Book review: Beyond learning: democratic education for a human future

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Book cover Beyond LearningBeyond Learning


Gert J. J. Biesta


Paradigm Publishers

ISBN 1 59451 234 6



Gert J. J. Biesta is Professor of Educational Theory at Exeter University. It is therefore not surprising that his book is almost entirely theoretical, and parts of it are difficult for the layman to understand. What is surprising and delightful is that his conclusions fit extraordinarily well with the practice and experience of existing democratic schools. There are some examples of mutual confirmation later in this review.


Biesta starts by demolishing the idea that the most important part of education is the amassing of knowledge and skills. Of course certain skills and relevant knowledge are important, he says, but what matters more is the opportunity for interaction between different members of the community. This results in what he calls the 'coming into presence' of unique individuals, something that is impossible where the atmosphere is one of conformity or repression.

He points out that you cannot educate a child in order to produce a good human being, because no one knows exactly what a good human being is. (This is supported by a discussion of Kant and Foucault, among others. The argument is not simple.) As there is no model for you to attempt to reproduce you have to trust the child, even though you cannot know what the consequences will be.

Disagreement should be welcomed, says Biesta. If someone does not agree with you, that gives you the opportunity for widening your own world view. If other people come from a different culture, or have limited faculties, or are younger or less articulate than you, that is no reason to exclude them, or to treat them, as he says, as 'strangers' who must either learn to be like us or be annihilated.

Vanessa Pawsey had the experience of being 'annihilated' as a stranger in conventional education before escaping to Dartington Hall School. 'I sharply recall,' she wrote, 'sitting alone in a school common room in full view and one of the "real" girls coming in and saying, "Oh, there's no one here."' 'At Dartington,' she went on to say, 'I found myself taken on trust as a person, instead of for a few bits of me left after censorship.'[1]

Biesta says that we need 'an educational system that is not obsessed with outcomes and league tables, but that allows teachers to spend time and effort on finding the delicate balance between the child and the curriculum so that there are indeed real chances for children and adults to undertake something new, "something unforeseen by us," [a phrase taken from Hannah Arendt].'

Countesthorpe College [2] in the early 1970s showed this process in action. Every child had an individual timetable, much of which was devoted to independent study of subjects of personal interest, such as the meaning of mental and physical disability, the imagination of small children, countering the arguments of racists, family history, pendulum parabolas recorded on photographic paper or a collection of birds' nests, for instance. The results of this independent work were of an exceptionally high standard, because when you undertake 'something new, something unforeseen by [others],' of course you want to do it well.

All children, says Biesta, should have the experience of being 'subjects' that is to say being able to initiate their own activities; they will then have to cope with the responses of others who are doing the same. They will learn 'about the fragile conditions under which action and subjectivity are possible – my subjectivity as much as the subjectivity of all others.'

This has been expressed as personal experience by Hanrahan Highland, another ex-pupil of Dartington Hall School. What mattered most to him, he said, was 'from the very start being given responsibility for yourself, to learn what you can do and what you shouldn't do, and what you can be and what you want to be, and to be told that you are just as important as everyone else, which is exactly the same thing as saying that everyone else is just as important as you.' [3]

When things go wrong and disrupt the smooth running of the community, says Biesta, that 'might well be the very point at which students begin to find their own, unique, responsive, and responsible voice.'

Bonnie Hill, a pupil at Sands School, put it like this: 'Most of the time the atmosphere in the school is good, but sometimes it's horrible and stressful. I think this is OK because in school meetings and at other times we can look at what is causing the stress and what we can do to make the situation less stressful. It helps us to learn to deal with situations which are stressful. Some students think the school is ideal, but I don't, and I don't think it should or can be.' [4]

In schools such as Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, Tokyo Shure in Japan, Moo Baan Dek in Thailand, the Democratic School of Hadera in Israel or any of the hundreds of other democratic schools around the world all this is taken for granted. However, the theory is seldom discussed. They can now draw support from Biesta, who reminds us, among much else, that '... education is more than the simple insertion of the human individual into a pre-existing order, ... it entails a responsibility for the uniqueness of each individual human being.'

Teachers alarmed by this apparently reckless strategy can be reassured by countless examples of such unconditional trust rescuing damaged personalities rather than resulting in wild irresponsibility. See, for example, Dummheit ist lernbar, by Jürg Jegge, quoted in the chapter on the Kleingruppe Lufingen in Real Education: Varieties of Freedom , or the autobiographical accounts of Delhi street children in the chapter on Butterflies in Lifelines. Both books are by David Gribble and published by Libertarian Education.

[1] Vanessa Pawsey, in That's All, Folks: Dartington Hall School Remembered : edited by David Gribble: West Aish Publishing

[2Chapter 6, Countesthorpe Community College, in Real Education: Varieties of Freedom : David Gribble: Libertarian Education

[3] DVD of the Dartington Hall School Reunion, 2007: Luke Flegg

 [4] Children in Charge : The Child's Right to a Fair Hearing : Mary John: Jessica Kingsley Publishers



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