Education and the Future

Rethinking the Role of Anticipation and Responsibility in Multicultural and Technological Societies
  • Deborah OsbergEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter uses the concept of anticipation to reposition a philosophical tension regarding the way in which educational responsibility is usually understood. The tension puts educational practice in conflict with itself, to the extent that many of its practices are self-undermining and incoherent. In addressing this philosophical tension, I first explain its basis. Following this, I argue that the tension is produced by an extrapolatory form of anticipation and futurity that is so dominant in contemporary Western society as to be considered “unavoidable” and “natural.” Finally, I present a symbiotic conception of anticipation and futurity that can reveal the uniqueness and coherence of education’s allegedly “conflicted” responsibilities and which produces an understanding of education as an event that has value “in itself.” That is, education does not serve some other higher (political or moral) purpose but has its own intrinsic value. My primary argument is that this synthesis points to the crucial importance of philosophical work that presents education in a mode outside of taken for granted, extrapolatory forms of anticipatory logic.


Anticipation Democracy Education Emergence Extrapolation Incommensurability New materialism Normativity Posthuman ethics Responsibility Symbiosis Temporality 


This chapter is about an ethical problem that has long confused the way in which modern educational practice relates to the future. It is generally accepted that education is at least partly responsible for the kinds of futures that can emerge, but this idea is highly charged in contexts where education is understood (as it usually is) as an instrument for needed change (either political or developmental). Driving debate is not only the question of what kinds of futures are optimal and should be “cultivated” through education, this being a question that seems to address critical “necessities” of the present in the context of technological and multicultural societies. There is also a more abstract philosophical problem that has long inhabited education and which puts educational practice in conflict with itself, to the extent that many of its practices are self-undermining. The problem is precisely articulated by Hannah Arendt (1961) who argues that because education is concerned with the insertion of “newcomers” (who are in the process of becoming) into a world that is itself in a process of becoming, education encompasses moral and political responsibilities that “do not by any means coincide; [and] they may indeed come into conflict with each other” (Arendt 1961, my emphasis).

While education’s more immediate critical problems have much higher visibility in educational discourse than the abstract/philosophical problem, which may appear arbitrary by comparison, I argue in this chapter that it is the abstract/philosophical problem that underpins education’s more immediate critical problems and therefore should receive prior attention. The purpose of this chapter is therefore to address the basis of the abstract/philosophical problem with a view to elaborating an alternative way forward. This goal is ambitious and I can only touch on some of the important themes. In pursuing my goal, I first explain the nature of the tension within educational practice that Arendt articulates. Following this, I argue that this tension is produced by an extrapolatory form of anticipation and futurity that is so dominant in contemporary Western society as to be considered “unavoidable” and “natural.” Finally, I present a symbiotic conception of anticipation and futurity that can reveal the uniqueness and coherence of education’s apparently “conflicted” responsibilities and which produces an understanding of education as a good in itself, that is, as an event with its own intrinsic value. My primary argument is that this synthesis points not only to the crucial importance of abstract/theoretical work in education but also to the crucial importance of perspectives that attempt to present education in a mode outside of taken for granted, extrapolatory forms of anticipatory logic.

Education’s Conflicted Responsibility

Thus … the subject of education, has for the educator a double aspect: he is new in a world that is strange to him and he is in process of becoming. (Arendt 1961, p. 185)

Educational practice has, as Hannah Arendt points out in the quote above, long held itself to be responsible for the future insertion of “novices” or “newcomers” into worlds about which they know little or nothing: worlds already ordered in advance over varying time spans (days, decades, millennia) by those who came before. Such worlds, which represent established traditions that shape how we live together, reflect cultural assemblages and tropes that span familial, religious, agricultural, civic, artistic, scientific, economic, and other forms of human engagement. Arendt (1961) argues that education ensures the continuance of these forms of human engagement by equipping newcomers with the knowledge necessary to contribute to their development. In this sense, education can be understood to have a concern for the future of the world that humans have in common, the world into which each one of us is born: the world we inherit (willingly or not), which shapes how we live together and to which we contribute in turn. This educational concern, so Arendt argues, translates into a political or civic responsibility to ensure that humans can act in the interests of the world we share which is always in the making. But Arendt also argues that education is concerned not only with the well-being of the world we share but also with the well-being of individual humans who inhabit this world (especially children/newcomers) who are themselves in the making. It orders the experiences of such individuals in a way that supports and optimizes their ongoing learning, development, and growth as human beings. In this regard, educators are expected to protect children/newcomers from experiences that might hinder their development and well-being and expose them to experiences designed to support it. This educational activity translates into a moral responsibility to attend to the formation of the developing person allowing them to become, as Biesta (2013) puts it, “subjects of action and responsibility” (p. 739).

Education is thus responsible for the future of humanity in two different senses. First, it is politically responsible for the cultivation/nurturance of the public/social world into which individual human beings are born. Second, it is morally responsible for the cultivation/nurturance of individual human beings. These two “humanistic” concerns (which, within modern educational discourse, are organized principally around the philosophy of humanism, which aims to understand and cultivate “humanity”) present education with a conflict, because, as Arendt explains:

The responsibility for the development of the child turns in a certain sense against the world: the child requires special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world. But the world, too, needs protection to keep it from being overrun and destroyed by the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation. (Arendt 1961, p. 186)

This conflict produces an ethical tension within educational practice that has long divided educators into what might very broadly be distinguished as “world-centered” and “person-centered” camps. Although these particular terms are not in common use, I have purposely selected little or unused terms to avoid confusion with more commonly used terms (e.g., “child centered,” “learner centered,” “curriculum centered”) which have more specialized (but also contested) meanings (see, e.g., Burbules 2004; Osberg and Biesta 2008, 2010) and bearing in mind that there are many variations of practice and purpose within each of the two broad “camps” I have distinguished.

Despite significant internal variations, advocates of the “world-centered” camp are largely concerned with the ways in which education should be organized to serve the interests of the world we share. They hold education responsible for cultivating a desirable social vision/future through curricula designed to guide people to participate in the ideal of an anticipated “good” society or world. This is the case regardless of whether the ideal represents an existing world into which “immature” or “deficient” individuals must be inducted through education or a reformed world that, through education, is voided of its existing deficiencies. To achieve its end, the approach tends to be organized around norms that shape how we (should) live together in the world. The approach can be considered to have a socializing function as its curriculum is focused on “closing the gap” between high and low standards of achievement regarding the norms in question. While the “world-centered” approach (in its various guises) has long remained dominant, it has also attracted strong criticism. By and large, critics have raised ethical questions about which or whose norms – or vision of a “good” society/world – are perpetuated through such educational practices. In complex, technological, and multicultural societies, such questions are significant given that the cultural and social position of norms has become a standard part of theoretical discussion. In multicultural societies, a persistent problem for “world-centered” approaches is therefore the question of which or whose (cultural/societal) norms are of most worth (Apple 1995). The approach, so critics claim, is inevitably partisan and egotistical/hubristic even where the curriculum is critical and democratic and aims to provide students of all cultures with equal opportunities. One problem is that the “opportunities” available to those undergoing a critical and democratic education are already structured along culturally normative lines. This, as Osberg and Biesta (2010) have argued, produces a philosophical conundrum in that the more inclusive education becomes in practice, the less inclusive it is in principle. To say this differently, the more “others” are helped to succeed within the dominant culture, the more “otherness” is obliterated from the dominant culture as “they” come to “fit in” with it. Another problem stems from Western thought projecting its values as universal. This, as Battiste (2004) has argued, generates an academic and pedagogic culturalism based on the assumption that Western knowledges are the global and universal norm from which “other” (local/indigenous/aboriginal) knowledges deviate. For this reason, Battiste (2004) argues that local/indigenous/aboriginal thought/culture is conceptualized as being in deficit relative to Western thought/culture, despite its purported inclusive and democratic pedagogical intentions (see also Andreotti and de Souza 2008; Mignolo 2000).

On the other hand, advocates of the “person-centered” camp show concern mainly with the ways in which education should be organized to make it possible for each and every individual to realize their unique human potential. In this regard, the approach can be considered to have an individuating function. Because this approach claims to attend to the universal humanity of individuals, it is said to support a form of education that is genuinely hospitable to difference and diversity. The approach, however, also draws criticism. One argument is that its efforts are oriented toward a culturally situated “ideal” human form such as the “rationally autonomous” individual in the case of liberal education or the “threefold” individual (spirit, soul and body) in the case of Steiner education. Paradoxically, such “universal” Western educational visions of “humanity” are not generally in alignment either with each other or with visions generated by non-Western or “indigenous” educators (Andreotti and de Souza 2008). Another argument is that allowing people to learn whatever they please is just another way of perpetuating the societal inequalities engendered by an existing social order because there is no reason to believe that people “have a discernible direction other than the forms of life and traditions they have become a part of” (see Margonis 1992, cited in Osberg and Biesta 2010, p. 595). For these reasons, the “person-centered” approach can be considered as just another way of perpetuating the societal inequalities engendered by an existing (dominant) sociocultural order. In other words, it too is partisan and egotistical/hubristic.

While both the “world-centered” and “person-centered” approaches persist in contemporary educational practice, the moral responsibility of the “person-centered” approach and political responsibility of the “world-centered” approach tend to pull educators in two seemingly incompatible directions (responsibility to serve the one or the many) which undermine each other. While John Dewey’s educational philosophy is sometimes thought to synthesize these conflicted responsibilities (see, e.g., Dewey 2004), his educational philosophy ultimately suffers the same political dilemma as other world-centered approaches. That is, his educational philosophy is still partisan: it suffers the problem of which or whose “universal” (in the Western culturalistic sense) norms should guide educational action.

The conflict between the two approaches, together with further internal conflicts within the two approaches, produces several questions that remain the subject of continuing educational controversy into the twenty-first century. The controversy includes questions concerning the most desirable ends of education, how such ends can be achieved, and who decides what these ends should be.

As mentioned, the purpose of this chapter is not to elaborate further on these controversies, which present themselves as practical problems to be solved, but to focus on the underpinning philosophical conflict (between moral and political responsibility) that produces them. In this regard, I aim to draw readers’ attention to one anticipatory perspective that the two “camps” have in common and which fuels the conflict between them. My argument is that in flagging this anticipatory commonality:
  1. (i)

    It becomes possible to conceptualize education’s conflicted moral and political responsibilities from a different anticipatory perspective.

  2. (ii)

    This different anticipatory perspective reveals the uniqueness and coherence of education’s supposedly “conflicted” responsibilities.


This synthesis is of substantial significance in the contemporary era for it not only opens a way to understand education’s conflicted moral and political responsibilities in a way that is nonpartisan. It also contributes to an emerging discussion about the possibility of a “post-critical educational philosophy” (see, e.g., Hodgson et al. 2017; Gur-Ze’ev 2010) that repositions education as an intervention that is concerned with something other than preparing for the future by merely overcoming the problems of an existing but deficient (and often despised) present. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it points to an approach to responsibility that suggests that education is about more than simply optimizing human futures. This conclusion is particularly significant in the present era, in which technological activities that are supported by educational interventions and that are purportedly responsible for the promotion of human well-being are (in both a political and developmental sense) increasingly being exposed as destructive to the future of both humans and nonhumans.

Contemporary Education’s Normative Anticipatory Stance

Regardless of whether educational responsibility is understood as morally or politically directed, an underpinning assumption regarding these responsibilities in the contemporary period is that “responsible action” is primarily about the capacity to perform the “correct” or “best” action in any anticipated future scenario. To perform such correct actions, it is assumed to be necessary to anticipate possible futures by projecting, extending, or expanding known experience into areas not known or previously experienced, to determine what should or what needs to be done. Responsible action is thus assumed to be a function of extrapolation /envisioning (bearing in mind that envisioning is a form of extrapolation because it is compiled from existing knowledge/experience and in this sense is continuous with existing knowledge/experience), which itself rests upon an assumed continuity, correspondence, or other parallelism between what is known and what is not-yet-known. Under this set of assumptions, knowledge/experience of the consequences of past events can be understood to generate the ethical “rules” (normative knowledge) for future actions (actions which address what “needs” to be done). Even in novel situations, an ethical discussion about what might constitute responsible action rests primarily upon knowledge of the known. When underpinned by these assumptions, the notion of “responsibility” manifests as an essentially normative ethical impetus, and this is the case regardless of whether education’s orientation is primarily toward a “world-centered” (socializing) or “person-centered” (individuating) approach (see Burbules 2004, for a related argument). Importantly this brings into focus the fact that the person-centered “curriculum” – which often presents itself as “undefined” in that it claims to have flexible or “open-ended” ends – is nevertheless in the service of a superior dictating norm that relies on envisioning and informed choice to decide on behalf of others what kind of educational curriculum is “good” for them. My point is that as long as any (overt or covert) curricular aim is in place, then education in whatever guise remains fundamentally normative and instrumental. However, this does not mean to say that education can only be conceptualized as constrained by norms and directed to the achievement of instrumental ends. Indeed, it is precisely this assumption that I hope to overturn in the argument that follows. My aim is to open alternative possibilities for conceptualizing the activity we have labeled “education.”

The abovementioned normative or “curricular” way of thinking about responsibility is not unique to educational discourse but is omnipresent in the broader technological world: the world in which “correct” human action has been linked with a form of human rationality that is grounded, predominantly, in the assumption of mechanistic causal continuity between past, present, and future which implies mechanistic continuity between what is known and what is not-yet-known. The ability to extrapolate/envision (or “anticipate”) possible futures and rationally choose the “morally correct” option is dependent on these assumptions. However, the assumption of mechanistic causal continuity between past, present, and future has been challenged by authors such as Bergson (1911), Mead (1932), Prigogine (1984, 1997), Deleuze (1991, 2001), and others, and several influential notions in historiography have drawn attention to the incommensurability between past and present knowledge (e.g., Bernstein 1991; Evans 2002). The notion of “strong emergence ” (Chalmers 2006) has been helpful in understanding the radical challenge such perspectives bring to mechanistic determinism (see Osberg and Biesta 2007; Osberg 2015), and quite recently this collection of insights has been brought together under the label of “new materialism ” (Barad 2007; Coole and Frost 2010; Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012; Connolly 2013). I would argue that such challenges suggest that extrapolation /envisioning:
  1. (i)

    Does not provide the only way to conceptualize “anticipation”

  2. (ii)

    Is not the only (and perhaps not even the “best”) route to conceptualizing the notion of “responsibility for the future”


Indeed, I would argue that extrapolatory forms of anticipation (based on knowledge and rational choice) stand in the way of conceptualizing the distinctiveness of education’s responsibility for the future. Hans Jonas’ “ethics of responsibility for the distant future” (Jonas 1984) provides a useful entry point for further exploring this theme as it exposes an ethical challenge that arises when responsibility for a distant future is understood primarily in terms of extrapolation/envisioning. While this ethical challenge may, at first, appear to have little to do with education, which is mainly concerned with the near future, I hope to show that it is in exploring this challenge in the context of education that the uniqueness and coherence of education’s “conflicted” political and moral responsibility – indeed education’s very raison d’etre – comes into focus.

Responsibility for the Distant Future: An Ethical Challenge

In The Imperative of Responsibility, Jonas (1984) begins to develop an ethics of responsibility for the distant future by distinguishing between “formal” and “substantive” responsibility. He describes formal responsibility as retroactive in that it is a form of causal power that is assigned after the fact (e.g., parents are responsible for having produced their children). Such responsibility is “the mere formal burden of all causal acting” (Jonas 1984, p. 92). Jonas is not concerned, however, with this retroactive form of responsibility. He focuses his attention, instead, on substantive responsibility which he regards as a proactive or future orientated form of responsibility (e.g., parents/guardians are responsible for the well-being of their children). Jonas argues that this form of responsibility embodies a “nonreciprocal relation of power” (p. 94, my emphasis). It cannot be understood outside of unequal power relations because if one has no power to affect the object of one’s responsibility, one cannot act in its interests. Jonas does not specify precisely what kind of action one should perform to act in the interests of others, only that ethics becomes possible when one is called to act in the interests of others – including nonhuman others – over whom one has power.

Jonas suggests that the moral responsibility of parents for the individual well-being of their children and the political responsibility of the statesman for the common cause or collective public interest can be understood as “paradigmatic representation[s] of the primordial phenomenon of [substantive] responsibility” (Jonas 1984, p. 98, my emphasis). Importantly, these two variants of substantive responsibility are precisely those that come into conflict with each other in the educational domain. For Jonas, however, the main problem with substantive responsibility is not that it raises an educational conflict, but an epistemological one (linked to the relationship between knowledge and power), when applied to the distant future. In this regard, Jonas argues that up until the twentieth century, substantive responsibility has been derived, at least in part, from knowledge for one can act in the interests of others over whom one has power only when one has sufficient knowledge and understanding of what constitutes the other’s well-being. To be substantively responsible is therefore to act in accordance with knowledge regarding the interests or well-being of the object of our responsibility. Such knowledge informs one of how one should act to bring about those outcomes one believes is in the interests of the object of responsibility. For this reason, Jonas argues that substantive responsibility has been understood as “a function of power and knowledge” (Jonas 1984, p. 123).

It is within this framework that Jonas links substantive responsibility to an ethical challenge regarding responsibility toward the future. He argues that humankind has now reached a point in history where technological power is so enhanced that the impact of present-day human actions reaches further into the future than human action has ever reached before. Indeed, human technological action now outstrips human ability to predict the long-term consequences of those actions. For example, studies specifically dealing with the toxicity of nanoparticles have begun to appear, but the potential long-term effects of nanotechnology remain largely unknown. For Jonas, this creates a novel ethical problem. He argues that while the usual focus of ethics has been concerned with “doing right what [has] to be done now” (ibid., p. 123, my emphasis), we now need “ethics of long-range responsibility co-extensive with the range of our power” (Jonas 1984, pp. 21–22). This ethics, so he argues, calls for “a new kind of humility owed [to] … the excess of our power to act over our power to foresee and our power to evaluate and judge” (ibid, p. 22). This ethical assignment presents a challenge in that it calls for responsible action (usually understood as a function of power and knowledge) despite a deficit of knowledge regarding the effects of purported “responsible” actions. While Jonas’ argument refers specifically to the problem of ethical action in technological society, his formulation of the problem is by no means restricted to such scenarios. His point is simply that the advent of technological society forces a profound rethink the role of knowledge in ethical decision-making. This need for this rethink may resonate with anyone who has grappled with the consequences of knowledge- or experience-based ethical decisions that in retrospect turn out to be ill advised.

Jonas does not fully resolve this ethical paradox. His main contribution lies in articulating the idea – and challenge – that such an ethics must be possible in contemporary technological societies, which have powers to act that far outstrip powers to evaluate the effects of actions. This challenge raises the question of how it may be possible to enact a form of responsibility that is no longer normative and knowledge based, that is, one which no longer relies on an ethics of extrapolation /envisioning. In this regard, we might turn to Levinas, who has developed an ethics of responsibility that puts human subjectivity ahead of knowledge (Levinas 1994, 1985, 2006) Levinas describes responsibility as “the essential, primary and fundamental structure of subjectivity” Levinas 1985, p. 95. However, while there is a body of work that explores the significance of Levinasian ethics for education (see, e.g., Todd 2003; Biesta 2016), it is not my intention here to delve further into this body of work. While Levinasian ideas are exceptionally important for the arguments I make later in this chapter, the point of this chapter is not to elaborate on what constitutes Levinasian ethics or to explore what might constitute “Levinasian education” which in many ways defies a brief explanation and is in any case a task that is already underway by others. It is to present an argument for the crucial importance of “Levinasian education” and related ideas in contemporary multicultural and technological societies. In addressing this task, I start by outlining two future-envisioning or “extrapolatory” anticipatory approaches to substantive responsibility to show:
  1. (i)

    How they are mirrored in educational scenarios

  2. (ii)

    How such mirroring ensures that education can be neither morally nor politically responsible in multicultural and technological contexts


The first extrapolatory approach I outline is a “creative imaginings” approach which precludes political debate about the imaginary that is created. The second is a “democratic” approach which attempts to take into consideration the ethics of political decisions regarding different imaginings for the future. Following this, I explore a non-extrapolatory anticipatory approach to substantive responsibility that might be termed “symbiotic anticipation.” I argue that this approach, which strongly resonates with Levinasian and also Derridean ethics, is not only capable of addressing education’s moral and political concerns but can do so in a way that overcomes education’s internal ethical conflict regarding its responsibility to serve the one or the many.

The Irresponsibility of Extrapolatory Anticipatory Approaches in Education

Anticipation and Creative Imaginings

In their book, Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future (1992), George Land and Beth Jarman suggest that one way of taking responsibility for the future in the face of radical uncertainty about it is to act in a way that will meet the needs of an imagined future. Such imaginings form the basis of what they describe as a “creative worldview” (p. 98) approach to vision, strategy, and planning where the future is “channeled” (my word) in the direction imagined for it through innumerable actions that work together to achieve a common goal.

Land and Jarman argue that to channel the future in this way, it is first necessary to create a compelling vision for the future: one which inspires others (I would argue that this is necessarily done though extrapolation). Although Land and Jarman argue that no one with a compelling purpose and great vision knows exactly how that vision will be achieved, but it is nevertheless achieved as the creative focus produces a certain sensitivity to opportunities presented. This, so they argue, enables people to make the most of surprise, serendipity, and the unexpected. Hence, once a compelling vision for the future is extrapolated, it acts as an “invisible magnet” (1992, p. 109) pulling the present toward itself. They give the example of John F. Kennedy holding out the vision of a manned moon landing which, so they argue, inspired an entire nation to advance the technological capability for manned space flights (ibid., p. 176). Land and Jarman argue that a compelling shared vision energizes life. By sorting the “important” bits from the “background noise,” it focuses people on something clear and in this way enables them to collaboratively guide the future toward the shared vision of it. Clearly, the most important aspect of this “channeling” approach is the development of a creative imaginary that can inspire people to work in common toward its achievement. While there is much truth in this, one problem is that while it may be achieved in common, the imaginary that is held up as an inspiration is not generated in common. It is an egotistical/hubristic production. George Orwell’s futuristic novel Nineteen eighty-four exemplifies the potential harm in this kind of creative imagining. Orwell meant it to draw out the logical implications of what can happen when the creative but egotistical/hubristic imaginings of a powerful ruling class ideology are extended into the future (see Shklar 1985 for a discussion on this). The problem is, and always has been: who are those who creatively imagine the future? And, more importantly, who is excluded from such imagining?

There is much in normative /curricular education that supports a creative imaginings approach to the future. In the first place, education has always played an important role in producing individuals who are capable of creative envisioning and who have therefore shaped the future in important ways. Furthermore, many would argue that while it is not everyone’s destiny to be an inspirational visionary, education is necessary precisely because it can ensure that those who are capable of it receive the necessary support to develop purposes and visions that serve to inspire others. However, education not only supports but also mirrors the creative imaginings approach to the future. The curriculum, after all, is the instrument by means of which education is supposed to inspire others to work toward an imagined “better” future (a more prosperous one, a fairer one, a greener one, and so on). However, as is the case with Land and Jarman’s approach, the imagined future that the curriculum promises is itself not initiated in the classroom by those who are (allegedly) inspired to achieve it. It is a future that has been creatively imagined by educational theorists, curriculum makers, policy makers, politicians, and so on (themselves the recipients of a “good” education) and which is held up for those in education (children/newcomers) to strive for. Regardless of how politically or morally motivated such imaginings may be, the problem remains that such imaginings can only ever be partisan and egotistical/hubristic. The fact that they are supported and mirrored by an institution as powerful as education also makes them hegemonic. As has long been argued, every normative curricular vision can be understood as a mechanism that replicates existing social and cultural inequality (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990; Apple 1995).

In contemporary societies that are faced not only with culturally heterogeneous ethical issues but also with the uncertain consequences of technological advances, any hegemonic stance derived from extrapolatory ethics which can only be partisan/egotistical/hubristic can only be regarded as irresponsible. One could argue further that in their failure to address social and cultural inequality, normative educational approaches do not simply fail to address one or the other side of education’s internal ethical conflict but fail to live up to their own (political or moral) remit of substantive responsibility for the future of “humanity” in multicultural and technological contexts. Indeed, the spectacular failure of normative curricula to redress social and cultural inequality (Osberg and Biesta 2010) is a manifestation of education’s underpinning ethical conflict.

To live up to its moral and political responsibility for the future of humanity in multicultural and technological contexts, it would seem that educational provision should, at the very least, include the possibility of generating creative imaginings for the future rather than only following the creative (but partisan and egotistical/hubristic) imaginings of external “visionaries.” That is, democratic imaginings regarding the future should be brought into the educational process itself. Although the “person-centered” approach allows a certain degree of plasticity regarding the educational ends (or imaginings) that are achieved, this approach is still ruled by a superior normative orientation (or creative imaginary): the cultivation of the “ideal” human (at the expense of other possible normative orientations). In other words, the imaginary to be “strived for” or “followed” should itself be democratically imagined within educational contexts. This brings me to the question of the democratic viability of “democratically imagined” futures.

Anticipation and Democratic Imaginings

Outside of the educational sphere, extrapolatory imaginaries regarding the future are continually produced and assessed for their potential ethical substance. However, in culturally diverse contexts, extrapolated visions that may be ethical in one cultural context cannot always be deemed ethical from the perspective of another. Furthermore, as ethically conflicted visions are extrapolated from culturally (and hence normatively) diverse foundations, there is no means of adjudicating between them except from some nonexistent “meta-normative” position. In such contexts, the choice between ethical alternatives is therefore rationally undecidable. In the political sphere, this raises the question of what might constitute a democratic imaginary regarding the future. How should a common imaginary for the future be decided?

In this regard, Rancière (2010) has argued that the question of how agreement on a common way forward should be decided misses the point, for the presence of rational dissensus regarding the “best” or “correct” way forward is not simply a practical problem to be resolved by some or other strategy of “democratic” decision-making. It is the condition of possibility for political space itself. For Rancière, there is no possibility to remove dissensus from political space because dissensus – the idea that there is no rational ground for political decisions – is the very ground of political space. Importantly, however, this does not imply that political decisions should be avoided. Decisions are necessary because one cannot move forward in several different directions at the same time. Because every way forward necessarily closes other ways forward, some authors (e.g., Amin and Thrift 2005; Mouffe 2005) have suggested, therefore, that political responsibility necessitates unremitting critical reflexivity toward our own political decisions (or visions) and practice/s. That is, political decisions/visions must be understood as temporary “placeholders” and democracy understood as a space which keeps open the possibility to imagine and pursue alternate futures. In the realm of education, Burbules (2004) has articulated a conceptualization of the purpose of education that mirrors the abovementioned view of democracy. He suggests that:

one “aim” of education should be to develop an ongoing capacity to reflect upon and question the sort of education one is receiving, or that one is providing to others – an aim that involves subjecting our educational aims to a relentless skepticism. (And that includes this very aim itself.) (Burbules 2004, p. 7)

Burbules might therefore be understood as having articulated a democratic understanding of the purpose of education – i.e., one that goes beyond merely taking up a political agenda, decided elsewhere, outside of the educational context. This democratic vision for education, however, remains problematic for the very reason that in the educational realm, it simply replaces existing externally decided visions of educational purpose with a new externally decided vision of educational purpose (one which critiques the ground on which it stands). That is, it still suggests what education should be for, which precludes other possibilities. This not only fails to solve the ethical tension between “world-centered” and “person-centered” educational norms (because it imposes another “world-centered” vision) but also confuses the place of education relative to the political.

A critical democratic approach, however, is not only problematic from an educational angle but also from a political one. One objection, as Hodgson et al. (2017) point out, is that a critical democratic perspective must necessarily always negate the future that it dreams of, the future that it hopes will overcome the (inadequate) present. The dreamed-of future must be negated for it can always only be another partisan/egotistical/hubristic vision and as such should never arrive. Thus, there is nothing to orientate responsibility for the future but an imaginary world that will (or should) never come. As Hodgson et al. aptly put it:

This mixture of hate for the persistent present and love for the impossible future, as driven by a never-ending critique, has as its final outcome a cynicism towards the world. (2017, n.p.)

The risk of cynicism, as these authors highlight, is indifference. With indifference in place, democratic decisions are essentially arbitrary from an ethical point of view, the “undecided” route being seen simply as an equally legitimate/ethical possibility that happened not to be taken. This relativizes political decisions and sidesteps the issue of the ethical status of the rationally undecidable political decisions that are and must be made. decisions which irreversibly influence the future (regardless of their alleged “temporary” status). In short, the critical democratic approach does not in any way challenge the idea that the futures that emerge through the decisions that are made are envisioned futures. That is, they are instrumental and normative . Any envisioning, no matter how short term or revocable, is normalizing because it installs a purpose which instrumentalizes (or “channels”) actions in precisely the way that Land and Jarman (1992) uphold. For this reason, it could be argued that merely keeping open the possibility for different extrapolated visions for the future is insufficient as a basis for claiming substantive political responsibility for the future. That is, in a space of rational dissensus, responsibility for the future entails something other than extrapolatory ethics. This raises the question of how responsibility for the future may be conceived in a way that:
  1. (i)

    Does not impose upon it someone’s normative (extrapolatory) vision of a good future (even if temporarily)

  2. (ii)

    Is always tethered to partisan/egotistical/hubristic knowledge


This, at last, brings me to the possibility of a non-extrapolatory (and hence nonnormative) understanding of responsibility . In what follows I suggest a conceptualization of responsibility that is not based on extrapolation /envisioning and is therefore not directed toward “correct” action (derived from knowledge). The alternative suggested is a “symbiotic” conception of anticipation and responsible action. It is in this concept that I believe education’s unique raison d’être can show itself.

Toward a Non-extrapolatory Alternative: Symbiotic Anticipation

To cease colonizing the future from the perspective of someone’s normative vision of a good future, one derived from extrapolation, a different approach altogether is required. This different approach cannot hold that we should no longer care about our influence on the future and that we should henceforth do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. It also cannot hold that we must make do with tentative, temporary extrapolatory “visions” that we must choose between (no matter how temporarily) to decide on appropriate actions for the future. An alternative approach would hold, rather, that there is more to acting responsibly toward the future than merely developing (temporary) visions to choose between. In this regard, a logic of “both/and” rather than one of “either/or” presents a promising alternative.

The notion of symbiosis – understood as a state in which different beings mutually benefit from living together – is helpful in this regard. The classic case is lichen, a composite organism comprising a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, although recent research has revealed an unexpected third partner (Spribille et al. 2016). The composite organism has additional properties different from those of its component organisms, which means the symbiotic relationship introduces supplementary possibilities for the pre-symbiotic participants. In this regard the symbiotic relationship both encompasses and surpasses the component organisms’ necessities for survival. Because the relationship is in excess of each component organism’s immediate needs (i.e., it is not strictly necessary), the call to generate a symbiotic relationship is a call to play with the possibility of what is not yet “needed.” As Kurokawa (1994) explains, symbiosis embodies a logic of “togetherness in difference”: a fusion of mutual inspiration and an experimentation with the unknown other. As survival is not at stake in the creation of “togetherness in difference,” such togetherness can be understood as an expression of the boundless, incalculable possibilities of life: an expression of surplus. In this regard, the initiation of a symbiotic relationship might be described not only as an open-ended (playful rather than instrumental or normative) experiment with what is not yet needed but also an experiment with the possibility of what is not-yet-possible. The not-yet-possible that I refer to here is not only not-yet-possible in practice (which implies it is possible in principle and can be imagined). I refer to a much stronger not-yet-possible, one which cannot yet be imagined. This does not mean, however, that a “symbiotic” stance is devoid of all reference to what is already (known to be) (im)possible. This is because the experimental actions actually taken to develop a symbiotic relationship are necessarily constrained by the component organisms’ embodied past. In this regard, experimenting with the possibility of the not-yet-possible does not take place in the absence of existing knowledge. It simply does not extrapolate from existing knowledge. This raises the question of what, exactly, the relationship is between existing knowledge and symbiotic experimentation.

Being consistent with ideas that reject mechanistic causal continuity between past, present, and future, a symbiotic approach cannot use extrapolation to predict or decide a future but must instead address the incommensurability between “past knowledge” (which is always contextually historical) and “present knowledge” (which is continuously arriving through symbiotic play in the present). In this case, “the future” is no longer the primary subject of attention (it is not an entirely self-generated and egotistical projection) but emerges as the object of attention directed toward the reconciliation of the incommensurable (subjective) past and (symbiotic play of the) present. I would argue that this form of active engagement – which necessarily brings incommensurable ideational and material “moments” into direct articulation with each other – is crucial to producing what might be termed “the radically new”: that which cannot be fully grasped until it comes into being. I would argue, furthermore, that because the radically new (the not-yet-possible) cannot be fully grasped until it comes into being, the engagement that drives its formation is precisely congruent with the notion of anticipation, which can exist only as long as its fundamental epistemological “incompleteness” endures. After all, anticipation disappears in the moment uncertainty is overcome. This thesis regarding anticipation sheds light on ways in which anticipation, which is future orientated but not in the sense of expecting the not-yet-known to follow logically from the known, is proactively open-ended. It presents a form of engagement that is:
  1. (i)

    Nonnormative in that it is not vision based

  2. (ii)

    Non-epistemological in that it is not extrapolating from existing knowledge to achieve the “correct” outcome


Indeed, this interpretation of anticipation describes a mode of action that comes very close to insights presented by Levinas (2006), who describes engagement with the other as something that “arrests the availability of consciousness” (2006, p. 32) and “empties the Ego of its imperialism” (p. 33). It is a mode of action that is fundamentally opposed to any form of moral or political colonization and indeed might be considered as a non-colonizing form of moral, political, and ecological action in itself.

As there can in principle be no rational (extrapolatory) grounds for symbiotically experimental actions (which break with the natural order of things to bring into being the unforeseen), such actions appear to embody what might be understood as a nonnormative and disruptive mode of intentional ethical action. Indeed, “symbiotic anticipation” might be understood not simply as a mode of responsible action – one that is additional to (short-term) moral and political responsibility – but as the mode of responsible action. This very point was frequently made by Derrida:

. . . one must . . . stop talking with authority about moral or political responsibility. The condition of possibility of this thing called responsibility is a certain experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible [Derrida consistently used the phrase “the impossible” to refer to “the not-yet-possible”]; the testing of the aporia from which one may invent the only possible invention, the impossible invention. (1992, p. 41, my emphasis, original emphasis removed)

In this regard, and although I do not have space to develop this idea here, I would argue that symbiotic anticipation is likely to have implications for a wide variety of anticipatory – and hence responsibility-orientated – imaginaries, including ecological and political reparation, democratic governance, and education. This is for others to draw out. I shall deal only, and very briefly, with education.

Conclusion: Education as Symbiotic Anticipation

I have argued that the abovementioned, nonnormative, and non-epistemological conceptualization of anticipation and responsibility – which Jonas was grasping for in his call for a new ethics of “long-range responsibility” and which Derrida articulates as “a certain experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible” – embodies an ethical mode that exceeds and hence overcomes the short-term “visionary” (and also egotistic/hubristic) goals of moral and political responsibility which both rest on the assumption that responsibility is primarily about serving needs and ensuring survival. It is a mode of being that goes beyond serving needs (or ends) and ensuring survival (although it also achieves this) by opening radically new ways of being together that take us beyond the imagined possible.

To conclude this argument, I would suggest we might currently understand this non-extrapolatory ethics of experimental openness to otherness as a uniquely educational mode of being in the world. It is educational because education is the only domain which, as Arendt (1961) has argued, demands that we take both moral responsibility for unique individuals in the making and political responsibility for the world in the making. It is the only domain in which both moral and political responsibilities are simultaneously required. It is unique in that these two responsibilities, which are in mutual tension, cannot be reconciled except by means of symbiotic anticipation which exceeds them both. In exceeding the strictly humanist orientation of moral and political responsibility that jointly underpin modern education, this mode of action opens the possibility of a posthuman (deindividualized, non-egotistic, and non-hubristic) ethics of experimental openness toward any “other” – including even others characterized as “deficient,” “improper,” or “monstrous” (Bourassa and Margonis 2017; Sidorkin 2002) – to orchestrate:

the construction of supportive and dynamic … fields that can foster an excessive and collective vitality. (Bourassa and Margonis 2017, p. 3)

This mode of action is articulated in this volume by Wagner-Lawlor who, drawing on Miguel Abensour, suggests it is a “utopian” stance that is not anticipatory in any “natural” or logical sense but in a disruptive sense. For Abensour “what matters is the orientation toward what is different, the wish for the advent of a radical alterity here and now” (Abensour 2008, quoted in Wagner-Lawlor, this volume, my emphasis).

This “orientation” or “mode” of action does not represent a new “curriculum” for education, one which serves the goal of “experimental openness toward unknown others.” To posit such a goal would imply that such openness is somehow lacking in the world and needs education for it to be produced. My point, rather, is that the name “education” might be used to more tangibly mark the invaluable presence of this mode of action. Its naming not only marks it as a distinct mode of action in its own right, which is uniquely different from actions such as “teaching,” “learning,” “training,” “socialization,” “enculturation,” and so on. Such naming also offers this unique mode of action the level of respect it is due, given that it may be the only mode of action that can accurately be described as “responsible” in multicultural and technological societies. Such naming presents an enticing way forward for educational action at a time when:
  1. (i)

    Educational action is becoming increasingly stultified by its internal ethical conflicts (Gur-Ze’ev 2010).

  2. (ii)

    Educational spaces have become stifling and toxic to so many in multicultural and technological societies (Battiste 2004; Bourassa and Margonis 2017; Giroux 2009; Mignolo 2000; Valenzuela 1999).


If my argument holds, this implies that “education” has a completely different function in multicultural and technological societies than has hitherto been imagined. It can no longer be visualized as an instrument in the service of some other “higher” purpose (political, moral, economic, or whatever). It is a purpose in itself.

Attempts to theorize education as an end-in-itself are already underway. I have mentioned “post-critical” scholarship (Hodgson et al. 2017) and scholarship which explores the implications, for education, of Levinasian ethics (see, e.g., Biesta 2016; Todd 2003). In addition to this is a body of scholarship which places renewed emphasis on Arendt’s educational ideas (Chave 2017; Hodgson et al. 2017; Topolski 2008; Gordon 2001), as well as significant emerging bodies of scholarship that explore:
  1. (i)

    The idea of “the posthuman ” as it relates to education (e.g., Braidotti 2013; Lewis and Khan 2010; Snaza and Weaver 2015; Taylor and Hughes 2016)

  2. (ii)

    The idea of “new materialism ” (which understands engagement and affect as productive of materiality) as it relates to education (St Pierre et al. 2016; Hickey-Moody et al. 2016).


Much of this scholarship could be described as profoundly “abstract,” “theoretical,” and “abstruse,” and many educators might reasonably question the significance of such abstraction when education is beset with so many immediate critical challenges. While I appreciate the need to engage with education’s immediate and pressing critical challenges, I began this article by suggesting that instead of addressing the immediate challenges head on, one might first apprehend their abstract/philosophical underpinnings. In flagging Arendt’s important argument that education is (still) in crisis because of an internal theoretical/ethical conflict (which I have suggested can only be overcome through the recognition of the possibility of non- extrapolatory ethics), I hope to have made a case not only for the crucial importance of abstract/theoretical work in education but also for the crucial importance of perspectives that attempt to theorize education in an abstract mode that challenges extrapolatory ethics and its rationality of usefulness (serving “needs”). The notion of anticipation has been an invaluable heuristic in making this argument.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of EducationUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

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