What is education? This question demands that we not only describe the general nature of education, but also that we describe the qualities, problems and conflicts, which make up the present reality of education. The question is thus as philosophically pertinent as it is politically urgent – it demands reflection but not without imposing confrontation.  To pose it is a way of questioning the answers that define and govern what education is and can be said to be today.

So what is said of education today? It might be hailed as a human right; thought of as a means against poverty and inequality; it might be considered an answer to market demands, a producer of workforce, consumers and citizens; or it might be defined simply in accordance with a quantifiable measure. Answers such as these are presented to us by governments and administrators of education. What they all have in common, however, is that they only value education in instrumental terms, as a practical means to an end. They do not judge education on its own terms – as an institution of insight, learning and knowledge – and thus they do not provide an answer to the question of education itself.

In these times where education is not merely a pastime of the privileged few, but a necessary means to ensure one’s livelihood and where institutional autonomy too often only means becoming enslaved by commercial or private, the old dream of strong educational institutions unregulated by private or political interests is severely challenged. Thus perhaps we face the same questions Plato and Socrates did when challenged by the Sophists of their time, and like them, must ask ourselves: how can true insight be found?; can true knowledge can be bought and institutionalized or rather must it be found in a community of real friends, lovers and rivals of knowledge itself?

If the answers to the question of education today similarly seem lost in the conflicts of the polis, it does not mean that we should allow our questioning to stagnate in the rigidity of the answers presented, or that we should disregard it altogether. We should not neglect taking up the very opportunity which is to be found in a crisis of education, as Hannah Arendt writes in her essay titled ’The Crisis of Education’: “the opportunity provided by the very fact of crisis – that tears away facades and obliterates prejudices – to explore into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter”. We should not deny the questions raised by the crisis  nor the very meaning of krísis – a situation which requires a decision – that is, if we deny it becoming a moment of reflection and a possibility for action, as Arendt continues: “A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgements.” And so we must Socratically confront those who claim to know, those who claim to have the right answers; just as those who know only too well what is not known will have to continue their questioning; for it is not our ability to formulate the right answers that will allow us to shed light on the nature of education, but rather, our ability to ask questions; to judge, reflect and think. The purpose of this anthology is to provide an opportunity to exercise these capabilities; to encourage thinking.

However, individual critical thinking will never be enough on its own; the educations of a society do not evolve by the progress of individuals, education needs a community to thrive. That is, a community that reflects on its own relation to the past and the future, as Immanuel Kant argued:  ”[Education] can advance only step by step, and a proper idea of the peculiar nature of education can arise only as one generation hands down its experience and wisdom to the one following, and this in turn, adding something, gives it over to its successor”.

We need to take this lesson to heart while pursuing new ways of thinking, recalling the old meaning of the word university: universitas magistrorum et scholarium – it is a community of those who strive, masters as well as novices, in a common pursuit of knowledge. Any educational institution is an institution of community, and it is the communities of the schools which must stand together against the onslaught of cutbacks and must insist on this character of community in opposition to all the ‘incentives’ directed at individuals, pitting them against each other. Teachers must stand by students who revolt, students must stand by teachers in pressure-filled working conditions. We must stop thinking of ‘student politics’ only – a remnant from ‘68,  a different time to be sure – and instead think of an ’educational’ or ‘university’ politics which can stand together against our common challenges. And if all defensive measures fail, we must reinvent our community from the broken shards of our academies, universities and educational institutions, asking once again: What is an education worthy of the name?


The contributions to this volume are, each in their own way, results of this urgent question. To a great extent, they reflect the understanding of the question not ‘merely’ as a matter of ontology, but indeed also as one of normativity. Regardless of the perspective from which one approaches the question “What is education?”, it seems clear that the answer will never be neutral, and furthermore that every answer proposed inevitably poses new questions. Education truly appears to be a question which requires us to think and rethink how we institutionalize thinking. Each contributor faces this problem differently, but they all remain faithful to the problem of education.

The contributors themselves come from various backgrounds such as: educational studies, philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology and philology; yet certain recurring thoughts and themes can be found throughout the texts: the role of education within the public and private sphere, freedom or autonomy as both the end and precondition for education, the relation between teaching and research, the economical influence of privatization and financialization, the effects and threats of instrumentalization. These themes addressed provoke new necessary questions: What happens to teaching when it is no longer research based and vice versa: what happens to research? What role should education have within the public and private sphere, and how should public and private interest be allowed to influence education? How should we conceive the university in a time where economical structures and incentives influence even the purpose of education itself? Can we, as students and teachers, reclaim the notion of vocation from the instrumental meaning it has taken on today, and restore it to its literary sense, that is, as a calling, as a passionate pursuit of knowledge?

Henrik Jøker Bjerre

(Associate Professor, Institute for learning and philosophy Aalborg University)

Henrik Jøker Bjerre employs Kant’s concept of public and private use of reason to shed light on the discussions today regarding the future of the academy. He emphasizes the importance of the public use of reason, which is a matter of serving reason itself rather than some external authority. The very possibility of a public use of reason, he claims, is threatened today as a consequence of the increasing privatization of public space, not least the universities. Based on the idea that any space, as long as it is not serving private interests, can enable the use of public reason, he argues that a solution might be found outside the institutions.

Wendy Brown

(Professor, Political Science, University of California, Berkeley)

Wendy Brown discusses the concept of vocation or Beruf as it is presented by Max Weber. Contrary to  the original sense of the word, where it is conceived as a calling. Today it is, ironically, understood as job training – or artes mechanicae, as opposed to artes liberales. She argues that the increased role of financialization within education, by encouraging financially privileged or risk-willing students, influences the students’ choice of academic field, resulting in the dominance of ‘rational’, in the sense of economically rewarding, subjects of study. What we risk, according to Brown, is a loss of freedom.

Elie During

(Elie During is associate professor of philosophy, Paris Nanterre University, seminar lecturer at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School.)

In an interview, Elie During reflects on his own experiences as a student and as a teacher of philosophy. He describes it as the privilege of teachers to be able to lead an indefinitely prolonged life as student. In this way, he points to the shared interests and problems of professors and students. In discussing the dynamics of education he designates “distraction” as one of the most grave challenges, but also as an opportunity for creative thought.

Christopher Fynsk

(Professor and Dean of the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland and Professor Emeritus at the University of Aberdeen)

Christopher Fynsk emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinarity, not merely as an attempt to further the functionality or technical skills suitable for a “knowledge economy“, but for the sake of viewing education as a whole. By isolating each subject from one another, we risk falling into an abstract jargon which veils the connection between subjects. With regard to education as a quest for freedom, what is to be learnt is inherently a form of auto-didaxy and the “thing” that education, regarded as a whole, approaches is res publica, a commitment to education as inherently public, i.e. as accessible regardless of advanced preparation.

Siegfried Zielinski

(Rector Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design)

Zielinski’s contribution is a draft for the faculties of an imaginary academy. Inspired by the Deleuzian thought of the Matinican writer, Eduoard Glissant, Zielinski views the faculty not as a clearly delimited area of science, but rather as an energetic field that cultivates the connection between different territories of thought and art.

Steen Nepper Larsen

(Associate professor, Danish School of Education)

Steen Nepper Larsen constructs a small and colourful systematic ontology of education. He gives a description of three different approaches to the question of the essence of education. The first is the blind process of production of knowledge in contemporary capitalism. Next, two diametrically opposed approaches to human nature and its capacity of education is discussed, the first is guided by the conviction that man is fundamentally defined by a lack, the other by the conviction that man is defined by creativity.

Kirsten Hyldgaard

(Associate professor, Danish School of Education)

Kirsten Hyldgaard sets out to analyze why research is regarded as more valuable than the task of teaching at the university. This leads her to question the role of education in society as such; why have institutions of teaching been a part of history for so long? Deploying theoretical psychoanalysis, she looks at education not as caused by some inner life force in man, but rather, as an anxious questioning originating in the frail individual’s confrontation with the weight of culture.

Mladen Dolar

(Senior research fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana)

In his contribution, Slovene philosopher Mladen Dolar answers a series of question sent to him by university activists from Copenhagen. Dolar points toward the internal contradictions of the modern university: How knowledge has overtaken the role that the master inhabited in traditional societies, how the idea of democracy and the idea of science might be at odds, how the university is split between, on the one hand educating students towards professions and on the other doing research that dares to be out of touch with the ideas of its contemporary society.

Steen Ebbesen

(Professor emeritus in classic and medieval literature, Copenhagen university)

In his text, originally delivered as his valedictory lecture after more than forty years of loyal service to the University, professor of classics and medieval literature Steen Ebbesen presents the development and dissolution of the University as an institution, all the way from the Academy of Plato to the contemporary University of Copenhagen. In this way, he not only makes clear the history of the institution in all its glory and meticulous tragedy, but also the probable catastrophe of the present-day situation.