Spotlight on LEARN! Researchers: Johannes Drerup

This new (monthly) interview series highlights some of our LEARN! researchers. This month the spotlight is on Johannes Drerup. Interview by: Alissa Postpischil

25-10-2019 | 16:03

Johannes Drerup-1Prof. Johannes Drerup regularly travels from his home in Münster, Germany across the border to Amsterdam to teach here at the VU and to collaborate with LEARN! colleagues in research projects on topics in the philosophy of education. Apart from this, he recently accepted a professorship at the TU Dortmund for "General Educational Science with a focus on Educational Theory" (Allgemeine Erziehungswissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Bildungstheorie). In the interview he speaks about his interests in a variety of topics in the context of philosophy of education, the existential dimension of doing philosophy, and the differences between working in the Netherlands and in Germany. He is clearly not only crossing boarders in his private life but also in his transdisciplinary interest as well as in his desire to incorporate philosophical perspectives and traditions from around the globe. Read the full interview here.

What are the projects about you are currently working on and how are they related to the research institute LEARN!?

In general, I am interested in a wide range of different topics in the philosophy of education and childhood. I work, for instance, on fundamental questions such as `How should education or childhood be conceptualized theoretically? What is the difference between education and indoctrination?´ as well as on more applied issues, for instance concerning the impact of processes of digitalization on the public spheres of liberal democracies and their relevance for democratic education or – in educational ethics – concerning the legitimacy of different forms of `neuroenhancement´ (that is, among others, the use of pharmaceuticals to enhance student performance). In the political philosophy of education, I work on topics such as the so called `hijab ban´ in kindergartens and schools, on debates about curricular issues (for instance concerning sex education) and the question of how we should teach controversial issues in schools.

Currently I am working on topics related to democratic education, with a strong focus on the theme `education for tolerance´. The major aim of this project is to develop an empirically informed theory of education for tolerance, which includes topics such as education of the emotions and the cultivation of epistemic virtues. Thus, I am especially interested in research on different potential causes and explanations for the development of politically and socially intolerant attitudes (e.g., fear, more or less irrational feelings of threat, dogmatism or authoritarian orientations), and how we may counteract them in educational settings (at the micro-, meso- and macro-level of the school system).

Another project is called: `Creating green citizens. Education, democracy and climate change´. Together with a couple of colleagues I work on issues such as the intricate relation between education, democratic participation and the way we can react adequately to climate change. To what extent, for instance, could the environmental crisis we currently face be dealt with by enabling more informed democratic participation? In what respects is the current crisis not just rooted in economic or political problems, but in problems which have an educational dimension? How should we teach climate change as a topic in schools? Together with colleagues from LEARN!, I am planning a bigger transdisciplinary research project that deals with these and related questions.

Is there a reason why you chose your research field? What inspires you the most about your research and motivates you to keep working on it?

Doing philosophy in general and philosophy of education in particular, for me, first of all, is a huge privilege. To have the time and the resources to think about fundamental questions of human existence – such as questions concerning the concept of childhood and its changing meaning in different historical epochs and different sociocultural environments, or, to put it generally: the intergenerational reproduction of human societies – is nothing that one should take for granted. This is also what I tend to say to my students. I say to them that they now have a window of opportunity to think about these and other questions and to develop their personality by engaging with science and philosophy, a window which will not be open forever. After one´s student days, time is usually more limited. For me personally, doing philosophy of education in any case – apart from the fact that it is my job – is more than just a job or a career, but a way to structure my relation to the world. Thus, for me there is an existential dimension involved in thinking through philosophical questions and problems. Otherwise I would not do it, even though I believe that there are obviously different legitimate ways of interpreting the role of philosophy in one´s life. I personally believe, however, that you are either committed 100 % or you should probably rethink whether you should start doing this kind of work in the first place.

Why is it important what you do and which of your projects people should talk and think about?

I think one always has to be careful when it comes to claims concerning the impact and practical importance of one´s work. I believe that the primary task of philosophy is to provide a better theoretical understanding of the world we live in. There is always a danger in mixing up political and practical ambitions with theoretical work which in many cases can turn out to be bad for the (politicised) theory and in some cases also for practice. Apart from this, the way one´s research is used in the end is not entirely in one´s control, also because politics follows a different logic than scientific and philosophical research. Thus, even though I believe that it is important for philosophers of education to engage in public debates about issues of societal interest where they have expertise, one should not be naïve with respect to the possibilities of philosophers to change the world.

Despite this sceptical caveat, I am absolutely convinced that the questions I am working on, such as education for tolerance and democratic education, are of great societal interest and political importance. My primary task, however, is to make theoretical and empirical sense of questions such as: how should education for tolerance be conceptualized theoretically, how is it possible empirically and in what context may it be legitimate or not. In a second step, one may also make practical, political recommendations. But before that, one first of all has to develop an adequate understanding of what is at stake theoretically.

At the same time, I believe that, also because the question of theory and practice itself is a traditional problem for educational scientists and philosophers of education, one should not be too dogmatic when it comes to suitable answers. We have different traditions in the West and across the globe that deal with this problem in different ways. I am, for instance, also interested in transcultural research in the philosophy of education, or what one may call, referring to a term coined by Thom Brooks: Global Philosophy of Education, in particular in Indian traditions of Philosophy of Education. In this tradition theory and practice in many cases are seen as much more intertwined, for instance in the theory and practice of certain philosophical approaches to Yoga. I think that in the long run we need to be much more open when it comes to these and other traditions and approaches. Thus, we have to develop a more `global´ mindset that doesn´t rule out opportunities for human development and education a priori because they do not conform to what one is used to in the `West´. A colleague of mine at the VU, for instance, works on `mindfulness´ traditions. I believe that this trend to globalize and diversify philosophy of education and educational science is the right way to proceed.

What do you appreciate about being a professor in two different countries?

It´s simply great to work in two different countries and educational systems together with amazing colleagues with different interests and experiences. It is, again, a huge privilege, also because one is almost forced to adopt a comparative perspective. In the Netherlands, work at university, for instance, both with respect to research and teaching, is much more structured than in Germany, perhaps because in Germany as a professor one traditionally had and partly still has a lot of leeway and power to just do whatever one believes to be important. This has its advantages (e.g., a lot of freedom in choosing the topics one may work on), but also its downsides (e.g., potential, more or less authoritarian ways of organizing research and dealing with employees, which was, and partly still is, I believe, a problem in Germany). I think that there are quite a few things – especially when it comes to the organization of the curriculum at the university and with respect to the way employees are treated – that we should import from the Netherlands. Work in the Netherlands, according to my experience, seems to be also much more organized in teams and networks and less individualistic, compared to Germany (`In Einsamkeit and Freiheit´ as Humboldt has put it) – even though one obviously has to be careful not to generalize based on these experiences and impressions.

What I like about the work at the VU is, among many other things such as the warm and welcoming atmosphere, that philosophers of education have a much stronger international orientation compared to the German tradition of philosophy of education. The problem is that Germany together with the two other German speaking countries, Switzerland and Austria, is a huge linguistic world of its own. This is probably why many of my colleagues, even of the younger, next generation of philosophers of education (except a few), did not and still do not really need to internationalize their work. In the long run, however, I believe, that this national focus, which in some cases does not sufficiently take into account that philosophical traditions such as `Allgemeine Pädagogik´ are historically grown sociocultural constructions with particular methodological and epistemological limitations, is somewhat outdated. Philosophy in general and philosophy of education in particular will become more international and global in the future. At the same time, the German tradition of philosophy of education is, I believe, indeed very strong, with an immense range of great thinkers, and therefore has a lot to offer, also in an international context. Therefore, working in Amsterdam for me is one way to keep on building international cooperation and bridges, not only between Dortmund and Amsterdam, but also more generally between different people and networks from different traditions and backgrounds. There is so much we can and should learn from the rich diversity of traditions of philosophy of education and educational science. This, however, as I said before, requires an open mind that is willing to transcend one´s cherished methodological prejudices and assumptions.

What is an achievement you are proud of and what are accomplishments you are still dreaming about?

I am not sure. Being proud is a more backward-looking attitude. I am rather a forward-looking person in the sense, that if I finished a project, I usually do not spend much time on thinking about past accomplishments, but I rather think about what´s on next. In the end I think that it is, at least to a certain extent, important that when one is starting something new, to always assume that one is an `absolute beginner´ in order to not lose the ability to question oneself and hence to learn and develop. I am also sceptical when it comes to `dreams´. According to my experience, people who tend to chase their dreams in the abstract, at least in some cases, never really put their feet on the concrete path – and this, the concrete path, usually means a lot of practical and theoretical work. This does not mean that one should not think big, but only that this is only the very first step in actually realizing one´s aims. Thus, to provide an example, one of my very practical aims is that the open access journal On_Education (, which I cofounded with my friend and colleague Anders Schinkel from the VU and other friends and colleagues from Germany, Switzerland and the UK, will keep on flourishing in the next years and ideally decades. We will see where the journey will lead us.

What were the most memorable classes you have taken during school or university? And why?

I think there was one in school and quite a few in University. In school we were reading some of the works of Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf etc.), where I first encountered ideas of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Reading Nietzsche later on during my first visit to India (since then I returned to India many times), became one of the reasons why I started to study academic philosophy, which is in a way ironic because Nietzsche himself wasn´t a big fan of academic philosophy. In university I had quite a few amazing teachers. Friedhelm Brüggen (Münster), one of the most renowned experts in the history of philosophy of education in German speaking countries, taught me a lot about the classics of philosophy of education (Rousseau, Kant, Schleiermacher etc.) and their contemporary relevance. I agree with Brüggen and also try to realize this in my own research and teaching that there is still a lot we can learn from the classics and that they should form an obligatory part of university education in context of the educational sciences. Roland Reichenbach (Zurich), was also a big influence, especially when it comes to the style of doing philosophy of education. He is an amazing guy. You won´t find a better and more entertaining speaker and lecturer in contemporary German speaking philosophy of education. Jens Naumann (Münster) worked a lot on the global dimension of education and human development and also on the history and legacy of colonialism and its impact on contemporary education in theory and practice. For me this was a real eye opener or `Bildungserlebnis´, also because we did not hear much about these issues in school. This is still a problem in Germany (and not only there), both in schools and in universities. That´s why I began to work on related questions concerning Global Citizenship Education as well as postcolonial perspectives on educational theory and practice. Johannes Bellmann (Münster) was also very important, among other things, because due to him I first encountered the analytical tradition in the philosophy of education, which is – unfortunately at the moment – very weak in Germany. Bellmann´s colloquium for `Allgemeine Erziehungswissenschaft´ in Münster was and still is a great forum for discussing foundational issues and new trends in educational theory and philosophy of education. Hagen Kordes (Münster) was probably the most unconventional teacher one could think of. He meditated with students in class, for instance, and sometimes discussed the educational relevance of New Age literature (Ken Wilber etc), before his office hours started (sometimes in the pub close to campus). If you ask students of educational science of quite a few generations in Münster which of their professors they do remember in retrospect, many of them will first mention his name. He had a strong `1968´ background, I would say, which means he was quite liberal in his views both in theory and in practice, a `free spirit´ and open mind. I guess that this is why some of his colleagues were not quite happy with the way he taught philosophy of education. He was a real character and I think that we need these kinds of `Querdenker´, as we say in Germany, at university. University should be a place, where new ways of thinking and innovation should be enabled and fostered, also if they are not in line with the way some people assume that things should be done. Kordes had a strong international orientation, he taught and researched in Africa, South America and Asia. He was interested also in the Indian traditions of philosophy and philosophy of education, apart from many other things. I am not sure what exactly one could or should have learned from him, if I had to pin it down in a single term. In any case the atmosphere he created around him seemed to say: Don´t be narrow-minded and afraid of whatever, be open and friendly and do what truly interests you. All these nice sounding words, such as diversity, innovation, openness etc. become mere, more or less meaningless `plastic words´, if we do not have guys like Kordes at university who fill them with life.

If you had not pursued a career in academia, where would you be?

I am not sure. As I said before, doing philosophy always had an existential dimension for me, so I think I never really had the choice, to develop into this direction or not. I would say that in a way I `did philosophy´ from a very early age on, even though it was not academic philosophy. There are certainly many children who have philosophical questions concerning existence. I am grateful that I am now able to deal with these questions in a more structured and also productive way. Nevertheless, there are obviously and luckily also other interesting things to do out there. I probably would have tried to write novels or more popular books (on history or travelling), which I may perhaps still try at some time in the future, in this or perhaps – if there is not sufficient time – the next life. Vita brevis est. In any case, I am very happy with the work I am allowed to do together with my colleagues in Amsterdam and Dortmund.