The following was originally posted on the websofsubstance blog in October 2014:
The Beautiful Risk of Education by Gert Biesta doesn’t start well but it does detail in its opening chapter an interesting elaboration of one of the central ideas of progressive education. And it details it at length. I therefore think it is worth some discussion.
Firstly, I would like to say that I share some of Biesta’s views. I agree that the OECD and similar organisations see education as something akin to a machine for producing measurable outcomes. Where outcomes such as PISA rankings become the only concern of education, as opposed to being used as an interesting proxy for the true concerns of education, then we have a problem. Where education is seen in purely utilitarian, economic terms then we have a problem. However, it is not necessary to choose here. A good education is likely to give us both high PISA scores and intelligent, creative young people. It is likely to give us both economic gains as well as cultural gains and fulfillment for individuals. Prove me wrong.
Biesta’s key argument is against those who wish to make education ‘risk-free’. I don’t think that the kindly folk at the OECD or the World Bank are attempting to do any such thing and so I think that Biesta’s common sense points against this position are redundant. I doubt whether anyone thinks that education is entirely controllable. A casino owner can predict her profits without being able to predict the result of any specific game of blackjack or spin of the roulette wheel. This is the business of statistics. And leviathans such as the OECD only ever deal in such aggregated measures. The risk is still there but they seek methods to manage and predict it and to improve the odds for those subjected to education’s capriciousness. This is a noble aim even if they are often clearly mistaken about how to achieve it.
“The desire to make education strong, secure, predictable and risk-free is an attempt to forget that at the end of the day education should aim at making itself dispensible – no teacher wants their students to remain eternal students.”
Really? Actually, I do. We have a University of the Third Age in my suburb and it is pretty inspiring to see retirees learning a new skill – it was surveying the other day – from experts who know what they are on about. Biesta must think that there is something ignoble in being a student, which would explain a lot. I happen to find it liberating.
Did I mention that the book doesn’t start well? Unfortunately, in the first sentence of the prologue Biesta says, “The risk is there because, as W. B. Yeats has put it, education is not about filling a bucket but about lighting a fire.” In fact, Yeats never said anything of the sort. The misquote is based upon an out-of-context quote from Plutarch and often falsely attributed to Yeats. Now you might find me pedantic to raise this but it cuts to the heart of Biesta’s argument in the entire first chapter; an argument in which we are invited to contemplate Genesis (the book of the bible rather than the soporific band).
Apparently, we have been reading Genesis all wrong. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve always had a penchant for discussions of the origins of biblical texts and so I was aware of the theory that early Judaism was polytheistic before moving through monolatrism in to monotheism. This accounts for the different names given for God – they were once different gods. However, I wasn’t aware that the Greeks had subsequently monkeyed with everything.
Biesta quotes an analysis of Genesis by John Caputo. Caputo says that a sentence, which in the Hellenised King James bible reads; “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” if translated more accurately from the Hebrew becomes; “When God began creation, the earth was unformed and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and God’s wind swept over the water.” So that, in the latter translation, “When God began to create, ‘things had already begun’.”
Do you get it? What if I whack you around the head with a sledgehammer again? Would you get it then?
We are being invited to see educating students as more akin to the latter kind of creation; a ‘weak’ form of creation, as Biesta would have it. The students already exist, you see. And at the end of the day Brian, you can’t just go around ignoring that they exist and pretend that you are making them from scratch. That’s what really bad teachers do. It’s not about filling buckets; it’s about lighting fires.
So we’ve basically over-inflated a rather trivial point.
Biesta goes further. The God who tests Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a jealous and paranoid God (and not the same as the God of creation if you accept the polytheism theory). This God sets traps and has, “little taste for the risk of creation, for the risk of parenting.” The God of creation, “creates adult beings like himself,” whereas the God of Eden, “prefers his creatures to remain children – seen but not heard.” So he’s a bad teacher then. Very bad.
The other problem with all of these attempts at risk-free educating is that, for some reason, this prevents our students being ‘subjects’ and turns them instead into ‘objects’. Biesta goes on to talk about subjects, subjectiveness and subjectivity at length.
Perhaps some teachers really do take no account of their students. Perhaps they ask them nothing or presume complete ignorance of everything. Perhaps some teachers really do see education as a risk-free manufacturing process. Perhaps these teachers may benefit from Biesta’s odd little bible story.
However, the teachers that I know would rather assume something more subtle. They would assume that they are dealing with complex human beings who know some things but not others; beings who are part-way along a path towards expertise. Such teachers would test this by asking questions and then they would teach their students things that they didn’t know or give them exercises to make weak knowledge or skills more secure.
They would have no need of Biesta.