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Education in Encounter

In Dialogue with Martin Buber on Education
Jeremy F Price

Paper prepared for PL828: German-Jewish Thinkers, Boston College
December 11, 2008
Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

Contained within his vast works, Martin Buber has written specifically about education.

As a Jew concerned deeply with the revitalization and renewal of his people and at the forefront

of the “Jewish Renaissance,” while concomitantly grappling with the opportunities of political

Zionism (Biemann, 2002), education held a unique position in Buber’s thinking. These writings

on education were couched in his deep concern for dialogue and relation as well as his own

engagement with “[t]he sickness of our age [which] is unlike that of any other and yet belongs to

the sickness of all” (Buber, 1996).

Buber’s philosophy of the enterprise of education—teaching, learning, and curriculum—

is as subtle and nuanced as his approach to dialogue and the I-You1 relationship, and enters the

discussion, it seems, somewhat reluctantly. Indeed, Buber saw the need for education as a

particular construct and institution as symptomatic of the age:

There was a time, there were times, where there neither was nor needed to be any specific

calling of educator or teacher. There was a master, a philosopher or a coppersmith,

whose journeymen and apprentices lived with him and learned, by being allowed to share

in it, what he had to teach them of his handiwork or brainwork. But they also learned,

without either their or his being concerned with it, they learned, without noticing they

did, the mystery of personal life: they received the spirit.

This subtle reluctance and his philosophic orientation as a Jewish existentialist—foreign

to most contemporary educators—have led to a number of cases where the spirit of Buber has

been unintentionally violated in educational writings and research. Maurice Friedman, Buber’s

biographer, called educator Sir Herbert Read to task for “…distort[ing] and do[ing] violence to

Buber’s philosophy of dialogue” (1956). Haim Gordon (1973) similarly critiques J. R. Scudder’s

In this paper, I will adopt the I-You convention of Kaufmann’s translation of I and Thou (Buber, 1996),
although quotations from books and articles which utilize the I-Thou convention will be retained.

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

article “Freedom with Authority: A Buber Model of Teaching” (1968) as “a gross

misinterpretation”: “Not only will I argue that imposing the word ‘model’ on Buber’s

educational thought distorts it, but, what is more important, that Buber’s search for a philosophy

of the whole man has profound implications for education that no ‘model’ can disclose”

(Gordon, 1973, p. 215). In a sense, Friedman and Gordon are arguing that Buber’s work has

inappropriately entered the sphere of the I-It, the sphere of use and experience. A similar

critique can be made of other recent educational works such as by Adkins (1999), Carroll and

Bowman (2000), and Gorsky and Caspi (2005), where a small slice of Buber’s dialogic

philosophy is used to advance a particular argument or research agenda.

These critiques can be made in light of Buber’s attitudes towards the transmission of

knowledge down the ages:

Let those who ask about this realm call to mind one of the traditional sayings of a master

who died thousands of years ago. Let them try, as best they can, to receive this saying

with their ears—as if the speaker had said it in their addressing them. To this end they

must turn with their whole being toward the speaker, who is not at hand, of the saying

that is at hand. In other words, they must adopt toward the master who is dead and yet

living that attitude which I call You-saying.

Buber himself adopted this attitude of “You-saying” in his essay “Education” (1965b). In this

essay, he faithfully represents a particular view of learner-centered pedagogy, popular among

many educators and schools of education to this day. It is only in the second half of the essay

where he discusses his deep disagreements with this view of education.

This paper seeks to engage in a dialogue with the educational writings of Martin Buber

and I make every attempt to avoid “using” the works of Buber for my own purposes. I will first

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

briefly outline Buber’s dialogic philosophy and his view of “the sickness of our age.” Next, I

will attempt to represent Buber’s positions on education as You-sayings. I will draw primarily,

though not exclusively, upon his essays “Education” (Buber, 1965b), “The Education of

Character” (Buber, 1965c), “On National Education” (Buber, 1963), and “Teaching and Deed”

(Buber, 2002). I will examine Buber’s unique stances on the purpose of education, curriculum,

and pedagogy in light of his dialogic philosophy and his engagement with “the sickness of our

age.” Lastly, I will engage Buber’s writings in light of what the field of education has become in

our own contemporary times, considering the added challenges to Buber’s educational

philosophy, as well as the potential for renewed purpose one can find for education in Buber’s


Buber’s Dialogic Philosophy

Buber’s writings on education stem from his philosophy on the primacy of relationship

through encounter and dialogue. Most interactions occur as I-It, in which the I experiences or

uses. Buber considers I-It as a surface encounter, as one “…goes over the surface of things and

experiences them” (Buber, 1996, p. 55). “Experience” in its essence is a non-participatory way

of being: “Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is ‘in them’

and not between them and the world” (Buber, 1996, p. 56). Goal-directed interactions occur as I-


The I-You relationship in contrast, occurs “…by grace—it cannot be found by seeking”

(Buber, 1996, p. 62). In such a relationship, a human being truly encounters another individual

human being; the You is singled out recognized “[n]ot as if there were nothing but he; but

everything else lives in his light” (Buber, 1996, p. 59). The I and the You never lose their

distinctness, but are responsible for one another. Such an encounter is further unmediated and

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

immediate, and even “[t]his essential twofoldness cannot be overcome by invoking a ‘world of

ideas’ as a third element that might transcend this opposition” (Buber, 1996, pp. 64-65).

Because of the immediateness of the I-You relationship it cannot exist eternally: “And in all

seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with

that is not human” (Buber, 1996, p. 85). Human encounter shifts back and forth between I-It and

I-You (as grace allows), and, inevitably, back again.

Like therapy and religious leadership, Buber considers education as a special case of the

I-You relationship, one of incomplete mutuality, which he terms “embracing” (Buber, 1996) or

“inclusion” (Buber, 1965b), so that the teacher “…must live through this situation in all its

aspects not only from his own point of view but also from that of his partner” (Buber, 1996, p.

178). This relationship is one way, for if embracing is practiced on both sides, the relationship

dissolves from an educational into friendship (Buber, 1965b):

It is essential that [the teacher] should awaken the I-You relationship in the pupil, too,

who should intend and affirm his educator as this particular person; and yet the

educational relationship could not endure if the pupil also practiced the art of embracing

by living through through the shared situation from the educator’s point of view. (Buber,

1996, p. 178)

The particularities of the educational relationship will be explored in more detail later in this

paper. First, I will discuss Buber’s critique of the sickness of our age in light of his dialogic

philosophy. Buber’s writings on education are in a large part in response to this view of the

world and its constraints.

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

Buber In Dialogue With The Age

Buber’s critique of the sickness of our age is in large part based on his philosophy of

actual and relational dialogue, and the challenges of the times to it. In essence, Buber asserts that

the world has become stuck in a series of experiences, allowing primarily for the development of

I-It relationships. The challenges of the age are anti-dialogical, according to Buber; they not

only pose special challenges for education, but they have paradoxically brought about the need

for the institution of education in the first place (Buber, 1965b).

This frozen I-It existence—a condition of alienation—is manifold. According to Buber, a

breakdown of traditional bonds has left a sense of boundless freedom in its wake (Buber, 1965b).

This breakdown of bonds and exaltation of freedom has also left no room for values and norms,

leaving a chasm “…between a world which for several millennia has believed in a truth superior

to man, and an age which does not believe in it any longer—will not or cannot believe in it any

longer” (Buber, 1965c, p. 110).

Buber notes that another symptom of the age is collectivism, metaphorically represented

by Buber as the “collective Moloch,” which has affected totalitarian and democratic nations


To-day host upon host of men have everywhere sunk into the slavery of collectives, and

each collective is the supreme authority for its own slaves…. Against the values, decrees

and decisions of the collective no appeal is possible... Men who have so lost themselves

to the collective Moloch cannot be rescued from it by any reference, however eloquent, to

the absolute whose kingdom the Moloch has usurped. (Buber, 1965c, p. 110)

Moloch—which shares the same root as the Hebrew word for “king” (‫—)מלך‬refers to a Canaanite

god specifically vilified in the Tanakh. For example, Leviticus 18:21 states: “And thou shalt not

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

let any of thy seed [offspring] pass through (the fire) to Molekh2…” (The Jerusalem Bible,

1992). The authors of the Bible are so concerned about the blindness of the followers of Moloch

that they feared people would go as far as to sacrifice their own children in the name of the god.

Buber renewed this symbol to stand for the idea of collectivity, which is a “…great link-up of

economic and political forces inimical to the play of romantic fancies… a thing which the

individual has to belong to with no intimacies of any kind but all the time conscious of his

energetic contribution” (Buber, 1958, p. 136).

The problems wrought by this collectivism, according to Buber, are compounded by a

sense of relativism based on membership in “groups.” While Buber refers specifically to

national groups, one can consider other group membership based on political, ethnic, geographic,

or socioeconomic affiliation. The danger of these groups is that as the “…expressions of the life

of a group which translates its own needs into the language of objective claims, until at last the

group itself… is raised to an absolute value—and moreover to the only value.” This denies a

space for “…a sphere of values common to mankind, and a commandment to mankind is no

longer observed” (Buber, 1965c, p. 109).

This relativism leaves us deaf to “unconditioned address” so that concepts such as the

notions of good and evil are problematized. Buber frames these moral concepts in dialogic and

responsibility-oriented, rather than absolute, terms:

Good and evil are not each other’s opposites like right and left. The evil approaches us as

a whirlwind, the good as a direction. There is a direction, a ‘yes,’ a command, hidden

even in a prohibition, which is revealed to us in moments like these the command

addresses us really in the second person, and the Thou in it is no one else but one’s own

self. (Buber, 1965c, p. 114)
Molekh is the Hebrew pronunciation of Moloch.

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

Buber reminds us that when addressed to us as a You, as an individual, we should recognize the

meaning of the good commands—as a direction to help us find our ways. The sickness of the

age, however, has blocked us from recognizing this meaning, leaving us suspicious of it.

All of this leads, according to Buber, to the loss of community. Buber defines

community—or, rather, “growing community”—as

…being no longer side by side but with one another of a multitude of persons. And this

multitude, though it moves towards one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a

dynamic facing of, the other, a flowing from I to Thou. (Buber, 1965a)

Even the individual turning inwards is connected to community, for “…human inwardness is in

origin a polyphony in which no voice can be reduced to another… but only heard in the present

harmony” (Buber, 1965b, p. 86). Buber fears that modern psychology, with its tendencies

toward reduction and generalization, compounds this loss (Buber, 1965b).

It should be noted that while Buber provides a critique of the age, his critique is in terms

of “the existential condition” rather than “…specific historical forms and structures…”

(Silberstein, 1990, p. 183). This allows Buber to critique how the sickness of our age fosters a

condition of alienation and concomitantly provide for the possibility for dialogue, relationship,

and community to be established and flourish within these times and in this world, not outside of

them. Instead of fomenting revolution to overthrow the structures which oppress, Buber engages

in dialogue with the age. Rather than only railing against the system, Buber insists on the

interhuman dimension, the importance of the I-You relationships:

What is decisive, is whether the spirit—the You-saying, responding spirit—remains alive

and actual; whether what remains of it in communal human life continues to be subjected

to the state and the economy, or whether it becomes independently active; whether what

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

abides of it in individual human life incorporates itself again in communal life. (Buber,

1996, p. 99)

Buber finds the process of education particularly powerful in combating the frozen I-It nature

found in the sickness of our age (Silberstein, 1990).

Understanding the Situation: The Purpose of Education According to Buber

When considering the purpose of education in contemporary times, one is often drawn to

thinking about one or several positions on education: the transmission of knowledge, the

development of the child, meeting the needs of society, or reconstructing society (Schiro, 2007).

Buber, in dialogue with the times, addresses the purpose of education differently:

The question which is always being brought forward—‘To where, to what, must we

educate?’—misunderstands the situation. Only times which know a figure of general

validity—the Christian, the gentleman, the citizen—know an answer to that question, not

necessarily in words, but by pointing with the finger to the figure which rises clear in the

air, out-topping all. The forming of this figure in all individuals, out of all materials, is

the formation of a ‘culture.’ But when all figures are shattered, when no figure is able

any more to dominate and shape the present human material, what is there left to form?

Nothing but the image of God. (Buber, 1965b, p. 102)

Within this situation, the primary need for the educator is not to teach “something” in particular,

although, according to Buber, this purpose is important, nor is the educator called upon to allow

for the natural development of the child in an environment of freedom, although seen by Buber

as a necessary steppingstone. The educator instead is,

…set now in the midst of the need which he experiences in inclusion, but only a bit

deeper in it. He is set in the midst of service, only a bit higher up, which he invokes

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

without words; he is set in the imitatio Dei absconditi sed non ignoti3. (Buber, 1965b, p.


In Buber’s dialogic philosophy, all I-You relationships contain a glimpse of God:

“[e]xtended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You” (Buber, 1996, p. 123). The

educator provides a reflection of the image of God, and—by participating in I-You dialogue with

his or her pupils—provides a generation with this glimpse of the divine image. Buber

concretizes this purpose by asserting that education should be oriented toward the education of

character. The educator provides “…the image of a great character who denies no answer to life

and the world, but accepts responsibility for everything essential that he meets” (Buber, 1965c, p.


The notion of responsibility is the key to understanding Buber’s conception of character.

Buber sees self-responsibility as well as responsibility to others and to situations as the clearest

expression of character, and he contrasts his view to the “voluntary obedience to maxims” of

Kerschensteiner and the “interpenetration of habits” of Dewey (Buber, 1965c, pp. 111-112). In

essence, the educator prepares the pupil to face what he or she will meet with his or her whole

being. In terms of meeting one’s historical situation:

In spite of all similarities every living situation has, like a newborn child, a new face, that

has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction which

cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands

presence, responsibility; it demands you. (Buber, 1965c, p. 114)

Such a goal is not couched within a static or reified system of morality, but instead is

involved in relocating the sphere of relationship and responsibility to others. The diversity of

individuals—the sense of Otherness—is neither minimized nor normalized, but instead embraced
Latin, “imitation of the God who is hidden but not unknown.”

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

while also recognizing the connections between us, “…the great dynamic unity of the multiform

in which multiformity is formed into unity of character” (Buber, 1965c, p. 116).

In that he often considers education in light of the burgeoning Zionist presence on the

world’s political stage and the reestablishment of the State of Israel, Buber’s purpose of

education also contains an element of renewal in that the individual needing to meet the present

situation is informed by past teachings. This notion takes on a special sense in the case of the

establishment of the Jewish state, to ensure that Israel does not freeze once the political state is

established (Buber, 1963). In a general sense, Buber phrases the idea of renewal as the

relationship between a child and his parents:

A child does not represent the sum total of his parents; the child is something that has

never been before, something quite unpredictable. Similarly, a generation can only

receive the teachings in the sense that it renews them. We do not take unless we also

give. (Buber, 2002, p. 235)

Such a position in terms of the purpose of education requires a fairly faithful representation of

the “teachings” as well as a “…critical-reflective encounter with history, a meaning-making

engagement with all those traditions constituting the spiritual-cultural heritage” (Murphy, 1988,

p. 112). This places responsibility on the educator to select and provide this representation of the

teachings to the pupil, but then also provide some amount of autonomy to the learner to make

sense of it.

To connect back to Buber’s critique of the sickness of the age, community—the act of

communion—can be found at the core of his purpose of education: “Genuine education of

character is genuine education for community” (Buber, 1965c, p. 116). By focusing on the

relationships and responsibilities of individuals to one another, Buber is not concerned only with

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

the development or achievement (to use a contemporary term) of any one individual, but with the

way that individuals engage in dialogue with each other and their actual historical conditions.

Buber’s conception of the “content” of the teacher-pupil encounter—the curriculum—is

discussed in the following section.

Curriculum: The Purposeful Selection of the World

Despite his focus on the formation of character and renewal in his purposes of education,

Buber does not deny that something must be taught, neither simply created anew nor transmitted

verbatim. In order to prepare the pupil to engage in dialogue with others and with the historical

situation, Buber suggests that education draw upon the world itself for its content:

What we term education, conscious and willed, means a selection by man of the effective

world: it means to give decisive effective power to a selection of the world which is

concentrated and manifested in the educator. The relation in education is lifted out of the

purposelessly streaming education by all things, and is marked off as purpose. (Buber,

1965b, p. 89)

In such an approach, there is a great deal of power and responsibility instilled in the

educator to take in the world and mark it with purpose. While he clearly puts a great deal of

import on passing on the traditions and history of the past, Buber also recognizes the limitations

of such an approach. He notes that there is an inherent danger in which the “will to educate”

degenerates into arbitrariness, so “…that the educator may carry out his selection and his

influence from himself and his idea of the pupil, not from the pupil’s own reality” (Buber,

1965b, p. 100). As such, the process of selection—the curriculum—is strongly influenced by

Buber’s dialogic philosophy, so that the educator must be able to understand his or her pupils

and what they experience in their world.

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

Buber provides an example of such a purposeful streaming of the world in education,

drawing upon the political and often violent situation between the incoming Jews and the Arabs

in pre-Israel Palestine (Buber, 1965c, pp. 109-110). Buber poses the question for this dialogue,

centered around the idea of Jewish reprisal for acts of violence: “Can there be any suspension of

the Ten Commandments, i.e. can murder become a good deed if committed in the interest of

one’s own group?” The dialogue builds in intensity between the pupil (asserting the need to act

on behalf of his family and his people) and the teacher (who is speaking on behalf of the

traditions, extending a hesitance towards reprisal). The account ends with an emotional outburst

by the student: “Live? Outlive? Do you call that life? We want to live!” Buber responds that

“…the test of the educator lies in conflict with his pupil. He has to face this conflict and,

whatever turn it may take, he has to find the way through it into life…” (Buber, 1965c, p. 110).

The curriculum—as a purposeful streaming of the world—should provide the opportunity for

such dialogue, which Buber points out “…is no longer merely a conflict between two

generations, but between a world which for several millennia has believed in a truth superior to

man, and an age which does not believe it any longer…” (Buber, 1965c, p. 110). With such

(difficult) exchanges, the teacher has the opportunity to help students renew themselves in light

of traditional truths to meet their own historical situations.

This is not to say that Buber does not see the value of teaching what are considered the

standard subjects of schooling. For example, Buber provides another example related to the

teaching of algebra:

If I have to teach algebra I can expect to succeed in giving my pupils an idea of quadratic

equations with two unknown quantities. Even the slowest-witted child will understand it

so well that he will amuse himself by solving equations at night when he cannot fall

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

asleep. And even one with the most sluggish memory will not forget, in his old age, how

to play with x and y. (Buber, 1965c, pp. 104-105)

While this may be a slightly optimistic view of the effects of algebra class, Buber does

not situate the learning of this specific content and these specific skills as central to education as

his critics (e.g., Hawkins, 2002; Scudder, 1988). Instead, the purpose of curriculum is oriented

toward fostering encounters with others and helping pupils engage with their historical situations

in the light of their spiritual and cultural traditions (Murphy, 1988). Buber sees the traditional

subjects of school as easily transmitted from teacher to student, but educating for character,

allowing the pupil to fully meet their historical situation, is much more problematic (Buber,


Buber’s view of curriculum may be summarized by one of the Hasidic tales made

available to the wider world by Buber himself:

The maggid of Koznitz said: “Our sages very properly emphasized that in the first psalm,

the Torah is called ‘the law of the Lord,’ and later ‘his Torah.’ For if a man learns the

Torah for its own sake, then it is given to him, and it is his, and he may clothe all his holy

thoughts in the holy Torah. (Buber, 1991, p. 1:287)

When the “content” of character—traditional teachings—is embodied by the teacher, and

the teacher and pupil enter into the inclusive I-You relationship, the pupil learns from tradition

and is able to live out his or her own life “clothed” in the teachings. The particularities of the

special form of the I-You relationship between the teacher and the pupil, how the teacher fosters

this sense of dialogue and renewal, will be examined in the next section.

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

The Inclusive Teacher-Pupil Relationship

As mentioned earlier, Buber believes that the necessity for education itself is only a

product of the sickness of our age, as is the necessity for the teaching profession. In other ages,

the teachings, the spirit, the culture, are received simply through living out one’s life (Buber,

1965b). The view of who would constitute an “educator” is seen in this Hasidic tale:

They asked Rabbi Mikhal: “In the Sayings of the Fathers we read: ‘Who is wise?’ He

who learns from all men, as it is said, ‘From all my teachers I have gotten understanding.’

Then why does it not say: ‘He who learns from every teacher’?”

Rabbi Mikhal explained: “The master who pronounced these words, is intent on having

it clear that we can learn not only from those whose occupation is to teach, but from

every man. Even from one who is ignorant, or from one who is wicked, you can gain

understanding as to how to conduct your life.” (Buber, 1991, p. 1:146)

In an age which is healthy, one can learn just by entering into dialogue or a relationship

with an Other. Education is in the encounter (Buber, 1965b). An age which is sick, however,

requires the professional educator. In order to fulfill Buber’s purpose of helping to form

character, the educator must enter into a specialized I-You relationship with the pupil.

Buber refers to this specialized form of I-You relationship as an “inclusive relationship”

(Buber, 1965b). The inclusive I-You relationship must also have an event in common, which in

the case of education is comprised of the teachings or the purposeful selection of the world.

Inclusiveness is a one-way form of the I-You relationship, with the educator expected to

experience the teachings from two sides, his or her own and that of the pupil. If the pupil were to

experience the teachings from the side of the teacher, however, “…the educative relationship

would be burst asunder, or change into friendship” (Buber, 1965b, pp. 100-101).

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

Buber notes that this is not a general I-You dialogic relationship, that it is special in the

sense that there is the potential for real power imbalances to enter into the process just by the

nature of the relationship itself, as “[w]hat is otherwise found only as grace4, inlaid in the folds

of life—the influencing of the lives of others with one’s own life—becomes here a function and

a law” (Buber, 1965b, pp. 99-100). The sense of “function” and “law” provide for the possibility

for such a relationship to easily enter into the realm of I-It. Gaining the trust of, recognizing

one’s responsibility for, and finding humility in the face of the pupil are the only way for the

educator to gain a “paradoxical legitimacy.” This trust and responsibility can furthermore be

gained only by experiencing the teachings from the perspective of the pupil for

[i]t is not enough for him to imagine the child’s individuality, nor to experience him

directly as a spiritual person and then to acknowledge him. Only when he catches

himself ‘from over there,’ and feels how it affects one, how it affects this other human

being, does he recognize the real limit, baptize his self-will in Reality and make it true

will, and renew his paradoxical legitimacy. (Buber, 1965b, p. 100)

This special inclusive I-You relationship is also unerotic; while Eros is the possibility of

choice—and choosing with whom, at some level, to engage—the educator has no such choice, as

“…the modern educator finds his pupil there before him” (Buber, 1965b, p. 94). While

criticizing the sickness of our age, Buber finds “greatness” in the educator of modern times in

this lack of choice and willingness to serve them regardless:

He [the teacher] enters the school-room for the first time, he sees them crouching at the

desks, indiscriminately flung together, the misshapen and the well-proportioned, animal

faces, empty faces, and noble faces in indiscriminate confusion, like the presence of the

As in the general I-You relationship (c.f., Buber, 1996, p. 62).

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

created universe; the glance of the educator accepts and receives them all. (Buber,

1965b, p. 94)

While the educator may be seen as great in this exchange, the teacher also learns and

benefits from the relationship with the pupil. The educator learns about him- or herself,

“…[f]irst that he is limited by otherness, and second that he receives grace by being bound to the

other” (Buber, 1965b, p. 101). In this sense, the educator learns about his own depths and limits,

because even in this specialized sense, “[r]elation is reciprocity…. Our students teach us, our

works form us” (Buber, 1996, p. 67). The teacher also becomes a vehicle for the classroom

community to turn to God, for, to Buber, the educator “…seems to me to be a representative of

the true God” (Buber, 1965b, p. 94).

So, in the final analysis, Buber sees education primarily as a way to prepare a pupil to

relate to and gain a sense of responsibility for others as well as their own situations. The teacher

provides them with a purposeful selection of the world and with as true an account and

embodiment of the traditional cultural and spiritual teachings as he or she can as the curricular

content for this process. The educator enters into a specialized inclusive I-You relationship with

the pupil, not by grace but by function, and enters into this relationship equally with all pupils.

In doing so, the teacher gains a better understanding of him- or herself as well as special

responsibility and recognition as “a representative of the true God.” From this point, I will

engage the writings of Buber in dialogue around the contemporary educational situation.

Engaging Martin Buber in Dialogue for Contemporary Times

In summarizing his positions on education, Buber writes: “Then is this the ‘principle’ of

education, its normal and fixed maxim? No; it is only the principium of its reality, the beginning

of its reality—wherever it begins” (Buber, 1965b, p. 102). Just as the Buddha wishes to teach

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

the way rather than a view (Buber, 1996, pp. 138-139), Buber lays a path to follow allowing us

to engage with our own situations in education.

The system of American public education is designed to minimize the influence of

religion specifically even as it is deeply—yet tacitly—influenced by a pan-Protestant ethic (Katz,

1987). So, how does one include a Jewish scholar’s work in the discussion around American

schooling, especially when he often writes from a particularly Jewish position about Jewish

themes, referring specifically to God? The problem I present here is twofold, as suggested by

Simon (1999): one, will such a position be heard, and two, would it lose some of its essential

Jewishness in the discourse? Simon responds to this problem by channeling Rabbi Hillel, as

Buber did (cf., Buber, 1996, p. 85): “A pedagogy of Jewish particularity is unavoidably

denominational and public; fundamentally ambivalent, it is not easily practiced. Such is the

tenor of our times. If not now, when?” (Simon, 1999, p. 320).

Despite his seemingly foreign positions on the nature of education, Buber does not view

his philosophy as utopian in nature, instead asserting that the way he presents can be found in the

realities of many historical situations, including our own. In responding to an adversarius, a

fictitious critic of the dialogic philosophy, Buber replies, “I beg you to notice that I do not

demand. I have no call to that and an authority for it. I try only to say that there is something,

and to indicate how it is made: I simply record…. It is not that you are to answer but that you

are able” (Buber, 1965a, p. 35). As such, a case can be made for looking for and uncovering the

dialogue which occurs in the modern classroom, even if it is stifled at almost every turn by the

barriers we erect between the I and the You.

But Buber does not advocate dismantling the social structures which often get in the way

of genuine I-You dialogue. Despite his assertion that education is a purpose to be summoned

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

only in response to the sickness of our age, Buber notes that we cannot return to a pre-education


We can as little return to the state of affairs that existed before there were schools as to

that which existed before there were schools as to that which existed before say, technical

science. But we can and must enter in the completeness of its growth to reality into the

perfect humanization of its reality. (Buber, 1965b, p. 90)

As such, I will examine a small sample of the current state of education in the light of

Buber’s educational philosophy, specifically the challenges of plurality in the American

classroom to Buber’s philosophy of education, the challenges of standards and accountability,

pupil-pupil educative relationships, and the presence of communications technology in the

classroom. The purpose of this exercise is to allow me, a Jewish American educator, to engage

with my own situations and develop a way of being to help teach and shape what occurs in the

classroom, the environment of exchange between the curriculum, the teacher, and the pupils.

Again, to call upon Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am

only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

While Buber criticizes the concept of bildung in the wake of the French Revolution,

asserting that “…‘universal culture,’ arising from the collapse of the real pattern of European

civilization, does not constitute a valid goal for education” (1963, pp. 154-155), he does pave the

way for a “national humanism.” Such a development is possible if education “…accepts as its

authority the supernational norm of its own national movement” (Buber, 1963, p. 155). In a

sense, the United States is caught in a similar paradox as Buber’s critique of bildung: as a nation

of immigrants, the “typical” American classroom is potentially comprised of pupils (and

teachers) descending from a wide variety of traditions, teachings, and spiritual backgrounds. It

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

does not seem, however, that Americans have identified a single “supernational norm.” To do so

somehow seems to violate the spirit of pluralism which tenuously and perhaps ideally exists.

However, learning from Buber, it may be well worth engaging in dialogue about a renewed

“ideal pattern,” in order to foster “…the change and renewal of the social concept that springs

from man’s union with the forces of history and tradition…” (Buber, 1963, p. 155).

Buber noted a reliance on information as another symptom of the sickness of the age.

Buber describes such a condition in which information is seen as the goal of existence:

They have an environment, and they have information about their environment…. They

live, and they do not realize what they live. Their experience is ordered without being

comprehended. They experience of it what component part it has in common with other

experiences, and are oriented. To each of them eternity calls, ‘Be!’ They smile at eternity

and answer, ‘I have information.’ (Buber, 1964, p. 75)

It is unlikely that Buber could have foreseen the way in which such attitudes have permeated

educational institutions. In the era of the No Child Left Behind Act, education is oriented around

the meeting of standards and holding schools, teachers, and pupils accountable through a system

of quantitatively-scored high-stakes exams (Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Rose, 2007).

Although referring to unbridled and exalted freedom, it seems that the following passage

can apply to this over-emphasis on standards and accountability: “…the springboard is treated as

the goal and a functional goal as substantial good” (Buber, 1965b, pp. 91-92). Buber reminds us

of the distinction between the springboard and the goal, and a functional goal and a substantial

good; in terms of standards and accountability, the educational system and policy guiding the

system has blurred these distinctions. Such reminders are well-placed and important in order to

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

remind us as to what the purposes of education should not be, while still allowing for such

accountability structures to exist in a muted form and less central position.

Buber writes a great deal on the special educative relationship between the teacher and

the pupil. He is entirely silent on the potential for learning, even when learning is seen through

Buber’s sense of forming character, in the dialogue and relationships between pupils, between

peers. This gap is a difficult one to fathom, as there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that

pupils learn a great deal about meeting the world from each other (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978). This

highlights the danger of trying to follow one particular theory too closely—to see it as principle

rather than principium—even if it is Buber’s relatively open-ended and inclusive philosophy of

dialogue and education. I see this gap as a shortfall in Buber’s approach to education; it is

perhaps that the strict form of the specialized inclusive I-You relationship does not hold between

pupils, but the more general I-You relationship does. But then one must consider that there is the

potential for learning in the general I-You dialogue and relationship.

Lastly, I will touch upon technology, as the introduction of Internet-based curricula in the

classroom is a steadily increasing trend. Such technologies—e-mail, online discussions, chat,

even “virtual” reality—mediate dialogue, a condition which would seem to preclude the

possibility for the I-You relationship. It is unlikely that Buber could have predicted the social

turn that technology has taken; but in true Buber fashion, if he were alive today, he would likely

have engaged with it to understand its possibilities and challenges for dialogue and not ignore it.

While it is possible for technology-mediated interactions to annihilate the possibility for the I-

You relationship, the encounter mediated by technology may provide further opportunity to

engage in an unmediated I-You way. But such an approach requires that the focus remain on the

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

human relations, and not on the potentialities of the technology per se. Even the Hasidim

recognized this subtlety, as related by Buber:

‘You can learn something from everything,’ the rabbi of Sadagora once said to his

hasidim. ‘Everything can teach us something, and not only everything God has created.

What man has made has also something to teach us.’

‘What can we learn from a train?” one hasid asked dubiously.

‘That because of one second one can miss everything.’

‘And from the telegraph?’

‘That every word is counted and charged.’

‘And the telephone?’

‘That what we say here is heard there.’ (Buber, 1991, p. 2:70)

If it is possible to be reminded of our humanity by a train, telegraph, and telephone, it is possible

also to find the potential for genuine I-You dialogue in education in the Internet Age.

In conclusion, Buber engaged with what he saw as the sickness of our age, and saw the

important role for education in this engagement. His time and our contemporary time are

different in some very substantial ways, in a sense we have sunk even further in to the frozen I-It

state with our reliance on information and technology and with our own engagement in

collectivism and exaltation of freedom. Yet our ages are also very similar, and we can learn

from Buber to engage with one another and with our situations. Buber reminds us that a

revolution in education, in which we must overthrow systems, cultures, and structions, is not

necessary. Instead, he urges us to remember the truer purposes of education, and to engage in

dialogue with each other and with the teachings of the past. Buber teaches us the way, and has

set out an important principium; the onus now lies with us to exist and to find the responsibility

Jeremy F Price German-Jewish Thinkers Education in Encounter

for each other that is at the core of Buber’s philosophy of education that renews us in our own

historical situation.

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