Psychoanalysis And Education Essay

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Psychoanalysis and education have a long history of overlapping concerns and contrasting issues. Sigmund Freud once remarked that education makes psychoanalysis both possible and necessary. In this sense, psychoanalysis might be understood as the prescription for problems created by education. On the other hand, ideas about learning and processes of learning are at the heart of psychoanalysis, so educators might benefit from understanding their work in psychoanalytic terms. This entry will provide several examples of such terms and their relevance for education: learning, resistance, transference, countertransference, and attachment.


Psychoanalysis and education have a long history of overlap and quarrel, but they both focus on human development. Many psychoanalysts were also trained in education, for example, Anna Freud, Dorothy Burlingham, Ernst Kris, and Erik Erikson. Similarly, educational writers such as John Dewey and William James studied works in psychoanalysis. More recently, educational thinkers such as Deborah Britzman, Alan Block, Alice Pitt, Sharon Todd, and Shoshanna Felman have applied ideas of psychoanalysis to educational theory and at the same time have offered ideas to psychoanalysis.

Anna Freud once claimed that teaching is “learning twice”; first one learns as one prepares for one’s students, and then one learns from one’s students as one teaches. Yet, the learning alluded to in this instance is not so much an anticipation of what the students will learn or think about; rather, it is more of a pedagogical disposition, in the sense that the double movement from the material to the potential created in the educational encounter implicates learners in their own learning.

Many educational objectives preoccupy themselves with the quick application of knowledge to the solution of problems. Psychoanalytic conceptions of learning, however, slow us down and ask us to look at the kinds of learning that might come before application. This “other” type of learning that is often hidden by educational objectives often has more to do with confronting anxiety and exploring identity.

Another approach to learning from psychoanalysis accepts the perpetual “loss” endemic to educational practice, by which it is recognized that the teacher is always pursuing knowledge of her or his students, yet never actually obtaining it. The Western system of education is not designed to notice that learning occurs over time, or even that accidents, chance, and frustration may be as much the source of learning as the effects of learning, and may not even be obviously related to any specific actions on the part of an adult. In general, educators focus on what they can observe teachers doing.

Modern educational theory persists in placing the teacher at the center of education, despite a claim to student-centered learning. Such theory creates “blind spots” that shut out the serious work of the learner, ignore the serious mistakes that cannot be admitted or debated, conflicts that are central to the experiences of learning, and so on. Instead of a clear set of understandings about what makes “learning happen,” the result is a lot of defensiveness on the part of the adult, as if the work of learning is only an authentication of or an answer to the question of the adult’s capacity to control, to predict, and to measure “progress.” A psychoanalytic perspective like this raises the paradoxes or contradictions between principles or conclusions that seem equally necessary and reasonable.

Teachers enter the educational encounter with a whole lot of stuff that they want to share with youth. Teachers know a great deal. If students knew the same things, they would be able to do so much! On the other hand, teachers never really can know what the students are doing, how they learn, precisely, what is happening inside their minds. Is there a chemical change in the brain or heart? A neuro network restructuring that is formed in response to a question from a teacher or other student in the class? Teachers act as if their specific actions cause precise changes in the student, none of which can ever really be known. Or educators may write a history of the event afterward in which they claim that a specific task or a specific way of asking a question led to a new conceptual understanding on the part of a student, even though there really is no way of knowing at the moment that such a pedagogical move would have that precise effect. This is what comes to be known as a practitioner’s wisdom: Over time experience seems to provide so many case studies of what might or might not happen that the teacher seems to develop a repertoire of potential proactive and reactive actions. Teachers are always feeling as if the objects of their attention are “purloined,” that is, lost, displaced, or misplaced (perhaps stolen?).


The concept of resistance can be used to consider events in which it seems that students are not learning. First of all, it must be realized that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, resistance is a part of learning. People must go through resistance to genuinely learn. Resistance occurs when someone meets the otherness of their own unconscious knowledge. People always resist confronting the unconscious. They try to meet the unconscious, and instead, the unconscious is forever creating itself anew from the bits and pieces of everyday life that recall wishes that are taboo and experiences that are too painful to confront head on. Learning might be said to deal with, on the one hand, the curious ways in which ideas and affect organize and reorganize each other and attach themselves to new experiences; on the other hand, learning has to do with the method of approach—how to “go there.” To “go there,” one passes through resistance.

When Freud first started working in psychoanalysis, he thought that resistances to learning were like barriers that the unconscious constructed to protect what was hidden there. Later he refined his theory. He decided that the barriers were constructed by the ego as a defense against such knowledge. What might it mean for teaching mathematics to consider resistance to learning as a mechanism of defense against unconscious knowledge? The French theorist Jacques Lacan called unconscious knowledge “knowledge that cannot tolerate one’s knowing that one knows.” Learning poses dangers to the learners: They must pass through resistance in order to learn. This insight—that knowledge may be refused because it may be threatening to one’s sense of self—is painful for teachers, but their desire that the learner just accept and understand the value of mathematics is also partly a symptom of teachers’ own struggle to master their own difficulties.

New knowledge provokes a crisis within the self when it is felt as interference, or as a critique of the self’s coherence or view of the world. These crises call forth a “crisis of witnessing” in which the learner is incapable of an adequate response because the knowledge offered is dissonant in the order of trauma; the response can only be a working through—a mourning—of belated knowledge. The confronted self vacillates, sometimes violently and sometimes passively, sometimes imperceptibly, and sometimes shockingly, between resistance as symptom and the working through of resistance.

When the movements of affect and idea are in conflict, varying forms of aggression also can be staged as the self struggles for elusive mastery through strategies such as the discounting of an experience as having nothing to do with the self and the freezing of the event in a history that has no present. These mechanisms of defense—undoing what has already happened and isolating the event in a time that has long past—are key ways the ego attempts to console itself. But the cost of consolation is severe.

Our first interpretation of resistance is often to label it as behavior problems. Teachers feel angry, annoyed, or helpless, and they want to do something about their own feelings. The trick is to recall that these behaviors are just as possibly signs that important learning is taking place. If teachers move directly to punishment or correction, they may be inadvertently teaching the student to avoid the hard work of learning, to not-learn, since trying to learn is a punishable act. How ironic! A critical response to resistance behavior requires that teachers internally monitor themselves:

I feel angry . . . so stop thinking of myself and focus on the student: talk to the student about the mathematics, backtrack with her or him to the point where the resistance can be identified; help the student look at the moment in time when the knowledge was lost.

Teaching may not be the same as acting as a psychoanalyst, but there are many parallels. During the course of every psychoanalytic therapy, the patient will behave in ways that interfere with the progress of the treatment. This interference is called resistance. Because psychoanalytic therapy helps the patient achieve freedom of thought and action by talking freely, the negative emotional forces that caused his or her symptoms manifest themselves as obstacles to the talking therapy. Similarly, teachers should not be surprised if students exhibit behaviors of resistance throughout every educational curriculum.

In school, too, teachers want students to speak about their thoughts, to share their ideas and beliefs and opinions, and the difficulties of confronting new knowledge will be manifested in behaviors that delay learning. Like a patient undergoing analysis, a student may exhibit any of the following: become unable to talk any longer; feel he or she has nothing to say; need to keep secrets from his or her teacher; withhold things from the teacher because he or she is ashamed of them; feel that what he or she has to say isn’t important; repeat him or herself constantly; refrain from discussing certain topics; want to do something other than talk; desire advice rather than understanding; talk only about thoughts and not feelings; talk only about feelings and not thoughts.

These and many other forms of possible resistance keep students from learning about themselves and from growing and becoming the people they want to be. A patient and analyst study together the meaning and purpose of the resistance and try to understand the key to unlocking it and allowing the patient to continue growing. Many therapists recognize that a patient may need to resist, and they use a relaxed approach as an aid in overcoming the problem. Similarly, a teacher and his or her students must together study their resistance to learning, the meaning and purpose of this resistance, and try to understand the key to unlocking it and allowing the students to keep growing. And teachers recognize that resistance to learning is a part of learning itself; students need to do this in order to learn.

Transference And Countertransference

In response, teachers might work to create a “holding environment” in which students can do the work of repair that constitutes therapy. The primary work to establish such an environment is to listen and to understand how the student is forming relations of meaning. In the process, however, a teacher must develop the skills to recognize when transference and/or countertransference is occurring. Transference is the redirection of feelings and desires, especially those retained from childhood, onto another person. A teacher may be aware of such redirection occurring in the actions and feelings of a student; more difficult is to recognize such transference occurring in the feelings and desires of the teacher her or himself, an equally likely occurrence, sometimes called countertransference. Countertransference can allow a teacher to gain insight into the kinds of emotions and reactions the student often tends to induce in others. In this way, the countertransference is a welcomed phenomenon which can prove invaluable to the relationship.


Attachment is a tie that one person forms between him or herself and another specific one (usually a parent), such a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time. Psychoanalysts might say that children need to form attachments to a parent in order to be able to form other sorts of attachments—to others, to the idea of leaning, to the value of school, and so on. Many students do not come to a classroom or other educational experience ready to form such attachments. Because of this, many schools and teachers work to create communities where students can feel like they are valued and secure, in order to develop the necessary attachment requisite to learning.


  1. Appelbaum, P. (2002). Disconceptualizing curriculum: Is there a next in the generational text? Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 18(1), 7–19.
  2. Block, A. (1997). I’m only bleeding: Education as the practice of violence against children. New York: Peter Lang.
  3. Britzman, D. (1998). Lost subjects, contested objects: Toward a psychoanalytic inquiry of learning. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  4. Britzman, D. (2006). Novel education: Psychoanalytic studies of learning and not learning. New York: Peter Lang.
  5. Felman, S. (1982). Psychoanalysis and education: Teaching terminable and interminable. Yale French Studies, 63, 21–44.
  6. Green, B. (2005). Unfinished business: Subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research and Development, 24(2), 151–163.
  7. Pitt, A. (2003). The play of the personal: Psychoanalytic narratives of feminist education. New York: Peter Lang.

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