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Cultivating humanity or educating the human? Two options for education in the knowledge age

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To be human means to live as if one were not a being among beings.

(Levinas 1985, p., 100).

Abstract

Ever since the idea of the ‘knowledge society’ came into circulation, there have been discussions about what the term empirically might mean and normatively should mean. In the literature we can find a rather wide spectrum, ranging from a utilitarian interpretation of the knowledge society as a knowledge economy, via a more humanistic conception of the knowledge society as a knowledge sharing society, up to an explicitly political interpretation of the knowledge society as a knowledge democracy. Although in theory there is a wide range of interpretations and manifestations, in practice there has been a strong convergence towards the idea of the knowledge society as a knowledge economy. On this interpretation the particular task for education is seen as that of the production of flexible lifelong learners who are able to adjust and adapt to the ever-changing conditions of global capitalism. In this paper I raise the question how we might conceive of the educational task in light of the particular expectations that come from such an interpretation of the knowledge society. Against the idea that an adequate response requires that educators focus on the cultivation of the human being’s humanity, I challenge the humanistic underpinnings of the idea of education as cultivation. Instead, I suggest a different direction that moves the educational task away from the cultivation of the self towards the exposure towards the world.

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Notes

  1. The organisers of the conference at which an earlier version of this paper was presented, did not only articulate the educational challenge in precisely this way, that is, as the task to "re-conceive the post-industrial selfhood, sensitive to the changed economic environment while resisting dehumanization, self-fragmentation and nihilist culture consequent on the knowledge economy" call for papers). They also suggested that the cultivation of the human being's humanity might perhaps provide us with an adequate educational response to what is going on.

  2. One way to appreciate the difference my turn towards a humanism of the other makes, is by comparing it to the contribution by Hong (this issue), who, also by making use of similar literature as I have, ends up with a rather different educational ‘agenda’.

  3. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=cultivate accessed 30 September 2012.

  4. I focus here on the idea of ‘paideai’ which I am inclined to see as a different educational idea(l) than that of Bildung, although there are connections between the two traditions. For a discussion of differences and similarities, see Biesta 2012b.

  5. I take Nussbaum here as a (prominent) example of the idea of education as the cultivation of the human being's humanity, though do not intend this section as a critical discussion of her position.

  6. The first kind of educational arrangements can make us eventually even immune for any interruption from the outside, for any intervention of the other (for this phrase see Fryer 2004; on immunisation see Masschelein 1996; Masschelein and Simons 2004). For a thoughtful discussion of some of the tensions in the ideas of exposure and interruption in education see Bonnett (2009).

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Biesta, G. Cultivating humanity or educating the human? Two options for education in the knowledge age. Asia Pacific Educ. Rev. 15, 13–19 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12564-013-9292-7

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