Being and becoming, plus the bits in between – I

English: Pablo E. Fabisch, Les Adventures de T...

English: Pablo E. Fabisch, Les Adventures de Telemaque a book from 1699 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Foucault (2000) expounds his concept of “the practice of self-formation of the subject”, he defines it as “an ascetic practice”, that is, “an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being” (p. 282).

This model outlines an ongoing process of from being to becoming, a perpetual present progressive state. A finality may be implied in Foucault’s “a certain mode of being”, yet it can be interpreted as a temporal and optical illusion, like the seemingly static state of chrysalis before metamorphosing into a, suddenly, dazzlingly bright butterfly. Unlike a static chrysalis however, personal self-formation requires constant “practice” – a reflective, and dare I add, a reflexive exercise on allowing the forming and transforming to take place. It presupposes self-determination.

Foucault also stresses that self-formation is fundamental to the practice of freedom. He argues that “the self as a practice of freedom,” has its ethical basis on Greco-Roman belief in the search for, and the care of, the self: “ethics is the reflective part of freedom” (p. 286). Here Foucault purports a tripartite argument: ethics, self/subject and freedom. For Foucault, being ethical means searching for, and caring of, the self, and such ethical exercise reflects, in part, what it means to be free. Read in the context of teacher training, this Foucaultian paradigm can therefore be understood as “ethics is the reflective part of autonomy”, if we were to equate freedom to autonomy. Becoming a teacher is to exercise autonomy as an ethical activity.

Nevertheless, the existential quandary of a Foucaultian asceticism is not so much about emancipating from various power structures of government or bureaucracies, or in Althusserian terms, ideological state apparatuses. It is more about exploring the possibilities and fulfilling the potentials within the self.

Yet, becoming a teacher is always dependent of others. What Foucault’s theory of self-formation of the subject has failed to consider is an outside agent crucial to such a transformative process – a catalyst. Becoming is only possible through external stimulants. Self-formation is never a solo enterprise of an ethical odyssey. It is the outcome through the interaction between a “self-in-relation” (Bullough and Pinnegar, 2001, p. 14) to others.

Depicted in Homer’s Odyssey, the anthropomorphic Mentor is entrusted by King Ulysses to offer council, guidance and protection to his son Telemachus. It is true to say that the contemporary understanding of the word, mentor, is largely attributed to the Homeric protagonist. In 1999, however, this general assumption was challenged. Roberts (1999) claims that the French educationist Fenelon – in his Les Adventures de Telemaque (1699) – is the real creator of the Mentor as we understand it now: the embodiment of “wisdom”, “support”, “nurturing” and “guidance” (p. 6). Homer or Fenelon, the role of a mentor is clearly defined from the perspectives of others.

It is time to tell the story from a mentor’s own perspective.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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