I enjoyed this article. I think it is a stimulating attempt to offer the beginnings of an alternative to the dominant constructivist view of learning as ‘children making meaning’. I suggested it to the Education Theory reading group because of this.
The long introduction contains a totally convincing defence of teaching and a dismissal of the superficial anti-teaching and pro-learning view so common in educational psychology. But on reflection I can see some weaknesses in Gert’s argument. If this review appears to be too negative I apologise in advance. I find I move forward, or feel I move forward, by criticizing the thought of others. But this does not mean that I do not respect or value the thought that I am criticising. I am very aware that my response is just a turn in a larger conversation.
Initially Gert Biesta points out that rejecting authoritarian teaching is not the same as rejecting all teaching. He is going to attempt to save good teaching. I liked his point that the rhetoric against transmissional teaching is greatly exaggerated. Even when education is staged as if it was transmission that does mean it is really is transmission. Students are never really passive recipients.
He acknowledges, reluctantly and after some years of apparently attacking the very idea of studying learning without teaching (see Biesta 2010), that learning is possible without explicit teaching (top of page 5). But he dismissively describes this kind of learning as like that of a ‘robot vacuum cleaner’. The important act of learning for Gert is what he describes as the event of ‘being taught’. In this event an outside voice is listened to and ‘authorised’. In responding in this way students learn the most important thing, that they are subjects, not objects. In authorising a voice they are interrupted in their egotism and led beyond themselves into finding their own voice as a voice amongst others. This is not presented as being led into knowledge but as being led into an ethical appreciation that the world is shared. It is a discovery of responsibility.
As egos constructing meanings students are not really subjects at all but objects, Gert claims. As objects in the world they interact with their environments and build models of it and learn just like a robot vacuum cleaner. To find themselves as subjects they need to be challenged by a call that comes from outside this world. The ‘I’ is not an object but a subject and as a subject it is brought alive only as a response to a call. Teaching needs to provide that call that brings subjects into being. I like these claims. They fit with my own arguments about dialogic education (see Wegerif, 2011). But they are only claims. The main ‘argument’ of the paper, if one can call it that, seems to take the form of a careful reading of two texts by Levinas.
Problem 1: Gert’s argumentation seems to consist of a respectful exegesis of Levinas. Levinas is described as providing very good subtle arguments which Gert is unpacking for the rest of us. I have read some key texts of Levinas and I cannot agree. Levinas reads like someone who has a profound insight to communicate but does not know how to communicate it. He oscillates between apparent phenomenological description of how we respond to the naked face of the other and exaggerated metaphysical theological sounding claims about the transcendence of the face of the other as a stand-in for the infinite Other. Why should we believe Levinas? Why should we ‘authorise’ his voice to teach us?
Problem 2: Gert is very unclear about the status of his own enterprise. He claims he is engaging in philosophical anthropology, exploring what it means to be human, but then he qualifies this as (page 3) he does not believe we can understand what it means to be human. So he is merely offering an account of how the world might be approached differently. He calls this existential. But he asserts that we cannot simply choose how to understand ourselves. I find this account of his method confusing and I think that this is because it is confused.
At the bottom of page 4 we find what he is worried about. Performative contradiction. If he presents a theory of being human as ‘de-centred’ in a way that is centred then he is in performative contradiction. Levinas, and Gert, are trying to replace theory with ethics. From representations of what it means to be human to relationship and responsibility.
This theoretical rejection of theory leads to much confusing shadow-boxing in which what looks like a theory is presented only to be withdrawn again as it is not allowed to be a theory.
I think that Gert is seduced into being unclear and equivocal about his method because of his own binary thinking. The paper begins with an attack on the false binary of teaching versus learning but then asserts the false binary of subject versus object. Theoretical thinking is, he says quoting Levinas, egology, it assumes a centre, the ego, that objectifies the world. This kind of objective thinking not only turns the world into object but also the subject becomes a fixed object, the centre of its fixed world. To assert the subject we need to reject this objectifying thinking and switch to ethical thinking that is within relationship with the other.
But actually, as with teaching and learning, there is no pure object and pure subject. We are only speaking and desiring subjects insofar as we identify with some sort of object. Through our bodies we have not only the physical world, which we can learn about, but also the intersubjective social world where we relate to other people through their bodies and their physical locations in space and time.
It is quite true that many have been seduced into defining themselves and their situations as only objective and have forgotten their subjectivity. This is the value of the insightful critique of total immanence in Levinas as communicated by Gert. But, like the critique of authoritarian teaching, this critique of immanence (subjectness or spirit being totally conflated with the empirical world) does not need to lead us to affirm the polar opposite, that subjects are only free insofar as they are free from objectification.
In fact there is a lot of interesting and important stuff to learn in education. Why is Gert only interested in the event of being taught in which subjectness is born? OK this is important and worth being restored from oblivion but it is not everything.
The logic seems to be ‘objective theory, bad: subjective responsibility, good’. The evil world of objectivizing totalising western theory as egology has to be swept away for a pure subjectness to emerge only concerned with ethical responsibility to the other. The simplistic binary thinking here can be seen in the fact that Levinas’s ethics are only about the opening of responsibility and have nothing useful to say about content or what we should actually do in any real situation. When it comes to response to Palestinian claims many found Levinas lacking.
Giving up on systematic theory Levinas tends to poetry. The face of the other is a poetic attempt to invoke an experience in the reader that will lead to a shared acknowledgement of a truth that is beyond words. But at times Levinas is more logical and if we follow through on the logic of his position we see that his ‘face of the other’ rhetoric is misleading. The logic of his position is expressed neatly in the lines he wrote in commentary on Descartes:
‘The idea of God, the cogitatum of a cogitatio which to begin with contains that
cogitatio, signifies the non-contained par excellence. Is not that the very absolution
of the absolute? It overflows every capacity; the 'objective reality' of the
cogitatum breaks up the 'formal reality' of the cogitatio.’ (Levinas, 1989)
To paraphrase: a part within a whole cannot grasp that whole from the outside. In attempting to think the whole from the inside that part is led to the thought of infinity. This relationship is more than a thought. In attempting to relate to the whole the ‘subject’ is undermined, it experiences an infinite flow of meaning with no content. There can be no totality for us, only infinity. There can be no ‘theory of the whole’ only an experience of self-loss and self-giving.
[btw the word ‘whole’ here is not meant to be singular or plural – it is not a thing nor a self, just the fairly common sense idea that there is a larger reality that contains us within it but transcends us such that we cannot understand it but can feel pulled out to try to relate to it because it is our ground even though there is no ground we can reach – hence infinite other experience of constant undermining and flow without end. Makes sense to me anyway. ]
To refer to this experience of transcendence and being taught by transcendence as ‘encounter with the face of the other’ is evocative in some contexts but misleadingly humanist. It follows from the logic outlined above that one can also be taught by a sunset. All that is required is stepping back from a self-image as an object at the centre of an objective world I have constructed and authorising the other to lead us, in this case the sunset in another case the other person. This is about ethics and responsibility, perhaps, but it is not really about anyone’s face except in a poetic sense, like the line in a Captain Beefheart song: ‘your eyes are a blue million miles’. Nice but misleading.
Following Levinas Gert is also rejecting the logical approach and not affirming anything clearly as true but merely musing that there could be a different way of looking at things than the current way. The world could be ‘approached’ this different way, he claims. But it follows that it could equally well be approached in any number of different ways. He falls into performative contradiction himself when he argues that Levinas brings in transcendence precisely in order to offer criteria with which to avoid moral relativism. Gert/Levinas is therefore asserting non-relativism in what looks like a relativistic kind of way. He cannot assert a theory but he can assert a dominant feeling, responsibility – discovering oneself as in hostage to the whole (or the Infinite Other as that is how the whole is experienced from within as an always already broken whole and flow of meaning).This obviously invokes the religious experience of conversion or ‘turning around’ on the model fo St Paul on the road to Damascus. I can sort of relate to that kind of religious experience of being undermined by a ‘higher perspective’ but what about the many people who do not?
It is always possible to look at anything in a different way – but why believe that different way? The question is always, which way is best?
Theories are useful in learning about a world and answering this kind of question. Not only scientific theories but also ethical theories.
How do we bring together thinking outside relationship (object thinking) and thinking inside relationship (subject feeling). The answer is that we do both at once while knowing that neither is ultimately the truth or the true way. While never being true each way can bring us closer to the truth in a context. It is the constant and dynamic interaction between them that characterises productive creative thought. Merleau-Ponty refers to this as ‘hyper-reflection’.
Consider for a moment the latest interpretations of ultimate reality in physics. Is it string theory or multiple universes or just quantum foam? Gert would dismiss this as egology. Actually answers to these kind of theoretical questions about the objective universe led to useful knowledge and the great power of atomic bombs and potentially might lead to nuclear fusion generators freeing the world from energy scarcity. It is true that no answer is ultimate because, as Levinas argues above, we cannot grasp the whole from the inside. This does not mean that we cannot form a better answer in a context and that better answer is known to be better because it is more useful. Part of how theory moves forward, according to Einstein anyway, is by switching between orientations. In dreams and contemplation having a subjective relationship with the universe, experiencing it as the beloved other, helped Einstein open the creative intuition that led to better objective and testable theory formation. Representation and relationship, objectivity and subjectivity, being inside and thinking as if from the outside are not in opposition to each other but always united dynamically in creative thought.
Considering why Gert’s method is confused leads to the affirmation of a fairly straight-forward scientific post-positivism.
- There is transcendental truth (there is an outside of our constructions that calls to us – whether we think of this as underlying structure in science or in terms of subjectivity in Levinas’s ethics of responsibility) (Bhaskar's 'transcendental realism')
- We cannot articulate clearly that truth because all we can articulate is truth for us – truth from a perspective within the whole and not from a position outside of the whole.(Truths are all socially constructed but there is a transcendentally real that we cannot access directly)
- But some theories are better than others – there is a direction towards the truth – this is as true in ethics and law (see Ronald Dworkin) as it is in science and technology. The fact that there is direction shows that there is a transcendental reality. (Pragmatism is compatible with transcendental realism)
- However, whether or not a theory is better depends on the context of a human desire that in turn depends upon an identification. Different kinds of knowledge follow from different kinds of human interest which in turn depend upon different kinds of identification. (Influence of Habermas's pragmatism - means we cannot be sure of smooth linear progress since identifications and desires change in history)
The implication that this view has for education is not that we abandon designing for learning in favour of the kind of direct face to face teaching that awakens subjectness. It certainly involves a rejection of the false binary of authoritarian teaching on the one hand and student centred learning on the other. It replaces this with an understanding of education as part of a long term dialogue in which we take turns to lead and be led – to teach and to be taught - within relationships. Awakening subjectness is one goal of education but so is learning about the world. Teaching is not just encounter and interruption – it is also designing learning experiences and continuity with the past. Not only are teaching and learning not incompatible, they go together very well within education when this is understood as dialogic education by which I mean the kind of education through which the student is taught how to find his or her own voice within ongoing long-term dialogues of culture.
I think that students find their own voice in the way that Gert outlines so this is a very valuable contribution to educational theory. On the other hand, teaching for subjectness is not at all incompatible with the teacher role in designing for learning as a way of inducting students into the dialogue so far. This dialogic vision of education could even be seen as a re-discovery in new, more universal terms, of quite a traditional vision. The first aim for Thomas Arnold, 19th Century head of Rugby school, was 'moral character' ('subjectness'?) and only after that, the transmission across generations of what his son, Matthew Arnold, referred to as 'the best that has been thought and said' ('the dialogue so far'?).
Bhaskar, R. A. (1997). A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso.
Biesta, G. (2010). Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy. New York: Paradigm.
Dworkin, R. (2013) Dworkin, R. Religion without God. Harvard University Press.
Habermas, J. (2005). Knowledge and human interests: A general perspective.Continental philosophy of science, 310.
Levinas, E. (1989) God and Philosophy (A. Lingis, trans.), in S. Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader. Oxford.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. (Claude Lefort, ed., Alphonso Lingis, trans.). Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.
Wegerif, R (2011) Towards a dialogic theory of how children learn to think. Thinking Skills and Creativity. 6 (3) 179-195.