Philosophical forum: Levinás and student subjectivity

On Thursday at 9am (insert invitation), we will meet in our Zoom-space — our private public square — to stage, or participate in, a philosophical forum. Forum is one of those interesting words that means both the place where something happens, AND what happens. In this case, the forum is the place or medium (I don’t which of those Zoom is …) where we will meet to talk, and forum is the talk itself. Fora (the plural of forum) imply the free participation of citizens; so imagining fora in educational settings requires reconceptualizing the relationships between students and teachers, and the nature of the discussion yourself.

One component of the public forum is the freedom citizens have to either come and participate, or not. To make our forum more like this, you have the option to show up or not, and to speak or not, if you do show up. Of course, one would not get any credit for not showing up to a public forum — like a voting place? — and one will not receive any credit for not showing up to this staged philosophical forum in the problematic ‘ public space’ of Zoom. If you feel a responsibility to show up, and participate, then I invite you to consider, philosophically, the source or this responsibility …

As the teacher, the kind ouf appointed authority, I will take (assume, accept?) the responsibility to set the agenda, to lay out the questions and the ground rules. Why have I organized this forum? In order to answer my responsibility to teach, to create — I have not learning goals for you, only teaching goals for myself. In fact, I’d probably prefer that participation in the forum has another effect besides you learning something. But maybe that’s what we should talk about: why we are talking and what it means for you, individually and collectively, and for me, to be talking. That gives me a better idea of how to proceed.

Biesta presents five main concepts in the chapters we’ve read so far:

  1. Creativity
  2. Subjectivity
  3. Communication
  4. Deconstruction
  5. Weak (existential) v. strong (metaphysical) education

Only the third and the fifth are specifically directed toward education, even if the author tries to apply them to education. The main argument seems to be that the first four can be explained as forms of weak, existential education, and that this form of education is preferable to strong education, that is highly concerned with its outcomes, in meeting goals.

My interpretation is that a particularly kind of subjectivity is at the heart of this argument. Your subjectivity as student, my subjectivity as teacher, out subjectivity as human beings. This argument comes mostly from Emmanuel Levinás, who did not himself ever write about education. Levinás, who everyone claims is VERY important and influential, is also very difficult to understand. I just now took the time to find out something about Levinás, to add to very little I knew before. He was born in 1906 in Lithuania, went to Russian schools, and then to a Jewish high-school, before his family emigrated to France in the early 1920s, where he began his university studies of philosophy. He was enamored of the work of Heidegger, the German philosopher and Nazi party member we met earlier. He became a French citizen in 1939, reported for military duty soon after as a translator, and was captured by the Germans in 1940. He spent the rest of the war in the segregated Jewish section of a POW camp, but as a soldier escaped being sent to the camps. His wife and daughter — pictured here — were saved from the camps by a philosopher friend, Maurice Blanchot. But the rest of his family perished in the camps. Levinás began writing his most famous philosophical work while he was a prisoner. After the war he did teach at a Jewish high school in Paris! So my prior belief that Levinás was not interested in education was incorrect!

I do not myself understand much of Levinás’s writings, though I am very much drawn to what I do believe I understand.One thing that draws me to him is his concern with ethics, with what is good and what is bad, and what is right and what is wrong, what and how we are responsible. The other fascinating part is his notion that we are given being, that we become human beings, only through the invitation of an Other. That we are not something essential in ourselves, and then we meet Others, whom we treat well or poorly, but that we are not being as all until an Other calls us into being. That his experience as a Jewish prisoner of war during World War II, the near loss of his wife and daughter, and the loss of the rest of his family in the Holocaust, should be the historical background of this kind of existential philosophy is not surprising.

What we will do tomorrow is attempt to interpret three or four short passages from Levinás, without worrying about education, but instead thinking about our subjectivity, what it is, where it comes from, where it goes, what it’s value is. I was thinking of the position of Isabel’s family in ALL FALL DOWN, as subjects of Sir Edmund, and the many ways that the plague altered her subjectivity. One question I will have for you, following from some things you’ve written in Discourse, is what and when is your subjectivity, your responsibility, as a person designated at this moment as student?