Metro, work, sleep: we all know this refrain. Society teaches us this and we ourselves pass it on to our children through the overloaded agenda of our daily activities. But unemployment obliges, this scathing criticism of the monotony of work is becoming an ideal to achieve for young people desperately seeking employment. Hence the question: what should we pass on to tomorrow’s generations?

At night, when you look up to the sky, you can see the stars shining. Some of them form constellations, whose presence in the sky varies according to the seasons and the place where we are located on Earth. For example, Octopus, Scorpio and Southern Pisces are only visible in the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere, the constellation Orion shines brightly in winter, but disappears from view during the summer months. It is also in the northern hemisphere that we can see the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper shining, which includes the North Star which has the strange ability to always point north. Thus, long before the invention of compasses and other GPS, the North Star was a sure way for nomads not to get lost. As for the farmers, the seasonal waltz of the constellations served as a calendar, in particular to identify the approach of sowing at the return of spring. This is why, for thousands of years, knowing the constellations was a precious knowledge that was passed on from generation to generation. But it would not occur to anyone today to propose that the school take charge of this kind of training… 

The knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation is therefore changing: it adapts according to the values and moods of the time. For example, in the colonial era, it seemed perfectly normal to teach students racist theories asserting the supremacy of the white man and the superiority of Western civilization. Similarly, in the educational system in the United States, the theory of creativity (according to which the world began with Adam and Eve…) is taught in disregard of the most elementary scientific knowledge. This means that education is neither objective nor immutable, but rather a reflection (for better or for worse) of the values of a society. We can therefore ask ourselves: how is education evolving in our society?

« Curiosity without any other concern than knowledge, without any other discipline than that which it imposes on itself, without consideration of the utility which, in the pragmatic and pecuniary civilization, remains that of a few and not of all, this curiosity left to itself offers a guarantee against the despotism of money, a chance of progress and criticism ».. Thorstein Veblen,  » Théo- rie de la classe de loisir « , Éditions Gallimard, 1970, introduction, p.23.


For a long time, the school has operated on a basic principle: students are graded on the basis of their personal performance. It is according to an individualistic standard that they pass or fail their exams. This may seem logical or natural: after all, it is better for a doctor to be really competent before treating us, or for an architect to know his job when laying the foundations of a building… 

But one may ask: is one principle (individual competition) sufficient to guide the transmission of knowledge to the younger generation? In a democracy, shouldn’t children also be taught to carry out joint projects? to work as a team, respecting each other and valuing each other’s know-how and particularities? In these times — in our societies marked by urban violence and the indifference of the elites to the fate of the common man — learning from an early age to appreciate and recognize the qualities of others would not be an unnecessary luxury. This would be a useful complement to the sole criterion of individual performance. Unfortunately, cooperative logic is not valued in the school setting, nor is empathy or generosity, simply because education for citizenship, democracy or living together is not a school priority. Surprising as well as strange when we think that school is THE place of transmission of knowledge, that is to say the place where our society teaches the youngest what it is good to know to be able to grow and bloom… 

The picture is even darker than it seems: not only does the logic of individual competition prevail in the evaluation of students, but the evaluation of performance is also gaining ground in the logic of promotion of university teachers and researchers… Certainly, from time immemorial, various diplomas and exams have been necessary to obtain a teaching position at the university: throughout their doctorate, aspirants to a university chair must put on a good show by playing the small hands when necessary (e.g. to read hundreds of exam papers). However, regardless of the topic of their research or their approach to it, until now, university doctoral candidates could easily find a mentor to support them, given the diversity of opinions and methodologies within the universities. Similarly, full professors enjoyed a great deal of freedom in their research work, as a host of networks and journals were ready to welcome and disseminate their varied reflections… But this logic of diversity is being eroded by the gradual introduction of standardized procedures for evaluating the performance of universities and their teachers.

« As long as the individual does not possess a clear consciousness of the ritual character of the system by which he was initiated into the forces that shape his universe, he is unable to break the enchantment and define a new « cosmos ». As long as we do not become aware of the rite by which the school forms the man condemned to the consumption of progress, it will be impossible for us to break the magic circle and to make appear a new economy « .. Ivan Illich, ibid, p.271.

A world ranking of universities exists nowadays. It allows the leaders of these institutions to know their value in the global education market. Similarly, university researchers are gradually being subjected to new evaluation standards. Experts from outside the university come to assess their skills against pre-established criteria. It can be the number of publications made, but also and especially the journals in which these publications were made. Here again, a sort of world ranking distinguishes the quality of the journals (and by implication the degree of competence attributed to the published researchers) on the basis of a standardized evaluation grid. The result is a biased logic: all academic researchers who want to shine have the same goal, namely to be published as often as possible in the top journals in the world. But who is the judge of this prestige? And by what criteria? These are two fundamental questions that escape the very people who are being evaluated… 

Knowing that the evaluation of researchers has consequences on their careers (notably through the budgets that are allocated, or not, to hire young doctoral students), it is obvious that university research is no longer free to explore multiple directions, but is massively oriented on narrow paths marked out by uniform performance evaluation criteria. This leads to a weakening of the diversity of knowledge, and strikes a severe blow to the trademark of universities (their independence of spirit) in favor of a logic aimed at responding primarily to the criteria of competence. 


Performance appraisal is not without history: it is a practice of hierarchical control, straight out of the corporate world. It allows workers to compete not only with their colleagues, but also with their own performance, especially when their work tools include computer technologies capable of accurately assessing their individual performance over time. This is notably the case at Amazon, the online delivery company that can monitor second by second the productivity of its workers, as the journalist Jean-Baptiste Malet testifies in his book(En Amazonie) about the psychological consequences of such social control mechanisms. 

The transfer of these managerial control techniques to the educational sphere is not a coincidence: it reflects the evolution of a society where companies (and particularly large companies) occupy an increasingly central place. Whether it is to fight unemployment or to obtain the thousand and one objects that populate our daily lives, it is on companies that we invariably rely. However, they do not work at all in the general interest, they pursue their own ends over which we have no direct control. 

For the most greedy among them, profitability at all costs and profit maximization are the alpha and omega of their strategic plans, and whatever the price to be paid by others to achieve this: reduction of the payroll through massive layoffs, subcontracting and precarious contracts, overwork, tax engineering practices to evade taxes, lobbying and blackmail to relocate to impose on the political world a constant weakening of democratic laws regulating the activity of companies… Such strategies dominate today’s merchant holdings and industrial empires where financial logic has taken precedence over everything else. The result is an alarming situation for many workers (laid off or subjected to infernal work rates), but also catastrophic for public finances. On the other side, they face declining revenues as a result of lower contributions from the wealthiest companies — which either relocate their operations or manage to reduce their taxes to nominal amounts. On the other side, the public authorities must take care of the workers laid off as a result of the managerial policies of profit maximization. In short, while government revenues are declining, expenditures are increasing. As a result, you don’t have to be Shakespeare to write the rest of the plot: called upon to take drastic cost-cutting measures, the public authorities must reduce the size of public services. Among them is the teaching… 


Of course, teaching cannot simply disappear. To some extent, the quality can be diminished by overcrowding classes with overworked teachers. The quality of education in French-speaking Belgium has plummeted in the name of reducing the public debt. A sacrifice of education that was of no use, as public indebtedness increased again following the bailout of the banks by the public finances. In the wake of this, the Belgian government has just adopted a European Treaty imposing a wave of perpetual austerity on public authorities (municipal, regional, national). With governments tying their own hands with aberrant austerity rules, the only way out of financing public services is to turn to those who have lots of money: the very large corporations. 

In fact, public-private partnerships are becoming more common, and a growing number of educational projects are now being carried out in conjunction with private companies. For example, in Wallonia, the Marshall Plan (which is supposed to halt industrial decline) relies heavily on synergies between research centers and companies in order to create knowledge and new technologies that are likely to have commercial outlets. Similarly, many universities and colleges finance their research laboratories through financial partnerships with the business world. at a more elementary level (such as primary or secondary school), it is the inclusion of new technologies in school practices that offers a royal road to entry for multinationals in the school world(1). E‑learning (via the Internet) and interactive technologies are all the rage, and the temptation to replace the school bag with a laptop and the old blackboard with a state-of-the-art touch screen is now great. What progress, we are told, to brighten up school learning methods and give children a taste for school.

« The idea of schooling conceals a program by which the citizen is initiated into the myth of the benevolent efficiency of bureaucracies enlightened by scientific knowledge. And, everywhere, the student comes to believe that increased production is the only way to lead to a better life. In this way, the habit of consuming goods and services is established, which runs counter to individual expression, which alienates, which leads to the recognition of rankings and hierarchies imposed by institutions. And would the teachers try to oppose it that, within the framework of the school, they could not do anything against this secret will, whatever the dominant ideology is?. Ivan Illich, « A Society Without Schools », Complete Works, vol.1, p.299.

But nothing is free: one way or another, these technologies have to be paid for. Beyond the problems of financial cost for families (not everyone has the money to buy a laptop for his or her child) and the terrible environmental impacts that no one says anything about, one of the most perverse effects consists in introducing the logic and objectives of the financial world into the fundamental criteria of education. 

Theknowledge economy is probably the most accurate way to adjust school programs to the needs of business. The idea is that education should focus on the acquisition of skills that are useful in the « job market ». A labor market where competition is high, where flexibility is increasing: precarious contracts, part-time work, perpetual race to perform, need to do more and more to keep one’s job or to get bonuses to compensate for a bad salary… In this unforgiving world, being efficient is no longer enough: you must also be flexible, malleable, and capable of bouncing back to constantly adapt to the changing needs of companies. From the cradle to the grave, we are supposed to leap from job to training, from training to job, in a kind of perpetual motion to acquire all kinds of skills that can improve our Curriculum Vitae. This is the project of the knowledge economy promoted by Europe, and which enjoys the tremendous support of the Member States through the policies of activation of the unemployed, who are obliged to follow a thousand and one training courses on pain of being cut off from the means of (over)living.

If the trends outlined here continue, or worse: intensify, school may one day be reduced to a form of antechamber to the workplace. Trained to perform from an early age, children who become adults will learn to become flexible, with a succession of precarious contracts and refresher courses, in a hierarchical society that sacrifices without remorse people who are unable to adapt daily to the skills required of them. This truth will apply to all strata of society (from university professors to the academically challenged), shrinking the number of people who can ask the essential questions: who sets the standards of competence required of all? In the name of what social project? Should we be happy to find a job, whatever it may be (well or poorly paid, precarious or rewarding, useful or not to society)? Is this the priority of the school system, the essential knowledge to be transmitted to the young generations? 

To answer in the affirmative is to accept a world of commercial gravitation where the brightest stars are no longer in the skies, but behind the store windows. Thousands of objects shine there, forming constellations of various desires in us: To have a nice car, to own a new tablet, to change your wardrobe, to buy a lot of DVDs… However, behind these constellations of desires, a kind of polar star unites us all: if we like to possess, it is because we dream of sharing. A Facebook page, a TV series, a nice car, a comfortable house, all this only makes sense because we dream of sharing it with people we love and want to see happy. But what is happiness? Is it a scalable asset or a threatened peril? Is it soluble in a society of commercial gravitation, reducing a large part of its own to be nothing but cheap pedestrians in the trenches of wage competition? Such is the School Twilight Theorem on which we propose you to meditate now… for all practical purposes, you will be able to feed your imagination by looking at the stars at nightfall, thinking of all these ancient knowledge that we have lost sight of… 

Bruno Poncelet

Trainer at CEPAG
(André Genot Popular Education Center). 

Notes et références
  1. Voir « TIC(E) : le passage en force », Kairos, avril 2012

Espace membre

Member area