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Towards a Heideggerian pedagogy

Robert Shaw

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand

A paper presented to the 33rd Annual Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia Conference, Melbourne, 26-28 November 2004.


This paper sets out the extent to which Heidegger was of assistance in a practical educational development project. It suggests that Heidegger’s ideas about technology helped to set out the boundaries of possibility for the project. The boundaries derived from the project’s being in the context of state schooling that requires an inherently and necessarily violent pedagogy. The characteristics of students were more adequately described by considering Young’s development of Heidegger’s concept of culture.

Heidegger and education

There is a debate about the potential of Heidegger’s work to inform educational thinking and practice. David Cooper cites examples of Heidegger’s thought in nursing education and the teaching of art, Bert Lambeir considers information technology in schools, and Iain Thomson considers how Heidegger might provide a “positive vision for the future of higher education” by understanding our educational crisis 'ontohistorically’ (Cooper, 2002, p.47; Lambeir, 2002; Thomson, 2001).  Ilan Gur-Ze’ev suggests that the “philosophy of Martin Heidegger is of much relevance for the elaboration of an attempt to open the gate to counter-education as an open possibility” (Gur-Ze'ev, 2002, p.67). Michael Bonnett explores how Heidegger contributes to our understanding of learning and a “full educational relationship between learner and teacher” (Bonnett, 2002, p.230). Bonnett and Morris have attempted to speak directly to teachers about the use of existentialism in practice (Bonnett, 1994; Morris, 1961; Morris, 1966).

Apart from what Heidegger said directly about education and his works that have a direct relationship to education, Cooper argues that his philosophy as a whole can assist our understanding of education. He says that educationalists should be helpfully informed by Heidegger’s “way of looking at the world” and his philosophy as a whole, both as a perspective in itself and also because of the more full understanding of specific ideas that such a perspective may bring (Cooper, 2002, p.47). Cooper focuses on the nature of truth and the status of science, which appear to be relevant to schooling. Pádraig Hogan elaborates on where to find the potential of Heidegger to inform education. For him it is in Heidegger’s difference from “what the dominant modes and tempers in Western philosophy have furnished for thought and action” (Hogan, 2002, p.211).

My intent in this essay is to extend the work of those who have begun to investigate Heidegger’s potential as a “way of looking at the world”, but to come at the question directly from the practice of science education. To do this, I review a recent distance-education development project, and relate the issues that emerged in that project to Heidegger’s thinking. This approach is consistent with that advocated by those who believe the philosophy of education must be derived from educational practice and be the “wisdom about the practices of education” (J. D. Marshall, 1987, p.65).

Normalizing education is that process whereby schooling produces an efficient orientation of students towards the given order of things, allows security, belonging and ultimately social progress (Gur-Ze'ev in the introduction to Gur-Ze'ev, 2000). The intention of those who funded the project was to establish an astronomy course to promote science and technology to underachieving New Zealand secondary school students. It was thus an example of normalising education and a process whereby the education system adjusted itself to address a perceived problem.

To seek advancement from Heidegger’s works in this narrow context of science teaching, technology, and pedagogy, may seem perverse when Gur-Ze’ev concludes “… Heidegger makes no effort to contribute to normalizing education or to scientific thinking … nor can he contribute, as some scholars world suggest, to the improvement of schooling and the elevation of teacher-pupil relations” (Gur-Ze'ev, 2002, p.75). However, my conclusion is that Heidegger can assist us to re-think live issues within normalising education both by providing contrasting perspectives and by providing a language that enables us to reassess what is important.

The practical project

The project established for New Zealand’s National Observatory an online astronomy course for secondary school students (www.carterobservatory.net). Twice in the project Heidegger’s thinking became useful. First, the developers had to consider carefully the nature/characteristics of the students and they came to call them “Heidegger’s Greeks”. Second, the course pedagogy precipitated a debate on Heidegger’s notions regarding technology that in turn assisted with issues within the course.

There were other times when Heidegger’s thinking appeared relevant but did not contribute directly to the practical project. There were issues about the concept of pedagogy and a need to describe how students interacted with teaching websites. These needs led the developers to consider the nature of the internet site, the student’s horizon of disclosure, truth within/as disclosure, and the way students act with a website.

The internet-based pedagogy initially proposed for these students would: “focus students on their own self-interest, show students the relevance of the learning to their self-interest, hold students attention - cut out distractions, integrate assessment with learning …, give students personal attention…” (Shaw, 2004, p.5). The pedagogy was also described at that time, “We called this approach to teaching ‘black hole pedagogy’: once a student enters to a certain point in the system, they cannot escape, they cannot see outside of the system, they are drawn into the system, helplessly propelled onwards, until there is an inevitable conclusion. The conclusion is success for the student and their release from the system” (Shaw, 2004, pp.6-7).

Heidegger’s Greeks

Initially, the developers described the students this way: “… We see these students as the strugglers in schools, perhaps easily distracted from their work, and often with an enormous need to achieve. We see them in schools bombarded with images and movement, distracted easily by this movement, and distracted by their friends, and we see that they struggle to get the attention they need from teachers and parents” (Shaw, 2004, p.4). After the website had operated for a few months, it became clear that whilst most of the students proceeded to interact with the system as expected, many Maori students were reacting to the system in a distinctive manner. They would enrol and work for a few days and then stop working. This raised for the developers a need to consider cultural difference.

The project team had a practical demonstration of the difficulty of teaching Maori students that is well known: In 1986, the Waitangi Tribunal brought down its findings relating to Te Reo Maori. They declared, “The education system in New Zealand is operating unsuccessfully because too many Maori children are not reaching an acceptable standard of education. For some reason they do not, or cannot, take full advantage of it. … Their scholastic achievements fall far short of what they should be. The promises of the Treaty of Waitangi of equality in education as in all other human rights are undeniable. Judged by the system's own standards Maori children are not being successfully taught …". There was an opportunity here to relate this situation to Heidegger’s account of culture (heritage), identity, and community.

Culture (in the sense of form of life) and language are closer to the essence of being than anything biological. Coming from the Latin cultura, Heidegger thinks culture implies cultivation particularly self-cultivation (Young, 2002, p.31). ‘Heritage’ is In Being and Time the translated word for the sense of ‘culture’ (Young, 2002, pp.32-33).  Heidegger relates culture to being, identity, and thinking in “Identify and Difference” which begins, “The claim of identity speaks out of the Being of beings. However, where the Being of beings comes in Occidental thinking earliest and properly to language, namely with Parmenides, it says to auto, the identical, in an almost excessive sense. One of the sayings of Parmenides reads: to gar auto noein estin te kai einai. 'That, namely [the] same, is both becoming-aware (that is, thinking) and Being”(Heidegger, 1974, p.27). By considering culture, it seems possible to learn something about the origins and whatness of thinking and the origins of action.

Historical epochs of a culture contain a mainstream world-interpretation and that defines the epoch. Additionally, there are sub-communities that represent anticipations of future states of the culture or remnants of past states. “Western modernity resembles a river. In the centre of the stream is the main current. But at the edges are small eddied and tributaries which move at a different pace and sometimes in a contrary direction” (Young, 2002, p.126). Dreyfus elaborates on this in his account of “falling” where he sets out Heidegger’s “three-fold distinction concerning the concealing and revealing possibilities of the one” (Hubert L Dreyfus, 1991, p.328). A third kind of possibilities found in society are marginal practices that have resisted leveling. These can be practices that were central in past epochs … (Hubert L Dreyfus, 1991, p.329). The New Zealand Maori, I argue, is both a remnant of a past state and probably an anticipation of a future state. We have a distinctive, practiced culture that moves at a different pace, and in a contrary direction, to Western culture that dominates the rest of New Zealand (J. D. Marshall, 1999; Taylor, 1998; Zepke & Leach, 2002).

The evidence regarding this description of Maori that which makes them an example of Young’s “cells of resistance” to Gestell, could be drawn from several sources. Here I summarise two examples: (a) gods / holy places as expressed by marae, landscape, carving, and community procedures; (b) festivals that convey metaphysical authenticity with the example being the tangihia (funeral). [For cultural reasons I record here that I make these suggestions as a person of European descent who has had a long professional association with Maori, and that it is necessary that Maori be involved in this discussion. The sources drawn upon are (Arapere, 2002; Kohere, 2004; Mead, 2003; Rei & Young, 1991; Webster, 1998a)]

Gods / holy places: The presence of gods as world-defining radiance is the essence of Being as mystical, awesome and holy. [‘Essence’ in the “whatness” sense.] Young sets out three sources where Heidegger makes this explicit (Young, 2002, p.22). He concludes “Being, to be brief and blunt, is God” (p.22), which is a poets god to be venerated and not a god of dogma. The presence of gods requires (in Heidegger’s terms) that the community has appropriated gods that appear to shape the culture as a whole. The gods mediate through the culture in a multiplicity of ways and shape the lives of the individuals who belong to the culture. Heidegger gives examples that can be related to Maori (marae, association with landscape, art/artefacts, and community procedures).

Marae: Marae “open up” a plethora of meanings, possibilities, and ways of being for individuals, and accordingly perform the same broad role that Heidegger claims was performed by the temple at Paestum and the Bamberg Cathedral (Young, 2001, pp.18-19). There is mystery, reverential respect, a sense of their being a holy place, and awe generated by the marae and the language of the marae. The recent power of this is expressed in the Maori renaissance (Webster, 1998b).

When he discusses the loss of gods, Young (2002, p.35) claims the radiance of the gods that stirs and inspires people regarding landscape resides in Polynesian and Aboriginal culture. Maori concepts of landscape, land ownership, and guardianship, are asserting themselves in New Zealand (Kedgley & Porirua Museum., 2002; King, 1985; Rei & Young, 1991).

There is the revival in carving and in the role of carving at the marae. Young (2001, p.20) presents the example of the American Indian totem and its loss of world-disclosing power because of its removal to a museum, but in the case of Maori the reverse process is occurring – meaningful artefacts are gathering together either by recreation or by re-appropriation.

We may be able to draw further evidence of the respect, awe, and cultural significance that pertains to community, by considering how Maori in different situations proceed. One example in education is the approach to development projects as was exemplified in the project Te Reo O Te Taitokerau where a “guiding statement” had to be repeatedly redeveloped as a mechanism to bring the community to an understanding of purpose and commitment. This was a simple vehicle that brought those involved back to the uniquely Maori foundations of the project which was nevertheless something that began in a non-Maori context (J. Marshall & Peters, 1989; Peters & Marshall, 1988; Peters, Marshall, Para, & Shaw, 1989; Shaw & Ohia, 1988).

Heidegger elaborates on the Greek “festival” in “The Origin of the Work of Art” because it is an example of how the Greeks could remove themselves from “everydayness” and ontologically become authentic. The ability to do this has been lost in modernity (because of the role of technology and its conversion of beings to industrial standing-reserve/resources) and thus Western people are denied the opportunity to refresh themselves through the festive mode of disclosure (with the possible exception of some poets in particular circumstances). What Heidegger says about the Greek festival relates closely to the Maori tangihia (ceremony of burial). For Maori cultural responsibility takes precedence over everything else and a tangihia can take about 4 days. These events relate closely to Heidegger’s description of the Greek festival. The important part in both instances is the opportunity that they accord participants to occasionally step outside of the daily ontological framework and to thus be for a time  authentic and . Heidegger says “In the Essence of Truth” that occasional ontological refreshment that occurs from “time-to-time” and not on a schedule, and this is the importance of the festival (although Heidegger does not explicitly mention the festival in the relevant paragraph).

Thus, the developers who by virtue of their Western metaphysics have blocked access to the “unfathomable depth of Being, the mystery of its ‘self-concealment’” (Young, 2002, p.29) now struggle to overcome the “under-achievement” of students with a different metaphysics? The question mark is necessary here because there are several considerations that might undermine such a conclusion.

When Young presents the river analogy for culture he is arguing that there is some level of, and form of, continuity between cultural tributaries. Something somehow flows together. Toulmin sets out a mechanism that might be used to account for cultural change, difference, and continuity in his account of conceptual change though the application of the general model of evolution (Toulmin, 1972). This mechanism is a consistent account that applies to shared practices as much as to technological artefacts and scientific ideas. However, Young’s claim is that the ontology of Beings is the grounding of the fundamental difference between cultures, and we are left to wonder how this relates to his river analogy. It is the givenness of truth that is within the term “metaphysics”. Metaphysics is given (Heidegger), and it is founded in being and community. But, the founding appears discrete and it is difficult to see how truth in the primordial sense Heidegger favours can be a shared thing between two communities when they display themselves culturally as so different. These ideas might develop into an argument for separate schooling for ontologically distinct beings. In the case of the Maori students, this would be another form of argument for kura kaupapa Maori (schools that teach only in the Maori language and display Maori tikanga, as opposed to mainstream New Zealand state schools). “World’s come and go” says Young following Heidegger (Young, 2001, p.19), but perhaps they coexist and this is the base reason that education systems struggle with multiculturalism.

Pedagogy as modern technology

The second broad area where Heidegger’s notions assisted the developers was technology. The astronomy website displayed a pedagogy that is an example of modern technology because of its role in state schooling and because of its own features. Western state schooling (more accurately, the New Zealand exemplar) is a pedagogy that is an example of modern technology. Here, I set out the reasons for these conclusions.

The developers, because they were concerned about students who did not succeed in the state system, deliberately built in features that militated against the violent technology. For example, the students could work whenever they wanted and had a year to compete a course that should take them about 3 months. Working with the website was a “tender trap” (meaning motivating and compelling). These things were consistent with the existentialist educators’ creed (which is primarily ‘maximise the student’s freedom’) as developed by Morris (1961) and Bonnett (1994), but they were cosmetic.

The developers defined the target student population as the less academic students. Accordingly, before they built anything the pedagogy was an example of modern technology. Technology for Heidegger is “technological practice” (Young, 2002, p.38) and that is consistent with pedagogy being a technology.  “The heart of any kind of technology is causation. In its modern conception, Heidegger points out, causation is making happen; in the most important kind of human causation it is ‘manufacturing [machen]” (Young, 2002, p.39). The projects fundamental premise was that the students have one range of abilities/skills/capabilities/needs and the pedagogy will convey them to better configuration of abilities/skills/capabilities/needs. This is inherently violent in Heidegger’s sense for it entails a forced, “unnatural”, hurried, development of beings. It contrasts with the view that we should leave young people alone and let them come to learning as and when they will. It appears that all forms of pedagogy will be violent for these reasons. There cannot be an “ancient” technology that is a pedagogy.

Because pedagogy must entail a desired end state and a beginning state, it inevitably appears as a problem for us. How best to move the student from the beginning state to the end state? This is an example of calculative thinking which Heidegger says is what most human beings do most of the time (Young, 2002, pp.21-22 and 47). We are locked into the mere planning of means to ends.

Likewise, Western schooling itself is an attempt to force development/change. The education system as a whole is both a pedagogy and an example of modern technology. By working within the context of New Zealand schooling (that is, to provide credits for students on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework, and thus to be paid for teaching) the developers inevitably began to produce a system that attracted and propelled students towards success and thus was violent in Heidegger’s terms.

The establishment of the astronomy website is an example of a technological system (in this case the pedagogical system that is Western schooling) maintaining itself. The developers could not have convinced others of the worth of the course, or gained access to student funding, without that being the case. Equally, when the development was seen to be consistent with the needs of the system it was relatively easy to alter New Zealand’s national secondary school curriculum (by adding astronomy unit standards), to feature on national television, and to have the Minister of Education open the new facility.

Heidegger’s account of the pervasiveness and intransigence of modern technology is compelling in education. Acts of Parliament (which make schooling compulsory and each year provide money from taxation) maintain the violent system and these Acts give expression to Enlightenment premises such as the equal worth of the ordinary person, and a work ethic. It is the assessment and credentialing system in any country that carries the premises into practice with force. Any attempt to establish an alternative assessment and credentialing system will fail and the choice for developers/teachers is to work within the system or not to work at all.


A conventional educational development project was advanced by Heidegger’s thinking. It was clear that the project’s pedagogy was an example of normalising education and that this was consistent with the location of the project within a state schooling system.

Reflecting on the nature of the students resulted in a consideration of culture that drew directly upon Young’s account of the later Heidegger. The Maori students were on this account profoundly different in their ontology and accordingly unlikely to be adequately taught within a system built for others.


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