Critique & Inspiration Education Front Page

What Is Education? — a Critical Essay

Counter narratives on what is and why is education.

By Steen Nepper Larsen

This article was originally published in An Anthology on Education (2017), a book by What is Education project.

Wer ein WARUM zum Leben hat, erträgt fast jedes WIE.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

§ 0. 

What is education? The answer to this basic and inevitable question must first be expressed through a homemade and multifaceted paraphrase of the intrusive, hegemonic and transnational consensus-enforcing machinery and boilerplate supranational narrative of education today. My intention is not only to voice a Danish educational perspective, but to dare to survey the broader educational landscape from on high. In a sense, this endeavour is tantamount to a critical infiltration, allowing a philosophizing, sociologizing, and politicizing reflection to take shape through an anticipatory and almost self-unfolding counter-narrative.

The initial paraphrase will be faceless and without references; one could easily have laid forth mountains upon mountains of national and international policy papers, supplemented by an exposition on almost a century of mainstream educational ideas, beginning with Émile Durkheim’s Éducation et sociologie from 1922. Equally relevant to our account would be to add a dollop of neo-classical economic theory recounting society’s lucrative investments in human capital from the 1960’s and onwards in attempting to improve labor productivity. The omnipresent and all-conquering paradigms of economic theory which dominate current educational policy and planning — rational choice theory, principal-agent theory, allocative efficiency, benchmarks, and measures of aggregate lifetime earnings — will be left in the wings for now. But let’s cut to the chase and/or zur Sache selbst as you say in German(y).

An educational continuum has emerged, whereby children in daycare centres have been integrated within the educational system. This is all the more remarkable considering that daycare centres, or primary schools for that matter, were not considered educational institutions until the latter stages of the 20th century.(1) In Denmark, the notion of education was to a far greater extent used in reference to the acquisition of a professional or vocational qualification. People were educated as craftsmen, dentists, or mechanical engineers. Education was primarily reserved for a specific stage in a young man’s life (and it was almost invariably a man) preparing him for adulthood — a rite of passage.

This woodcut from a Dutch incunabulum (1470) shows artists and craftspeople with their tools: pig-ment grinder, painter, goldsmith, sculptor, organ-maker, clockmaker, and scribe.

Today, education as a category has been inflated and subsumed under the truism that modern (wo)man will never be finished with his or her education once and for all. We are living in an educative discourse.(2) The principal purpose of the education system is to shape the competitive workforce of the future and to condition the individual for participation in society’s division of labor. Education is the production of subjects; typically in the form of a drawn-out process of institutionalized socialization. The norms and demands of society are to be instilled, while pupils and students learn to behave and govern themselves in an appropriate manner. Education is centered on the appropriation of knowledge, skills, and competences, but also on shaping the moral, social, and creative forces of the individual.

Education is — in principle, at least — a means to an end: to prepare the workforce for entry to the labor market and ensure the maximal number of years of work (ideally 40-45 years), and the highest possible aggregate lifetime earnings. This perception of education is advocated by economists, politicians, educational administrators and managers, and leading educational researchers.

The educational system performs two tasks simultaneously. First, it nurtures national citizenship, whereby individuals learn to speak and write in a certain lingo — tied together by a series of more or less sanctioned stories upheld to assert the belief in a national territory and culture. Second, it schizophrenically tells these citizens to embrace a global outlook in order to stay competitive in the international marketplace of present-day global capitalism. It has become our duty to learn and to keep learning throughout our lives. Education can and must no longer be finite: we must learn to read, calculate, write, and speak in English, and to keep developing our competences until we are six feet under. The educational system shapes our will to lifelong learning, but also functions as a selective ‘machine’, rewarding exceptional performance and talent. The educational system hereby serves as an ineluctable arena for both recognition and disapproval. Students’ abilities must be measurable and distinguishable; curiosity and interest are not enough to give the motivated student access to the education of her dreams. One’s papers must be in order and the gates are closed without a sufficiently high GPA (grade point average).

Within capitalism, the purpose of the educational system is to increase the value of human capital.(3) In the fierce competition of global markets, knowledge has become both a commodity and a productive force: education plays a pivotal role in the production of knowledge, meaning that the primary and secondary levels of schooling (preschool and K-12) are purported to build the foundation for the tertiary level (professional and academic degrees). Nation states around the world, not least of which those in Europe, participating in the global capitalist economy are competing to (re-)design and maintain the best and most effective educational systems.

National  educational systems, educational institutions, and individuals all learn that any educational content consists of contingent phenomena in an ever-changing, provisional, and adaptable world. Most educational programs have been subject to desubstantialization, and are now receiving facelifts in the form of the introduction of new teaching modules centered on learning objectives tailored to the labor market. Underlying the current desubstantialization is an infringement on the foundational core of the academic disciplines, a splitting up of the academic substance into disparate modules, and a reduction of the allowed period of study.

§ 1. 

Before we lose our wits completely — and to offer more than a reiteration of the many valiant attempts to condense and analyze the commanding narrative and almost ubiquitous reality of education as presented in § 0 — we must think of education in a radically different manner.

We will begin by questioning the what-ness of education, or more precisely its ontology; i.e., how education exists in the world. For the sake of clarity, we will examine the characteristics of two prevailing and conflicting strategies in the politics of knowledge(4) that, each in their own way, strongly influence how education is perceived; an ontology of deficiency (in German: Mangelontologie) and an ontology of excess. The two strategies are initially represented by their ideal forms in § 2 and § 3, although they are unlikely to appear in such pure form in the murky and pragmatic reality of everyday life. At a later point in this missive (§ 7), I will inquire from an existential-ontological and phenomenological perspective into education’s role and how it is experienced by the individual, although the answers to such questions bearing in mind the heterogeneity and indeterminate nature — are near unfathomable. The perpetual plurality of people (in pluralis) beseeches us to avoid conclusions based on singularity; the time for Robinsonades is over (or at least it ought to be).

In the intermediate paragraphs, I intend to make clear why the question what is education necessitates a discussion of purpose — rather than a retreat to the myopic newspeak of learning-targets and effective learning which seems to be the central concern of propagators of the education discourse outlined in § 0.

§ 2.

By ontology of deficiency, I refer to a cosmology of being — a philosophical anthropology and sociology that notoriously perceives human beings as a timid, unprotected species, lacking natural instincts, but nevertheless a unique species, equipped with a consciousness and the capacity for self-reflection and introspection. Education, then, is conceived as a form of compensation and as a dubious way of earning the love and recognition of others. In accordance with the ideas of the German sociologist Arnold Gehlen, were the human species fully developed at birth, we would have no use for the crutches of socialization, pedagogical interventions, and educational institutions surrounding us from the day we are born. A self-reliant existence would have no need for teachers and educators (in Denmark one might talk about pedagogues); the autonomous I would, so to speak, be her own father and mother from the day she is born.

Education is not and can never be the real thing. Indeed, as expounded by Lars Henrik Schmidt, former dean of the Danish School of Education (1999-2007), the very existence of education is nothing less than a violation of the individual’s omnipotence — albeit he or she does not possess nor master this autonomous power and the tragic condition for human existence is that omnipotence is only accessible to the individual through the intermediacy of thought (see Diagnosis I-II-III, Copenhagen: DPI, 1999). In the perspective of the ontology of deficiency, then, human beings undertake an education to gain comfort and security due to this existential angst. Born into the world without protective fur, strong predatory teeth or muscular super powers, and with no possibility of controlling the social sphere — or renouncing the battlefield of the subconscious that rests within us — we are doomed to be educated. Being educated is, as such, a plan B of ontological purpose that we cannot relinquish. In this sense, within the horizon of ontological deficiency, the idea of human beings ‘undertaking’ an education is seductive, yet misleading; education, learning, and pedagogics are inexorable destinies for the species in carentia (in Latin: cura), as delineated by Gehlen and Schmidt. We are, in other words, condemned to supplanted realities so long as we remain unable to stand on our own two feet and establish a path through life free from socialization.

The premise for asserting the ontology of deficiency is that this weakness is sustained by the educational system, allowing only its most fortunate, eloquent, and skillful participants to master the narrative and someday, perhaps, themselves become its authors.

§ 3. 

By ontology of excess, I once again refer to a cosmology of being, a philosophical anthropology and sociology, that construes the ‘incomplete’ nature of a human being the plasticity of the human brain, the unknown future of the individual life, and the polyplural opportunities to be ‘spoiled’, indulged and inspired by other people in the slipstream of communicative systems — as a formidable and unique privilege of the species.

In the universe of the ontology of excess, educational systems are measured by their ability to supply human existence with as many opportunities as possible to practice in intelligent and phylogenetically advantageous ways. Here, the educational system serves the people and not vice versa. The individual is equipped with an impermanent and incomplete ‘first nature’, and each individual is given the possibility of revolting against the procedures that are set in motion to discipline and control the second nature of pupils and students. Thus subjectified, the individual is enabled to disrupt the system.

It follows that the ontology of excess negates the perception of education and teaching as compensatory. Rather, the process of education plays a pivotal role in shaping human biology (in concrete terms: the  quality of synaptic neural couplings, motor functions, perception, angst-free movement, etc.) and individual ‘style’ (including the possible scope for thought, argumentation, and action). In addition, of course, there are the equally important functions of constituting, maintaining, and transforming social ties between members of the species (including ethics, structures of expectation, implicit and explicit forms of acknowledgement, logical and rhetorical rules for argumentation, etc.).

As pointed out in the works of the German philosopher and anthropologist of practice (in German: Übungsanthropologe), Peter Sloterdijk (e.g. Sphären 1. Blasen. Mikrosphärologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1988(5)), among others, human beings are consigned to the help of others (starting with their parents). And indeed, this need to interact (breast in mouth, gruel, caresses, vicariousness, warm clothes, temperate baths, cave-like comforters, tranquility, and soft lighting) is an essential goad for developing the will and determination to engage in extra-familial socialization and education. From our travels through the micro-, meso-, and macro-spheres (to use a concrete example: the childhood home, the municipal high school, and the study program in a foreign country) flows a cornucopia of possibilities for existence in excessu; albeit this surplus-oriented position makes no pretention of denying that the varying conditions of life matter a great deal in terms of determining the (unequally distributed) life opportunities of human beings across the globe.

The premise for asserting the ontology of excess is a fundamental normativity underlying the educational system’s raison d’être, implying that its qualities must above all be judged according to its ‘ability’ to contribute to life improvements (both on an individual and societal scale) and on the ability to provide each individual with the possibility of mastering his or her life in freedom. The educational system, in other words, must provide human beings with the opportunity to initiate praiseworthy practices, while at the same time opening pupils and students’ eyes to the destructive, deleterious, and threatening aspects of the process of civilization.

Several ontologies of excess have surfaced throughout the history of ideas; from the prescientific postulates of humanists and enlightenment scientists to Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings in the late 19th century (Über die Zukunft unsere Bildungsanstalten, 1872), and the American anarchist Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Ramparts Press, 1971). People opting for the ontologies of excess are notoriously post-scarcity thinkers and if they want to maintain their ‘position’ and utopian élan they have to keep up the counterfactual and uncontemporary spirit in harsh (testing) times in which they risk to be regarded as outmoded and obsolete.

§ 4. 

Proponents of both ontologies of deficiency and of excess are somewhat trying acquaintances: neither is well-suited to the current educational jargon of learning objectives, best practice, self-assessment, and evidence-based teaching.(6) Both regard the incessantly propagated institutional practices and techniques to be a fundamental abuse and subjugation of the freedom of pupils and students. There are, however, more differences than similarities between the two ontologies.

Ontologists of deficiency can be remarkably petulant due to their incessant portrayal of what they see as the many negativa as an inexorable, profane condition for human existence. The a priori verdict is unrelenting and resounding: you are weak, you are scared, you cannot escape, you must go to school… Ontologies of deficiency are self-affirming constructions whose proponents even find solace in seeing their position ‘proven’ when empirical life, both their own and that of others, does not quite go to plan. “See, we told you so: we are a deficient species!” What is more, our journey through life’s institutions (such as schools and universities) is pre-classified as merely symbolic and inauthentic.(7) Hardcore proponents of an ontology of deficiency, who are, in fact, few and far between, simply forgo any ambition on others’ behalf, whether generational or among their peers. It is of no use when, fundamentally, they can neither teach nor counsel anyone out of deficiency. They are relegated to the role of a feeble educator who pupils and students have every right to reject. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are not offended if others fail to understand their views.

Being around or forced to listen to proponents of an ontology of excess, meanwhile, can be a quite agonizing experience. All too often, they come across as well-intentioned preachers of the gospel of opportunity — making it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish them from the contemporary wave of positive psychologists and apostles of self-realization that market themselves and their agenda by imploring their audience to think positively, say yes to life, enroll in various courses of self-realization, and apply an array of self-branding techniques. Furthermore, they seldom hesitate in presenting their asinine thoughts in the form of a book.

Ontologists of excess underline the necessity of reading major works in their entirety — preferably in three languages — without the incentive of instant gratification in the form of higher grades or a better salary after completing one’s  studies. These ontologists cannot see what they cannot see — let alone what it is that enables them to see. As such, their grandiose ideals for each and every one of us to take on the role as an intellectual critic of society, seem an impossible and unrealizable dream among both the young pupils, who are heavy consumers of the attention-grabbing distractions of social media, and the students at ‘short-spirited’, module-structured mass universities.

§ 5. 

And so, we can assert the disparate, not to say antithetical and prodigiously dipolar natures of our two ontologies. However, it is also worth noting their similarities in that both are philosophically and sociologically narrated, and both have strong implications for our understanding and design of society’s educational institutions and appertaining pedagogics.

‘Speculators’ from both ontologies — being spokesmen for either the ontology of deficiency or of the ontology of excess — would doubtless agree on the limits of the epistemological (i.e., scientific positions mapping out a subject’s knowledge about an object) and empirical-scientific, data-collected, and efficaciously-oriented approaches to the question of what education is and how education ought to be. In addition, both positions undauntedly champion a normative approach to the question of education and both are grounded in notions and thoughts of the historically and socially differing constituents of human nature. The speculations about human nature should not, however, be construed simply as old variations of the following two, more or less inescapable, questions: Are humans good or evil prior to socialization? Are humans born sinful or as blank slates? Nevertheless, it is striking how nature is simultaneously positioned as the argument and the premise for a series of thoughts and stipulations about the human condition and education’s why-ness.

University library building. Photo by Xiong Liqi.

§ 6. 

While the contemporary hegemonic educational narrative (see § 0) might coincidently brave its way into discussions of means and ends — as if the educational system were a pool table with legislators and school leaders as cues, teachers as balls, and students as pins — it would be an exceptionally rare occurrence if the purpose of education were to be discussed in public. The question: “why education?” simply isn’t asked. Educational economists and politicians are generally content to demand greater effectivity and efficiency for their investments into the system. God forbid that we end up producing unemployed graduates, or that we have the gall to apply scientific and substantial (i.e. non-desubstantialized) arguments for the existence of academic disciplines and different forms of knowledge.

Consequentially, discussions of purpose are lost in the fog or relegated to the fallow corners of the mind. Not only has it been decided that we are all to play pool — rather than, say, golf, basketball, or badminton — but also exactly which rules we are to follow and who is allowed to participate.

For this author, it seems both impossible and incongruous to reduce the purpose of offering and undertaking an education to means (technologies of control, compulsion, enrollment procedures, economic incentives, scholarships etc.) and ends (to produce employable and competitive individuals) — not least due to the at once general and specific character of educational purpose: historically created, constitutive, idea-generated, and guiding. Critically investigating discussions of purpose elevates the phenomenon of education to a sphere in which it becomes possible to clarify why — but naturally also how, certain people have intended something with someone for centuries. And it becomes possible to determine how these intentions have been embellished with an array of arguments for their legitimacy.(8)

Of course, I have no pretension of presenting a complete mapping of educational purpose within the frame of this essay; yet this should not prevent a tentative thesis from taking shape. Perhaps the purpose of education is an inherently incomplete project — something that takes place under the radar, something contrafactual…

Let me hasten to add an explanatory stage direction: the presentation of the ontology of deficiency in § 2, and the ontology of excess in § 3, in no way purports to imply that these positions are as equally significant and powerful as the hegemonic master-narrative of education presented in § 0. Rather, they serve as invitations for the reader to ponder two fundamental questions that are seldom posed and even more seldom result in unexpected answers: what and why education?

Critical thinking and philosophy are many ‘things’, but not least — as Immanuel Kant phrased it in 1784 — the ability and courage to think and use one’s mind (intellect, reasoning…) independently, without the direction of others.(9) Moreover, critical thinking can contribute to and qualify public debates in society (res publica), and philosophy, with its courage to both create new concepts and reinvigorate outmoded ones by adding new layers of meaning, can serve to generating previously un(fore)seen analytical mappings.

§ 7. 

Unlike our English-speaking colleagues, as speakers of Germanic languages (Danish and German), we are privileged in our ability to distinguish between ‘uddannelse’ and ‘dannelse’, between ‘Ausbildung’ and ‘Bildung’, as is distinctly possible in the ‘germanophile’ part of the world.(10) It is a much more difficult task to advocate such a distinction in English, where ‘education’ is often linked to concepts such as ‘culture’ and ‘edification’, or French, where éducation is commonly used to denote the moral or practical aspects of child-raising (e.g. l’éducation morale as the formation of character, as e.g. the English philosopher John Locke also wrote about back in 1693 in the classic Some Roughts Concerning Education).

Bearing this distinction in mind, we are in a position to more clearly perceive what we otherwise risk losing sight of when education is embroiled in questions of functionalistic servility and efficacy to secure a productive workforce for the future of society (human capital). What is at risk are the ‘inner’ elements of education: the student’s distinctive ontology and the hermeneutic-interpretative horizon that always reaches beyond contemporary educational agendas.(11) We must endeavor to retain these ‘inner’ elements; using the Germanic expressions, to protect ‘dannelse’ in ‘uddannelse’, ‘Bildung’ in ‘Ausbildung’.

Despite what some may claim  in their functionalist reductionism, undertaking an  education is always a matter of experiencing. Educational life is first-hand phenomenology for those living it; education presents itself as something that shapes your working life, but also your self-image and imagination. You are introduced, so to speak, to new ways of perceiving yourself the moment you devote yourself to an education. In this sense, an educational life is — ideally, at least — at once a creative and unpredictable process which, to the dismay of the most tenacious and unbending among us, risks plunging the student into a highly challenging and even painful transformation (or complete  rejection) of her existing worldviews. It is inherently risky to expose oneself to radical transformational processes. Returning home afterwards to old friends, places, or family can, for example, be difficult and challenging, with an air charged of mutual alienation. All of a sudden, one has become unrecognizable and unable to communicate on the same wavelength.

Journey on the subway in Shanghai. Photo by by Bob Zhang.

If we view the student’s educational activity from a processual, existentialist-phenomenological perspective,(12) it seems possible to step beyond and transcend the two antithetical ontologies expounded in §§ 2-5. Laying all my cards on the table, however, it should be said that I have a greater fondness for the ontology of excess than that of deficiency.

From this existentialist-phenomenological and excess-ontological perspective, the student is no longer an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with a given curriculum, or a tabula rasa to be covered in scribbled learning objectives and course requirements, despite the impression one might get through exposure to the rationales and enforced demands of educational policy as presented in § 0.

Ideally, at least, education can only occur through the self-transcending and self-realizing conquest of new areas of knowledge and through the acquisition of new ways to think, speak, learn, analyze, and write. Some of these words might even find their way into the occasional toast at casual get-togethers; much unlike the pragmatic appropriation of job-ready and applicable lingua productiva within the current, dominant discourse in education policy and politics (cf. § 0). The French philosopher Jacques Rancière would agree and proclaim: Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies.(13)

The purpose of education is also, on an entirely different scale, to provide mankind with original ways of communicating with one another, with the voices of the past, and with the generations to come. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that it is nothing less than our goddamn duty and wonderful obligation to acquire just some of the many traces and interpretations of human activity from different periods and other parts of the world. What we referred to earlier as Bildung — i.e. the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity — is essentially a matter of training one’s attentiveness, developing the art of decentralization and focal reorientation. Successful educational processes teach you how to take a small step to the side and ask, bravely, insistently, and without hesitation: where do we come from? how have we become who we are? why do we think as we do? what would happen if we began thinking and living differently?

Well aware that not all students are engaged in the study of philosophy, the history of ideas, and/or critical humanities or social sciences, I maintain that, in an ideal scenario, any carpenter, chef, doctor, or dentist will also be challenged to think and use their imagination during the course of their education.(14)

§ 8.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many societies in the Western world experienced a previously unseen flourishing of novel ways to think, live, and study. The protests of 1968 spread, casting doubt on traditional authorities and  throwing a spanner into the works of a number of institutions. Previously unseen and unheard of forms of culture and life revolutionized countries like Denmark. Along with the propagation of the newfound notion of learning by progressive theorists in direct opposition to the traditions of top-down instruction, many of society’s educational institutions were remodeled and equipped with what, back then, were exotic phrases and related practices, such as: project and group-based work; interdisciplinarity; and self-directed and problem-based study.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could argue that, paradoxically, the noble ambitions of yesteryear’s reformists came to function as battering rams for a project-oriented, competitive capitalism with a strong predilection for self-directed employees and a ubiquitous drive for creativity, innovation, and ‘positivity’. The critique of capitalism and the related criticisms were integrated, smoothing the way for incessant institutional modernization and the development of politics of knowledge.(15)

Whereas the developments 40-50 years ago surfed on a wave of emerging bottom-up movements, it seems that, today, the tables have turned. The silence is deafening among both students and ground-level professionals here in the second decade of the 21st century; overcome, perhaps, by the constant march of reforms from the hands of policymakers.

The question — What is education? — must once again be asked by teachers and students in 2017 and in the years to come. More than ever before, there is a need to conjure up and try out unpredictable alternatives to the hegemonic matrix outlined in § 0: a fervent and unrelenting apparatus of control which is imprinting itself globally. This time, the alternatives need to be formulated both locally and globally by concrete agents at the grassroots level and presented to an as yet non-existent cosmopolitan public sphere for transnational educational thought which must be able to not only match, but in the long run even transcend and transgress the dominant narrative with its more or less identical and streamlined policy papers and governance initiatives.

§ 9. 

It is always here and now. We are no longer in 1789 or 1968, nor are we in 2097 or 2143. And yet the coming society(16) is always already taking shape. Tomorrow has already begun, even though the past still has unfinished business. Whatever we initiate today has and will have consequences for the shape of tomorrow, both on an institutional (i.e. the material design and accompanying practices of education), ‘mental’ (i.e., the far from private lines of thought, distinctive characteristics, and personal narratives of each individual), and communicative (i.e., what can be constituted socially through the exchange, sharing, and creation of speech acts) level.

The constitutive acts of the coming society are therefore accompanied by a powerful vision; reluctant to canonize some ahistorical answer to the question — what is education? — this vision bears a persistent process-ontological porousness and epistemological broadness in scope.(17)

The critical interpreter of contemporary educational policy is alert and ready to protest if and when this question is hastily brushed aside with unimaginative ‘answers’ and a series of familiar variations on the bewitching, and to a certain extent quality-indifferent, content of § 0.

§ 10. 

As if the poor reader had not already been bombarded with speculations, claims, and cascades of words, I will now venture into a lopsided, historical double exposition. While the year is 2017, and not 1945, I hope that it will serve as a both clarifying and thought-provoking finale. The end of WWII and the collapse of Nazi Germany’s regime of horror mark a long-lasting Stunde Null for the regeneration of the German nation. Time stood still; entirely new ways to think, live, and practice politics were required. The German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann spoke of a Stunde Null for sociology as well.(18) The social sciences needed to be reevaluated in their entirety, and it is hardly a coincidence that the oeuvres of both Luhmann and his compatriot, the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, took the form of grandiose and foundational theories of communication, innovating how society was to be both thought and spoken of. After all, the advent of radical, uncontrollable, and diversity-asserting theories of communication is easier in periods open to deep-lying and far-reaching transformation (e.g. Stunde Null) than under the rule of a totalitarian leader.

Yet here, as we near the end of our endeavor, self-critical misgivings are surfacing; indeed, it might come across as somewhat hyperbolic and extremely starry-eyed to suggest that the dominant educational discourse and policy finds itself in a crisis of legitimacy and governance comparable to a Stunde Null caused by the dominant educational discourse and policy (to paraphrase § 0). Unfortunate as it may be, we are not (yet) living in the ashes of an educational system that has fallen apart, and of which the state no longer has control.

In the pragmatic everyday reality of contemporary society, it is only natural that students want papers proving that they have learned something, that they are competitive, or that they dream of being employed in exciting jobs after graduating. It is only natural to have aspirations to earn a proper salary rather than performing unpaid work for architecture firms, journal editorial boards, radio stations, or government offices while hiding their fears that they are on a direct path to joining the growing ranks of the precariat. Both study- and work-life have become risky places to find oneself in. It is not befitting, nor right, for any ontologist to ‘forget’ this reality.

We should, on the other hand, not forget Friedrich Nietzsche’s durable and at once ‘existence-ontological’, critical, and ever-relevant contention: one who knows why she or he lives can endure almost any how.

Today, both the existence and autonomous why-ness of educational life are threatened. The whys are paralyzed; trapped between the attempts to meet the demands of, and be able to honor, the hows. Our time is charged with oblivion and impatience. The entire education system ought to be rethought from the bottom up, by the pupils, teachers, students, and researchers. First then would we be truly capable of not only offering attempts to glimpse the future in answering the question: What is education? — but also the far more fundamental query: Why education?

Two tentative and anticipatory, but perhaps also slightly precipitous, answers to the why-question might be: (1) Education is its own justification;(19) it is what it is by being what it is — which it is when it lives up to its name, without besmirching its own history or impeding its freedom to define itself; (2) education is education while all sorts of other things are all sorts of other things, such as the destruction and contortion of education through management by objectives, control, the shortening of the time allowed to complete one’s studies and all the other kinds of attempts to besiege academia and the autonomy of educational institutions.

In a little more than 50 words, the final two words of this essay — followed by a ‘homeless’ but hopeful exclamation mark — will echo valiantly in the dark night of winter. But it is no secret that any revolution requires agents of change and a widespread will for radical transformation. And unfortunately, neither currently seems to be on the horizon. Reclaim education!(20)

I am thankful to Associate Professors Ida Wentzel Winther and Kirsten Hyldgaard from the Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University for their critical and constructive comments on earlier versions of the essay. Translated by Lucas Lundbye Cone, B.Sc. Educational Science, and Simon Rolls, language consultant, Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University.


  1. See Jens Erik Kristensen & Søs Bayer (eds.): Pædagogprofessionens historie og aktualitet. Bind 1. Kamp og status. De lange linjer i børnehaveinstitutionens og pædagogikprofessionens historie 1820- 2015, Copenhagen: Upress, 2015: 237f.. In Denmark, primary schools and daycare centers used to be pre-educational ‘systems’ until the strong ideology and demanding and  enforced reality  of international competitive educational politics and economy (information and knowledge society etc.) became dominant. See also Steen Nepper Larsen: At ville noget med nogen. Filosoßske og samtidskritiske fragmenter om dannelse og pædagogik [To intend something with someone (or: To have intentions for someone). Philosophical and critical fragments on education (or: Bildung, see § 7) and pedagogy], Aarhus: Turbine, 2016: 14f.
  2. Cf. the Danish sociologist Jonas Lieberkind’s PhD thesis: Det edukative. Émile Durkheim og den moderne pædagogiseringstendens, Copenhagen: DPU, 2010.
  3. Cf. Steen Nepper Larsen: “Compulsory Creativity – a Critique of Contemporary Cognitive Capitalism”. In: Culture Unbound. Journal of Current Cultural Research, Vol. 6, 2014: 159-177.
  4. This concept (in German: Wissenspolitik; in Danish: videnspolitik) is inspired by the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s enlighten- ing and critical studies of how knowledge, politics, and power get knitted closely together. The Danish historian of Ideas, Jens Erik Kristensen, gives a definition of the word in Steen Nepper Larsen & Inge Kryger Pedersen (eds.): Sociologisk leksikon, Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2011: 757.
  5. In English: Bubbles. Spheres I. Microspherology. New York: Semiotext(e), 2011.
  6. For a thorough critique of evidence ‘thinking’, see Steen Nepper Larsen: Know Thy Credo — blinde vinkler i John Hat- ties evidens-credo”. In: Jørn Bjerre et al. (eds.): Hattie på dansk. Evidenstænkningen I et kritisk og konstruktivt perspektiv, Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2017: 101-127. An abbrevi- ated version in English: “Know Thy Credo — blind sport in John Hattie’s evidence credo” can be found in Journal of Academic Perspectives # 1, 2015.
  7. E.g. Peter Sloterdijk’s explicit and energetic critique of Gehlen’s “Mangelwesenfiktion” in Sphären III. Schäume. Mesosphärologi, Frankfurt am Main 2004: 699-711. In English: Foam. Spheres III. Plural Spherology. New York: Semiotixt(e), 2016.
  8. See Steen Nepper Larsen: At ville noget med nogen. Filosoßske og samtidskritiske fragmenter om dannelse og pædagogik [To intend something with someone. (or: To have intentions for someone). Philosophical and critical fragments on education (or: Bildung, see § 7) and pedagogy], Aarhus: Turbine, 2016 and “Top-down university governance eradicates thinking and good teaching”, in Joachim S. Wiewiura and Elias Westergaard (eds.): On the Facilitation of the Academy, Rotterdam 2014. http://www.sensepublishers. com/media/2288-on-the-facilitation-of-the-academy.pdf
  9. Immanuel Kant: ”Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufhlärung?”, i Berlinische Monatschrift IV, 1784.
  10. See the German historian of concepts Reinhart Koselleck: “On the Anthropological and Semantic Structure of Bildung” in Re Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002: 171–207.
  11. See e.g. Denise Bachelor: “Have students got a voice?” in Barnett, R, & Di Napoli, R.: Changing Identities in Higher Education. Voicing Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. And see a harsh critique of the destructive conditions under which students have to study and university teachers have to teach and do their research in these times : Steen Nepper Larsen: “Hvilke konsekvenser har målstyringen af (ud)dannelse for universitetsansatte og –studerende”. In: Malene Friis Andersen & Lone Tanggaard (eds.): Tæller vi det der tæller. Målstyring og standardisering af hverdagslivet, Aarhus: KLIM, 2016: 255-278.
  12. See also the American evolutionary anthropologist Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature. How Mind Emerged from Matter, New York/London, 2012, for an insightful processual-ontological approach to the understanding of ‘nature’. Here, nature is construed as porous and unable to fixate. Of course, the perspectives of the suggested hermeneutical, phenomenological, and body-phenom- enological approach deserve to be expounded. As a preliminary inspiration, here are five works from this author’s pen: “Becoming a Cyclist: Phenomenological Reflections on Cycling” in Cycling Philosophy for Everyone: A Philosophical Tour de Force, ed. by Fritz Allhoff, Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza, Michael W. Austin & Lennard Zinn, Malden & Oxford, 2010: 27-38, ”Den ufuldendte natur — tanker om foranderlighed, ikke-reduktionisme og begrænsning, inspireret af Terrence Deacons værk Incomplete Nature (2012)”, in Cursiv # 11: ”Pædagogisk neurovidenskab”, Copenhagen: DPU, 2013 121-132: “Hjernen i Immanuel Kants senværk og Catherine Malabous samtidskritik” in Slagmark # 66, Aarhus 2013: 203-224, “The Plasticity of the Brain — an Analysis of the Contemporary Taste for and Limits to Neuroplasticity”, in Neurolex… Dura Lex, Wellington, New Zealand 2013: and Menneskets plastiske hjerne — gådefuld og genstand for store forventninger, Odense 2015.
  13. Jacques Rancière: Re Ignorant Schoolmaster, Five lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  14. See Steen Nepper Larsen: “Efterskrift”. In Ida Winther et al. (eds): Pædagogisk antropologi. Tilgange og begreber, Copenhagen. Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2017: 291-311 for some portraits of thinking and daring, theory-producing students.
  15. See note 1.
  16. Congenially, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes about Re Coming Community. Minneapolis/London:  University of Minnesota Press, 2005 (original title: La communità che viene, 1990). On the back sleeve, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes warm and promising words: “Re Coming Society tries to designate a community beyond any conception available under this name; not a community of essence, a being-together of existences; that is to say: precisely what political as well as religious identities can no longer grasp. Nothing less.” D’accord! I fully agree.
  17. For an essay about the fundamental difference between ontology and epistemology, see Steen Nepper Larsen: “A critical essay on the exertion of critique. On the impossibility of reconciling ontology and epistemology”. In Josef Früchtl (ed.): Global Adorno, London: Palgrave 2017 (forthcoming).
  18. See the Danish politologist (political scientist), philosopher and sociologist Gorm Harste’s introduction: “Luhmann — ‘Stunde Null’ for sociologien” to Niklas Luhmann: Samfundets samfund (Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 1997), Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag 2016: 9-28.
  19. I.e. an autotelic (from Greek: auto + telos) phenomenon; a phe- nomenon which, like love, art, or friendship, is in the world to more than just perform a function (as, say, a hammer, equipped with a phenomenon-defining functionality).
  20. Cf. Re Manifesto. Reclaiming our University, Aberdeen University 2016 and Steen Nepper Larsen: “Et forsvar for universitetet” (preface to the Danish translation): Manifest. Vores universitet. Copenhagen: Forlaget Mindspace, 2016: 7-11.

Illustration for the head image come from the project: A Counter Narrative GO TO THE MOON AND BACK (2017), by Annemarie Piscaer.
This article has previously been published in our 2018 printed edition

About the Author

Steen Nepper Larsen is Associate Professor in Education Science at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus, Denmark, and has published numerous academic books and journal articles. He is a critic connected to the Danish newspaper Information, among other organizations, and has worked on several popular philosophy programs for Danmarks Radio, P1. His new book The Purposes of Education – A Conversation Between John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen is coming out on May 27, 2020.

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