Professing Education

Book Review

Full Title: Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future

Author: Gert J. J. Biesta

Publisher: Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers

Paperback 171 pages

John M. Novak

Brock University

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 Human 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 that 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 said 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 meanings.

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 educational kind.

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 script following.

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 never be the same.