Gert Biesta reclaims a language for education
I recently read an article by Gert Biesta in which he made an open claim against learning. Even though it is a bold claim, what Biesta states is that “a language of learning” has replaced the language of education, causing major disturbances in the ways in which teachers and administrators deal with education. The author explains how a neoliberal logic is expressed through the language that many education institutions use. In sum, what Biesta points out is that “One of the main problems with the new language of learning is that it allows for a re-description of the process of education in terms of an economic transaction” (p. 58).
My interest in the article is not only academic. It presents a very interesting philosophical argument about what education is and how it is represented by language, a language that directly affects our practices. What really struck me is what Biesta expresses as essential aspects of a “language for education”: trust, violence, and responsibility.
Trust without grounds
First, Biesta starts talking about the risk in education, the risk of learning what is unexpected or even learning what we did not want to learn. Thus, the risk is learning something that will impact or even change us. So then, “Why are risk and trust connected? Basically because trust is about those situations in which you do not know and cannot know what will happen” (p. 61). Here, Biesta distances his language for education from the neoliberal logic by establishing a different kind of relationship between educator and learner. Instead of a provider-consumer logic, the relationship between students and teachers should be based on a trust without grounds.
The second aspect of Biesta’s language for education may sound controversial. Transcendental violence refers to a complex process that starts with the previously stated risk of becoming something else, not with any kind of physical punishment. According to the author, “We can look at learning as responding to what is other or different, to what challenges, irritates and disturbs us, rather than as the acquisition of something that we want to possess” (p. 62).
This course of action leads the student to “come into presence”, this means showing who they are and where they stand. The author explains this “coming into presence” as an intersubjective process, in which the individual statement is as important as the interaction with the others, it is as much about talking as it is about listening. In other words, “coming into presence is about being challenged by otherness and difference” (pp. 62-63). Hence, “coming into presence” is probably an unpleasant and disturbing process, and this is what Biesta identifies as the violent dimension of education: “It is violent in that it doesn’t leave individuals alone, in that it asks difficult questions and creates difficult situations” (p. 63).
Responsibility without knowledge
Finally, Biesta reflects upon the role of the teacher and he finds that in order to educate, it is essential that educators assume responsibility: “If teaching is about creating opportunities for the student to come into presence, if it is about asking difficult questions, then it becomes clear that the first responsibility of the teacher is a responsibility for the subjectivity of the student, for that which allows the student to be a unique, singular being” (p.63). This idea is what resonated in me deeply. As teachers we assume we are responsible for students’ learning, and sometimes for their grades. If you are a caring teacher, you probably assume responsibility for the student’s well-being. Most of these elements are under our control. However, Biesta states that educators should assume responsibility for an element that does not belong to us, something that is not under our direct control, that will change in time and become something else.
As teachers we are responsible for many subjectivities that are striving to become, to “come into presence”. With this in mind, assessment, homework, and reports assume a secondary role in the hierarchy of our priorities. If we are responsible for a personal process of (self)discovery, it is not possible to know beforehand any outcome or standardized benchmark, and that is probably the most difficult part of being a teacher, to enact a blind responsibility for something we care about but does not belong to us.
From philosophy to practice
Sometimes philosophical arguments seem like useless discussion because their lack of practical approaches. They are in essence conceptual abstractions. Now that I am finishing a Masters degree in Educational Administration, I realize people are in need of practical approaches that can change daily practices. However, I am a firm believer that without a philosophical consideration of our own ideas, of our starting points, it is impossible to create new practices. For me the value of Biesta’s argument resides in its practicality. Like a myopic person putting on a pair of glasses for the first time and realizing how bad her eyesight was before, it is hard to change the way we resolve problems if we try to keep looking at them with the same eyes. As an administrator I believe that to make things different systematic reform is not always necessary; sometimes we just need to reframe our perspectives of problems. To find new solutions it is necessary to reframe our perspectives, and to reframe our perspectives it is essential to question our basic assumptions, a task we only can trust to philosophy.
Biesta, G. J. J. (2005). Against learning: Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning. Nordlisk Pedagogik, Volume 25 (pp. 56-66).