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Heidegger in Lockdown – from 'mastery' to 'disclosure'

  • Published: September 2021
  • Author: Simon Uttley

L’état, c'est moi, said Louis XIV - perhaps – equating the State with himself. The Headteacher, too, similarly encapsulates the identity of the school exercising mastery and ‘border control’ over learning.

Within Covid lockdown, of course, the mastery was diminished, and new paradigms evolved.  Simon Uttley (pictured below, left, with his school Testing Team) looks to Heidegger for a reimagination.

School COVID testing team

It’s been a funny 18 months…

We Headteachers tend not to be short of self-belief. Indeed, it is a requirement, given our role, even in normal times, as lightning conductors for the hopes and fears of countless young people, and their families, as they seek to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.

And for much of our millennia of Western thought, the only – or the dominant - circus in town, in terms of reason and understanding – standing here as necessary, but insufficient proxies for education - has been, essentially, Platonic. Scepticism spawned the [perceived] need for rationality and objectivity as we have come to embrace the notion of knowledge as being enframed within a predetermined sphere of objects. [Subjects, curriculum and ‘already established’ ‘facts’’].  In this world, the tricky notion of truth relies on definitions, hierarchy and mastery, all under the watchful eye of the educator [or Headmaster?] who ‘stand[s]-over-and-against’ the world. [Heidegger, 2002:69] and acts as gate keeper [Foucault, 1973]. 

Little wonder then that Covid lockdown has put us Heads way out of our comfort zone as we have had to come to terms with remote learning and supporting the classroom of mum/dad/grandparents. But was it all bad?

A little light reading…

Ever since Nietzsche called out reason, and by extension, the established process of intellectual development, as being the ‘unconditional will to truth’ [Nietzsche, 2001:202], the idea of education as a neutral process of ‘knowledge acquisition’ was exploded. And yet it wasn’t at all because it continues to underpin education today.

In our schools, we position ourselves, and condition the young, to see themselves as subjects commanding objects. We can almost hear the cry: ‘Look! There is the subject we call [and therefore immediately limit to] ‘Geography’…Let us use our boarding nets [curriculum, teaching and learning strategies…] and attack it, [name it and, perhaps, lock it up in a Royal Society], then we can colonize it [split it into arbitrary chunks of ‘learning’ ] and impose law and order [transform it in to the stuff of performativity:  ‘This is what a grade B answer looks like’].

And yet, as an educator, it strikes me that we know, but constantly forget, that we should examine learning not as concept but as artefact: multifaceted, three- dimensional and – yes indeed – appearing different from different angles. Something we can touch, feel, smell and experience. Stirring. Because if we rely on conventional reason alone, we need to be clear that ‘knowing’ is no pure reception or assimilation process – the dice is already always loaded. How?

As Heidegger makes clear, ‘knowing [dar Erkennen] establishes itself as a procedure within some realm of what is, in nature, or in history. Procedure does not mean here, merely, method or methodology. For every procedure already requires an open sphere in which it moves. This is accomplished through the projection within some realm of what is…The projection sketches out in advance the manner in which the knowing procedure must bind itself and adhere to the sphere opened up…’ [in the process we call reason]. ’ …Through the projecting of the ground plan and the prescribing of rigour, procedure makes secure for itself its sphere of objects within the realm of Being. [Heidegger, 1977:117-118].

The ‘release’ that was Lockdown – for some, at least

Lockdown has been tough for all of us, and no rose-tinted spectacles of retrospection can change that. But, as a disruptor – the State-approved apparatus for knowledge transfer being rendered temporarily unusable [school] -  I find myself reflecting on two thirty second conversations with my students.

‘Emma, aged 14: ‘It was in my art lesson on Teams. I was with my nan and she showed me a picture of Peter Rabbit her nan drew for her when she was a little girl. I cried. Don’t know why. Really sweet’.

Is this ‘art’ education? Or ‘soul’ food? Either way, it was undoubtably memorable for Emma. The learning apparatus [school] stripped away, Emma entered not through the gate of the academy, or of Platonic reason, but of the affective – of cor ad cor loquitor – of her, and her nan’s - shared humanity. The uncovering of [aletheia] unfathomable simplicity of an act of unconditional love, expressed in the aesthetic.

Callum, age 15: ‘My grandad was ill. I was worried he might die. I started messaging him every day. He didn’t really know how to do it so I taught him. It’s great because he can now speak to his friends. He seemed really happy’.

In Callum’s case, very literally [to use a core theme of Heidegger] being before death, [Heidegger, 1996: 293-311], he finds himself exercising his agency [rare enough for many children] not only as an educationalist – teaching his Grandad - but an educationalist at one and the same time  engaged in a moral project. One up from knowledge: real wisdom.

For both, learning preceded theory and was fuelled by, and subsequently enriched, a quest for meaning. As such, neither were forced into subject-object language, seeing themselves as things among things, and, instead, they experienced the learning as an event of existence, not a product of process. Neither were engaged in concepts – the invention of equivalents to stand in the place of the truth statement, [which is, arguably, the human quest for meaning’s equivalent of the Fall] but, instead, both intuited the encounter – the ‘learning’ - without mediation.

And therefore…

School is great, but don’t let it get in the way of a good education!

  • Foucault, M. [1973] The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York : Random House
  • Heidegger, M. [1996] Being and Time.  Albany, NY : Sunny Press
  • Heidegger, M. [1997] The question concerning technology and other essays.  New York : Harper Row
  • Nietzche, F. [2001] The Gay Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

About the author

Simon Uttley is Visiting Research Professor in Education at St Mary’s University, Course Leader in Catholic Education and the Common Good at the University of Notre Dame [U.S.A.], and Headmaster of Blessed Hugh Faringdon Catholic school, Reading, England.