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Education without the law

There have been several critiques of how educational theory has been diminished, but also at the same time attempts to strengthen educational theory roughly along the lines I suggest here (to just mention a few: Biesta, 2010; Saeverot, 2013; Smeyers & Smith, 2014; Masschelein & Simons, 2011; Thompsson, 2009; Todd, 2009). However, what has not been discussed in any depth is how educational theory owes its tradition of thought to a concept of paideia that places education at the centre of culture and society. That is the ancient Greek concept of paideia, which was based on the idea that we need a shared space of communality for political and social life to exist at all. In Cornelius Castoriadis’ (1987) reading of paideia, education is understood as central for the creation of a public: that is, paideia is the idea that only (ethically based) education of the citizen in their role as a citizen can give the public sphere a real and authentic content.

However, to assign the public sphere an authentic content of this kind, people need equal rights to speak their true meaning (isogorid), as well as the duty to speak freely about everything that concerns the public (parrhesid). It is a duty to speak truthfully about everything that builds the world in common.

If this was the political context for the establishment of democracy in Ancient Greece, as Castoriadis claims, it is also necessary to formulate an idea of education itself as consistent with such a political context. According to Jaeger (1939), it was the Sophists who contributed to this idea. The idea of teaching was formulated by the Sophists as the very foundation on which they could develop an educational theory: the first theory of this kind in the history of the Western world, according to Jaeger (1939). That is, an educational theory was placed in the centre of paideia, in the centre of culture itself, as both the condition and the goal for humanity. As such, it was intended to guarantee the double task of renewal and change of culture and society.

Teaching was considered to be a form in which everyone, regardless of class, abilities or nature, could embody areté, the insight of politics and ethics to live a full life in the polis. That is, before the Sophists, Jaeger (1939) states, areté was solely for the aristocracy and teaching was therefore exclusively aimed at the aristocracy and directed to lure out that which was essentially already there, to realize a birthright for embracing the culture as such.

For the Sophists, the elevated position in the culture of which areté was an embodied expression could not be inherited, but was rather a direct consequence of being included in education, included in the context of teaching: “It aimed to transcend the aristocratic principle of privileged education, which made it impossible for anyone to acquire areté unless he already possessed it by inheritance from his divine ancestors” (Jaeger, 1939, p. 287)

As a consequence, the idea of teaching was formulated in opposition to the idea that areté was always already inherited by a certain class in society, only in need of perfection through teaching. Instead, the early Sophists claimed not only that the individual needed teaching in all the arts that were valued by the Greek society, to embody the core of culture, but also that anyone could be educated this way (Jaeger, 1939).

Teaching, in other words, is, from its very first formulation within an educational theory, a concept signifying the possibility of radical change, that is, change as an expression of certain and particular lawlessness. That is, the possibility of teaching signifies freedom from confirming the predefined talents and abilities of an aristocracy who are supposed to already inherently have them, and who are believed to be destined by natural law to lead others who must follow.

Lawlessness, in which teaching precedes such law and therefore makes the law as such problematic, establishes education as something more than adapting to already fixed imaginaries of ability and talent, stabilized by nature or morality or even politics, for that matter. For the early Sophists, education and teaching are literally for anyone, and therefore precede any attempts to fixate what are considered as natural or moral (unchangeable) laws, reproducing an elite. Teaching and education for anyone, not successive adjustment to pre-set frames of natural and moral laws, distributing abilities and talents according to those laws, is for the Sophists the guarantee of an ordered and stable society: a democratic society.

That is, leading up to this day, a society in which education aspires to the continuous exploration of, or interventions into, partage du sensible, as Rancière says; that is, interventions into how we conceive the world as orderly in the first place, and therefore education as necessarily embodying the kind of freedom in which it is possible for the radically different to emerge. By making this a central concern for education, through the verification of equality, such a society can rightfully claim itself to be democratic.

Not only Jaeger (1939) but also Castoriadis (1987), as well as Dewey (1916), to mention only a few, understand the early Sophists’ conceptions of education and teaching as the very condition for the possibility of thinking democracy at all.

It then follows, in a democracy, that teaching per se is an unregulated praxis that rejects an order of power which states that only the already privileged can embody culture and society. Teaching is, on the contrary, the determining concept to describe this radical idea: that anyone, through intellectual work in which equality is verified, can acquire emancipation and insights into culture and society, and consequently can be included in the continuation and change of its very direction.

For the early Sophists, through this change in scope, it became possible for anyone included in teaching to form their life in line with the freedom that comes with the embodiment of arete-, the ethical and political insight into, and embrace of, all essentials of living a mature life: self-fulfilling as well as filling a social purpose in the creation and re-creation of culture and society (Jaeger, 1939).

It is, of course, as much body and soul, reason and affect, that give early Greek culture an expression for harmony in and through paideia — and a concretization of the wholeness in which the universe, as well as society and the individual, are united in the lived arete of the people. Arete is, in short, a concept describing how the individual gets included in all this. It is a concept that signifies that an individual who embraces arete also embraces wholeness and freedom.

Here lies the necessary freedom that comes from education and teaching, according to the early Sophists. It is necessary freedom, they argued, because if there is no freedom (of the will), no law would be possible. If a person does not act based on free will, he or she could not be responsible for their actions (Jaeger, 1939). Freedom through and in education (teaching) is a necessary condition for the very possibility of law, and not a result of, or expression of, one such law. That is also why I think, with Emmanuel Levinas (1994), responsibility is the first sign of teaching take place, and not the exercise of power as the promoters of more order and discipline tend to suggest (Todd, 2003, Safstrom, 2003a, 2005)

To the Sophists, the human can be something of a demi-god, as formulated in Greek mythology and poetry; or maybe more precisely, the gods of the Greeks are seen to possess markedly human qualities. You would not know, at first sight, if there is a human or a god approaching you, which would lead to a certain hesitation — of not immediately placing the other as entirely known within a given structure of meaning, of predefined talents and abilities, but always approaching the ambiguous other as one of at least two possibilities, as god or/and human. The pagan world, says Cassin (2016), “is a world in which the one who arrives before you might always be a god, for that is what a pagan expects when he meets a human being: he or she may be divine” (p. 10).

Since the gods had qualities found in everyone, it also followed that the sphere of the gods was not distinctly separate from human life, and humans could find god-like qualities in themselves as well as in others. Therefore, the human in early Greek thought did not subordinate the self to the realities of life, but rather embraced such realities in living a divine life in culture and society. Humans are essentially free to act, but in a way that keeps the wholeness of arete, the wholeness of the individual, society, culture and the universe, intact.

A wholeness of this kind, even though freedom and change have their place within it, is still problematic if we do not also acknowledge that arete is perceived literally as the world (which it was for the Greeks), and that divinity is embodied in the figure of at least two (god and/or human being). The people, then, for the Greeks can never be one; it is always, in its divinity, embodying the figure of at least two.

Following educational theory in the world, in which teaching signifies the freedom and change of a certain lawlessness, there can be no liberal or fascist educational theory at all based on the oneness of the people. Hence educational theory cannot be what liberalism presumes it to be — an interpretation of laws of nature into the culture by psychology - because that would reduce the multiplicity of living life to subordination to those laws already defining who and what you are (or can be). On the other hand, it cannot be a fascist educational theory; that is, it cannot be a realization of a superior moral law of one, that is supposed to be expressed in the same way in all individuals by one nation or one land.

Schooling on these terms only leads to regulating the masses and the turning of arete into an asset exclusive to a certain group or class (who are identified to represent the oneness of it all by the mechanisms identifying them as already such a group or class). Education is a lawless praxis in so far as the educational impulse is not about regulation from a centre, but signifies a radical openness in which culture and society can change from within, without a given beginning or end.

There is no one origin possible, it is always at least the divinity of two, and as Derrida (1982) has shown, the one is only perceivable by the other, placing the very meaning of origin in constant flux. Instead of origins, there is, says Cassin, as Lacan suggests, fixion, that is “a fiction one chooses to fix” (Cassin, 2016, p. 38). The problem with oneness as a fiction one chooses to fix, then, is that it has to violently repress the figure of two for oneness to appear as natural and given (Bauman, 1999b).

Insofar as the educational impulse and the very possibility of law are verifying a presence of at least two, which is neither a nostalgic repetition of the past nor an adjustment to laws determining the future of one people, it is educational. Education works by infusing the freedom of embracing life with the divinity of self and others at the centre of culture and society, in the present. It works through the community of poets giving life to what is said and done in the present reality of things.

It is therefore of utmost importance for us to reconnect to educational theory in the current social and political realities of the European nation-states, in which systems of schooling seem to be oscillating between the two extremes of laws of nature and moral law as foundational for schooling and as demanding full attention, discipline and order of the single self. This is how I understand the real crisis of European education, beyond the failure of all the matrix systems used to steer and evaluate educational systems on all levels simultaneously. There is no educational theory left. No idea of radical change, no freedom as a possible presence embracing the divinity of the life of the other as well as your own at the centre of culture and society. There is, in the words of Castoriadis (1987), no authentic public life possible.

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