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Autonomy and conformity: Adorno's analysis of the liberal theory of education.

THIS paper is essentially expository. For the first time in the English language, it describes in detail Theodor Adorno's analysis of the liberal theory of education. Adorno is the major figure associated with what is known as the Frankfurt School of critical theorists. Adorno conceives of the development of liberal theory in terms of a dialectical struggle between the principles of individual autonomy and social conformity, a process which has led to contemporary educational failures and difficulties. However, Adorno sees in liberalism not only the root of current problems but also the elements of a solution to these problems.


This essay is concerned with the liberal theory of education, a focus which demands justification in the face of the unprecedented process of social restructuring occurring throughout most of the world at the end of the twentieth century. Education has borne the brunt of forces driven almost solely by economic considerations and liberal ideas in particular have become their victim. The liberal idea of comprehensive education is portrayed as wasteful, too expensive, irrelevant to the needs of most people, and an example of obsolete thinking. In the face of this denigration, the present study is warranted because it casts the relation between the current narrowly instrumental approach to education and liberalism in a novel way, indicating their shared origins and emphasising those aspects of the liberal approach which remain of value.

The analysis of the liberal theory of education described here is by Theodor Adorno (1905-1969), perhaps the most significant philosopher associated with what has become known as the `Frankfurt School', a privately financed social research institute set up in Germany in the 1920s. Forced into exile during the Nazi era, the institute was later integrated into the University of Frankfurt. Originally employed at that university, Adorno's experiences, particularly in the United States, led him to produce a number of major works, including The dialectic of enlightenment (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1986), which dealt with many aspects of contemporary culture under advanced industrial capitalism. Over the last ten years, his work has become increasingly influential. However, although he gave considerable attention to contemporary education, this aspect of his work remains largely unreported. This paper begins to fill this lacuna by presenting an account of Adorno's critique of the liberal theory of education.

What follows is a brief description of Adorno's philosophy sufficient to provide an orientation to his thought on education. An account is presented of the liberal idea of education, tracing its development through the thought: of Rousseau and Kant, before the focus shifts to Adorno's central concept of `half-education'. He associates half-education with current solutions to the crisis of capital accumulation and to potentialities within liberalism itself. Tied to the instruments of mass enculturation, education is reduced to fostering conformity, suppressing the capacity for reflection and promoting neurotic dispositions in people. The liberal criticisms of contemporary mass education are correct but do not go far enough, and the solutions they propose fail to rectify the problem: it is intellectualism, as much as anti-intellectualism, that destroys the capacity for reflection and judgement. However, liberalism is a blessing as well as a curse, embodying notions of autonomy and integrity which, although stunted, are necessary if the tendency to half-education is to be avoided.

Adorno's antic approach

For Adorno, the philosopher's task is to engage with its most up-to-date approaches, its established organising conceptions and questions (Maddock, 1995), and liberalism has precisely this contemporary relevance. He aims to force a transformation of the liberal conception by taking into account precisely its inadequacies and failures. The concepts of autonomy and conformity he sees as representing the opposing poles of the liberal dialectic. Liberal theory, in his view, turns on a contradiction, drawing on the taming of the brutish individual through conformity, yet preserving and protecting the natural from social forces.

Adorno approached this dialectic from a materialist and a Marxist perspective. Materialism is not for him a dogmatic commitment to the primacy of matter, a vulgar materialism which is idealist actually in character. He was a materialist in the sense that his approach, method, and ideas represented an internally induced transformation of idealist thinking. If idealism is understood as the notion that humanity comes to know the world as it progressively makes the world conform to its own thought -- Adorno calls this idealism `the stomach turned mind' (Hullot-Kentor, 1991, p.140) -- then materialism is the realisation that the world can never be known in this way. Consequently, philosophy has the different role of helping to repair the damage done by idealism. It does this by exposing the inadequacies of all attempts at conceptualisation. Its role is negative: instead of trying to make the world, it must be concerned with criticising attempts at world making, confronting such efforts with actual conditions and exposing their inadequacies.

Although Hegel acknowledged this, he continued to adhere to the notion that humans become autonomous subjects when their ideas finally allow them to control their world (Adorno, 1993a); he thought that negative criticism could ultimately lead to a situation in which nature is completely controlled. Some of Marx's writings also suggest that there are laws of economic motion and social development that can be similarly known (Adorno, 1989, pp.106-107). In other writings, Marx and Hegel advocate and pursue concrete analyses which are the antithesis of such conceptions. Concrete approaches are concerned with the sum-total of social constituents and relations, and treat all situations as unique. In his many writings on the political and economic situation in Europe in the nineteenth century, Marx was a consistent materialist in this sense, holding up dominant conceptions and representations of European society to scrutiny in terms of actual conditions without ever forgetting the role of capital in both the historical events and the ways in which they are conceived. Contradictions in the way things are, and between the way they are and the way they are represented, are reflected in the internal antinomies in the ways they are represented and understood.

Adorno (1969) agreed with Marx that ideas associated with the free market are reflected in all conceptual thought. He captures this notion by utilising Leibniz's concept of a `monad', an individual thing or idea which is the embodiment of the social system to which it belongs. Thus philosophical conceptions are monadic, embodying the principle of the production of goods for exchange. However, Marx reverts to idealism when he abstracts this principle and transforms it into the axioms of a causal account of society. What Adorno objects to in Marx's thought is its tendency towards a science, that very tendency taken by Althusser (Althusser & Balibar, 1977) to be the actual essence of historical materialism. When Marx's thought becomes scientific, it allows the principle of free exchange that it finds everywhere to govern its own discourse, seeking to master nature through its conceptual activity.

There is a concomitant danger of ignoring the role of the exchange principle both in all events and in the way they are discussed, however. A concrete analysis should neither restrict consideration to the exchange principle, reverting to idealism, nor neglect its presence in all situations, thus losing sight of history and becoming abstract in a different way. Adorno aims to chart a course between Scylla and Charybdis, never overlooking the market principle, while also avoiding reducing actual circumstances to nothing more than instances of economic practices. He analyses the liberal theory of education in this way, treating it as a monadic structure reflecting what he calls the `constellation', the worldview, the conceptual network, of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. He traces the development of liberalism as a confrontation between this philosophical conception and the actual circumstances of general education, a conflict which is characteristically resolved by emphasising one pole of the liberal dialectic at the expense of the other, a strategy which consistently tends to the corruption of the liberal idea.

The notions of autonomy and conformity do not merely clash with actual circumstances. Relations of exchange specify freedoms within specific constraints, and the particular form which the dialectic of liberalism takes at any time reflects the manifest difficulties in the exchange process and the consequent changes in the system of constraints. In this way, socioeconomic contradictions and crises manifest themselves in educational thought and proposals to resolve them characteristically seek to place a renewed emphasis on conformity at the expense of autonomy.

The liberal idea of education

Adorno's (1972) critique of the liberal theory of education is the subject of an essay entitled `Theorie der Halbbildung'. A somewhat unsatisfactory translation of this essay appeared as the `Theory of pseudo-culture' (Adorno, 1993b), but a discussion with Becker, published in English (Adorno & Becker, 1983), adds support to the account of the Halbbildung essay presented here. There are a number of odd remarks and brief discussions scattered throughout his works which also lend support to this interpretation. `Theorie der Halbbildung' is not so much about pseudo-culture as about a specific aspect of culture, and that is the process of enculturation of individuals (Adorno, 1972, p.94). In `Theorie der Halbbildung,' Adorno ties the idea of `half-education' (Halbbildung) to the liberal view. If comprehensive education reflects the idea of developing more than merely the practical and technical capacities of individuals, providing the kinds of cultural experiences which foster the desire to think critically, then behind half-education lies the desire to divide up culture and teach only aspects of it. Adorno's essay deals with the potential of liberal education to develop into half-education.

The term `education' has a varied meaning, denoting both formal learning, enculturation more generally, and the notion of self-development. The term `Bildung' has a similarly broad meaning. Kant (1904) employs the term in his writings on education to capture the idea that the working life of individuals cannot be separated from their total cultural existence. Adorno's term `half-education' should be understood to denote the increasing tendency in general education to focus so narrowly on working life that liberal goals are sacrificed. This practice is legitimated by treating anything over and beyond practical or technical concerns as universal ideas separated from social reality. Public discussion of these idea functions as an apology for the prevailing social and political circumstances (Adorno, 1972, p.98), providing a liberal or libertarian gloss on an essentially immoral and anti-intellectual practice.

Adorno means by `Bildung' the idea of transformative education operative in liberal thought. In this sense, it is the idea of the cultivation or development of individuals into completely self-determining persons, who are integrated, at home within, and in harmony with their society. The idea was initially popularised by Rousseau. He opposed the corrupting influence on individuals of civil society, which suppressed development. To avoid this, Rousseau argued, education needed to be natural, conducted in a state of innocence and simplicity, adapted to the developing needs of individuals, and based on well-regulated freedom. This education is ultimately to be completed through the development of individual awareness of social relationships, an awareness fostering the ultimate subordination of individual goodness to social virtue, reproducing the primitive state of goodness as an awareness of the common good, as nature recreated at a higher level, where a rational unity takes the place of the original instinctive unity.

Kant's thought on education is a direct response to Rousseau's ideas. Kant equates education with care, discipline and instruction. Care is maintenance, the foresight and oversight that parents afford their young. Discipline and training prevent individuals from pursuing `animal impulses' (Kant, 1904, p.104). Discipline is the subjection of individuals to what Kant calls `the laws of humanity' (p. 104), a matter which demands education at an early age, well before individuals begin to indulge in capricious or basely driven acts. To counter such instincts, individuals must quickly learn to subject themselves to `the commands of reason' (p.105). Because of their drive to be free, humans need `a certain polishing of [their] roughness' (p.106). Once their instincts are subdued, the idea of education is to develop the natural qualities of humans, to assist them to become autonomous beings. The major problem for education is to combine subjection to lawful constraint with autonomous action. `How shall I cultivate freedom under conditions of compulsion?' (p. 131).

Kant suggests that children `should be educated, not with reference to their present condition, but rather with regard to a possibly improved future state of the human race' (p.116). However, parents are concerned that their children will be prosperous, at the same time as they want subjects who will be `mere instruments for the accomplishment of their own purposes'. Neither concern reflects the general good: the only legitimate goal of education. Parents and other sectional groups want individuals to become more skilful so that they better accomplish the purposes of others, but individuals should `become not only skilful but moral' (p. 121), freely guided by what is best.

Education must be disciplined, cultured, civilised, and moralised. Social skills are needed for both strategic and communicative ends, for both doing things and for relating to others. The social community in which the various skills are employed is civilised and individuals should be prudent, polite, and judicious. Beyond all this, individuals should be the type of people who choose only good aims, and, consequently, education must lead people to become moral. Children should be taught that freedom is always relativised to reciprocity, tolerance, and rational self-constraint. Individuals may be `merely trained, taught, mechanically instructed, or really enlightened' (p.121). Training is not enough; but although people must learn to think, such thinking must always take place within the constraints of discipline, culture, civility and morality.

For Kant, care and discipline are the most important functions of education. Instruction is secondary and can occur at any time. However, it is through instruction and acquaintance with culture that education is able to progress, to become better and better, and for each successive generation to take a step nearer the perfection of humanity (p.109). Education is thus a kind of `noble ideal', a concept of a perfection yet to be realised, and which may in practice meet with hindrances. If this ideal is to be realised, pedagogy must become a study and be transformed from an art into a science.

Rousseau and Kant conceived of education as the provision of that learning which equips individuals to pursue their own ends and realise their potentials, using their own understanding without extraneous external influence. On the basis of this, people will be able confidently to work their way out of the mechanical ordering of their animal existence and state of barbarism, and establish a law-governed social order capable of just action. The root of this process is what Kant called `humanity's unsociable inclinations,' its capacity for competition. Competition is, moreover, the motor of enlightenment, developing `the germs which nature implanted' -- but it has a beneficial effect only when it is socially harnessed, and this is the task of the state. The competitive instincts may be shaped by the cultivation of art and science in such a way that the full development of these natural capacities enables humanity to become morally mature and to govern according to the principles of right. A lengthy involvement by the state must therefore be expected if citizens are to achieve a universal cosmopolitan existence. This process of Bildung depends on the state because it demands a particular kind of educational provision. State education is always open to corruption and subject to mismanagement, however.

The nature of half-education

The present condition of half-education is understood by Adorno in terms of economic crisis. In Marx's thought, crisis is not an extraordinary occurrence, a dysfunction in the system of economic production but the normal state of affairs; in fact, crisis is the motor of capitalist development. Crises of motivation and legitimation take second place to the perennial crisis of accumulation and capital restructuring is a response to this crisis, a reorganisation of state functions to rejuvenate and facilitate accumulation. Because of this, the perpetual crisis of accumulation is the motivation for more or less continuous socioeconomic development. Current policies and strategies of market regulation represent the latest attempt at rejuvenation. The current educational policy is to abandon the liberal idea of comprehensive integration because sufficient enculturation of populations is considered to be achieved equally well by other means that require less capital to be diverted from the accumulation process. Present concerns with liberal theory, and criticisms of it, are driven by the vicissitudes of this restructuring process.

The contemporary development of half-education is in no sense a capricious act; it is motivated by economic crisis, and is seen by policy makers as something that is forced upon them. The denigration of the liberal model has become a necessity because the present policies for restructuring education do not realise liberal goals. When social conditions deteriorate and economic differences become more marked, it is difficult even to promise the population a liberal education, let alone deliver one. Distinctions between intellectual culture and what may be called 'lowest-common-denominator culture' -- that contrived by the mass media -- are rejected as elitist, as access to higher culture becomes increasingly restricted. Liberal claims come to be represented as old-fashioned ideology and their acceptance is viewed as leading to waste and inefficiency in pursuit of unrealisable goals. Education is still presented as providing social and economic advantages for the underprivileged, but these are now conceived more in terms of material gains rather than intellectual independence.

Half-education is that which is left when the conditions of autonomy are neglected and integration and conformity become the central focus. This trivial education provides individuals with a different framework for interpreting their lives and the world about them from liberal education, while it: still develops in them a capacity to integrate themselves into society. It delivers a set of preconceptions, an ideology, which filters the actual existence of individuals, providing them with a way of dealing with their experiences. This kind of education, however, pursues not autonomy but reconciliation and an edification of sorts, adjusting individuals to their fate while enlivening their dreary existence.

External institutions like the mass media have come to play such an important role that education has become submissive, a response and a reaction to their dominance, so that now mass culture, rather than intellectual culture, has the determinant influence over both the content of general education and its pedagogical practice. Increasingly, integration occurs as much outside the formal institutions of teaching and learning as within them. As Adorno (1972) remarked, the `authority of the sports field and television has replaced that of the Bible' (p.99), and it can just as well be said to have displaced the authority of the school textbook. The mass media command the attention of the vast majority for longer than do schools, as well as commanding their more undivided attention and their willingness to participate to a far greater degree than any teacher could ever contrive. In fact, the people who are the recipients of this enculturation are even willing to pay large sums in order to be allowed to submit to the process. The mass society that is a consequence of this inculcation is a `consumer society' (Adorno, 1978), one that willingly participates in its own integration and pays for the privilege. Consumer society is both the product of half-education and its precondition.

The institutions which Adorno called the `culture industry' (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1986) present the world as immediate and uninterpreted, and they turn on the idea of dealing with things as they are, of freeing themselves of any ideological blinkers. Adorno (1991) has remarked that reality has become the ideology. The stress on the literal and the factual in the mass media is taken up in general education for the good reason that it has become necessary to do this to maintain credibility in the eyes of an already socialised and adjusted student body. Because the broad culture which provides the formative experiences for the vast majority is a kind of lowest-common-denominator culture, education has had to become a kind of lowest-common-denominator education, trying to engage at the level of already socialised students on their own terms. What is generally passed on by the culture industry is trivialised to make it immediately accessible to those who are kept largely ignorant. Education follows suit, but, in so doing, it denies the ignorant the kinds of experiences which would assist them in developing their capacities for understanding and genuine self-assertion.

The half-understanding and the half-experience provided in contemporary education do not comprise a preliminary stage in the process of education; they are its denial (p.111). However, half-education does not oppose comprehensive education by rejecting the intellectual as such. Rather than neglecting the intellect, it strips off its reflective and critical potential. Contemporary general education is not concerned merely with the provision of skills, no matter how much it is so proclaimed. In fact, as is well known to professionals in all fields, the skills component is relatively unimportant. For example, large computing firms prefer to train their own people and have scant regard for the general knowledge of computing imparted in schools and even tertiary institutions. Social integration remains the central role of education, complementing the mass media, but educational activities increasingly amount to little more than compensating individuals for their experience of social powerlessness and for their guilt that they are not what they would like to be. Like the culture of the sports field, education encourages individuals to imagine that they are members of a higher, more comprehensive whole. It provides the credentials which allow one to have a say, however restricted, to act like an expert, to support, to belong. Education is thus reduced to something which is exchangeable and useable, to a means of integration.

Although it is said to be competency based, general education never deals with actual situations, even those concerning employers, but restricts itself to abstract skills which are purported to be useful in later life. People are trained in the inquiry approach, a way of relating to the world as one finds it, without preconceptions or organising schemata. Little is made of the fact that the chances of responding to significant world events in this way is strictly limited. Much of what appears to be skills based has more to do with inculcating a way of thinking and seeing. General education, Adorno suggests, restricts itself to those ideas which introduce individuals to the matter at hand. Its predominant tendency is to take things for granted. That which is fetishised, impenetrable and not understood comes to present itself to the subject as unalterable' (p.117). Contemporary practices in education treat ideas and interpretations as facts, reducing social constructions and cultural artefacts to natural conditions, and promoting the feeling of having to capitulate to current exigencies. This feeling paralyses the intellect and eats away at morale.

Systematic delusions replace insight when individuals no longer have continuity of judgement. They must develop schemes for coping with reality that compensate for their `anxiety in the face of the incomprehensible', even if these projections do not closely resemble actual existence (p. 117). Contemporary education and the culture industry act in concert to provide common delusions which unite people, despite the fact that as individuals they live largely isolated, alienated and atomised existences. Thus, being a supporter of a certain football team, enjoying rock music, belonging to a political party, being a citizen of a certain country, may create a feeling of belonging to a larger group or a more comprehensive social unity, even if such associations are more apparent than real, and contain no significant benefits for the individual. The feeling of belonging, however false it might actually be, frees individuals from the need to question, and this is the true telos of half-education.

Liberalism and the crisis in education

The general or popular conception of contemporary education is that it is some kind of a failure, that it is in crisis in some sense. The idea is pervasive in recent educational writings, discussed in both the day-to-day mass media and the academic literature. For some, the problem of general education is that it has neglected skills development. Liberals, however, want wider social engagement and a more comprehensive inculcation of cultural values and ideas to overcome the crisis caused by this unduly parsimonious conception of educational needs. The problem is thus seen as having little to do with poor skills development. In fact, increasing emphasis on skills is causally related to the now-manifest decline in intellectual standards felt at all levels in the education system (Adorno, 1972, p.96). The problem with education has nothing to do with poor teaching methods or inadequacies in the education system but has everything to do with an approach to education that denies some of its most essential ingredients. The provision of less culture is not a response to the decline in intellectual standards but its major cause.

However, although liberal criticisms of narrowly focused, instrumental education hit their target, exposing inadequacies, their reform proposals are also inadequate. Offering varied programs in schools and a wide range of choices, as well as having students exercise greater decision-making scope over the curriculum and the choice of subject matter are desirable but, as solutions to the crisis, they remain too narrowly focused on the institutional framework of the school. The desire to surrender one's decision-making capacity to others is not resolved simply by making schools freer (Adorno & Becker, 1983). External cultural influences remain decisive. An education which overcomes consumerism is unlikely to be achieved if it is driven by the consumers themselves. Effective pedagogic action must be directed at breaking the hold of the culture industry, rather than submitting to it.

If anti-intellectualism was the sole cause of the failure of the education system, a re-emphasis on liberal ideals might be all that is needed to reverse the flow; but the effects of current educational practices cannot simply be overcome through greater educational provision, more extensive curriculum choice and progressive teaching methods, however essential these are. The problem lies not just with the anti-intellectualism informing current policies but also with the intellectualism to which it is a reaction. Insistence on a dose of high-brow culture is not an effective pedagogical remedy for the illness of consumerism.

The roots of the problem of half-education lie with the separation of the realm of the intellect from manual labour and other non-intellectual activities, a separation evident in present anti-intellectualism but also found in the very heart of liberalism: an idea of culture which separates the intellectual from the practical and the non-intellectual, and restricts the cultural to the intellectual (p.94). This is the basis of half-education, a tendency within liberalism, rather than its antithesis, a disposition to develop some aspects of the individual at the expense of others. This practice does not develop or enhance the capacity for judgement so much as inhibit it. As with contemporary education, liberalism turns on the idea of the undifferentiated factual world and its objective intellectual assessment. The latest educational policies are merely one interpretation of this conception. Liberalism ultimately suppresses intellectual capacities even though it has its basis in an intellectual culture. The idea of an intellectual education, like its opposite, turns on an analytic and pedagogical separation of aspects of human existence. It presents culture as something disengaged from other aspects of daily life.

Intellectual culture, which paralyses the intellect, was imposed on a spontaneous and not quite domestic culture of uneducated naivety, on that traditional culture, characteristic of feudalism, which had a critical potential embedded in its scepticism, humour, and irony (pp.104-105). In such settings, age was respected because it embodied a continuity of consciousness, an understanding based on a coherent remembrance of the past. The elderly had become experienced in this sense. A relatively homogeneous existence gave traditional life a certain coherence, the basis of judgement, and the wisdom of the elderly was valued for the experience it embodied. The education of the intellect was always a threat to this way of life, a danger to the continuation of a shared culture of lived experience and potentially pathological to judgement itself. Progressive enlightenment thought aimed to replace the judgement of experience with reasoned judgement, but when its general education had degenerated to half-education, experienced judgement was replaced by `selective, non-committal, exchangeable, and ephemeral knowledge,' the elements of which are likely to be almost immediately replaced by other information (p. 115). Instead of the coherence of generally shared life experiences, individuals respond and relate to life as it presents itself without either the old capacity for judgement or the liberal capacities that were its intended replacement. Instead of exercising judgement, individual,; are equipped only to respond and relate to things as they are without questioning.

The development of intellectual culture displaced traditional culture, hence destroying the capacity for judgement. Comprehensive education has always had the task of redeveloping this capacity. In this sense, it has always been re-education, an attempt to replace something that has been lost. It is both correct and incorrect to treat the development of educational thought as separate from economic circumstances and strategies. Educational thought advances by attending to the difficulties arising from dominant conceptions of education, but every new solution reflects contemporary market relations and policies. Thus, recent conceptions of comprehensive education are always located within the context of effectiveness and efficiency, and the demands of a national curriculum. If the classical liberal idea is the expression of cultural transformation by the only truly revolutionary class in the modern epoch, then further economic mutations will be reflected in educational policies and practices. The most obvious example of this is the most recent restructuring of market relations which reflect ideas of a world economy and practices of selective deregulation. These ideas underlie the push for a more exclusively instrumental education.

The trivial learning with which liberals find fault is seen as an over-emphasis on skills education, which promotes conformity principally through its neglect of questions of autonomy. However, at its best, even liberalism aims at a kind of conformist autonomy. Rousseau attempted to avoid the aporia by delaying conformity until it becomes rational conformity which may be autonomously accepted. However, this kind of free-school idea is too risky. Kant doubted that civility and morality are likely to develop spontaneously. People needed to be taught to think within the constraints of discipline, culture, civility and morality. The problem for education was how to preserve the natural and the subjective during this process.

Cultural development, judgement and integrity

Adorno argued that any prescription for overcoming the tendencies of half-education is caught in a dilemma (Adorno, 1972, p.120). Mass culture does not provide the conditions for the development of autonomy, while the intellectual culture proclaimed by liberals is elitist and fails to engage with the broad mass of people. Education must neither glorify culture by preserving its remnants, nor abolish it (p.97). The transmission of culture cannot be omitted from the educative process, but, at the same time, it cannot be driven by the old elitist process of enculturation. Although education must be about culture, it must not make a fetish of it (p.120). The process of cultural transmission must take on a different character.

Education must aim at restoring the individual's suppressed capacity for reflection. If the aptitude for reflective judgement is tied to traditional culture, the problem for educators is to develop this capacity in the absence of the tradition to which it belongs. It must be developed within the constraints of the present, contradictory, liberal and anti-liberal culture. However, liberal culture is what Adorno calls `double-sided' (Doppelcharacter) (p.97), containing both the means to dismember culture and to restore the capacity for reflection. Under such circumstances, education must neither endorse liberal culture nor reject its conception of autonomy (p.97), one which has established conditions for objective judgement and, therefore, for a certain limited notion of subjective, intellectual freedom.

Despite -- or perhaps because of- the separation of the cultured from real conditions, an independent culture has been developed since the Enlightenment, establishing a climate of objectivity which is reflected in the sciences, law, economics, etc. Present society depends upon the independent assessment of arguments, leaving aside questions of social standing and personal interest. Because of this, a culture of independent criticism has been put in place despite the fact that all critics are situated within society. Adorno calls the independence of the intellect from society `the promise of freedom' while acknowledging that it fulfils a social need (p.121). Intellectual culture has developed to meet a social need and this is the source of its autonomy. It is not the autonomy of someone living directly and sensuously or that of traditional society, and it is not the idealist notion of autonomy as the capacity to make the world, but it at least provides a degree of intellectual freedom.

The development of this autonomous intellectual culture has been brought about through individual integrity, rather than through blind adaptation to society's laws (p.21). Without individual integrity, objectivity is nothing. Cultural development, even narrowly conceived, thus depends on more than an instrumental education, more than instruction in the techniques of science, law, economics, and so on. It depends on the development of the capacity for independent judgement, on being able to establish a critical distance from dominant perspectives and directions, and on the exercise of subjective probity and rectitude.

If the qualities of integrity and autonomy are to be fostered, schools must do much more than offer a wide range of choices and greater freedom in decision making; they must also nurture a critical attitude in people by focusing on present conditions. Cultural education cannot be a mere acquaintance with cultural artefacts, a kind of museum culture, but has to be drawn from an engagement with living culture in its present state. It must do more than merely pass on a conglomerate of socially neutralised, abstract artefacts; it must resist integration. Instead of emphasising the literal and the factual, it should emphasise the constructed and problematic nature of things, including the present condition of half education (p.121). The practice of criticism does not reflect a political sectarianism; it is a necessity if autonomy is ever to be realised. What is necessary to promote independent thinking depends on the particular way in which society militates against and frustrates this kind of thinking. Independent thinking is brought about through the criticism of the barriers impeding its realisation.

Adorno's theory of education belongs within the liberal tradition in so far as the goal of that tradition is individual autonomy within a social situation of harmonious coexistence. However, Adorno is critical of the narrow, intellectual focus of liberalism, with its destruction of tradition, turning on a pernicious contradiction which is always resolved by recourse to authoritarianism and manipulation. Nevertheless, liberalism contains within it a limited conception of objectivity and autonomy which must be maintained in any system of comprehensive education. In the current circumstances, autonomy cannot be conceived of as freedom from constraint but must be seen in terms of objectivity and integrity.

critical thinking
cultural influences
educational philosophy
educational principles
educational theories


Adorno, T.W. (1969). Is Marx obsolete? Diogenes, 64, 1-16.

Adorno, T.W. (1972). Theorie der Halbbildung. Gesammelte Schriften, 10(2), 93-121.

Adorno, T.W. (1978). Minima moralia: Reflections from damaged life. London: Verso.

Adorno, T.W. (1989). Kierkegaard: Construction of the aesthetic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Adorno, T.W. (1991). The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. London: Routledge.

Adorno, T.W. (1993a). Hegel: Three studies. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Adorno, T.W. (1993b). Theory of pseudo-culture. Telos, 95, 15-38.

Adorno, T.W. & Becker, H. (1983). Education for autonomy. Telos, 56, 103-110.

Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. (1986). The dialectic of enlightenment. London: Verso.

Althusser, L. & Balibar, E. (1977). Reading capital. London: New Left Books.

Hullot-Kentor, R. (1991). Theory of the future. Telos, 87, 137-145.

Kant, I. (1904). The educational theory of Immanuel Kant (E.F. Buchner, Trans., Ed., and Intro.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Maddock, T.H. (1995). The light of redemption: Adorno and the task of critical reason. Arena, 5, 219-237.

Trevor Maddock has been a Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education, University of Adelaide. He can be contacted at 14 Arcoona Avenue, Rostrevor, South Australia 5073.
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Title Annotation:Theodor Adorno
Author:Maddock, Trevor
Publication:Australian Journal of Education
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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