Book Review: The Beautiful Risk of Education, by Gert J. J. Biesta
Reviewed by Simon Verwer
What is the nature of education, what is it for and how could we answer these pedagogical questions in a sound manner? This permanent inquiry is at the centre of Gert Biesta’s expanding oeuvre and is one of the core issues in his third book-length contribution The Beautiful Risk of Education. On the question of purpose, Biesta has insightfully commented elsewhere:
The question of purpose is in my view the most central and most fundamental educational question since it is only when we have a sense of what it is we want to achieve through our educational efforts—and ‘achieve’ needs to be understood in a broad sense, not in terms of total control—that it becomes possible to make meaningful decisions about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of our educational efforts, that is, decisions about contents and processes (Biesta, 2012, p.38).
The latest book appears at an exciting time for educators in many countries. The Beautiful Risk should be regarded as a welcome contribution to a growing movement that could possibly be called ‘the reclamation of teaching’.
As in his earlier works, such as Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future (2006) and Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy (2010), but even more convincingly now, Biesta deconstructs the dominant educational discourse of the last two decades with its bureaucratic focus on learning outcomes. Clearly and carefully, Biesta analyses the ways in which neoliberal thought on accounting and transparency has enabled ‘un-educational ways of thinking about education’ (2014, p. 124) to influence and in some cases steer government policy and teacher practice, resulting in undesirable and unrealistic views of teaching and learning. Biesta counterweighs this expansion with a focus on ideals and the pedagogical foundations of education that, combined with his unique poetic-philosophical style, makes this book a must-read for educators, philosophers and teachers.
As Derek Ford (2014) has pointed out, the distinction between ‘education’ and ‘learning’ is fundamental to understanding the work of Gert Biesta. Education is ‘never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone’ (Biesta, 2012, p. 38). Questions of content, purpose, and relationships become more difficult, or even impossible, within the language of learning, a discourse resulting from a number of related developments, e.g. (1) the impact of new theories of learning, particularly constructivism, (2) the (post)modern critique of authoritarian forms of teaching, (3) the “silent explosion” of learning, and (4) the individualizing impact of neoliberalism (Biesta, 2014, p. 63 et seq.).
As a philosopher of education and secondary teacher in the Netherlands, I’ll focus in the rest of this review on what the book has taught me or what I’ve learned from it as a teacher. Elsewhere Derek R. Ford (2014) and Phil Wood (2014) have written more general appraisals. Tyson Lewis has focused his review on the notion of ‘beautiful’ (Lewis, 2014). I feel my teacher-centred approach is legitimate and valuable, as teaching and learning so dominantly feature in Biesta’s work.
In seven eloquent chapters (Creativity, Communication, Teaching, Learning, Emancipation, Democracy and Virtuosity), Biesta unveils what I would like to call an anthropological philosophy. In his writings, the author builds upon the work of Dewey, Derrida, and Levinas, among others, to bring insights to the reader on how risk and weakness are at the heart of education. Basically, to teach means to risk something, to teach is to be human, to teach means to accept the fundamental weakness of the purposeful, creative process we call education.
In the chapter on ‘Teaching’ the author encourages teachers to teach, which means that they should make normative judgments on the ‘why of teaching’. The question of which judgements are desirable in a specific educational context then surfaces: a teacher should aim to become educationally wise, transforming individual wishes into collective needs and vice versa. From this it follows that current narratives focused on evidence-based philosophy of education or on competences always fall short: teaching is a praxis that heavily depends upon a person’s wisdom to make sound judgments in real world situations.
Hence, teacher education and professional development should aim to develop virtuosity, among other virtues, by focusing on interaction between trainee teachers and experienced role models. The conversations that arise from real world situations should be held in the open and vulnerable pedagogical language that Biesta uses in his work. Aristotelian notions such as arete, eunoia, and phronesis thus become meaningful concepts. Biesta proposes a view of the teacher as a human being, which is fundamentally different from economic, scientific, political, or other functional views.
Viewed critically, not all chapters of this book are equally impressive and strong. The chapters on ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are at the core of Biesta’s work and very convincing. The chapter on the weak and risky process of creativity should be regarded as one of the best pieces Biesta has written. The chapter on virtuosity, however, needs more elaboration. As a twentysomething teacher, the fact that Biesta cites Aristotle somewhat bluntly stating that 'that a young man of practical wisdom cannot be found' is disturbing and to me short-sighted, but this could be explained by my age. Moreover, the ethical-political dimension of what specific judgments in what particular situation could be considered as ‘good’ or ‘right’ needs more deliberation. Biesta has pointed to a certain ‘dialogical attitude towards the world’ as a goal of good education. Citing the French educationalist Philippe Meirieu, Biesta argues that an infantile attitude is the opposite of what is required to make education strong, secure, and predictable: 'it denies the fact other human beings have their own ways of being and thinking, their own reasons and motivations that may well be different from ours' (2013, p. 3). I’m looking forward to reading more about the place of the idea and ideal of the dialogical within current educational discourse. More particularly, I’d like to better understand the composition of the ground on which a person stands while making judgments.
In summary: the interaction between the reader and The Beautiful Risk could be seen as the experience of the type of conversation Biesta aims to enable between and among teachers and educators. To me, it felt like a rich and inspiring exchange of insights in a unique, genuine language. I’d suggest that all teacher induction programs put this book on their reading list. It could most definitely contribute to a world in which teachers stand for something and won’t fall for anything.
Biesta, G., ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher’, Phenomenology & Practice, Volume 6 (2012), No. 2, pp. 35-49.
Ford, D. R. (2014) ‘Review: The Beautiful Risk of Education’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, pp. .DOI: 10.1080/ 00131857.2013.871405
Lewis, T. E. (2014) Review: The Beautiful Risk of Education, Educational Theory, 64, pp. 303–309. DOI: 10.1111/edth.12063
Wood, P. (2014) Review: ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ by Gert Biesta: http://learning-space.tumblr.com/post/82896160943/review-of-the-beautiful-risk-of-education-by-gert
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