The relevance of Erich Fromm for online learning during a pandemic

Mark Carrigan

I was struck recently by how much Erich Fromm can offer in understanding online learning. In his To Have Or To Be? Fromm distinguishes between two orientations to the world, the eponymous having and being, which manifest across the full range of human activity. The former is a matter of possessing, with a substantial subject relating to external objects in terms of ownership: I have these things which are mine. The latter is a matter of opening out, what Nicos Mouzelis described as apophatic reflexivity, through a creative engagement with reality: I live in a world and grow through my engagements with it. This is how Fromm describes learning in the having mode:

Students in the having mode of existence will listen to a lecture, hearing the words and understanding their logical structure and their meaning and, as best they can, will write down every word in their loose leaf notebooks—so that, later on, they can memorize their notes and thus pass an examination. But the content does not become part of their own individual system of thought, enriching and widening it. Instead, they transform the words they hear into fixed clusters of thought, or whole theories, which they store up. The students and the content of the lectures remain strangers to each other, except that each student has become the owner of a collection of statements made by somebody else (who had either created them or taken them over from another source).

To Have Or To Be? Pg 24-25

For students who seek to have knowledge, learning is a matter of determined internalisation or note-taking. The point is to pin down the educational content they’ve encountered, ensuring they could reliably reproduce its core messages at a later date in response to external challenge. There’s an obvious parallel here to what Paulo Freire described as the banking concept of education. It would be interesting to know if there was any engagement between them, as Freire published Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968 in Portuguese, 1970 in English) a few years before Fromm published his book (1976). This is how Freire describes this model on pg 72 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Pg 72

These concepts illustrate the risks involved in online learning during a pandemic. There are many aspects to these interactions which lend themselves to learning in the having mood: teachers who have been forced to micro-modularise their learning materials at short notice, lack of adequate training/equipment for this undertaking, students engaging with these learning materials in a relatively isolated way, these relations being mediated by platforms which make it more difficult to establish continuities between micro-modules, atomisation caused by unpredictable disruptions to the learning process and anxiety for all involved as they try and sustain some pretence of normality within conditions which no one would have imagined even a year earlier. In contrast, consider Fromm’s description of learning in the being mode:

The process of learning has an entirely different quality for students in the being mode of relatedness to the world. To begin with, they do not go to the course lectures, even to the first one in a course, as tabulae rasae. They have thought beforehand about the problems the lectures will be dealing with and have in mind certain questions and problems of their own. They have been occupied with the topic and it interests them. Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, they listen, they hear, and most important, they receive and they respond in an active, productive way. What they listen to stimulates their own thinking processes. New questions, new ideas, new perspectives arise in their minds. Their listening is an alive process. They listen with interest, hear what the lecturer says, and spontaneously come to life in response to what they hear. They do not simply acquire knowledge that they can take home and memorize. Each student has been affected and has changed: each is different after the lecture than he or she was before it. Of course, this mode of learning can prevail only if the lecture offers stimulating material. Empty talk cannot be responded to in the being mode, and in such circumstances, students in the being mode find it best not to listen at all, but to concentrate on their own thought processes.

To Have Or To Be? Pg 25

How do we design online learning to encourage being rather than having? How do we exercise agency over the platform infrastructure upon which online learning depends? How do we change the institutional conditions which frustrate this undertaking into ones which help facilitate it? There’s a tendency to conflate different levels of analysis here (agency, technology and organisations etc) in a way tied up with a cultural politics of technology in which naive technology-boosters experience themselves as locked in a battle against paranoid prophets of decline who see technology as endangering all which is good and true within education.

The result of this is to obscure the space in which we could ask nuanced questions about the interpenetration of these factors and how they might produce different outcomes for different learners. For example how what Tressie McMillan Cottom once described as roaming autodidacts might thrive under conditions in which others might struggle to learn, as well as how these outcomes reproduce or challenge educational inequalities.

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash


  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the interesting post! Just to give a quick comment on one of its sidenotes: there’s actually a several references to Fromm in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, so at least on a conceptual level they have connected, if not in person.

    Liked by 1 person

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