Migrants – When education is “uncool”

“Food education” was the topic of the 10th Dürnstein Symposium, which this year took place in the Minoritenkirche Krems due to the coronavirus. Some speakers and all participants were virtually connected. Renowned sociologist Kenan Güngör came straight to Krems. The “Wiener Zeitung” spoke to him in general about the Austrian school system and the difficulties migrants are confronted with there.

“Wiener Zeitung”: I have the impression that educated parents are now more involved in the school process of their children than was previously the case. Is it really like that? And if so, why?

Kenan Dogan Güngör: We have a division here in society. Teachers report that there are parents where it is difficult to take the children with them. I know of cases in which teachers have not recommended children with a transnational background that the child go to high school. Although the grades would just have been enough for it. Some of them did not do this out of ostensible racism, but because they said that the child needs a lot of support from the family in high school. And it doesn’t have that help. The child is successful and would experience failure there. And they want to spare the child that. So: Students need good family educational support to advance in high school. The parents have to be something like a second teacher at home. At the same time, teachers speak of dealing with parents – they are called helicopter parents – who sometimes even correct the teachers’ texts. Today, demographically, we have almost 20 percent university graduates. If you include the BHS with the EU definition, it is even 37 percent. In 40 years it has more than tripled. To the extent that we have an academization of society, the parents are also more interested in school issues.

Could it be that these very educated parents are primarily afraid of the social decline of their children?

So everyone wants only the best for their children according to their possibilities. Even when they ask uneducated families what is most important to them, they say it is their children’s education. For most of them, it is not their disinterest but their ability that makes the difference. There are parents who are desperate to help but don’t know how. Because they don’t speak the language, for example.

Kenan Dogan Güngör is a sociologist and political advisor.  He heads the think.difference research office in Vienna.  Michael Schmölzer
Kenan Dogan Güngör is a sociologist and political advisor. He heads the think.difference research office in Vienna. Michael Schmölzer

But isn’t it true that parents who are well educated consider education to be more important?

Of course, people with an educational affinity also have a different habitus. They put more emphasis on education, that’s the difference. We have the ambivalence: on the one hand, there are more and more academics, on the other hand, education has lost its prestige. The educated class is no longer the upper class of society, it is rather the upper middle class. It used to be like this: If you had an academic background, then you had a very high social status because many did not have that background. The correlation that educated people also became wealthy was always very high. Today it is like this: A higher education helps me to find a good to mediocre job. Through the dimensioning comes the relativization of the education.

What then determines the social status today?

The education that is in a high income. Education is devalued, but the more closely income correlates with education, the higher the prestige. How you spend your free time is also crucial: whether you go to the theater or not. Whether you stand in front of the game console or not.

You said that a disproportionate proportion of young migrants in Austria only had a compulsory school certificate. Why? What about education policy? There have been many initiatives in the last few decades, such as the comprehensive school idea. But all attempts in this direction have failed, none of this has resulted in more equal opportunities.

I think the compulsory year of kindergarten to learn German is important. It’s not that one-sidedly negative. Because you can be as smart as you want: if you don’t master the language, you’ll always be left behind. It’s not about reassuring the Austrians, but about good starting conditions. About social equality, about equal opportunities. But we ought to have had all-day schools long ago, where the educational mandate is completed in the schools and therefore it does not depend so much on the educational background of the parents. In Austria this is more of an ideological struggle and not one based on the cause. When students are there all day, school is much more a space for socialization and relationships. That is where we absolutely have to move. We have such an early selection that this is an exception in Europe. If the educational capital of the parents plays such a large role and we then draw the children into different school systems so early on, then I really consider that to be a massive problem. Children from educationally disadvantaged families are also disadvantaged.

There have been attempts in Austria for over 100 years to implement a common school for all 10 to 14 year olds, but this has never been successful. And parents play an enormous role in the success of their children in school. The left has always said that there are social forces who want to prevent reform because they benefit from the current situation. Is that true or is that already ideological?

That’s a bit too ideological for me. I would give two reasons: First, that we are past-oriented creatures of habit. We consider what we know to be standard normality and close ourselves to everything unusual. And second: if a joint school would lead to a leveling down, then the question is whether that really makes sense. A leveling in the middle is more positive for poorly educated children, it is negative for well educated children.

But if the idea is implemented well, can it work?

Quite right. There are very good concepts for this too. Whether and how it works in somewhat polluted school locations must then prove itself in practice. It doesn’t happen automatically. Especially in puberty, in middle school, it is important whether educational aspiration in the group of the same age is a high value or “uncool”. You shouldn’t underestimate that. There are many parents who send their children to certain schools because of the peer group effects or who pay a lot of money to prevent other children from going there. So private schools. This is not only because of the educators, the parents hope that there will be a selection that is advantageous for them, in which less educated children do not get there.

And children from lower social classes are more likely to find education “uncool”. Isn’t that also the case in high social classes?

These children grow up with different assumptions of normality, that changes a lot. In a phase from 13 to 19 you are incredibly strongly oriented towards the group of your peers. By the way, boys more than girls. There are hardly any rappers who say: Education is great. The culture is: Because you have no chance, you have to look for the shortest path to your success. And that can go beyond coolness, martial masculinity or crime. There is a popularized aestheticization of the uneducated, macho underdog. Also in the cultural codes. There are many parents who underestimate the peer group, although many make the school decision based on the peer group.

The teachers are very important here, but they often don’t know that. They don’t want to believe their importance. Also for convenience?

For a long time it was very easy to become a teacher. Some of them were not called to do this job. If you work a lot with people in a critical phase of their life, then you need this passion. And when I have difficult students and am frustrated, as a teacher I lose the feeling of self-efficacy. In many cases, teachers also say: the children have to improve, the parents have to stick to it or the educational system is bad. Therefore we can hardly do anything. Due to this self-devaluation, however, they overlook the important role they play in the life and education of the children. While in adults it is only a phase, in children it is their youth. And that shapes differently.

Has anything changed for the better in Austria?

The education system is very conservative. Like a big steamer that follows its usual course unimpressed by the waves. There are also very strong stakeholders who make sure that not much changes.

The Union.

I don’t think much of teacher bashing, but 30 percent shouldn’t be allowed into school. I think that’s fatal.

You said that once the teachers are out of the school building they lose sight of the children. In the Corona crisis, the problem arises that many children “disappear”. In Nordic countries it is part of the process that teachers drop by at home.

I am divided there. Many parents do not speak the German language. These parents are very hospitable and put everything on the table. But you are also ashamed. Actually, you should build a lot more trust.

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