On The Concept Of Education

by Eric J. Weiner

In 1940, at the height of Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe, Walter Benjamin, from Vichy France wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.”[1] In our current historical context, his words are instructive for two reasons. First, they were written in the context of Nazi occupation with death breathing down his neck. In spite of these extreme conditions, Benjamin refused to see the emergency situation he was in as historically exceptional; his refusal to turn his back on the dialectic under these circumstances was extraordinary and, as we know now, at least in terms of ideology, prescient. Second, his theses about the concept of history, 80 years after he first conceived them, still resonate today. From the mismanaged pandemic and Trump’s fascistic incitement of a white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol to the continuing systemic assault and murder of African Americans by police, the failure of capitalism to eradicate poverty, growing economic inequality, deepening home and food insecurity, and the broken promise of public education to become the “great equalizer” of opportunity, the United States is struggling through what many people have mischaracterized as an unprecedented national crisis of existential proportions. It appears we have not learned what Benjamin suggested the tradition of the oppressed ought to have taught us: We have still not arrived at a conception of history that allows us to see the web of current crises as the rule, not the exception.

Implied in Benjamin’s aphoristic theses of history is also the need to arrive at a conception of education that can account for its persistent role in erasing and distorting the tradition of the oppressed. The tradition of the oppressed teaches us as Benjamin hoped it would only if we are able to unlearn the ideological lessons that blind us to the pedagogical value of that tradition. From the vantage point of Benjamin’s insight, the current web of crises—the defining “emergency situations” of our times—ought not to be framed as “unprecedented,” as the neoliberal media is so fond of repeating,[2] but flows within the longue durée of cultural, educational and political history.[3] The central point of Benjamin’s insight about the pedagogical value of dialectical historicism in combination with a critical awareness of oppression is that we must stop being “astonished that the things we are experiencing [in the 21st century] are still possible.”[4]

From the perspective of the oppressed, astonishment is not only a sign of economic, gender, and racial privilege, but of educational privilege as well. Within this formulation, education—not schooling—is the ideological and cultural apparatus of power; knowledge and cultural capital its currency. Knowledge and cultural capital, as Michel Foucault argued, becomes an articulation of power (le savoir-pouvoir).[5] Until we can arrive at a conception of education that corresponds to these insights, we are not only bound to be astonished by the next “unprecedented” crisis, but we will lose in the broader struggle against the systemic forces of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, neoliberalism, and neo-fascism that continue in concert to undermine the promise of public education in the United States, not to mention the viability of democracies throughout the world. More cynically perhaps, though no less true for it, Naomi Klein shows, within the political context of “financialization,”[6] how the profit is in the emergency, not its prevention.[7] Within the context of education, our astonishment is rationalized by a public pedagogy of historical amnesia and erasure.[8]

More broadly, this suggests a deepening crisis in education. Henry Giroux, in a recent podcast with Paul Jay, argues “that education is central to politics and education in its most repressive forms…functions as a form of deep politicization that in many ways shapes people’s identities, their sense of themselves, [and] their relationships to others in the world.”[9] We can’t talk about ideological systems of thought and the behaviors, attitudes, feelings, and identities that they structure, and not talk about the critical role education plays in the structuring process. The crisis in education is not just a crisis in schooling or in the formal apparatus of public education, but points to the formative role that cultural apparatuses play in politicizing the belief systems of a population desperate for answers and solutions that can ease their social and economic pain.

This crisis of education hampers our ability to see and understand what the world is always trying to teach us. The “world” is a reference for the interplay of language, media, social media, cultural signs/symbols, social/cultural norms, within and across other political apparatuses, that shape attitudes, opinions, and behavior. The problem isn’t that there is a dearth of teachable moments arising from our daily experiences in the world; the problem is that we are not always able to understand the critical lessons that they imply. Many teachable moments are lost in the wake of our schooling and education. This suggests a level of learning that correlates with a degree of epistemological and ideological blindness that encourages us to see particular parts of the story as the whole; critical lessons go unlearned, while biases are confirmed and reaffirmed, retrofitted into changing contexts, providing us comfort and the (false) perception of security.

The deepening crisis of education prevents people from becoming critically conscious, or what Maxine Greene described as attaining a state of “wide awakeness” (note that this was long before the notion of “woke” culture began to plague and deaden the critical sensibilities of progressive white people, and refers to a different state of mind/body). This state releases the imagination and reawakens our natural curiosity to know more, feel deeper, listen attentively, speak in multiple “tongues,” and travel through a bricolage of meanings and experiences.[10] Greene’s thoughts about “wide-awakeness” runs against the grain of the arrogance and fatalism of neoliberalism and other ideological systems of thought that argue the end of history is here.[11] When we can imagine the “not-yets,” the future reopens to possibilities previously closed down from the hegemonic weight of ideologies that would like us to forget that there are alternatives to the status quo.

Both Greene’s dialectical reading of freedom[12] and Freire’s reading the world/word—being able to identify teachable moments that have the ability to disrupt what Gaston Bachelard identified as the hegemony of “the real”[13]—is the central task of an education that matters. The hegemony of the real refers to the processes by which certain kinds of experience are veiled behind a set of narrative assumptions that make them a matter of commonsense. “The real” becomes a constraint on the social and civic imagination, assuming limitations before we know where “the line is that separates being from being more.”[14]

One of the tricks to being able to critically read the world is to be open to unlearning the familiar in a way that makes teachable moments visible. Although our everyday experiences are a bricolage of teachable moments and critical lessons, we must know what to look for and how and where to look for them. For many people, life has become routinized, their senses desensitized, eyes deadened by the glare of too many screens over too many hours. Bodies, once attuned to the sounds, touches, tastes, and smells of the world are beat down and hunched over from too many hours laboring, their natural ability to know the world calloused, exhausted, and numb. Some folks exist in a “tribalized daze,” unable to see beyond their cultural borders and unaware of how ideology and culture work in tandem to construct meanings from the material of everyday life. Instead of being in a state of “wide-awakeness,” attuned to the “not yets,” aware and excited by what Freire recognized as our “unfinishedness,” we are educated to find comfort in the superficial and the familiar; to think/act, like Herbert Marcuse argued, in one-dimensional terms, unable to see through the paralyzing contradictions of modernity; to first and foremost “do no harm.”[15] These lessons hamper our ability to think critically and (un)learn those lessons that deskill, disempower and trap our imaginations in a circuit of negative freedom.[16]

We must arrive at a conception of education that speaks to a process of critical (un)learning. Grappling with the articulations between power and knowledge; the formative effects of normalizing culture; and the affective and aesthetic dimensions of everyday life become the ingredients of curriculum design and pedagogical practices. Imagination, memory, language, and other “abstract” ways of knowing are vital components of critical consciousness. They mediate the degree to which we become aware of the moments in our lives that have pedagogical force. By developing critical literacies across a range of disciplinary abstractions, we can begin to generate new ways of seeing, feeling, knowing, and acting that can reveal insights about the world and our place in it.

The lessons the world provides can be painful before they are liberating. It’s one reason it’s easier sometimes to look away than bear witness, or to hold onto rage even as it tears people and communities apart at their roots. They can be disorienting. Unlike traditional schooling, what and how we learn from the everyday requires no formal teacher but instead puts the onus of responsibility on the learner. The world teaches; as students, we critically learn from experience when we are able to interpret and interrogate those experiences in particular ways and through the use and practice of specific theoretical tools.

This process of critical (un)learning is deeply social because all of our experiences are social (even those that are solitary or in isolation); the languages we have to help make sense of them are social; and even our minds are social.[17] We are always part of a dynamic system of human ecology. This means that we must critically learn to think culturally, sociologically, ideologically, and politically—we must learn to think in terms of structures, systems, and formations and unlearn to think of ourselves as atomized individuals.

Too many teachable moments are ignored because people are conditioned to think of themselves first as individuals as opposed to individuals-in-relation not only to others but in-relation to systems of culture and knowledge that are formative yet remain relatively invisible.[18] This “in-relation” is fundamental to deep and critical modes of inquiry and learning; it is an essential dimension of making the invisible visible. We are part of a global human ecology and as such must become (re)attuned to how the world and the experiences we have in it are always “whispering” to us through a dense tapestry of power and language. In order to begin to be able to participate in the development of a new system of knowledge and human ecology, one that is more humane and sustainable than what we have now, we must recalibrate our bodies and minds so that we can see through the distorting haze of the familiar, normal, and the kind of commonsense that blinds us, as Gaston Bachelard argued, to “the revolutionary impulse [that] comes [not from the real] but from…the realm of the abstract.”[19]

By delving into realms of the abstract we can begin to disrupt the hegemony of our social competencies which can blind and deafen us to the possibilities that lay beyond the borders of rationality. Critical social competencies, by contrast, refer to our ability to reflect upon the social competencies that we have developed over generations and take an account of how and why they might be betraying our capacity for a deeper level of knowing, feeling, and living. This is the moment when rationality hinders reason and our social competencies undermine our ability to think beyond what we already know.

Many of us are trapped in a cycle of what Erich Fromm identified as “negative freedom”; that is, a practice of freedom that has us running away from an active notion of social and political responsibility.[20] Freedom comes to represent a desire to be left alone, to be outside of community, to be accountable to no one but ourselves and maybe our families. Negative freedom leaves us alienated and isolated, disconnected from the very things that can disrupt its hegemony. Positive freedom, by contrast, describes a way of living that recognizes the essential relationship between social responsibility and individual freedom. Within the ideological bubble of neoliberalism, this formulation of freedom is counterintuitive; that is, neoliberalism depends upon a practice of negative freedom to maintain its hegemony and destroy the individual’s “sociological imagination.”[21] An appeal to individualism as the pinnacle of freedom hollows out the power individuals have within neoliberal systems of thought, government and the economy. By attuning our senses to the way ideology structures everyday experiences, we can begin to unlearn the lessons that prevent us from becoming aware of, and responding to the bricolage of teachable moments that present themselves throughout the course of a day.

The process of learning to unlearn runs parallel to becoming “wide-awake” to the teachable moments that populate everyday experiences. Part of what it means to insert ourselves into the process of “wide-awakeness” is to think about learning as navigating through geographies and morphologies of thought and structures of feelings, and by developing a sensitivity to the aesthetic dimensions of everyday life. These entry points towards critical consciousness can help in the construction of an alternative habitus, one in which freedom is seen as an active engagement with social and political structures and not an escape from them. By learning how to become aware of the teachable moments all around us and extract the critical lessons from them, we open ourselves to the possibility of radical transformations. With the right recipe of skills, knowledges, dispositions, and opportunities for deep and critical (un)learning—by developing a social and sociological imagination[22]— we can reach beyond what is and get closer to what should be. From this vantage point, an education that matters is grounded in and framed by the promises of radical love and educated hope.[23]

Distinct from fantasy, educated hope is grounded in knowledge and theory that arises from the best resources we have. It is a practice of hope that aligns with the concept of positive freedom; both require an active commitment to making the familiar strange, confronting irrational biases, engaging in practices of radical self-care, and developing critical knowledge-of-self. Educated hope sees possibilities for a different future in the rejuvenation of the radical imagination. Utopic thinking has pedagogical value within this conceptualization of education. In a similar way, the project of radical love also has pedagogical value, imploring us, as bell hooks eloquently writes, “to care for the soul in ways that make us ready to receive the love that is promised.”[24]

[1] Walter Benjamin. On the Concept of History. (1940); https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

[2] Marian Meyers. (Ed). Neoliberalism and the Media, 1st Ed., (New York: Routledge 2019).

[3] Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein. “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 32, no. 2 (2009): 171-203. Accessed February 11, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40647704.

[4] Ibid. It’s notable to consider how infrequently the words “oppression” and the “oppressed” are used in the 21st century, particularly in western contexts, to describe the impact of economic and political systems on poor people and people of color. The idea of opportunity blinds people to systems of iniquitous power that by any reasonable measure are oppressive to certain communities while liberating for others. The discourse of relativism, coming primarily from the left, is also a source of confusion when it comes to using the language of oppression to describe the oppressive realities of poor people and people of color living under the reign of white supremacy. Calls for clarity in the case of the former and complexity in the latter, language is, as Voloshinov argued, is “the ideological sign par excellence.” See “Marxism and the Philosophy of Language” (1929/1973) for his complete discussion: https://www.marxists.org/archive/voloshinov/1929/marxism-language.htm

[5] Michel Foucault. Discipline And Punish: the Birth of the Prison. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

[6] Thomas I. Palley. “Financialization: What it is and Why it Matters.” Political Economy Research Institute (September 2007). https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1124&context=peri_workingpapers. Retrieved on February 11, 2021.

[7] Naomi Klein. “How Power Profits from Disaster.” The Guardian. (July 6, 2017); https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/06/naomi-klein-how-power-profits-from-disaster

[8] Henry Giroux. “The Violence of Organized Forgetting.” Truthout (July 22, 2013); https://truthout.org/articles/the-violence-of-organized-forgetting/. Retrieved on February 11, 2021.

[9] Paul Jay. “Jan 6th, Fascistization, and Education – Henry Giroux.” (February 7, 2021); https://theanalysis.news/interviews/jan-6th-fascistization-and-education-henry-giroux/

[10] Maxine Greene. Landscapes of Learning. (New York: TC Press, 1977); on bricolage see Joe Kinchelo. (2001). Describing the bricolage: Conceptualizing A New Rigor in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Inquiry, (7, 6, 679-692, 2001).

[11] Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and the Last Man. (New York: Free Press, 2006).

[12] Maxine Greene. Dialectic of Freedom. (New York: TC Press, 2018).

[13] Gaston Bachelard. The New Scientific Spirit. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1934/1984).

[14] Alvaro Vieira Pinto quoted in Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000).

[15] Greene, Ibid; Freire, Ibid; Herbert Marcuse. One Dimensional Man. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

[16] Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York: Holt Paperbacks (September 15, 1994).

[17] James Gee. The Social Mind: Language, Ideology, and Social Practice. (New York: Common Ground Publishing, 2014).

[18] See Carol Gilligan. Ethics of Care; https://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/#:~:text=An%20ethics%20of%20care%20directs,rather%20than%20deductive%20or%20mathematical. See also Michel Foucault. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Science. New York: Penguin Press, 1966).

[19] Bachelard, Ibid.

[20] Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York: Holt Paperbacks (September 15, 1994).

[21] C. Wright Mills. Sociological Imagination. (London: University of Oxford Press, 1959).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Henry Giroux. “Educated Hope in Dark Times.” Truthout. (April 6, 2018).

[24] bell hooks. All About Love. (New York: Harper 1999).