Full Title: Beyond Learning: Democratic
Education for a Human Future
Author: Gert J. J. Biesta
Publisher: Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers
Paperback 171 pages
Richard Rorty has pointed out that certain words go to the core
of existence for different people at different times. These words
represent a nucleus of values that provide coherence for various
life stories. Previously, core words such as `monarchy' and `honor'
held sway over medieval male court life, while today words such
as `freedom' and `self' provide both anchors and movement for
many in liberal democratic societies. Getting closer to home,
what could be more sacred than core words such as `learning'
and `democracy' for professors of education? There are public
schools everywhere that proudly say "Student Learning Is
Our Number One Goal," and it would be difficult to find
anyone in the foundations of education not willing to express
a strong heart-felt commitment to democracy. However, as Daniel
Dennett has clearly articulated
in his new book, Breaking the Spell, holy words can take us to unholy
places, whether we realize it or not. In order for us to see where we are going
as educators, Gert Biesta, in Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a
Future invites us to look through some key words we are using in terms of
their unarticulated assumptions and consequences. In so doing, he points to new
places to go and unique ways
to get there.
Biesta's book deals with the "question of how to live with
others in a world of plurality and difference" (p. ix).
In order to do this he argues that we do not need to posit a
common definition of humanity to begin with. Rather, we need
to look at the question of what it means to be human as a radically
open question "that can only be answered by engaging in
education rather than a question that needs to be answered before
we can educate" (p. ix). With this in mind we can focus
on education rather than socialization, which is the "insertion
of newcomers into a pre-existing order of humanity" (p.
7) and can move away from the language of economics that tends
to see students as consumers of learning tied to content that
needs to be acquired from providers. This move away from an instrumental
language of economics to an educational language enables us to
focus on unique singular beings who come into presence by way
of relationships of responsivity and responsibility. This view
of humans as "coming into presence" moves us from a
technological attitude that sees education as an instrument for
bringing about predetermined ends to an educational attitude
that says that "we become somebody through the way in which
we engage with what we learn" (p. 94). Biesta says that
this educational attitude requires trust without grounds, transcendental
violence, and responsibility without knowledge.
Trust without grounds is the recognition that all education
involves real risks of learning "things that you couldn't
have imagined that you would learn or that you couldn't have
imagined that you would have wanted to learn" (p. 25). Education
involves the risk of finding out things about the world or ourselves
might confuse or disturb what we presently hold true. Risk-free education is
a contradiction in terms. We do not only learn what is prescribed
but also what is implied, covered up, or pointed to. Oscar Wilde
that "those who go below the surface do so at their own peril." This
certainly is true of educators who do not
try to "cover" material but really try to uncover, discover, and recover
Building on the risk involved in education, transcendental violence
deals with seeing "learning as a disturbance, as an attempt
to reorganize and reintegrate as a result of disintegration" (p.
27). This is in contrast to the economic perspective of seeing
learning as the painless process of acquiring larger and larger
quantities of knowledge and skills that will be useful in the
marketplace. As Biesta sees it, "education is a form of
violence in that it interferes with the sovereignty of the subject
by asking difficult questions and creating difficult encounters" (p.
29). There is no nice and easy approach to authentic responsivity
and responsibility. There are only difficult encounters of the
Responsibility without knowledge means that an educator cannot
know in advance all that is involved in unique, particular educational
relationships. Acting without complete knowledge requires a teacher
to respond to the subjectivity of the student in a caring and
challenging way so that the student can come into the world in
a unique and deeper way. As was pointed out earlier, this involves
disturbances and risks and runs contrary to the antiseptic outcomes
based approaches to learning that are stressed in curriculum
guidelines throughout the world.
Creating the conditions that enable our students to responsibly
bring their beginnings into a world of plurality and difference
is a part of the democratic challenge for educators. Biesta,
however, points out that democracy can be seen as individualistic,
social, or political. Individualistic democracy builds on the
Kantian idea of educating for the production of the rational,
autonomous person. Biesta argues that this is objectionable because
the outcome focuses on the pre-arranged development of the isolated
individual. Social democracy, as stressed by Dewey, recognizes
the interactive conception of democratic education but also,
according to Biesta, carries instrumentalist tendencies regarding
the production of such individuals and thus does not possess
a radical openness. It is political democracy, as described by
Hannah Arendt, which best fits the approach that Biesta is pointing
towards. Political democracy is based on developing the conditions
that call forth the performances of democratic subjectivity.
The possibilities of these conditions can be used as criteria
for judging schools and society. Education is about what people
learn in and through their performances of their democratic subjectivities.
These performances move us beyond preconceived role playing and
I tend to be suspicious of educational books that have `beyond'
in their titles. It seems to me that `beyond' is often a pseudo-Nietzschian
hype word that provides more promise and promotion than analysis
and insight. Sometimes authors throw out a `beyond' like I throw
out an imaginary stick when I walk my dog. My hope is that she
will bring something back so we move beyond the imaginary. Occasionally,
she brings back a really good stick and we both have a better,
more satisfying experience. Biesta, although not throwing out
hype or an imaginary idea, throws out an imaginative analysis
of, and insight into, how words such as `learning' and `democracy'
are taking us on a speedy corporate/consumer path in which we
ignore each other and the world. There are more responsive and
responsible ways to move, and more educative places we need to
go. Biesta deconstructs and reconstructs learning and democracy
in the hope that all of us can have more satisfying and responsible
educational experiences as we move beyond the controlling assumptions
of the current regimes of power. Such hope is a good that needs
to be guarded, acted upon, and extended.
There is a saying in education: "Try, try, try to be inspiring.
If you cannot be inspiring, at least
be methodical." Beyond Learing: Democratic Education for a Human
Future is on the side of inspiration and is certainly a good antidote to
the current educational mantra that says: "Try, try, try to be methodical.
If you cannot be methodical, be even more methodical." Inspiration is about
breathing new life into unique life forms. Biesta's book has this possibility.
It deserves to be discussed and should call forth some new ways of thinking and
responding to what goes on in the name of education. Learning and democracy may
be the same.