Interview with Jacques Delors
PROSPECTS: What made you become interested in education, and why are you still very much so?
JACQUES DELORS: It is a question of character. Even when I was much younger I felt like teaching others as soon as I learned something. At the back of my mind there was always the thought that I could repeat the things I was learning, pass them on to others. At the outset it was therefore a matter of natural disposition that led me to become involved in education and training for more objective reasons in the course of my professional career.
PROSPECTS: But you are also interested in education as a political subject, not only from a personal point of view?
JD: Yes. Because education has its place in society and also its place in history.
PROSPECTS: Mr. Delors, a rash of labels have emerged in recent years to describe the society of the future. Some people have given it the tag of ‘information society’, others talk about the ‘post-capitalist society’, the ‘third wave’ or again the ‘new Middle Ages’. What do you think about all those scenarios? Which of all those models would you rate the most promising and the most realistic?
JD: Many of the labels you refer to were picked to create a sensation and make books and newspapers sell. It is best to avoid over-generalizations when reflecting about the future of societies. I feel that developed societies are going through a major transformation common to all countries in the world, stemming from the growing interdependence of economies and social developments and also from globalization. There are also matters more specific to given countries, for instance to do with the search for purpose so that people can live in community, since a number of elements have conspired to make Western society less close-knit in the past twenty years. In the future, the search for the right balance between community and individual should be the central theme. But for that to happen, politics would have to stop being shaped by pure economism. The very trend of economic factors will oblige individuals and leaders to become more concerned about the whys and wherefores of living together, of the purpose of life, than they have been in the past. Making political debate boil down to mere economics - I am exaggerating a little, caricaturing, here - is untenable. A balance must be struck between an almost philosophical quest for new values and strictly economic concerns.
PROSPECTS: Cohesion is a key topic in the debate on education, as schooling used to be such a vector of social cohesiveness. In the past, viewing education as something which bound society together was considered conservative, whilst the trend towards individualism, or the break with cohesion, was laid at the door of the revolutionary aspect of education or, shall we say, the part it plays in change. We are now reaching a somewhat paradoxical situation in which demand for cohesion is as strong as the call for forming individuals. Do you think that the future role of education from that standpoint ought to be to make the community more cohesive?
JD: Historically, the eighteenth century marked the beginning of a growth era and the gradual domination of all facets of society by economics. This coincided with the emergence of schools of thought focused on the individual and personal development. The Century of Enlightenment then the French Revolution drew on that same inspiration. The individual became the meaning and subject of all social sciences and his development ranked above all other considerations. It was the individual who, through trade and production, formed society. At that time, however, people belonged to strong communities: the village, family, religion, parish and school. With the spread of urbanization and the latest changes in industrial societies, people can no longer identify themselves with such communities to the same extent that they used to. Individualism has therefore become more rife. The whole of classical economic society is based on the individual - and that thinking has definitely pervaded modern politics. Politicians obviously have to sell dreams and address other topics, but it is still economics which have pride of place. That being so, societies, at least our own, have the uneasy feeling that an imbalance is being created, that the position of the lone individual in the world cannot be tenable for long even though some people fill the void around them by frantic activity: working, watching television and the rest. It seems to me that citizens will become increasingly aware that the individual is also a social being and that work is not enough to fulfil the need for sociability. It is true that work is currently the number one factor of social integration - those who lose their jobs slide into depression and poverty and tend to become fringe elements - but work is not the one and only door to belonging to a community. Unfortunately, society has not yet produced any others, so that, if we are to move swiftly, that is the big problem for our tomorrows. Education must participate in this reconstruction of the social fabric. Teamwork must be taught in school as well as personal development, children need to be shown how to be attentive to others and to all the things around us, how to understand our surroundings - not only our economic but also our social and political environment, both national and world. It is that rather distressed individual, afraid of emptiness, who is at the root of the unease within our Western societies. Education can, partially, remedy that by enabling the individual to acquire knowledge and know-how which will be useful to him not only in his professional life but also in his life outside work.
PROSPECTS: You have spoken about the factors of cohesion in times gone by: church, the community. There is another one: the nation...
JD: I would be more cautious about the nation.
PROSPECTS: We find that very interesting. After all, bringing people up to be citizens has been and still is linked to the idea of nationhood. What do you feel about that as globalization progresses?
JD: I think that, in an economy which is turning worldwide and where everyone must be a player, there is no fallback position. Unless you accept becoming an aboriginal society! Therefore, in this open-world society, the ground rules first need to be laid down. I don’t mean having a world government - that is still an impossibility. It was for that reason that I proposed the setting-up of an Economic Security Council as a forum where the heads of all the countries in the world could deal coherently with matters ranging from industrial production to trade, currencies, finance, ecology, and social and demographic trends. No such forum exists as yet, so that we are all thrown into this worldwide economy without any support and, I repeat, without any bearings. Accordingly, quite aside from any geopolitical considerations, the nation remains a recourse, an indispensable foothold, an irreplaceable element for fighting excessive individualism, against retreating into a shell, against lying in the lurch, for calling to involvement and citizenship. The nation remains a pertinent unit for analysis even though some nations have elected to become associated with others for the sake of efficiency, as in the case of the European Union. For all those reasons, it would be wrong to predict or even wish for the disappearance of nationhood.
PROSPECTS: From the viewpoint of education, socialization as part of teaching loyalty to one’s nation apparently used to be consistent with the commonly accepted idea of nation. Nowadays there is a sort of erosion of the nation concept, at least among some elites. Do you think that anything particular needs to be done about that in teaching the higher echelons?
JD: Yes. Senior politicians and managers often tend to talk in universal, global terms without giving a thought for the other social strata, thereby making themselves remote from the man in the street and sowing the seeds of imbalances and even catastrophes further down the road. It is therefore important for future managers and officials to realize that their fellows are lost in the extension of economic and social, even political, competition when they say: ‘When I take a decision, I must bear in mind what is happening in Tokyo’ or New York, or elsewhere. The leading ranks must be aware that they belong to a nation and that their nation must remain a factor in the life of the world, so that it will preserve individual identities, appeal to a sense of citizenship and serve as a home base and a benchmark.
PROSPECTS: Training elites is a crucial aspect of education policy, in developed as well as in developing countries, since it is even claimed that part of the responsibilities for what happens in developing countries depend on elites.
JD: I would agree with that.
PROSPECTS: That brings us to higher education. Do you think that higher education should be a strategic priority? Based on your analysis, should there also be a balance between higher technical, vocational and classical education? How do you view the question of ethical training, or the forming of responsibility in the process of socialization of the elite?
JD: Those who work on a world scale need outstanding and sophisticated training to be able to assume their vocational responsibilities, but these cannot be set apart from their responsibilities as citizens of the world and of their country. Therefore, all levels of higher education, including top specialist training, must leave room for the humanities in the fullest sense of the term, i.e. teaching people to understand themselves and others, to understand the world. I would however not go so far as to say that higher education must have top priority, since in a world becoming less workaday, with shorter working hours and more leisure time, the conventional opportunities for conviviality are not as great as they used to be and basic education must give each and every person the wherewithal to move undaunted in society, without sliding into anomie or aggressiveness. It must enable people to take themselves in hand and ward off any aggressiveness that could lead them to the fringe, for either economic, social, or psychological or personal reasons. Basic education is not only a major theme of reflection in developing countries, its importance and content for the richer countries of the world must also be stressed.
PROSPECTS: One tends to look at the two extremes of the education system: higher education for the elite and basic education for the common citizen. There is also a serious problem regarding secondary education, which used to establish a balance between those two extremes. What is happening now with secondary education: what role does it play?
JD: It is impossible to talk about this without observing that higher education has become so commonplace as to upset all the parameters. Tomorrow, one adolescent in two will perhaps go on to some form of higher education. Is that a good thing? That is another question. But demand for it is there, meaning that secondary education must be thought out differently, depending on whether it is to be the culmination of primary education or prepare pupils for inevitably diversified higher education. In fact more and more diversified, and which must keep its poles of excellence and its universities, as they are sources of research and innovation. Secondary education cannot therefore be considered an end in itself. Pupils either go on to university or branch into further or lifelong education. Secondary education should be rethought with those two facts in mind, whereas it was long considered the end of studies in most countries. And since there were no opportunities for life-long education, it encapsulated the learning of a whole lifetime. That era is over now. I would almost say that secondary education, besides the conventional disciplines of learning to memorize, think, analyze and write on subjects, ought to set itself the priority goal not only of making pupils ‘learn to learn’ but of instilling in them a genuine ‘thirst for learning’ by the time they leave. Society must organize itself with those changes in its sights. For instance, 18-year-old school-leavers should not be dubbed drop-outs, as their forebears who left school at the age of 14 used to be a couple of decades ago. We need to demonstrate that life-long education is a way of avoiding the chips being down at the tender age of 18, a way of opening prospects for all.
PROSPECTS: Tying what you have just said together with the other idea you put forward earlier on, that work is not the only means of social integration, it might be said that the question of primary, secondary and university education will become less meaningful, since those gradations matched the echelons in the job market. That begs the question of the institutional set-up of the education system. In that view, what are the respective roles of state and private education? There is often talk about partnership, mixed structures and so on. How do you see this?
JD: Traditions differ from one country to another. I however believe that the public sector must remain a key element in orienting education systems. The backbone. Especially from the angle of what I was saying about the nation. Who will carry a nation’s values, keep its collective identities from oblivion and preserve its heritage if not its education system? Even if it does not assume the entire teaching function - it could not do so and anyway does not attempt to these days - it needs to be there as the bedrock.
PROSPECTS: Looking at management style, state schools have drawn harsh criticism for their bureaucratic, rigid and uniformitarian side. Do you think that public education must change, bringing in different methods of operation in the new environment?
JD: These must be a common corpus defined from the top. But the way that corpus is delivered may be adapted to suit the various pupil publics. A particular subject should not be taught the same way in middle-class schools as it is in schools where half the pupils are the children of immigrants. But the basic syllabus must be laid down. Beyond that, headmasters must obviously be left a certain amount of latitude for adapting to diverse situations while making allowance for the potential of children, not always in terms of a standard concept but sometimes in terms of artistic, physical and interpersonal strengths, etc. Those elements must be weighed up with discernment. In other words, the state education system must remain the reference, although it could be managed in a far more decentralized manner, far more attuned to the characteristics of the various pupil communities. Another thing: one of the elements of citizenship, and also one of the elements of common sense, is to realize that our well-being does not depend solely on how much money we have in our pockets: it also depends on the collective, or public, goods and services available to us. And education must fundamentally stay a collective service offered to all alike. At bottom, that is what makes a national collectivity. This entity provides a certain number of collective services to one and all on conditions to be determined. This is also part of a nation’s unity.
PROSPECTS: There has been a flight to the private sector in several countries even in education, including in developing countries. State education is going through a crisis because of poor wages, a lack of facilities and also policies to trim public-sector deficits by cutting back spending. And since some of the severest cutbacks have been in education, there are now calls for partnership in both financing and syllabus-setting. Therefore, if the public sector must define a common corpus, it must be common to both state and private education.
JD: Of course. Education is a collective good. That does not mean that all forms of education must be dispensed through collective channels. Public education must remain the essential yardstick and be the driving force behind the system, so as to strengthen the notion of citizenship as well as that of the individual or person. It follows that, since I am not talking about an exclusive monopoly, there is room for private schools, but they must comply with the rules which represent what a nation wants its children to know or to learn. From then on there can be all manner of teaching approaches imaginable: in-service, alternating, within the private sector for part of lifelong education and even within social facilities. One learns by joining a charitable association or being involved in cultural work. This opening-up of educational possibilities should not lead to the baby being thrown out with the bath water and saying: ‘Why keep a common system at all?’ It is said that public education systems are bureaucratic. But one can always conduct a successful experiment - or two or three or four - on the side. If the entire system were private, would it not become bureaucratic in its turn? Or anarchic? Or fail to meet the minimum standards which the nation intended to set and teach to everyone? That is the bottom line. This is proof enough that a solely professional approach to education would lead up a blind alley which would be dangerous both for public well-being and for personal development. The two systems must therefore be kept in some equilibrium. True, some education systems have been straying too far away from economic actuality in the name of putative humanism. But I would warn against going too far in the other direction, now that economism will be becoming a less dominant force in political life and society than it has been over the past fifty years. I am speaking as an economist who realizes the value of things: the cost of a recession and the benefits of a stable currency, a trade surplus and a competitive economy. But life cannot be reduced to such simple terms. And, moreover, does not being economically successful call for a good understanding of oneself and of one’s fellows, a certain ability for valuation, an openness of mind and a capacity for listening without which there is no way of winning through in a career? So let’s be careful. These days, the assertion I have just made is all the more meaningful for the fact that post-industrial society - let us give it that label - will be one in which work will no longer be the only factor of social integration and individuals will have to be taught how to behave in situations in life which are not simply centred on leisure either. They will, for example, have to learn to cope with a year out of a stable job and elect to use that time for on-going education, doing voluntary work in an association or some such opportunity. Each person will have to be able to order his or her time in a world where the conventional stages, the traditional trilogy, of school, work and retirement will no longer be germane. The longer that trilogy is perpetuated, the more disruptive of society it will be. Just think of all those people who have been pensioned off at the age of 55. From one day to the next they have stopped counting in the economic scheme of things. They have continued to cost, since they draw pensions, but they no longer count. Physical resources, creative forces, professional and social skills have been sloughed off as waste. That is not consistent with a society in which technological progress is shortening required working hours at a sustainable rapid pace. Today’s employee will spend 70,000 hours of his life at work: that will be 40,000 hours in fifteen years’ time - a considerable drop in a few short years - due to an acceleration of the trend which has always been caused by technological progress. We are currently set on innovation, but we are blinding ourselves to the consequences which technological progress will have on society, on the individual and on the workplace - and thereby on the education system.
PROSPECTS: That is an interesting point, because if work becomes not the only key factor of social insertion, if money is not to be the only objective in life, then the only way out is to revert to some aspects of traditional society in which neither the economy nor work were the only elements of social integration.
JD: This is a classic instance of history turning full circle. At one stage the hardest academic question to answer is, what is immutable and what can change? And obviously, focusing solely on change while disregarding everything that has become a set part of a social system is a major intellectual and political mistake.
PROSPECTS: But education is to a certain extent also made up of educators. By asking ‘What must education do?’ we are actually asking ‘What must educators do?’ Have educators really been prepared to take on all the new challenges such as educating for creativity, teamwork, problem-solving and social cohesiveness?
JD: It is clear what balance could be built into primary-school curricula, but where things get complicated is in secondary schooling. Teachers themselves should team together so as to be able to overcome the problems of teaching, of giving courses in a real-life situation to a distinct set of pupils. And it would be wrong to add to curricula and initiate courses without a concerted reflection by teachers on the way in which groups of thirty or forty pupils develop and on how they perceive improvements and shortcomings. I believe that teachers ought to learn how to work as a team and not say ‘I give a very good course and polish it every year’. No: they have a broader responsibility which is not simply that of a headmaster. That is why I am for teamwork among secondary-school-teachers, so that school equips the young personally for facing adult life.
PROSPECTS: The teachers of the twenty-first century are today’s youngsters who have chosen to go into teaching. And several studies have shown that, after a whole decade of sliding standards and pay in the profession, particularly in developing countries, today’s young who plan to be teachers are not the highest achievers of their generation. Recruits are being drawn from intellectually poor social classes without much hope for the future. For prospective policies, it would seem crucial to waste no time in launching an incentive, or pre-recruitment, policy and find out how to attract the highest achievers into teaching.
JD: For that, society must first be weaned off money. If money dominates, if business executives claim that they must make at least X amount of francs or Y amount of francs otherwise their standing and effectiveness would be jeopardized, if money is the benchmark of social hierarchy, we will never solve the teacher problem. Can money be the only measure for ranking one of the finest professions in the world, in which a person is entrusted with passing on to others what mankind has learned about itself and educating the younger generations? Such a money-grubbing society seals the fate of its education system by its very existence. It would never have been possible, as was the case back in the 1920s and the 1930s, for university professors to enjoy the same high rank in industrialized societies as solicitors and barristers. Secondary-school-teachers also had a certain standing, and primary-school-teachers were also held in the utmost respect. If the only criterion is now how much you earn, then there is no answer. No solution. And the same will go for civil servants. Politically it must be made plain that the money standard is not the one and only recognized hierarchy: those of knowledge, usefulness to society and public esteem also exist. For that reason I have always thought that, whenever any problem with teachers had to be addressed - including any lag in their real incomes - it was best to start by explaining to them as the minister in charge of education how important teaching was, what a key position teachers held in society; how vital they were. In my opinion any report on education must contain some words in praise of the various teaching professions, and not only because it is the ‘done thing’, otherwise we are sunk. I am not talking about special cases and I don’t want to give an excuse for doing nothing about salaries and material conditions, but if a nation’s political leaders fail to highlight what teachers represent for society and social progress, then all efforts will come to naught, since teachers will feel like outcasts, not having been awarded the noble status belonging to their true role in society.
PROSPECTS: The thing which may now utterly change teaching is technology, the welter of new information paths which are making some teachers believe that they might be replaced by an integrated services network that would assume the role of learning technology. How do you see the relation between an information society and the role of school and teachers?
JD: I will reply to that question from the aspect you have referred to: i.e. what will the new technologies bring to the education system? Immense pools of knowledge accessible to each and every person. However, they will not make it feasible to replace a living teacher by a computer or television screen. We will always need teachers maintaining contact with students. Technology will have its uses: after all, if an excellent mathematics or history course is available with a very high pedagogical content, what should stop a teacher showing it to his pupils on a screen? But he will have to be there afterwards for explanations. Of course, some 10 per cent of all young have studied without the help of a teacher. I myself studied for six years whilst holding a job, without meeting any teachers. But not everybody can manage to do that and it is not the best way of studying.
PROSPECTS: We have talked about citizenship, teachers, the relation between education and work, the role of the State, the training of the elite and the problems of primary and secondary schooling. To end with, there remains the question ‘Who will do all this; who will be the social agent capable of fostering an education policy along those lines?’
JD: We are living at a time when society is being driven by various forces into changing more rapidly than political thinking is. If developments are left to happen by themselves, the price will be disorder, strains, social exclusion and more generally an undermining of cohesion. Changes must be thought out. I do not mean rigorously charted, because we are talking about human life with all its random variables. But changes must be thought out. That implies knowing a society well and having working assumptions on its future trends, on which to pattern the grounding to be given to all the men and women making up that society so that they may make the most of the changes in their environment and even in their minds. The task is therefore highly political: I would go so far as to say that it is a matter of political philosophy. How to enable a society to unshackle itself from economism, technological progress and globalization? These things are the order of the day, so how can they be taken on board, mastered, and how should the man in the street be given the means to handle them? I believe that if we have a general concept, it can be referred to for fine-tuning educational policy. I did say fine-tuning, not completely overturning, since education is as old as life itself and, I repeat, there already exists the tradition of handing down what we know, what we have learned and what we have thought about. It is by reference to that heritage that an education system can be adapted. We touched on that subject when talking about higher and basic education, the fringe of society and poverty, even in rich societies. Incidentally, contrary to what many political leaders claim, it is not a matter of making people decide between the status quo and change, since change is already at work within society. Society lives with it more or less well. No, the thing is to arm people so that they can come to grips with change individually and as a group. Aside from making adjustments to the education system, that also entails reviewing land-development policies, town planning and public relationships, etc. But education is still the key element, since it gives every boy and girl the means to develop as a person and live in society.
PROSPECTS: You are said to be highly voluntaristic about taking action, lending great importance to the will of agents rather than to social and economic determinism.
JD: Yes, but I repeat: most societies have their own conception of politics. Looking at how society lives, at its environment, I can see that everything is in a state of flux, on the move. No one knows in which direction. But it is by taking careful note of shifts that a policy can be put together - the blanket policy of the city within which education policy has a high profile since nothing can replace what will be given as a right and which will make it feasible for individuals to live as they want, untrammelled, taking advantage of the equality of opportunity, etc.
PROSPECTS: One last question. You are a man of politics in the broadest sense of the term. What themes would you like educators to clarify; which currently hazy aspects needing answers would you wish researchers and educators to delve into for the future?
JD: First and foremost the teacher/student relationship. How can we work on this relationship in such a way that the teacher remains the master, in the noblest meaning of the term, and the student treats him as such. The respect of knowledge, of learning, of experience: that is probably the essential point for me. And it is quite clear that adolescents now entering secondary school think they know everything because urbanization, city living with its show, its television and its entertainment give them the impression that they are knowledgeable, that they are grown-up. Either that or they get bored with all these things they know and cannot imagine what use they will be to them later on. Therefore it is indeed the teacher/student relationship which is the nub of the matter. And everything we have talked about has some connection to that, including how societies treat their teachers. And, as I said, not just in material terms.
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