New book explores the emotions induced by education

Just thinking about education can induce feelings of anxiety, love, hate and narcissistic injury in people, says Deborah Britzman, York Distinguished Research Professor of Education. And that’s one of the reasons why the field of education remains fraught.

“It raises for everyone an emotional situation,” says Britzman, who is part of York’s Faculty of Education. In her latest book, The Very Thought of Education: Psychoanalysis and the Impossible Professions (SUNY Press, 2009), her fourth on the topic of psychoanalysis, Britzman explores what it means to go through the education system and then return as a teacher and professor. What does growing up in school do to the concept of education?

Right: Deborah Britzman

“The desire to become a teacher is also grounded in one’s experience of growing up in education, and teachers and professor tend to unconsciously repeat or even try to repair their childhood experience," she says. And this plays out in the classroom, in the lesson plan, in the syllabus, in the office hours and so on.

Educators often disavow their experience of growing up in education and think teaching has to do with transmitting what they know, says Britzman. But she thinks they should start with what they don’t know, opening it up to unimagined possibilities.

“Education is always tied to the tension between reality and fantasy,” says Britzman. Sigmund Freud talked about the impossible professions as being education, law and medicine. “I tend to see education threading through them all. They are impossible because we try to influence others and are influenced by them. They are subjective professions. They lean on the minds of the practitioner."

Britzman draws upon novels, art, psychoanalytic theory, clinical material and philosophical debates on human nature to present a psychoanalytic education of uncertainty. She focuses on the key encounters of thinking, development, reading, psychology, transference, counter-transference and learning a profession. Britzman explores the fantasies of education for the purpose of returning ideas of grace, hope, humour and humility to the impossible professions.

Dependency, need, anxiety, fantasy and the unconscious are just some of the emotional situations Britzman wants to bring to the table when thinking about the education of the educator, whether it’s a university professor or an elementary school teacher. “I’m trying to bring the concept of education into discussion with the wider university. While we may automatically equate education with children, I hope that we allow education, as a concept, relationship and an experience, to grow up.”

Britzman says she places education in-between illusion and hope, and disillusion and criticism, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between them. "This uncertainty, which is always there, is the heart of learning as well as its vulnerability," says Britzman. "Teachers and professors are often unaware of their own emotion world and the ways it is used in teaching and learning."

Britzman says professors and teachers can take a more relational approach to education, one that is not so rigid and that allows the imagination to flourish. She reminds readers that education has a capacity to destroy the mind as much as the capacity to create one. One of the great paradoxes of growing up in school is that learning and punishment have become unconsciously linked, and what universities should do is begin to uncouple learning from punishment, says Britzman. Education needs to encourage curiosity and to defend freedom of association and thinking.

“The shadowy world of education is what I’m interested in exploring,” says Britzman. “The things we can’t see.” The unconscious and the shadow it casts. “The idea of education belongs to all of us. It’s not just residing in the Faculty of Education.”

Britzman, winner of the International Federation of Psychoanalytic Education’s 2007 Distinguished Psychoanalytic Educator’s Award, is the author of several books, including Novel Education: Psychoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning (Peter Lang Publishing, 2006), After-Education: Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and Psychoanalytic Histories of Learning (SUNY Press, 2003), Practice Makes Practice: A Critical Study of Learning to Teach, Revised Edition (SUNY Press, 2003) and Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning (SUNY Press, 1998).

She is currently working on a new book, An Introduction to Freud and Education.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer