Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

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Bauman, Education as a Process in the Liquid Modernity

  • Haydee Alejandra Aguilar UrbinaEmail author
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_134-1


Zygmunt Bauman, philosopher and sociologist, was born November 19, 1925 at Poznan, Poland. He has been considered by many to be one of the most critical social thinkers of our time. This is because his contributions to the field of social sciences have been a vital piece for understanding our present-day society. His most emblematic contribution has been the concept of “liquid modernity,” a theoretical metaphor that has allowed a deeper understanding of the postmodern man in an ever-changing society with shifting moral values. His theoretical interests show case, among others, social stratification, the Holocaust, hermeneutics, modernity, postmodernity, consumerism, globalization, the stranger and the estranged, globalization, poverty, and education.

It is important to learn who Bauman is because his theoretical thought and interests are without a doubt somewhat influenced by his life experiences. Bauman was born into a poor Jewish family; they were forced to flee to the Soviet Union after a Nazi invasion to their home country in 1939. He then joined the Polish Army to fight against the German invasion. After, Bauman began his academic endeavor in the 1950s at the University of Warsaw; he was later exiled in 1968 after participating in an Anti-Semitic campaign and relocated as Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971, where he remained until his retirement in 1990. After leaving Leeds, he began to gain importance in sociological circles, consequence of his publications on modernity and the Holocaust. This opened the door to later publications on several topics linked to the problems of modernity which helped establish Bauman as one of the most influential and prolific thinkers of this century (Bauman & Tester 2001).

General Theory and Concepts

Bauman’s work includes more than 50 books and more than 100 essays, his most noted being “Modernity and the Holocaust,” released in 1989. This book would set the tone for his thought on modernity; he explained that “It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable… [the Holocaust was] also the organizational achievement of a bureaucratic society” (Bauman 1995). In 1990 he would conceive his most representative concept, “liquid modernity” with which he denominated a fast-moving era in which frailty of human connection and the insecurity of nothing being solid or permanent.

His work revolves around a criticism of modernity, which he mentions can’t be allocated to a specific historical period. However, he identifies two different categories: a solid modernity and a liquid one. The project of solid modernity was the creation of order, progress, and a single criterion of truth. There was a wish for a rational control over nature, and a bureaucratic hierarchy was needed to create many rules and regulations to make social structures organized and solid. In contrast, liquid modernity seeks to free itself from the idea of progress and of the control of the future and pursues to eliminate universalism and replace it with a moral relativism. In liquid modernity the idea that free and just society has already been configured therefor the quest for social progress becomes obsolete, thus provoking a feeling that there is nothing new or better to wait for (Bauman 2006).

The change from solid to liquid modernity arose from the disengagement suffered by social structures. These were accused of limiting individual freedom to choose and act (structures that limit individual choices, institutions that safeguard the continuity of habits, acceptable behavioral models). In the liquid modernity, such models are considered obsolete and are no longer allowed or expected to be maintained (Bauman 2006).

Liquid modernity is characterized by the fragility of social bonds and the fluidness of everything believed to be safe. The individual, in becoming independent, loses its sense of belonging to nature and society, consequently dropping its sense of collectivity and solidarity. This generates a society which is composed not by the sum of individuals that create a community but by a disintegrated set of independent individuals without ties to each other.

The new modern ethics have made individuals responsible for their destiny (since no institution can guarantee anything) that affective uprooting and detachment to memory are presented as conditions of success. In the liquid modernity, the individual must always be ready to abandon any commitment or loyalty “the readiness to change tactics and styles in a flash, to abandon commitments and loyalties without repentance, and to pursue opportunities according to the availability of the moment, instead of continuing the own consolidated preferences” (Bauman 2006); holding on to something implies immobility and immobility in modern liquid societies is synonymous of death.

The liquid society must be composed of individuals willing to constantly change; there is no longer a job that lasts a lifetime or a relationship that lasts until death, nothing guarantees a safe and reliable future; individuals must keep navigating through various options hoping bill will not reach them and cause them to lose their place in the world. The liquid society is composed of a succession of new beginnings without ever reaching the end; any bond or community commitment is a burden that must be left behind to be able to travel more lightly, this being the vital tactic when conceiving life as survival.

The values of solid modernity, when everything was sought to be imperishable, strong, and constant, have been put aside because of a need for flexibility and immediateness. In liquid modernity, people lose interest quickly, and life expectations become higher and higher thus impossible to satisfy. Even more, if satisfaction is reached, it is fleeting and momentary, forcing individuals to periodically change their tastes, interests, jobs, partners, city, etc.; change becomes the only constant in the modern man and woman’s life. However, the illusion of luxury and comfort which goes along with liquid modernity is accompanied by a sharp sense of insecurity which makes the individual perceive that at any moment, what they have can be snatched away and he can be left out of the game (Bauman 2006).


Throughout his work on liquid modernity, Bauman argues that liquid-modern culture is a culture of disconnection, discontinuity, and lack of memory (Bauman 2011). In this new liquid culture, the art of learning has long passed its time of paideia, thus becoming a consumption of “knowledge,” which as a consumer good has become “eminently disposable and good only until further notice and of only temporary usefulness” (Bauman 2012). In such manner education has changed from an orthodox teacher-student relation to a supplier-client relationship (Best 2015). However, there is still hope because education can also be a space for redefining more communitarian bonds and allow people some control in a liquid era in order for them to be able to construct a new social and political sphere (Best 2015).

Bauman’s work does not grant reader a global and systematic approach to education but rather states the difficulties faced by educators and students in their ability to shape and affect their social sphere, “firstly in solid modernity there were totalitarian pressures exercised by the state, and secondly in liquid modernity there are nihilist pressures on intellectuals to view every- thing in individual and market terms with no reference to a public sphere” (Best 2015). Consequently, in solid and in liquid modernity, education was and is seen as a product and not as a process.

In his work, Bauman wishes to avoid the human consequences of both types of education; the first one concerned with cultural prohibition and the second with the free navigation of an ever-changing society. He thinks that society has to change the way young people are educated in a seductive consumer society. This is because he believes that in liquid modernity, education is not concerned with changing individuals in order for them to construct a better world and reinstate social bonds but with seduction and the consumption of knowledge (Bauman 2011). He states that education has left the concept of paideia in which the individual was taught how to “intellectualize or reflect upon culture and ideas in relation their position in the world” (Best 2015) and has now changed the notion of “lifelong education” into an oxymoron. This is because, in liquid modernity, education is a not a quest for a better world but for identity construction (Bauman 2011).

He compares education in the solid and liquid society to the construction of missiles. Education in solid modernity is comparable to ballistic missiles, which were constructed to have a certain direction and distance, which was ideal for positional warfare when targets stayed in their positions. Liquid modern education, however, is more comparable to smart missiles which follow a strategy of “instrumental rationality”; they have no given end but rather chose targets as they go. “So what they need to be supplied with initially is the ability to learn, and learn fast… [and they also need to have] the ability to instantly forget what has been learned before […] What the ‘brains’ of smart missiles must never forget is that knowledge they acquire is eminently disposable, good only until further notice and of only temporary usefulness” (Bauman 2011). As such, the values which legitimized traditional education are no longer accepted; if not seen as obsolete, the information provided by educators and resources is something that deems only be consumed when needed.

In both liquid and solid modernity, education is seen as product rather than a process, because it is what will help the individual adapt into the world, pursue individual purposes, and build certain identity. However, in solid education, it was seen as a lasting good, a value that was meant to last, and in liquid modernity, education is based on learning market skills; people can pick and choose which skills will be useful and which can be forgotten, as such education becomes a commodity.

According to Bauman, lifelong learning should quest for the empowerment of individuals when entering the public sphere and for granting the tools that allow for a better sense of community and bonding. Yet, in modern society it has become more about employment skills and identity construction. Knowledge becomes something to be consumed, enjoyed, and disposed of, because the unpredictability which characterizes liquid modernity means the individual must be ready for anything; there is no longer a making sense of the world but rather a constant state of confusion. Modern learning is adapted to a tertiary learning scheme because it allows the student to undo and redo mental patterns at a moment’s notice (Bauman 2011).

In modern liquid times, education should be seen as a process, because what is learned is no longer knowledge that will be useful throughout a lifetime but something that is used and thrown out depending on the individuals’ needs. Nevertheless, Bauman believes that when the world is in constant change, education should be fast enough to adapt to it. One of the challenges individuals face is that they must be used to dealing with as much information as possible especially with the rise of the Internet. Because in modern liquid times, education is readily available and no longer needs to be memorized or reformulated, it is important for the individual to be able to discern what data is appropriate and what isn’t. Secondly, modernity faces the individual with a “nowist” nature, everything must respond to immediate needs (Bauman 2011); yet, education is something that must be used throughout the individual’s life allowing for long-term planning and social prospective. Education must allow students to have critical thought and establish a bond with other human beings. In this sense, Bauman believes that the role of education in liquid modern society is to help people “dissemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame or dispose of it completely” (Bauman 2012).

As such, in liquid modernity learning has become as something that doesn’t leave a lasting mark and finds traditional education obsolete. This is because there is no room for the accumulation of knowledge and growth through time; modernity is characterized by immediateness and disposal. Learning is currently something that doesn’t leave a firm foundation, because people are faced with constant beginnings which make the individual more prone to losing the memory of past knowledge than to build upon it and acquire more. Hence, learners have no long-term commitment with any knowledge or with educational institutions themselves; this causes a negative effect on school-based education and teacher-student’s relationships (Best 2015).


Zygmunt Bauman believes that liquid modernity calls for a need of developing and supporting social bonds, emancipation, and the individual’s incurrence in the public and political sphere; it is important for education to grant people with the skills to be part of a community and be able to generate dialogue with others and regenerate broken bonds and social interaction and solidarity. In liquid-modern culture, “unique identities” and skills that allow for a flexible adaptation to the job market are highly valued; yet these virtues are not likely to come from a textbook or a teacher view on the correct path to take in life. Education is seen as a product, the acquisition of competences that can be used or forgotten depending on what is needed in that moment; there is no longer an accumulation of knowledge and critical thinking in order to plan a better place for the future.

Bauman considers that there are few possibilities in facing the consequences of modern liquid culture in educational systems which have transformed lifelong learning into a focus on professional information and work market skills. He explains that “The role of education is to facilitate a communal moral engagement; bringing together the individual with their own moral impulse. Education allows the individual to understand that they have both physical and close communal proximity with their fellow liquid moderns, by giving liquid moderns the skills and confidence to engage with each other within the public sphere” (Best 2015).

His conception of education is that it should consist on creating empowerment of the individual and providing the necessary skills to allow people to shape the world they live in, not just for personal ends but in a social, political, and economic sphere. Education should be the tool that allows people to engage with each other again, to build bridges of understanding between those seen as “others,” and to discover common interest and obligations in order to create a better place and rebuild long broken social bonds, being able to work with and for each other trespassing cultural differences and finding common goals. However, when analyzing his concept of liquid modernity and the limitations embedded on the individual, they seem to lack the ability to exercise their human agency. In this sense Bauman states the problem but offers no way out and no lines on to how individuals can escape the seductive consumerism imposed of modern liquid education in order to be able to engage in critical thought and see education as a lifelong process that will allow the transformation of society into one where human bonds and community are again possible.


  1. Bauman, Z. (1995). Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University Press NY.Google Scholar
  2. Bauman, Z. (2006). Vida Líquida. Barcelona: Paidós.Google Scholar
  3. Bauman, Z. (2011). Liquid modern challenges to education. Padova: University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bauman, Z. (2012). On education: Conversations with Ricardo Mazzero. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  5. Bauman, Z. & Tester, K. (2001). Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  6. Best, S. (2017). Education in the interregnum: An evaluation of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid-turn writing on education. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01425692.2015.1073103. Último acceso 15 Abril 2018.

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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Autonomous University of MexicoMexicoMexico

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ana Valle
    • 1
  1. 1.National Autonomous University of MexicoMexicoMexico