Heidegger and Curriculum
Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, did not develop a philosophy of education per se. However, the remarks he did make about it, his brief efforts at higher education reform, and his philosophy, more broadly, have rich implications for education. Yet when it comes to the question of curriculum – of what should be taught and learned – the tenor of Heidegger’s thought militates against a definitive position (Hodge 2015). His philosophy is characterized as revolving around a single question, the question of “being.” This is the question of the ground of intelligibility, the disclosure of entities as entities to us. For Heidegger, the question of being is the question of philosophy. It also concerns the meaning of our own existence and the meaning we make of others and the world. It is a question that concerns our cultural milieu which is today pervaded by an instrumental mentality and an associated fascination with technology and sense of faith in technical solutions. It is a world wherein the being of things and people is taking on the character of “resource.” Heidegger’s analyses of the existential and historical modes of being that shape the sense we make of the world suggest two basic interpretations of education. There is education that inducts us into the forms of disclosure characteristic of the age, and education that seeks to comprehend these forms of disclosure and move beyond them to ask the question of being directly and for ourselves. In terms of curriculum, at least one type is clearly implied: a curriculum that guides induction into established ways of understanding being. But Heidegger’s philosophy casts such a curriculum in a problematic light. Foisting authoritative interpretations of being on young and developing people is to suppress the question of being. To impress upon human being ready-made ontologies and life projects is to consign another generation to what Heidegger called the “forgetfulness of being.” The question concerning curriculum then becomes acute. How can there be curriculum that promotes the question of being if any decision about what is important to teach and learn is to settle, prematurely, the question of being?
To get at this question, it is helpful to consider ways curriculum itself has been understood. For this purpose, Schubert’s (1986) framework for analyzing curriculum is employed. According to Schubert there are three major curriculum traditions or “orientations” that contend for a place in or dominance of the curriculum. The “intellectual-traditionalist” perspective embraces what is often called the “liberal” or “disciplinary” curriculum which seeks to pass on the greatest cultural and scientific achievements of humankind. The “social-behaviorist” approach has a focus on present needs and promotes knowledge and skills for coping and flourishing in contemporary society. The third tradition is what Schubert terms the “experientialist,” and it is concerned with the actualization or growth of learners, developing the essence of the human through more or less guided experiences.
Many of Heidegger’s remarks about education and philosophical arguments can be considered in the light of one or another of Schubert’s curriculum orientations. In general, Heidegger (2010) takes a critical line on what he calls the “tradition.” For Heidegger, the tradition is our cultural heritage contained in works and systems of knowledge. The problem with it is that it transmits presuppositions about the meaning of being and human being. These are powerful metaphysical assumptions that guide our stance toward being. Heidegger is critical of what he sees as the “forgetfulness of being” that characterizes our culture and which derives from the weight of received interpretations of being. Since the intellectual-traditionalist curriculum is devoted to preserving the very tradition Heidegger thinks contributes to our forgetfulness, this orientation would appear to be suspect. A Heideggerian critique of the liberal arts curriculum tradition was elaborated by Spanos (1993), who argued that a conservative reaction against Heidegger-inspired “post-human” curriculum in American higher education was underway. Spanos describes a resurgence of the intellectual-traditionalist curriculum in contemporary society.
However, it is not possible to simply turn away from the tradition promoted by the intellectual-traditionalist curriculum. Heidegger makes a great deal of what he calls a “destructive” reading of the great works of human culture. He thinks the tradition springs from genuine insights into being or can be made to reveal insights, but that such opportunities are lost in the official processes of transmission and acquisition. Hence a seminal contributor such as Plato can be on the curriculum today without any of his ontologically germane insights coming to light. But these same works can be dismantled through a “destructive” reading and their original insights recovered. For instance, a destructive reading of Plato’s allegory of the cave reveals experience of the essence of truth and missteps of interpretation that have had a decisive influence on the way truth is understood within the tradition (Heidegger 1998). Intellectual-traditionalist curriculum – the liberal curriculum of the great works of humanity – therefore has the potential to merely transmit a deadening set of assumptions or can be read in a particular way so as to unlock ontological insights. In a Heideggerian sense, everything depends on the attitude to the tradition when it features in the curriculum.
As Heidegger’s critical views evolved, he focused more and more on the dangers of what he called the “essence of technology.” His concerns were not directed to technology as such but at the instrumental mind-set that envisages and values technical solutions to all problems and questions. Heidegger (1977) believed that this mind-set he calls “enframing” tends to reduce everything to resources. The idea is that in the contemporary world, entities become a stock of resources or raw material awaiting extraction and refinement. Resources are more or less sophisticated and either in or awaiting deployment. Even human being has been encompassed by this mind-set. We have become “human resources,” subject to development, correction, and deployment in processes that involve the construction, stockpiling, and deployment of other resources. For Heidegger, the mind-set of enframing is a totalizing system that progressively embraces every entity. Schubert’s “social-behaviorist” orientation can be understood as an approach to curriculum attuned to the demands of enframing. This orientation aims to fit learners to life and work in a contemporary world ruled by enframing. Technologies and sciences are especially valued in the social-behaviorist curriculum, while the great achievements of the past are not neglected so much as updated so that their contemporary uses are highlighted. Curriculum serves as a blueprint for the refinement and adjustment of human resources as well as a source of guidance for living among and working with resources.
Heidegger’s (1977) analysis of enframing seems to offer no escape from the totalizing ambitions of instrumentalism, but he does stress that human being retains an inalienable possibility of extrication from the great system of enframing. Humans respond to something when they partake in the project of enframing, and their response and creative endeavors are necessary to further the project. Heidegger explains that this response is to a “call” from being. So, while humans can play at submitting to the dictates of enframing and see and treat themselves as resources, they cannot be completely reduced. They remain the one called by being and retain the creative scope to conceive of being in different ways. There is always a remainder from the process of enframing humans, and thus the possibility is always there for disruption of the project. Indeed, in Heidegger’s estimate, the danger of enframing harbors the key to lifting its spell. Enframing is potentially a great teacher and the stage for envisioning genuine alternatives. In a way, this promise at the heart of the danger of enframing echoes the potential of a destructive reading of the liberal tradition to reverse the deadening effects of the tradition. The social-behaviorist curriculum orientation can be approached in a way that offers a way out of the grip of enframing, but it requires an approach dedicated to discovering the underlying emptiness of the era of enframing.
Schubert’s third curriculum orientation is the “experientialist.” He has in mind the ideas of Dewey here, but it also encompasses the broader humanistic doctrine of the value of the human essence and the propriety of educational endeavors that seek its unfolding. The experientialist curriculum orientation problematizes a focus on content that characterizes the intellectual-traditionalist and social-behaviorist orientations. Pinar’s (1975) notion of currere presents a way to understand the critique of curriculum as content. In Pinar’s view, curriculum as content can be likened to a guide for tourists, while the curriculum as currere is the actual tour, the course experienced. The experientialist curriculum is therefore concerned with experiences, and the purpose is to develop what is within the learner. This curriculum orientation has parallels in the work of Heidegger, especially in his earlier “existential” phase. The early Heidegger (2010) was committed to the methodological principle of analyzing human being to get at the meaning of being. The deep connection between being and human being (which underpins the saving potential of the danger of enframing too) can be realized in “authentic” moments and decisions. These junctures represent those times when the being of the human being is experienced to be at stake, when the path before us is deliberately taken as my own. Moments that also bring our own being before us are experiences of anxiety and contemplating our own death. These are experiences that expose our finitude and our separate existence from the crowd. In the early Heidegger, then, experience can be the way to an authentic mode of being, a form of existence that sloughs off the forgetfulness of being and confronts us with the big question.
However, Heidegger’s doctrine of authenticity does not fully coincide with the curriculum visions of the experientialist. The problem here can be appreciated in the light of Heidegger’s (1998) critique of humanism. He argued that since Roman times, the educational project or paideia has involved taking some idea of the human essence and actively shaping the conduct and thought of the young in conformity with it. In Heidegger’s view, this is a problematic undertaking because it means prescribing what is to be educed from the learner. The outcome of the Roman paideia is known in advance. For the Romans, it was a picture of the human as civilized, the image of homo humanus. But for Heidegger, to promote a prior understanding of the human and then developing learners according to this understanding is to close off an attitude of openness to being, especially of the human being. Forming humans according to a preformed specification of the human serves to repeat traditional ways of being. Humanism blunts sensitivity to the question of being and discourages the open stance necessary to face the question. Heidegger believes that later programs of human formation such as Christianity, communism, and even Sartre’s existentialism repeat the fundamental mistake of humanism, leading him to apply the label of humanism to all these later systems that are tied to programs of forming human conduct and knowledge. This criticism applies, too, to the modern humanisms of Rogers, Maslow, and Knowles. They each propose programs of formation that make assumptions about the true essence of the human and the need to realize it through appropriately guided experience.
An Ontological Curriculum
It may be appreciated, then, that the very project of curriculum is problematized by Heidegger’s philosophy. A content focus, exemplified by the intellectual-traditionalist orientation, implies that curriculum is given over to the service of the tradition, but the tradition in Heidegger’s (2010) early work is fundamentally problematic because it transmits influential yet faulty assumptions about the meaning of being. An intellectual-traditionalist curriculum will promote forgetfulness of being because by it we are supplied with ready answers to our deepest questions, absolving us of the need to question for ourselves. The social-behaviorist orientation is also focused on content, but it is up-to-date content that is designed to equip learners to play a part in the technologically driven society we now inhabit. In his later work, Heidegger (1977) identifies a significant problem with this society, and it is the pervasiveness of the instrumental mind-set of enframing. A social-behaviorist curriculum is by definition one that will instill the values and knowledge required to enframe. The experientialist orientation does not have a focus on content, but because it emphasizes the value of experience for developing the human essence, it makes assumptions about what it is that is being developed. In Heidegger’s (1998) philosophy, promoting an idea of the human, even if it does not take the material form of curriculum content, is still to suppress the open emergence of the being of humans. Although an emphasis on the experience side of curriculum in the spirit of Pinar’s (1975) notion of currere resonates with Heidegger’s (2010) early existential philosophy, while ever an experiential curriculum is based on realizing some idea of the human, only limited, conforming results will be aimed for and recognized.
These critical perspectives on the three curriculum orientations identified by Schubert (1986) do, however, contain the seeds of a Heideggerian approach to curriculum. “Content” certainly was important to Heidegger. His analysis of human being (Heidegger 2010) foregrounded the aspect of “thrown-ness”, the ontologically significant fact that we are always already engaged in the culture and projects of our society. Asking the question of being does not occur in a vacuum. In our time, it is by deeply understanding the tradition, especially as it affects us in the form of “enframing,” that we can reawaken a sense of the wonder and uncanniness of being. But such a recollection requires us to approach curriculum content as something that must be seen through. Such a curriculum must possess scope to seek beyond the boundaries of disciplines, competencies, and subject areas. Heidegger’s (1993) proposals for higher education curriculum reform reflect this critical approach to curriculum content. He argued that students and faculty need to interrogate the ontological ground of the entities that are usually the exclusive concern of disciplinary content (Thomson 2005). Heidegger called for what could be considered an “ontological” curriculum orientation, one that has in view the ultimate need to inquire after the meaning of being, using content as a stepping-off point.
A second dimension of a Heideggerian approach to curriculum can be understood in terms of experience. Such an approach contrasts with Schubert’s (1986) experientialist orientation in that it is explicitly decoupled from any prior understanding of the human to be unfolded through experience. Instead, the experiential dimension of a Heideggerian approach to curriculum concerns what Heidegger (1988) called the “ontological difference” – the difference between being as such and beings. Experience is usually, “factically,” experience with beings – the things of our world. To feel and ask the question of being is, however, to take a radical turn in the midst of beings. It is in one sense a “course,” currere. But it is currere that takes an ontological rather than ontical direction. It is an orientation to the ontological difference in the context of things. It is a mode of curriculum that uses experience as a stepping-off point, discarding any ideas of a goal taken from the measure of the human.
An ontological curriculum is suggested by Thomson’s (2005) analysis of Heidegger’s destructive reading of Plato’s cave allegory. Plato used the allegory to illustrate his metaphysics, narrating stages of soul’s ascent from a world of shadows in the cave below to the experience of truth in the bright light of day above. For Heidegger, Plato’s allegory can be read for its insights into truth but also for its educational vision connected with the soul’s journey from darkness (opinion) to light (knowledge). Thomson argues that the world of the cave can be regarded as the contemporary enframed world. The soul’s adjustment to the conditions of the cave represents modern education that is both enframed (by neoliberal policy frameworks) and enframing (by shaping learners as resources to work in a world of resources). The intellectual-traditionalist and social-behaviorist types of curriculum correspond to the curriculum of the cave. In Plato’s allegory, the soul’s path to freedom begins when it is unshackled and can look around to see how things really are in the shadowy world of the cave. Thomson explains that a “negative freedom” is attained at this stage, an experience of discontent with the world rendered as resources and understood in instrumental terms. The next stage in soul’s journey in Plato’s story is to the surface and an experience of the source of light and truth – the sun. For Thomson, this is the stage where the learner orients to the question of being and reaches the goal of an “ontological education.” The path traversed by the learner can only be understood in an experientialist way up to a point. The ontological currere is the path that leads all the way to the surface and to the possibility of asking the question of being for oneself.
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