Author Interview: Gert Biesta

This month we publish a review of Gert Biesta’s The Beautiful Risk of Education. Here he discusses the book and why he wrote it.

Why did you decide to write The Beautiful Risk of Education?

I felt that it was important to make a positive case for what nowadays seems only to be perceived as a problem that needs to be solved, namely the fact that education is a risky endeavour, not something that can or ought to be completely controlled. Against all the risk-aversion that I see in education policy and also, often as the effect of such policy, in educational practice, I wanted to show that when you take the risk out of education you ultimately take education itself away; education becomes un-educational and in some cases even anti-educational. What I also wanted to show is that this doesn’t mean that education becomes good when we take all structure, all sense of direction and purpose away. In this regard I am also responding to reactions to restrictive policies that argue that we should turn schools into learning communities where teachers and students are together involved in some kind of project of joint discovery. That for me is also a misconception of education, and it’s one that I try to explore in the book as well.


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

The book is constructed as an exploration of seven educational concepts – creativity (or actually: creation), communication, teaching, learning, emancipation, democracy, and virtuosity (which is about the need for judgement in teaching) – and with regard to each concept I explore the distinction between a ‘strong’ and a ‘weak’ reading, arguing that the weak reading is the more meaningful, particularly where it concerns education. Each chapter is, in that sense, a little study that seeks to explore why weakness and risk matter. As I said, I think it is important to show why weakness and risk matter in a time when there is such a strong tendency to control education and make it into a machine for the production of a small set of ‘learning outcomes.’ It’s this reduction that I find problematic, not just for the students who are subjected to it, but also for teachers who have to work in such systems.


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

I see that many in and around education – teachers, parents, students – are concerned about the attempt to ‘fix’ education and control it. They often feel that this is not all there is or should be in education, but find it difficult to oppose what is going on. This is partly a political struggle, but it also has a lot to do with language and arguments, and what I try to do with my work is to generate language and arguments that can help to indicate what precisely is going on, why that is problematic, and what might be more productive and meaningful ways forward. At the same time I try to show that some responses to the desire to fix and control education, namely those that argue for the freedom to learn and explore, that put the child at the centre, and that see the teacher just as a facilitator, are also problematic because they also become un- and anti-educational. Looking back on the book I would say that what I’m trying to highlight is the need for a third position, beyond education as control but also beyond the attempt to turn education into learning and teachers into facilitators.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

I hope that it helps people to look differently at education, and perhaps see problems where they didn’t see them before. I don’t offer concrete solutions in the book, mainly because I feel that such solutions need to be worked out in concrete situations by the people ‘on the ground’ so to speak. What I don’t like are the books that come up with long shopping lists about everything that should be done.


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

I tend not to write with a particular audience in mind, and have just been pleased that the book has not only received a pretty good reception by fellow academics but also, and quite strongly actually, a positive uptake by teachers and even policy makers. I get positive responses from many different corners, including many from teachers who find the book in a sense actually quite useful – they also find it difficult, which I think is fine, because education is quite difficult and the book tries to honour that as well.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

 I’m currently working on a book called ‘The rediscovery of teaching’ in which I try to articulate more explicitly what above I referred to as the third position, one where the critique of attempts to control and fix education should not lead to a turn towards learning and a deconstruction of the teacher as a facilitator, but where we approach education fundamentally through the question of teaching – where it has to do with the experience of ‘being taught’ rather than ‘learning from’. It’s a distinction I introduce in Chapter 3 of The Beautiful Risk and in this new book I dig deeper into what this means. The argument is partly educational but it looks like it’s becoming the most philosophical book I have written so far, as it also tries to make a case that what is distinctive of human being (in the singular) is not our ability to learn, make sense, or give meaning, but rather our ‘capacity’ (which is actually not a capacity) to ‘receive’ teaching, that is, to be taught. It’s therefore an attempt to rediscover the meaning of teaching for education as it is an attempt to rediscover the meaning for our human being – or, if you wish: our being human.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

That’s an interesting question about which I have written a fair bit. My first response would be to say that philosophy of education is something that was invented in Britain and North America and that came to institutional fruition after the Second World War. I’m saying it in this way in order not to think that philosophy of education as it has been practised over the past 50 years or so is something universal, and that it is the only way in which it is possible to engage in more reflective and theoretical manner with fundamental educational questions. And the reason for making this point is that I grew up academically in a very different tradition, that of Continental ‘Pädagogik’, where systematic reflection on education has developed as an academic discipline in its own right rather than as a branch of philosophy. There is of course overlap between these two constructions, but they bring quite different resources to the table. Philosophy of education has a tendency to end up in philosophical arguments, whereas I always try to focus on the educational issues, which are not always – and sometimes not at all – philosophical. So as long as we put the emphasis on education, then I would say that philosophy of education utilises philosophical resources to engage with educational matters. But the real challenge lies in figuring out what the educational is. If that is the focus, then I think that philosophy of education can matter a lot, first of all for educational practice, but then also for educational research and education policy – and these are the three areas in which I tend to work and try to show how good and disciplined theoretical work, inspired by philosophy and other resources, can make a real difference.


Gert Biesta is Professor of Education in the Department of Education of Brunel University London, and Visiting Professor (Art Education) at Artez, Institute of the Arts, Arnhem, The Netherlands. He can also be found in our [email protected] gallery of philosophers of education as children.