Learnification, Biestafication, Beatification: a weak engagement

George Brecht, Tonnere de Liege, 1966-1967

The HEAT group met on Wednesday 2 March to discuss Gert Biesta’s The Beautiful Risk of Education. A weak engagement with a few of his ideas is presented below.

For Biesta, education is creative, but this is not creation ex nihilo; nor is it a ‘productive’ creation. What the creativity of education concerns is the emergence and development of human subjectivity. Education is a dialogical process. Dialogical communication is a meaning-generating process where common ground is created through interaction and participation, which, although he does not explicitly state it, is a secondary or a ramified aspect of its creativity: the creation of a common ground from which human subjectivity, in the form of an inter-subjectivity, can emerge.

In order to perform educational and political work, Biesta argues, the philosophy of communication-as-interaction-and-participation, “establishing opportunities for dialogue with what or who is other” (Biesta, 2014: 3; emphasis in original, AP) needs to risk itself in this process of communication-as-interaction-and-participation in the form of a deconstructive pragmatism, a phrase which itself requires a pragmatic deconstruction [1]. By this phrase, does Biesta mean that his is an anti-or a non-foundationalist approach to re-thinking education as a form of democratic practice which emphasises the two moments of undecidability and decision and that, furthermore, education requires a theory of the decision taken in an undecidable terrain, a decision in which the teacher has a decisive role?

Thus, for Biesta, education, while taking place as communication-as-interaction-and-participation-at-risk, requires the presence of a teacher, as decision maker. Even so, to re-create Sedgwick’s point about “near-miss pedagogy” (Sedgwick, 2003: 154) or “failed pedagogy” (Sedgwick, 2003: 168), Biesta (2014: 3) states that “there will never be a perfect match between educational “input” and “output””. It is this mis-match which,

“… makes the educational way the slow way, the difficult way, and so we might say, the weak way, as the outcome of this process can neither be guaranteed nor secured.”

For Tyson Lewis, this line of thinking makes Biesta part of a wider engagement with pensiero debole, or weak thought, in education, a tradition which emphasises the abject qualities of weakness, insecurity, and unpredictability. The question here is, when Biesta (2014: 6) asserts that,

“In order to understand what teaching is “about”, we need to connect it to an idea of transcendence – teaching as something that radically comes from the “outside””,

are we are in a domain which facilitates individuation via abjection: a splitting of the self into a Christian subject wanting to incarnate universal norms (Blanton, 2014: 114), leading to the beatification of the teacher, the first step to canonisation, wherein it is authorised that the teacher should be the recipient of a certain public reverence, as unique and exceptional in relation to the others in communication-as-interaction-and-participation-at-risk, despite a previously professed deconstructive pragmatism?

The teacher, then, has power, the power to decide the undecidable in a deconstructive pragmatism, but Biesta (2014: 6) contends, “the “power” to teach should not be understood as a power that is in the possession of the teacher”. The power to teach is a gift, a gift that is given (to the teacher) but cannot be given (by the teacher). Thus, “…the gift of teaching is in a sense an impossible gift – a gift that can be received, but not a gift that in a positive or strong sense [i.e. it is a gift in an abject sense, add. AP] can be given by the teacher” (Biesta, 2014: 6).

What then, is learning? Learning is not natural, Biesta argues, an assumption that might lead to a pedagogy that keeps people in their assigned places. Rather, learning is something constructed. It is a cultural practice, it could be said, although Biesta does not. While teaching radically comes from the outside, emancipation, a possible goal or aim of education, does not. Emancipation “seen as a “powerful intervention” from the outside in order to set someone free” relies on “an underlying “colonial” way of thinking in the modern “logic” of emancipation”. In place of freeing-through-colonisation, Biesta, in dialogue with Ranciere, proposes that equality is not an end-state to be achieved in the future but is an assumption that requires to be made true through actions in the now-here:

“Such an understanding of emancipation is no longer based on (the possibility of) a “powerful intervention” from the outside but rather occurs in events of subjectification.” (Biesta, 2014: 7).

In both cases, it seems, emancipation has a performative status, but the nature of that performativity is in question, since the idea of an immediate emancipation seems implausible either for the promissory approach, which explicitly encodes a necessary futurity, or the inter-active approach, since the boundaries of the now-here are infinitely flexible: the now-here, while constantly changing, remains the now-here.

The nature of that performativity is addressed from two perspectives by Biesta. First, in dialogue with Hannah Arendt, he argues that if freedom is taken to mean being-together-in-plurality (but consensually or dissensually?), then such freedom cannot be produced educationally but can only be achieved politically. Second, in dialogue with Aristotle, from whom Arendt herself derives much support, Biesta argues that teaching can never be exhausted by the notion of poiesis, i.e. ‘making action’ in Aristotle with an emphasis on knowledge as how-to in a technical or a craft sense (techne in Aristotle’s terms), but always involves judgments about what is to be done, which is to say praxis in Aristotle’s terms, along with the accompanying phronesis or practical wisdom.

However, given Biesta’s arguments about the gift of teaching, and teaching as something that radically comes from the outside, how can it be, as he says, following Aristotle, that such practical wisdom “is to be understood as a “quality” of the person, a quality that Aristotle called arete and which has been translated as ‘character’, a way of being and acting, or as ‘virtue’, in the senses of virtuousness (goodness) and virtuosity (skilfulness)? Here, we might engage the literature discussing the shortcomings of importing too uncritically an Aristotelian phronesis, given its tendency to theoreticism, elitism and inequality, under the conditions of the Athenian demos (Coulter, 2002).

In discussing the different agendas for lifelong learning, Biesta distinguishes three domains of educational purpose: qualification, socialisation and subjectification. The problem with an (over-)emphasis on discourses on ‘learning’ in achieving these purposes is that “it tends to obscure crucial dimensions of educational processes and practices – that is, aspects of content, purpose, and relationship” (Biesta, 2014: 64). The discourses on learning are unhelpful in the field of education, impacting on teachers’ ability to engage with the normative and political dimensions of their work, a process which Biesta calls learnification. This term also refers to the process wherein the political work that is done with and through the discourses on learning is itself obscured.

While Biesta engages with learnification, and treats education to a Biestafication, in which the teacher is subject to beatification, we might add to these terms gamification, higher education as a game, indeed a game of chance, of which Biesta’s book may well be considered a part.


[1] For the potential relationships between deconstruction and pragmatism, see, for example, Critchley, Derrida, Laclau, and Rorty (c1996, 2005).


Biesta, G. (2014). Beautiful Risk of Education. London, UK: Paradigm Publishers.

Blanton, W. (2014). A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life. New Nork, NY: Columbia University Press.

Coulter, D. (2002). What counts as action in educational action research? Educational Action Research, 10 (2), 189–206. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09650790200200181 [Accessed 25 July 2015].

Critchley, S., Derrida, J., Laclau, E. and Rorty, R. (c1996, 2005). Deconstruction and pragmatism, edited by C. Mouffe. London, UK: Routledge.

Lewis, T. E. (2014). The beautiful risk of education [Review]. Educational Theory, 64 (3), 303–309.

Sedgwick, E.K. (2003). Pedagogy of Buddhism. In: Touching feeling: affect, pedagogy, performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 153–181.


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