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Biesta (2020)

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

Part Three – Democracy and Education

One of Biesta’s most important themes is the relationship between democracy and education. He develops this in discussion of the judgement required of educators in navigating the tension between the different functions of education. One of the most frustrating aspects of recent educational policy perspectives (for decades) has been the reduction and closing off of debate on the functions of education. Democratic professionalism requires a more sophisticated relationship between client and profession than the metaphor of the market or competition will allow, and a more satisfying and humane role for teacher and student than those of transmitter and receiver of a standard culture.

This purpose of teaching is the promotion of ‘educatedness’, which is characterised as ‘promotion of cognitive and moral independence of students’.

Biesta conceptualises teaching as a ‘deliberative’, values based profession, orientated towards a particular form of human wellbeing. Professional action can therefore never be merely technical, as it is concerned with the articulation and realisation of a ‘telos’ – a purpose beyond immediate goals. This purpose of teaching is the promotion of ‘educatedness’, which is characterised as ‘promotion of cognitive and moral independence of students’. This telos, whilst it gives the practice of education identity, direction and meaning, cannot be settled in detail or once and for all but requires ongoing reflection and deliberation amongst interested parties, in specific contexts and always involves norms and values and not only ‘facts’ and ‘technique’. This, in turn, implies the need for communication and discussion, for public deliberation and public defence of professional action.

This vision of democratic educational practice is at odds with contemporary neo-liberal visions of accountability, in which governments no longer see themselves as key actors in political debates about the definitions of common goods. Governments instead work through processes of standards, measurement and inspection, supressing discussion or debate about how meaningful such standards are. Biesta describes this as an kind of overcorrection to the democratic deficit inherent in traditional professional-client relationships.

Biesta argues for a third-way, a dialogue which allows each party to contribute their experience and their expertise. In this kind of relationship both parties play a role in needs definition, rather than one acting as a consumer coming to a market to find the best value provider of a service that she has already defined.

A couple of years ago it became very fashionable to write about and cite Hannah Arendt’s “The Crisis in Education” when discussing ideas of authority. I read the piece for a @PESGB reading group that we had at work, and found it polemical. I think reading Biesta has helped me clarify what it is that concerned me about Arendt’s analysis and it’s potential impact on practices in school.

The crisis that Arendt is referring to is sited in a wider societal crisis of authority that she detected in the mid 1950s, which stemmed from a fear or rejection of responsibility for the world by those in power or positions of such responsibility. Arendt connects this with a progressive naturalism that sought to free children to develop their own talents and views, to engage in activities that would drive this development naturally.

According to Arendt this manifested itself in a lack of discipline. As children are left alone to negotiate their own world and relationships what occurs is a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all, out of which emerges dominance, charismatic leadership and bullying, and the concomitant submission of weaker and marginalised students. It also manifests in teachers giving up authority in the form of their knowledge of the world, and instead relying on pedagogic skills as an alternative. Teachers are thus cast as generic experts in ‘teaching and learning’, whilst children discover the world as a result of their own enquiries.

For Arendt, in aiming to emancipate children by exposing them to the light of the public world, in the ways that we have similarly attempted to emancipate women, workers and other oppressed people, we have in fact destroyed the protections necessary for their development.

Both of these abdications (of authority over behaviour and conduct, and of authority stemming from knowledge of the world) “represent serious infringements of the conditions for vital growth” of children. In aiming to emancipate children by exposing them to the light of the public world, in the ways that we have similarly attempted to emancipate women, workers and other oppressed people, we have in fact destroyed the protections necessary for their development.

These conditions require a strict dividing line between pre-political education for children, and post-educational politics, for adults Education when applied to adults amounts to propaganda, we are told. Politics applied to children amounts to premature expose to the public world. There is a further dividing line between the pre-educational world of the family, in which the overriding metaphor is one of darkness, of the growth of the seed in complete protection from the outside world. Children should be sequestered from the world in their early development. The school therefore acts as an introduction to the world, and the teacher’s authority rests on their taking responsibility for the world by representing it as it is.

Unless we teach children gradually about the world as it is we will deny them the chance to make it anew themselves. Our attempts to teach children about the way the world should be amount to an imposition by us of a Utopian vision, our generation’s solutions to as yet unknown problems and conditions. Our true responsibility is in acting as a “representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world”

For Arendt the problem rests with our repudiation of responsibility and our suspicion of anyone willing to take it up. This has led to a loss of authority in teachers and to “the absurdity of treating children as if they were an oppressed minority in need of liberation”. This crisis of repudiation and suspicion has therefore led to a crisis of authority and discipline, of knowledge as teachers specialise in pedagogic technique rather than their ability to represent the world through their subject, and to the assumption that we can only teach by getting children to do things, nothing can be taught or transferred directly.

For Arendt this crisis was far worse in the US than in places such as England where there was a system which separated children into abilities. In the US the attempt to make citizens equal had led to attempts to equalize relations between children and their teachers, further eroding teachers’ authority and the impact of their knowledge of the world.

Biesta’s call for there to be two way communication between pupil and teacher – for relations in school to reflect our wider democratic and dialogic relations in society are incompatible with Arendt’s model of school as a place of authority and transfer. Biesta’s refreshing admission that democratic relations need to be promoted and maintained precisely because they are *not* natural, and will not develop naturally could be seen by those who agree with Arendt as an attempt to create a utopia – to impose our prescription on the problems that students will face as adults. I think they’re right, in one way, but Arendt ignores the way that her prescriptions are also a form of utopianism – also an attempt to impose a future on the young (which is in fact the essence of education – as R.S. Peters puts it).

Some young people are oppressed, in various ways. They experience school in different ways from children in dominant or privileged groups, from those with higher levels of capital in dominant cultures. It is unrealistic to expect that they will not have experienced oppression, seen how the world works even before reaching school age. It is even more unrealistic to expect that these experiences and insights will not affect the way that children respond, quite apart from the impact on them of wider societal suspicion of authority, to the authority presented by the teacher and the school. This will especially be the case when there are cultural clashes between school and pupil.

If we want to teach the world as it really is we also have to teach about the way that the world really *is* suspicious of authority, and how the notion of the impossibility of “un-perspectived”, objective truth is actually at the heart of the way that the subject discipline operates. For some subject communities the dialogue between perspectives is actually the point of the discipline, the bedrock of the way that its knowledge is developed, tested and created. Telling it like it is in history means more than teaching a received version of the past, it means being honest about the way that history is constantly being re-written and revised. In teaching about the world as it is we should therefore be honest about, and modelling the way that views are held lightly, the way that views are amended by being open to new perspectives, and the way that some perspectives are privileged whilst others are blocked from being part of the public dialogue.

The overriding model of the pupil in Arendt’s analysis is one of extreme passivity – like a seed growing automatically, she will hide in her family and then passively take up the model of the world presented by her teacher, irrespective of the experiences that she has had, or that members of her family and community have had. We know that children push against their boundaries from their earliest moments – we know that pupils have different experiences and expectations of society before they reach primary education. We know that children do not only learn what we teach them directly, from the actions of society, from our actions as teachers they learn about power and how it is exercised, about hierarchies and their ethics even as we teach them photosynthesis.

Teachers’ authority is accepted, but also ‘justified’

Children are therefore persons – not merely recipients. Biesta’s idea of democratic values in education reflect this, but in ways that recognise that they are persons who are still children. He is clear that in school there will be a gap between what the child wants and what is thought desirable for them by teachers, parents and society. This means that the relationship needs to be one in which the teachers’ authority is accepted, but also ‘justified’. This is a relational authority, rather than an automatic one, but it is also one that changes over time. As children develop their knowledge and skills, their self knowledge and their own autonomy their position in this relationship will change.

This is the final way in which analysis like Biesta’s is more satisfying and generative than that of Arendt – it opens up the question of the source(s) of authority. Arendt’s single dimensional model of authority does not reflect the reality of the diverse ways that power and influence is experienced and enacted in school. The poverty of her polemic struck me forcibly recently when reading Pace and Hemming’s excellent 2007 paper “Understanding Authority in Classrooms: A Review of Theory, Ideology, and Research” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/003465430298489. Some of the findings they cite jar with my own ideological perspective – the way I want the world to be – but they do so in a way that takes no sides in examining the complex ways that teachers try obtain and use authority.

Review – Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction” part III (with some Arendt thrown in).

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