Book Review: Forgotten Connections. On Culture and Upbringing

Book Review: Forgotten Connections. On Culture and Upbringing, by Klaus Mollenhauer

(Trans. Norm Friesen). New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 192. Hb. £81.00.

Reviewed by Joris Vlieghe

I must admit that I have some difficulties in writing an impassionate and unbiased review of the recently translated Mollenhauer book Vergessene Zusamenghange, because in my view it is one of the most important studies in philosophy of education written in the 20th century. As such I would say it  is a shame that the English speaking part of academia had to wait until this century to be able read it in translation (especially because it has been translated in many other languages – in Dutch, Japanese, and Norwegian to name a few). My interest in this book, as well as my admiration for it, derives from Mollenhauer’s uncompromising attempt to deal with the most fundamental issues of education – or better: of upbringing.  This is how Norm Friesen has dealt with the challenge of translating a central notion in Mollenhauer’s work, i.e. the German word Bildung.  He prefers upbringing to education, because when using the latter one runs the risk of narrowing down the meaning of the term Bildung to the domain of formal education, instruction, or transfer of knowledge, when it originally has a larger, phenomenological, cultural, and existential reach. 

Many domains – from parenting and informal training to adult education – are related to Bildung, insofar as they might have the same impact on the person, i.e. on the way she feels, thinks, and lives, as formal schooling does (or should do). And that is precisely what Mollenhauer’s book is about: an exploration of the ever present possibility of a profound transformation, which all encounters we have throughout our lives with parents, teachers, etc. might bring about. It is from this perspective that education should be approached by philosophers: as a process of transition that grants the opportunity of significant and consequential change in our individual and collective existence. In that sense there is no fundamental difference between what is at stake in teaching at primary or university level, raising one’s own children, or organizing an arts and craft class for the elderly. As such the philosophical study of education, which in the English-speaking world has a penchant for looking at education in terms of the model of schooling, is placed in a larger perspective. Moreover, this turn to Bildung (rather than to education) might also offer the opportunity to counter the increasing influence of paradigms set by psychology and sociology, which have become dominant in educational research – an influence that Mollenhauer seems to be aware of in his 1983 book with an almost prophetical (but no less eerie) premonition.

The title of his book precisely points in that direction: because of the prevalence of ways of thinking and speaking that have in the end nothing to do with education per se, we tend to forget the deeper meaning of education, viz. that educating is a profoundly cultural affair that takes place when an existing generation is faced with a new generation and with having to establish a connection with them. Going against the dominant view, which assesses educational transactions in view of increasing effectiveness, and which reduces teaching and learning to a matter of strengthening individual competences and preparing qualified professionals for the labour market, Mollenhauer defines education as a fundamentally intergenerational affair. And so, he raises truly educational questions about education, rather than merely sociological, psychological, or neurobiological ones (Cf. Biesta, 2011). This is to say that education is dealt with as a process in which there is always more taking place than what an individual might gain, than what may contribute to a smooth integration of newcomers into a well-functioning society, or than what could be measured or made explicit in figures. As such, educating is also an activity the ‘successful’ outcome of which can never be guaranteed.

Giving an overview of things that might go awfully wrong in education (discussing testimonies such as Kafka writing a famous letter to his much dreaded father or Sartre almost freaking out at the loss of his father at a young enough age not to be curtailed in his own life plans by parental control), Mollenhauer’s argument has a profound existential quality (which is another reason why this book is actually about Bildung and the utterly unpredictable and sometimes very sorrowful process of upbringing, rather than it is a book about education narrowly defined). Therefore, Mollenhauer’s work isn’t a mere theoretical account of educational issues. Instead, it confronts us with the most trying and yet inescapable issues of education. In the first chapter, Mollenhauer explains that his book tries to come to terms with the straightforward question, ‘Why do we want children at all?’ (p. 8, my emphasis). I cannot help but read this as a reversed formulation of Camus’ provocative, yet unambiguous, reformulation of the perennial question of the meaning of life in terms of why not commit suicide? (Camus, 1991).  As with Camus (who claims that all other philosophical questions are mere games ‘one must first answer’ [Ibid. p. 3]), the reader who has to deal with Mollenhauer’s question has no choice but to imagine what a life would be without the existence of new and coming generations (a thought which foreshadows the scenario laid out in the 2006 film Children of Men), and thus she has to decide why she prefers (or doesn’t prefer) the continuation of the likes of her over a completely self-contained life without caring about the future. Even if she answers this question in a most cynical way, by saying that all this is just a biological necessity or that she needs someone to look after her when she suffers the pains of old age, Mollenhauer’s book has the merit of forcing her to think seriously about this most complicated question – and to take sides.

All this might have to do with Mollenhauer’s own reasons for writing this book. If one must categorize the intellectual tradition this book belongs to, a label that comes to mind is ‘post-critical’. During the 1970s, Mollenhauer was, without doubt, one of the heralds of critical pedagogy in the German-speaking world; he participated in concrete (and revolutionary) interventions in the educational realm, bringing into practice Marx’s idea that the scientist should be socially engaged or else serve the powers that be. As the translator points out in the introduction, Mollenhauer offered a safe haven to some members of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof group in his own household. Taking to heart another Marxian lesson – viz. that the western institution of marriage was a merely bourgeois and oppressive construct – Mollenhauer was most critical of any authority that not only parents, but also that teachers or institutions claimed to have (also bearing in mind the horrors of the Second World War for which Mollenhauer and his peers held the elder generation responsible). In his 1983 book he seems to have revoked this radical stance. As he comments: ‘Even the most radical anti-educationalist cannot avoid embodying an adult way of life in front of children; like any adult, he or she powerfully exemplifies one way of life or another for a child’ (p. 8). Even if critical pedagogues such as him refused to exert any influence on children – out of the best of intentions and with the aim of emancipating the next generation – they can’t escape setting an example (a ‘way-of-life’, common ways of thinking and living) to that generation. In other words, intergenerationality is a reality to which we cannot not respond (not unlike the ontological ‘existentials’ in Heidegger’s work: we have, for instance, no choice but to relate to our being-with-others, even if we answer by choosing a life of utmost isolation). Everything that happens when we educate is thus by necessity an answer to the very fact that there exists a new generation, and it is up to us to assume or to refuse responsibility. This responsibility pertains both to the world which old and young commonly inhabit and to the continuation of a given way of life in this world (while at the same time granting to the newcomers the opportunity to begin anew with this world – to draw here from an Arendtian vocabulary [Arendt 2006]).

This responsibility is then defined in terms of presentation and representation of the world. These categories also have a historical import, as Mollenhauer’s book has a larger ambition: ‘To speak of education and upbringing is a profoundly historical endeavour’ (p. 4). Relying abundantly on precise historical illustrations (including among other things copperplates and paintings, letters, testimonies, biographies, tables of contents, and frontispieces), he shows that many things we take for granted about education today are actually contingent historical inventions, linked to social, economical, technological, and cultural circumstances – another connection we usually forget to take into account. And so, in the first two chapters of the book he analyzes in great detail the transition from pre-modern to modern times to show that previously the educational responsibility of the elder generation consisted first and foremost in pointing out the world, i.e. bringing into presence things that are important, making youngsters attentive to things and why they are relevant. In a sense this was an easy task: everything there was to know was ‘already there’ in the daily life-world. With the advent of modernity things changed drastically, not merely because (thanks to scientific progress and the invention of the printing press) the amount of available knowledge increased exponentially, but also because the once evident oppositions between relevant and irrelevant, true and false, were irretrievably lost. And so, it became the responsibility of the existing generation to represent (rather than merely to present) the world to children, i.e. making decisions about what to include in the curriculum and what not, but also how to order and visualize knowledge. This is most instructively demonstrated by analyzing one of the first textbooks ever developed (precisely with the purpose of representing in an orderly way a world that had become chaotic), Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures, 1658). Mollenhauer’s most perceptive discussion brings to the fore, among other things, the question of the aesthetics of instruction, of the professionalization of the teaching job, and of the need (or redundancy) of the use of handbooks – issues that have become only more pressing today in view of the increasing digitization of our societies.

Compelling as Mollenhauer’s analyses might be, the historical pretensions of his book are also its weakest parts. This has to do, first, with the nature of some of the illustrations he uses. To give one example, in order to underline the idea that in modernity we have come to mistrust all claims towards the true or the relevant, he offers an extremely detailed but seriously overdone analysis of Velasquez’ painting Las Meninas. This analysis adds nothing to the point he wants to make (nor, for that matter, does it add anything to a similar analysis Foucault (1989) made in The Order of Things). Second, he doesn’t stick to the historical partitions he introduces. For instance, following his discussion of the eras of presentation and representation, he claims in the fourth chapter that yet another major historical transition took place. At a given point in history the ideal of rendering a well-ordered representation of the world that is acceptable for everyone completely lost any plausibility and, therefore, the way was paved for the far-reaching psychologization of education we witness today: the object of pedagogy no longer concerned the world, but instead the individual child’s will to learn and her will to succeed. So, the attention of educationalists got monopolized by the question of how to encourage the child’s motivation. In order to make this point, to which I fully subscribe, Mollenhauer relies on a series of paintings that, historically speaking, date from the period that far antecedes the transition he analyzes, and also on another groundbreaking work of Comenius (Didactica Magna, 1657). Here, then, Comenius appears as the harbinger of current evolutions, whereas two chapters earlier his case served as an illustration to clarify the rise of the modern teacher- and curriculum-centered idea of education. 

Mollenhauer’s line of argumentation is thus at times far-fetched, and at other times messy, not to say historically inconsistent. Nonetheless, I should add two further points here. First, his line of argumentation, which lavishly builds on analyses of cultural artifacts, is itself a demonstration of what is at stake in education: finding a way to point out, to draw others’ attention to, a world (in this case: the world of education itself and its complex history). Moreover, my somewhat harsh criticism of his methodology might do disservice to other arguments he relies on, for instance his careful, detailed, and balanced phenomenological analyses of what is involved in acquiring language (which add highly original insights to the famous comments made by Saint Augustine and the later Wittgenstein in this regard), or of how learning to walk is a paradigmatic illustration of the complex relation between education and self-steered activity. This last example not only illustrates that Bildung is by force self-Bildung – one cannot imitate how to walk, one has to walk oneself – but also that everything we try teach to others can be used by them in unforeseeable ways: our children can indeed always walk away from the ideals upbringing has bestowed upon them.  As such, very basic educational instructions like teaching others how to walk (but also the gesture of ‘pointing out’ referred to earlier) lay the ground, so Mollenhauer contends, for understanding what it means to become an educated person.

Second, Mollenhauer himself states that we shouldn’t take all his historical claims too seriously (not unlike Nietzsche and Foucault (1984) who regarded their historical (genealogical) investigations as a means to better understand the present, rather than as a scientifically exact account of history). This is to say, for instance, that both presentation and representation remain important dimensions of education, even today. It could even be claimed that, due to recent technological evolutions, presentation has become once more the core task of education. As Jan Masschelein remarks in his recent review of Mollenhauer’s book (2014), the ubiquity of digital media has brought about a collectively shared awareness that every sentence we read and every image we see is a construction that testifies to a particular perspective or interest. Today, there is no longer something that needs to be revealed: the evidence is right under our noses, and it has become common practice to say and think that everyone lives in her own private world. It seems as if we can only talk about the many different opinions we have – as many opinions as there are interlocutors to the conversation we happen to have. And therefore, Masschelein argues, the challenge of education today is precisely to counterbalance the paralyzing consequences this relativism implies and to present the world ‘once more’ in such a way that the world may become a common concern.

I would like to finish with a last reflection on linguistic issues. Being an intense reader of both English and German educational literature, but without being myself a native speaker of either language, I will refrain from making any comments on issues of translation. Nonetheless, it remains the case that reading this book in English rather than German is a completely different experience, due to the propensity of the German language to construct complex juxtapositions and to profusely use subordinate clauses – completely uncommon in English. Likewise, many ‘technical’ German terms are as good as untranslatable into English (as my discussion of Bildung should have made clear), and so the translator needs to do a lot of explaining – in footnotes, but also in the recommendable foreword to the book.  But then again, this ‘difficulty’ shouldn’t be regarded as a deficiency or as an insurmountable problem, but as something very close to the whole point Mollenhauer wants to make about education, i.e. that it concerns a connection yet to be made – and to be made, over and over again, with the advent of every new generation. As such, the reader finds herself in the same position as an educatee, and the book appears somehow as an educator.

I say this because of another experience I have with this book. Against the explicit wish of the author, I use this book as a (sort of comprehensive) handbook in my own course on philosophical foundations of education, which is a postgraduate course for (mainly) international students who are, like myself, non-native users of the English language. As such, our common study of this book is never a flawless absorption of Mollenhauer’s insights, but a common work or endeavour starting from the position of persons who still have to acquire a common language. I also discuss with my students the 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser by Werner Herzog, another example to which Mollenhauer devotes a most readable commentary in his book. Herzog’s screen version of this exceptional case, an adult who struggles with every word he utters, convincingly puts something on display that applies to all and everyone’s education: that we remain children throughout our lives. That is, children according to the etymological origin of the word ‘infantes’, i.e. creatures finding themselves in the impossibility to speak (in-fans). Even as grown-ups, as students or teachers, we can still have strong educational experiences, which relate to the fact that we never succeed in fully appropriating the words and the things we study. We have no choice but to continuously begin anew. It is in that sense that reading Mollenhauer – not in spite of, but thanks to its linguistic (and many other) complexities – might constitute an educational moment.



Arendt, H. (2006) ‘The Crisis in Education in Between Past and Future. Five Essays in Political Thought. London: Penguin Books.

Biesta, G. (2011) ‘Disciplines and theory in the academic study of education: a comparative analysis of the Anglo-American and Continental construction of the field’, Pedagogy, Culture and Society 19 (2), pp. 175-192.

Camus, A. (1991) The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays (Trans. Justin O’Brien). New York: Vintage International. 

Foucault, M. (1989) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1984) ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in Paul Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 

Masschelein, J. (2014) An elementary educational issue of our times? Klaus Mollenhauer’s (un)contemporary concern, Phenomenology & Practice 8 (2), pp. 50-54.