Author Interview: Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons

Naomi Hodgson spoke to Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons about ‘In Defence of the School: a Public Issue’, which they recently published independently, as an open access publication. The book is available to download from the Laboratory for Education and Society website (


Why did you decide to write In Defence of the School: a Public Issue?

At first, it may seem strange to put forth a defence of the school’s very right to exist. No one could truly believe that the school is on the verge of disappearing and that it is being threatened in very real ways. School buildings are still standing, many of them as massive and immemorial as ever. And new schools are being built, too. And everyone, or almost everyone, still goes to school. And yet, in today’s era of lifelong learning and (digital) learning environments, perhaps the school is under attack more than ever before. One anticipates the school’s disappearance on the grounds of its redundancy as a painfully outdated institution. Indeed, besides the recurring charges and accusations levelled against the school (alienating and demotivating young people, corruption and abuse of its power, reproduction of inequality, lack of effectiveness and employability), we must take note of the recent development which states that the school, where learning is bound to a particular time and space, is no longer needed in the digital era of virtual learning environments. The school as a whole, on that view, is determined by primitive technologies of the past. The accusers thus argue that the school is an out-dated learning environment. However, we think that we have to defend the school, not against the use of ICT, not at all, but against the different strategies and tactics that in line with a long history aim at taming the essential democratic and commoning operation of the school. We think the school is not a learning environment, or at least, not a learning environment like any other.


Your position may seem radical to some. What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important now?

We try to identify what makes a school a school and, in doing so, we also want to pinpoint why the school has value in and of itself and why it deserves to be preserved or, maybe better and more precise, deserves to be reinvented. What we try to elaborate in the book are some central features of what we call the invention of the school as a particular space-time-matter arrangement that actually operates in a very particular way as a kind of gathering that makes things/the world public or common. We conceive our book as an attempt to formulate a kind of touchstone which could help to discuss actual developments in the field of education and especially the development of so-called ‘virtual learning-environments’ implying the dominance of a ‘language of learning’. We see it as a kind of invitation to think about the school in a particular and perhaps more fruitful way, that is, in terms of a ‘form of gathering’ that makes ‘free time’, a time of study and exercise where things are ‘on the table’. So, the school more as a form of gathering than as an institution. It is this form, what this form does (or creates) and the very concrete architecture, technologies, practices, figures, experiences and acts that constitute it, that we want to clarify, at least to some limited extent. It is however not an attempt to describe an ‘ideal school’ but a very concrete, material invention.


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

Well, the start for our work lies precisely in our common experience of having ‘no time’ for studying issues really in depth and our re-discovery or recollection of this old Greek notion of ‘scholè’ or free/public time. This brought us to this question of how free time (for study, exercise and thought) can be made/is made? Moreover, just as Dewey started from a ‘pedagogic creed’ we too share a belief. The belief that the human being has no (natural) destination and hence can be conceived as an animal educandum.  


The idea of making time will appeal to many, but to do this we need to come out of our comfort zones. What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

We hope of course that the issue of the school becomes (or remains) a public issue, and that questions regarding the school are not just discussed in terms of providing the best resources for meeting individual learning needs, of investment or effective production of learning outcomes (i.e. as production and investment time). Or to put it differently, we hope that the book can help to deal with the school as both a form of commoning and as a way for society to put itself at a distance from itself, to bring itself into play. Indeed, and like Hannah Arendt, school is for us the materialisation of the decision of a society to offer a time/space for study and exercise in order to give the new generation the opportunity to renew society, to offer to society itself and to the new generation a future in the sense of the French ‘avenir’ (à venir), which is to come and hence unknown. To put it differently, school is the place where a world is dis-closed (its closure is removed) and where the belief that ‘our children are not our children’ gets a concrete visible and material shape. It is important to stress in that regard that perhaps all societies have modes of learning (and socialisation, initiation), but not all societies have ‘school’. School as the time and place to renew society is an invention, and it can disappear, but – and that is our optimism – it can also be reinvented.


This seems like a task we should all take responsibility for. What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

We have very consciously tried to write ‘publicly’ i.e. aiming at a large audience of people who are in one way or another related to education (ranging from students, parents, teachers, educators, to policymakers, scholars and researchers). Of course, it is not so easy for us to know whether we succeeded, but it was certainly important to us not to use ‘technical’ language or to address a very specific audience within a certain discipline. Since we would like the issue of the school to be a public issue, this was or is particularly important.  


And that is why you decided to publish this book independently, as an open access publication?

Yes, since it is about the school as a public issue, we wanted the book to be as public as possible. Or the other way around, as little privatised as possible. And it is difficult to approach the current publication apparatus not as a huge machinery of privatisation.  


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

It may not come as a surprise, but we would like to write a defence of the university as the main other public pedagogic form of collective experimenting and thinking which is currently under the severe threats of privatisation and appropriation in various forms. And we would like to investigate how the university, from its invention as pedagogic form, articulates a movement of de-appropriation or making things public and gathering a public around these things, and how this can be conceived as another way to materialize ‘free time’ (scholè) as a time of public study and thought. Moreover, we would like to show how the history of the university can be read rather as a history of the attempts at taming this movement (through all kinds of strategies and tactics ranging from disciplining to institutionalizing, and of course privatizing).


One final question…What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

We think that philosophy of education is to be conceived not so much as a particular discipline, but rather as a public exercise in thought, as some form of un-appropriated and ‘undisciplined’ thinking. Not in the sense, that it would not be systematic, coherent or well argued, but in the sense that it suspends the policing of the disciplines. The current emphasis on ‘learning’ raises not only the question about the transformation of traditional institutions of education, but it seems to raise questions about the role and identity of educational theory and philosophy as well. Indeed, educational theory and philosophy had to a large extent ‘education’ and the institutions of ‘the school’ and ‘the university’ as a major point of reference. Current debates on its identity indicate that these references become problematic, and that educational philosophy and theory are challenged to reinvent themselves. A major question is what philosophy of education means when learning displaces education, and when learning sciences displace philosophically-informed reflection on education (in view of educational goals, personal development, etc.). This is evident in the number of publications that deal with the question ‘what philosophy and theory of education are or should be about’ and by special issues that are precisely concerned with the exploration of ‘new philosophies of learning’ and ‘Philosophy of Education and the Transformation of Educational Systems’ or studies that want to go ‘beyond learning’. It seems that today in philosophy of education not only the notion of ‘philosophy’ has become questionable and seems to have lost its evidence (since post-modernism at the latest), but now also the notion of ‘education’. In such moments of crisis it seems meaningless to adopt a sort of defensive attitude (which very often just comes down to blaming others that they are unable to see the value of the project of philosophy – ‘you have to be a philosopher to understand the real value of philosophy’), or to simply repeat all the time that there is a crisis. It seems to be more fruitful to look again for some touchstone for thought – and that is the kind of exercise we would like to make. And in fact we think that in order to develop such a touchstone we have to engage in a kind of fieldwork i.e. that we have to become ‘empirical philosophers’ in a particular way. We have to put our thought, and hence also who we are and what we do, to the test.


Jan Masschelein is Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Laboratory for Education and Society at the KU Leuven, Belgium. His primary areas of scholarship are educational theory, critical theory, and social philosophy. Currently his research concentrates on the public character of education and on ‘mapping’ and ‘walking’ as critical research practices. In addition he is engaged with architects/artists in the development of experimental educational practices.

Maarten Simons is Professor at the Laboratory for Education and Society at the KU Leuven, Belgium. His research interests are educational theory and political and social philosophy with special attention to educational policy, new forms of government(ality) in education, the public role of (higher) education and current transformations of the university. Part of his current research is understanding the public role of the university from an educational point of view, and more particularly by describing the university’s specific ‘pedagogic form’.

Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons have published extensively within their areas of research. Together they are author of  Globale Immunität. Ein kleine Kartographie des Europaischen Bildungsraum (2005, Berlin/Zurich: Diaphanes),  of Jenseits der Exzellenz. Eine kleine Morphologie der Welt-Universität.(2010, Berlin/Zürich: Diaphanes), and now of ‘In defence of the school. A public issue’. They co-edited the books The learning society from the perspective of governmentality (2007, Blackwell) and Rancière, Public Education and the Taming of Democracy. (2011, Blackwell).