Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Heidegger and Schooling

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_134



Any attempt to associate Heidegger’s work with schooling, that is, a K–12 public education system, or an attempt to draw on Heidegger’s work for gaining insights or ideas about schooling faces serious challenges. Admittedly, educational matters and the concept of “education” itself are not missing from his philosophy; for example, in several places he discusses “teaching” and in different cases he presents his view on higher education. However, Heidegger does not link his philosophy directly or explicitly to children in schools nor does he offer any program for K–12 public education or any structured theory of development that might be applied for K–12 students. While he sees the university as “the pinnacle of our educational system” (2002a/1945, p. 30) and designates to it a role in his philosophical project, he virtually ignores schooling as a system that might have relevance for his philosophical ideas. But Heidegger’s own disregard of the pre-higher education system does not mean that his philosophy is not useful for schooling; insights from Heidegger’s work are inspiring both in characterizing the current situation of education and in suggesting specific courses of action. In reflecting upon the relevance of Heidegger’s work in relation to schooling, this entry avoids the temptation to suggest an Heideggerian education in which “Dasein” is simply replaced by “student.”

Between the University and Schooling

Heidegger’s critique of the dominance of metaphysics as the foundation for Western thought and for the way we see the world and ourselves leads him to challenge the traditional place of the human being as a subject, from a status of active ownership to a role of subordinate listener: “the authentic attitude of thinking is not a putting of questions – rather, it is a listening to the grant, the promise of what is to be put in question” (1982b/1959, p. 71). Heidegger conveys this reduced or lower status of the human being by animating concepts such as Being, world (“world worlds”), language (“language speaks”), time (“time times”), and space (“space spaces”). For Heidegger, one crucial implication of this shift in human’s status for education is a change in meaning of truth from correspondence to unconcealing:

This same interpretation of being as ιδέα [idea], which owes its primacy to a change in the essence of αλήθεια [alethea], requires that viewing the ideas be accorded high distinction. Corresponding to this distinction is παιδεία [paidea], the “education” of human beings. Concern with human being and with the position of humans amidst beings entirely dominates metaphysics. (Plato’s Doctrine of Truth, in Pathmarks, 1998/1967, p. 181)

The prevailing subject-object dichotomy results in education that is based on objectifying content and transferring it from those who hold it to those who are perceived as needing or seeking it. The metaphysical perception of truth equates between “idea” and “state of affairs” and leads to a “reduction of education by the logic of contract to the status of commodity to be exchanged for consideration according to the law of equivalence” (2002a, p. 40). Heidegger uses Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” in order to explain truth as world disclosure. He argues that “[w]ithout radically rethinking intentionality, the university’s attempts to lay claim to its much vaunted neutrality, to evade being the organ of the nation-state and of the market, is quite futile” (ibid., pp. 42–43). Heidegger understood that as a result, being under social, economic, and political stresses, the university is deprived of an independent intellectual freedom and becomes a tool in the service of powerful self-interested forces:

the university finds itself under a categorical imperative to advance the understanding of intentionality before all other service to society, whether in the interest of church, state, or civil society… eschews the rational imperative of relevance in all the forms that fitness for purpose may take, such as utility and expediency, on the one hand, or conformity to convention and custom, on the other… [the university] cannot be an instrument of social engineering or, more generally, simply a means to an end, without ceasing to educate. (ibid., p. 30–1)

Heidegger is concerned about a situation in which the university loses its identity and explicitly warns against “subversion of identities, of crossing the line between education and politics, university and state; of exceeding the limit beyond which philosophy becomes ideology [Weltanschauung] and teaching turns into propaganda” (ibid., p. 28). Since the time of Heidegger’s warning against instrumental usage of the university, the literature tends to attribute crisis and other catastrophic terms mostly to higher education, as the university attracts a lot of attention among scholars who are worried about the institution’s loss of identity as a result of over-vocationalization and a decrease in the prestige of undergraduate studies stemming from market forces. However, as a result of instrumentalism, public K–12 schooling is just as much in a state of emergency and requires appropriate measures in order to protect it. Moreover, as higher education is fed by the K–12 system, it might be that in some sense the higher education crisis originates from the perception of parents and students at the pre-university level and that at least some of the problems of higher education – especially those in the humanities – can be addressed by changing attitudes toward public K–12 schools. We should remember that unlike higher education, schooling is an obligatory system and as such it reaches all parts of the society, including those that choose not to attend or are excluded from the university – populations that at least in some sense are more vulnerable to being influenced by the social forces that Heidegger warns against. With regard to higher education, Heidegger sought to promote agency for the university in order to shield it from external powers:

the defining trait of the university lies in its self-assertion [Selbstbehauptung] from the social powers that are bent upon bringing it to heel, insofar as they are ultimately threatened by the institutionalizing of the practice of interpreting intentionality and transcendence in a free and unfettered way. (ibid., p. 31)

The same social forces that are concerned about “a free and unfettered” university are also – if not more – worried about independent or autonomous schooling that will define for itself its goals and strategies. Thus, when Heidegger’s vision of self-assertion is coupled with K–12 public education, the result is schooling that has its own agency in such a manner that it could identify and protect itself from attempts to serve the needs of powerful social forces.

Building on Nietzsche’s notion of will-to-power, Heidegger argues that our contemporary late-modern way of being – that is, the way we perceive beings and our world – is a technological one, not in the sense of technological devices (although this is one consequence) but in the sense of calculative thinking, that is, considering everything, including ourselves, as “standing-reserve” [Bestand] (The Question Concerning Technology, 1977/1955), resources to be mastered and optimized. This technological tendency, which Heidegger called enframing (Gestell), is the dominant way of thinking, and it is demonstrated everywhere, in scientific and nonscientific domains, from medicine through transportation to education. The same technological tendency to control and to optimize also guides the social forces that seek to influence education. Since this way of thinking is aggressive as it precludes other ways of thinking, Heidegger argues that “we must, of course, first rid ourselves of the calculative frame of mind” (1982b, p. 104).

There are already increasing voices within the critical schooling literature that acknowledge and criticize the operation of public education as a machinelike system that operates upon students as inputs in order to convert them to required outputs and voices that challenge approaches of “what works” in schooling as well as in educational research. As education is entangled in enframing, and as this way of being serves the human being’s tendency to control its environment as well as its fellow human beings, education becomes a key agent in glorifying, praising, celebrating, and promoting humankind’s ego – secondary perhaps only to science. Instead of playing this endorsing role, Heidegger’s alternative and radical philosophy is inspiring as it enables us to think about schooling that is not dictated by political or economic desires, counterintuitive as such a situation might seem.

As an alternative for a transactional conception of education, and based on his ontological inquiry, Heidegger calls us to found education on guiding students toward awareness, attention, and response to the existential call; instead of the temptation and the urge to relay content, education should be a buffer or a barrier between the student and instrumental demands:

If the pose of teacherly omniscience and the authority that this pose articulates are disincentives to learn, then the question of education is the question not of how to transmit knowledge but of how to suspend it. The concrete teacher is one who temporarily stages the scene of resourcelessness. Education is not a passing on of knowledge and skills either in the medieval paradigm of master/apprentice or in the modem of seller/consumer. Rather call it a withholding, a delaying of articulation, in order that the student may attain an answer… The teacher’s silence is finally what has to be heard. (2002a, p. 41)

Here, too, the critical schooling literature is not left behind and makes a case for a governing principle of suspension rather than the efficient transmission of knowledge in schools.

Language and Educational Experiences

For Heidegger, language is a central “instance” of Being and of Dasein: “The being of anything that is resides in the word. Therefore this statement holds true: Language is the house of Being” (1982b, p. 63). There is direct linkage between the call to which the human being listens and language: “man by virtue of his language dwells within the claim and call of Being” (1982a/1959, p. 5). In language – and reflecting on language – we find a linkage to Being and as such to ourselves, a linkage formulated by the “guide-word”: “The being of language: The language of being” (1982b, p. 72). Similarly to other notions, in Heidegger’s philosophy language gains life, or personality, a status or power over the human being, and as such the relationships between the human being and language are changed, if not inverted: “What we speak of, language, is always ahead of us. Our speaking merely follows language constantly” (ibid., p. 75). Instead of an objectified perception of language as a communication instrument – one which also serves us in schools to transfer content – Heidegger inquires about “undergoing an experience with language” through which:

something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us. When we talk of “undergoing” an experience, we mean specifically that the experience is not of our own making; to undergo here means that we endure it, suffer it, receive it as it strikes us and submit to it. It is this something itself that comes about, comes to pass, happens. (ibid., p. 57)

Thus, when experiencing language, we face a call: “the reflective use of language… must be guided by the hidden riches that language holds in store for us, so that these riches may summon us for the saying of language” (ibid., p. 91).

Heidegger reaches these ideas regarding language through reading and analysis of poetry. His close reading of poems (e.g., in On the Way to Language (1982a, b) and in The Origin of the Work of Art (2002b/1950)) reveals experiences with language that for him tells us something about ourselves. But reading and writing are key elements in schooling, as they – initially as basic skills and later as means for learning – are crucial for the student’s studies. Therefore, perceiving language not as a communication tool but as a hint for Being that reveals, calls us, causes us something, changes us, means for schooling a shift in treating or encountering texts: from “using” to “confronting” or “facing.” Writing or reading texts is not a peaceful activity but a painful one that involves a struggle: not just a struggle in creating or understanding the text itself, but moreover a struggle with what the text does to us, what the text makes us realize about ourselves, and whether we are the authors or the recipients. As writing and reading, in the broad sense of being-in-the-world, involve truth as world-disclosure, and as “[t]he unhidden must be torn away from a hiddenness; it must in a sense be stolen from hiddenness … Truth originally means what has been wrested from hiddenness” (1998, p. 171), so writing and reading become violent acts that are accompanied by heavy responsibility and possible far-reaching consequences.

Heidegger’s inquiry into the possibility of experience with language opens the door for educational inquiry into broadening the notion of “experience” in general beyond designed or calculated circumstances that are meant to create experiences for students. When students attend schools, as well as when they refer to school assignments at home, they are placed in environments and situations that are planned to stimulate them to react in a cause-and-effect manner. As such, educational experiences are seen through a pragmatic lens by which the student is called to respond to the educator’s voice, mostly as it is drawn from the curriculum. However, a broader notion of experience that exceeds the ready-made curriculum will include any experience that students and teachers undergo – in schools and especially outside school – as a source for educational reflection. Heidegger alludes to the need to integrate students’ lives within his critique of the predominance of theoria over praxis:

Instruction is thus modeled on exchange: to teach, the teacher disregards the differences and distinctions within the concrete student manifold and addresses himself to the faceless, abstract student that is his counterpart. Likewise, to learn, the student abandons the idiosyncratic expressions of his life for a generic way of thinking that raises him to the level of the teacher. (2002a, p. 40–1)

In addition, Heidegger’s goal of initiation of a “living philosophizing” (1995/1983, p. 57) within his students, and his (2002b) descriptions of the Greek temple as well as van Gogh’s paintings, supports an educational view that allows a central role for unsolicited experiences that are not based on a body of knowledge and are not tested in advance. An implication for schooling is an establishment of a parallel mechanism for creating educational opportunities, derived from students’ – and teachers’ – own lives, alongside the curriculum. This means that schooling becomes less predictable and more surprising. Such an approach probably necessitates reducing the volume of curriculum in schooling in order to make room for students’ and teachers’ experiences as they bring them into the classroom. It is the educators’ task to decide which and how aspects of students’ lives are relevant for schooling, but it seems that students’ own interests, their relationships with family and friends, and their encounters with culture – “high” culture as well as popular – are a fertile ground for alternative educational experiences.

Preparing for a Failure

One way in which Heidegger conducts his phenomenological inquiry is bringing forth situations when the flow of being-in-the-world is interrupted and our unreflected immersion within our environment becomes apparent. In Being and Time (2010/1927), this phenomenon is illustrated by showing how our awareness of the hammer’s “handiness” (p. 69) emerges as a result of an absence of malfunction of the hammer. This technique of discovery out of deficiency is also demonstrated in Heidegger’s investigation into the nature of language. Heidegger identifies situations of missing words, and for him these cases reveal something about language’s treatment of us:

But when does language speak itself as language? Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us… undergo moments in which language itself has distantly and fleetingly touched us with its essential being (1982b, p. 59)

In its extreme form, Heidegger’s attention to deficiency is manifested, of course, in his analysis of Dasein’s mortality. His critique of the metaphysical subject-object divide leads him to connecting following “the way of education” and our finitude:

the way of education ineluctably returns us from the soaring heights of theory to the lowly gutter of our finitude. The way of education constitutes the passage into thought, but not a lifeless conduit connecting us as subject to an object by way of representation. No, where it leads only discloses itself as we venture onto it with the weight of our entire being. (2002a, p. 32)

Heidegger’s positive attitude toward what does not work in our lives and his ontological inquiry into deficiency is in striking contradiction to the dominant tendencies in educational planning and in educational policy to base education according to cause-and-effect logic and “what works.” Thus, Heidegger’s attention to breakdowns together with his association between our finitude and education points to the possibility of schooling that instead of focusing mostly on preparing students toward achievements and the purchasing of future identities also significantly addresses the possibility of failures and disappointments in students’ lives. “Failure” here does not mean our demise, that is, our biological finitude, but rather a collapse of one’s world, whether in a personal context when one’s project fails or in a broader context with regard to one’s social belonging. Current education rarely ever refers to failure outside the educational context, that is, beyond referring to students’ achievements in school in relation to expected results. The fact that life outside school (physically) and life after school (postgraduation) are full of failures, and as such failure is part of the human “story” and a repeated experience, is almost totally overlooked.


Heidegger can be regarded as a forerunner of the contemporary situation of institutionalized education in general and of today’s schooling in particular. As problematic phenomena identified in research can be explained through Heidegger’s analysis and terminology, it seems that the greatest potential of his work for schooling is in identifying and characterizing ills, weaknesses, and threats. Therefore, should educators and policy makers (who, unfortunately, are not necessarily the same people) consider Heidegger’s insights or ideas drawn from them, they still face the task of designing alternatives as responses to the dangers Heidegger identified and highlighted.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ontario Institute for Studies in EducationUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada