The very thought of education, indeed! A Reader Response by Heather Romanow for EDU 5101

The very thought of education, indeed! A Reader Response by Heather Romanow for EDU 5101

In “The Very Thought of Education,” Deborah Britzman (2009) suggests that psychoanalysis can be used to provide insight into the depths of the process and teaching of education. At its broadest level, Britzman’s (2009) theory focuses on the presence and role of transference and countertransference in education, suggesting “[w]e can think of [them] as composing and decomposing a history of affected education, condensing and displacing time with what is unconscious” (p. 4). She asks us to consider whether bringing the history and emotions underlying these processes as well as any associated resistance and defense to conscious awareness might provide the conditions for change. The idea of “collapse” also enters frequently into her exploration as it elucidates the self-referential paradox inherent in trying to re-think education using a thought process built by education. To this end, Britzman (2009) indicates that “[m]ore often than not, the very thought of education collapses our capacity to think with the thing-in-itself” (p. 5). And so, we might ask, can change truly occur without the whole of education first enduring a “collapse” followed by (psycho)analysis and regeneration?

The idea of transference and countertransference playing out in education is an interesting one. In the case of psychoanalysis, analyzing the transference and countertransference at play in the therapeutic relationship is key to discovering unconscious patterned behaviours. Once these unconscious patterns are brought to the client’s conscious awareness, the process of working through them becomes possible, and this in turn enables us to tolerate an uncertain world. In education, these concepts refer to the roles played by the historical (personal/educational/social) and emotional contexts of students (transference) and teachers (countertransference). Britzman (2009) states that “the transference to education means that knowledge will have to pass through affect, the residue of our questions of love and hate” (p. 8), thus “[p]rocedures of knowledge will also contain the excess of affect: we meet exceptions, limits, anxieties, and desire” (p. 9). That is to say, the individual contexts of teachers and students, and the interplay between them, shape educative interactions and thus education.

As suggested by Professor Ng-A-Fook, the intention of Britzman’s body encourages us to “become slower readers of the mind and in turn to bear witness to the affects of the unconscious” (quoted from Nicholas Ng-A-Fook’s post on October 31st, 2016 in the EDU5101 Social Café thread titled “The Very Thought of Education-Help!”). While considering my response to Britzman’s (2009) first chapter, I saw the effects of this process firsthand. Initially, I took this theory to be similar to others previously explored in this course. That the novelty of the perspective was in the language and imagery describing it. However, upon further reflection, I found myself considering that these patterned interpretations may have occurred as a function of my own transference. That the take home message of this theory, and those reviewed before it, were familiar to me because they were interpreted through my prior preconceptions. I invite you to join my exploration of a micro view of this theory through my process of trying to understand some of the theories presented in this course.

When initially reading Dewey (1938), I took his notion of students’ “experience” to include their historical and emotional contexts. This was supported by his assertion that “there is one permanent frame of reference; namely, the organic connection between education and personal experience” (p. 25). If we remember, he describes growth as, “developing, not only physically but intellectually and morally” (p. 36). Here he reminds us that the teacher’s experience is a necessary tool in their ability to shape what and how they teach (p. 36). Thus, for me, the theory framed the process of education as needing to include an awareness of the person (psyche/emotions) and experience (history) of students and teachers, and that learning and growth happen as a function of the interaction between these things and the content being taught. When I went back to the text to find quotes to support this notion, I found these ideas represented to a lesser degree than I had recalled.

Dismissing this as an anomaly, my next stop was to re-watch the Sir Robinson lecture. I recalled the video presenting this same notion, that we need to consider the people involved in education rather than just creating a standardized curriculum. As I watched the video again, I came across two ideas that I apparently misinterpreted as being in support of this. The first, that some people are set up to believe they are unintelligent because they are being judged against a particular view of the mind, and the second, that we should be waking students up to what is inside of them (RSA Animate, 2010). Previously, I took these as commentaries against a standardized view of students as blank canvases rather than considering their unique historical, emotional, and social context. Though after this second viewing, I understand that these comments were actually speaking to our intellectual capacity.

With my curiosity piqued and an openness to considering that my understanding of what I read may be far more subjective than previously understood, I investigated further. Recalling its specific mention of affect, I revisited Flinders, Noddings, and Thornton’s (1986) depiction of the null curriculum. Indeed, they discussed it as a whole dimension of the null curriculum, suggesting that affect may even be the “primary and most important single dimension of the null curriculum,” rather than Eisner’s classification as a “sub-set of intellectual processes” (p. 36). However, I again find the material presented differently than my previous interpretation. The article discusses that content’s potential to evoke certain emotional responses is used as guidepost to keep it from entering into the curriculum (Flinders, Noddings, & Thornton, 1986). As I read this section more critically, it seemed to be using affect and feelings more in a societal context than a personal one. Though not explicitly stated, the emotional responses being avoided were those elicited by virtue of challenging/informing values, rather than those attached to individual experiential/emotional histories. While this is a nuanced difference, and these concepts could arguably be related, it was significant enough that, for me, the overall message was altered.

During a recorded interview, Britzman described the contribution of students’ emotions, and the history underlying them as “the basis for their understanding of themselves and others” (Güzel, 2011). In my educational biography I wrote that I was always the kid who asked: Why? I explained my belief that this desire to understand is born of the fact that my brain takes a different, or opposite, path to get to the same conclusion as others. Perhaps this belief and the negative feelings that come with it affected me more than I previously understood. As a function of my ego defense against the displeasures of the anxiety these feelings cause, my transference may have created a contextual filter through which I interpret information (Britzman, 2009). Certainly, given that “we feel before we learn and affect carries a desire for its own truth” (Britzman, 2009, p.18), I may assign importance to even the smallest hints of ‘the individual,’ lived experience, and/or emotional status to validate my own experience.

By retracing my interpretation of the readings, I managed to bring into consciousness my “emotional relation to realty and to retroactively symbolize [my] encounter[s]” (Britzman, 2009, p.14). Through this process of introspection and reflection, or accidental “currere”, I was able to use psychoanalytical concepts to explore my transference and identify an area of uneven development that I can now work to repair. Given the successful use of this perspective in the micro arena of my own experience, perhaps Britzman is right, and psychoanalysis could be the way to understand and rebuild the dysfunctional aspects of education – or maybe it’s just our transference speaking. How about you – have you interpreted the course material differently than I have? Do you think transference plays a role in education? What unique emotional or experiential context might you be bringing to the educational table?


Britzman, D. P. (2009). The very thought of education: Psychoanalysis and the impossible professions. Albany, NY: Suny Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Free Press.

Flinders, D. J., Noddings, N., & Thornton, S. J. (1986). The null curriculum: Its theoretical basis and practical implications. Curriculum Inquiry, 16(1), 33-42.

RSA Animate. (2014, October 14). RSA Animate: Changing education paradigms. [Video File]. Retrieved October 24, 2016 from