The Value of Face-to-Face Teaching?

Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thraldom save
Your country, save your wives, your children save,
The temples of your gods, the sacred tomb
Where rest your honour’d ancestors; this day
The common cause of all demands your valour.

…Ah, what a boundless sea of wo hath burst
On Persia, and the whole barbaric race!
– Aeschylus, The Persians (472 BCE)

In addition to the articles on ‘New French Thought’, Educational Philosophy and Theory has published Gert Biesta’s ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching: On robot vacuum cleaners, non-egological education and the limits of the hermeneutical world view‘ online. Biesta wants to,

reclaim a place for teaching in face of the contemporary critique of so-called traditional teaching. While I agree with this critique to the extent to which it is levelled at an authoritarian conception of teaching as control, a conception in which the student can only exist as an object of the interventions of the teacher and never as a subject in its own right, I argue that the popular alternative to traditional teaching, that is to make the teacher a facilitator of learning, is insufficient.

The article explores many of the issues that have continually resurfaced in our reading groups and, in particular, the discussion initiated by Michele Ledda’s presentation on teaching at the last Research Lab. Biesta argues that “we really should not underestimate our capacity to receive” and even in the traditional model of teaching,

where teachers speak and students sit quietly, a lot of things are actually happening on the side of the students—they may of course feel bored, alienated or ignored, but they may also feel challenged, fascinated and inspired; who knows? I also wonder whether anyone has actually ever suggested that education operates as a process of transmission and passive absorption, even if it is staged in this way.

As I noted in my own discussion of ‘Flipping Humanities‘, one of the interesting outcomes of more recent proposals about “flipping the classroom” is that the increasing use of technology and new media for content delivery in such proposals actually depends upon quite a traditional separation of the “lecture” from the “seminar”. Biesta argues that, ironically, this suggests there is still some positive value to “traditional teaching”.

In line with Michele Ledda’s excellent presentation at the last Research Lab on the complications of drawing political distinctions about “left” and “right” in the context of “progressive” and “traditional” models of teaching, Biesta also rejects the correlation often drawn between “teaching” as “authoritarian” and “learning” as “progressive”:

The problem here, if I see it correctly, has to do with the binary construction of options, that is, with the idea that the only meaningful response to authoritarian forms of teaching lies in the abolition of teaching and a turn towards learning. It is just remarkable that the third option, namely that of reconstructing our understanding of teaching and the teacher along progressive lines, is hardly ever considered. Yet it in is this third option—an option which relies on the idea that freedom is not the opposite of authority or an escape from authority, but has to do with establishing a ‘grown up’ relationship with what may have authority in our lives; a process in which authority becomes authorised, as Meirieu (2007, p. 84) has put it—that we can see the beginnings of an entirely different response to authoritarian forms of teaching, be they traditional, be they progressive

Biesta proposes to do this by drawing on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s ideas about signification. As Biesta explains, Levinas rejects the idea that “all our meaning making, all our signification, occurs ‘inside’ culture and history”: a “situation of total immanence” that amounts to a “cultural and historical relativism.” He defines this position as anti-Platonic, since Plato believed in the existence of “a privileged culture (that) can understand the transitory and seemingly childish nature of historical cultures”. Against this, Levinas proposes an Ethics (situated before Culture and signification) orientated around the Other:

The Other ‘not only comes to us from a context but signifies itself, without that mediation’ (Levinas, 2006, p. 31)—and it is this unmediated presence coming to us to which Levinas refers as ‘face’ and it is to the epiphany of the face that Levinas refers as ‘visitation’ (see Levinas, 2006, p. 31). Face, so we might say, ‘breaks through’ its signification, that is, through its image …Ethics, then, ‘provides the model worthy of transcendence’ (Levinas, 1989, p. 207), one where ‘the Same—drowsy in his identity’ is awakened by the Other (Levinas, 1989, p. 207).10

For Biesta, this is used as the basis for constructing that alternative conception of non-authoritarian teaching that escapes the impasses of traditional and progressive approaches.

One of the problems with this utilization of Levinas’ work, as Andrew McGettigan – also author of The Great University Gamble – has pointed out in an article on ‘The philosopher’s fear of alterity: Levinas, Europe and humanities “without Sacred History”‘, is that this “problematic of the face”, and the conception of transcendence it is grounded in, is “at root mobilized in a valorization of the Judaeo-Christian legacy against those who come from outside ʻthe Westʼ”. While Biesta draws on Levinas’s 1977 essay ‘Revelation in the Jewish Tradition’, McGettigan draws attention to the 1961 essay ʻJewish Thought Todayʼ in which Levinas notes the contemporary,

arrival on the historical scene of those underdeveloped Afro-Asiatic masses who are strangers to the Sacred History that forms the heart of the Judaic-Christian world.

That for Levinas the historical claim that this ʻSacred History’ differentiates the West as a monotheistic formation from the rest of the world is, McGettigan argues, rooted in the neo-Kantian and phenomenological grounding of his philosophy and, in particular, attempts at the beginning of the twentieth century to base an idea of Geisteswissenschaft (the “humanities”) in a concept of the nation (Derrida noted the importance of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s discovery that “the social Self is a national Self” for this neo-Kantian project). 

Biesta’s own attempt to apply Levinas’s philosophy to teaching might therefore do well to reflect on the problems McGettigan raises in relation to the concept of “teaching” (and, we should add, especially the teaching of the humanities) in the essay ‘Jewish Thought Today’. As McGettigan points out, when Levinas talks about the Talmud as a “form of teaching” he is evoking the neo-Kantian concept of Lehre (“variously translated as ‘doctrine’, ‘teaching’, ‘study’ …a body of experience handed down”) as the philosophical distillation of monotheistic religious teaching for the desacralized modern world, and it is this philosophical idea that underpins the claims made about signification that Biesta draws on. One of the great errors of the theoretical reception of Levinas’s work, McGettigan claims, is to misunderstand the

idea of first philosophy lying in the ethical relation generated by the face-to-face encounter with the Other …in a familiar humanist, anti-bureaucratic sense: it is in a fundamental personal contact that I am struck by my commonality with the other. But this reading completely neglects Levinasʼs putative transcendence.

When Levinas’s account of signification objects to the “equivalence of cultures” within anti-Platonic immanence, it insists on the necessity of taking into account “an orientation which leads the Frenchman to take up learning Chinese instead of declaring it to be barbarian (that is, bereft of the real virtues of language), to prefer speech to war.” This – supposedly one-way – orientation to the Other, it concludes, is itself a result of the Judaeo-Christian legacy that forms the basis of Lehre in the Humanities.

For McGettigan, Levinas’s ideas about transcendence, ethics, the Other and the face are based on the “fundamentally speculative” idea that the value of

the monotheism that informs Western culture …above other cultures and their particular ideas, lies in the ability to produce a politics directed to peace. […] it is not present in other traditions whose own ideas can be encompassed by the Greek dimension of Europe. For Levinas, these cultures cannot teach us, they bring nothing that we do not already contain.

While Biesta begins a useful debate about “the all too common and all too facile critique of traditional teaching—a critique that seems to have become the new dogma of contemporary educational thought,” McGettigan reminds us that a serious philosophy and historical reexamination of Levinas’s own work exposes the extent to which its account of teaching and the ideal of the Humanities may in turn fall prey to one of the oldest dogmas of educational thought.

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One thought on “The Value of Face-to-Face Teaching?

  1. Reblogged this on Pedagogy & the Inhumanities and commented:

    A new post from the Higher Education and Theory network that I organize at the University of Westminster, on Gert Biesta vs. Andrew McGettigan on Levinas and the value of teaching in the Humanities…

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