From Waiting for the Bus to Storming the Bastille: From Sartrean seriality to the relationships that form classroom communities



One of the tasks of Jean-Paul Sartre's later work was to consider how an individual could live freely within a free community. This paper examines how Sartre describes the process of group formation and the implications of this discussion for education. The paper begins with his metaphor of a bus queue in order to describe a series. Then, by means of Sartre's analysis of the storming of the Bastille, the discussion expands to show how a series becomes a genuine group. Finally, suggestions are offered, extrapolated from Sartre's theorizing about groups, as to how teachers might create and maintain genuine groups in and across schools rather than having them remain merely collections of individuals organized from outside. Throughout the paper, the implications of Sartre's insights into groups and educational settings are examined.


One of the tasks of Jean-Paul Sartre's later work was to consider how an individual could live freely within a free community. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason he attempted to theorize the genesis of a group within competing and possibly contradictory parameters. On the one hand, Sartre wanted to recognize that a genuine group can emerge as the result of the creative, committed will of its members, on the other, this group must be able to cohere without requiring the sacrifice of self by the individuals who constitute it. Sartre wanted the possibility of a deeply committed and well-functioning group without the loss of that individual autonomy that defines an authentic existentialism. In many ways this description of flourishing individuals working together for the benefit of each and all aligns with the kind of ‘authentic’ classroom community advocated for by many educational theorists.1 While recognizing that community building in the classroom is not a new issue, our purpose here is to add to the discussion a bit through an exploration and interpretation of some under-theorized and unjustly neglected later2 Sartre. Thereby enabling us to see what he considers important with regard to the formation of groups, especially those in institutionally constructed situations, the implications this exploration has for schools as a potentially significant critical diagnostic tool, and the worries brought forth with regard to the very possibility of relationships themselves within this institution called education.

Sartre argued that many of those groups that identify themselves as communities are, in fact, not of the kind mentioned above; rather, they are no more than a loose collection of people gathered together by virtue of the constituting force of an outside entity. Sartre calls this collection of people a ‘series’.3 In the case of workers in a factory, the outside force would be the owner, in the case of students, it might be a teacher and, in the case of teachers, it could be a school board, school administrator, centralized funding source, etc. Sartre would say that unless the members of any grouping are individually and collectively aware of self and each other, then the collection may only be defined as a series. A series requires that its members be passive, uninvolved, and unwilling to overcome the difficulty posed by this tension between isolation and reciprocity. ‘The isolation of the organism ... is revealed through the isolation everyone lives as the provisional negation of their reciprocal relations with Others. This man is isolated not only by his body as such, but also by the fact that he turns his back on his neighbour—who, moreover, has not even noticed him ...’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 256). Sartre contends, which should concern those in education who see community as necessary for learning, that it may be impossible for a genuine relationship to exist between those who find themselves pushed together due to this outside force. However, out of such a series might emerge a genuine group in response to particular circumstances; and, dangerously, a group might revert to a series when the circumstances which precipitated the formation of the group are removed.

In this paper I intend to examine how a Sartrean series can transform itself into a genuine group. Using his metaphor of a bus queue, I will first describe a series. Second, by means of Sartre's analysis of the storming of the Bastille, I will show how a series may become a genuine group. Finally, I offer suggestions, extrapolated from Sartre's theorizing about groups, as to how teachers might create and maintain genuine groups in schools rather than merely collections of individuals organized from outside. Throughout, I will ask what Sartre's insights can teach us about groups in educational settings, how classroom groups, and even teacher groups, can fail to be productive and creative, and how they might succeed. Before continuing it is important to note that although not explicitly discussed in this project one hoped for result is to open a window into existentialism and to more explicitly examine, educationally, a key contribution to the history of social philosophy while responding to Gordon's 1985 comment with regards to the Critique that, ‘what arouses wonder is that philosophers of education have shied away from this study in the quarter century since it was written’ (Gordon, 1985, p. 43).4

The Series: At the Bus Stop Our Journey Begins

Sartre sees a tension in human life between the isolation of the individual and interpersonal reciprocity, and this tension increases when people are forced together.5 The image Sartre (1978, pp. 256-265) uses to help us understand the series is a queue at a bus stop. The members of this gathering of people have little interest in each other, turn their backs, absorb themselves in their newspapers, or think about other gatherings to which they genuinely belong (e.g. family, sports team, etc.).6 They are negating reciprocity with each other through their actions and this results in a ‘plurality of isolation’. ‘These people do not care about or speak to each other and, in general, they do not look at one another; they exist side by side alongside a bus stop’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 256). Sartre claims that members of this series are semi-aware of one another, because they have real membership in other groups, and because full awareness would require acknowledging the role of the external constitutor (i.e. the bus company). The bus-riders are together only because of the shared knowledge of the bus schedule, the destination, and the coincidence of location. Eventually, daily repetition of the same routine, same time and same bus, turns them, in this respect, into passive recipients of life and experience, which is the defining characteristic of the series.

For educators the potential for a ‘plurality of isolations’ in our present educational system as a result of routine scheduling and classroom inertia is a real danger. Schedules and programs should be flexible enough to enable individual students, and teachers, to work with others in different and varying ways. Anyone working with others whom they have previously ignored, or discovering strengths in others of which they were previously unaware can potentially shed the dangerous tendency to create static or prejudge their peers and thus avert negative reciprocity in the class. At one level, this places an onus on the teacher to develop a deep sense of each student in their particularity in order to best create a curriculum that allows each to be seen publicly and honoured as being of value in, through, and for that same particularity. This process might involve the expansion of what has traditionally been see as ‘of value’ in school. At another level, there is a delicate line to walk here since the more the teacher determines the organization itself and the direction of creative investigation, the less self-creation is exercised by the student, and the less possibility there is for genuine group formation. One way that this might be accomplished is through larger scale place and community based projects.7 Drawn from the reality of the students' and their communities' lives these projects have to be large enough and diverse enough so that everyone is necessary for completion and so that each individual might be known for the particular skill, energy, ability, creativity, or knowledge base they uniquely bring to bear towards the group's overall success. By building this kind of project into the larger school year the teacher is potentially assisting in the overcoming of that tension between isolation and reciprocity Sartre so clearly points to.

In the next step of his argument, Sartre alters the image and presents the point of view of the bus/bus company.8 To the bus company these individuals who wait are completely interchangeable; they are not a ‘rich differentiated synthesis’9 and, even though they all have the same acts to perform, such as getting on the bus, paying, and finding a seat, from the point of the bus company which has to fulfil its mandate by following its prescribed route and schedule, these commuters ‘are identical as separate individuals’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 260). This condition of ‘being completely interchangeable’ Sartre regards as a ‘scandalous absurdity’. The needs of the bus have outweighed those of the queue occupants.

In some situations in the educational field, the bus might correspond to any system that is created independently of the people who are directly involved in the project of teaching and learning. One challenge for educational administrations is to determine how much ‘absurdity’ exists; that is to say how much interchangeability of the kind that abrogates genuine personhood there is amongst any of the constituent groups. As we plan schedules, organize classrooms, determine teaching loads, or place students and teachers themselves one question that ought to be repeatedly posed is what the effect of these will be upon the potential for relationship between the participants in learning.

A recent example of the application of external principles to educational practice is that offered by a decision in Ontario related to, ironically, busing. Here school trustees in a small rural district caught under the burden of an impending financial crisis decided that the elementary children would start school at 7:30 each morning while the more rested high-school students would begin at 9am. School would then end at 3:30pm and 5pm respectively in order to rid the board of having school on Friday altogether. These decisions were centralized, made, apparently, for financial reasons, and done without pedagogical input. The new arrangement means that fewer buses can be used in a more ‘efficient’ way and thereby reduce the overall cost of education. Whether or not these long days, shortened weeks, and early hours are pedagogically sound is not an argument addressed by these trustees who are often not directly involved in the project of education. Beyond the irony, decisions of this kind, made everyday throughout educational contexts, can contribute to the isolation of individuals. For Sartre, this centrally created ‘relation of exteriority’ (children in forced relation through age, bus-ridership, means to offset financial pressures) disavows the potential of that ‘rich differentiated synthesis’ sought by classroom community advocates.

A queue at a bus stop is a series and, although it gives the appearance of being a group if observed from afar, the people that compose it are living ‘separately as identical instances of the same act’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 262); their uniqueness is related solely to their position. I am linked to the others in the line through the coincidental need for a bus and not through reciprocal, negotiated interest—what Sartre calls reciprocity. It is the bus, its route and its schedule that provides the ‘synthesis’, i.e. the meaning that gives cohesion to the queue. Coherence is not determined by the participants in the group, and the individual rider is an inert object, there for the purpose of the bus company.

The implication of Sartre's analysis for us as educators is clear. As educational administration and curriculum become more centralized, more responsive to distantly controlled economic, social, or political agendas, the structure that students, teachers, and principals encounter is ever more predominant, and the individual commensurately diminished. As a result, the individuals involved—administrators, teachers, and students—become less significant and more interchangeable, and are only important insofar as they occupy a position within the series. Teachers examine length of service sheets to see if they are in danger of being laid off, principals are shifted between schools every few years regardless of their and the community's interest, and standardized testing lines up all students in a way hauntingly reminiscent of the bus queue. For educators to build community in the classroom they must be aware of this potential to ‘serialize’, the better to resist it. It must be understood that this is not meant as a characterization of all education as we currently enact it so much as a warning and reflection of what can and does occur. The complaints and realities suggested above are far from unknown though certainly not universal.

From Series to Group

The series, as I have described it, is the habitual relationships we have with our fellow humans, but it is also a place out of which the true group may emerge. If the series diminishes the creative, self-enacting individual, how is it that the series, nonetheless, can give rise to a genuine group? In spite of the restrictions of the milieu and the tendency to serialize life, Sartre never loses sight of the role of the individual and his/her ability to make choices and, thus, there arises the possibility of the creation of a genuine group.

Sartre claims that humanity has an indomitable ability to adapt to situations, even oppressive situations. With respect to human freedom, Sartre claims that it is not simply a matter of choosing in vacuo, but of making choices within the limitations imposed by daily living. ‘Freedom, ... does not mean the possibility of choice, but the necessity of living these constraints in the form of exigencies which must be fulfilled by a praxis’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 326). A person may ‘choose’10 to accept and conform to an oppressive situation in order to avoid having to deal with an even more intolerable situation or because there is no other conceivable possibility. However, at some point in time, individuals may find their situation intolerable.11‘It is impossible that this should continue; it is impossible that it should be unchangeable; it is impossible that there should be no way out, that I should continue to live like this’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 329). This is the moment they discover that their situation is not immutable and that there exist other possibilities (i.e. that they are free to act).

The human condition is one in which people are ineluctably trapped and subjected to hostile forces that are both natural and human. It is the lot of the individual to assert her/his freedom by struggling against those forces. But, it is this discovery of what is being struggled against that allows me to assert my freedom. I only discover the walls of my prison by running into them, and I only recognize my situation as intolerable by seeing the grass through the tiny prison window and thus learning that the ‘practico-inert’ is not the only way of life. For Sartre, the practico-inert is, like Newton's second law of thermodynamics, the ‘stable’ position of disorganization, of passivity. It is to this possibility of disorganized stasis and the potential to slide ‘back’ into chaos which, for Newton, organization and complexity must push against. And, it is the practico-inert, for Sartre, against which freedom, overcoming, and life must respond if we are to reach authenticity. It is as if the practico-inert simultaneously is the background and lurks in the background such that it, like sirens singing to Greek heroes, draws individuals, groups, and institutions away from their freedom and their engaged, disruptive, life-affirming praxis and into passive acceptance of intolerable situations.

Yet, ‘it is through the experience of alienation as necessity (... as the real, social being of one's being), that the practico-inert field is revealed’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 337). It is also out of this new awareness of the practico-inert field that the genuine group, as distinct from the series, arises in response to a constraint that is no longer tolerable, and which causes individuals to adopt a new approach towards each other and the series. This is the ‘group-in-fusion’ which Sartre defines this way: ‘This new approach is both reflexive and a constituent: each praxis as a free individual totalizing dialectic places itself at the service of a common dialectic whose very type is modelled on the synthetic action of an isolated worker’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 340). In the group-in-fusion, each self-actualizing being witnesses his/her personal goal align itself with that of the other members of the group to form a common goal. Thus, the intrinsically important goals of each individual, or what Sartre calls ‘the constituent dialectics’, become component parts of the constituted dialectic, the synthesis, which is the goal of the group itself. Sartre sees humanity's group objective, the ultimate synthesis, as the totalizing of the ‘human world (... the world of men and their objects) in the historical undertaking’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 341). Sartre, who initially wanted individuals to organize according to their own ultimate possibility, parallels that process by advocating that the ultimate goal of humanity is to get everybody ‘aligned’12 in common in order to take control of the dialectical historical process as it moves forward into the future. As the individual chooses his/her goals and overcomes the dialectical tensions that resist his/her movement, so too does the group.

The process of group formation begins with what Sartre calls the ‘original tension of need’, or elsewhere, ‘scarcity’. Separate individuals simultaneously begin to see their situations as intolerable and begin to act to transcend the present situation and, in so doing, encounter one another. They join together through their shared goal and ‘the group constitutes itself on the basis of a common need or common danger and defines itself to be the common objective which determines its common praxis’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 350). So, individuals finding their particular needs in a particular situation to be common, come together as a group.13

One question that might arise from the above discussion is whether or not education is forcing14 both students and teachers into a difficult process of adaptation thereby pushing them farther and farther away from the potential for relationship at all. If students understand school to be their only possibility or the most tolerable, preferable to incarceration for example, then, according to Sartre, adaptation is the only recourse they have. This has quite serious implications for individual freedom since the adapting individual is doing so because they see no other possibility available to them. Taken to theoretical extreme, Sartre could be understood to have serious questions and concerns about whether genuine community development is even possible beyond any level of simple rhetoric if adaptation is the modus operandi of that particular setting, classroom, school, etc. A situation that requires individuals to be assorted and gathered in a particular place with almost complete disregard for those specific individuals and their goals is in danger of making relationship, amongst and between those selfsame individuals, itself impossible. Here the image of children waiting at both a literal and figurative bus stop really gains some traction. Couple this problem with a system that often externally mandates subject matters and classroom designs, and continually fails to reflect the rhythms, realities, and interests of real children and the problem only becomes more apparent.

The Bastille: The Group-in-fusion

The unparalleled importance in French history of the storming of the Bastille presents Sartre with a powerful example of the formation of a group. It marks the transformation of the Paris mob into a victorious force that succeeded in capturing the most hated symbol of the Ancien Régime.15

The process of group formation goes through several stages as the people of Paris gradually take control of their own destiny. At first, driven to utter frustration by the oppression of the government, the people take to the streets as a mob of angry individuals. The army causes the next stage of group formation by entering Paris and threatening to trap the mob in front of the Bastille. The people begin to realize that their very survival is tied to that of others, that they face a common goal, and survival requires common action. With this recognition, people realize that their individual goals and the goals of the group become identical, and the individual praxis of flight is transformed into the common praxis of the fight for freedom. Speaking of the individual, Sartre says: ‘At this moment, he is sovereign, that is to say, he becomes through this change of praxis, the organizer of common praxis’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 370). The members of the new group now begin creating their own definition and their own destiny.

The unity of the Group arises not from one individual but from all together, and this comes about through the embeddedness of the individual in the group. Each individual constitutes every other as a member of the group while simultaneously constituting the group itself. Thus, when the citizens of Paris gather, each new arrival confirms the group, and each member of the group sees a new arrival as confirming an important and unique addition. Individuals through free praxis join together to form a group whose common purpose and function will permeate each and every one.

The individual then is no longer a member in a series, regarded with suspicion or ignored, but an intrinsically important free agent engaged in a ‘constellation of mediated reciprocities’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 379). This ‘group-in-fusion’ is not inert, but is constantly in flux as the objective and the situations are developing. The group is in the process of becoming and, once it achieves its objective, has transcended itself. However, a note of caution: this is not a suggestion that all group formation is by definition good or that all formations that appear to satisfy the above criteria are ethically supportable.16 It is also important to remember that in spite of his move towards the group-in-fusion Sartre is not about to give up the individual by submerging him/her in a collective, the goal is to find a unity that protects difference and freedom and, in fact, actually provides the possibility for maximal flourishing of each and all. ‘Sartre continues the Existential protest against the tendency of philosophy and science to dissolve the individual human being into impassive generalization’ (Broudy, 1971, p. 177).17

Further, as Broudy (1971) pointed out, humans are constantly in danger of acting in bad faith,18 of creating both unforeseen and foreseen counterfinalities,19 and even of choosing to do evil. And, as Noddings has suggested ‘community is not an unalloyed good; it has a dark side, and both educators and students should be aware of it’ (Noddings, 1996, p. 245). Now, without going into a full-length exposition of existentialist ethics, a project which Sartre himself avoided, there are several guidelines that might help educators when considering the groups being formed in their classrooms. The first, built out of both the draw of the practico-inert and our inveterate ability to lie to ourselves, is the assumption of a vigilantly critical stance with regard to ourselves and our practices to assist us in avoiding seeing and hearing what it is we want. The second, responds to Sartre's position that any action posits value and as such must be considered in light of both how that action influences the freedom, ability to act of any other and whether any particular action is one the individual would sanction for all if they were in the same position. The third guideline for considering a particular formation is the ability of the group to take responsibility20 for their actions.

Now, in the average school or classroom we may not be facing an obviously intolerably oppressive and potentially revolutionary situation such as that confronting the good citizens of Paris, but Sartre's analysis provides educators with one theoretical basis for thinking about formulating and forming groups. It is important that initially the group have an obstacle21 to confront, thus providing a large enough common goal that requires collective action. This is a point at which we see a potential incompatibility between Sartre's position and public educative practice as currently conceived. It is entirely possible within a system, both competitive and individualistic, that a stronger student might see her/his goals as being opposed to those of a weaker student, thereby making the formation of a genuine group difficult. For Sartre's vision to be fulfilled each member would have to be recognized as important though not necessarily identical thereby offsetting the potential concerns of the ‘stronger’ student. But also each member must be acknowledged as essential; all must belong, and must have freely subscribed to the project through an understanding of a common goal and how their individual goals benefit from and align with that common goal. It is important to note that this will vary, as it should, in both its substantive qualities and its range depending upon the vast assortment of complexities that exist between and within any particular classrooms.

Looking at the current situation in too many of our schools and classrooms, we might respond that Sartre's ideas are impractical to implement. Class sizes are too large and the social environment is potentially at odds with the formation of groups; but rather than dismissing Sartre's insight, various actions might be considered. Group size might be changed while remembering that Sartre's example involved most of the citizens of Paris, also, that the level of decision-making might be altered in order to allow the needs of individuals to align with those of the group, and consideration might be given to who the individual teachers and students are and how they might best come together. Of course, it is not merely a question of group size; group function, conception of self, conception of culture and community, and the social environment from which the group comes, all must be taken into account in the process of group formation. Clearly the project of conscious formation of groups is something that could be more deliberately attended to throughout the schooling years.

If the goal of both education and democracy is to have active individuals exercising their freedom within the framework of a society that involves and accepts them as equally valuable and necessary members then it becomes apparent that both education and democracy need to begin to function in ways similar to those Sartre describes. Schools are in an ideal, even necessary, position to thoughtfully enact the democratic process. While we speak about democracy in schools we are less adept at enacting it and, as a result, students are limited in their access to the practice and understanding of democracy. Sartre offers valuable ideas as to how we may move from a model that is serial in nature and creates only a quasi-synthesis (i.e. the organization of students and teachers into schools, classrooms, learning outcomes, and standardized tests) to the formation of a group-in-fusion, which will reflect and promote an inclusive philosophy which must be the basis of a democratic and pluralistic society.


Sartre's analysis of the group offers useful insights to educators. By differentiating between the pseudo-group of the series and the group-in-fusion with its potential for creative action, it provides a theoretical basis from which to evaluate the current situations within classrooms, schools, and larger educational systems. It also describes a potential process by which teachers and administrators might change current practices. First, goals for the group must be practical, shared and when possible determined by the group itself. They must also rise in response to some potentially external force, that which is to be overcome, while also being related to or in alignment with the individual goals of the members. Second, the group must be created with the recognition of the freedom of its members because ‘the essential characteristic of the fused group is the sudden resurrection of freedom’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 401). This means that each member of the group is engaged in positing both his/her own and the common objective through the assertion of his/her own freedom, and is also confirming the group through his/her actions whilst allowing all the other members the freedom to validate themselves and the group. This suggests activities like the larger group projects mentioned above and that teachers must be quite thoughtful in order to avoid the kinds of coercion that might invalidate potential expressions of freedom. Thirdly, the group must ‘really create’. By this term Sartre means that all the shared but individual goals of the group, ‘the synthetic determinations’, must result in action. ‘All synthetic determinations we described really create the common action in so far as each of them makes it exist both in itself and everywhere’ (Sartre, 1978, p. 401). Real action occurs in response to genuine situations with the potential for tangible results. In educational terms this means that the group will only form around real problems, and activities that do not connect to the students' lives or remain in the realm of theory will have limited tangible outcome related to group formation. Students should be engaged in overcoming problems that they themselves have recognized, that challenge them to exercise their individual and group freedom, and that offer the possibility of creating real solutions and overcoming that which has been deemed intolerable.

There is also the other, as yet unasked, question of sustaining and continuing a group once formed. For once a group, having come together around a shared project, has achieved its aim, what is it that might continue to hold the group together and keep it from drifting apart, sliding back into a series, or both? Sartre proposes three necessary components for group maintenance that might prove useful for educators to consider: violence, the pledge, and praxis. For Sartre, ‘violence’ is not, of necessity, physical, but is action aimed at overcoming inertia and adaptation. Thought of in this way we see parallels to current discussions in education. Maxine Greene's ‘Teacher as Stranger’ or David Denton's ‘Teacher as Dissonator’22 or Hannah Arendt's discussions of public space or the substantial discussions around ‘critical thinking’ all point in this direction. The point being that part of the role of educators is to encourage students to re-open, re-examine, and re-consider adopted ideas, beliefs, suppositions, and knowledges. They are, in point of fact, being asked to ‘do violence’ to the current in the hopes of a new, more expansive, deeper, subtler future. Of course, that educators themselves must engage in similar activities in order to avoid their own complacency goes without saying. Beyond this, educators need to find ways to come together, to find ways to overcome enforced serializations, to confront the formidable external difficulties, such as lack of funds and bureaucratic constraints, as well as those internal problems inherent in the development of a group such as the continual tendency to slide back into the ‘series’ model. Implied also in this conscious action is a question of protecting the very act of teaching itself, the relation that is teaching. If Sartre is to be believed, then with a little pushing it might be argued that to work within a serialization (i.e. a school, district, or board are all possibilities) is to relinquish any chance of relationship between parts of the series. More specifically, one might claim that a genuine or authentic relationship between equal humans, who are ends in and of themselves and not merely means to the ends of another, would in fact be impossible between students, between teacher and student, and between teachers. And, for at least some, this would mean that the very act of teaching itself would be irrevocably compromised without the kind of conscious, collective, and ongoing action Sartre advocates.

By the ‘pledge’, Sartre's second component for ongoing group maintenance, he means the collective creation of systems of values or of constitutions which, as each member understands, restricts their individual freedom but provides a sense of ownership in and belonging to the resultant group. Publicly affirmed commitments also provide a shared context and a democratic, as opposed to autocratic, position from which educators may question individual actions. An example of this might be the ‘full value contract’ work that is done in many outdoor education programs and which has found its way into selective classrooms. This activity involves a period of time in which individuals within the group begin to get to know each other, work together, and encounter challenges. As such they start, and are asked, in response to educational activities, to form some operating norms for their particular group. The difference from the more common approaches to rules is that these norms, once agreed upon, are not established by the teacher, nor are they policed by the teacher, nor are they implicitly arrived at as if through happenstance. In the full value contract all the members in the group are involved in the design and creation of the rules of conduct through which the group will guide its own behaviour. Depending on the depth and complexity of the process the resulting document can range from a set of rules to live by and interact with to a living document with the weight of a constitution. Interestingly enough, and free of a Sartrean theoretical underpinning as far as I can tell, these documents are brought to bear on the entire group through some kind of public ‘commitment ceremony’. This pledge-making process, whereby each member publicly asserts a commitment to act within the spirit of the contract and to assist in supporting others to do so as well, is in line with Sartre's thought. Often this pledging process ends with some kind of token, a bracelet or bandanna, being given, presumably both as a reminder of the pledge and a means to identify members of the group.

The third component for ongoing group maintenance, praxis, is seen as thoughtful action freely taken towards a specified goal. Educators must work towards a time when their students consciously grasp their own creative potential and identify the active role they can play in order to realize a better world. Students must be allowed to recognize the active role they can play in determining the future. Students who see themselves as important members in the creation and confirmation of communities are becoming more conscious of themselves, more capable in relationships and, ultimately, more thoughtful in the project of creating those inclusive and evolving communities. Education must allow for students to create themselves within the context of the group, to provide a rich supply of alternatives, and to free their imaginations, moving from discovery to conflict and thence to resolution, which is the Sartrean dialectic of freedom. The danger of a serialization of education, beyond its questionable efficacy, is that it debilitates the dialectic, the vital interaction of the learning situation, the dynamism of conflicting ideas, and the express requirement for individuals to reflect, synthesize, come together, and create.


The author wishes to thank key colleagues, Drs. P. Blenkinsop, C. Beeman, and C. Bingham, and two reviewers for this journal for their thoughtful comments and constructive help in bringing this paper to fruition.


  • 1

    For further reading with regard to classroom community see: Thayer-Bacon, 1998; Noddings, 2005; Bingham & Sidorkin, 2004.

  • 2

    For those who are interested there was quite a vibrant discussion of Sartre and education throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s. The reasons for this are quite varied and complex but include a philosophic sense that Sartre was too individualistic in orientation. Unfortunately much of this assessment was built upon his earlier work which, as Burstow has pointed out, misses the ‘more liberal views of human relations which Sartre developed as he got older’ (Burstow, 1983, p. 173). My own view is that this ‘radical conversion’ of Sartre began with his World War II experiences and can be seen, in their infancy, in The War Diaries.

  • 3

    In his work Sartre distinguishes several forms of groupings that he places under the heading of ‘collective’. For our purposes we will focus on what he identifies as the ‘direct series’.

  • 4

    Gordon (1985) suggests that part of the reason for this reticence, as of 1985, is the academic focus on the analytic/scientific, thus the need to divorce the academic project from dialectic reason. I would suggest that, although possible in 1985, this reason fails to explain the next quarter century of silence which, beyond the possibility that Sartre has nothing to say with regards to education, might be a complex interplay of assumed understanding of the existentialism of the mid-20th century, shifts in educational philosophy, under-currents of political/social reality, change in the explicit presence of scarcity and intolerability in the Western world, etc.

  • 5

    In his play No Exit (Sartre, 1955), for example, each of the three characters is obliged to be constantly in the company of the other two and yet cannot overcome the fact that each is simultaneously alone.

  • 6

    It is important to recognize that Sartre's focus is on the process of group formation with settings that might be framed as ‘institutional’ (e.g. government, private enterprise, education, organized religion, etc.) and, for the Marxist, construed as troublesome with regards to the formation of relationships between and amongst the ‘workers’. He is not claiming that this is only way to form a group or that groups might necessarily arise in this way. One might consider the example of an extended family or a sports team or a group drawn together through a shared tragedy.

  • 7

    For further practical information on these kinds of projects see: Levy, 1996; Armstrong, Connolly & Saville, 1994; Sobel, 2004.

  • 8

    Sartre's ironic point is that an object, bus, originally designed to serve people provides the best vantage point from which to view the serialization that it facilitates.

  • 9

    This is the kind of genuine group Sartre is in search of.

  • 10

    This seeming choice allows managers, those who make meaning, to justify what may be an oppressive process as being ‘freely chosen’ by the workers.

  • 11

    A situation becomes intolerable when an individual discovers the possibility that there are other options and that his/her situation is in fact contingent.

  • 12

    By aligned, Sartre means engaged in the same project of self and group transformation and enactment.

  • 13

    This is not a suggestion that individuality, heterogeneity, or difference is lost in this process. In fact, precisely the opposite since each member both constitutes the group and is themselves constituted, in their uniqueness, by the group. Educationally, part of the process of a large group project beyond successful completion is to allow for the possibility of individuals in the group to be recognized for, and to self-recognize, particular strengths, abilities, challenges, and idiosyncrasies. Sartre's group-in-fusion can be understood as the kind of pluralism Thayer-Bacon is pointing to in her book, Beyond Liberal Democracy in Schools.

  • 14

    In Sartre's terms this would be the practico-inert gaining purchase by drawing the institution away from the engaged, alive, free place of the group and towards the passive, alienated, oppressed position of the inert collective.

  • 15

    Sartre acknowledges that he is simplifying this example and that frequently exploitation is more insidious since it uses separate collectives within the seriality against one another, thereby fostering antagonisms which keep these smaller collectives from truly recognizing the shared oppression.

  • 16

    One might, for educational context, take the Hitler youth movement as an example.

  • 17

    Within the context of this discussion this caution is very important for education which has a habit of defining the ‘average’ student, or outlining the ‘good’‘math’‘teacher’, or offering ‘age appropriate’ activities, interventions, or psychological sign posts.

  • 18

    For Sartre bad faith, is self-deception; it is lying to oneself. The construct of any lie involves one who knows that it is untrue and one who is deceived. In the case of bad faith they are the same person, so within the individual the truth is both known and unknown simultaneously. ‘Know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in the capacity as the one deceived’ (Sartre, 1992, p. 89). Sartre (1992) offers a long list of potential forms of bad faith in Being and Nothingness. Simone de Beauvoir calls these the ‘tricks of dishonesty’ in her Ethics of Ambiguity.

  • 19

    Counterfinalities might be considered the ‘side effects’ of any action. Many of these are unforeseen but Sartre certainly leaves open the option that they might be foreseen. Educational examples might include the results of particular kinds of standardized testing which is explicitly meant to have the consequence of finding poor teachers yet have a counterfinality of failing students.

  • 20

    For Sartre, responsibility is the necessary companion of choice.

  • 21

    Here the kind of obstacle may, and should, vary depending upon the particulars of the students, teachers, curriculum, etc.

  • 22

    For further exploration of these discussions see: Greene, 1973; Denton, 1972; Arendt, 1990.