Awaking to the world

Gert Biesta-interview

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LÆRKE GRANDJEAN: Last time I met you, in 2015, to do an interview I started to tell you what was going on educationally right then in Denmark, with an example. I would like to start in the same way this time (2016).

The Danish government has, together with the Union of Municipalities, in 2013 decided that all schools in Denmark at the beginning of this school year 2016/2017 should see and understand Education – mainly with the focus on the students' learning, using learning portals on the iPad or PC where students log on and get access to the learning objectives and help files, texts and videos of the course. Students should answer the tasks and work with evaluation via these learning portals. And the students´ learning should continuously be measured by new tools (

The government´s and the Union of Municipalities´ decision about these user portals includes the use of a common public IT infrastructure for all schools in Denmark - with digital learning materials, technologies and learning portals where students, parents, educational staff, administrations and state authorities have access. This infrastructure will be rolled out to all schools by the end of 2017 (

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My questions to you:

Are learning/user portals a trend in the rest of Europe? In America?

How would you analyse such education with a focus on learning/user portals?

What kind of young people will the school create with focus on students learning via technologies and learning portals?

What is the history behind ´learnification´? (Neoliberalism? M. Thatcher? A turnaround from teaching to learning? From the teacher's responsibility to the student's responsibility? From continental and Nordic pedagogy to Anglo-American pedagogy?)

Has ´learnification´ anything to do with education? Why?  Why not?

GERT BIESTA: I haven’t come across anything like this in another country – not yet, at least – although there are certainly developments that are going in this direction, such as the rise of so-called ‘data-driven teaching’ and the growth of so-called ‘learning analytics.’ To put it bluntly, but I will provide more detail in a minute: this is precisely the disastrous erosion of the school I have been warning about it my writings over the past 10 to 15 years. And while I am not surprised that it is happening – it is just the next step in this development – it is of course very worrying that it has happened, and that it has happened so fast.

One reason why it is worrying, and this is probably a reason some would recognize, is that this development seems to narrow the purpose of school education from broad formation to that of narrow schooling, focusing only on progress in a small number of curricular domains – and I wouldn’t be surprised if in Danish we find the language of ‘learning outcomes’ here and probably also a reference to the ‘basics’ of education. I even would not be surprised if arguments about global league table positions, the role of PISA and the like, play a role here, though again I would be very disappointed if the ambition of Danish politicians would be to make Denmark number 1 on such lists. But the worry is not just that of the narrowing of the purpose of the school from broad formation to narrow schooling, but also the transformation of education itself into the management of individuals aimed at the production of measurable learning outcomes. One could say that the Danish set up is entirely behavioristic – I would claim that it is not even interested in what students learn, and definitely not in reaching their soul, but is simply about the how they perform and about what they produce.

From what you tell me, the logic and the form of education seems to have become identical to the logic and form of intensive farming, where cows, for example, are also put in constant feedback loops where all kind of input factors – such as food, light, air, space, and so on – are linked to the output factors that matter – milk and meat – so as to create a ‘perfect’ product. One could already say that the fact that there is a cow in between the input and output factors is not really relevant – what matters is what the cow produces, and the way to control that is by controlling what goes into the cow. If the wellbeing of the cow becomes an issue for this – if, for example, we find that there are hormones in the milk that are the result of stress or anxiety – measures will be taken to adjust that as well, but not for a concern about the cow, but for a concern about the product. One could argue that this is simply not how we should treat animals. But in education there is not only the moral argument whether this is how we should treat human beings – after all, students or their parents might even buy in to this if they feel that making Denmark number 1 or making their child number 1 or becoming themselves number 1 will open the way towards a golden future. There is also the educational argument, which is that the students who find themselves in such feedback-systems are not there to produce something but are there to be and become educated. And this is perhaps the most worrying aspect of this whole development, this whole drive to make education efficient and effective: that in doing so the very ‘point’ of education seems to have disappeared and we have replaced education with something else; with the administration and management of the effective production of learning outcomes.

Now I started by saying that I am not really surprised by these developments, as they seem to be the logical conclusion of certain trends that have been going on for a longer time. It is here that my notion of ‘learnification’ plays a role, because I have introduced that notion to describe the tendency in educational research, policy and practice to talk about education mainly in terms of learning: teaching as facilitating learning, students as learners, schools as learning environments, adult education as lifelong learning, and so on. The turn towards learning is understandable, particularly as a response to authoritarian forms of education that think of education just in terms of control. Here a focus on learning may help to see that education is not just about what teachers want to get into the heads (or hearts or hands) of their students, but that there are human beings at the other end who are involved in sense-making, understanding, practicing and the like, and who should have a certain freedom to do so in their own way. The language of learning has certainly helped to bring the students into view and in this regard had contributed to the critique of authoritarian forms of education.

The turn towards learning has also been influenced by the rise of certain psychologies of learning. Although nowadays many people refer to constructivism and socio-cultural theories as key influences here, that is, theories that highlighted that students are not passive receivers but do a lot of work – alone, such as in the case of constructivism or together, as in the case of socio-cultural theories – the insight that it is not possible to learn for someone else, that we all have to make up our own mind, is actually very old (Socrates already knew it). But it’s not just political critique and learning theory that have contributed to the learnification of education; I also think that neoliberalism has played a role, particularly where one of the main ‘tricks’ of neoliberalism is to make individuals responsible for what used to be seen as a collective responsibility, particularly a responsibility of the welfare state. The most explicit example of this is the transformation of adult education into lifelong learning, where we can see where the language of learning is used to make this into a responsibility for individuals – they must ‘keep up,’ particularly with regard to their employability, and need to be doing this throughout their lives. That’s a very different ‘project’ from that of adult education, not just because the language of education hints at provision and a right to benefit from such provision – unlike lifelong learning, which sounds much more like a duty – and also because the ‘education’ of ‘adult education’ refers to the possibility to be and become educated, rather than just learning ‘things.’

In my work I have identified two reasons why the learnification of education – or more precisely: the learnification of educational discourse, policy and practice – is problematic. The first, which you can find particularly in Beyond Learning and Good Education in an Age of Measurement, is that the language of learning has marginalized the question of purpose, that is, the question of what education is or ought to be for. Simply saying that the purpose of education is that children or young people learn – a phrase I keep encountering all over the world – is in my view problematic, because there is so much that they can learn, in the school and elsewhere. Of course they can learn that two and two equals four, or they can learn the second law of thermodynamics, or that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 – most people would see that as rather ‘innocent’ – but they can also learn that racism is wrong, that democracy is valuable and vulnerable or, from a very different context, that the supreme leader Kim Jong-un should always be obeyed; and they can learn things about themselves, for example that they are clever, impatient, not good at certain things, ugly, and so on.

One problem is that the word ‘learning’ is simply too vague and too open, and if we just say that the school is a place for learning we are simply not precise enough. Or the flip-side of this argument: we are already ‘filling’ this statement with all kind of ideas about good or desirable learning, but are not explicit about this, which then precisely opens up the space for some forces – such as OECD and its league-tables or employers and what they ‘need’ from the school or political ideologies that want to use the school to domesticate the masses – to come in and define what good or desirable learning is. So it’s partly a matter of lack of precision if we talk the language of learning, but also that we prevent ourselves from engaging with the much more difficult but hugely important question what the purposes of learning, and of the education that happens in schools more generally, should be. So you could say that the language of learning creates the situation in which it becomes very easy to replace broad formation with narrow schooling and training in the production of a small set of learning outcomes. The language of learning, in other words, runs the risk that we no longer understand that schools are part of a much more encompassing educational ‘project’ and if we forget that, then of course we have little to say if technology comes in to say that they can make learning much more efficient, effective and personalized. But what this learning is about and what it is to be for – those questions seem to have disappeared. Which, by the way, also means that the system such as implemented in Denmark can be used for all kind of purposes, including the indoctrination of the people into the idea that the supreme leader should always be obeyed. Ironically, the turn towards learning then ends up supporting the very opposite of what it was supposed to do: rather than be a turn for liberation and emancipation from authoritarian forms of control, the learning machine becomes the most effective instrument for such ambitions.

The second reason why I consider the learnification of education to be problematic – and this is a theme that is more explicit in my book The Beautiful Risk of Education – has to do with the way in which learning positions us in relation to the world. A quick way of putting it, is to say that learning is always something we do in our ambitions to understand, to make sense, to acquire, to gain, and so forth. Of course we always learn about something and we can even point at situations where we learn from something or from someone, but phrasing – and understanding – this in terms of learning always hints at a relationship where we are the starting-point and the end-point, that is, a gesture that is issued from the self and, via the natural or social world, returns to the self, so to speak, which is the moment when we say we have learned something. Is this a problem? No! But the point I have tried to make in relation to this is that learning is not and should not be the only way in which we conceive of ourselves in relation to the world. If learning is ultimately about our understanding, our sense-making, our comprehension, our acquisition, the we might say that learning always puts is in the center and in control – even if we’re learning something we didn’t know or weren’t able to do before. One thing I’m interested in, and that is the other concern I have about the whole language of learning, is that there is another aspect of our being-in-the-world – not where we learn, but where we are addressed, where we are being spoken to, where we are given something, where we, in short, are being taught.

For me this really is the opposite of the ‘gesture’ of learning, as it is about things that come to us rather than about our grasping – metaphorically and literally. To make learning the be-all and end-all of education, and even to make it the be-all and end-all of life, to me means that we define education and life entirely in terms of the first gesture and leave little room, if any, for the second gesture, the gesture where what and who is other addresses me, speaks to me, teaches me. This is not just a matter of theory, but I think that as a culture – perhaps as a generation and maybe even as a civilization – we have lost not just a ‘sense’ of this other direction but also an appetite for this other direction. One reason for this is that we have come to see the address of the other entirely in terms of power – the other trying to tell me something, trying to teach me something – and we seem to think that this means that our own freedom is limited. But this is a very limited and selfish notion of freedom to begin with, one where we think that freedom means not to be affected by anything or anyone, not to be related with anything or anyone, not to be responsible for anything or anyone. It’s of course what we hear all the time in neoliberal talk, but it is a limited, limiting and rather impoverished way of understanding our human condition. It’s tied up with the critique of authoritarian forms of teaching I mentioned earlier, but what is remarkable – both in that discussion and in the turn towards learning – is that we seem to have forgotten that there is a third option, one where the address of the other, the teaching of the other, is actually liberating because it liberates us from our being-with-ourselves and turns us ‘back’ towards the world.

To bring this back to your question, we could say that an education system that is entirely ‘geared’ towards learning – and what is happening in Denmark is doing this in a very extreme way, but it is happening in many other countries in ways that are less visible but nonetheless problematic – is that we particularly affirm the first ‘way’ of being in and with the world, where, as learners, the world always appears as something for us to make sense of, for us to get from, take from, acquire, and so on, but pay little attention to the opposite direction, that is, helping children and young people to become sensitive for what the world, natural and social, is trying to say to them, is trying to ask from them, is trying to teach them. There are many other things that a set up such as the one in Denmark may be doing to children and young people – promoting a competitive mindset, never learning to be patient, thinking that faster is always better, always having to perform, always having the feeling of being monitored, never again being touched – but for me a lot of this starts with the focus on learning as the only ‘modality’ of human existence. And here, but I will only mention this briefly, we should perhaps also not forget historical examples where learning was very effective and led to high levels of cultivation – German Bildung, Italian education under Mussolini – but where the very experienced of being touched, of being addressed, of being spoken to, had effectively disappeared from education and society, with devastating consequences.

That is quite a long answer, but I think that what is happening in Denmark right now requires a detailed and careful response in order to show that it is problematic at many levels.

LÆRKE GRANDJEAN:  Will you tell us about your new book (2017, LG) about teaching? What are your main notions? What is your main purpose with your new book?

GERT BIESTA: My new book is called The Rediscovery of Teaching – and the motto, which I may or may not use as a subtitle, is ‘progressive arguments for a conservative idea.’ In a sense I have already explained the main reason for writing this book, which is to reclaim a space for the importance of teaching and, more specifically, for the importance of the experience of being taught. In this regard it is a further step in my critique of the language of learning and the practice of learning and also of what in some places I have called the ‘ontology’ of learning, that is the question how learning positions us in (relation to) the world. On the one hand I try to show in some more detail why teaching has disappeared – both as something we do in schools but also as something we give a place in our lives – and on the other hand I try to show, and this is the main work in the book, why teaching and the encounter with the experience of being taught, of being spoken to, of being addressed, is crucial for our human existence and our existence as humans.

One suggestion I do in the book, and it is one way to summarize the underlying message, is that I do not think that the human being is a being who can learn – I actually write, if I remember it correctly: the human being is not an animal who can learn – but that I think that the human being, as being, is a being who can be taught, who can be addressed, who can receive a teaching, so to speak. In my view the learnification of education has brought a lot of animal psychology into the classroom – which is another reason why the behaviorism I mentioned above is actually not a surprise – and the key challenge is to bring the question of our human existence back into the classroom. This is not because I have anything against animals – on the contrary – but because I think that the question of human existence, of what it means to exist as human, is a very different question from the question of animals and how they survive through intelligent adaptation. Although I do not discuss this explicitly in the book, this is also what concerns me about a lot of ‘brain reductionism’ in contemporary education, that is, the idea that if we know how the brain works we know what education should be. The whole point of education is not one of brain stimulation, and not even of memorization or information processing; as human beings who try to lead humane lives the much bigger issue, the much more urgent issue, is how we live our subjective, individual, free lives well. That our brains may work in this way or that, may be interesting information – or not; sometimes it’s just a distraction – but it never ‘touches’ upon the task of leading our lives, something which each of us can only do for themselves.

One theme that runs through the book is the question of authority, where I show that we have conflated authority with power and have come to think that any address from the other, any way in which another human being, or an animal or a planet for that matter, speaks to me, asks something from is, can only be perceived as an act of power, something that limits my freedom. One of the tasks for education is precisely to transform power – which is always unwarranted intervention – into authority – which is always relational, and is about establishing relationships with what and who is other where we give power that what and who is other, that is, where we say, for example, that it is legitimate that the planet puts limits on what we can desire from it. That is not a matter of the planet exerting unwarranted power over us, but it is come to the acknowledgement that our desires cannot be unlimited – we thus give the planet a voice in our lives, so that the planet can become an author, someone who speaks to us, which is precisely a relationship of authority, not of power. Teaching operates in this terrain as well, and although there is authoritarian teaching, that doesn’t mean that all teaching is authoritarian and that the solution would be to get rid of teaching (and turn towards learning). The challenge, and it is a complex one that is not entirely in the hands of the teacher because it is fundamentally about the relationship between teacher and student, is to turn relationships of power into relationships of authority. That is where we not just need to rediscover that teaching is something of importance, but also need to see that teaching is not just a conservative idea, not just an act of control, but has progressive possibilities, because teaching – in all its forms and guises – is precisely what can pull us away from being with ourselves, and turn us towards the world, which is the place where lives can only be lived.

That these are not just abstracts ideas, although the book is quite abstract, is something I show through a discussion of I course I taught in which I told my students that they were not allowed to learn anything, that is, that I tried them to stay away from understanding and comprehension. For the detail you will have to read the book, but what this made visible is that when we take learning – the desire to understand and make sense – away from education, something else, the experience of being spoken to, of being addressed, of being taught, can ‘return’ to the classroom, so to speak, and this is another dimension of what the rediscovery of teaching entails.

LÆRKE GRANDJEAN:  An educational language. Your notions: ´Coming into the world´, ´Uniqueness´ along with ´Subjectification, socialization and qualification are very important notions to us teachers because we can communicate with parents, politicians and ´ordinary´ people and try to explain what teaching is about.

My questions is: Can the three concepts Subjektification, socialization and qualification be seen respectively together with pedagogy, formation and education?

What I mean is: Can Subjectification be seen/understood in the light of pedagogy? Socialization in the light of formation? And qualification in the light of education? 

How can we teachers in Denmark explain to the Danish government and Union of Municipalities (from my question number one) that their ´learning/user portals´ will lead to ´learnification´? How do we hinder a totalitarian pedagogy?

How do we speak educational about education with an essence and a purpose – or to put in another way: How do we argue for a good and meaningful, substantial pedagogy, formation and education?

GERT BIESTA: I can see what you are trying to do with these concepts, that is, connect them to existing discourses about education, but I would, however, strongly resist the idea that qualification, socialization and subjectification can and should be understood as three separate educational ideologies or ‘programmes.’ The main reason for this is that it would provide support for those who think that it is legitimate to focus education only on one of these dimensions – as what seems to be happening in Denmark, but not only there. My thinking behind the notions of qualification, socialization and subjectification is that they first of all describe three functions of education, that is, three dimensions of what always takes place – and the ‘always’ is important here – when education happens. So I would say that education is always about something. It’s never just people sitting together and having a good time, but there is always some content, some knowledge, some skills, that some people have to give and other people might seek to acquire. So I would say that in education there is always qualification happening. Some would stop here and say that the only task of the school is to work in the domain of qualification, that is, knowledge and skills, because everyone else involves values and schools should not be involved in that.

I disagree, first of all for the simple reason that even dealing with knowledge and skills already involves many value judgements – What knowledge of worth to be engaged with? Which skills are useful and meaningful? – so that to assume that a school can be 100% value neutral when it only focuses on qualification is a mistake. But my main point is that even if schools were only to focus on qualification, they are at the same time involved in socialisation – they are, after all, communicating particular traditions, cultures, practices, ways of seeing, ways of doing and, through this, are socialising children and young people into these traditions and practices – and they are always also impact on the person as subject, so there is always also subjectification going on as well. (I will say a few more things about this odd word ‘subjectification’ in a minute.) So for me the three are always there together, they are always occurring in any instance of education, and even schools or education systems that claim that they are focusing on one are actually also doing things in the other two domains and – and this is the important point – therefore need to take responsibility for what they are doing across the whole range of dimensions, not just the dimension they would like to focus on. So only if we keep the three domains together as being part and parcel of all education does it become possible to say to Danish policy makers – but I would say the same in, for example, Singapore, South Korea or England – that they have a responsibility for the effects of their particular educational set up across the three domains. They can’t be let off the hook, so to speak, by only pointing at rising test scores in the domain of qualification, for example.

Now it is of course possible to recognise different educational traditions – such as pedagogy or formation (I assume you have German concepts such as Pädagogik and Bildung in mind when you use these words) – but even those traditions, when looking at carefully, never meant to reduce education only to one dimension. Although Pädagogik and Bildung have different views about the why and how of education, they are always aware of the importance of content, tradition and the person, but in a different ‘mix,’ we might say, and probably also with different views about the person. I’d like to briefly expand on this latter point in relation to my use of this rather strange and stubborn word ‘subjectification.’ Subjectification contains the word ‘subject’ and perhaps the quickest way to understand why I use that word is because I think that education should be interested in how human beings can exist as subject – as subject of their own actions, which also means as carrying a responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions – and not just remain an object, that is subjected to what other people tell them they should do or be.

There is some irony in the fact that the word subject has this double meaning – of being the origin of action and of being subjected to something else – which I will explain in a minute. But for me it is first of all important to highlight that in this third domain of educational purpose we speak explicitly about the subject-ness of human beings, that is, their ability and duty to exist as subject. I am highlighting this because in some translations of my work, for example in the Netherlands, the word subjectification became replaced with the more vague notion of the formation of the person. While it has been good, also in the Dutch discussion, that people have started to think again about the question of the person in education, the problem that has emerged is that many people take this question of the formation of the person as a question of socialisation. This means that they come up with all kind of ideas about the qualities children and young people should acquire – attitudes, values, character – and while there is definitely a place for that, the thing that quickly begins to disappear from the discussion is that we as human beings also need to figure out what we do with our freedom, that is, our ability to act in one way or another, to go left or right, to say yes or no, to push the button of the atomic bomb or not – to say it a bit dramatically.

Now there are of course countries and political systems that have no interest in this question. They see human freedom as something inconvenient, as something that hinders the smooth operation of the state, for example, and they see education as the very place where we should try to get rid of human freedom. Again to put it a bit bluntly, because the example is actually really sad: educational theory in North Korea only needs to talk about two domains of educational purpose, namely qualification and socialisation, because in that country the political leaders have no interest in freedom, that is, in the ways in which human beings can and ought to exist as free, responsible subject. But that, I think, is the exception in the world – in the modern world, in the world ‘after Auschwitz,’ to use Adorno’s phrase, and the task we face, particularly in the light of a century of war in which freedom was denied to many, is to give human freedom a place in our lives, our societies, our democracies, and that is why it also must have a place in education. That is why I find the word subjectification really important, because it refers to this aspect of what it means to exist in a humane way – and this needs to be distinguished sharply from all the well-intended and often important things that happen with regard to the formation of the person in the domain of socialisation.

One could of course use the word ‘person’ instead of the word ‘subject,’ particularly because there are traditions within philosophy and education that reserve the word ‘person’ for the way of existing that I am hinting at, but what I like about the word subject is precisely that it has this double meaning, of being originator of action and being subjected. This is an insight I gained from the work of Hannah Arendt who precisely says that freedom is not a matter of just doing what you want to do – just being an originator of action – because for our initiatives to come into the world (note the phrase!) we need other human beings who take up our beginnings. This first of all shows that for us to exist as subject we are in a very literal sense subjected to what other people do with our beginnings, and what also follows from this is that other people, as subjects themselves, are free to take up our beginnings in their own ways, and we should not want to control that – although we should always remain in dialogue – because if we want to control how other people take up our beginnings we block the possibility for them to be subjects themselves. This is the predicament of democracy, of living together in plurality, and Arendt has not only captured this very well and thus has shown why living together in plurality is so difficult, but has also used the double meaning of ‘subject’ to remind us of this difficulty and this predicament. That also means, and then I will return to your second question, that the third domain of educational purpose is not the domain of identity. Identity, in my view, is also firmly rooted in the domain of socialisation, as it is about the question what we identify with, how we find a ‘position’ within existing cultures, traditions and practices, which sometimes also requires that we develop new cultures, traditions or practices. Identity, to put it briefly, is the question ‘Who am I?,’ which is an important question, but it must be distinguished from the question of subject-ness, which for me is the question ‘How am I?’ and also the question ‘How am I to be?’. The question of subject-ness, of being subject, of existing as subject, is therefore always the question what we do with our identity in trying to live peacefully and democratically in the world.

How to explain all this to the Danish government and the Union of Municipalities? Well, probably along the lines I’ve just done, which means that it needs attention to detail and needs patience and time – and there is of course an issue that politics often doesn’t give itself the time to think, is actually not that interested in becoming educated themselves (whereas they have many ideas about how everyone else should be educated). Trying to engage in such a conversation can be difficult for all kind of reasons – historical reasons, political reasons, rhetorical reasons – and there is no guarantee that arguments like the ones I’ve been trying to develop will be heard, will make an impact, although I am sometimes a little hopeful when I see that the problem with politicians is not so much that they have wrong ideas but that they simply lack the language, the frames of reference, to think properly and carefully about educational matters. One problem we’re facing, of course, is that there is an awful lot of problematic, bland, unintelligent language about education – such as the language of learning, which is not unreasonable but is just too limited for a proper conversation about education – but that’s where there remains an important task for educational scholars, thinkers and activists to keep improving the conversation about education.

The ultimate ‘test’ in my view, or the ultimate ‘concern,’ if that is a better word, is in my view the question of human freedom – which is connected to questions of human worth and human dignity, and those questions are themselves also connected to the worth and dignity of the planet we are living on. So ultimately we have to show our politicians that trends in education, and in some cases the very systems of schooling they seek to establish, run the risk of destroying human freedom or, by not paying sufficient democratic attention to human freedom, run the risk of fuelling populist, anti-democratic manifestations of human freedom. The ultimate question to ask to politicians is, in other words, how their views about education are going to further the case of freedom rather than obstruct it.

LÆRKE GRANDJEAN:  In The manifesto for education you ask if education is still possible in our educational institutions when it is attacked from both populism and idealism, you write about freedom as an educational interest, about the tension between ´what is´ and ´what is not ´, about dissensus, subjectivity and coming into the world, about education being neither sociology nor psychology and about standing up for education as being atemporal and an ethics of subjectivity, an aesthetics of freedom and a politics of emancipation.

My questions to you:

Why do we raise children at all? What is education good for? What is the purpose of education from your angle? If the purpose is a human society, what is humanism in your definition?

What does it mean to exist?

How is existence and pedagogy/education/formation linked together?

What should the content/essence of school in your opinion be – in order to make children ´human´ enough and responsible?

GERT BIESTA: These are of course quite big questions, as they seem to be asking about the meaning of life, and if I had the idea that I had the answer to that question that would probably make me into a quite dangerous person! But I can share with you some of the insights I have gained over the years that I have found helpful in relation to these questions, hoping that they do not sound too trivial. The question what it means to exist is in my view a better question than the question what the meaning of life is. If the question about the meaning of life runs the risk of projecting that meaning somewhere else – in the future or outside of ourselves – the question of what it means to exist focuses the attention on the miraculous fact that we do exist and that we are aware of our existence. We are alive and we find ourselves living and life and leading a life, and the one thing we can say about this is that this is something each of us has to face individually – we cannot lead another person’s life but can only lead our own life, although we can of course help each other in figuring out what it means to lead one’s own life, which also means figuring out what it means to lead one’s own life well. It’s here that we encounter important normative questions – What is leading a life well? – and it is also where we encounter our freedom. Despite everything that neuroscience or genetics may have to say, we cannot deny the fact that each of us has to lead a subjective life, our own life, and while all kind of insights and knowledge may help (although it often also hinders), at the end of the day such knowledge cannot replace the existential ‘task’ we are faced with. This is roughly what it means for me to take our existence seriously, and I tend to think that matters of existence are ultimately more important than matters of knowledge and belief, not because the latter are meaningless, but because they can at most help in figuring out what it means to lead our lives but, as said, they cannot solve that riddle for us.

When we then ask where we find ourselves leading our lives, the simple but important answer is that we find ourselves leading our lives in the world – a world where we encounter other human beings, animals, plants, a planet, institutions, cultures, traditions, and so on. There are two brief phrases from Hannah Arendt that, in my view, are tremendously accurate in describing what is at stake here. One is the phrase ‘reconciling ourselves to reality’ and the other is ‘trying to be at home in the world.’ Together these phrases capture the predicament of what it means to exist really well, because to exist – and there is an echo of Heidegger here who plays with the word exist by putting a hyphen in it: to ek-sist – precisely means not to stay with yourself, not to stay ‘at home,’ but to engage with this world. Trying to be at home in the world precisely shows what is at stake here, that is, that the only place where we can really exist is in the world, for which we have to leave our home, our being-with-ourself, and the challenge is that we try to be at home in the world, that is, that we recognise that that is the place where we have to be. This is not so much a moral imperative, although there is some of that as well, but – and here Arendt’s other phrase is important – has to do with the fact that this world where we find ourselves is real, which probably first of all means that it may not be what we want it to be, and that part of the challenge we face in leading our life is to reconcile ourselves to that reality. This doesn’t mean to accept everything that is there, on the contrary, but to acknowledge that there is a real world and that we can only live our lives in that world, in dialogue with that world. So there are things we have to accept there, for example that we have a body and that this body may not be idea, may not be what we would have liked it to be, but that that’s the only body we have and have to come to terms with it – you could say that trying to be at home in the world also means trying to be at home in your body. I’m mentioning the body here because in recent years technology has created all kind of possibilities for tinkering with our body, for getting our body closer to what we would like our body to be rather than to adjust our ideas to the reality we are faced with. It’s neither the one nor the other, but if technology is telling is that it is possible for our body to be anything we want it to be, then we are no longer reconciling ourselves with reality, but are commanding reality to become how we want it to be – and that, as you probably will gather, is an idea with very dangerous implications, as it may begin with our ‘own’ body (though there’s even the question what ‘own’ means here; I would say what it definitely does not mean is that the body is a thing we posses, as we posses a car, for example) but before we know it extends to the bodies (and then the minds and hearts) of other human beings.

What has education to do with this? Quite a lot in my view, because I think that education is precisely about taking up the challenges Arendt formulates so well, or perhaps rather than ‘taking up’ we should say ‘encountering’ or ‘facing’ these challenges. For me this means that the question of education, of why to educate and what to educate for, does not start with values or ideas, and definitely not with choices, but starts with what I tend to refer to as the educational ‘task,’ although the better words are found in Germanic languages, such as the idea of ‘Aufgabe,’ of something that is ‘given’ to you as educator. That this is an ‘Aufgabe’ is probably something we can see best at the moment of birth, that is, when a child is born – when a child is born into our lives, when ‘our’ child is born. There we face the reality of a human being entering the world, and at that moment parents don’t stop what they do and sit together to decide on the aims and targets they want to set for this child; they rather have to respond, immediately, here and now, to the fact of a new beginning and a new beginner, to use once more Arendt’s language. Now there are all kind of practical things that need to be taken care of – food, warmth, shelter – but what we also can see there, I hope, is that this is the start of a new subjective life, a life as subject. And we could say that the task we face there – and even the word ‘face’ is very appropriate here – is to help this new beginner with this task. In my own work I have phrased this educational task – the educational task actually – as arousing the desire in another human being for wanting to exist in the world as subject, that is in a grown-up way, not simply pursuing one’s own desires but always asking whether what is desired is what is desirable for living one’s life well. In most cases there is no need to arouse the desire in the newborn child for life, but I do think that to transform a desire for life, for survival we might say, into a desire for existing in and with the world, is where the educational work, the educational concern, and the educational attention have their place.

This is the closest I can come to answering your questions. These are big questions, and perhaps they are the biggest questions, so I hope that my thoughts indicate a sense of direction in engaging with these questions and, more importantly for our conversation, a sense of what education has to do in all this.

LÆRKE GRANDJEAN:  It seems that Kierkegaard, Levinas, Dewey, Ranciére and Derrida have great influence on your work. My questions is: what are the existential and pedagogical/educational/formational (´ethics of subjectivity, aesthetics of freedom and politics of emancipation´) issues and notions you pick out from these philosophers´ thoughts?

GERT BIESTA: It is interesting that you mention these authors, as you will have noted in the conversation so far that I have not mentioned any of them! Actually the only author I have mentioned explicitly is Hannah Arendt, who does not appear in your list. Nonetheless I would say that your list, if we add Arendt, is very accurate as these are indeed thinkers I have read extensively, expect for Kierkegaard who is still more at a distance or in the background, though has been hugely influential in my attempt at understanding what the human and existential significance of teaching actually is. I did my PhD on Dewey so have been engaging with his work for a long time. While I still value what he has to say about knowledge and knowing and, more specifically, about the need to reclaim rationality for ‘all that is distinctly human’ (Dewey’s phrase) and not hand it over to ‘science,’ I have become rather dissatisfied with Dewey as an educational thinker and also with Dewey as a thinker of the relationship between education and democracy. Remarkably perhaps given the fact that Dewey is often seen as part of the first generation of original American philosophy, Dewey’s views on education are strongly rooted in the tradition of Bildung, and what concerns me about that tradition is that the focus is much more strongly on the question of identity, the question of who we become through interaction with culture and tradition, than with the question of human subject-ness. There I just find that Dewey has little to say, or at least little that speaks to me and to the concerns I say education being faced with.

What I value in the work of Levinas, Derrida, Arendt and Kierkegaard – although I am less familiar with his work – is that they try to grapple with existential questions, questions of what it means to exist, to live our lives, and to live them well, acknowledging that this is never something we can do in solitude, but always have to do in the world, with others who are not like us, whether we like that or not. Levinas has particularly helped me to see that subject-ness is not a matter of theory and also not something that is amenable to psychological or sociological explanation, but is purely existential. The formulation I have found for this is that Levinas, in thinking about human uniqueness, does not ask the question about what makes me unique – which is the question of identity or, as I have put it in my work, of uniqueness-as-difference – but asks the question when does it matter that I am I – which his the idea of uniqueness-as-irreplaceability. So subject-ness is not some kind of possession, something we have, but is indeed an existential matter, always referring to situations where my uniqueness, my existing-as-subject, my being ‘me’ and no one else or just somebody, is ‘at stake.’ What those situations are is something we each have to find out in our own lives, but it has something to do with those encounters where we are addressed, spoken to, being asked, being singled out. These encounters are to a large extent very mundane – Levinas writes about the simply situation of holding open a door for someone and saying ‘after you’ – and you can say that the challenge is to become attentive to where we meet these situations. And then it is entirely for us to figure out what we do when we – or it’s always better to put this in the singular: when I am being addressed. Of course we can help each other, partly helping each other in focusing and sharpening our attentiveness – which is particularly important in situations where the main ‘push’ is to only be attentive to yourself – and also helping each other in trying to do what only we – or again: I – can do. Interestingly enough that is how Levinas defines freedom, that is, as doing what only you can do and no one else can do in your place. In my own work I have referred to this as Levinas’s ‘ethics of subjectivity,’ because what the work of Levinas has done for me is to grasp better what it means to exist as subject, and what is interesting about Levinas’s work is that he not provides us with a theory about human subjectivity (and also not with a theory of ethics) but that he engages with the question of existing as subject in ethical language. He shows that ethics is the ‘access’ to the question of existing as subject. For me this is hugely important for education, perhaps first and foremost because it shows that the question of subject-ness – subjectification – is not a matter of personal or social engineering, not a matter of more and better socialisation, but a matter of ‘turning’ our students towards ‘the world,’ to use metaphorical language, of arousing a desire in them for wanting to meet those moments where their subject-ness is ‘at stake,’ or perhaps we should say: is being called for and called forth. That’s enough about Levinas.

I can’t say too much about Derrida, because I think that there is less in terms of substantive thoughts that I have taken – or I should better say: received – from Derrida, but there is much in terms of ways of thinking. In Derrida I have found ways of thinking – which for Derrida are always also ways of writing and ways of speaking – that do not try to represent life, or explain life, but that try to be ‘alive,’ if that expression works. A lot of Derrida’s writings are of course impossible to follow, but there is an underlying thrust, and I think that this thrust is important, at least to turn a lot of philosophy back to existential concerns – which reminds me of Dewey’s phrase about the need for a recovery of philosophy where he says that we need to move philosophy from dealing with the problems of philosophers to dealing with what he calls problems of men. I think Dewey tried, and in some ways he did manage to make significant shifts, but in my view Derrida managed to make even bigger shifts.

My reading of Rancière is very selective, and in recent work – you will read that in my book on teaching – I have become quite critical of the way in which Rancière has been taken up in educational circles, particularly by those who use his work to contribute to the further learnification of education. (I’m particularly concerned by readings that see Rancière’s work as an argument for constructivist and learner-centred conceptions of education. To put it quickly: they would be better advised to study Jacotot than Rancière.) What I personally value about Rancière’s work is that he has exposed fundamental shortcomings with sociological explanations of education, including sociological conceptions of emancipatory education that rely on the idea that if we have better knowledge about how society works and if we give this knowledge to those who are currently not benefitting most from our social arrangements, we will be able to further their emancipation towards greater social equality. Rancière has not only made visible why these kind of strategy, that always look very promising, are unable to deliver the goods, but has also provided convincing arguments why educational strategies that are based upon these ideas tend to obstruct emancipation rather than that promote it. This is a complicated discussion that I’m unable to summarise in these brief remarks, but this is what I particularly value about Rancière’s ‘intervention’ – let’s say that he has exposed shortcomings in the work of Bourdieu, not where it concerns Bourdieu’s analyses, which are very profound and revealing, but where it concerns the ‘adoption’ of these insights as educational programmes. What I also like about Rancière’s work is that, unlike what is the case in constructivist readings of his work, he has actually shown why teaching and the teacher remain of crucial importance in emancipatory education.

Let me mention one more influence briefly and then conclude with highlighting a particular predicament in my own work – one I struggle with and in a sense need to apologise for. The other author who has been quite influential for my own work is John Caputo. I first met Caputo’s work through my interest in Derrida, and I have found Caputo’s readings of Derrida extremely helpful in may attempts at making some sense of the complex and often impenetrable ways of writing one can find in Derrida’s oeuvre. But I also value Caputo as a theological scholar because – and I am saying this rather quickly – he has managed to move beyond an opposition that has plagued and is continuing to plague our modern times, namely between, say, rationality and belief or, in starker terms, between science and religion. This opposition, which, in its modern version, is currently creating significant problems in our world, tends to think that to become modern or rational means to overcome religion and belief. We can find this idea expressed in certain conceptions of modernisation and Enlightenment, but we can, of course, also find it in conceptions of education that seek to bring about this ‘transition’ in the child. Again to put it very briefly: I don’t tend to think of religion as a matter of having certain beliefs, certain truths one might say, and of science as having other, better, more true beliefs. For me this is both a misunderstanding of religion and a misunderstanding of science, but these are misunderstandings that we are faced with every day. There are all kinds or ironies here, because even the word ‘misunderstanding’ suggests that the issues are about truth. Perhaps what I value most about putting the existential question, the question of what it means to live and to live well, first is that we return questions of knowledge and truth to a more proper place, where they work for us rather than that they limit us. That requires that we engage in a grown-up way both with science and with religion – try to take them for what they are and free them from questions of truth perhaps towards questions of meaning, of what they mean for the existential task of living our lives well. For me Caputo’s theological writings contribute to this liberation of religion which, as I am trying to say, is at the very same time a liberation of science.

That brings me to the final point I would like to make, which is the fact that although I am an explicit defender of the importance of educational thinking, educational theory, educational ways of speaking. educational ways of doing, most of my work makes these arguments through engagement with what we would see as philosophers rather than educational thinkers. I can partly explain this by saying that in order to gain a ‘voice’ within the educational conversation in the English speaking world it has been important to connect to what is known there as the philosophy of education, where educational concerns are articulated first and foremost in conversation with the philosophical ‘canon,’ partly because in the English-speaking world the idea of educational theory ‘proper,’ and the idea of education as an intellectually and academic discipline in its own right, has not really been developed, unlike in the German-speaking world. One thing I could say in ‘defence,’ if I need to defend myself, is that in my engagement with philosophy I have always tried to highlight the educational concerns and have tried to introduce phrases and concepts to get closer to those concerns, but one could say that the engagement with the educational literature is underdeveloped, though not absent, in my work. There are Dutch educational scholars who have been formative in my own education – such as the work of M.J. Langeveld for example – and German educational scholars such as Klaus Mollenhauer. I have also been greatly encouraged by the work of a French educational scholar, Philippe Meirieu, whose work, which is partly also philosophical, resonates strongly with the continental tradition of educational thought and thinking. So I am making a conscious effort to catch up with this work as well and give it a more prominent and visible place in my own writings, also in order to encourage others to bring these sources into the conversation too. From that perspective there is still quite a lot of work to do!

LÆRKE GRANDJEAN: Other issues – have you additional comments…

GERT BIESTA: I think that this is already quite a lot, and am very grateful for the opportunity and for the excellent questions that do indeed go to the heart of what matters for me and for the ‘Aufgabe’ I see in my own intellectual and practical life.

I did this interview with Gert Biesta in the summer 2016. Lærke Grandjean

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