Author Interview: Alexis Gibbs
Dr Alexis Gibbs is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education Studies and Liberal Arts at the University of Winchester, UK. Here he discusses his recent book, Seeing Education on Film: a conceptual aesthetics. You can read a review of the book here.
Questions: Naomi Hodgson
Why did you decide to write Seeing Education on Film: A Conceptual Aesthetics?
When I first set out to write the book, my intention was actually to concentrate more on the pedagogical qualities of cinema, i.e. the sorts of things that film can be said to teach. But I soon felt that this approach was flawed in a couple of ways: firstly, the sorts of changes in knowledge, perception, and/or behaviour that film is often said to bring about in people (especially young people) are rarely that much in evidence in a sufficiently generalisable form; secondly, that in order to say how film teaches, one would have to have a very strong idea of what teaching or education consisted in already – in which case you might not need cinema to bring that about. So instead I decided to invert the investigation: rather than looking at how film educates, I opted to look at what film-viewing has to tell us about education – both the things we already value about it, and the things we might come to see differently as a result.
What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?
I think one of the more modest aims of the book is to take cinema seriously as a text for rethinking educational ideas. But beyond that, I think the concept of “seeing” in the book, derived largely from the second part of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, is one which draws attention to two important issues in the conceptualisation of education: firstly, that actually when we speak of education the images that come to mind are still stubbornly those of schools, teachers, children, rather than abstract notions of emancipation, enlightenment, or conscientisation; secondly, that if we focus our attention on these more traditional phenomena, it is possible to see them under different “aspects” (to use Wittgenstein’s term). The aim of the book is to highlight the value of seeing educational phenomena under its different aspects, to conceptualise it anew, to give it fresh meaning in our discourse.
And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?
It would be too easy to say that a passion for cinema brought me here, as in fact I see the films that I take to be of educational interest quite differently to those that I watch for entertainment. But perhaps because I am quite a visual person, I am interested in how education might be conceptualised along more perceptual than intellectual lines: the Wittgensteinian imperative “Don’t think, but look!” has a particular resonance here. And when I look at (certain) films, particularly the Iranian cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Samira Makhmalbaf, it feels as if we are being told something both old and new about education: that it is still of value, but that we may have lost sight of that value through over-theorisation of its various elements.
What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?
I hope to persuade readers that to emphasise the language of “seeing” and the visual in educational research is an interesting way of generating greater discussion around the question of what (good) education looks like: how we recognise it, what we appreciate about it, and how these things appear differently depending on the circumstances in which they take place. I hope that people will feel more enabled to talk about good examples of education, rather than trying to theorise its goodness a priori.
What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
In many ways it is written for Education Studies and Philosophy of Education students: I wanted to provide them with an alternative to “theory first” approaches to educational thought, one that might encourage them to look instead at how things actually play out in the world of their experience, as well as in the experiences of other people. But I hope the book will also have some appeal for both educationalists and educators alike, keen to think about how understanding and revaluation of phenomena and concepts in education can emerge more from the observation of ordinary and real-world situations, rather than from theory.
What’s your current project? What’s next?
I am continuing to pursue lines of investigation around the question “What does education look like?”. One project I am working on is a translation of a Brazilian book, the story of one teacher’s highly creative efforts to transform literacy for children in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. It provides a powerful counter to Freirean dialectics, but also a great example of what a creative and responsive approach to education (in that particular situation) looks like.
What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?
For me, educational scholarship means drawing upon the best resources for rethinking and revaluating the educational practices and ideas in circulation at any one time. I happen to find that a lot of those resources come from philosophy, but they can also come from other disciplines, as well as literature, film, and life experience.
To think again about our resources for revaluating education matters because we can’t be too complacent about canonical influences: the holy quadrumvirate of Plato, Rousseau, Dewey, and Freire often still holds too much sway over educational thought! I view cinema not so much as philosophy, but as a way of thinking outside canonical bias, and beyond the Eurocentric tradition, for new perspectives on old ideas.