Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka holds a Tier 1 South African National Research Foundation Chair in Global Change and Social Learning Systems, and is a Distinguished Research Professor in Education at Rhodes University, South Africa.  Her publications number over 160 and she has served on over 20 national and international research and policy programmes and scientific committees focusing on education, transformative learning and sustainability including the international reference group for the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development. She is regularly invited to present keynote contributions in this area, to date in 34 countries around the world. She served as Editor-in-Chief of the Southern African Journal of Environmental Education for 13 years (2003-2016) and is currently co-editor of the Learning, Culture and Social Interaction Journal.

Educational Research Responses to Dehumanization Tendencies in a Context of Risk

There is an ongoing discussion about what education is, or ought to be in times of systemic failure, risk and toxic existence. Here the central question arises: Should education be about acculturation in order to ‘progress’, ‘cope’ and ‘adapt’ according to pre-framed scripts, or should education be about transgression of the here-and-now in order to ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016) and re-constitute life more organically under hot, messy, uncertain conditions? Discussions are arising in mainstream educational research on how to teach in times of risk and uncertainty. For example, leading European educational philosopher Gert Biersta (2014, 2017) suggests that education itself is a ‘beautiful risk’ that requires a recovery of teaching in open process form (see also Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2015). From a global policy perspective, UNESCO (2015, 2016) have entered the debate on ‘re-thinking education’ on a planet under pressure, and position education both as a common good, and for the common good. This perspective is as yet under-developed in concept, scope and implication (cf. Lotz-Sisitka, 2017), an issue which I address in this paper. A review of research literature on dehumanization in education shows a general interest in the common good, but this is not systematically articulated, or adequately considered for contemporary conditions of systemic failure, risk, and toxic existence. In this paper, I therefore seek to deepen the analysis of educational research responses to dehumanization in a context of contemporary risk.

In framing the analysis, I draw on Al-Amoudi’s (2019, pg. 182) tri-fold analysis of dehumanization tendencies in the present: 1) DF: denial of human flourishing involving repression of powers for moral and aesthetic reasoning and abilities to act out of love or solidarity, 2) DS: construction and dehumanization of the subaltern via strategies that deny recognition, affective and redistributive justice, and 3) DP: automated processes that replace human activity and thought. I also approach the analysis via a critical reading of Povanelli’s notion of ‘quasi-events’ (e.g. climate change, poverty etc.) (2014, 2018) which require a stance on existence where “potentiality is the refuge not of the hopeful but of the concretely ordinary and pragmatically banal”, and where a form of “cruel [yet possible] optimism” exists as the norm for acting in the conditions and geographies that characterize most ordinary lives (Berlant & Povanelli, 2014).

Via a systematic depth analysis of selected examples from both mainstream and selected sub-fields of educational research (mapping both absences and trends), my analysis of educational research responses to dehumanization tendencies reveal varied forms of 1) complicit ‘blindness’, 2) production of conflations, and 3) emergent transgressive gestures of the kind articulated above. I argue that there is need to differentiate educational research responses to dehumanization, and err on the side of emergent transgressive gestures in educational research, curriculum, pedagogy, teaching and learning processes, thereby invigorating a humble yet possible relation between education, political subjectivity and transformative agency (cf. Leeb, 2017) in contexts of risk and toxic existence in ways that are compassionate, rather than liberally over-inflated. This, I argue further, can allow for the human capability of ‘existance’ (taking a stand in existence) (cf Anderson, 2003), guiding a re-thinking of education as and for the common good in times of risk where quasi-events and dehumanizing tendencies co-exist.


  • Anderson, P. 2003.  ‘The Flame Tree of Freedom: Poetry and Apartheid’.  Boston Review. New South African Poetry (Eds.  Peter Anderson and Kim Cooper). 1 June 2003. http://bostonreview.net/world-poetry/peter-anderson-flame-tree-freedom-poetry-and-apartheid
  • Al-Amoudi, I. 2019. ‘Management and Dehumanization in Late Modernity’. In Al-Amoudi, I. & Morgan, J. (Eds)  Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina.  London: Routledge.
  • Berlant, L., & Povinelli, E.A. 2014. Holding Up the World: Part III. In the Event of Precarity. A conversation. E-flux Journal. Journal #58. October
  • Biersta, G. 2014.  Beautiful Risk of Education.  London: Routledge.
  • Biersta, G. 2017.  The Rediscovery of Teaching.  London: Routledge.
  • Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
  • Leeb, C. 2017.  Power and Feminist Agency in Capitalism: Towards a New Theory of the Political Subject. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
  • Lotz-Sisitka, H.B. 2017. ‘Education and the Common Good’. In Jickling, B. & Sterling, S. (Eds). Post-Sustainability and Environmental Education: Re-making Education: Beyond sustainability. Palgrave Mc Millan. Plymouth. pg. 63-78. ISBN: 1-5017-0582-2. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-51322-5_5
  • Lotz-Sisitka, H.B., Wals, A.E.J., Kronlid, D., & McGarry, D. 2015.  ‘Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction’. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16, 73–80.
  • Povinelli, E.A. 2018. ‘The Four Axioms of Critical Theory’.  E-flux podcast interview. 23 January 2018.
  • UNESCO. 2015. Rethinking Education for the Common Good. Retrieved August 12, 2014 from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002325/232555e.pdf
  • UNESCO. 2016.  Global Education Monitoring Report.  Education for People and Planet: Creating sustainable futures for all. Paris: UNESCO.

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