The old social democracy had announced the slogan Knowledge is Power as a practical and reasonable prescription. It did not think too much about it. The message was simply that one has to learn something real so that life will be better later. A petit-bourgeois belief in schooling had dictated the slogan. This belief is disintegrating today. Only for our cynical young medicos is there still a clear link between study and standard of living. Almost everyone else lives with the risk of learning without prospects. Those who do not seek power will also not want its knowledge, its knowledge-armaments, and those who reject both are secretly no longer citizens of this civilization. Countless numbers of people are no longer prepared to believe that one first has to “learn something” so that things will be better later. In these people, I believe, a suspicion is growing that was a certainty in ancient cynicism (Kynismus): that things must first be better before you can learn anything sensible. Socialization through schooling, as it takes place here, and in Western societies, in general, is a priori stupefaction, after which scarcely any learning offers a prospect that things sometime or other will improve. The inversion of the relation between life and learning is in the air: the end of the belief in education, the end of European Scholasticism. That is what conservatives as well as pragmatists, voyeurs of the decline as well as well-meaning individuals alike find so eerie. Basically, no one believes anymore that today’s learning solves tomorrow’s “problems”; it is almost certain rather that it causes them.

Critique Of Cynical Reason by Peter Sloterdijk, tr. Michael Eldred, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1983] 2011, “Preface”, xxix. This book was originally published in German in 1983 as Kritik der zynischen Vernunft.

The somehow provocative remarks of Peter Sloterdijk about the actual state of our systems of education shouldn’t come as a surprise for at least two reasons. First, he’s a well trained provocateur and has the reputation of producing uneasy thoughts. The publication in 1999 of his conference Règles pour le parc humain (Rules for the Human Zoo1) provoked a significant controversy in France and Germany intellectual circles (it is known in French as “l’affaire Sloterdijk”). One could argue that it is his method. Borrowing from Nietzsche and Heidegger, Sloterdijk strongly believes that thinking grows better when it is disturbed, not comforted2.

Second, for this very reason he’s been critical of modern education systems in most of his books. Most of his conference Rules for the Human Zoo is about the end of the long tradition of humanist education.

In 2005, he declares in a French interview (my translation):

Today, something is not working. Look for example at universities, they have become a mental gymnasium that produces disabled persons.3

One of his recent book Du musst dein Leben ändern : Über Anthropotechnik also has a chapter about “The erosion of school”.4

I wrote this as the problem of education makes the front page of various news outlet and manifests itself in the streets. Chilean students have been protesting for a major reform in education for almost a year. Today marks the 100th day of strike for students in Quebec. Meanwhile, in the United-States, the average students debt is reaching alarming highs5.
Previously here: all entries tagged Peter Sloterdijk.

• • •

1. This text was translated into English by Mary Varney Rorty and published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27(1) 12 – 28. Online access to the full text is limited.↩︎︎

2. See for example the very beginning of his conference La Domestication de l’Être (it hasn’t been translated into English yet):

Le scolaire n’est pas véritablement compatible avec l’extatique: c’est l’un des traits de l’enseignement que savait dispenser Heidegger, le plus déconcertant des professeurs de sa discipline. Ce n’est pas un hasard si, dans sa première période, lorsqu’il pratiquait explicitement l’introduction à la philosophie comme une initiation, il a invoqué la peur et l’ennui: la première parce qu’elle ôte, par la perte du monde, sa vulgarité au sujet ordinaire, la deuxième parce qu’elle atteint un résultat similaire par la perte de soi, et toutes les deux ensemble parce qu’elles font déraper l’existence quotidienne et l’incitent à méditer sur le côté monstrueux de la situation fondamentale, l’être-dans-le-monde en tant que tel. C’est la raison pour laquelle le chemin de la pensée, au sens fort du terme, passe uniquement par ce que la tradition religieuse nomme la crainte et le tremblement, ou ce que le langage politique du XXe siècle appelle l’état d’exception. La philosophie, conçue comme une méditation de l’état d’exception, est dans sa dimension ultime une dimension antiscolaire. Car l’école incarne l’intérêt pour les états normaux (…) (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2000, p. 8-9) ↩︎︎

3. See “Pensée Atmosphérique” interview with Peter Sloterdijk by Léa Gauthier and Benoît Laudier, January 2005.↩︎︎

4. See the official website of the German editor Suhrkamp. The book was translated into French recently: Tu dois changer ta vie! (Libella-Maren Sell, 2011). On his blog GlazBlog, Wim Glas provides an English translation he made of the chapter concerned with “The erosion of school”. The translation was made with the help of Google Translate and isn’t perfect, but it provides a rough idea of the content for English readers. ↩︎︎

5. See recently The New York Times: “Degrees of Debt” a series consisting of articles, a multimedia feature and an interactive graphic examining “the implications of soaring college costs and the indebtedness of students and their families.” May 12, 2012. Subscription may be required.↩︎︎


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