Phenomenology of Higher Education
In the field of higher education, until quite recently, there has been relatively little explicit attention to insights that can be gained through phenomenology. Even the recent interest can be seen as modest, when compared with the potential for phenomenological perspectives on higher education to inform practice, policy, and research. An increasing interest suggests phenomenology may resonate at a time when higher education is increasingly falling under the influence of a pervasive neoliberal agenda, with its emphasis on accountability and performativity. This instrumental agenda is evident in an overemphasis on reducing complex phenomena related to teaching and learning to readily measureable quantities, as well as in widespread, empty rhetoric about “excellence,” and “world class standards.” An agenda such as this risks promoting superficial compliance – or falling in – with how one is expected to “play the game,” whether as teacher or learner. It creates a distance from who is learning, what is actually being learned, and the mutual responsibilities of students and higher education institutions for enhancing this learning.
Such an agenda contrasts starkly with insights from phenomenology into educating students in higher education, which point to alternative ways forward. In recent years, significant insights have been gained through phenomenology for educating students during undergraduate and (post)graduate programs offered by higher education institutions, such as universities, colleges, and institutes of technology, or equivalent. In particular, the work of existential phenomenologists – especially Martin Heidegger, but also Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas – has contributed to re-thinking common conceptualizations of what it means to educate in higher education. In so doing, they provide inspiration for addressing challenges facing contemporary higher education, while reminding us that the current reality is not the only one possible.
The focus in what follows is a sketch of some of the insights and influences from phenomenology that are informing current issues related to educating students in higher education. Issues in educating students have featured prominently among those explored with inspiration from phenomenology. Following a brief introduction to some key ideas from Heidegger’s work on higher education, several ways in which phenomenology challenges us to re-think higher education and its common practices are outlined below.
Re-thinking Higher Education on Ontological Grounds
Arguably, to date, the potential for insights through phenomenology to inform higher education has been made most apparent by Martin Heidegger, with several others taking inspiration from his work. Among the broad range of topics he tackled, Heidegger lectured and wrote about teaching and learning in higher education, as well as about the role higher education can play in society. An account of phenomenological perspectives on higher education would be incomplete without acknowledging his substantial contributions and continuing influence. Regarding himself primarily as a teacher, Heidegger considered he had devoted his life to higher education. It is perhaps through his idealized vision of reforming the university as a means of nation building that Heidegger fell prey to Germany’s National Socialism. Like much of the German populace, Heidegger later attempted to downplay his links to Nazi ideology and failure to speak out against the Holocaust, although this did not avert a ban that prevented him from teaching in Germany between 1945 and 1949.
In line with Heidegger’s broader interest in inquiring into the meaning of being, he sought to re-think education on ontological grounds. In other words, he gave careful thought to what education would entail if it were to enhance our capacity to become and to be more fully human. Indeed, this is a recurring theme in several of his works. More particularly, many of Heidegger’s lectures and other texts are pedagogical in both approach and intent. Through his way of inquiring, Heidegger sought to redirect attention to what addresses or concerns us in our living among others and things. He saw potential in education for recovering attentiveness to what matters for us, as human beings in our becoming.
Heidegger’s ontological interest places him at odds with much of the extant higher education literature, with its concern with structures in the “mind” that are to correctly represent a world “outside.” He considered that truth was not to be found in such representationalism, so this was not a fitting goal for higher education. Instead, he described truth as aletheia or phenomenological unhiddenness. Differently expressed, he saw truth as world disclosure, with education offering a means to this form of truth. Truth as world disclosure is conditional upon continual striving for attentiveness and responsiveness to others and things in our dynamic and changing world. This means efforts toward achieving truth would inevitably always be incomplete.
The way in which Heidegger conceptualized learning is itself imbued with this attentiveness and responsiveness. For Heidegger, “to learn means to make everything we do answer to whatever essentials address themselves to us at a given time” (1968, p. 14). This notion of learning cannot be reduced to receiving or acquiring correct knowledge or to engaging in activity with an expectation of procuring something. Instead, it includes both attuning and responding to what is central in what addresses us. If learning is to attune and enable us to respond to what matters to us in our living, then education has a key part to play in transforming our ways of being in a manner that is directed to others and things in our world. Iain Thomson argues that the transformation or “turning around” advocated by Heidegger occurs “by turning us away from the world in which we are most immediately immersed, then by turning us back to this world in a more reflexive way” (2001, p. 254).
Consistent with this notion of learning that transforms, Heidegger regarded teaching neither as filling students with knowledge as though they were empty vessels nor demonstrating how to uncritically become (like) their teacher. On the contrary, while he considered teaching to be exalted and highly worthy, he emphasized that it was not the teacher or course content that should be in focus, in themselves, but creating space and opportunities that enable students to learn: “Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn” (Heidegger 1968, p. 15).
Heidegger’s conceptualizations of learning and teaching have provoked re-thinking of a prevalent preoccupation in higher education with knowledge acquisition and its application, as well as an associated privileging of the intellect. His conceptualizations prompt us to place emphasis, rather, on integrating knowing, acting, and being through higher education programs (Dall’Alba and Barnacle 2007). These programs have a crucial contribution to make toward enabling students to integrate what they know and can do with how they are learning to be. Redirecting attention from knowledge as an end in itself highlights the potential of higher education to open possibilities for being and becoming how one strives to be among others and things.
Technologizing Higher Education
One of the developments that Heidegger regarded as posing serious questions for our being was the rapid uptake of newer technologies. Similar to other spheres of life, newer digital technologies for communicating and accessing information have become ubiquitous in higher education, especially in wealthy countries. Educational offerings in online environments involving these technologies are a trend likely to continue. These newer digital technologies – regularly superseded by more novel newcomers – have become a persistent presence in many higher education institutions. These technologies can offer benefits that include increased flexibility in accessing course and support materials, allowing communication among people who are geographically dispersed and improved access to higher education for those with some disabilities. At the same time, the frequent development of newer digital technologies and the presumption they are indicative of innovative, cutting edge programs carries a risk of compulsion to use them in courses. This compulsion is evident, including at institution level, often with limited thought about whether or how these technologies contribute pedagogically to student learning. At times, there is a view that technologies can replace teachers to improve the budget bottom line, typically with little account of the actual costs, either financial or to the persons involved.
This approach to the use of technologies exemplifies a broader concern expressed by Heidegger, which is not limited to employing particular technologies. He argued that technology is not merely a neutral means to an end; not simply a tool we employ for specific purposes. In higher education settings, this can mean we do not simply make use of technologies, but we can be set upon in our use of them. Similarly, but more paradoxically, Heidegger claimed the essence of technology is not anything technological. Instead, he saw technology as a “way of revealing.” In our highly technologized world, the particular way of revealing he identified frames human beings and nature as resources, ready and waiting to be exploited, what he referred to as “standing reserve” (1993/1954, p. 322). He named this calculative, technological rationality Ge-stell or enframing (p. 324). When teachers and students are ordered as standing reserve for the purposes of attaining targets on courses employing newer technologies, monitoring throughput in course completions, or ranking institutions across diverse settings, enframing is apparent.
Heidegger’s notion of technological framing opens a range of avenues for re-thinking higher education in our technologized world. As Paul Gibbs (2010) points out, the extensive massification of higher education we have witnessed in recent decades in many countries carries with it a risk of embracing and encouraging a technological, calculative way of being toward others and the natural world. This is because a focus on mass education can distract us from education that directs attention to responding to the uniqueness of particular situations. This, in turn, risks promoting an inauthentic, dispersed self who lacks commitment to being and becoming among others. Gibbs argues, like Thomson (2001), that higher education has a key part to play in fostering critical awareness of a technological way of being. This awareness is necessary for taking a resolute stance on our becoming, in a world among others.
The notion of technological framing also provides a starting point as Kevin Flint and Adam Barnard (2010) explore the shaping of the self that occurs in a professional doctorate program. They inquire into ways in which discursive technologies operating within an academic institution can limit opportunities for personal development within the doctorate. They use this inquiry to explore spaces for personal development through research in shaping multiple selves among doctoral researchers.
Re-thinking Teaching and Learning Practices in Higher Education
Phenomenology also provides inspiration and insights for exploring common teaching and learning practices in higher education settings. In the higher education literature, the part that assessment plays in directing student learning has been highlighted. Arguments have been made in favor of assessment of student learning that links to the world beyond educational institutions, as well as incorporating online forms of assessment to improve their contemporary relevance. While these arguments can be seen to have some merit, they typically feature the attributes and design of assessment tasks. In so doing, they downplay the learning or, more specifically, the transformation in ways of being in the world, which assessment has the potential to encourage (Vu and Dall’Alba 2014). Beyond assessing student achievement, assessment tasks can direct students’ efforts in integrating what they know and how they act into forming who they are becoming.
Another common practice in higher education settings is discussions between teachers and students for pedagogical purposes. Teachers can approach these interactions as a means of meeting obligations to students or, in other words, fulfilling contractual requirements. Amanda Fulford (in press) points out that this approach reduces teaching to a closed exchange between teachers and students, such as providing and receiving course content. She demonstrates this is an impoverished conceptualization of teaching that does not have student learning as its focus. It also fails to take account of the centrality of relationships among teachers and students to the pedagogical encounter and the learning that can be promoted (Giles et al. 2012).
In a manner reminiscent of Heidegger’s critique of commodity exchange in educational settings, Fulford (in press) argues that limited exchange of this kind lacks spontaneity and openness to the unexpected, which enable learning. This requires a way of being with students and developing sensibilities that are attuned to reading the relationship and acting in the moment, in ways that encourage learning (Giles et al. 2012). Drawing on Levinas’ notion of encountering the Other, such as through another person or ideas, Fulford points to ways in which teaching can open spaces and possibilities for enabling such encounters, in ways that take seriously responsibility for the Other in higher education settings.
A further way in which phenomenology informs efforts to re-think teaching and learning practices in higher education is by challenging a preoccupation with developing the intellect, through highlighting the inescapably embodied way in which we live and make our way in the world. Although not specifically directed to educational settings, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the “lived body” serves as a source of ideas for exploring alternatives to an emphasis on reason and the intellect. In higher education, where intellectual development often reigns supreme and online environments tend to be associated with innovation, critical analyses of the ways in which our learning and being-in-the-world are necessarily embodied are timely.
Given a preoccupation with the intellect in higher education, the broad array of varied bodies who study and move about in these settings can go largely unnoticed in the research literature. In a study exploring the experiences of mature age students from working class backgrounds in a number of British universities, Serena Bufton (2003) describes how their embodiment intrudes into their efforts to learn and belong in this unfamiliar environment. She points to ways in which nature and culture intersect in the body, as Merleau-Ponty noted and Pierre Bourdieu subsequently elaborated in his notion of “habitus.” Bufton outlines how these students experienced a lack of “fit” between the institutional habitus and their own local accents, cultural values, life experiences, and way of speaking and seeing the world. Her study draws attention to a potential blind spot in higher education institutions, where knowledge can be attributed an illusory neutral status.
An additional phenomenological exploration of embodiment builds on Merleau-Ponty’s argument that embodied being in the world is a precondition for conceptual understanding. Robyn Barnacle (2009) draws on several phenomenological and feminist scholars in re-thinking mind-body relations in higher education. Taking the example of the role of the gut in emotional responses and mood – recognized in expressions such as gut reaction and gut instinct – she points to inadequacies of the intellect alone for learning. Against the background of her analyses and those of others, Barnacle explores the potential of harnessing sensibility in conjunction with intellect for learning in higher education. She argues that a key purpose of curricula is to promote a sensibility among students for the way in which particular fields or disciplines engage with the world. This is inevitably an embodied understanding.
This outline has sketched some of the rich and varied ways in which phenomenology is serving to inform questions related to educating students in higher education. As noted in the introduction, interest in phenomenology in the field of higher education, although modest to date, shows signs of expanding. The outline above indicates there is considerable scope for interrogating current issues in higher education through a phenomenological way of inquiring that endeavors to return anew “to the things themselves.” This scope extends, of course, well beyond the sketch given here. Phenomenological inquiry allows us to turn back to the world of higher education, with its challenges, possibilities and contradictions, in a more reflexive way. Sharpening such attunement to the lifeworld – our inevitable entwinement with others and things in our living – carries a promise of enabling us to become more fully human. Higher education has a key part to play in directing efforts towards achieving this aspiration.
- Flint, K., & Barnard, A. (2010). Space for personal development: An exploration of student experience involving one professional doctorate programme. Work Based Learning e-Journal, 1(1), 202–222.Google Scholar
- Giles, D., Smythe, E., & Spence, D. (2012). Exploring relationships in education: A phenomenological inquiry. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 52(2), 214–236.Google Scholar
- Heidegger, M. (1968). What is called thinking? (trans: Wieck, F. D., & Gray, J. G.). New York: Harper Row.Google Scholar
- Heidegger, M. (1993/1954). The question concerning technology (trans: Krell, D. F.). In M. Heidegger (Ed.), Basic writings (2nd ed., pp. 311–341). London: Routledge.Google Scholar