I enjoy surprising my students by telling them that I am a conservative,
that I have striven throughout my life to ‘conserve our radical tradition.’
George Counts, 1971

Teaching matters. In itself this may not be a very contentious claim, and in certain circles it has actually become quite popular to argue that the teacher is the most important “factor” in the educational process, albeit that we should be wary of referring to the teacher as a mere factor. The real issue, however, is not whether teaching matters; the real issue is how teaching matters and what teaching matters for. It is in relation to these questions that the discussion already becomes a bit more complicated, because in recent years the role and position of teaching and the teacher has been challenged from two different but in a sense, complementary angles.

One development concerns the impact of the rise of the language and the “logic” of learning on education, a development that has shifted the attention away from teaching and the teacher towards students and their learning. The rise of the language and logic of learning has transformed the teacher from a “sage on the stage” to that of a “guide on the side”—a facilitator of learning, as the expression goes—and even, according to some, to that of a “peer at the rear.” While the idea of the teacher as a fellow learner or of the classroom as a community of learners may sound attractive and progressive, such learning-centered depictions of education tend to provide rather unhelpful and in my view ultimately misleading accounts of what teaching is, what the work of the teacher is, and what students might gain from encounters with teaching and teachers. My ideas are therefore an attempt at the recovery of teaching in an age of learning, and at the rediscovery of the significance and importance of teaching and the teacher.

Yet making a case for the importance of teaching and the teacher is not entirely without problems. A major difficulty stems from the fact that in recent years the suggestion that teaching matters has been made most vociferously from the more conservative end of the spectrum, where teaching is basically approached in terms of control and where the control of the work of the teacher itself has also emerged as a major issue. One version of this argument is the idea that the best and most effective teachers are those who are able to steer the educational process towards the secure production of a small set of pre-defined “learning outcomes” and a limited number of pre-specified identities, such as that of the good citizen or the flexible lifelong learner. There is not only an ongoing research effort focused on generating evidence about what apparently “works” in relation to this ambition. There is also a “global education measurement industry” (Gert Biesta) eager to indicate which systems perform best in producing the desired outcomes. The call for education as control and for teachers as agents of control is also voiced through concerns about an apparent loss of authority in contemporary society and the suggestion that education is the key instrument for restoring such authority, including the authority of the teacher itself. What is often (conveniently) forgotten in such discussions is that authority is fundamentally a relational matter and not something that one person can simply impose onto another person.

The main problem with the idea of teaching as control, with the depiction of teaching as an act of control and with the suggestion that teaching ought to be a matter of control, is that in such configurations students can only appear as objects of the teacher’s intentions and actions, but not as subjects in their own right. This has been the main contention in all the criticisms of authoritarian forms of education, culminating in calls for the abolishment of the very “project” of education altogether, such as in the case of the anti-education movement (Antipädagogik) which emerged in Germany in the late 1960s. What is interesting, and in a sense remarkable, is that the teacher has been a recurring target of this critique. The assumption here seems to be that teaching can ultimately only be understood as something that limits the freedom of students and thus hinders the possibility for them to exist as subjects in their own right. This is a major reason why attempts at (literally) dethroning and sidelining the teacher (“from the sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”) and refocusing education on students, their learning, their sense-making, and their active construction of knowledge—to name some of the main trends in contemporary educational thought and practice—are generally seen as liberating and progressive moves.

In such a context and climate it seems, any attempt at making a case for the importance of teaching and the teacher can only be perceived as a step backwards, as a conservative rather than a progressive contribution to the discussion. It is important to see, however, that this only follows if we conceive of what it means to exist as subject in terms of what Hannah Arendt has aptly characterized as the idea of freedom as sovereignty, where to be free, to exist as free subject, means not to be influenced by anything or anyone outside of oneself. The question, however, is whether this is a viable conception of what it means to exist as subject. One major line of mine seeks to argue that this is not the case, and that to exist as subject actually means to be in an ongoing “state of dialog” with what and who is other; a “state of dialog,” moreover, where our subject-ness is not constituted from the inside out, that is, from our intentions and desires, but is intimately bound up with the ways in which we engage with and respond to what and who is other, with what and who speaks to us, addresses us, calls us, and thus calls us forth.

When we begin to think about our existence as subject along these lines, teaching starts to gain a new significance, first and foremost because as an “address” that comes to us from the outside —we might also say: an address that transcends us—it is no longer automatically limiting or even obstructing the possibility for us to exist as subject, but may well be the very “event” that opens up possibilities for us to exist as subject. This is indeed the other major line: I have explored this in more depth (2007), but extracting this argument below I discuss teaching in its significance for subject-ness, its significance for our existing as subjects. Here, teaching becomes concerned with opening up existential possibilities for students, that is, possibilities in and through which students can explore what it might mean to exist as subject in and with the world. Along these lines, teaching begins to appear as the very opposite of control, the very opposite of attempts at approaching students merely as objects, but rather takes the form of approaching students as subjects even when there is no evidence that they are capable of it.

There are three reasons why I believe that the ideas explored here may matter. The first has to do with the fact that in the domain of education teaching has generally become positioned at the conservative end of the spectrum, while most of what opposes teaching—such as the focus on student learning, on their meaning-making and knowledge construction, on their creativity and expression—is seen as liberating and progressive and as supporting and enhancing subject-ness. We find this represented, for example, in the ongoing “swing” from curriculum-centered to child-centered and student-centered conceptions of education. What is remarkably absent in the discussion is the consideration of a third option, one in which teaching is positioned at the progressive end of the spectrum and is (re)connected with the emancipatory ambitions of education. What I seek to offer in my exploration is such a third option—a set of progressive arguments for what is nowadays generally seen as a conservative idea. My ambition is not only to rediscover the progressive significance of teaching, but also to show that a focus on student learning, on sense-making, construction, creativity, and expression—ideas that are often presented as ways to counter education as control—may in itself have little to do with enhancing the possibilities for students to exist as subject.

To exist as subject means being in a “state of dialog” with what and who is other; it means being exposed to what and who is other, being addressed by what and who is other, being taught by what and who is other, and pondering what this means for our own existence and for the desires we have about our existence. To exist as subject therefore means that we engage with the question whether what we desire is desirable not only for our own lives, but also for the lives we try to live with others on a planet that has limited capacity for fulfilling all the desires projected onto it. Such a way of understanding what it means to exist as subject stands in some tension to what many see as a major tenet of our times, where our freedom as human subject is predominantly understood as the freedom of choice: the freedom to choose what we want to choose, to do what we want to do, to have what we want to have, to be what we want to be, and also buy what we want to buy. My approach towards human subject-ness, therefore, also raises some wider questions about this major trend in contemporary society—a society that economist Paul Roberts has characterized, very accurately in my view, as an “impulse society.”

A third reason why the ideas introduced here may be of importance is in relation to a more philosophical discussion about human being and human beings. Whereas my ambitions are not philosophical but educational, it may nonetheless be interesting to ponder one main philosophical implication from my arguments, in which I seek to suggest that our human subject-ness may not be located in our capacity to learn, to make sense, to give meaning, and so forth, but is first and most to be found in our “ability” to be addressed, to be spoken to, to be taught. This suggests, in its shortest formula, that the human being is not an animal who can learn, but rather a being who can be taught, and can receive (a) teaching.