In Germany, 74 out of 100 academic children go to university. For children from non-academic families it is just 21. What needs to be done?

View of the Görges building on the campus of the Technical University of Dresden

VMany role models, especially athletes and musicians, suggest that it is perfect earthly happiness to become like Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil or Bushido – according to the motto “from ghetto kid to gangsta rapper”. This happiness model suggests that one can become rich and famous, but at the same time maintain language, demeanor and habitus. It is the hope of being able to do anything without having to change anything.

So is this where the incentive for social advancement comes? Barely. The path from ghetto kid to gangsta rapper is a fairy tale, sounds beautiful, rarely occurs and has nothing to do with typical class advancement from bottom to top. This is the thesis of the new book “Mythos Bildung” by the sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani: At some point in their biography, successful educationalists have problematized their own thinking and acting and developed the desire to change something in their lives. As a rule, it’s not about money and power, not even about social advancement. Adolescents are not little sociologists who think about social mobility, but rather, if things go well, young people who develop fun and curiosity in learning and who have experienced that this opens up new worlds for them.

Where there is no motive for advancement, there cannot be an advancement plan. Climbers only climb the next rung of the ladder. The path is uncertain and is accompanied by fears. El-Mafaalani’s own biography reads like proof of his thesis: Born in Germany to Syrian parents, he worked as a school teacher for six years. He was also an employee in the North Rhine-Westphalian Ministry of Integration. Today El-Mafaalani is professor for “Educational Science and Education in the Migration Society” at the University of Osnabrück. His book “The Integration Paradox – Why Successful Integration Leads to More Conflicts”, published in 2018, became a bestseller: Conflicts do not arise because the integration of migrants and minorities fails, but – on the contrary – because it is increasingly successful. “Social convergence creates controversies and populist defensive reactions – in Germany and worldwide,” claims El-Mafalaani.

Afraid of sliding down again

It is the experience of all those who have advanced in education that integration into a new social milieu causes psychological costs. They are also a kind of migrant. Educational migration needs the will to change and has its price: climbers experience separation, alienation, shame and guilt from their milieu of origin and need the ability to be flexible and adapt to new environments, which nevertheless do not make the hoped-for affiliation easy for them. You sit between all the chairs.

This experience is described better than sociologists by the French author Anni Ernaux, whose books are currently being translated into German by Suhrkamp. Her story: The father dies, which gives the narrator an opportunity to write down his life. Born around the turn of the century, briefly attending school, farmer, then until his death in 1967 owner of a small grocery store in Normandy. His life is the story of social advancement and the fear of slipping down again. The father is proud that the daughter is attending high school, but at the same time they are distancing themselves from each other. For the author, the story becomes a story of betrayal: of her parents and the milieu in which she grew up, divided between affection and shame, between belonging and alienation.