gifting in ‘primitive’ societies, describes the process of gifting in several primitive societies and the obligations that are associated with this – to give, to accept, and the receive. For example, in the ‘potlach’ feast of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, gifting plays the main role and in ‘The Gift’ the importance of this for gaining/losing prestige, social location and general social relations is discussed. At the same time, Mauss goes beyond mere observations or explanations and comes up with normative conclusions based on his data. The interpretations of Caillé and Graeber are based on this.  Their ideas are related in part to the ‘Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales’ (MAUSS) and set forth that Mauss’s article is essentially and primarily anti-relativist and anti-utilitarianist, two related but different philosophical points of view.

– It can be seen as anti-relativist because of its description of the importance of values in the societies that Mauss talks about. Here, he argues, values were goals in and for themselves and had precedence over mere economic benefits or utility. Values such as solidarity, friendship, prestige, or even education, are then seen as not reducible to mere subjective expressions but rather as embodying the essence of human society, something that was lost in ‘modern capitalist societies’. Here, as well as in the second point, it should be noted that Mauss was a lifelong and dedicated socialist, and that for him ‘the gift’ as a means of exchange in society and as a general metaphor for human relations made a midway possible between the then emerging communist system in Russia on the one hand and Western capitalism on the other hand.

– The text is anti-utilitarianist in the sense that it argues that human behavior cannot, contrary to Jeremy Bentham’s famous theory, be reduced to a need to decrease pain and increase pleasure. Without arguing that human beings are essentially irrational, it argues or can be seen as a basis to argue, that the reasons people have for making their decisions are not based on a simple calculation, but rather on an intricate network of values, relations, opinions and idea(l)s. This goes against many of the main assumptions of capitalist theory, in particular the assumption that ‘primitive’ societies were always based on some system of exchange; instead, Mauss shows that this is not necessary and that a system of exchange or tit-for-tat was not always present in human societies. Again, the focus on utility as something necessarily inherent in human behavior – a staple of economic and political thought – is shown to be incorrect, allowing for a refocusing towards values instead of utility.

Taking education as a case in point, and especially when contrasting this third approach to the first two mentioned, the difference becomes clear. This is especially true of the first approach, with its focus on economic issues and the utilitarian spirit that expresses benefits in terms of economic benefits. The second approach of identity-creation might seem more similar, but at the same time its goal is to increase the stability of the EU in an attempt to solve the crisis that the EU is in.


     Arguing from the third approach, the problem is much more fundamental than simply a lack of identity, a lack of entrepreneurship, or a lack of solidarity. Instead, in this approach, the fundamental attitude to values such as solidarity and identity and even more so to education is quite simply wrong. What would be argued for in this case is a refocusing on values as primary goals in and for themselves, and on education as one of these, and to quote the biblical saying “all these things shall be added unto you”; put differently, in this perspective the order of things is reversed: whereas education is seen as a means to increase economic output, education (as well as other values) should be a goal served by economic means. To quote Mauss, “goodness and happiness [should be searched for in] the imposed peace, in the rhythm of communal and private labor, in wealth amassed and redistributed, in the mutual respect and reciprocal generosity that education can impart.” This is of course a highly idealistic point of view, and in the conclusion to this short essay, I do not want to argue in favor of one approach only. Rather, I would propose that these perspectives, whether they focuses on benefiting European economy, strengthening European identity or enhancing European solidarity, are each important but not enough by themselves. Especially in the context of the Eurocrisis it is necessary to create a more inclusive approach towards education. It should not be denied that education is an important tool in creating a stronger economy and fostering entrepreneurship, but at the same time education can be much more than this. It can also include the creation of community, the furthering of solidarity and the increase of the general well-being of the population. As such, education can and should be regarded as one of the main ways of dealing both with the causes and the effects of the Eurocrisis.

Short Bibliography

Caillé, A. (2004). Anti-utilitiarianism, economics and the gift-paradigm. Revue du MAUSS(24), 268-276.

‘European Commission. “Europe 2020”, Brussels, 2010’

Graeber, D. (2000). Give it Away. In These Times, 24(19).

Habermas, “The European Nation-State and the Pressures of Globalization, 1999

Mauss, M. (1967 (1923)). The Gift- Forms and fuctions of exchange in primitive societies. New York: The Norton Library.


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