Studies in Philosophy and Education

, Volume 35, Issue 5, pp 445–461 | Cite as

Kierkegaard, Despair and the Possibility of Education: Teaching Existentialism Existentially

  • Ada S. Jaarsma
  • Kyle Kinaschuk
  • Lin Xing


Written collaboratively by two undergraduate students and one professor, this article explores what it would mean to teach existentialism “existentially.” We conducted a survey of how Existentialism is currently taught in universities across North America, concluding that, while existentialism courses tend to resemble other undergraduate philosophy courses, existentialist texts challenge us to rethink conventional teaching practices. Looking to thinkers like Kierkegaard, Beauvoir and Arendt for insights into the nature of pedagogy, as well as recent work by Gert Biesta, we lay out the four qualities that we propose characterize “existentialist” teaching practices: an emphasis on teaching over learning and on the “how” over the what; the cultivation of newness as well as capacities for resistance. Reflecting on the significance of existentialism for classroom dynamics, we conclude by examining the tensions between existentialist commitments to freedom and prevailing trends in higher education. This essay raises questions about the emancipatory potential of existentialist philosophies, especially in the context of undergraduate classrooms.


Existentialism Pedagogy Gert Biesta Søren Kierkegaard Constructivism Despair 



We thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful and helpful suggestions. This research was supported by a Learning Inquiry Grant from Mount Royal University's Academic Development Centre.


  1. Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The promise of happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arcilla, René V. 2013. Rawls, sartre, and the Question of Camaraderie. Studies in Philosophy and Education 32(5): 491–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arendt, Hannah. 2006. Between past and future. Toronto: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  5. Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baldacchino, John. 2009. Education beyond education: self and the imaginary in Maxine Greene’s philosophy. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  7. Battersby, Christine. 1998. The phenomenal woman: feminist metaphysics and the patterns of identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Biesta, Gert. 2010. Good education in an age of measurement: ethics, politics, democracy. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.Google Scholar
  9. Biesta, Gert. 2013. Receiving the gift of teaching: from ‘Learning From’ to ‘Being Taught By. Studies in Philosophy and Education 32(5): 449–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Biesta, Gert, Julie Allan, and Richard Edwards. 2011. The theory question in research capacity building in education: towards an agenda for research and practice. British Journal of Educational Studies 59(3): 225–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Borman, David A. 2006. Betrayal in teaching: Persuasion in Kierkegaard, theory and performance. Continental Philosophy Review 39: 245–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bozalek, Vivienne, et al. (eds.). 2014. Discerning critical hope in educational practices. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Burns, Michael O’Neill. 2015. Kierkegaard and the matter of philosophy: a fractured dialectic. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.Google Scholar
  14. Burr, Britanny, and Syd Peacock. 2013. Exit time: a dialogue. Affectus: Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy and Theory 1(1): 205–209.Google Scholar
  15. Connolly, William E. 1999. Why I am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  16. de Beauvoir, Simone. 1976. The ethics of ambiguit. Trans. Bernard Frechtmany. New York: Citadel Books.Google Scholar
  17. de Beauvoir, Simone. 2011. The second sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  18. Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. White fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3(3): 54–70.Google Scholar
  20. Fosnot, Catherine Twomey (ed.). 2005. Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  21. Freeston, Jesse. 2009. Dismissing critical pedagogy: Dennis Rancourt vs. University of Ottawa,” Rabble.Ca. Web. Accessed May 15 2014.
  22. Fry, Karen. 2014. Natality. In Hannah Arendt: Key Concepts, ed. Patrick Hayden, 23–35. Bristol, CT: Acumen.Google Scholar
  23. Giroux, Henry A. 2014. Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. New York: Haymarket Books.Google Scholar
  24. Gordon, Lewis R. 1995. Bad faith and antiblack racism. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.Google Scholar
  25. Greene, Maxine. 1988. The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teacher’s College Press.Google Scholar
  26. Hughes, Carl S. 2014. Kierkegaard and the staging of desire: rhetoric and performance in a theology of Eros. New York: Fordham University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ingold, Tim. 2013. Making: anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Jaarsma, Ada S. 2009. The Ideology of the normal: Kierkegaard and non-ideal theory. In Feminist ethics and social and political philosophy: theorizing the non-ideal, ed. Lisa Tessman, 85–104. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  29. Jaarsma, Ada S. 2015. On being taught. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6(2): 1–12.Google Scholar
  30. Jager, Colin. 2006. After the secular: the subject of romanticism. Public Culture 18(2): 301–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kangas, David J. 2007. Kierkegaard’s instant: on beginnings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Kangas, David J. 2013. The nowhere of truth: Kierkegaard’s discourse on the occasion of confession (1854). MLN 128: 987–1000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Keltner, Stacy. 2006. Beauvoir’s idea of ambiguity. In Philosophy of Simone de beauvoir: critical essays, ed. Margaret A. Simons, 201–213. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1978. Present Age. Ed. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1981. The concept of anxiety. Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1987. Either/or part II. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna V. Hong. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992. Concluding unscientific postscript. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna V. Hong. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1998. The point of view: on my work as an author. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna V. Hong. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Mann, Bonnie. 2014. Sovereign masculinity: gender lessons from the war on terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mills, Charles W. 1994. Non-cartesian sums: philosophy and the african-american experience. Teaching Philosophy 17(3): 223–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Nelson, Maggie. 2007. The red parts: a memoir. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  42. Nowachek, Matthew T. 2014. Kierkegaard as Pedagogue: some insights for teaching introductory philosophy courses. Teaching Philosophy 37(3): 343–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. O’Byrne, Anne. 2005. Pedagogy without a project: Arendt and Derrida on teaching, responsibility and revolution. Studies in Philosophy and Education 24: 389–409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Plato, 1977. Phaedo. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  45. Price, Margaret. 2011. Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Reindal, Solveig M., Herner Saevrot, and Stein M. Wivestad. 2013. Introduction: reconnecting with existentialism in an age of human capital. Studies in Philosophy and Education 32(5): 443–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Richardson, Virginia. 2003. Constructivist pedagogy. Teachers College Record 105(9): 1623–1640.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Riessen, Van, and D.N. Renée. 2013. Advancing beyond socrates? On education, inspiration and inwardness in Kierkegaard and Levinas. Philosophia Reformata 78: 64–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Roberts, Peter. 2013a. Education, faith, and despair: Wrestling with Kierkegaard. Philosophy of Education: 277–285.Google Scholar
  50. Roberts, Peter. 2013b. Happiness, despair, and education. Studies in Philosophy and Education 32(5): 463–475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Roth, Wolff-Michael. 2011. Passibility: at the limits of the constructivist metaphor. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Rubenstein, Mary-Jane. 2002. Ecstatic subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s critiques and appropriations of the socratic. Literature and Theology 16(4): 349–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1984. Being and nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.Google Scholar
  54. Schonscheck, Jonathan. 2003. On teaching Jean-Paul Sartre’s. No Exit, Teaching Philosophy 26(3): 219–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Servage, Laura. 2009. The scholarship of teaching and learning and the neo-liberalization of higher education: constructing the ‘entrepreneurial learner. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 39(2): 25–44.Google Scholar
  56. Splitter, Laurance J. 2009. Authenticity and constructivism in education. Studies in the Philosophy of Education 28: 135–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Sutinen, Ari. 2008. Constructivism and education: education as an interpretative transformational process. Studies in the Philosophy of Education 27: 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Yancy, George (ed.). 2014. White self-criticality beyond anti-racism: how does it feel to be a white problem?. Lanham: Lexington Books.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HumanitiesMount Royal UniversityCalgaryCanada
  2. 2.Department of EnglishUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Mount Royal UniversityCalgaryCanada

Personalised recommendations