Little Children Ask A Lot…

Thanks to all those who participated in the conference, which raised – I think – more questions about a “Benjaminian pedagogy” than it answered, but which began the productive work of addressing these themes within his work and more generally of recognizing the significance of the early writings (what I have suggested is the “first production cycle“) as both important in their own right and in relation to his later political philosophy.

In the end, we weren’t able to record the talks but we are planning to publish as many as possible as a book or journal collection and I will post more details on this site once we have them. Below is a transcript of my introductory remarks and some photos from the conference.


It is incumbent on me to explain why we have chosen to talk about the figure of Walter Benjamin through the thematic lenses of Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth, and to give some brief contextual framework to these ideas in Benjamin’s thought.

Judging by the number of recent publications on education, not only by those working within Education Studies but also by philosophers and political theorists elsewhere, I believe it is possible to claim a resurgence of interest in the philosophy and the politics of education today. It was Gerald Graff who first spoke, in the early 1990s, of a specific “Pedagogical Turn” in Theory, predicting a deepening of and movement beyond the “Cultural Turn” of the Twentieth Century. But the broader context of this more recent turn is that of the neoliberal transformation of Higher Education, beginning with the Bologna Accord in Europe, the Browne Report in England and Wales, and unprecedented tuition fee hikes in North America and Canada. All of this takes place against the backdrop of more general privatization of primary, secondary, as well as further educational institutions. As Rupert Murdoch has declared, schools are the “the last holdout from the digital revolution” and a cursory glance at the shifting structures of businesses such as News Corporation reveals the extent to which this emerging “Education Industry” is regarded as ripe for capital investment. It is, however, also important to recognize that the precondition for this was the previous massification of education, in terms of both its student demographic and, as a complement to this, a growing institutional extension into new disciplines and practices. I think it is the tension between these two moments – first, massification; then, privatization – that has produced what is now declared to be (quoting Martha Nussbaum) a “world-wide crisis in education” and in particular a “crisis of humanities”.

The most notorious polemics of the Frankfurt School from the 1930s  and 40s were responding in their own way to a comparable “crisis” at the more general level of Culture, as it confronted the emergence of an ostensibly “mass culture” under the conditions of its increasing commodification. It is therefore possible to trace the movement of an ideological drift from Religion as the dominant state apparatus in the pre-capitalist period, through the attempted construction of (national) State Culture in the late 19th and 20th centuries, to the beginnings of the dissolution of that cultural project in contemporary educational institutions at the beginning of the 21st century, alongside the growing ideological fetishization of “Education, Education, Education”.  A pedagogical turn might therefore by read as doubly symptomatic: first, of a turn from Culture as a once dominant ideological force under industrial capitalism in the twentieth century nation-State; second, of the emerging ideological crisis of Education itself in increasingly transnational and multicultural societies of the twenty-first century “knowledge economy”.

Framing the situation in these terms indicates just some of the complexity of our current historical situation. It is one in which, I think, there still exists – if only briefly – a real possibility of meaningful political and pedagogical struggle in and around issues of the theory and practice of education within and outside of academic institutions. This is, no doubt, a continuation and intensification of those critical engagements of the twentieth century which took place primarily in the domain of culture, art, and aesthetics. But if the spirit of critical theory is to live up to its legacy today, I would argue that its actuality resides in taking up this struggle, at this historical conjuncture, within the context of critical theories of mass education and pedagogy.


It is here, I believe, that Benjamin’s work may help us. But assessing the legacy of his own early engagement with issues of educational reform and the student-led Youth Movement in pre-First World War Germany could only begin after the publication of his the complete Gesammelte Schriften in the 1970s, and in English with the translations collected in Volume 1 of the Selected Writings only published in 1996, and in the Early Writings translated in the last two years. For these reasons alone, I think – certainly in the Anglophone reception of his work – we are immersed in a period of productive scholarly re-engagement with Benjamin’s writings on education. But in addition, in light of the historical moment raised above, I think it is also possible to speak, in Benjaminian terms, of a retrospective illumination or recognizability of what I regard as the fundamentally pedagogical essence of Benjamin’s corpus.

To justify this claim, I think it may be useful to delineate two significant periods in Benjamin’s life and work in relation to this educational context: that associated with the Youth Movement from around 1910-1917 and that in which Benjamin was perhaps closest to Bolshevism around 1927-1934.

The first period, between 1910 and 1917, is that in which Benjamin – in his late teens and early twenties – is actively engaged in the programme of educational reform associated with sections of the German Youth Movement assembled around the student journal Der Anfang (“The Beginning”) and around the “Free Students’ Associations” of the Universities. In the chronologizing of Benjamin’s work, these years might be said to frame a third, overlapping “production cycle” to be added to those of the ‘Germanistic’ (in the late 1910s and 1920s) and ‘Parisian’ (of the late 1920s and 1930s). The idea under which this epoch of Benjamin’s life is to be constructed is that of Youth; its antagonist is the German education system, regarded as the primary locus of the philistine, bourgeois impoverishment of culture and the ideals of youth. It is an epoch marked above all by the personal and intellectual influence of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken and his vision of an independent “Youth Culture,” which Wyneken promoted first at the progressive boarding school in Haubinda (which Benjamin briefly attended), then at the Free School Community in Wickersdorf, and also in collaboration with the Free Students’ Associations of the Universities (in which Benjamin played a significant role).


Judged in terms of immediate public influence, this epoch perhaps constitutes the most successful period of Benjamin’s career. His article, ‘School Reform: A Cultural Movement’, appeared in a 1912 pamphlet, ten thousand copies of which were distributed to universities throughout Germany. By 1913 Benjamin held a leading role in the Anfang movement and in 1914 was elected president of the Free Students’ association at the University of Berlin. At this point, Anfang had 1,000 subscribers and the movement as a whole 3,000 members. It was radical enough and popular enough that Wyneken was denounced by the Bavarian minister of culture, the journal banned in Bavaria and the “Sprechsaal” (or student “Meeting Rooms”) closed. Similar accusations were made before the Prussian and Baden parliaments.

The outbreak of war, however, splintered an already fracturing movement. Several members of Benjamin’s circle committed suicide, including Benjamin’s close friends Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson. After this, Benjamin ceased his involvement in the movement and turned away from most of his comrades, including Wyneken, whose public support of the German war effort he denounced as a betrayal of Youth. It is important to recognize, however, that Benjamin’s break from the Movement itself does not simultaneously constitute a rejection of this early philosophy, but contributes to the submerging of his political position into what he himself calls a ‘harder, purer, more invisible radicalism’. The existential significance of this traumatic break thus constitutes the historical layer of an underground or cryptic politics of his later writings.


The second important period is that around 1927 -1934, beginning with Benjamin’s two month stay in Soviet Moscow, when – politically and aesthetically – he became increasingly involved in the circle around the Marxist intellectual Bertolt Brecht, originally via the mediation of the Bolshevik theatre director and educationalist Asja Lacis, who – it is not often enough said – was an important intellectual influence in her own right. In one of the “street scenes” from his Moscow Diary, written during his visit to Lacis in Moscow, Benjamin describes the crowds of war orphans in the proletarian neighbourhoods. For them, he writes, traditional pedagogical methods are useless: the only way for the educator to teach and understand these children is to make contact with the whole collective life of the street. When he describes such State-run children’s centres, it is the radical pedagogy of the theatre schools first established by Lacis that provides the model, as it would for “Communist Pedagogy” he described a few years later.

From 1927 onwards, Benjamin became increasingly fascinated with developing a materialist history of childhood, toys, play, and education; a stance through which he develops his own anthropological materialist understanding of the mimetic faculty and from which he is deeply critical of existing bourgeois theories of child psychology and pedagogy. These interests finds intellectual expression in his collaborations with Brecht in 1930 on a planned journal to be entitled Crisis and Critique, which was to focus on the changing role of intellectuals in a period of social, political and economic crises. In one formulation, Brecht writes that the project was conceived as focusing on three areas: the creation of “capitalist pedagogics”, “proletarian pedagogics”, and “classless pedagogics”.

The dual influence of Lacis and Brecht provides not merely an aesthetic influence but a specifically pedagogical context for Benjamin’s distinctive engagement with Bolshevism and historical materialism. This involves not merely a materialist critique of existing pedagogical theory but, simultaneously, a fundamentally pedagogical rethinking of Marxist concepts of history and revolution. Benjamin foregrounds the importance of educational tasks for revolutionary politics. But the belief that the bourgeois “knowledge”, “science”, and “culture” through which the proletariat had once been dominated could be appropriated untransformed by the proletariat was declared naive: detached as it was from practice, and conceiving its audience as a public rather than a class, it was useless for revolutionary struggle.

These critical engagements therefore reconnect, within a changed political framework, with Benjamin’s earliest critique of bourgeois education. Yet his earlier metaphysics of Youth could not be left untransformed by this change. In the early drafts of his ‘Berlin Chronicle’ from 1932, the Anfang movement is remembered as ‘a final, heroic attempt to change the attitudes of people without changing their circumstances’. ‘[M]uch time was to pass,’ Benjamin adds, ‘before the realization matured that no one can improve his school or his parental home without first smashing the state that needs bad ones’.


Let me conclude by suggesting that the belated availability of Benjamin’s earliest writings, coupled with a tendency to dismiss these as mere juvenilia, has contributed to a peculiar depoliticization of Benjamin’s early thought, which connects to the later work via the claim that this late work contains a cryptic or concealed politics. For example, T. J. Clarke claims that the two dominant ideas declared as ‘articles of my politics’ by Benjamin in the unfinished Arcades Project, are ultimately ‘cryptic’, because, for Clark, it is ‘as if such a politics were being actively aired and developed elsewhere’. If these articles constitute the cryptic manifestations of a politics, however, this is not because such a politics remains undisclosed. Benjamin’s politics is aired and developed in his early metaphysics of Youth; later, it is collectivized within a metaphysical framework of revolutionary struggle.

Allow me to demonstrate this by tracing the movement of one thought-figure across Benjamin’s work. In notes from the early 1920s that develop ideas from his dissertation on Early German Romanticism, Benjamin compares the “pedagogic authority” of certain historians with the Late Romantic theory of Observation: “For the Late Romantics, observation was a sun beneath whose rays the object of love opens up. But if the rays were withheld, the object of love remained in the dark and wilted…. the power that is ascribed here to observation is basically identical to the gaze of the father in education.” Without explicitly recalling Gustav Wyneken’s notion of “erotic education” – by this point a subterranean current within his thought – Benjamin identifies this paternal gaze with a form of “nonviolent control” that is contrasted with the authoritarian violence of corporal punishment.

If we turn to the startling conclusions of One-Way Street, written a few years later, Benjamin returns to this theme in the more materialist context of the historical significance of technology: “The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.” Here the “nonviolent control” earlier identified with the pedagogic gaze – an experience which mediates between subject and object, theory and practice, without dominating either – is assumed by a humanized technology and contrasted with both the domination of Youth by the “cane wielding” teacher and of Nature by the “bomb wielding” imperialist,

Finally, in the second version of ‘The Work of Art’ essay from the mid-1930s, exactly the same contrast between the “cane wielding” Master and the “nonviolent” educationalist is invoked to draw a distinction between concepts of “first” and “second” technology hinted at in the conclusion of One-Way Street. Currently existing first technology is said to aim at a mastery over nature, through the maximal possible utilization of humans, whereas a utopian second technology experimentally and playfully aims not at domination but a nonviolent and experimental interplay between nature and humanity.

Technological is thus assigned the fundamentally pedagogical function of the progressive educator in these later writings; the pedagogical experience increasingly collectivized and historicized in the context of a revolutionary struggle over the ownership and aims of technology. It is this figure of the collective body of humanity flexing its new technological organs that supplies Benjamin with his concept of revolutions as “innvervations of the collective”: one of the two “articles of his politics” in the Arcades Project that T. J. Clark – without recourse to Benjamin’s earliest “politics of Youth” – could only declare as “cryptic”).

DSC02304Benjamin’s relationship to academic institutions was always that of a critical outsider: deeply cynical about the assumptions that undergird their pedagogical power, deeply suspicious of their complicity with the ruling classes. It is amusing to recall, however, that continuously through his adult life Benjamin held one of the highest possible academic positions. In 1918 he was instilled by his friend Gerhard Scholem as “rector mirabilis” of the entirely fictional and viciously satirical “University of Muri”. Inscribed over the entrance to the University, Benjamin reported, was the motto “Lirum larum Löffelstiel, kleine Kinder fragen viel”. The first half expresses in childlike form a nonsense rhyme that accompanied a game, the second part adjusted by Benjamin. If we wanted to preserve the rhyme, we might translate this as:  “Lirum larum pepper-pot / Little children ask a lot”. As Benjamin’s biographers has written, referring to the proto-revolutionary figures of children in One-Way Street, ‘all the motifs of future salvation are already present in childhood’.


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