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Living Your Existential Question: Creating Space for (Eco) Subjectification in Higher Education

Living Your Existential Question: Creating Space for (Eco)
Subjectification in Higher Education
Submission for ECER congres in Yerevan 2022
Daan Buijs & Arjen Wals
Wageningen University and research
Higher Education, and education in general, for that matter, is looking for ways to respond to the
urgent and accelerating global sustainability crises. In the discourse on sustainability in higher
education, much emphasis is placed on qualification: the capabilities, competences and qualities
people need to acquire or develop to act or behave more sustainably in their personal and professional
lives and on socialization: creating norms and ‘new normals’ that invite such behavior (Brundiers et
al., 2020). While qualification and socialization are important, there is a third domain of education that
is often neglected: subjectification (Biesta, 2020). Subjectification is about ‘being and becoming in the
world, finding your relation to freedom in relation to the world. Subjectification touches on the
existential domain of education and directions and pathways to possible futures.
An emerging responsibility within education is to not only engage young people meaningfully in what
we know, as education typically does, but also in what we do not know. One way to do this is by
articulating and sharing our concerns and hopes for the future and their underpinning existential
questions. When looking at education from an existential perspective, these three domains of
education are strongly interrelated, and they should be (Biesta, 2020). For instance, within
qualification, subjectification arises when students are stimulated to create a genuine relation to the
educational content. According to Gadamer (2013) there is no other way to come to understanding,
than by asking and understanding the questions that precede new knowledge. For sustainability-
oriented education, neglecting subjectification would deprive students from engagement with deeper
socio-ecological questions that affect students’ own becoming.
In this research, we explore the concept of ‘living your question’ as a means to develop education in
relation to existential questions about being and becoming in a dysfunctional world that is
overstepping ecological (e.g. runaway climate change, mass extension) and ethical boundaries (e.g.
social and environmental injustice, wealth inequality). In his book Designing Regenerative
Cultures Daniel Wahl talks about ‘Living your question’ as a means of increasing consciousness and
becoming aware of not only our assumptions, but also our worldview in which these assumptions have
been grounded (2016). ‘Living your question’ refers to a self-reflexive inquiry-based process around
matters of concern and/or hope that is indeterminate in that definitive answers likely won’t be found,
but new perspectives and pathways for exploration, emerge as one discovers who he or she is in
relation to others and/or the other. This connects to the existential view on socialization, which can
also be called an individuation process (Fromm, 1952), in which students also live their question by
letting go of old bonds and try to create new ones related to their search for meaning. It follows that,
‘living your question’ is also a way of transformative learning. The concept of ‘living your question’
has been barely brought into practice within higher education, which tends to pay little attention to
socio-emotional learning, existential matters of hope and concern and processes of being and
becoming. In this research, we investigate the concept of ‘living your question’ by conducting
interviews with experts with different disciplinary background who share an interest in student
development in relation to a worldly development.
To be able to get more grip on the concept of living your question in light of emerging existential
sustainability crises, we investigate the question: what are key features of education that seeks to
enable students to live their existential questions? This question will be followed up in a subsequent
study, which asks: what does it take for a university to create a culture and curricular spaces which
fosters education for subjectification?
Methodology or Methods/ Research Instruments or Sources Used
This research is conducted from a phenomenological perspective (Smedslund, 2009) and also
subconscious processes are taken into account (Lertzman, 2015). As a first step in answering the
question expert interviews preceded a literature review, because there were too few starting points
within the literature to be able to do a hermeneutic literature review. The expert interviews were not
only helpful in identifying concepts and themes that helped inform a review of literature, they also
helped elicit assumptions in relation to ‘living your question’ and the state of existential issues in
education that the researcher brought to the interviews.
Fourteen interviews were conducted, with academics and two experts working outside of a university,
most having different disciplinary backgrounds but all having some affinity with the subjectification
task of education, or more explicitly with existential forms of education. Besides these criteria, we also
looked for experts with interest in education in relation to sustainability and other worldly challenges.
Three of the interviewees were 3 women and 11 were men. Disciplinary backgrounds included;
education, human resource management, geoscience, psychiatry, philosophy, organizational
consulting and training.
To prepare for the interviews, a basic theoretical framework was made which served as a conversation
starter. This framework, represented by a circle, described a leerecologie (in English, learning
ecology) within higher education. This circle contained 3 concepts, het leven van je (leer)vraag (living
your question), eigenaarschap (agency or ownership) and reflexiviteit (reflexivity), in a triangle,
connected with lines. In the middle of the triangle were the words teacher and student, connected by a
lemniscate. For the structure of the interview, I prepared 4 questions as a common thread and asked
further if necessary. These questions were:
1. What does this picture evoke in you?
2. In terms of your own theoretical background, what connection would you make with each of these
3. What literature suggestions do you have?
4. What would you do if you were in our shoes and were conducting this research?
During the interview the researcher wrote citations of the interview on post-its and put them on the
talking paper.
In the analysis we made summaries of the transcribed audio files, while simultaneously reflecting
systematically upon our assumptions. As a next step in the analyses of the data we were searching for
similarities and differences between the interviews. To test these similarities and differences we read
and analyzed the literature that was recommended.
Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings
The most obvious outcome was the critique of the autonomous position of the student, that was
invoked by the words eigenaarschap (agency or ownership) and reflexiviteit (reflexivity) on the basic
theoretical framework. Living your question is a relational concept, that is problematic to explain from
a mere self-directed point of view. After all, our relation to the outer world is always a part of
existential questions. Even in very personal questions like: “How do I deal with my procrastination?”
Procrastination is also ‘not acting’, and consequently not connecting to the outside world. You can't
solve existential questions on your own, even though you will have to take the initiative. But you
cannot speak of the ownership or agency of the question in this case either. In the words an expert:
I would say the opposite, the question has me! That is a characteristic of slow questions. (...) in my
opinion that process is not well described by the concept of ownership or agency. There is an image of
autonomy behind that, in my view. And that image will shift and become problematic when you work
with complexity, relationality, personal questions, swampiness, slow questions (…). The encounters
with others form the small places of firm ground in the swampiness of slow questions. (E11)
This confirms that living our questions might well be a key in transformation to a more regenerative
culture (Wahl, 2016). In asking an existential question, students put themselves at stake (Biesta, 2015)
by reconnecting themselves to the world, and this is good exercise for the transition from ego-, to eco-
centric ways of being (Bainbridge & Del Negro, 2020; Oosterling, 2020). Having the opportunity to
practice within higher education with existential questions and associated feelings (Ratcliffe, 2008)
helps students to embrace the chaos in life (Lertzman, 2015; Rotmans, 2021).
Bainbridge, A., & Del Negro, G. (2020). An Ecology of Transformative Learning: A Shift From the
Ego to the Eco. Journal of Transformative Education, 18(1), 41-
Biesta, G. (2015). Beautiful risk of education. Routledge.
Biesta, G. (2020). Risking Ourselves in Education: Qualification, Socialization, and Subjectification
Revisited. Educational Theory, 70(1), 89-104.
Brundiers, K., Barth, M., Cebrián, G., Cohen, M., Diaz, L., Doucette-Remington, S., Dripps, W.,
Habron, G., Harré, N., Jarchow, M., Losch, K., Michel, J., Mochizuki, Y., Rieckmann, M., Parnell, R.,
Walker, P., & Zint, M. (2020). Key competencies in sustainability in higher educationtoward an
agreed-upon reference framework. Sustainability Science, 16(1), 13-
Fromm, E. (1952). Angst voor vrijheid (H. Redeker & J. Mordegaai, Trans.). Ervan J. Bijleveld.
(Original work published in 1941, Escape from freedom, Reinhart & Co)
Gadamer, H. G. (2013). Truth and Method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.; 2e ed.).
Bloomsbury Academic
Lertzman, R. (2015). Environmental melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement.
Oosterling, H. (2020). Verzet in ecopanische tijden. Lontano.
Ratcliffe, M. (2008). Feelings of being : phenomenology, psychiatry and the sense of reality. Oxford
University Press.
Rotmans, J. (2021). Omarm de chaos. Singel Uitgeverijen.
Smedslund, J. (2009). The Mismatch between Current Research Methods and the Nature of
Psychological Phenomena:What Researchers Must Learn from Practitioners. Theory & Psychology,
19(6), 778-794.
Wahl, D. C. (2016). Designing Regenegative Cultures. Triarchy Press.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Hundreds of sustainability programs have emerged at universities and colleges around the world over the past 2 decades. A prime question for employers, students, educators, and program administrators is what competencies these programs develop in students. This study explores convergence on competencies for sustainability programs. We conducted a Delphi study with 14 international experts in sustainability education on the framework of key competencies in sustainability by Wiek et al. (Sustain Sci 6: 203–218, 2011), the most frequently cited framework to date. While experts generally agreed with the framework, they propose two additional competencies, suggest a hierarchy of competencies, and specify learning objectives for students interested in a career as sustainability researcher. The refined framework can inform program development, implementation, and evaluation to enhance employability of graduates and facilitate comparison of sustainability programs worldwide.
Full-text available
In previous publications, Gert Biesta has suggested that education should be oriented toward three domains of purpose that he calls qualification, socialization, and subjectification. Many educators, policymakers, and scholars have found this suggestion helpful. Nonetheless, the discussion about the exact nature of each domain and about their relationships to each other has been ongoing, particularly with regard to the domain of subjectification. In this article, Biesta revisits the three domains and tries to provide further clarification with regard to the idea of subjectification. He highlights that subjectification has to do with the existence of the child or student as subject of her or his own life, not as object of educational interventions. Subjectification thus has to do with the question of freedom. Biesta explains that this is not the freedom to do what one wants to do, but the freedom to act in and with the world in a “grown‐up” way.
Full-text available
This resource is the first philosophical account of the nature, role and variety of existential feelings in psychiatric illness and in everyday life, including feelings of familiarity, unfamiliarity, estrangement, isolation, emptiness, and belonging.
Full-text available
Psychological research and practice both start from what we all know about being human because we are human, what we know about each other because we participate in shared meaning systems (language and culture), and what we know about unique individuals. Practitioners rely on these three sources of knowledge, but researchers try to establish a fourth kind by looking for a limited number of general and empirically based regularities. However, this project runs aground because of four characteristics of personal processes: they are influenced by an indefinitely high number of factors; they are sensitive to outcomes and, hence, always changeable; the regularities that can be found stem from participation in shared meaning systems already implicitly familiar; and they are unique. These characteristics are circumvented in the popular randomized controlled trial research design, but at the expense of practical relevance of the findings.
This article argues that the phenomenon of a genetic/cultural “adaptive-lag” is both the motive for the human predisposition to engage in transformative learning and the origin of anxiety and associated ego-defences that mitigate against the likelihood of transforming epistemic assumptions. Dodds’ (2011) ecopsychoanalytic interpretation of Winnicott’s concept of a holding environment provides the conditions to reduce the impact of ego-defences by containing anxiety and therefore supporting the transformation of epistemic assumptions. Such holding environments are conceived to extend from intimate familial and social relationships to include wider ecological interconnectedness. Narratives, literature, and evidence from clinical psychedelic drug studies highlight how an increased sensitivity towards the natural nonhuman world diminishes ego-defences, enhancing the possibility for transformative learning. The implications for educational settings are that complex and difficult learning should not be ameliorated and that conditions enabling learners to recognize and manage their own anxieties will enhance epistemic transformation.
In this groundbreaking book, Renee Lertzman applies psychoanalytic theory and psychosocial research to the issue of public engagement and public apathy in response to chronic ecological threats. By highlighting unconscious and affective dimensions of contemporary ecological issues, Lertzman deconstructs the idea that there is a gap between what people care about and what is actually carried out in policy and personal practice. In doing so, she presents an innovative way to think about and design engagement practices and policy interventions. Based on key qualitative fieldwork and in-depth interviews conducted in Green Bay, Wisconsin, each chapterprovides a psychosocial, psychoanalytic perspective on subjectivity, affect and identity, and considers what this means for understanding behaviour in relation to environmental crises and climate change. The book argues for a theory of environmental melancholia that accounts for the ways in which people experience profound loss and disruption caused by environmental issues, and yet may have trouble expressing or making sense of such experiences. Environmental Melancholia offers a fresh perspective to the field of environmental psychology that until now has been largely dominated by research in cognitive, behavioural and social psychology. It will appeal to academics, researchers and postgraduate students in the fields of psychoanalysis, psychosocial studies and sustainability, as well as policy makers and educators internationally.
Verzet in ecopanische tijden
  • H Oosterling
Oosterling, H. (2020). Verzet in ecopanische tijden. Lontano.
Designing Regenegative Cultures
  • D C Wahl
Wahl, D. C. (2016). Designing Regenegative Cultures. Triarchy Press.