Free Article: Towards a Critique of Educative Violence

I was fortunate to be involved in a symposium, organized by Carrie Paechter and introduced by Michael Rosen, on ‘Water Benjamin, Childhood and Pedagogy’ in the Department of Educational Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, last summer (July 2015). I believe the papers are going to be published in an upcoming special issue of Pedagogy, Culture and Society, but some are already available online, including Esther Leslie on ‘Colonial and communist pedagogy’ (, Íris Susana Pires Pereira and Brenton Doecke on ‘Storytelling for ordinary, practical purposes (Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Storyteller’)’ (, and a revised version of my own paper. Other speakers at the symposium included Eric L. Tribunella, Gillian Lathey, and Sam Dolbear & Hannah Proctor.

It is worth pointing out that Esther Leslie and Sam Dolbear have also been involved in Verso’s new translation of some of Benjamin’s fictional writings, The Storyteller, which includes two of his reviews of books on children’s educational literature: a negative 1930 review of Alois Jalkotzy’s Märchen und Gegenwart. Das deutsche Volksmärchen und unsere Zeit [Fairy Tales and the Present: The German Folk Tale and Our Time] and a positive 1931 review of numbers 2 and 3 of Tom Siedmann-Freud’s Spielfibel [Play Primer].

25-Tom-Seidmann-Freud-Hurra-wir-rechnen-Spielfibel-No-3_900The first review examines Jalkotzy’s work as an example of a ‘the new pedagogy, the fun-loving reformism’ which Benjamin criticizes as a ‘colonial pedagogy’ because it  regards education within a commodity-producing society as merely the opportunity to sell cultural goods to children, perceived according to child psychology as ‘the exact counterpart to that famous “psychology of primitive peoples” as heaven-sent consumers of European junk wares’ under colonialism (The Storyteller, Verso, 196). In contrast, Benjamin praises the ‘radical pedagogy’ of Tom Siedelmann-Freud’s Spielfibel. Siedelmann-Freud was Sigmund Freud’s niece, Marta, who took the name “Tom”  when she became an artist and illustrator. As well as children’s books such as Kleine Märchen (Little Fairy Tales, 1921), Die Fischreise (The Fish’s Travels, 1923), Buch der Hasengeschichten (Book of Rabbit Stories, 1924), Buch der erfüllten Wünsche (Book of Fulfilled Wishes, 1929), Das Zauberboot (The Magic Boat, 1929), she also published playful and interactive educational books to help children read, write and draw (Benjamin had positively reviewed the first Spielfibel the year before). Esther Leslie picks up on a number of these ideas in her own article for Pedagogy, Culture and Society.

The paper I presented at the Goldsmiths symposium was on ‘Education as Transmissibility’ and in it I tried to develop some of the connections between Benjamin’s early conception of educational transmission and his later writings on the “teaching-value” of art, and in particular radio plays. For reasons of time, the discussion of Benjamin’s radio plays had to be curtailed in the version I presented, and when it came to revising into an article for publication I decided to focus in much more detail on Benjamin’s idea of “educative Gewalt” in the Critique of Violence essay. I still hope to return to the radio broadcasts another time.

In the meantime, the article, ‘Towards a Critique of Educative Violence: Walter Benjamin and “second education”‘ has been published online. The distinction I draw here and elsewhere between concepts of “first” and “second” education in Benjamin’s pedagogy maps onto the distinction between a ‘colonial’ and ‘communist’ or ‘radical’ pedagogy discussed by Esther Leslie in her article. As I discuss in the article, I take the terms “first” and “second” education from his comparison with “first” and “second” technology in the ‘Work of Art’ essay – itself derived from a comparison with “first” and “second” nature in Hegel and Lukács, etc. – which can be traced back via ‘To the Planetarium’ in One-Way Street to the legacy of his earlier writings on education.

Rote_Ruhrarmee_1920My interest in this article was to articulate this distinction in terms not of a contrast between ‘violent’ and ‘peaceful’ modes of educational transmission but rather between two concepts of educational force or violence, a negative, political one versus a positive, revolutionary-theological one:

Although modern systems of mass education are typically defined in their opposition to violence, it has been argued that it is only through an insistent and critical focus upon violence that radical thought can be sustained. This article seeks to take up this challenge in relation to Walter Benjamin’s lesser known writings on education. Benjamin retained throughout his life a deep suspicion about academic institutions and about the pedagogic, social and economic violence implicated in the idea of cultural transmission. He nonetheless remained committed to the possibility of another kind of revolutionary potential inherent to true education and, when he comes to speak of this in his Critique of Violence, , it is remarkable that he describes it as manifesting an educative violence. This article argues that Benjamin’s philosophy works toward a critique of educative violence that results in a distinction between a ‘first’ and ‘second’ kind of education and asks whether destruction might have a positive role to play within pedagogical theories in contrast to current valorisations of creativity and productivity.

Unless you have a subscription to the journal, the article is locked, but you can access a free download by clicking the following link:



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