Vol. LXXV (2017) - No. 266 Walter Benjamin: Filosofía y pedagogía [Walter Benjamin: Philosophy and pedagogy]

Ballester, L. and Colom, A. J. (2015).

Walter Benjamin: Filosofía y pedagogía [Walter Benjamin: Philosophy and pedagogy].

Barcelona: Octaedro. 253 pp.

In an academic fi like pedagogy, which is already widely acknowledged as a science, it is common to fi treatises, articles, research projects, and studies that approach education from a scientific perspective. Indeed, this type of text is the most used when training individuals who wish to teach. It is believed that only in this way can they teach with scientifi rigour, independently discovering how to prepare hypotheses and follow and apply a method, thanks to the proven certainty of bodies of knowledge previously acquired through these texts. There are even numerous works along these lines for parents who also wish to have the scientifi certainty that teachers now enjoy.

In contrast, testimonies, pedagogical writings that approach education taking individual experience as a basis without a method or scientific basis as a foundation, texts simply based on educational observation and reflection in a given moment with concrete experiences as their basis, are becoming ever rarer. These documents do not provide security or certainty, but may be the ones that teach us the most. The work discussed here is a clear example of this latter group, containing in its 250 pages the testimony of a specific life that reflected on education at a given moment in our recent history.

Walter Benjamin: Filosofía y pedagogía covers the academic and personal journey of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and dedicates many of its pages to his reflections on education. This uniformly structured work is divided into two large sections preceded by one smaller but no less important one. The first of this work’s seven chapters provides a brief overview of Benjamin’s biography, chapters two to four cover his main contributions to the field of philosophy, and the last three chapters concern his interest in the field of education. While these parts are all separate, they are all interrelated since, as the authors note, life and thinking were always connected with Benjamin. This makes it hard to understand his pedagogical ideas without understanding his philosophy, and it is almost impossible to delve into his thinking without knowing something of his personal life as this is the undoubted foundation of it. A life, a historical moment, and a thinking interwoven with them; this is Benjamin.

Chapter one concerning his biography shows someone marked from childhood by his education. His dyslexia meant that he was an outsider who was taunted by classmates and teachers alike, causing him severe psychological and performance problems. This is perhaps what led his parents to send him as a boarder to a reformed school – one that believed in the innovative methodologies typical of what in Spain was called the «new school». His time at this school showed him the differences between the iron discipline that ruled traditional schooling and the freedom that characterised the other type of school. He realised here that freedom was much more effective in the education of a child, making the child more human and less subject to the impositions of a capitalist society that, with merely economistic aims, used discipline to train but not educate. These initial thoughts based on his experience would combine with his later academic relationship with Marxism to make his philosophy and pedagogy essentially proletarian and counter to the values of the bourgeoisie.

The next three chapters cover his contributions to the field of philosophy and contain what could be called principles. While it is no easy task to set these out in a summarised and systematic fashion, given the fragmentary and sometimes even contradictory nature of Benjamin’s work, Ballester and Colom try with excellent results, making this thinker’s work, which is so often confusing thanks to its unsystematic nature more accessible. Chapter two considers his most important proposals as whole. These mainly cover his concept of history and time classified as historical, language, culture, tradition, and technique. As we can see, these are all essential aspects in the development of humanity. Chapter three focusses on his working methods. He thinks and writes in a fragmentary manner, not by choice but because of coherence and need. Human work is never finished; history is not progressive and linear, but instead the past, present, and future are interconnected and are always liable to change. This is why he cannot impose a system but instead explores fragmentary paths that try to illuminate that which has meaning or what we mean when we speak of humanity. In this regard, the concept of collective memory is fundamental, and chapter four is dedicated to it as a coda to the tour through Benjamin’s philosophy. The past is alive in our memories and can always resurface in different ways depending on what our experience of it is like. The important thing is not to forget it, not to disconnect from tradition, as then anything becomes possible: good and terrible things alike. This is why education was always essential for Benjamin.

The last three chapters of this book relate to this point. Chapter five considers Benjamin’s first pedagogical thoughts, written between 1911 and 1915 when he was barely in his twenties. The ideas here provide a critique of the bourgeois disciplinary system, praising reformist methodologies that saw the child as a child and not just a potential adult who would have to respond to the demands of his or her society. These are idealist proposals where the youth and liberty that typify this stage of life would govern the future of humanity. These early thoughts are complemented by later ones, analysed in chapter six. These, developed by Benjamin in the 1930s, already show a clear Marxist influence. He criticises highly individualist bourgeois education, arguing for a proletarian education that is classbased and above all collective. Finally, chapter seven covers some passages that are not easily classified, but that are undoubtedly somehow related with educa- tion, albeit indirectly.

As we have seen, this work covers a life and a historical period, and their expression in reflections that provide an indepth analysis of a specific way of viewing education. In a moment when referents seem to have disappeared, where tradition is in stasis and is dormant, a piece like this resuscitates an attitude to life if not a way of thinking; namely, how to conceive of education experientially. We agree with the authors that Benjamin is not an easy thinker, but, «when we do understand him, it is because we understand ourselves and our time better» (p. 105), a time that, counter to Benjamin’s claims, does not stop looking forwards without waiting to think about the importance of analysing where we are, where we have come from, and where all of this is leading us.

Alberto Sánchez Rojo