From Experimentalism to Existentialism: Writing in the Margins of Philosophy of Education

in Obstinate Education
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Early Years: 1957–19901

I was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1957, twelve years after the end of the Second World War, and grew up in a city centre that was still largely empty as a result of the May 1940 bombings. My daily walk to school thus took me along many building sites and the sound of pile drivers was constantly in the background for many years to come. I cannot deny that I had an early fascination for education. As a child one of the first jobs I imagined I wanted to have, was that of an architect in order then to become a teacher of architects. While my (Montessori) kindergarten and (regular) primary school were rather easy and uneventful, secondary school turned out to be more challenging, so I only just managed to get through. As economics was one of the very few subjects in which I had done well, I decided to study it at university. I soon found out, however, that it was not really ‘my’ subject, so after a year I switched to theology. This was a much more enjoyable experience, but a rather serious car accident two years into my studies put an abrupt end to it. This put me in a position where I had to reconsider my options, and I decided to look for work rather than continuing at university. I found a job in a hospital and took courses to become a radiographer.

After I had obtained my diploma I had the good fortune of being asked to contribute to the teaching of radiographers. For the next 10 years I taught physics to student radiographers. In the first years I did this alongside my job as a radiographer, but after having completed a two year part-time teacher certification programme, I was eager to deepen my knowledge of education, so I decided to return to university, now to study education. Whereas in most English speaking countries the study of education tends to happen in the context of teacher education, in the Netherlands education – in Dutch: pedagogiek – exists as an academic discipline in its own right and it was this discipline that I focused on for the next four years at the University of Leiden. My initial plan was to specialise in curriculum and instruction, but I became increasingly interested in the theoretical and historical aspects of education, and thus decided to focus on this area instead.

It was here that I became interested in philosophy, first and foremost through the work of Ben Spiecker, Professor at the Free University Amsterdam, who had written a number of exciting essays on Wittgenstein and education. In the second year of my studies I followed an additional one year programme in philosophy. This covered the philosophical ‘basics,’ and I particularly enjoyed logic, epistemology, philosophy of science, and Greek philosophy, including a superb course on Aristotle. The third year in Leiden was devoted again to pedagogiek, although I was able to make connections with my developing interest in philosophy. Through courses from Vygotskij-specialist René van der Veer I became interested in Piaget’s genetic epistemology, while Rien van IJzendoorn, stimulated my interested in the philosophy of educational and social research. Courses from Siebren Miedema not only fuelled my interest in critical theory (Habermas), critical pedagogy (both the German and the North American variety), and the theory and philosophy of educational and social research, but also brought me into contact with the work of John Dewey. Dewey’s work had been largely absent from the educational conversation in the Netherlands since the early 1950s and had only received sporadic attention from Dutch philosophers. I eventually decided to write a Master’s thesis on Dewey under Siebren’s supervision.

I further pursued my interest in philosophy through a newly established programme in the philosophy of the social sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam, which I started in my final year as a pedagogiek student, and finished successfully three years later. My studies not only allowed me to deepen my understanding of logic, epistemology and the philosophy of science, but also brought me into contact with analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, postmodern and post-structural philosophy (particularly the work of Foucault), and – just emerging at the time – the neo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty, 1979) formed the framework for the thesis I wrote, which focused on paradigmatic pluralism in educational research in the Netherlands. Whilst still studying philosophy, I was fortunate to receive a four year studentship to conduct PhD research on Dewey, focusing on his views about the relationship between knowledge and action and the implications for educational and social research. I conducted my PhD research at Leiden University under the supervision of Siebren Miedema and Rien van IJzendoorn. I worked closely with Siebren, particularly on the study of Dewey, and many of my early publications were co-authored with him, including a joint book (Miedema & Biesta, 1989). I obtained my PhD in 1992 (Biesta, 1992), but again was lucky in having been selected for a lectureship in education at the University of Groningen before I had finished my PhD. I thus started my academic career there in the summer of 1990, teaching courses in pedagogiek and in the philosophy of educational and social research.

An important aspect of the early years of my career was the fact that I did not develop my intellectual and academic identity within philosophy or philosophy of education, but within pedagogiek. That is why up to the present day I prefer to refer to myself as an educationalist (or in Dutch: a pedagoog) with a particular interest and expertise in philosophy, and not as a philosopher and only hesitantly as a philosopher of education – my hesitation having to do with the fact that ‘philosopher of education’ remains a rather imperfect translation of my identity as a pedagoog and my commitment to pedagogiek. The question of the differences between pedagogiek and philosophy of education has continued to intrigue me, and became even more of an issue when I moved from the Netherlands to the UK (in 1999) and was faced in very concrete ways with the differences between the Continental and the Anglo-American ‘construction’ of the field – something I have explored since in a number of publications (for example, Biesta, 2011a). This is why I have always felt to be working more in the margins of Anglo-American philosophy of education – and perhaps even more so with regard to the British variety than the one in North America – rather than at its centre.

The context in which I was a student of pedagogiek and philosophy was one of a rapid and radical transformation of the field of Dutch educational research and scholarship. If there was a ‘Positivismusstreit’ in educational research in the 1980s in the Netherlands – and I think there was – it was between two fundamentally different conceptions of empirical research, one that made a case for quantitative-explanatory research as the only properly scientific mode of research and one that tried to make a case for qualitative-interpretative research. The fact that quantitative-explanatory research – in the Dutch context often referred to as ‘empirical-analytical’ research – ‘won,’ is particularly significant when compared to developments in the English-speaking world. There the debate between ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ approaches was mainly about attempts from the side of qualitative approaches to overcome the hegemony of quantitative research so as to make a case for methodological pluralism. In the Netherlands, in contrast, there had actually been a long and flourishing tradition of interpretative research, particularly the phenomenology of the Utrecht School where, in the areas of education and developmental psychology, M.J. Langeveld was for a long time the leading figure.2 In the Netherlands the debate thus went in the opposite direction, that is, of quantitative-explanatory research trying to replace qualitative-interpretative research. The ‘Streit’ that was going on in the Netherlands was not only a battle about the ‘right’ or ‘proper’ form of empirical research, but was also directed against non-empirical forms of inquiry. It was as a result of this that theoretical and philosophical traditions became increasingly marginalised. Over time this led to what, in hindsight and from a distance, I would characterise as an academic mono-culture that, unlike what I was going to experience in the UK, left little room for other forms of empirical research and for non-empirical modes of inquiry and scholarship.

The transformation of educational research in the Netherlands also brought with it a strong push towards internationalisation. This definitely had an impact on my own formation as a researcher since I was encouraged early on to make connections with researchers and scholars in other countries and, given my interest in Dewey, particularly in North America. In 1988, the first year of my PhD, I attended the AERA conference in New Orleans and visited the Centre for Dewey Studies in Carbondale, then under the directorship of Jo-Ann Boydston, who was extremely helpful in the early stages of my PhD research. Since Dewey’s collected works had not yet all been published, and since this was well before the age of the internet, my visits to Carbondale, and also to archives at Teachers College Columbia University and the University of Chicago, provided me with access to unique materials for my PhD. They also formed the beginning of my networks in North America, a process in which the John Dewey Society was particularly important.

The Netherlands: 1990–1999

The years in Groningen were stimulating and enjoyable, not only because there was a group of supportive colleagues who were willing to put trust in a relatively inexperienced lecturer, but also because in my teaching I could focus on ‘my’ subject, that of pedagogiek. This allowed me to deepen my understanding of Continental educational theory (and here I would particularly highlight the work of Dutch educationalists such as M.J. Langeveld, Nic. Perquin, Ben Spiecker and Jan Dirk Imelman, and of German theorists such as Klaus Mollenhauer and Klaus Schaller), and also of the forerunners of North American critical pedagogy, particularly the ‘social reconstructionism’ of authors such as George Counts. My main task during the first two years in Groningen was the completion of my PhD. Part of the work I did was a more or less straightforward reconstruction of Dewey’s views on the relationship between knowledge and action. Yet I did not want to present Dewey’s ideas as ‘just another philosophical position’ that either could be adopted or rejected. There was much in Dewey that I considered to be important for the discussion about the status of social and educational research – a discussion that, at the time, was still strongly influenced by the work of Karl Popper. Yet what troubled me about Dewey was the metaphysical framework that seemed to come with his ideas, a framework that was clearly rooted in secular naturalism and ultimately went back to Darwinism (something which Dewey explicitly acknowledged in his autobiographical essay From Absolutism to Experimentalism; Dewey, 1984[1930]).

My concerns partly had to do with Darwinism itself, which I saw as a rather limited and ultimately limiting understanding of the human condition, and partly with the scientism it seemed to bring in through the backdoor, something which Max Horkheimer in his book Eclipse of Reason indeed had identified as the main problem of Deweyan pragmatism (Horkheimer, 1947). I eventually found a way to resolve these issues through a paper Dewey had written relatively late in his career – called Experience, Knowledge and Value: A Rejoinder (Dewey, 1991[1939]) – which was a response to essays written about his work published in The Philosophy of John Dewey, edited by Paul A. Schilpp. This paper helped me to identify the problem that had motivated Dewey’s intellectual and political ‘project,’ and thus allowed me to provide a pragmatic reading of Dewey’s work, that is, to see it as an attempt to address a problem rather than as the articulation of a philosophical position (see also Biesta, 2009a). I could show that Dewey’s philosophy was actually motivated by a critique of scientism – that is, a critique of the idea that science is the only valid kind of knowledge – and a critique of a cognitive worldview in which it is assumed that knowledge is the only ‘real’ way in which we are connected to the world. That is why, in my reconstruction of Dewey’s work, I made the case that ‘crisis in culture’ to which he was responding had to be understood as a crisis in rationality, and that his ultimate project was aimed at restoring rationality to all domains of human experience rather than to confine it to the domain of cognition or, even worse, to the domain of scientific knowledge.

What was particularly interesting about Dewey’s work was that he was able to criticise the hegemony of scientific rationality without having to reject the technological and practical ‘fruits’ of what goes on under the name of ‘science.’ Dewey thus opened up a third way between a wholesale rejection of science on the one hand and a wholesale acceptance of science on the other. This became an important theme in my own thinking as it allowed for a much more precise critique of the hegemony of the scientific worldview and scientific rationality, and also a much more mature engagement with the possibilities and limitations of what goes on under the name of ‘science.’ This line of thought was further reinforced through my reading of Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (Latour, 1987), an author whose work has continued to play an important role in my work on knowledge and the curriculum (for example Biesta & Miedema, 1990; Biesta, 2002, 2012a), well before a rather watered-down version of his ideas became fashionable as ‘actor-network theory.’ While over the years I have become increasingly critical of key-aspects of Dewey’s work – particularly his views on democracy, which I have characterised as social more than as political (see Biesta, 2007a, 2010a), and the totalising tendencies in his conception of communication (see Biesta, 2010b) – I find Dewey’s wider project still very valuable for an effective critique of contemporary forms of scientism (for example, Biesta, 2009b, 2011b).

During my work on the PhD I had increasingly become interested in the educational dimensions of pragmatism, particularly with regard to the theory of communication in Dewey’s work, and this topic became a central interest in the years following my PhD. In the first paper I wrote on the topic (Biesta, 1994) I explored the relationships between critical theory (Habermas) and pragmatism (Dewey, Mead) around the idea of ‘practical intersubjectivity.’ Inspiration for this partly came from my own readings of Dewey, partly from the work of Hans Joas on Mead (see Joas, 1985), and also from Jan Masschelein’s PhD thesis on Habermas, communication and education (Masschelein, 1987). I presented a first version at AERA in 1993. It was here that I met Jim Garrison – a meeting that formed the start of many important conversations about Dewey and pragmatism in the years to come. The paper was accepted for publication in Educational Theory, my first journal article in English. Jim Garrison subsequently invited me to contribute to a book he was editing on the new scholarship on Dewey, and in my contribution I further pursued my interests in the implications of Dewey’s understanding of communication for education (Biesta, 1995a).

In 1993 I had moved from Groningen to the University of Leiden to take up a lectureship in the department where I had studied pedagogiek and done my PhD. Fairly soon after I had started the opportunity arose to apply for a senior lectureship in pedagogiek at the University of Utrecht. As this would allow me to focus more strongly on pedagogiek and work more closely with Jan Dirk Imelman in the theory of education and Brita Rang in the history of education, I decided to apply. My application was successful so I moved to Utrecht in the spring of 1995 (unfortunately Imelman took early retirement soon after I had arrived, and Rang left for a Professorship in Frankfurt). In the autumn of 1994 I had submitted an application for a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship with the National Academy of Education USA – encouraged and endorsed by Jim Garrison and Ben Spiecker – and early in 1995 I learned that I had been selected. For the next two academic years I was therefore able to spend a considerable amount of time on research. In hindsight I would say that these years were truly formative for the development of my academic ‘habitus.’ The project I had submitted extended my explorations of pragmatism to the work of George Herbert Mead. I spent part of the time in the Netherlands but also at Virginia Tech with Jim Garrison. I also was able to study the George Herbert Mead papers at the University of Chicago. Here I discovered an unpublished set of lecture notes of a course Mead had given on the philosophy of education. I eventually managed to publish the lectures in English and in German translation, co-edited with Daniel Tröhler (Mead, 2008a, 2008b). The Spencer project led to the publication of a number of articles on Mead (Biesta, 1998, 1999) – who I actually found a stronger theorist than Dewey. 1994 was also the first year that I attended the annual conference of the Philosophy of Education Society USA, and I have returned almost every year up to the present day.

Perhaps the most significant event during my time as a Spencer postdoc was the invitation I received from Jim Marshall in New Zealand to contribute a chapter on Derrida in a collection he was editing. At the time I had only heard of Derrida, but had never had had a chance to read his work properly. I told Jim that although I had no special knowledge of Derrida I would be very happy to take on the challenge. Jim took the risk and this set me off on a sustained period of reading. The encounter with Derrida’s work had a profound impact on my thinking. Whereas up that point I had hoped that pragmatism could provide an ‘answer’ to the postmodern critique of the modern ‘philosophy of consciousness’ (Habermas) by replacing a consciousness-centred philosophy with a communication-centred philosophy, Derrida helped me to realise that the point was not to find a new and better starting-point or foundation for philosophy, but rather to question the very possibility of articulating and identifying such a foundation. Derrida also showed me, however, that the way out of this predicament was not to become anti-foundational – the route taken by Rorty and other anti-foundational (neo)pragmatists – as such a rejection of foundations would end up with the same problem, namely that it also had to rely on some fixed and secure place from which foundations could be rejected. What I found in Derrida was the suggestion that as soon as we go near a foundation – either to accept it or reject it or to use it as a criterion to identify performative contradictions – we find a strange oscillation between the foundation and its rejection; an oscillation that cannot be stopped. It is this oscillation that Derrida referred to as ‘deconstruction,’ thus highlighting that deconstruction isn’t a method and cannot be transformed into one (Derrida, 1991, p. 273), but that it is something that occurs or, as he put it, “cannot manage to occur … wherever there is something rather than nothing” (Derrida & Ewald, 2001, p. 67).

The work of Derrida not only helped me to put pragmatism in perspective but also made it possible to articulate more clearly some of the problems I always had had with metaphysical readings of pragmatism that would just end up as another form of foundationalism. I thus started to argue that we needed a more radical understanding of intersubjectivity (Biesta, 1999) and eventually came to the conclusion that the only possible pragmatism would thus be a deconstructive pragmatism, one that acknowledges that communication is always ‘in deconstruction’ (Biesta, 2010b). The encounter with Derrida also allowed me to create an opening in the discussion about critique – both in philosophy and in education – showing both the problem with dogmatic forms of critique that relied on a (fixed) criterion or a (fixed) truth about the human being, and with transcendental forms of critique that relied on a similar foundational gesture by highlighting the occurrence of performative contradictions, that is, contradictions between utterances and their conditions of possibility. With Derrida I could show that the latter form of critique – quite prominent in the educational literature on critical thinking – relied on the assumption that it is possible to identify conditions of possibility, whereas Derrida would argue that such a gesture would at the same time reveal conditions of impossibility and can therefore not achieve what it intends (and pretends) to achieve (see Biesta & Stams, 2001). The shift from critique to deconstruction was particularly significant in light of my interest in North American critical pedagogy. I had been following the important work of its main proponents – Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren – for a good number of years, and was now able to raise some more precise concerns about the question as to what it actually means to be critical in and ‘for’ education (see Biesta, 1998).

Derrida’s work also helped me to see that the point of deconstruction was not negative or destructive, but thoroughly affirmative, not just of what is excluded but more importantly from what is excluded from a particular ‘system’ or ‘order’ and yet makes such a ‘system’ or ‘order’ possible. That meant that deconstruction is not just affirmative of what is known to be excluded, but also of what lies outside of what is (currently) conceptualisable – something to which Derrida in some of his writings referred to as the ‘incalculable.’ I slowly began to see that to prepare for the arrival of the incalculable could be seen as a thoroughly educational gesture (Biesta, 2001) and also began to connect Derrida’s suggestion that the affirmative ‘nature’ of deconstruction means that deconstruction is (driven by) justice with educational concerns and themes (Biesta, 2003).

The final way in which the encounter with Derrida was important for my further trajectory had to do with the fact that Derrida did not position deconstruction in epistemological terms but rather put ethico-political considerations at the (de)centre of his writings. This helped me to articulate more clearly what I had always thought that the postmodern turn was after (see Biesta, 1995b), namely that it did not want to replace epistemological objectivism with epistemological relativism – a misreading of postmodern thought that goes on until the present day – but rather wanted to call for a shift from an epistemological worldview where knowledge of the world is the first and final ‘thing,’ towards an ethico-political ‘attitude’ that puts ethical and political concerns at the centre of our being-in-the-world and sees knowledge always in relation to and derivative of it, rather than that it founds ethics and politics on some deeper knowledge about the world and/or the human being. Derrida thus helped me to achieve (or perhaps I should say: complete) an ethico-political ‘turn’ that, in a sense, had always already been waiting in the wings of my writings. With regard to this ‘turn’ two other philosophers became increasingly important and influential, one being Hannah Arendt and the other – who I had already encountered early on in my career but whose thought needed time to ‘arrive’ – being Emmanuel Levinas.

Looking back, the seven years after finishing my PhD in 1992 allowed me to explore a number of different themes and issues and engage with a number of different theorists and philosophers, so as to eventually arrive at a position where I felt that I was beginning to find my own voice and my own trajectory. The next period of about seven years – culminating in the publication in 2006 of my first monograph, Beyond Learning (Biesta, 2006; to date published in Swedish, Danish and Portuguese) – allowed me to pursue a number of these lines more confidently. Whereas in the 1990s my interest had been more strongly philosophical, educational themes, issues and concerns began to become more central in my reading, writing and research. Two further important events happened during this period. One was meeting Bill Doll who introduced me to complexity theory and provided generous enthusiasm for my work during a period where I was still searching for its direction. Through Bill I met Denise Egéa-Kuehne. Our shared interest in Derrida let to the publication of the first book length study on his work and education, simply titled Derrida & Education (Biesta & Egéa-Kuehne, 2001). The other was the invitation from Jim Garrison to take over as editor-in-chief of Studies in Philosophy and Education. I started to work on this behind the scenes in 1999 and became the journal’s next editor in 2001.

Although my job in Utrecht provided me with interesting opportunities and interesting colleagues – including Bas Levering who, at the time was one of the few people in the country who continued to work within a much broader tradition of educational research and scholarship with clear connections back to the Utrecht School – I increasingly felt the need for a different, more plural intellectual context. Having briefly considered a move to North America, I was lucky to find a job in England. In the autumn of 1999 I thus took up a senior lectureship at the University of Exeter.

England and Scotland: 1999–2012

My job in Exeter was designated as a senior lectureship in post-16 education, and thus had a clear focus on vocational and adult education. My teaching was partly connected to teacher education in those fields and partly involved working with teachers on masters and doctoral programmes. Unlike in the Netherlands, where universities are hierarchically structured and much time is spent making sure that everything has its ‘proper’ place – which creates difficulties for those individuals or areas of research that do not fit in such a system – what I encountered in Exeter was a much more open and much more horizontal academic culture where there was far less eagerness to tell others what they should do or be. This not only created a much greater degree of intellectual freedom but also made my own academic identity less fixed, which allowed me to pursue both theoretical-philosophical and empirical lines of work. I had the good fortune to work with Martin Bloomer, who eventually became Professor of Post-16 Education, and Rob Lawy, who had just started in Exeter as a postdoc. With Rob I began to develop my work on citizenship and democracy, resulting in a number of empirical studies on young people’s citizenship (see, for example, Biesta, Lawy, & Kelly, 2009; Lawy et al., 2010) and more theoretical work on education, democracy and citizenship (for example Biesta, & Lawy, 2006; Lawy, & Biesta, 2006). The work on theory and policy of citizenship education and civic learning eventually ended up in a short book, published in 2011 (Biesta, 2011c – to date translated into Danish and Japanese).

Martin was key in developing my research interests in vocational education and adult education and generously involved me in a research proposal on learning and the life-course. The project was originally conceived as one on learning and identity; I suggested adding the theme of ‘agency,’ as I was interested in what people can do with their learning, rather than just who they become. Martin very sadly died in 2002, just after he had completed and submitted the proposal for what was to become the Learning Lives project (Biesta et al., 2011), still the first large-scale longitudinal study into learning, identity and agency in the life-course. At the time of his death, Martin was also co-directing a large scale study into the Further Education sector, called Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (see James & Biesta, 2007). I was asked to replace Martin on the project team. This not only meant that for the next 6 years I was strongly involved in major empirical projects working closely with a range of interesting and highly committed colleagues. It also brought me in touch with the overarching national research programme within which both projects were funded, the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP). All this work taught me a lot about the joys and the complexities of large-scale collaborative research, and provided a unique opportunity to connect with many educational researchers in the UK. Given my own predilections for theory and philosophy, these projects also convinced me of the need for the closer communication between empirical and theoretical work, rather than to think that theoretical – and perhaps even more so: philosophical – work should be conducted from the sideline, only referring to itself. My experiences not only showed me that such connections were possible, but also that they were necessary for the healthy development of the field of educational research.

In 2002 the University of Exeter promoted me to Professor of Educational Theory and soon afterwards I became Director of Research of the School of Education – a position that provided me with valuable insights in the running of higher education institutions and the more political dimension of higher education policy in the UK. Under the leadership of vice-chancellor Steve Smith Exeter developed a clear sense of direction, and it was enjoyable and instructive to experience the transformation of the university at a close distance. Although administration, empirical research and research management took a significant amount of my time, I was able to continue my theoretical and philosophical work as well. Derrida & Education (Biesta & Egéa-Kuehne, 2001) appeared in 2001 and Pragmatism and Educational Research, co-authored with Nick Burbules, in 2003 (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). For the development of my more theoretical work I benefitted tremendously from a visiting professorship at Örebro University, Sweden (from 2001 until 2008) followed by a similar post at Mälardalen University, Sweden (from 2006 until 2013). The focus of the work was on education and democratic citizenship and the many courses for doctoral students I taught there allowed me to explore key aspects of the discussion in detail with great students and great colleagues, particularly Tomas Englund and Carsten Ljunggren. The collaboration with Carl Anders Säfström had already started in the 1990s, and his move to Mälardalen University made it possible to establish an institutional basis for our collaboration. I had met Tomas and Carl Anders in the early 1990s when Siebren Miedema and I organised a small conference on pragmatism in Europe. Lars Løvlie, from Oslo University, was one of the other participants and he has been an ongoing source of support and inspiration throughout my career. Also significant were my yearly visits to the annual conference of the USA Philosophy of Education Society and the American Educational Research Association, particularly to participate in activities of the Philosophical Studies SIG, of which I became programme chair and, after that, chair, and the John Dewey Society (of which I was a board member).

Publication-wise, I was particularly pleased with the appearance of Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future (Biesta, 2006), which I consider to be my first ‘real’ single-authored book. Theoretically the book took up a theme I had already been working on in the 1990s, namely the postmodern critique of humanism, often referred to as the issue of the ‘death of the subject’ (see Biesta, 1998). While in popular readings of postmodernism the theme of the death of the subject is often seen as a critique of the very idea of human subjectivity, the point I tried to convey in the book was that the critique was actually aimed at philosophical humanism, that is, at the idea that it is possible and desirable to identify the essence of the human being and use this knowledge as the foundation for a range of theoretical and practical ‘projects,’ including education and politics. In the book I not only showed the ways in which humanism had influenced modern educational thought and practice, but also argued how it had put limits on what education could achieve by basing education on a ‘template’ about what the human being is and thus of what the child should become.

In Beyond Learning I developed an alternative set of educational concepts that did not focus on the nature or essence of human beings but rather on their existence. More specifically I focused on the question how ‘newcomers’ might come ‘into presence.’ With the help of Hannah Arendt I suggested that coming into presence is ultimately a public and hence a political process in the literal sense of the word political, that is, as ‘occurring in the polis,’ in the presence of others who are not like us. That is why I eventually suggested that we should think of education in terms of how newcomers come ‘into the world.’ Education as ‘coming into the world’ not only gives educators a responsibility for the new beginnings, but also for the plural or ‘worldly’ quality of the world, as it is only ‘under the condition of plurality’ (Arendt) that everyone has a possibility to bring their beginnings into the world.

The other concept I put forward was that of ‘uniqueness.’ Taking inspiration from the work of Emmanuel Levinas and his translator Alphonso Lingis, I developed a distinction between uniqueness-as-difference – which is about our identity or essence, that is, about how I differ from others – and uniqueness-as-irreplaceability. The latter approach – which can be characterised as existential rather than essential – moves from the question as to what makes me unique to the question when my uniqueness matters, that is, the question when it matters that I am I and no one else. Such situations, so I suggested with the help of Lingis’s idea of the community of those who have nothing in common (Lingis, 1994), are situations where an appeal is made to me, where I am being addressed by another human being, and where I cannot be replaced because the appeal is made to me – not just to anyone. These are situations where I am literally ‘singled out’ by a question, by a request, by an appeal. It is then still up to me whether I respond or not, that is, whether I take up the responsibility that is waiting for me, so to speak, and thus ‘realise’ my unique singularity, my singular existence in that particular moment.

My hope with thinking about education in existential terms was to make it possible again (that is, after the death of the subject), to make a distinction between education as socialisation and education orientated towards freedom, a dimension to which in later publications – particularly my 2010 book Good Education in an Age of Measurement (Biesta, 2010c) – I started to refer to as ‘subjectification.’ In a sense Beyond Learning became a ‘turning point’ in my career, not only because it brought together much of the work I had been doing in previous years but also because it set the agenda for much that was to follow, particularly an increasing focus on educational questions and issues and an ambition to engage with such questions in an educational way, that is, through the development of educational forms of theory and theorising.

In the next period of about seven years I thus turned increasingly to what I saw as key educational questions and issues, particularly questions concerning education, freedom and emancipation. Here – but only here (see Biesta, 2013a) – I found the work of Jacques Rancière helpful, as it made it possible to (re)turn to the question of emancipation in a way that was significantly different from how it had been engaged with in critical theory and critical pedagogy (see Biesta, 2010d). Together with Charles Bingham I published a book on Rancière’s work (Bingham & Biesta, 2010) in which the question of emancipation was a central theme. Questions concerning the nexus of education, freedom and emancipation also were central in a short text I wrote with Carl Anders Säfström, which we published under the title A Manifesto for Education (Biesta & Säfström, 2011a). The Manifesto attracted a lot of attention in many countries, not only from academics but also from students and teacher. The first translation was actually published by a Norwegian teacher union (Biesta & Säfström, 2011b).

The other line that emerged during these years focused on educational policy and practice, particularly in order to show the extent to which and the ways in which educational issues were increasingly being sidelined, either by replacing an educational language with a language of learning – which was one of my reasons for arguing that in order to bring educational questions back into view we needed to go ‘beyond learning’ (see also Biesta, 2004, 2013b) – or by pushing education into a logic of production, that is, of predictable connections between educational ‘inputs’ and outputs.’ One paper I published in relation to these tendencies focused on the shift from professional-democratic responsibility to technical-managerial accountability in education (Biesta, 2004). Another paper focused on the calls to turn education into an evidence-based profession (Biesta, 2007b – to date my most cited paper – and also Biesta, 2010e). The fact that both papers attracted quite a lot of attention,3 gave me an indication that the topics were important and that some of my reflections were seen as relevant and helpful. This gave me the motivation to focus more explicitly and more ‘positively’ (rather than just critically) on questions of good education, that is, questions about what education should be like and aim for. I brought a number of the papers I wrote on this together in Good Education in an Age of Measurement (Biesta, 2010). In the book I continued with some of the main themes from Beyond Learning, but I put them in a wider perspective – partly by connecting them to developments in educational policy (accountability; evidence) and partly by taking a broader view on the functions and purposes of education, through a distinction between three domains of educational purpose: qualification, socialisation and subjectification (Biesta, 2010, Chapter 1). While the distinction itself was simple, it proved to be a useful heuristic device for making discussions about what education is for more precise and concrete – which was also recognised by the fact that the book was rather quickly translated into a number of languages (to date into Swedish, Danish and Dutch).

The stronger focus on educational theory and policy was also supported by my move, in 2007, to the University of Stirling in Scotland. In the Teaching and Learning Research Programme projects I had worked closely and productively with two professors from Stirling, John Field and Richard Edwards, and when a position opened up in Stirling I decided to try my luck. I had five wonderful years in Stirling. Together with Julie Allan and other colleagues from the Institute of Education we tried to further the case for theory in education through the establishment of the Laboratory for Educational Theory. This was an exciting adventure albeit not without difficulties, partly because we were doing something new for which there was little (research) expertise available. We nonetheless managed to stir the discussion about theory a little, both nationally and internationally, through seminars and symposia, a number of international conferences and a doctoral summer school. We also managed to give the question of theory some prominence in ongoing discussions in the UK about research capacity building (Biesta, Allan, & Edwards, 2011) and brought together a group of international scholars in an edited volume on the theory question in education and the education question in theory (Biesta, Allen, & Edwards, 2014). Another fruitful collaboration in Stirling was with Mark Priestley and focused on curriculum research and theory, a field that particularly in England had led a marginal status since the introduction of the National Curriculum in the 1990s. The work with Mark resulted, amongst other things, in an edited collection on the new curriculum, analysing curriculum trends in Scotland against the background of wider international developments (Priestley & Biesta, 2013).

Three significant other events during my time in Scotland were the publication of a short, edited book on complexity and education (Osberg & Biesta, 2010), on which I worked with Deborah Osberg, with whom I had already published a number of papers on the topic. Unlike much literature on complexity and education we particularly tried to highlight the political dimensions, potential and implications of thinking education through complexity. Through the efforts of Maria de Bie of the University of Ghent and Danny Wildemeersch at the University of Leuven I was, in 2011, awarded the International Interuniversity Francqui Professorship by the Francqui Foundation in Belgium. This allowed me to spend about half a year at the University of Ghent in the spring of 2011 to work with colleagues from Ghent and Leuven on questions concerning education, social work, democracy and citizenship. This was another project that proved the importance of connecting theoretical and empirical work and really helped to push my own thinking on the topics forward, and probably did the same with many of the people involved in the activities around the chair (see Biesta, De Bie, & Wildemeersch, 2013). The greatest recognition I received from my peers was my election as president of the USA Philosophy of Education Society for 2011–2012 – the first president of the society from outside of North America. One of the prerogatives of the president is to invite the speaker for the Kneller Lecture (a lecture at the society’s annual conference sponsored by an endowment from George F. Kneller). I was extremely grateful that John D. Caputo accepted my invitation, not only because of his standing as a philosopher but also because his scholarship has had a significant impact on my own work. Caputo also provided inspiration for the title and some of the content of the book in which I brought together much of my most recent work on education, namely The Beautiful Risk of Education (Biesta, 2013c – with a translation in Danish on its way).

Luxembourg: 2013 and Beyond

At the time of writing, my latest – and quite likely to be last – job move is still in its initial stages.4 After working for nearly 14 years in the UK I felt a need to (re)turn to the continent, partly because over the years I had come to realise how strongly my work and my academic identity has been shaped by Continental philosophy and educational theory, and partly out of curiosity for a very different institutional, intellectual and linguistic environment. I was lucky to be selected for the post of Professor of Educational Theory and Policy at the University of Luxembourg (a tri-lingual university), which will allow me to concentre on two areas that, over the years, have indeed become central in my work. What Luxembourg will bring lies in the future, but there are still a number of issues I wish to pursue, not only because they are important for me but also because I sense that they can be important for the direction in which educational research and practice seem to be moving internationally.

I see myself not only getting further away from the discourse of learning, but also turning increasingly towards teaching. An essay I recently published – Giving teaching back to education (Biesta, 2012b) – provides an indication of work that still needs to be done here. The distinction I operate with in the essay – between ‘learning from’ and ‘being taught by’ – not only has important practical implications for how we think about teaching and how we might do it, but also has a wider theoretical potential as it provides two very different ways of thinking about the way we are in the world with others: one where we see others as resources for our own growth and development and one where others are addressing us and where this address (literally) ‘opens up’ opportunities for a very different way of being human. The distinction between ‘learning from’ and ‘being taught by’ is therefore not just a micro-matter for how teachers and students might conduct themselves in the classroom, but hints at much wider ethical, political, existential and educational themes and issues. My more recent collaborations with Herner Sæverot from the University of Bergen and with colleagues from NLA University College in Bergen are particularly important in the exploration of the existential dimensions of these challenges.

There are two further aspects of the ‘turn’ towards teaching that require further work. One has to do with the educational significance of the experience of resistance – the resistance of the material world and the resistance of the social world – and suggests a need to return to the rather old educational theme of the education of the will, that is, the question how the will can come to a ‘worldy’ form (Biesta, 2012c; see also Meirieu, 2007). The other concerns the need for the development of an informed critique of constructivism and the articulation of a viable alternative, so that we can understand what it means to know no longer just in terms of (our own) constructions but also, and perhaps first of all, in terms of reception, that is, as something that is given to us. This is a line with many theoretical, philosophical and political challenges, but nonetheless important in order to challenge what seems to have become a new ‘dogma’ of contemporary education. A further theme has to do with developing a critical understanding of the transformation of the field of educational research and scholarship, also in order to be able to interrupt the ongoing rise of an Anglo-American definition of educational research and scholarship – one that is increasingly marginalising other, what we might call ‘indigenous’ forms of theory and research in education. And if I can find the time, I would also like to explore in more depth the educational significance of the idea of ‘metamorphosis,’ particularly to challenge the dominance of linear modes of thinking and doing that seem to suggest that we just need to start earlier and earlier with our educational ‘interventions’ – a way of thinking that puts an enormous amount of unwarranted pressure on (young) children and their teachers.

What might emerge from all this (and in a sense is already emerging from it) is a conception of education that is thoroughly ‘world-centred’ – an education for ‘earthlings’ (Lingis, 1994, p. 117), we might say – which is focused on the possibilities for ‘newcomers’ to exist in the world with others who are not like them. Questions about subjectivity, freedom, emancipation, and democracy are likely to play an important role in this wider ambition, as will be the question of the education of teachers in a world that seems to want to take all that matters educationally out of education in order to turn it into the risk-free production of pre-specified identities and learning outcomes.

Finally: the title of this chapter is an attempt to capture my intellectual and scholarly trajectory. This trajectory started with pragmatism, and I have indicated the ways in which I am still indebted to pragmatism. But the encounter with philosophers such as Derrida, Arendt, and Levinas and with educational thinkers such as Langeveld, Mollenhauer, and Meirieu, has convinced me that the most important challenge for education today lies in the question how we can be ‘at home in the world,’ as Arendt so beautifully has put it. This, as I have come to realise, is ultimately not a matter of theory or philosophy but a matter of existence, so that there is the ongoing challenge not to let theory and philosophy get in the way of life, not to let it get in the way of what matters and what should matter most in our existence as ‘earthlings.’

Acknowledgement

This chapter is dedicated to my wife and children. They have without doubt taught me most about what education is and what it ought to be about.

Notes
1This appendix previously appeared as Biesta, G. J. J. (2014). From experimentalism to existentialism: Writing from the margins of philosophy of education. In L. Waks (Ed.), Leaders in philosophy of education. Volume II (pp. 13–30). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
2While it is too much to say that the Utrecht School went into exile, it is interesting to note that, particularly through the efforts of Max van Manen in Canada, the phenomenological tradition of the Utrecht School is still alive in North America but definitely not in its country of origin.
3At the time of writing (June 2013) they appear as the 1st and 3rd most quoted paper of the journal Educational Theory over the last 10 years – see Harzing’s Publish or Perish.
4Unfortunately, the time in Luxembourg turned out to be rather short. Although I was keen to get closer to the continent intellectually, I was ill-prepared for the very different academic culture I encountered there – an academic culture, moreover, that was still in the process of inventing itself through an amalgamation of German, French, Anglo-American and indigenous traditions, cultures, ways of working, doing and communicating. Form a distance, it was a remarkable experience to see how difficult the meeting of (academic) cultures can be. Personally, I can only say that it took me many years to recover from what I encountered there. I was fortunate to find employment in England (at Brunel University London), an academic culture I could ‘read’ and navigate. In addition I ended up with an endowed chair for one day a week at the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands, which did allow me to focus more explicitly on continental traditions of educational thought and practice. In 2014 I was also invited to join the Education Council of The Netherlands (Onderwijsraad) as associate member which meant that from 2014 until 2018 I was closely involved in advising the Dutch government and parliament on educational matters. My own perception of this work was that theory and history are actually of crucial importance for policy, not least because they help to keep a wider and longer-term perspective. In addition to becoming associate editor of the journal Educational Theory, I also became co-editor, in 2018, of the British Educational Research Journal, the ‘flagship’ journal of the British Educational Research Association. At the time of writing these sentences I am in the process of consolidating my ‘portfolio’ of activities which, in addition to the editorships, will include a new part-time appointment as Professor of Public Education at Maynooth University Ireland, a Professorial Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, and a visiting professorship (Professor II) at the University of Agder, Norway. I will not make any further predictions about what the future will hold, but hope to be able to use the coming years for some further contributions in the domain of educational theory, broadly conceived.

Publications That Have Been Important for My Own Work

  • ArendtH. (1958). The human condition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

  • BaumanZ. (1993). Postmodern ethics. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

  • CaputoJ. D. (2006). The weakness of God: A theology of the event. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

  • DerridaJ. (1976). Of grammatology. Baltimore, MD & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • DeweyJ. (1929). The quest for certainty: A study of the relation of knowledge and action. New York, NY: Minton Balch & Company.

  • LatourB. (1987). Science in action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • LevinasE. (1981). Otherwise than being or beyond essence. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

  • MeirieuP. (2007). Pédagogie: Le devoir de résister. Issy-les-Moulineaux: ESF éditeur.

  • MollenhauerK. (1964). Erziehung und Emanzipation [Education and emancipation.] Weinheim: Juventa.

  • MollenhauerK. (1983). Vergessene Zusammenhänge. Über Kultur und Erziehung [Forgotten connections: On culture and education]. München: Juventa.

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  • RortyR. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Some Key Publications

  • BiestaG. J. J. (2006). Beyond learning. Democratic education for a human future. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

  • BiestaG. J. J. (2007). Why ‘what works’ won’t work. Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit of educational research. Educational Theory57(1) 122.

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  • BiestaG. J. J. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics politics democracy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

  • BiestaG. J. J. (2012). Giving teaching back to education. Phenomenology and Practice6(2) 3549.

  • Biesta. G. J. J. (2014). The beautiful risk of education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

References

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  • BiestaG. J. J. & Egéa-KuehneD. (Eds.). (2001). Derrida & Education. London & New York, NY: Routledge.

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Obstinate Education

Reconnecting School and Society

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