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Keynote 1 – Gert Biesta – Higher Education in the Impulse Society: For a University that Teaches

Contemporary higher education is subject to a large number of demands and expectations from society – both expectations from society ‘at large’ and from groups and individuals within society, including the demands and expectations from students themselves. How higher education should engage with all these demands, knowing that higher education cannot be everything to everyone, is a complex and important question. On the one hand the ways in which higher education institutions engage with these expectations demands on how they see themselves. And here it remains important to acknowledge that higher education institutions in different countries and settings have emerged out of quite differing practical and ideological histories. On the other hand the ways in which higher education engages with its ‘outside’ raises the question what is happening in the outside world and to what extent the expectations emerging in society can and should be taken seriously.

This is a profound educational question, because just as parents who give their children everything they want, run the risk of spoiling them, educational institutions also have a ‘duty to resist,’ as the French educational scholar Philippe Meirieu has put it. In my presentation I will explore these different aspects of the contemporary ‘position’ of higher education and will make a case for a university that sees teaching as its most important educational task.


  • Allgemein


  • Prof. Dr. Gert Biesta


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  • Keynote

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Dear Professor Biesta, thank you for your enlightening presentation!
You mentioned the promise of universities to provide equal chances to all and how this is not really so. Would you say that the focus on elites is so deeply part of the tradition of universities you mentioned that change is slow? Or do power structures within university only reflect the structures of a given society? How do you estimate the influence of the „impulse society“ on opening or closing the access to all?
Kind regards,
Juliane Strohschein

Dear Professor Biesta

Thanks for the interesting and reaction-provoking talk.

For some while now, I have been wondering, already when reading The Rediscovery of Teaching, how you conceptualize learning. As I understand it, you seem to view learning as a fast forward, student-pleasing exchange of consumer goods (certificates?), enhanced by universities which are always trying to reach the next best fix. I think that this view on learning is at least extremely reduced to economy-sought skills, (which is happening in some places, sure), but does not seem to take into account the full scope of what is being discussed as learning.

As for many of the things that you include in teaching, I would actually include in learning: expanding somebody’s views, getting confronted with persistence-requiring situations (and dealing with these confrontations in certain ways), developing ways how to resist the impulsive drives that you mention, reflecting what living in a capitalist society means to us, deriving consequences of this as well as enacting them etc. etc.

I would be grateful if you could reflect on these remarks, assuming that other colleagues would also be interested in a discussion on them. Thanks a lot in advance.

Robert Kordts-Freudinger

In my limited experience of Higher Education systems, I have found them to be driven by higher education policy (i.e. the state) at the macro level and those actors with the most power (university leaders, faculty) at the institutional meso-level. If a consumer culture or a consumer attitude towards educations as a commodity exists to the extent that Prof. Biesta appears to think, policy makers, HE management and faculty should feature somewhere in the analysis, I think…

Dear Professor Biesta, thank you for a thought-provoking lecture (and a welcome opportunity to re-focus on thinking is these action/inaction driven times). I would, however, like to take issue with two of the underlying assumptions.

1. I don’t agree with the premise that Higher Education is (becoming) a consumer-driven system pandering to the (ignorant) presumed needs of the student-consumer and that what we refer to as „learning“ can be equated with „giving students what they want“. For one, I think this grossly exaggerates the role (and power) students have in Higher Education (and consumers have in capitalist economies). Earlier on in your talk, you refer to Apple’s power to produce the desire for new iPhones in its consumers. If we apply this example to Higher Education, whence in the chain between production and consumption would you locate the university? I am not convinced, either, that students as learners are as infantile/ignorant in their wants as you depict them – or at least, not any more or less infantile than any other group of actors in HE. That student organisations like the NUS in the UK very effectively used the national student satisfaction survey and the TEF – amongst other things – to demand a more pluralist curriculum in economics degrees (as happened in Manchester, I think), highlights the problem with your reasoning, I think.

2. While I agree with your sentiment that the purpose of education is emancipation, I am not quite sure where in the history of Higher Education to locate the implicit „golden age“ you seek to defend here. The Napoleonic university? The Humboldtian university? The Newmanian university? The modern (mass) university? At least for the Humboldtian university, its founder Wilhelm von Humboldt recognized that its faculty would – in its approaches, motivations and goals – be as diverse as society around it…

I’m looking forward to other people’s views on this!

Thank you for this amazing talk! I wonder… maybe the missing element is not only teaching, but trust? Trust in the competence of students, in that they might be able to take failure as a chance for learning? Trust in not having to take responsability for the failures of the students?

Another question I ask myself is weather one can teach students to take responsability (and reflexity)? Since taking responsability – even in the sense of the word „response-ability“ 😉 – appears to be one goal or the teaching you describe, if I get it right?

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