NonModern Education, or, Education Without Qualities: An Essay on Robert Musil’s Essayism

  • Matthew Clarke York St John University
Keywords: Educational alternatives, progressive education, alternative education, difference, educational theory, educational philosophy


Contemporary education systems are premised on the assumption that knowledge can be mapped as official curriculum and learning predetermined as outcomes that all students are expected to achieve; we take it for granted that learning can be measured and compared through standardised assessment; and we assume that teaching can be codified as “evidence based” “best practice” and that teachers’ work can be delineated and prescribed in the form of teacher professional standards. In each case the “qualities” of education—knowledge, teaching and learning—are assumed to be knowable and amenable to modernist tropes of clear, certain, systematic and comprehensive articulation. As a way of opening up space for alternative ways of thinking about education, this paper explores the essayism of twentieth century Austrian writer, Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities (1995 [1940]), in order to consider the idea of a ‘nonmodern’ education without qualities—an education that would engage with ideas and experience without reinscribing them within modernity’s characteristic clarity, certainty, systematicity and comprehensiveness. What would such an education entail for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment? What would it say about who we might be and what we aspire to become as individuals and as a society? This exploratory paper ends with some thoughts on the democratic implications of essayism as a mode of nonmodern education.



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