What kind of situations call for education?

Jan Varpanen

I recently came across a short text allegedly written by the French philosopher Alain Badiou where he put forward the idea that philosophy requires a particular type of situation as the object of its reflection. This encounter got me thinking:. Could we look at education in the same way? Could we say that there are situations that are the proper domain of education? Not surprisingly, the taste I personally have for philosophy combined with Badiou’s piece to immediately suggest the further idea that perhaps Badiou’s ‘philosophical situations’ might be ‘educational situations’ as well. Maybe we could reveal something important or at least something interesting about education if we were to look at it from this point of view. After all, education is certainly a practice that has a very specific purpose, which suggests that there might be situations that are a better ‘match’ with education than other situations. So, let us begin by asking what the philosophical situations are, according to Badiou.

Philosophical situations

The first example comes from Plato’s dialogue Gorgias where Socrates debates with Callicles. Badiou suggests that the dialogue presents a situation where there are two different kinds of thought. Callicles argues that justice is violence, that a happy man is one who prevails over others; Socrates argues that a happy man is one who is just, that justice can only be understood by thinking. There is therefore a certain incommensurability between the two kinds of thought, one that cannot be reconciled. One is faced with a situation where one must make a choice between the two options. Revealing this situation as one of choice and elaborating what is at stake is a properly philosophical task.

The second example is rather similar, although the point Badiou makes with it is a different one. The example concerns the death of the mathematician Archimedes. Archimedes was sitting on the beach (as any one of us might) drawing geometrical forms in the sand and reflecting on them (as not many of us might), when a soldier arrives with an order: “General Marcellus wishes to see you!” Archimedes insists on finishing his proof first – saying “Noli turbare circulos meos”, don’t disturb my circles – and the soldier cuts him down for disobedience. For Badiou, this shows that there is a distance, similar to the incommensurability above, between the two domains, the domain of (mathematical) truth and the domain of power. However, here it is not the task of philosophy to choose, but to make sense of the distance between these domains.

The final example comes from the film Crucified Lovers by the Japanese director Mizoguchi. Set in classical Japan, the film tells a love story that starts while one of the lovers is still married to another person. Adultery is punishable by death, and the couple ends up crucified. The point here is that in “existing in their love” to use Badiou’s expression, the lovers choose the event, the extraordinary, the exception over the normal and the normative. What brings the three examples together is the incommensurability between the sets of values that is found in each and the resulting suggestion that the task of philosophy is to reflect on this incommensurability: on the choice implied by it, on the distance contained in it, on the exception that manifests it.

Something in common with education?

To me, these situations are also those that, more than other things we encounter in our lives, require education. In each case, we can see that on either side one might easily develop without any special input from education. As the well-known philosopher of education Gert Biesta has argued, even a robot vacuum-cleaner is capable of adapting to its environment and thus learning new things. In Badiou’s examples, the robot vacuum cleaner would fare well within the confines of a particular domain, love perhaps excluded. As long as there are initial axioms that define rules and boundaries for a given domain – mathematics; the military; justice is violence; justice is thought; the law – even an automaton can reach a complex level of sophistication. Similarly, a person can develop various fine skills and acquire deep knowledge in a domain without the least influence of education. Furthermore, it is easy to claim that one is born with a set of initial axioms already in place and education is nothing more than the cultivation of these seeds of greatness to their fullest and most perfect expression.

Such a view would miss the very simple fact that the world we live in is a world where plurality is the norm. We are all different to the point that the only thing we share is our difference from each other. One needs only to consider how difficult it is to reach even a modicum of agreement, even between friends, when the issue under discussion is complicated. We think, act and live starting from a plurality of perspectives. It follows that education in this world is education to an existence “under the condition of plurality”, to borrow an expression from the political theorist Hannah Arendt. While the robot vacuum cleaner fares well as long as it can follow initial axioms that guide it’s actions, it is only a matter of time when it encounters a situation where a different set of initial axioms hold, incommensurable with its own.

This is something that requires a ‘development’ that is of an entirely different nature than the one proceeding from the axioms that were already in place in the beginning. This ‘development’ is an encounter with otherness, something ‘uncanny’ in the Heideggerian sense of un-homely (unheimlich), in that it cannot be understood in terms of the axioms and principles that govern the operation of the robot vacuum cleaner. A simple example of this kind of otherness or un-homeliness is the unending debate between believers and non-believers over the existence of a god. For one side, any argument suffices and, for the other, no argument is good enough. When no-one for the ‘other side’ is present, one inevitably ends up reducing adherents of the opposing position to their shortcomings with respect to one’s own system of reasoning. It is only by encountering a believer in real life that a non-believer can try to understand what the distance between them is; the same obviously holds for the believer. It is precisely for this reason that the encounter between two beings that are incommensurable with each other is a properly educational encounter. The incommensurability can only be made sense of with the help of an other – the educator.

What to do when there is no educator?

While this is – at the very least – a possible characterization of what is at stake in education, it also leads to a difficult question. It is clear that the greatest challenge faced by humanity at the moment is the ecological disaster taking place throughout the globe. This can be understood to be an educational situation in more than one way, but, at the very least, it opposes truth and power like Badiou with his example of Archimedes and the soldier. On the one hand we have the truth of the destruction of planetary ecologies, on the other hand we have the power – both political and economical – that would seek to silence this inconvenient truth. This opposition leaves us – young people and adults who are no longer undergoing institutional education – in an educational situation without the help of an educator. We are therefore faced with the task of self-education.

This is a peculiar kind of self-education that contains a two-fold challenge. On the one hand, there is the necessity of change. We need to find a new way of existing, one that is entirely un-homely at the moment; a way of life that we can only surmise on the edges of our worldview. At the moment, the path is only visible to us negatively: we know that consumption is not the way to go; we know that we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels; we know that an economic system based on continuous growth is untenable. In short, we are faced with the task of finding a way of life that is incommensurable with the very core principles of our present habits. On the other hand, even if we find this kind of new way of life – transform the truth of the ecological disaster to a positive conception of how to live in harmony with the more-than-human world – we have not made any progress on the regimes of economic and political power that sustain the present order. Thus, the challenge is not only to find a way of life that is incommensurable with the present one, but also to shed light on the distance between that life and this one. Only this way it is possible to travel that distance, something that we might call the proper domain of politics.

What is the point?

This kind of self-education is far from the usual ideas associated with self-education. We might think that we are educating ourselves when we seek to acquire a new skill or new knowledge. We might also talk about self-education when we try to develop our character, try to become a better person by being more consistent in following a moral maxim or something similar. While these are certainly commendable efforts, they have little to do with the kind of situations described above. In a way, these endeavors are something that the robot vacuum cleaner would be quite capable of undertaking, provided it had suitable axioms in place to begin with. By contrast, the ongoing ecological disasters, such as global warming and 6th mass extinction, lead to the nearly impossible task of becoming incommensurable with ourselves and with the economic and political orders that we are part of. If this kind of self-education is to be undertaken, a profound split is introduced in the person between the self that educates and the self that is being educated. But how else are we to meet the impossible task of becoming that which is incommensurable with us?

According to Slavoj Zizek, the world-famous Slovenian philosopher, it is not the task of philosophy to tell us how to achieve happiness, but to “reveal what kind of deep shit we are in”. That being said, finding out the problem is also the first step towards solving it. So, if it seems that thinking about education in this way can only reveal the difficulties we are facing, it must not be forgotten that this is only a preliminary step to the questions that really matter: Who – is going to be the first that takes on this new kind of self-education? Where – is the new self-education going to become possible? How many – are going to follow? And, finally, answering such questions is not an effort of counting but an effort of creation.


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