20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Education

Rethinking Education

Lic. Mirta A. Giacaglia
Universidad Nacional de Entre Ríos - Argentina

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: Philosophy is a special way of signifying the world. If philosophy is the place where the question is radical, then the task of the philosophy of education is to turn education into a problem through the practice of criticism. With this in mind we ask, Is teaching possible? What can really be transmitted? If man, as psychoanalysis indicates, is constituted as a desirous being, learning is possible only if desire is present. This interweaving of philosophy and psychoanalysis leads us to consider the impossibility of education in terms of three questions. (1) Is it possible or desirable to transmit the culture in its entirety? (2) Is learning possible without desire? (3) Could any pedagogical syllabus cover for lack in the other?

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

"In the field of teaching, no one should be in
his place anywhere (I quieten down with this
continuous shifting: if some day I found my
place, I would not even pretend to teach, I
would absolutely give up)"
Roland Barthes, L’obvie et l’obtus.

We are living a moment of deep, historical mutation, in which traditional meanings are dissolving. This makes it necessary to re-think the certainties which the essentialist and totalizing Modern conception has crystallized; to question them from the standpoint of the crossroads at which this age of postmodernism has placed us. But Modernity has not been a homogeneous process: some new routes have been opened and they allow us to question those truths. Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Foucault and many others enable today's reflexion taking other different standpoints. This is what we will try to do in relation to education.

Philosophy is a special way of signifying the world and turning reality into discourse. It is a way that, together with other ways, allows man to enclose his constituent anguish making, by making it possible to enquire about the sense of our lives. Its function is to question the present from a place that allows us to creat a field of disputable topics. In Foucault's words, to make an ontology and genealogy of the present: to discover the layers on which an epoch is settled, to take masks off and discover power relationships, to account for the constitution of knowledge and of submission systems. Philosophizing is thinking. But thinking is setting up differences. This implies debate, fight of ideas that can lead to the destruction of he who thinks in a different way. But not thinking means silence, which is another form of death. So as not to die it is necessary to vindicate the democratic debate, the dissidence, the possibility of making our reality become a problem.

If Philosophy is the place of questioning and the place from where questioning turns to be radical. If Philosophy is always expression of a reckless spirit. How could we think the Philosophy of Education? Surely not as a collection of books by certain authors who - from the past- give an answer to the question of what educaction is, but as a space that enables us to set up and explain that question in its present, making it become radical to its very limit. That does not deprive us of returning to the past, but only to question it from the present.

Thinking education from the point of view of Philosophy means, thus, thinking about it as a problem. Turning education into a problem is daring to avoid the mythical character of what is established and to attack what is considered sacred by the practise of criticism, understanding criticism as the action of reaching crisis point, that is to say, judging, interpreting, assuming the risk and the possibilities that election implies. Criticism erodes, denaturalizes, makes false naturalizations fade, removes sedimentations. It is from this standpoint that we will think about education and ask about its possibilities. In addition to this, the deep changes we are undergoing make education reach crisis point as well, instituting the conditions to question it radically.

Educating must be teaching to think. But teaching can involve a serious danger if we believe that a good teacher is the one who by means of a clear, accurate and even captivating discourse, transmits a closed, concluded knowledge, with no splitting, but at the same time allows for no uncertainty, thus hindering the adventure of search and the risk of error. This becomes even more serious if that is not experienced as such, and if we remain charmed and defenseless in front of his display of knowledge, where all contradictions are solved and objections only accept one possible answer. The teacher relies on the certainty that he is transmiting a knowledge that is necessary for his pupils. This knowledge, which seeks to get from the other a delighted consent, relies on the tranquilizing confidence of authority. Both teacher and pupil play the game with the best intentions: the former pretends to teach, the latter thinks he learns. This discourse rests upon the certainty that emerges from thinking that the teacher is in the place of knowledge, as a guarantee that knowledge is in a safe place. And this safe place is related to the fact that: what is taught, how it is taught and what it is taught for is determined by the teacher, who is thus instituted as an omniscient subject, exerting authority and being repository of a knowledge imposed by the institution and that is to be transmited to a subject who is ignored or denied as such, in that he is denied as a desirous subject. This conception of the education is in a subsidiary relationship to the metaphysics of presence, as the latter is defined by the search of a close, fixed structure which refers to a foundation an to an idea of totality which can be represented by the subject upon the basis a tranquilizing certainty.

The extreme effects of this disciplinary transmition, which brings knowledge to a close and confines it to mere reproduction, are terribly and disturbingly depicted in literature, as the rebellion against fear as a propeller of education, shown in Carta al Padre (Letter to the Father), by Franz Kafka, or as the simbolic violence which leads to death in the well-known play by Eugéne Ionesco La Lección (The Lesson).

The teacher teaches, assigns, sets, shows, points out, fixes. Young Kafka becomes dumb faced with a despotic father: "... in your presence I could only falter out a few words ..., finally I kept silent, first perhaps as a sign of obstinacy and later because in your presence I could neither think nor speak. And as you were the one actually brought me up, this always had repercussions on every moment of my life. You generally make a curious mistake when you think I have never surrendered to you ... Even more: if I had taken less notice of you, you would undoubtely be much happier with me ... I am the result of your education and of my obedience ... I was too obedient and in fact I became dumb". (1) Dumbness is a metaphor of the death of the subject. The pupil of La lección also dies in the hands of a teacher whose knowledge becomes a weapon of control and submission. In both cases education appears as a metaphor of power and arbitrariness.

Confronted with the peverse effects of an authoritarian education it is good to reflect once again on Heidegger's words in his work Qué significa pensar? (Was heißt Denken?), when he says: "Indeed: teaching is even more difficult than learning ... Not because the teacher should have wider knowledge ready to be consulted. Teaching is more difficult than learnig because teaching means: letting learn. Even more: the true teacher ... often gives the impression that nothing is learnt from him, if by learning we only understand acquirig useful knowledge". (2)

It thus becomes necessary for us to abandon that conception of knowledge, which naturalizes and neutralizes, for another that accepts that who learns is launched out into the adventure of thinking, of thinking by himself. Education, then, becomes thinking, and teaching becomes letting learn. This open position places us in the the situation ofbearing up the anguish and uneasiness that thinking produces, in that it throws us out of what is familiar to us and makes us face the unknown.

Confronted with these alternatives the Philosophy of Education has to make these questions again: is teaching possible?, what is what can be transmited?

The teacher transmits a knowledge which he considers adequate and necessary to the other. "With the best intentions it is believed that what one wants for those who one loves is the same as what they themselves want". (3) But it is an illusion to think that one teaches. Nobody teaches anything to anyone. If man is constituted as a desirous subject, only the passion that enables the emergence of desire can be transmitted: learning is possible only if there is desire. "If a work of art moves us it is not because of what has unintentionally escaped from the author. It is because of the place given to the problematic side of our relationship with our own desire". (4) The pupil learns as he is constituted as a desirous subject in relation to the knowledge which is to be transmited. Only in that way will the listening to an the interpreting the words of the other be made possible, that is to say, learning will be made possible. A. S. Neil, when narrating his libertarian experience, which avoided the mythical character the teacher's role, in Summerhill tells us: "We do not have new teaching methods, because we do not think teaching itself is so important. Whether or not a school has a special method to teach abridged division, bears no importance, but for those who want to learn it. And the child who wants to learn it will do it however is it taught to him". (5)

The topic of desire leads us to an interweaving of philosophy and psychoanalisis, and to take into account the dimension of impossibility of education, which can be considered from different points of view:

1) Is it possible or desirable to transmit the totality of culture?

2) Is learning possible without desire?

3) Could any pedagogic syllabus cover the lack in the other, mending the gap that desire has opened?

Adult generations will never be able to be transmit the totality of the culture to the younger ones, since if it could be done, there would be no culture or history. In the pedagogic scene the relationship between pupil and teacher is transfixed by something lacking which cannot be symbolized, a split that cannot be mended. If the teacher has all the answers, desire, considered as insatisfaction as rest, is barred. The modern illusion of a complete and homogeneous subject, and the idea of a close, transparent society, have make us forget the dimension of the impossibility of education. "In that modern definition of education, in both its spontaneous and its encyclopedist versions, the idea of covering the lack is always present. No pedagogic syllabus would be able cover for that lack, nor would it be able to cover the gap. Also for the relationship teacher/pupil, does Lacan's formula about love hold good: giving what one does not have to someone who is not". (6) But that impossibility as an obstacle is, at the same time, the condition of possibility for education.

It is not, then, a question of making a project of an ideal education (which emerges from the imaginary of the teacher and is imposed as a certainty to which we all have to "subject" to), but of reflecting on the ideal of education, ideal which is to be always organized around something lacking and the dimension of something impossible, a field of uncertainty and strain. The teacher's proposal of an ideal education, which implies the ideas of foundation and perfection, excludes all possibility of criticism and requires from the pupil only a legitimazing of the teacher's proposal. Desire, excluded from the institution, appears thus under the shape of a symptom which is expressed in different ways of resistance: indiscipline, failure, maladjustment.

In a multiple, globalized, changing world, subject to deep, social unfairness, the philosophy of education must question thought in order to keep on resisting, in order to dare to think the unthinkable and must prosecute the underground task of unmasking of the nietzschean mole.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) F. Kafka, Carta al padre, Nuevomar, México, 1983. p.26-27.

(2) M. Heidegger, ¿Qué significa pensar?, Nova, Buenos aires, 1958, p. 20.

(3) I. Bergman, Las mejores intenciones, Tusquets, México, 1993.

(4) J. Lacan, El Seminario 6. El deseo y su interpretación, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 1995.

(5) A. S. Neil, Summerhill. Un punto de vista radical sobre la educación d elos niños, Fondo de Cultura Económica, p. 20.

(6) A. Puiggrós, Volver a educar. El desafío de la enseñanza argentina a finales del siglo XX, Ariel, 1995, p. 95

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage