Education at the Limits of Growth

Shifts in Perspective on the Correlation between Education, Democracy, and Sustainable Development

»Education for sustainable development«, »education for democracy« – are the captions for two current and much-discussed social task fields, which not only feature a number of parallels, but also reference each other in terms of content: the conditions for self-determined participation in political decision and social design processes should ultimately be secured not only for the present, but also for future generations. And vice versa, political measures and transformation processes, which are necessary for sustainable social change, are dependent on the underlying decisions being reached democratically, which means as many as possible borne and shaped by appropriate beliefs. For precisely this purpose, pedagogic and educational policy initiatives are undertaken – such as school development projects and diverse educational materials – in order to create the foundations. As impressive as current pedagogic concepts are in the emphasis on »participation« and the orientation on »active citizenship«, it may nevertheless be irritating that of all things, the extremely selective and hierarchically segmented educational institutions should now become the governor of the practice of democratic participation. Moreover, it seems – as, for example, the debates on the relationship between political didactics and democratic pedagogy show – to be widely unclear, how to present the subject of political decision-making process and altered lifestyles: is it the single, rational individual whose cognitive abilities have to be trained in order to first develop the actions of a constitutive and orientating ethical judgment? Or is it less about the rationality and ability of the individual and more about cooperation in the practical management of specific problems, which for the purpose of a democracy as way of life indicates a »joint and shared experience« (Dewey 1916/2000, p. 121)?[1]

All of this somewhat outlines the background of the following remarks, in which the arguments are neither pedagogic nor didactic. Instead, the contribution considers itself the opening of an educational theory perspective, in which the addressed correlations with »education«, »democracy«, and »sustainability« help uncover the generally undiscussed understanding of »education«. Alongside a discussion of the problems and content of the education concept (especially in the sense of Bildung), the question is pursued, how education can be conceived in view of the collective political horizon of democracy and sustainability.

Powerful Illusions: »Education is the Solution«

Whoever supports »more education«, can consider him- or herself to be on the right and furthermore, on the safe side in the local discourse landscape. It is not only that no one would seriously have anything to object to about  »education« which leads to this impression. Rather, the reference to education has long since become a socially established method of problem solving: »education« functions generally today as a kind of »promise of salvation«, as a solution cipher for highly heterogeneous, social, and personal conflict contexts, so that the discussion of the relevance of education is almost omnipresent (see Winkler 2012: 11). To illustrate, numerous contexts can be listed, in which according to public statements more education is needed, though not necessarily the associated public financing of education initiatives and institutions: education seems essential, for example, with regard to the so-called »employability of older people«, the »competitiveness of resource-poor countries«, the »integration« of migrants, the fight against the causes of poverty, the mitigation of climate change through »consumer education«, etc. The programmatic perspective of an »Education for Sustainable Development« (ESD) is thus seen as only one field of discourse of many, in which »education« is claimed to be the decisive method to overcome social problems.

Now, it can be suggested from a pedagogical perspective, such as educational theory and philosophy, that this instrumental use of education vocabulary circumvents the distinction of education with respect to other concepts – such as upbringing, socialisation, behaviour shaping, qualification, etc. – which  is essential for the specific substance of the education concept and its notion of Bildung. In the history of ideas the humanistic concept of education  envisaged an intransitive development process , which pedagogic control just eludes: with Bildung, the possibility of the self-acting and reflexive confrontation with the present living conditions and their individual appropriation should be emphasised, whereby a critical alternative plan was linked to philanthropic usefulness orientation. As self-development, education should not be subordinate to any other purpose, but to contain its purpose within itself – i.e., to be understood as an open process, which does not allow itself to be restricted to specific, socially desired results. On the contrary, it is precisely the social expectations and naturally seeming lifestyles and customs to which individuals relate in a free relationship, and are thus also able to problematise it.

Against this background, the currently common claim of education as a method of problem solving seems like a tremendous distortion: now the always required education should be producible through pedagogic arrangements, and the expected »output«, the standardised competence, should be proved measurable. One could get the impression that the apparent semantic shift of »education« has left nothing of its roots in its history of ideas. At the same time, however, with contemporary education discourse, reference is made to precisely this tradition, while the connotation and association of education – the free and self-determined subject – is invoked once again. As opposed to the competence discourse – which appears in the German GNI debate and has made »creative competence« (see de Haan 2008) its mission statement – it can be critically noted that this overtakes the creative possibilities of the individuals. Thus, it is particularly the structural and political conditions that, in the context of pedagogisation of social problems, threaten to be overlooked (see Höhne 2004): while the crisis of capitalist socialisation, of resource depleting and climate changing production and consumption are reformulated as competence deficit and learning task of the individual, the issue of the appropriate »design« is individualised, without discussing its social conditions and limits, or the unequal influence of individuals.

The idealisation of the individual and his or her growth potential under the suppression of the social conditions is, however, not only a problem of contemporary education discourse, but has its roots in the Enlightenment subject philosophy of the pedagogic tradition. Thereby, the still highly topical and powerful notion of »autonomy« suggests that it is the individuals who are able to regulate their actions so that no conflict emerges between individual action and social compatibility. Even this finds its exact renewal and current version in the programme of a »education for sustainable development«: if individuals discipline themselves according to their knowledge in relation to lifestyle and climate change, consumption and resource use, and adjust their respective actions on generalisable principles, which allow themselves to be vindicated globally as well as in view of future generations, for which they also seek to publicly join and to gain others, then sustainability no longer seems just an important aim, but a lived reality. Unfortunately, over 40 years after the presentation of this famous study on The Limits of Growth (Meadow, et al. 1972/1987), the relationship between insight and action – also despite major pedagogic programmes such as the GNI Decade proclaimed by the United Nations – does not proceed in the way that it is taken for granted in the common sense concept of the autonomous subject. In my opinion, therefore, it is urgent to cease describing education in the mode of promise of salvation and reconciliation stories – to which the currently popular narratives from pedagogically controllable competence development or the democratically pedagogic imagined school community also belong in their own way. It is more revealing, particularly also in the interest of democracy and sustainability, to focus on educational processes in the context of social power dynamics and governance formations.

Irritating Disillusionment: »Education is Part of the Problem«

If the appreciation of education is not determined by desirable ideals, but instead based on socially functional relationships, then it becomes clear that education is nothing that still has yet to be designed. Rather, education already takes place in the form of specific subjectivation processes. If one takes this reality of education seriously, the ambivalence of education processes becomes clear[2]: instead of being able to serve as a means of overcoming social problems, the entanglement of education appears in the historic, escalating crises; instead of constructing the »subject« as independent and moral authority of autonomy, education refers to the formation of subjectivity alongside social attributions and expectations of the lifestyles of individuals.

With the upheavals of industrialisation, the design of a general »education of the people« proved to be functionally appropriate with respect to specialised education, which had been practised and pedagogically represented to date. Thus writes the education theorist Heinz Joachim Heydorn: »The growing labour exchange and the need for a comprehensive education of the worker are in themselves moments of capitalist development.[…] Large-scale industry must consistently demand more educated workers, because only they can cope with the continuously changing conditions of the production processes« (1968/2004, p. 227). To the extent that from the 20th century increased scales apply, which neither businesses nor economies are able to keep up with without perpetual innovations in ideologically fuelled »global competitive pressure«, educational institutions – for the sake of their function – are no longer reduced to the passing on of whatever canonical body of knowledge and upbringing of so-called secondary virtues, but education policy aimed at meta-competencies such as abstraction ability and »learning to learn«. The targeted ability, to independently »broaden« one’s own knowledge and abilities over a lifetime and to adjust to ever current and not exactly foreseeable needs, stands thereby under the pressure of »absolute availability« (Marx quoted in ibid., p. 223f.). In the historical context of its comprehensive, social functionalisation, organised education experiences with this an unusual dissemination and relevance; it is not the opposite of domination, but its decisive moment in the sense of the maintenance of capitalist social order. In other words, the reproduction and modernisation of social conditions that stand under the demand of sustainable development are under critique, require specific lifestyles, which the social psychologist Harald Welzer describes as »mental infrastructure«, as culturally contingent conditions to capitalism (see Welzer 2013, p. 64ff.): only if individuals connect their self-image, their hopes, and needs to the possibilities of consumption and identify their working relationships with the notion of self-realisation, does the contemporary capitalistic socialisation function. And because this lifestyle is experienced as matter of course, the inequality mechanisms connected with it – such as the privileging of citizens of the »postcolonial«, »postindustrial« West – hardly seem noticeable in everyday activities.

The necessary processes for this socialisation in the formation of self-relations can thereby be described as educational processes in the meaning of Bildung, since it is not about heteronomy or adaptation of individuals to social demands, but about a specifically formed development of self-determination.

Education is thus to be analysed as an aspect of contemporary subjectification dynamics, whereby the ambivalence of the orientation to a »free self« is given priority: neither is the »entrepreneurial self« an oppressed individual (see Bröckling 2007). Rather, he or she develops rather in the paths of a productive power, which is invoked through numerous and heterogeneous programmes of demands and advancement of personal responsibility and self-management to an unending work on him- or herself. Thereby, this work on the self was not one that could be suggested as individual »identity construction« in the sense of an artistic self-creation, but is embedded in social relations of competition and recognition struggles, which ensue alongside varying reference points. That these dynamics of self-mastery contain their own completely distressing drawbacks reveals the contemporary increase in depression and burnout experiences (see ibid., p. 289ff). Should it not therefore be stated that not only economic »growth« in the context of rising economic performance has limits, but also the thus entangled subjective »growth« in the sense of a perpetual self-optimisation and increase in competence? And how could education be conceived in relation to the limits of growth?    

Perspectives: Education at the Limits of Growth

In view of a critical education concept – that education neither idealistically lifts one out of the socialisation and subjectivation processes, nor seamlessly merges assertively in the powerful appeals to and practices of self-enhancement – only a few references can be added here in terms of an outlook.

It must be remembered that the concept of education emphasises the possibility of subjective reflection, that is: the possibility of a relationship to the respective socially conditioned and cultural relations to the self and the world. Accordingly, from the perspective of education theory, the questions thus arises: to what extent can the »growth expectations« be reflexively distanced in the context of individual competence enhancement, which in the framework of the innovation pressure of globalised competition are likewise required, as they are functional for the individual’s prospects on the local employment market. Such a distancing of self-improvement ideas, in which »doing more« overlaps with »being better« and »having more«, is thereby – as mentioned – understood less as a rejection of heteronomous coercions, but rather as self-critical adoption of ones own sovereignty and omnipotence phantasms. Perhaps, however, such self-critical distancings are not to be understood this way – that they trace back to the insight of an individual, rational self-conscious subject – but that they are found in diverse social practices: wherever people disencumber themselves from »have to be better« and appreciate human dilettantism. Along these lines, the education researcher Roland Reichenbach writes: »It is regarded as the increasingly clearer and more intrusive seeming optimisation imposition of our time – which also can be interpreted as the triumph over the challenges of dilettantism – to object to the unoptimisable parts of people and limits of human optimisation, doubtless hoping, to be able to see in these limits, the basis of the ‘dilettante’ subject’s practice of freedom« (Reichenbach 2012, p. 306). Against this negotiated backdrop, the hope can be added that such a distancing from the sustained growth and self-improvement craze opens new possibilities for living together, which become experienceable as »good living« and prove to be »sustainable«.



Bröckling, Ulrich (2007): Das unternehmerische Selbst. Soziologie einer Subjektivierungsform, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Bünger, Carsten (2013): Die offene Frage der Mündigkeit. Studien zur Politizität der Bildung, Paderborn: Schöningh (Forthcoming)

Bünger, Carsten/ Mayer, Ralf (2009): Erfahrung – Wachstum – Demokratie? Bildungstheoretische Anfragen an Deweys Demokratiebegriff und dessen programmatische Rezeption, in: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, Heft 6/2009, pp. 837–848.

de Haan, Gerhard (2008): Gestaltungskompetenz als Kompetenzkonzept der Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung, in: Ders./ Bohrmann, Inka (Eds.): Kompetenzen der Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung. Operationalisierung, Messung, Rahmenbedingungen, Befunde. Wiesbaden: VS, pp. 23–43.

Dewey, John (1916/2000): Demokratie und Erziehung. Eine Einleitung in die philosophische Pädagogik. Übers. von E. Hylla. Ed. byJ. Oelkers. Weinheim/Basel: Beltz.

Heydorn, Heinz-Joachim (1968/2004): Zum Verhältnis von Bildung und Politik, in: Heinz-Joachim Heydorn: Bildungstheoretische und Pädagogische Schriften. 1967–1970, Werke, Bd. 2, Studienausgabe, ed. by Heydorn, I./ Kappner, H./ Koneffke, G./ Weick, E., Wetzlar: Büchse der Pandora, pp. 180–236.

Höhne, Thomas: Pädagogisierung sozialer Machtverhältnisse (2004), in: Ribolits, E./ Zuber, J. (Eds.): Pädagogisierung. Die Kunst Menschen mittels Lernen immer dümmer zu machen. Schulheft, 29. Jg., 2004, pp. 30–44.

Kehren, Yvonne (2007): Pädagogik und nachhaltige Entwicklung, Saarbrücken: VDM.

Meadows, Dennis u.a. (1972/1987): Die Grenzen des Wachstums. Bericht des Club of Rome zur Lage der Menschheit, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt.

Reichenbach, Roland (2012): Der Mensch – ein dilettantisches Subjekt. Ein inkompetenztheoretischer Blick auf das vermeintlich eigene Leben, in: Sieben, A./ Sabisch-Fechtelpeter, K./ Straub, J. (Eds.): Menschen machen. Die hellen und die dunklen Seiten humanwissenschaftlicher Optimierungsprogramme, Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 305–328.

Welzer, Harald (2013): Selbst Denken. Eine Anleitung zum Widerstand, Frankfurt/Main: Fischer.

Winkler, Michael (2012): Bildung als Entmündigung? Die Negation des neuzeitlichen Freiheitsversprechens in den aktuellen Bildungsdiskursen, in: Vieweg, K./ Winkler, M. (Eds.): Bildung und Freiheit. Ein vergessener Zusammenhang. Paderborn: Schöningh, pp. 11–28.


[1] For a critical discussion of the Dewey reception in the current democratic pedagogy, see Bünger/Mayer 2009.

[2] The following argument draws on considerations that were explained further elsewhere (see Bünger 2013).


Carsten Bünger, Dr., born 1979, Researcher at the Institute of Education and Vocational Education at the Technical University of Dortmund, deals with the relationship between education and the political. Recent publications: Postpolitisch – Postsouverän – Postfundamental. Aussetzer und Einsätze der Demokratie, in: U. Frost, M. Rieger-Ladich (Eds.): Demokratie setzt aus: Gegen die sanfte Liquidation einer politischen Lebensform. Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Pädagogik – Sonderheft, Paderborn: 2013; Politische Bildung nach dem 'Tod des Subjekts', in: B. Lösch, A. Thimmel (Eds.): Kritische politische Bildung. Ein Handbuch, Schwalbach/Ts. 2010, S. 315-326. Additional information at:


This article is part of the series Democracy & Sustainability, a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy. Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

In Part 3 of our series, Carsten Bünger and Halina Ward look at the relation of education, democracy and sustainability. Please find Halina Ward's article here.


Part 1 of our series: Is sustainability a question of regime type?
Part 2 of our series: Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement in Russia
Part 4 of our series: Climate Change and Energy in Vietnam
Part 5 of our series: The dispute surrounding social participation in the discussions on development in Peru