“The problem with the other community, however, is that it cannot be brought into existence in any deliberate or technical way. The other community is not the result of work, it doesn’t come into existence through the application of a technique or technology. In this respect the other community can never become a new educational tool or a new educational program. We cannot make or force our students to expose themselves to what is other and different and strange. The only thing we can do is to make sure that there are at least opportunities within education to meet and encounter what is different, strange, and other, and also that there are opportunities for our students to really respond, to find their own voice, their own way of speaking. We, as teachers and educators, should be aware that what disrupts the smooth operation of the rational community is not necessarily a disturbance of the educational process, but might well be the very point at which students begin to find their own, responsive and responsible voice.”
– Biesta (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future, p. 69
In reading Gert Biesta’s book I came across this passage that was of particular interest. My reading notes mark this quote as a ‘critical’ idea for my doctoral studies. It portrays two integral concepts for teaching aspects of morals, ethics and personal development within educational institutions. The first is the presence of community as a means to understanding ones own identity. Previous to this quote Biesta explores the notion of community in Chapter Two titled “Coming into Presence: Education after the death of the subject”. Biesta’s concept of ‘coming into presence’ is defined as being “about beginning in a world full of other beginners in such a way that the opportunities for others to begin are not obstructed.” (Biesta, 2006, p.49) Following on from Michel Foucault’s postmodern discussions of the death of the subject and need for a new “approach to the question of human subjectivity” Biesta suggests that we should consider a new question – “Where [does] the subject, as a unique, singular being, come into presence”? (Biesta, 2006, p.41) By investigating different conceptions of space Biesta proposes that in order to achieve the 4th conception of space, the ‘ethical space’ in line with Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas, one has to be with others in order to achieve an understanding of oneself.
Biesta notes that Levinas’ is “in agreement with Arendt’s contention that our primordial being is a being-with-others — we are with others before we are with ourselves; we are for the other before we are a oneself” but Levinas also “introduces a refinement or, better, a radicalization in stressing that being-with-others that is characterized by a primordial responsibility. In this respect we might say that the space where the subject comes into presence is an ethical space. ” (Biesta, 2006, p.51). Ultimately there is the suggestion that without a community and a space to be with others one cannot develop an understanding of the self. Biesta goes on to build this idea through Bauman’s discussion of the ‘stranger’. Bauman argues that interaction with ‘strangers’ and ‘acting in public spaces’ is a way of cultivating and protecting difference that leads toward the “genuine emancipatory chance of postmodernism” (Biesta, 2006, p.61). Therefore, it seems that emancipation is dependent on an understanding of difference that is created through our interaction with others. One can not gain an understanding of themselves without acting within a community that fosters difference.
The second concept is that this type of teaching can not be overt or as Biesta notes ‘deliberate or technical’. This is one aspect that has always been present in my teaching practice and it is refreshing to see a more detailed discussion. Biesta comes about it through a philosophical approach whereas my original intentions were more practical; however, they both seem to address a common thought. When teaching I have always presented project briefs that are open-ended. This has come under criticism from other teachers because of the variety of outcomes that are produced from one project. The fault, as considered by others, is that it is more difficult to control the outcomes and, as such, predict your students’ overall achievement. But my aim is not just achievement! Achievement is only part of the equation. Another part, and in my eyes more important element, is allowing students to develop their own voice. I do not deliberately explain this to the students however, by structuring a project brief to allow for independent thought and different outcomes I feel that I am providing each class (group) with the opportunity “to meet and encounter what is different, strange, and other, and also that there are opportunities for our students to really respond, to find their own voice, their own way of speaking.” (Biesta, 2006, p.69) Yes, it requires me as a teacher to have a wider breadth of subject knowledge because one student may take a completely different path to another. It also requires me, as the teacher, to release control and provide a space for negotiation between teacher and student. However, these challenges are far out weighed by the potential for individual development, confidence and respect for others that is displayed in the class. In the end, the students end up with not only their achievement but also begin to improve their understanding of themselves as unique individuals.
I have found Biesta’s book refreshing and as I continue reading I know that there will be other points for discussion. Another entry about the difference between ’empathy’ and ‘visiting’ is already bubbling in my mind so stay tuned!