Report session 4: Frankfurt Schule

A report of the 4th reading group session of the series on “education in the neo-liberal age”. Topic: the Frankfurt Schule and Critical Theory.


We briefly discussed the concept of critical theory and what scholars from this school of thought have to say about education. There is for example Adorno, who distinguishes ‘Half’ and ‘Full’ Education. ‘Half Education’ happens when education is merely oriented towards the interests of the dominant groups in society. Bildung, Full Education, is the highest possible development and perfection of the personality. It doesn’t aim to reach useful purposes or material aims. It rather aims to develop the interests and the personality of the subject.

From the group there was critique on this notion. Several people said that this concept of Full Education still only focuses on the individual developing itself, and not on collective values or on society.

Another concept coming from the critical theory, is that of instrumental reasoning. According to this, knowledge is being used as a tool, as a skill you can apply. Questions about the context in which you apply these tools, are not asked. Morality does not play a role.

Gibson gives a nice example of instrumental reasoning in Management, skills and creativity: the purpose and value of instrumental reasoning in education discourse.

Under Fagin’s tutelage Oliver Twist was taught five skills for efficient pickpocketing. These were ‘nimbleness’, retreating from sight when closing upon a victim, the need for ‘extraordinary rapidity of movement’, the knack of accurate timing and developing appropriate reactions for ‘accidental stumbling’ (Dickens, 1966, pp. 54–55). But the skills revolve in a paradigm that is unquestioned. The substantive issue of thieving per se is placed outside the frame and Fagin’s reasoning appears instrumental because his education of Oliver involved merely the teaching of efficient methods of thieving bound to unquestioned purposes.