Walter Benjamin was well aware that schools could be unpleasant, even violent surroundings. Throughout his writings, he alludes to his difficult experiences in the schools he attended as a child. Yet, in his 1921 essay Toward the Critique of Violence, when he mentions “educative violence,” it serves as a contemporary manifestation of what he terms “divine violence”—his radical alternative to violence associated with law, its establishment, and its preservation.
This implies that while Benjamin recognizes the existence of “laws limiting the powers within education to inflict punishment,” he does not advocate for the outright eradication of violence from education (42). Rather, he contends that there exists a space for violence in education, so long as it assumes a “divine” nature. The question arises: how can educational violence attain a divine quality, and how might it be manifested in our educational institutions?
Our interpretation of this surprising juxtaposition between educative and divine violence will not attempt to reconstruct Benjamin’s actual views on education. Instead, we will employ the notion of divine violence to the conception of school offered by Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons in their 2013 book In Defence of the School: A Public Issue.
Masschelein and Simons present an apology, but rather than defending existing schools—like the ones Benjamin attended—they write about a particular conception of schooling, a democratic idea rooted in ancient Greece. Revisiting this conception, they believe, might offer us the opportunity to reimagine and reinvent the school in the present context. We connect their ideas to Benjamin’s concept of divine violence to illuminate this perplexing concept and to facilitate a better comprehension of the democratic possibilities inherent in school education.
Benjamin contrasts divine violence with what he terms “mythic violence,” namely, the violence manifesting the sheer power of the gods while positing and preserving the boundaries that form the legal order:
If mythic violence is law-positing, divine violence is law-annihilating; if the former establishes boundaries, the latter boundlessly annihilates them; if mythic violence inculpates and expiates at the same time, divine violence de-expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal in a bloodless manner (57).
While scholars such as Butler, Derrida, Hamacher, and others have written extensively about these concepts, our main focus here is the example Benjamin cites to illustrate divine violence: the account of Korah and his horde recounted in Numbers 16. After Korah assembles 250 men to challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority, earth opens its mouth and swallows them alive.
Benjamin notes that Korah and his horde were Levites, “privileged ones.” They contested the authority of Moses and Aaron, ostensibly in pursuit of equality—“Wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3)—but actually, as Moses understands, their intention is to amass greater power beyond what God had granted them. By challenging Moses, they aim to leverage their privilege to secure additional advantages, utilizing their legal authority to redefine the established rules.
When God strikes them lethally yet without drawing blood, he suspends the social order he himself had sanctioned: Korah and the Levites who followed him are struck despite their privilege, and at the same time because of their privilege. The divine strike renders the social hierarchy, which is not inherently flawed, temporarily irrelevant. It serves neither as a punitive measure to reward the wrongdoers, to reestablish order, nor to preserve existing law. It is concerned neither with expiation, compensation, nor the theatrics of a trial. As an act of divine violence, its strike annihilates the law by rendering it irrelevant. In its immediate and consuming presence, all are rendered powerless. In this sense, all are rendered equal.
By connecting divine violence to education, we do not argue that education is lethal or that students are entirely powerless in relation to the teacher. Instead, we suggest that violence may serve a necessary and constructive function in education, and that it is crucial to distinguish between its different modes of operation and manifestation: not between its presence and absence (as if non-violent education were feasible), nor between physical and other, more subtle forms of violence, but rather between mythic violence that preserves the sociopolitical order by assimilating students into it and divine violence that subverts sociopolitical order by turning against the violence it gives rise to.
Let us delve into Masschelein and Simons’ conception of the school, to see how Benjamin’s divine violence can be relevant to it. As Masschelein and Simons highlight, the etymological origin of the word school is the Greek word scholé, meaning ‘free time.’ This does not imply that the Greek school was a time for leisure or relaxation, but rather that the time dedicated to school education was deemed free, liberated from the demands of everyday life.
Accordingly, the first characteristic of the school is suspension, namely “(temporarily) rendering something inoperative, or in other words, taking it out of production, releasing it, lifting it from its normal context” (33). Scholastic time is suspended from its everyday flow, from socio-economic imperatives. In school, time is not money.
Moreover, for school time to genuinely be free, the children attending school must be emancipated from the constraints imposed by their social positions; the school must suspend all class and social differentiations among its attendees, bracketing them, and temporarily rendering them inoperative. At school, one is neither rich nor poor, one’s parent is neither a merchant nor a craftsman—everyone temporarily becomes the same thing: a student. Knowledge and skills are expropriated from the elites, breaking the chain of familial transmission, and made public and accessible to everyone.
Such a school is inherently democratic, anti-elitist, and egalitarian. Nevertheless, it is by no means devoid of violence. It can be argued that expropriating knowledge and skills from the hands of the privileged elites and making them available to all involves a violation of the social order and thus carries an element of violence. Equally important, violence is also applied to the students: not only in the trivial sense of school discipline. The very act of suspension, on which the free time of the school hinges, can be considered violent. Children may not necessarily be willing to relinquish their familial affiliations and social positions, relinquish privilege, or simply let go of their familiar place and identity. Even if being a student is temporary, even if it opens up new possibilities, it is clearly—violently—imposed on the children.
Rather than utilizing this violent aspect as a justification for advocating de-schooling, which could potentially subject children to various equally harsh forms of violence in the social and economic spheres, we can embrace this violence as a manifestation of divine violence. Similar to the case of Korah, this violence is directed against privilege, and while it does not completely eradicate it, it does disrupt its automatic perpetuation, making it challenging for the elite to preserve and expand its power.
This violence is aimed not at inculpating or seeking expiation, but rather at suspending all privilege through a broader, anonymous, and more universal power. It is law-annihilating in the most radical sense, not serving the prevailing order but actively disregarding it, rendering it temporarily inoperative. Yet, unlike the fate of Korah and his followers, the violence directed towards students in school is not lethal. This aligns with Benjamin’s remark that divine violence “is annihilating only in a relative sense […] never absolutely with regard to the soul of the living” (58). In school, it targets privilege rather than privileged individuals, to whom it assigns no guilt and demands no expiation.
Despite its emphasis on knowledge, learning is not the primary focus of school. This is because, according to Masschelein and Simons, learning “involves the strengthening or expanding of the existing I, for example, through the accumulation of skills or the expanding of one’s knowledge base,” whereas school education is a matter of formation, which entails “constantly going outside of oneself or transcending oneself’ (45). This means that not only social status and family origin are suspended at school, but also the individual self; one’s very subjectivity—inclinations, interests, abilities, and limitations—is bracketed and temporarily rendered inoperative.
This bracketing is done by school “technology.” The latter need not be high-tech but can encompass traditional tools like blackboards, chalk, books, tables, chairs, as well as school architecture and spatial design. It is not aimed to teach students how to dominate and appropriate the world:
These are not tools or environments that can be freely used or that are used according to one’s intentions. The student or the teacher does not automatically assume total control over them. Rather, there is always an inverse element at work: these instruments and spaces assert control over the student and teacher (50).
The school orients students toward the world as something of value, without prescribing precisely what to do with it. It establishes a kind of “middle ground” that “has no orientation or destination but makes all orientations and directions possible” (36). This not only applies to the potential for encountering new ideas and subjects the student never knew she was interested in, but also to scholastic formation and transformation. Scholastic education, therefore, involves dismantling the everyday standpoint from which people typically engage with the world—the stance of the subject addressing an object for the purpose of using and dominating it—and instead transitioning to a more open and receptive approach.
The self-formation of the student at school, wherein the self explores the potential to mold itself in alignment with things rather than employing them solely to attain predetermined goals, entails an element of violence as well: it is not easy or pleasant to step outside one’s self, to suspend one’s identity and self-definition. It is not without reason that scholastic technology is frequently viewed as oppressive and likened to an array of torture instruments. (In his “Berlin Chronicle” Benjamin considers school as a “timetable cage” ).
We argued above that as children become students, their privilege is targeted in a manner similar to how divine violence struck Korah when he attempted to exploit his privilege for greater power. Now, we can further assert that scholastic violence is directed against the most fundamental privilege: that of the subject in relation to the object. When scholastic violence affects the students—without drawing blood and without inculpating or expiating—it does not posit or preserve any law; instead, it annihilates what appears to be the most fundamental law: the one that establishes the human as a subject who approaches the world around them as an object to be utilized.
Despite originating from a source far from divine and being wielded by the most secular authority, namely, the state, this violence undermines the very order it sustains. Its immense power, disproportionate to its recipients, grants it the radical potential to engender potentials, to reveal unexpected possibilities that would otherwise remain hidden.
Characterizing scholastic violence as divine does not imply justifying it. Divine violence, as Benjamin describes, exists beyond the realm of justified means and ends, functioning outside the scope of law and order. Nevertheless, by contrasting divine violence with mythic violence—which posits and preserves the law, acknowledging only manifestations of sheer power—we can understand it, acknowledge its presence, and affirm its significance in the realm of education.
The lesson Benjamin’s political theology teaches us, therefore, is to affirm educative violence: not the kind of violence that upholds the sociopolitical order, but the type that suspends the structures that perpetuate inequality. Instead of an education that seeks to distance itself from all forms of violence, divine violence offers us the potential for a radical and democratic education. It is through this kind of violence that school opens for children a purview beyond the rigid metaphysical and social orders of the adult world.