Prof. Dr. Gesine Schwan
Educating Elites as a Problem of Democratic Politics
BIGSSS, Bremen, October 2008
What's your puzzle? What do you really want to find out? This question is asked at the preliminary
discussion of virtually every scientific work: from proseminars to doctoral theses. The subject of
today's lecture, too, demands clarification of where the problem mentioned actually lies. I see three
ways of defining it. One aspect could lie in the tense relationship between the elite and democracy.
Does educating elites run contrary to democratic equality? A second could be formulated in the
following double question: What is the objective of education and training in democracy? And
what role can educating elites play here? And finally: What can and should democratic politics
contribute to this?
I will do my best to deal with all three questions, one after another.
One of the topical starting points of the current debate about educating elites was probably the
announcement by the federal government about four years ago of its intention to advance innovation
in Germany by specifically promoting certain elite universities capable of competing on the global
stage. This triggered a fierce theoretical and political controversy over whether such a goal is
compatible with social democratic politics, and especially with the structure of German universities
and the way in which responsibility for education is distributed between the federal government on the
one hand and the Länder (federal states) on the other. At the end of 2004, the programme initially fell
victim to a dispute in the Federalism Commission − but has been resurrected and is working now. It is
quite evident that a whole series of political tradeoffs unrelated to the issue in hand played an
important role in this dispute. I do not intend to go into this aspect any further here, but will rather
focus on the questions relating to our subject that I mentioned at the beginning.
Does educating e