Introducing… Gert Biesta

In the second article in our series on inspirational activists and scholars, Ray Martin explores the educational philosophy of Gert Biesta. Through his critiques of the education system, Biesta has sought to expose the dangers of the sector being increasingly beholden to the concept of student satisfaction.

PUBLISHED ON 15th April 2021 | WRITTEN BY Ray Martin | Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Education is about arousing the desire in another human being for wanting to exist in the world in a grown-up way (Biesta, 2017: 38)

I think it is important to show why weakness and risk matter in a time when there is such a strong tendency to control education and make it into a machine for the production of a small set of ‘learning outcomes’.

If we take the risk out of education, there is a real chance that we take out education altogether (Biesta, 2013: 1)

Gert Biesta is an unsung hero who can – and does – speak for the many who think education is in a disturbing state. In an interview for The Beautiful Risk of Education (2013), he says: ‘What I try to do with my work is to generate language and arguments that can help to indicate what precisely is going on, why that is problematic, and what might be more productive and meaningful ways forward.’ He says we treat education as a shopping experience, which means we must give students what they want and must, among other things, avoid asking any questions that might cause a student difficulty. Student satisfaction surveys make no sense for him.

‘If my students are satisfied, I have failed as a teacher. I haven’t gone to more difficult places’

Gert Biesta

One response to the ‘fix and control’ form of education that currently dominates is a child/student-centred system where teachers are facilitators and students are free to explore their own ideas, an approach that can, he thinks, remove education. And the question arises: what if these ideas are, say, destructive or racist? He thinks there is a need for a third position – and is quick to say that this is not a position around teaching morality; ‘the educational gesture must remain hesitant and gentle’ (2017:59).

For Biesta, there are three important domains in education. Qualifications (knowledge, skills and dispositions), socialisation (becoming part of existing ‘orders’, e.g. social order) and subjectivity (‘the question of how we can be or become a subject of action and responsibility’) (2013:142). Good teaching – its ‘art’ – is, in his view, getting the balance right between these three domains, but crucially, if the question of the subject disappears, ‘we have ended up in an uneducational space’ (2013:147).

Gert Biesta is Professor of Public Education at the Centre for Public Education and Pedagogy, Maynooth University, Ireland; Professorial Fellow in Educational Theory and Pedagogy, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh; NICVOZ Professor for Education, University of Humanistic Studies, The Netherlands; and Visiting Professor, University of Agder, Norway


Biesta, Gert (2013) The Beautiful Risk of Education London: Paradigm

Biesta, G. (2017) Letting Art Teach: art education ‘after’ Joseph Beuys Arnhem: ArtEZ Press

Naughton, C., Biesta, G. and Cole, D. (eds) (2018) Art, Artists and Pedagogy: philosophy and the arts in education Abingdon: Routledge

Philosophy of Education Society (n.d.) An Interview with Gert Biesta. Accessed 15th April 2021

HKW (2017) Gert Biesta: The Beautiful Risk of Education. [Online video] Accessed 15th April 2021

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