Weakness Theory

Weakness Theory is not a single theory, but a catch-all term that we are using to indicate a fascinating array of ideas around the notion of weakness. We are exploring how fruitful these ideas might be for educators working in schools and universities.
The notion of weakness is deployed in recent work in the philosophy of education, especially by Gert J.J. Biesta and Tyson E. Lewis. For simplicity’s sake, this brief essay will highlight and respond to just a few aspects of these approaches. The primary sources should be consulted for a more complete view of each theorist’s position. Additionally, there is an important philosophical tradition designated ‘weak thought’ (il pensiero debole) that is distinct from, but not at all irrelevant to, the educational ideas discussed here. 
The easiest introduction to ‘weakness’ in educational theory is Biesta’s open-access article, ‘On the Weakness of Education’ (Philosophy of Education (2009): 354-62). Biesta’s starting point is the language of ‘strength’ that dominates formal education in our time:
By ‘strong language,’ I mean to refer to language that depicts education as something that is, or has the potential to be, secure and effective – for example, where the aim is to establish a strong and secure connection between educational ‘inputs’ and educational ‘outcomes.’ This is, for example, the language of educational effectiveness: the language of effective schools, effective teaching, strong leadership and teacher-proof curricula. 
(‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 354)
In response to this, Biesta argues that education cannot be reduced to a ‘technology’ with ‘totally predictable outcomes’ and ‘totally guaranteed’ successes (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 354). This is because the relationship between teaching and learning is not ‘physical,’ but ‘hermeneutic,’ as students interpret their experience and try to make sense of it (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 354). 
Biesta writes of education’s function as tripartite. It delivers knowledge in order to qualify students for doing something in society; it socializes students as sharers in existing cultural norms and values; and it contributes to ‘the subjectification of children and young people’ which amounts to facilitating the emergence of unique and free selves (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 355-56). Qualification, socialization and subjectification are complexly interrelated functions that Biesta explores in his books, Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics and Democracy (2010) and The Beautiful Risk of Education (2014).
The metaphor of strength seems a natural fit with highly prescriptive educational systems that require compliance from students and teachers on a large scale as well as in fine detail. Strength is suggestive not only of the intense compliance aspect, but also of the conceptual robustness of the system in terms of its seizure and overt holding of the high moral ground in teaching and learning, its (re-)definition of professional vocabulary, its control of episodes of teaching and learning, and its interlocking subsystems.
Biesta suggests that strong educational paradigms fall down when it comes to enabling the singularity and uniqueness of the self (i.e. subjectification) because such a thing cannot be forcibly produced and stands in contradistinction to socialization (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 361). 
Biesta concludes that:
weak education leaves us, as educators, empty-handed. But this does not mean that we, as educators, should just sit back and do nothing. The question we should ask about our educational arrangements—our curricula, our pedagogies, our activity plans, and the ways in which we run, design and build schools—is whether they would preclude any encounters or experiences that have the potential for singularization. 
(‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 361)
Biesta’s account is evocative, but may leave educators wondering about how to actualize pedagogical weakness. To our mind, this question (the actualization of Weakness Theory) is possibly the most important one on the table. It is fraught with complications:
  • What would pedagogical weakness look like in the classroom or in respect to the teacher, student, curriculum or subject area?
  • What does a conceptual binary of strength versus weakness commit us to? Is it a valid, necessary or useful description of the context?
  • Is the idea of educational weakness redundant rather than illuminating because practices we might nominate as beneficially weak are currently (already) occurring within supposedly strong systems?
  • Given that Weakness Theory tends to assume it has the moral high ground against oppressive conceptual regimes, we need to ask: what are the moral virtues of strong educational systems (in respect to their strength, but also in respect to their attempts to enable practices we might associate with weakness)?
  • Is educational weakness only meaningful in relation to strong systems? Can it, and need it, ever be philosophically or practically pure, self-sufficient or uncontradictory?
In Good Education in an Age of Measurement, Biesta urges a ‘pedagogy of interruption’ to make sure our students do not ‘become immune to what might affect, interrupt and trouble them’ (Good Education, 90). Such a pedagogy, Biesta continues, ‘acknowledges the fundamental weakness of education vis-à-vis the question of subjectification’ and this is good ‘because it is only when we give up the idea that human subjectivity can in some way be educationally produced that spaces might open up for uniqueness to come into the world’ (Good Education, 91). There is a plea here for the importance of educators not obstructing plurality and difference.
However, we must admit that human subjecthood, uniqueness and freedom are mindbendingly complicated notions and all are hard, if not impossible, to conceive as produced or shaped by single forces. These days, much education at school and university is inflected to varying degrees by constructivist approaches and gives space to exploratory, open-ended, problem-based and creative opportunities for students. The difference between the third (McGraw Hill, 2007) and fourth (McGraw Hill, 2011) editions of John Biggs and Catherine Tang’s classic Teaching for Quality Learning at University illustrates something of this shift by the newer edition giving ‘unpredicted’ learning outcomes slightly more attention and value.
The rising (though still very much contained) prominence of the undetermined or unpredicted within mainstream educational paradigms such as Biggs and Tang’s is accompanied by more radical work on the weakening of educational teleology in order to liberate learning and studentness from instrumentalisation and overdetermination. Consider, for example, Tyson E. Lewis’ On Study: Giorgio Agamben and Educational Potentiality (Routledge, 2013) and Andrea R. English’s Discontinuity in Learning: Dewey, Herbart and Education as Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 
Biesta returns to the philosophical and practical value of pedagogical weakness in The Beautiful Risk of Education (2014). Weakness is presented as crucial to key educational concerns including creativity, communication, teaching and learning, in addition to subjectivity, emancipation and democracy. The book teases out the multiple relevancies of weakness in the context of the ‘learnification’ of modern educational discourse which tends to override the importance of teacher professional judgement with a relentless imposition of empirical, definitional and input-output focussed claims and requirements (Beautiful Risk, 62-64; Good Education, 17-19). Biesta connects weakness philosophically back to John Dewey and outward to Jacques Ranciere, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt.
While Biesta argues for a ‘pedagogy of interruption’ as one way to actualise weakness in education, Lewis develops the notion of ‘weak utopianism’ in On Study (especially Chapter 5, pp. 95-115) and his article ‘The Architecture of Potentiality: Weak Utopianism and Educational Space in the Work of Giorgio Agamben,’ Utopian Studies 23.2 (2012): 355-73. Lewis’ conception of ‘weak utopianism’ is part of his larger argument about educational potentiality which is based on the work of Giorgio Agamben. The idea here is that neoliberal educational paradigms have so instrumentalised education (with overemphasis on testing, standards, process, progression, efficiency and utility) that student potential finds itself relentlessly actualised in pre- and overdetermined ways. To actualise potential in this way is to fulfil it, but also seal and destroy it. Lewis wants to return full potential (which is coexistent with freedom) to students and to education by theorising an alternative to neoliberal norms of educational progress. He does so via the notion of ‘im-potential’ which is a state of uncompromised potential, uncompromised because it signifies potential not just to do or become something, but equally to not do or not become. 
Educationalists tirelessly devise prescriptive, utopian schemes for the reconfiguration and rescue of education. Lewis’ response is to resist the managerial strength of education (understood in terms similar to Biesta), but also to resist imposing a strong, though utopian, paradigm in its place. Lewis writes: 
If strong utopianism builds blueprints in order to actualise or concretise the potentiality of the utopian imagination, then weak utopianism resists constructing such blueprints in order to live within the im-potentiality of present possibilities.
(On Study, p. 95)
He adds: 
weak utopianism in the design of educational time(s) and space(s) undoes the strong tendency in education toward functionalism (to orient practice toward predetermined ends) and authority (to prescribe what these ends are and how best to achieve them).... [W]eak utopianism opens up indeterminate educational coordinates for a type of study that cannot be measured, made into an instrument of learning, or controlled in advance by experts.
(On Study, p. 96)
So, how might ‘weak utopianism’ look in practice? Rather than imagining wholesale reconfigurations to create perfect schools of and in the future (a strong utopian model), Lewis emphasises the need for present tense interventions in educational time and space that resemble open-ended ‘tinkering’ with formal educational frames so as to suspend traditional pedagogical methods (a weak model). He gives particular attention to the ‘notch’ (On Study, 113-15) or ‘jolted floor plan’ described by David Tyack and Larry Cuban in Tinkering towards Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Harvard University Press, 1995) (pp. 137-38). This is a minor physical alteration to architectural classroom space that lets in a breeze of new learning possibilities. Lewis finds this example useful, but necessarily must reject Tyack and Cuban’s idea of such tinkering as part of progressive reform because it is a strong utopianism model. ‘Instead of tinkering toward,’ Lewis writes, ‘I would emphasise tinkering, full stop’ (On Study, p. 114).
When we consider Biesta and Lewis together, three questions arise:
  • What is the role of the teacher or expert in these weak paradigms? Biesta theorises the important role of the teacher and teaching more emphatically than Lewis (see Beautiful Risk, pp. 43-58).
  • Can weakness really get us anywhere on its own terms, or is it always philosophically positioned as a loosening or aerating of strong paradigms? In other words, can Weakness Theory ever be more than a pedagogical supplement (that is always already belated and ephemeral) to stronger paradigms? 
  • The previous question suggests a point of connection to philosophical ‘weak thought’: in what way is it possible for postmetaphysical paradigms to be or persist without paradox and with credible intellectual and practical traction? 
If you would like to learn more about the neoliberal educational context, Steven C. Ward’s Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge, 2012) is a superb account. If you cannot access this book, an internet search for ‘neoliberalism and education’ readily turns up numerous open-access resources. 
If you are interested in pursuing the philosophical tradition of ‘weak thought,’ three key texts we can recommend are:
Internet searching will also produce some open-access resources. 
The Shakespeare Reloaded project is exploring how Weakness Theory – whether associated with philosophical ‘weak thought,’ the theories of Biesta and Lewis, or other approaches – might be valuable (or not) in educational contexts. We are especially interested in Literary Studies and the humanities, but even within this area it is likely that disciplinary differences may variously inflect how weakness might be theorised and actualised. 
One approach we have taken is the experimentation with what we call ‘ardenspaces.’ These are artificially created, infinitely diverse, temporary learning contexts that operate in relation to - that is, productively with and against - neoliberal educational systems and are designed to provoke the emergence of the unpredicted.
We have a long way to go, and we’d love to hear what others are thinking and doing around this matrix of ideas. Please join us on Facebook or Twitter to comment.
How to cite this essay: Liam E Semler, 'Weakness Theory,' Shakespeare Reloaded. http://www.shakespearereloaded.edu.au. 2014.