Book Review: Forms of Education

Book Review: Forms of Education: Rethinking Educational Experience Against and Outside the Humanist Legacy, by Emile Bojesen

Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. doi:10.4324/9781351060677. Hb £96; eBook £24.04

Reviewed by Lewis Stockwell, University of Hertfordshire, England & PhD Student, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

In Forms of Education: Rethinking Educational Experience Against and Outside the Humanist Legacy, Bojesen aims to dismantle any comfortable notion of an educational experience that many philosophers of education (youthful and more mature) have been inducted into. He systematically shows the problems with a variety of, broadly humanist, positions – traditional, progressive, anarchist – in relation to two questionable motivations: redemption through educational experience and limitation of educational experience.

Whether seen from traditional or progressive perspectives, educational practices seek to change the learner toward an externally imposed end, whether in expansive public education systems (either free at the point of use or those charging fees) or in the close pedagogical relationship of a more progressive and radical educational context. For Bojesen, the answers given to the question ‘What constitutes an educational experience?’ have a common assumption: ‘an original sin of “educational lack” which is argued can only be redeemed by a relatively specific form of education’ (Bojesen, 2020, p. 2). Broadly speaking, the notion of educational experiences that aim to impose knowledge, power, and structure upon the learner are humanist, in that their key focus is the repair and improvement, often stated as ‘growth’ or ‘development’, of the learner for whatever particular end (be it ‘personal growth’, ‘disciplinary knowledge’, etc.) and, hence, even the more radical notions of education can be seen to adhere to a narrow conception of what educational experience is, and is for. This is partly because these conceptions of education are often made in the image of the very education system the radicals aim to leave behind; they still aim to toward some sort of imposed notion of collective good albeit in radical environments. The book aims, in Bojesen’s words to:

[Deflate] rather than seeks to improve the results of the compulsion to educate, and its argument is positioned against legitimating the imposition of any practice in education, either for individuals or groups. This is not only because conceptualising ideals that should reshape the system or structure of education might well be a fool’s errand or at least require the kind of revolutionary change that is beyond predictability, it is also because imposing the idea of what it means to be educated on someone else, let alone entire populations, can rightly be seen as a reprehensible and illegitimate act, even if it is now the near-global norm (Bojesen, 2020, p. 2).

The book is structured in two sections: Outside and Against. ‘Against’ is structured in five chapters – (1) Legacy, (2) Disharmony, (3) Domestication, (4) Expenditure, and (5) Legitimacy – that aim to highlight the contradictions and limitations of educational thought within the humanist tradition. ‘Outside’ is structured, again, by five chapters – (6) Psyche, (7) Waves, (8) Narcissus, (9) Space, (10) Conversation – plus the conclusion, that begin to build an argument toward a much broader notion of educational experience, one that resists the notion of ‘the compulsion to educate’.

Bojesen situates his argument for non-oppressive and non-redemptive forms of educational experience in relation to the work of Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, Georges Bataille, André Gide, Søren Kierkegaard, Charles Fourier, James Guillaume, Shulamith Firestone, and Ivan Illich. The book is not, then, populated by traditionally philosophical literature; true to the form of the argument proposed, the content reflects a much broader notion of what thought is pertinent to philosophical educational discourse.

The upshot of Bojesen’s argument is that a notion of educational experience need not require an educator and, furthermore, need not attempt to seek forms of legitimacy that reside in policy, economics, and externally verified affirmation. One example among many explored in the book concerns the delegitimisation of educational space.

Drawing on Georges Bataille, Bojesen develops the view that the notion of educational space can be disrupted. Education does not have to occur in particular places, with particular aims. Drawing on Bataille’s ‘principle of insufficiency’, which ‘de-specifies the content, process, and outcome of educational experience and does not rely on the redemption of that experience in the name of an educational ideal’ (Bojesen, 2020, p. 104), Bojesen develops an aesthetic of educational experience (a) beyond any particular environment, which further calls into doubt (b) the intention within formal education to ‘stabilise’ the subjectivity of the learners. Here, Bojesen also draws on Derrida’s notion of the narcissism of self-inauguration. This is situated in relation to the idea of différance, which brings about continual educational experience without the opportunity of suspension. Bojesen sees formal educational environments and formal educational experience as the artificial closure of différance and the consequent closure of one’s passive self-inauguration. As formal education requires subjects to be formed and inaugurated for particular ends, in particular ways, and in particular places, the idea of self-learning becomes unwise in this educational economy, and wholly undervalued. Be that as it may, it is, on Bojesen’s view, evident that forms of (self)inauguration, even within the limitations of formal educational architecture, do occur. As Bojesen remarks: ‘Affirmation of insufficiency is a mark of différance in educational space and, as such, educational space marked by différance opens itself towards the unknowable and the “interruption of being,” welcoming “foreignness” without reducing it to the same’. Here, the reduction to the same refers to the ways in which educational spaces are enacted for totality, as a result of educational accountability, and aim for sameness in their educational products, i.e., learners and their educational experience. This example is typical of the form, structure, and insight of the arguments within the chapters.  They lead to an astute conclusion, in which deschooling is a significant theme. As Bojesen (2020, p. 124) summarises:

My own book has sought to update and expand the critical aspect of Illich’s thought, without relying on, or falling for, his optimism. The humanist legacy of educational thought and practice has withstood 50 years of technological advancement, as well as multiple attempts to confront its elitisms, compulsions, repressions, exclusions, and hierarchies; technology and these acts of resistance often being co-opted to its ends. Amid such failure it is notable that critical work in educational thought has rarely, since Deschooling Society, taken such a radical position against education as commonly conceived and practiced. It seems necessary, then, to not simply re-launch Illich’s radical critique of education, but to supplement it with an attempt to articulate a much broader conception of educational experience, so as to highlight more clearly the absurdity of implicitly but primarily understanding education as a necessarily imposed redemptive means to social progress and harmony.

To expand on this a little, throughout the text there is a systematic unravelling of the notion of educational experience as currently understood across substantial areas of educational thought. The primary aim of the text is to present the key features that make such a notion absurd, which in itself becomes a radical critique of educational thought and practice. As with some radical educational literature, the revolution will not be televised, nor will it not be directed by the critical academic. That is also true of this text, and Bojesen brings the reader to a view of non-oppressive educational experience in the form of conversation that exists more consciously or implicitly in the light of différance.

The notion of conversation here is developed from Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation. On Bojesen’s view this offers us an expansive notion of educational research and educational experience. A key feature of such conversation is not just what is said, although important, but also what is not said, the silences between statements, the intervals. This creates space for the conversation to not ‘lead’ to a particular end or outcome, as is often the task of speech in formal educational experience. The notion of educational experience and research as a conversation without an aim, and where importance is given to the interaction itself, leads both to a strangeness in the interaction of speech and silence and, furthermore, to a criticism of Socratic notions of speech that aim toward the productive outcome of a truth. The idea of dissymmetry, discontinuity, and disunity are recurring concepts and images for Blanchot’s notion of infinite conversation, where the participants in the conversation are not required to unite in their thinking. Instead, such an opportunity for conversation forms part of the perpetual interruption of being. In relation to educational space, as discussed earlier, such a notion of educational experience and research occurring through conversation of this kind does not try to overcome différance, which makes the primacy of a formal educational space invalid, as such conversations can happen in a variety of non-formal contexts.

As this book sets itself up as outside and against the humanist legacy, there is one potential oversight I wish to point out. The prescription Bojesen offers toward the end of this text is one of conversation, as we have seen. This is assumed to be an educational experience between humans. Indeed, his argument accommodates for conversation being non-oppressive, not unifying, and so on. There is, however, a potentially uncomfortable tension in an argument against and outside a humanist tradition that focuses its resolution on an activity that is so fundamentally human. It is unclear, for example, that a learner could, on the view outlined in the text, have a conversation with the more-than-human world, for instance. Could one experience différance from being in the educational space of a city street, country park, lake shore, or mountain? I ask these questions primarily out of concern for a notion of educational experience that relies on a key condition of the positions criticised: the presence of a fellow human. One issue with an educational experience with no morally prescribed aim may be that certain human behaviours and human values necessary for something larger than one’s self could potentially be lost. I am thinking here of the environmental crisis. In a time where educational experiences may aim to open the learner to the more-than-human-world, or move the learner to a less anthropocentric worldview, there may be a point at which Bojesen’s arguments will require further elaboration.

That said, it may be possible to accommodate the more-than-human within Bojesen’s expanded notion of educational experience:

Conversation is not just a means to an end, it is a space where we can live and learn, seriously, but at a pace of our making, with our own distinct interests, and in a manner where our forms of knowledge, including our embodied knowledge, contribute to a movement of thought that does not have to be externally validated or approved (Bojesen, 2020, p. 125).

This passage, from the conclusion, indicates a plurality of educational experience that can accommodate the points I raise above, whereby the learner’s interests, knowledge, and experiences do not necessarily have to be restricted to anthropic conversation.

Overall, the text, while dense in places, is a compelling read that jars with established educational thought. Its style has a pace and energy to it, not always a feature of philosophy of education literature. Whether one accepts the argument or not, no doubt discussions of a more expansive concept of educational experience will be a feature of the coming years, particularly in light of the way the crises of 2020 have brought governmental authority over the educational experience in to question, have given a great deal of air time to the role of the teacher and the parent as educators, and have led all educators – both indoor and outdoor – to look for a more expansive and inclusive concept of educational experience. As a doctoral student, I had not engaged with or heard of some of the authors used within this text prior to reading this book, and the style of sources and resulting argumentation offers an interesting, critical, and non-dogmatic example of the potential of philosophical educational thought to, as a minimum, enable one to question previously – and sometimes dearly – held positions on educational experience.

You can read an interview with Emile Bojesen about the book here.