Gert Biesta: qualification, socialization, subjectification

Biesta, G. (2010). 1. What is education for? Good education in an age of measurement: ethics, politics, democracy (pp. 11–27). Boulder, C: Paradigm Publishers.

A major function of education- of schools and other educational institutions- lies in the qualification of children, young people and adults. It lies in providing them with the knowledge, skills and understandings and often also with the dispositions and forms of judgment that allow them to “do something”- a “doing” that can range from the very specific (such as in the case of training for a particular job or profession, or the training of a particular skill or technique) to the much more general (such as an introduction to modern culture, or the teaching of life skills, etcetera). The qualification function is without doubt one of the major functions of organized education and constitutes an important rationale for having state-funded education in the first place. This is particularly, but not exclusively, connected to economic arguments, i.e., to the role education plays in the preparation of the workforce and, through this, in the contribution education makes to economic development and growth. The qualification function is, however, not restricted to preparation for the world of work. Providing students with knowledge and skills is also important for political literacy understood as the knowledge and skills needed for citizenship, or cultural literacy more generally.

Here, however, we move into a second major function of education to which I will refer as socialization. The socialization function has to do with the many ways in which through education, we become part of particular social, cultural and political “orders.” Sometimes socialization is actively pursued by educational institutions, for example with regard to the transmission of particular norms and values, in relation to the continuation of particular cultural or religious traditions, or for the purpose of professional socialization. But even if socialization is not the explicit aim of educational programs and practices, education will still have a socializing effect, as has been shown by the research on the hidden curriculum. Through its socializing function education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and being. In this way education plays an important role in the continuation of culture and tradition- both with regard to its desirable and its undesirable aspects.

Education does, however, not only contribute to qualification and socialization but also impacts on what we might refer to as individuation or, as I refer to call it, subjectification– the process of becoming a subject (see also Chapters 4 and 5). The subjectification function might perhaps best be understood as the opposite of the socialization function. It is precisely not about the insertion of “newcomers” into existing orders, but about ways of being that hint at independence from such orders, ways of being in which the individual is not simply a “specimen” of a more encompassing order. Whether all education actually contributes to subjectification is debatable. Some would argue that this is not necessarily the case and that the actual influence of education can be confined to qualification and socialization. Others would argue that education always also impacts on the individual- and in this way it always also has an individuating “effect”. What matters more, however, and here we need to shift the discussion from questions about the actual functions of education to questions about the aims, ends and purposes of education, is the “quality” of subjectification, i.e. the kind of subjectivity- or kinds of subjectivity- that are made possible as a result of particular educational arrangements and configurations. It is in relation to this that some would argue- and have argued (see, e.g., in the British tradition of analytical philosophy of education Peters 1966; 1976. Dearden, Hirst, and Peters 1972; and for a recent contribution, Winch 2005; and in the critical tradition Mollenhauer 1964; Freire 1970; Giroux 1981)- that any education worthy of its name should always contribute to processes of subjectification that allow those educated become more autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting.

The main point I wish to make with this chapter is to suggest that when we engage in discussions about what constitutes good education we should acknowledge that this is a composite question, i.e., that in order to answer this question we need to acknowledge that different functions of education and the different potential purposes of education. An answer to the question of what constitutes good education should therefore always specify its view about qualification, socialization and subjectification- even in the unlikely case that one would wish to argue that only one of them matters. To say that the question of what constitutes good education is a composite question is not to suggest that the three dimensions of education can and should be seen as entirely separate. The opposite is the case. When we engage in qualification, we always also impact on socialization and on subjectification. Similarly, when we engage in socialization, we always do so in relation to particular content- and hence link up with the qualification function- and will have an impact on subjectification. And when we engage in education that puts subjectification first, we will usually still do so in relation to a particular curricular content and this will always also have a socializing effect. The three functions of education can therefore be best represented in the form of a Venn diagram, i.e., as three partly overlapping areas, and the more interesting and important questions are actually about the intersections between the areas rather than the individual areas per se.

Where we do need to separate the three dimensions of education is in terms of our rationales for education, i.e., our answers to the question of what constitutes good education. Here it is important to be explicit about how our answers relate to qualification, socialization and/or subjectification. What is most important here is that we are aware of the different dimensions, of the fact that while synergy is possible, there is also potential for conflict between the three dimensions, particularly, so I wish to suggest, between the qualification and socialization dimension on the one and the subjectification dimension on the other (I will return to this in Chapter 4).

(pp. 19-22)

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2 thoughts on “Gert Biesta: qualification, socialization, subjectification

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Kwalificatie-Socialisatie-Subjectificatie

  2. Pingback: Udacity isn’t about education but about job training | From experience to meaning...

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