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Education As Pluralism: A Humble Manifesto Against Totalitarianism

Authoritarianism and conflict are on the rise around the world. Yet democracy will not be saved on the battlefield but in the classroom. Schools, and more importantly, how teachers teach is crucial in showing the next generations that there is no single defining point of view.

photo of students at desks outside in bergamo italy

Students back to school last year during COVID in Bergamo, Italy

Luca Ponti/ZUMA
Massimo Recalcati*


ROME — In this time of crisis and war, any true supporter of democracy must be reminded of the importance of school for a fundamental reason: to ensure a multiplicity of points of view. No, we must remind ourselves, there is no definitive last word on good and evil, life and death, justice or injustice. Freedom of speech must always be safeguarded: diverse, secular and democratic.

Diversity of points of view implies a bond that connects one person’s view point with another. For, as the COVID pandemic has shown, there is no such thing as one life separate from other lives. There is no such thing as a self-sufficient life, no autonomous life, no life that does not depend on the lives of others.

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The great task of school, in a traumatized time like ours, is to actively practice an ethic of plurality and inclusion. The question that starts with is: Does that happen by educating or by instructing?

This dilemma is at the heart of a historic debate within the field of pedagogy.

What's the difference between instruction and education?

For some, the primary task of school is not to instruct but to educate: its primary focus would be the transmission of principles and values, rather than the simple content of knowledge. For others, the primary goal of all teaching is instead instruction — that is, the effective transmission of knowledge. Both of these positions contain something true, but only partially.

In fact, education and instruction cannot be separated in the living practice of teaching. In other words, there is always instruction in education as there is always education in instruction.The rigid opposition between instruction and education needs to go.

Instead, the relationship resembles that between the inside and the outside of the Möbius strip, where one passes into the other in an unbroken continuum.

But what does this mean in the concrete life of school? When a teacher competently, energetically and eagerly conveys their knowledge while respecting the individuality of students' learning styles, are they merely conveying specialized knowledge or are they also generating powerful educational effects?

Education can never be one subject. It should know how to cultivate both the collective growth of a group and the development of a student’s individuality.

The rigor, dedication, enthusiasm and even joy that can accompany the experience of knowledge transmission are the true educational effects caused by instruction.

A good teacher is not a moral philosopher; they do not claim to lead the lives of their students in the right direction (what would that be anyway?). Teaching is always educational per se, without it wanting to be. For this reason, it can never be separated from relationships because its goal is not simply to transfer notions into the learners' heads but to enable life to give itself its own singular shape.

photo of students holding 'stop war' sign

Students in Poland protest against the war in Ukraine

Krzysztof Zatycki/ZUMA

The most acute form of ignorance

This is the core of every educational process. It works towards the realization that there is no "one language" and "one people." This was the tragic mirage of the Babelites in their totalitarian and undemocratic project of building a tower capable of defying the power of God.

There is no knowledge that claims to be the only knowledge, no value that claims to be the only value.

The same mirage is evident in today's war in Ukraine, which was unleashed by Vladimir Putin's imperialist colonialism. What's crucial to always remember is that while each person is unique in their own learning style and existence, it is necessarily never the only way. Formative education flourishes only when we eliminate the totalitarian idea that there is only one language and one people.

This is the deepest foundation of democracy. School should carry the desire for openness and multiplication of languages that renders it antagonistic to all ideological regimentation. This is the point of maximum convergence between instruction and education. There is no knowledge that claims to be the only knowledge, just as there is no value that claims to be the only value. It is the opposite of the violence of war, of the overpowering of minorities, of cruelty, the opposite the arrogance of power.

Defending our freedom means defending the openness of school. It is no coincidence that in all totalitarian regimes, school is transformed into a machine for standardization, for forging thought and eliminating dissimilarities. This temptation runs through every ideology: to hold one's own version of the world superior to the rival one.

Instead, the democratic task of every school should be to show the authoritarian nature of this temptation, recognizing that the claim to possess truth is actually the most acute form of ignorance.

*Massimo Recalcati is an Italian psychoanalyst and best-selling author

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Photo of Elon Musk looking down at screens featuring Twitter's blue bird logo

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