Emmanuel Levinas - educational contract: responsibility, hope, and alliance

Hanoch Ben-Pazi

 

This book proposes a reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophical thought on education. In this way, it is neither a biographical essay on Levinas the educator nor an examination of Levinas’s educational methods, two subjects that have been addressed elsewhere, but rather an attempt to identify and engage with the thinking on education that emerges from Levinas’s writings and philosophical thought. The challenge which Levinas poses to the reader, the scholar, and the educator is particularly interesting because of the manner in which he engages with modern philosophical thought, ethics, and epistemology (the theory of consciousness); the world of Jewish sources, including the Talmud and Medieval Jewish thought; and the concrete field of education. Levinas teaches us the significance of the encounter between individuals – between teachers and their students – in the challenging and obligating educational act. Ultimately, he shows us the innovation and the sublime, living, and productive nature that is unique to the realm of teaching and learning.

Levinas’s philosophy of education is a fascinating phenomenological inquiry into the meaning of parenthood, childhood, knowledge, hope, and messianism. It is a philosophy of responsibility toward the Other and awareness of the complexity of assuming this responsibility. His thinking ranges from the ethical imperative of respecting the uniqueness and alterity of the Other to the establishment of a new learning community that bears responsibility for its surroundings. Levinas ascribes ethical and moral importance both to learning and to the recognition of knowledge that lies beyond the learner’s reach. The commandment to ‘do good’ and the demand to

bear responsibility emerge from a philosophical reading of Levinas in the full theoretical and intellectual richness of the individual’s standing as a person, a teacher, or a student. Contemplating Levinasian philosophy from an educational perspective is ethically challenging, and its actualization in the educational realm is a profoundly rigorous undertaking that precludes even momentary relief or respite. Indeed, from a Levinasian perspective, the ethical demand on the educator is infinite. From this perspective, institutional regulations, including the regulations of different education ministries and students’ rights charters, appear to be no more than a relief of sorts as opposed to the demand for infinite responsibility which, in the eyes of Levinas, is borne by the educator.

Levinasian philosophy has two gazes: one that engages general philosophy and the universal questions of the field of education, and another, stemming from Levinas’s devout interest in Jewish sources, that looks inward into Jewish education. This book examines the issue of education question from an ethical perspective, with an emphasis on the new meaning assigned to Jewish education based on the ethical interpretation of the educational act.

Levinas’s philosophical discourse engages many close and distant circles, conducting a dialogue with Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber on the essence of Jewish education, and a profound and meaningful exchange with the world of phenomenology, with implications pertaining to the act of education itself. This dual discourse requires consideration of the relationship between these two worlds of particularism and universalism. However, at the end of the reading proposed in this book, we also discover in Levinas’s philosophy of education a new, largely political meaning that enables a fresh understanding of the concept of covenant – as an innovative type of social contract based on education and learning.