Author Interview: Gert J Biesta

Author Interview: Gert Biesta

Our latest book review is an extended essay by Ewald Terhart on Gert J. J. Biesta’s The Rediscovery of Teaching. Here, Gert discusses the book, his latest projects, and his philosophy of education…

Why did you decide to write The Rediscovery of Teaching?

In my own work over the past 15 years or so I have been critical of the impact of the language of learning on education. In my view, the ‘learnification’ of educational discourse and practice has side-lined questions of educational content, purpose, and relationships. Not that these have gone away, but they are no longer explicitly raised as profoundly normative and political questions. The purpose of education seems to have been redefined in terms of test scores. The content has been adjusted to that ambition or has been removed altogether, for example in the turn towards skills. And in terms of relationships, the teacher’s role has been redefined in function of learning, namely as a facilitator of learning or a designer of learning environments. I think that these developments are affecting what education is or can be, and are also significantly undermining the work of teachers and their ability to be teachers. While some teachers are entirely happy with their new role, perhaps also because they no longer have alternatives to compare with – there is a new generation of teachers who have probably never encountered alternative, non-learning-focused ways of being and doing – I do encounter quite a number of teachers who feel that they have lost their job and have been forced to do something that they feel is no longer about teaching, let alone education. For all these reasons I felt that it was important to take another look at teaching in order to see whether anything needed to be rediscovered (and perhaps recovered).


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

What I did encounter when I embarked on this project, was that the most vocal advocates in favour of teaching and teachers are those who see contemporary education as being in crisis because of a lack of authority – a lack of authority in society more generally and a lack of authority in education, including the authority of the teacher. In these discussions, authority is understood as one-directional power, and what these advocates are after is restoring the power of the teacher as a control figure. This, I think, is really unfortunate, because it has created a situation in which teaching is seen as a limitation of freedom, and learning then appears as the alternative in which students have the freedom they are prevented from having under regimes of teaching as control. I would say, then, that the main aim of the book is a double one.

 It is to show, on the one hand, that teaching is not necessarily a limitation of the student’s freedom, because this is only true on the basis of a very trivial (one could also say: neo-liberal) definition of freedom as not-being-interfered-with by anything outside of oneself or, more ‘positively,’ by just being able to do what one wants to do, without limits or limitations. In the book I criticise this understanding of freedom by ultimately characterising it as ‘infantile’ (being aware that using that word has the danger of giving children, infants, a bad name, which is not what I am after); that is, a way of understanding freedom that has no interest in the fact that as human beings we have to live our lives together and have to live our lives on a planet that puts clear limitations on what we can want or wish for. Teaching or, more specifically, encountering, the experience of being taught by something or someone ‘outside’ of us, is precisely about encountering reality – social and physical – and being called to come into a relationship with what and who is other. This is ‘grown up’ freedom and is perhaps more a challenge for contemporary adults than for infants.

 If this begins to show that teaching and freedom are not necessarily in opposition, and that teaching actually may have something important to do in order to emancipate individuals from limitless or infantile desires, the other line of the book is to show that learning does not automatically or necessarily provide us with the experience of freedom either, so that, in this sense, the turn towards learning is not the way out of teaching as control. I focus this discussion on learning as comprehension, interpretation, and sense-making, and I argue, in quite a detailed manner, that there is a risk that the ‘freedom of signification’ (Levinas) is actually ego-logical; that is, it takes the one who signifies as the centre and criterion, rather than asking about the realities (social and physical) we encounter in our attempts at understanding, comprehension, and so on. Here, again, the experience of being taught, being spoken to, being addressed by what and who is other goes in the opposite direction of the logic of learning, and is often missed in contemporary theories and practices of learning, particularly those that come from or are inspired by cybernetics or evolutionary theory (including pragmatism).


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

In my own work as a teacher in higher education I have seen that it is increasingly difficult to defend education and the work of the teacher as a process in which things are given to students. There is a strong ‘regime’ that tells us that we need to serve students and meet their needs, forgetting that what students think they need or are able to articulate as what they want is not ‘natural’ but itself structured in complex socio-political ways. Interrupting students’ desires, and giving time, space, and forms to encounter one’s ‘own’ desires, and work on selecting those that may help in living one’s life well, individually and collectively is, in my view, the real work of education – which, by the way, doesn’t make education therapeutic as this is all done through curriculum, not outside of it – and teachers have a crucial (though complicated) role to play in this. In my own teaching I keep trying to find ways to make this work possible, but there are few discourses that support such a role, as any attempt at resisting the logic of learning and meeting the needs of learners is seen as conservative and outdated. Hence, what I try to do in the book – it’s a subtitle I considered – is to develop ‘a progressive argument for a conservative idea.’


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

It would be nice if readers find themselves a bit confused about what is progressive and what is conservative, about what is emancipatory and about what is not, and begin to see that these oppositions are too simple and need further thought and exploration. And I hope that it will both upset advocates of ‘conservative teaching’ and ‘progressive learning’ – in order, after that, perhaps to make them think again. And I hope that teachers who understand what education should be about and what their work really is find not just encouragement but also perhaps languages to speak to that mission.


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

First of all teachers, particularly those teachers who have contacted me over the years saying that they felt something was disappearing or had disappeared about their job, but weren’t able to put their finger on it or lacked a language to express it. Apart from that, I just hope anyone in education would want to read the book, either to (strongly) disagree with it or (strongly) agree with it, but at least with a better understanding of what the real issues are.


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

I’m working on a collection of essays under the title ‘Obstinate Education’ – the main point of the title being that the task of education is not to give people – students, parents, society – what they say they want, but always to engage in the question whether what we say we want is what we should be wanting. In that sense, education’s job is to be obstinate – not for the sake of it but for good, human and political reasons. And I’m working on a book – an ‘unorthodox’ introduction to educational research – in which I try to ask the questions that are often left out in all the books that introduce students to educational research, including the question why we actually think that research is a good idea and that more research, also by teachers, will make education better. I see a lot of cases where research is actually interfering with what education should be doing, and am concerned when teachers uncritically incorporate a research mindset, particularly if that drives out the teaching mindset.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

The short answer to this interesting but complicated question is that philosophy of education may be a historical mistake (see my paper from 2014). I don’t mean that philosophy of education is bad or that the work philosophers of education do is problematic, but I try to argue that there may be a number of different ways to connect philosophy and education, and that there is a danger that philosophy of education thinks of itself as applied philosophy, in which case ‘education’ ends up as just an object for philosophical investigation rather than something with its own integrity (on this see also my paper from 2011). Apart from that I do acknowledge that, in the English-speaking world, philosophers of education continue to raise the more fundamental questions about, in, and for education – which is great, particularly as an antidote to all the evidence and neuroscience that seem to present themselves as having the ‘answers’ (without pondering whether they actually have the right questions).


Biesta, G.J.J. (2014). Is philosophy of education a historical mistake? Connecting philosophy and education differently. Theory and Research in Education 12 (1), 65-76.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2011). Disciplines and theory in the academic study of education: A Comparative Analysis of the Anglo-American and Continental Construction of the Field. Pedagogy, Culture and Society 19 (2), 175-192.