Erwin Wagenhofer talks about ‘mis-education’

Conor McMahon with filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer
Me and Erwin Wagenhofer. Photo by Luiza Puiu.

In August 2013, I travelled to the Alpine village of Alpbach in Austria. Along with 12 other young European journalists, I took park in the Alpbach Media Academy, which was headed by Michael Fleischhacker, a prolific Austrian journalist and editor, and Georg Renner of Die Presse newspaper.

For three intense weeks, we interviewed politicians, economists, scientists and artists who came to the village to attend the 68th annual European Forum Alpbach (EFA). Thanks to communications officer Veronika Hopfgartner (who earned the nickname ‘Lady of Steel’ thanks to her unbelievable ability to get shit done in a short space of time), we had access to pretty much everyone who attended EFA, whether they were a Nobel prize winner, a respected statesmen or a talented comedian. It was fantastic and a very valuable learning experience.

One of my favourite interviews was with the Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer, which I conducted with Katrin Nussmayr.

I was only vaguely familiar with Wagenhofer’s documentaries, which tend to be carefully paced with long scenes, and apart from a quick Wikipedia read, I knew nothing about the man himself. I presumed that Wagenhofer would be something like his films: quiet and controlled. How wrong I was.

From the moment he stepped into the foyer of the Alpbach convention centre, Wagenhofer was animated, excited and energetic.

Throughout our 20-minute interview, Wagenhofer spoke with great urgency and passion about the damage the education system has caused to creativity (the subject of his latest documentary, Alphabet). It was riveting to meet a person so fanatic about his work.

Since my time in Alpbach, the concept of creative learning and what Wagenhofer calls “mis-education” has come up a lot — in college lectures, casual conversation, newspaper articles. So I thought it would be a good idea to republish this article on my blog.

So here it is, me and Katryn’s interview with Erwin Wagenhofer.

Erwin Wagenhofer at Alpbach
Photo by Luiza Puiu.

Alphabet is the final instalment in Erwin Wagenhofer’s documentary trilogy on the current state of economic affairs. His 2005 film We Feed The World explored the origins of mass produced food; Let’s Make Money (2008) investigated the development and elitism in the global financial system; and 2013’s Alphabet looks at how education (and mis-education) determines our view of the world and how we shape it.

Ahead of its official release this October, Alphabet was screened exclusively at the 2013 European Forum Alpbach. Conor McMahon and Katrin Nussmayr caught up with Wagenhofer before the screening.

Media Academy: In the tagline for Alphabet you say that when children are born, 98 per cent of them are highly gifted. But after they finish school, it’s only 2 per cent. Why is this?

Erwin Wagenhofer: It is very easy to see why this is going on – it’s because of standardised testing. That’s the problem. That’s the killer. You have multiple choice questions. You don’t even have to write one sentence. When people are 25 years or older, it’s over. They don’t have any idea of what they can do. They think there’s just one way to do things. But maybe you have a thousand other ways. This is where creativity comes from. The most important things we create in the world – in science, in the arts, in crafts, in social things – come from playing.

MA: Have we lost this playful element?

EW: Yes, that’s what they are doing with us. You can measure it. When children go to school it stops immediately – their own power, their own talent. The only thing you do when you go to school is get an education and be a member of this economy and bring growth and growth and growth. And no fun. And nothing else. That has happened in the last 30 years.

MA: In the description of the movie you say performance culture kills talent. How could this talent be preserved?

EW: The schools of the future will be places where the children gather together in the morning to create a project. The teachers will not be like trainers, they will be accompanists. It’s a question of relation. We need relationships. Not “This is wrong, that’s wrong”.

MA: Still one could argue that children could be spoiled this way, that they might not learn anything.

EW: No, they should play. They should learn everything by playing. Every artist, every inventor – learns by playing.

MA: What about hard algebra?

EW: Do you need it?

MA: In a way, Konstantin Novoselov, who speaks at the Forum on Thursday, won the Nobel prize through “playing”.

EW: Yes, through trial and error. It is so important. Relationships, as opposed to education. In German we have a word for the best student: “Musterschüler”, which means a person who studies everything according to the “Muster” [Engl: pattern] – nothing new. And normally the pattern is from yesterday.

MA: So we need a more playful approach to education. Is there anything else that we need?

EW: That’s just the first step. The next step is that people do things best when they do the things they love. That is when they are in their element. Maybe your element is to be a singer or a craftsman. Whatever. You have that one talent where you are the best. And when you work in this element, you are at your best. It’s really simple. What we have in the economy is everyone fighting against everyone – because of hard work, competition, performance. Everything is made of fear. If you don’t do this, you won’t get a job. You’re an asshole. That’s what we are telling children. There is something wrong.

MA: What you are saying is that playful education and promoting individual talent would prepare people to tackle the problems we now have today – like climate change or the economic crisis?

EW: That’s a good question. This crisis we are having, let’s take the last one, the so-called financial crisis – which is the wrong word because it is not a financial crisis – it is a crisis made by the financial industry. It was made by people who were studying in Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and the best universities in the world. They are not criminals or “the unintelligent guys from the woods” – all of them are in the city of London, which is the most important financial district in the world. Every person who works there is highly educated, and what are they doing? They are making the problems! They are making climate change!

MA: So are we over-educated?

EW: No, it’s not a question of education; it’s a question of attitude. And my movie is not about education, it is about the attitude that is behind education. And we have to change our attitudes. We have to change our targets. What is our target? Of the European community, what’s the target? More, faster, higher? What kind of target is that?

MA: What should be the target?

EW: I don’t have the answer. I’m not the messiah; I’m just a simple filmmaker. This movie is a very simple contribution to a big discussion. One small wheel. A movie can’t be the answer. It’s not the Bible. It’s a long process, and we are all part of this process – if we take democracy serious.

MA: Let’s talk about your job as a filmmaker. Do you have any underlying wishes? Is there anything you want to change, or do you just do it for the sake of doing it because it’s your job?

EW: I think that most filmmakers are not interested in messages. There was a famous saying from the ’60s, from Roman Polanski, whose films I really like. He said: if I had a message, I would be working at the post office. And my approach is the opposite: if I didn’t have a message, I would be working in the post office.

MA: What’s your favourite scene in Alphabet?

EW: The beginning and the end. It’s very poetic. It starts in Death Valley and ends in Death Valley. And Death Valley is a metaphor. It’s a desert. It is the hottest place in the world, and there is nothing growing, because it doesn’t rain. But in 2005 it rained in the wintertime – seven inches. And in spring, Death Valley was coated with spring flowers. And it’s the same with human beings. If we have the right conditions, we can bloom.

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