“The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.”
— Theodor Adorno
Those foreboding words, written in 1967, reflect on the possibility of life after Auschwitz and the agonizing burden of “never again.” Now, nearly seven decades after the end of that war, it may seem that this warning is no longer relevant, or perhaps no longer urgent. We have not forgotten the Holocaust or its victims. We have major museums, books, films, and countless commemorative events. Surely we need no longer fear that we are not doing enough to educate against such horror. Now, we have turned our attention to more pressing problems, practical issues and everyday questions about how to prepare young people for the challenges they will face in a changing economy. We worry that young people will not find jobs, or that they will not be competitive in the global marketplace. But it is precisely this shift in focus that requires us to read Adorno again.
Adorno was not concerned about memorializing the Holocaust, or with remembering the victims. Like other critical theorists of his time, Adorno was concerned with how the seeds of fascism could be planted in democratic society. Like Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, he worried about the everyday habits or taken for granted practices that could ultimately lead to the greatest of horrors that we could perpetrate against our neighbors. Ultimately, Adorno suspected that particular post-Enlightenment ways of thinking could undermine Enlightenment values. Very much like Arendt’s concerns that the seeds of fascism were already planted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that totalitarianism could emerge from the very principles we thought made us free, Adorno warned against the dangers inherent in the very rational thought that should free us from intolerance, and from domination by church or state.
That has not changed. Today’s pundits, politicians and educators debate the efficiency of our education system. We are recovering from a severe economic crisis. We must cut back. We must focus on teaching young people the skills they need for the ever-changing job market. Educators are judged on “student learning outcomes” which are measured in test scores and jobs upon graduation. Administrator’s eyes are glued to the numbers. How many students graduate? How many find jobs? Do they find good jobs? Are our students as well prepared for the demands of our high-tech economy as students in China? This debate spans our entire education system, from early childhood to college. Parents consider sending their toddlers to kindergartens where they can learn Mandarin Chinese, to ensure their babies will have a competitive edge while legislators and administrators focus on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). And everyone evaluates our education system in economic terms. Is it worth the investment we make? Will the next generations provide us with a good return?
In this great rush to become more efficient and more competitive we risk losing sight of what matters most: Auschwitz must never happen again. That phrase, never again, has been so often repeated that it might be losing some of its meaning. To caution “never again” means much more than speaking out against acts of anti-Semitism, racism, or other injustices. It means something other than standing strong against violent attacks against us. It means more than commemorating the Holocaust or teaching its history. To caution “never again” requires something deeper, more complicated, more time-consuming, perhaps more expensive, and ultimately far more important. It means, after Auschwitz, that we who remember and we who know have been given the task of teaching our children how to think for themselves. We are charged with encouraging our young people to critically assess situations, to be both open-minded and skeptical, and to follow their own moral compass, even when doing so might be unpopular. “The only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection,” Adorno wrote. When we say “never again” we must not only remember the horrors and victims, but we must never forget Adorno’s simple dictum, as true today as ever.
Teaching young people to think critically, to question and analyze, is complicated work. Its success cannot be measured by multiple choice tests or graduation rates. The good news is that precisely this kind of education is already going on in classrooms all across the country. Teachers in literature, history, math, science, art, drama, and philosophy classes are challenging their students to question interpretations of events, to consider ethical questions and analyze social and political policy as well as cultural representations. Anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities have always worked to encourage to students to engage with new experiences and new thoughts, to question the taken-for-granted with a critical and ethically grounded eye. And teachers in primary schools who help the youngest students learn what it means to play, learn, and live together with others different from themselves are educating our children for life after Auschwitz.
The trouble is that these efforts require support and encouragement. They are fragile and the work is never complete. We must ask ourselves how we are prepared to face the universalizing tendencies of authoritarianism. Precisely now, when our cities have increasingly become the meeting places for a diverse range of peoples, cultures, religions, ideas, and lifestyles, we must ask how do we meet with groups who do not follow the mainstream. How do we engage with minorities, subaltern groups or those who are not willing to adopt mainstream ideas about gender, sexuality, religion or state? How do we deal with the experience of incommensurable differences in our multicultural democracy and how will we prepare our children to resist the universalizing impulse against which Adorno warned?
We must not lose sight of the complicated work of teaching critical self-reflection as we downsize, rationalize, and use more technology while reducing teacher to student ratios, focusing always more narrowly on numbers, outcomes and returns on our investments. These returns do not come in the form of high test scores and good starting salaries. They come in the form of a better society, one where ethical decisions trump simple arithmetic, where living together well is more important than only living well in terms of higher standards of living. Such returns come of the hard work of critical reflection that never ends to ensure that the horrors of Auschwitz remain the ghosts of a distant past.
Adorno had a great deal to teach us about the danger of instrumental reason that always lies just beneath the surface of rational Enlightenment thinking. The orientation toward bare economic reasoning, which becomes increasingly apparent during times of economic strain or crisis, necessarily contains the risk of such instrumental reason. In our rush to teach young people the skills for the jobs and to make them competitive in the global market, we run the risk of producing automatons who are very skilled in technology but lack a critical consciousness. We risk, Adorno said, losing sight of “where the threshold lies between a rational relationship to technology and the over-valuation that finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there.”