Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Moving Beyond Education

  • Søren S. E. BengtsenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_633-1


In recent years higher education has increasingly been seen as critical to social and economic competitiveness and societal health. Higher education is linked to the promotion of social stability and peace, a heightening of standards of living, and an increase in physical and mental health. Being used as a means for policy entrepreneurialism has resulted in that universities themselves experience being pressed financially, and existentially too, by neoliberal regimes behind the knowledge economy agendas. Universities have been so successful in appealing to the political and wider societal arenas that, today, it is almost impossible to imagine universities as being more and otherwise than promoters of higher education for the local job market domains, national and regional policy strategies, and global rankings and benchmarking agendas. The university as a form of being has arguably been emptied of an identity beyond sole educational production mechanisms, and few today explore the university’s noninstrumental and “darker” (Bengtsen and Barnett 2017; Bengtsen 2014) levels of being. This paper, as a contrast, aims to explore the being of the university anew and with a focus on the dimensions of the university that are not linked to higher education and, therefore, only occasionally have overlaps with teachers, students, and a formalized curriculum.

I am here occupied with an ontological analysis of the dimensions of the university that hold its inner lifeworld together without discussing such dimensions in terms of higher education. As a tool for the analysis, I apply the metaphor of the circus and in the widest and deepest sense of this term. Etymologically the term “circus” is a Latin derivation of the Greek word “Kirkos” meaning circle or ring, and it has been applied since ancient times to demarcate a certain form of geographical and ontological place, like the Circus Maximus that was determined for specific activities and events, social norms and behavior, and moral codex. Where the term “universitas” originally meant any form of guild or corporation, eventually connected exclusively to a specific institution, the term “circus” does not so much convey structural, legal, and political dimensions (as the term “universitas”) but conveys a stronger sense of the enactment of place and a noninstrumental drive and aspiration for exceptional understanding and skill and transgressive performance and norm-challenging expression.

As the researcher into circus history, Helen Stoddart describes the circus is, above all, “a vehicle for the demonstration and taunting of danger [which] remains its most telling and defining feature” (Stoddart 2000, p. 4). Stoddart foregrounds the “fundamental secularity of the circus (…) as an arena in which wonder, awe and faith are fostered and exercised, yet their focus is invariably exceptional human physical achievement, skill, and bravery” (Stoddart 2000, p. 5). It is important for Stoddart to underline that the circus is far from being a carnivalesque space in which disorder, illegitimacy, and inversion reign and “rather one in which there is an incorporation but also a hierarchical ordering of both the forces of chaos and inversion and those of order, ascendancy and power in which the latter invariably maintain the upper hand” (ibid.). This ambivalence between forces of order and chaos within the nature of the circus has let another circus scholar, Peta Tait (2010), to describe circus performance as a “gothic science” (Tait 2010, p. 25), as some of the best artists have been recognized for their scientific approach to aerial work but have coupled the fine-tuned mechanics and precision work in aerial performances with “comic pantomimes about macabre deaths” (ibid.). Tait underlines that the most celebrated circus performers master this “darkly disturbing psychic underside to what is outwardly cheerful and reassuring” (ibid.). I shall aim to show that these defining features of the circus can be used as an ontological framework too for the defining features of university thinking and being.

The University as a Circus

In the beginning of his, in my opinion, most important work Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Harman 2005, p. 9ff.), and taken up again in the later and more experimental work Circus Philosophicus (Harman 2010), the American philosopher Graham Harman uses the circus tent as a metaphor for an ontological rift where thinking and learning are opened up by the more weird and alien forces of being that challenge our traditional ways of understanding. Such forms of understanding have been referred to as “the darkness of learning” (Bengtsen and Barnett 2017) and include constructive but unaligned forms of teaching and learning, where, for example, students produce inspiring structures of argument or display strange but impressive insights into a specific disciplinary field but without being able to translate such academic powers into institutionally accepted vocabulary and templates for evaluation and assessment. Also it may include the harnessing of “weird” writing skills and ways of argumentation that do not immediately fit the criteria for assessment of the “academic genre,” just as it may include internal learning experiences not possible to contain in taxonomies for “visible learning” and product-oriented course exams.

I argue that universities could be cast in the same “image of the (…) circus, carnival pageant, or ontological world’s fair” (Harman 2005, p. 253). Building on Harman’s line of thought, I argue that the university is not an event of “uniquely transcendent liberation that rises above the world,” but on the contrary “an absorption in the world” (ibid.). Academics and academic activities are not only engaged and invested in society and the world through higher education programs. Academics too critically address and discuss contemporary social and political issues based on silenced voices from history; foreign cultures; works of art witnessed by the few; or values difficult to comprehend to a given cultural mind-set. Engaging these more strange, and for some alien, voices and perspectives in the social debate may not have anything to do with the agendas of higher education. Paraphrasing Harman I argue that just like the experience of wonder connected with going to the circus through the encounter of charming snakes, artists eating fire, juggling, lifting immense weights, or displaying freak animals, universities too encapsulate its members in a world of wonder and surprise:

Instead of showing off mutant rabbits or albino crows, [the university] exhibits strange overarching structures that are suppressed by the given dogmas of the day. At any given time, its showcase oddities may have the names of occasional cause, eternal recurrence, perfect forms, transcendental condition of possibility, monads, atoms, an infinite God with infinite attributes, or threefold temporality. In this sense [academics] always resemble freaks or carnival hands – not less involved with the world than others, but involved instead with more strange, more unsettling, or more far-reaching topics. (…) [T]he world is far more bizarre than we usually remember: [the university] is above all else an exile amidst strangeness and surprise. (Harman 2005, pp. 253–254)

As higher education curricula, as they arguably should, relate closely to actual demands for knowledge, skills, and competences called for in the wider social, political, and economic context, the university in a broader sense also contains thinking of a less functional dimension. This does not mean that such forms of thinking and learning are in opposition to higher education strategies and agendas of the day; they are instead otherwise and beyond such educational practices. As we notice in universities in different historical periods and in certain foreign cultures today, universities may also be a place for prayer and spiritual meditation, just as it may be a place for revolt and fights for civil rights against oppression and dogmatism. Further, universities may be parts of a person’s lifeworld and entire lifespan instead of being a parceled out product, degree, and credential. This way, universities extend beyond educational agendas and are interweaved with social institutions of various kinds, churches and spiritual arenas, the town square, and the home.

The university as a circus may further be related to Martin Heidegger’s notion of the “clearing of Being” (e.g., Heidegger 2011, p. 155). Heidegger tells us that in the clearing of being our thinking and understanding are not shaping the world but instead being shaped and formed by the world. Thinking and learning in the clearing of being only “occurs in [its] essence, where [it] is claimed by Being” (Heidegger 2011, p. 154). Applying Heidegger, I argue that in universities an academic becomes “the shepherd of Being” (Heidegger 2011, p. 159). To be the shepherd of being means being deeply involved with the forms of being emerging in the company of wonder and surprise. Just as the circus tent is being brought along around the world to make the circus manifest in vastly different geographical and cultural settings, the university too is not a permanently fixed place, but can be erected and performed in various settings. The university brings with it the clearing of being. Paraphrasing Heidegger, I argue that “[b]y its very nature, [the university] brings its ‘there’ along with it. If it lacks its ‘there,’ it is not factically the entity which is essentially [the clearing of being]” (Heidegger 2000, p. 171). The university has a deeply rooted force of “gathering” located within itself, and even though it may become dislocated geographically, culturally, and even epistemologically, it is still defined through its “gathering,” its reconstitution, and even its resurrection. Like the circus, the university is being erected and performed all over the world, and even though sensitive to national and cultural contexts, it holds within itself a universal power. Like the circus artists shepherd the idea and meaning of the circus across the world, academics shepherd the meaning and being of the university and its constituting performances and high-wire acts such as the critical question and reflection, the creation and transformation of knowledge, and the manifestation of new meaning and value.

The Leap of Thought

The circus as an ontological ring or arena stands out as a spectacular place. As circus scholar Helen Stoddart points out, the core being of the circus in both ancient and modern times has been “driven by unparalleled physical skills and spectacular showmanship” (Stoddart 2000, p. 1), and the circus is held together by “dynamics of human exceptionalism” wrought in the performances of “gravity-defying grace and strength of the aerialists and high-wire acts” (Stoddart 2000, p. 5). Another researcher into the history and culture of the circus, Peta Tait, also foregrounds that “the appeal of aerial performance was not simply its sensationalism, but also its artistry of abstract movement delivered seemingly effortlessly,” evolving from “unsupported leaps through the air to turns and twists metaphoric of playfulness – the performance of exuberance” (Tait 2010, p. 14). The hallmark of the masterful circus performance is “the muscular contest that repeatedly pushed beyond its limits” (ibid.). As Stoddart argues such ontological features of the circus are what makes it “definitatively modern: modern in its organisational structures and performative energies, but modern also for the way these performances have furnished us with figures which draw attention to the limitations of the very forms of inscription and narration through which we continually attempt to describe ourselves as such” (Stoddart 2000, p. 8).

Semantically related, I argue that exceptional performance is an ontological constituent of the university too, not primarily due to physical attributes but academic and intellectual powers. In the university, like the circus, strong academic performances like creative and rigorous forms of thinking, actions of academic citizenship (Nørgård and Bengtsen 2016), and critical discussion and debate in public arenas may be daunting indeed. As Søren Kierkegaard writes, engaging with the unknown and acting into the unknown make us tremble in an existential sense. Kierkegaard stresses that “[o]nly the possibility of being able is present as a higher form of ignorance, as a higher expression of anxiety, because in a higher sense it both is and is not, because in a higher sense [one] both loves it and flees from it” (Kierkegaard 1980, p. 45). We realize that to respond to the deeper ontological callings from the clearing of being, we have to stretch ourselves even sometimes beyond our own limits.

This anxiety may indeed be “compared with dizziness,” and he “whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy” (Kierkegaard 1980, p. 61). However, being dizzy marks out the capability of standing in the clearing of being, where our own world meets the alien worlds that do not yet exist. What lies at the heart of research and critical thinking is the ability to see into and make tangible worlds that do not yet exist. This is certainly dizzying, and the responsibility to form the values and understandings of the future is a daunting task. Like the guilds for the master craftsmen and master artists, the university as a guild creates knowledge and understanding of social relations, political and juridical structures, ethical theories, and aesthetic spaces that do not yet have their societal counterpart. This is the social role of the university, like any other guild to show what excel and masterful forms of knowledge and critical thinking and doing look like and are being created and produced.

As Kierkegaard states, anxiety and dizziness are reactions to the emergence and coming into the world of “the sudden,” which happens “by a leap; but this leap also posits the quality, and since the quality is posited, the leap in that very moment is turned into the quality” (Kierkegaard 1980, p. 32). Thus, the “new quality appears with the first, with the leap, with the suddenness of the enigmatic” (Kierkegaard 1980, p. 30). Paraphrasing Kierkegaard I argue that there is always more, and more strange, thinking taking place in the university than is being absorbed into higher education programs, which for Kierkegaard points out “the lyrical culmination of thinking in the leap,” and in “seeking to go beyond itself lyrically, thinking wills the discovery of the paradoxical” (Kierkegaard 2009, p. 88). Leaping is always beyond education, maybe even beyond learning as such, as “the leap is precisely the most decisive protest against the method’s inverse course” (Kierkegaard 2009, p. 89). To really stretch your own understanding is the hardest thing to do. To push yourself beyond what you know, and hence what is known in the community and society you are a part of, is the essence of the leap. However, this is the daily work of academics and people associated with the university. They learn to leap and leap to learn. The leap in Kierkegaard is closer related to the drive and passion of the circus leap than the structures of alignment, feedback systems, and well-planned semester programs – however valuable they may be.

We learn from Kierkegaard that in the leap “thinking is by no means superior to imagination and feeling but of the same order” (Kierkegaard 2009, p. 291). In a Kierkegaardian view, the members of the university are distinguished in having “the passion of thought,” and the leap is first and foremost driven by passion. All existent problems “are passionate, for existence, when one becomes conscious of it, yields passion. To think of them without passion is not to think of them at all” (Kierkegaard 2009, p. 294). The passion of thinking inherent in the leap goes much deeper than higher education initiatives, and we may find some of its power in the first groupings and “rings” in the early period of the university and their gatherings around such magnificent leaps of thought without necessarily a formal educative purpose. The ring of the university is not defined by being a secluded and fortified space, but a ring you constantly leap out of and, hereby, into what is beyond: the unknown. The university is a place for transformation, and what understandings and values you bring to it risk being changed and transformed. A university’s relevance to society goes beyond its higher education programs and practices. Academics have yet the greatest challenge before them: to leap beyond their higher education practices and to reveal even more fundamental powers of universities to the societies they are a part of. The academic is a social role and academic work is a form of social engagement. Like other guilds and professionals, academics have always been a part of society, and their role has always been a social one of dialogical knowledge creation and dissemination. I do not try to belittle higher education, and the point I wish to make is that higher education is but one core practice of universities – and one that has been pruned and instrumentalized since its origin. What is problematic though is if we do not make room for other core practices within universities than higher education. The circus tent is large enough for more academic practices to take the leap.

The Tightrope Walk of the University

The desire and passion found in the aerialists’ daunting and gravity-defying performances mirror their defiance of well-rounded social and cultural categories. As Stoddart points out, “[t]he aerialist constructs and operates within a fantasy space in which the body is at once made insubstantial and unclassifiable and is thereby liberated from the limitations normally attached to bodies physically marked out in terms of their gender and race” (Stoddart 2000, p. 175). As the social anthropologist Yoram Carmeli argues, this could be a figure for the circus itself, as the circus comes to live in “those magic split seconds” of “suspensions of place, time, and social relations which is the fantasy offered by the circus and encapsulated by the trapeze artist” (Stoddart 2000, p. 176). This fantasy space is linked by Stoddart directly to Nietzsche’s description of the tightrope walker in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche 2014). Despite the accompanying drama and theatrics, the artists in the circus are utterly self-reliant – preserved by skill and strength only, never by faith, fate, or magic. Stoddart relates the deep structures of the circus to Nietzsche and his attempt to “allegorise man’s precarious journey of development as a crossing over an ‘abyss’ during which he must face down limitations and exceed his potential” (Stoddart 2000, p. 4). The tightrope walk designates the importance of the junction.

The junction is not the same as the power of gathering found in Heidegger, as gathering pulls everything near in order to absorb it and be absorbed by it. Nor is the junction the same as the leap, which is a releasement of energy and power outward into the unknown, a self-giving to what is other and alien to us. The junction is about merging, entanglement, and transformation. As Nietzsche writes, “[m]ankind is a rope fastened between animal and overman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and standing still” (Nietzsche 2014, p. 7). Here the junction in itself, or the bridge, is the whole point. Nietzsche’s philosophy of the overman is not about reaching a final goal or fulfilling a final potential. The overman is the potential in itself and the process of transformation.

As Nietzsche writes, what is great about human beings “is that they are a bridge and not a purpose: what is lovable about human beings is that they are a crossing over and a going under” (ibid.). In this perspective the university becomes a junction, a bridge, and a meeting place between otherwise categorically different and mutually exclusive ideas, lifeworlds, cultural value systems, social norms, and political institutions. To work at the junction foregrounds the academic virtues of error, listening, and openness. The work of academics should not so much be seen as the bridge (product) but as ways of bridging (process). The creation of academic knowledge is possible only through an openness to error, which depends on the dialogical moment of listening. To listen is to transform as you move beyond yourself and what you know. Deep listening is, at the same time, a going under and crossing over.

Nietzsche’s story of the tightrope walker is not complete without the jester (Nietzsche 2014, p. 11) who suddenly appears on the rope with his mocking and spite of the artist – eventually creating despair in the tightrope walker and causing him to fall down and become mortally wounded. As Nietzsche points out: “Uncanny is human existence and still without meaning: a jester can spell its doom” (Nietzsche 2014, p. 12). The image of the tightrope walker is, thus, always ambivalent as the strain and solemnity of the tightrope walker constantly threatens to become his downfall and removal from the place of junction. However, the jester figure itself is ambivalent, mad, and redeeming at the same time, and in the earlier work The Gay Science (2006), the jester is being foregrounded as a catalyst of the processes of transformation.

The self-conscious and self-important figure of the tightrope walker finds his inescapable twin in the chaotic and ungovernable figure of the jester. The double-sidedness is described by Nietzsche in the claim that in our tightrope walking we must remember to “rest from ourselves occasionally by contemplating and looking down upon ourselves, and by laughing or weeping over ourselves from an artistic remoteness” (Nietzsche 2006, p. 80). The ambivalence is stressed in the point that “we must discover the hero, and likewise the fool, that is hidden in our passion for knowledge; we must now and then be joyful in our folly, that we may continue to be joyful in our wisdom!” (ibid.). The jester becomes a redeeming figure as it enables us to avoid lapsing entirely into morality and turning into “virtuous monsters and scarecrows, on account of the over-strict requirements which we here lay down for ourselves” (ibid.). Where higher education programs typically rest on what we know, and a demonstration of how we know that we know it, unexploited academic practices rest on what we do not know.

The circus artist only develops through persisting in trying out and mastering acts that are not yet possible, as they have never been performed before, and no one knows if they ever can. Only through a knowledge creation that we cannot know will be possible is academic crossing-over a possibility. The university exists in its own wastes. We need to distinguish more clearly between universities and higher education practices, as universities may hold many more, and more diverse, forms of learning practices and forms of being besides what takes the form of higher education. I have applied the circus as a means to disturb the traditional closely knit relation between universities and higher education. With the circus as image, I have argued that many more enriching acts besides higher education practices await in the future university. Just like the circus, the university is, fundamentally, a special place and a ring of desire, where even more precious and societally useful powers and events have yet to be discovered.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Aarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark

Section editors and affiliations

  • Paul Gibbs
    • 1
  • Amanda Fulford
    • 2
  • Ronald Barnett
    • 3
  1. 1.University of MiddlesexLondonUK
  2. 2.Leeds Trinity UniversityLeedsUK
  3. 3.University College London Institute of EducationLondonUK