Martin Buber on education

Martin Buber on education. Buber’s focus on dialogue and community would alone mark him out as an important thinker for educators. But when this is added to his fundamental concern with encounter and how we are with each other (and the world) his contribution is unique and yet often unrecognized.

contents: life · i-you, i-it · encounter · dialogue · between – community · buber the educator · conclusion · further reading · links

Photograph: Martin Buber by Boris Carmi – Wikimedia Commons | CCA4

I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man’s life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience. Martin Buber (in Hodes 1972)

Today, when the word ‘dialogue’ is spoken in educational circles, it is often linked to Paulo Freire. The same is true of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. Yet, in the twentieth century, it is really in the work of Martin Buber that the pedagogical worth of dialogue was realized – and the significance of relation revealed. He wrote – ‘All real living is meeting’ (Buber 1958: 25) and looked to how, in relation, we can fully open ourselves to the world, to others, and to God.


Martin Mordechai Buber was born February 8, 1878 in Vienna. Following the breakdown of his parents’ marriage when he was aged three, he went to live with his grandparents in Lvov, Salomon Buber, a respected scholar of Jewish tradition and literature, and Adlele Buber an enthusiastic reader of literature. At 14 Martin Buber went back to live with his father (and his new wife) in Lemberg. By this time he was already reading Kant and was soon into Nietzsche. Martin Buber went onto study in Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin (under Simmel and Dilthey) and Zurich. In Vienna he became involved in Zionism (more for cultural than political reasons) and became the editor of Die Welt, the official Zionist organ in 1901. In Zurich he met Paula Winkler who was later to become his wife (and who wrote under the name Georg Munk).

Sometime in late 1903, Martin Buber encountered the work of the Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-60), the founder of Hasidism. He began to engage with the religiousness of Judaism and the belief that man is made in the image of God (Vermes 1988: 8). There followed a period of intense study (five years). One result was a number of publications: The Tales of Rabbi Nachman (1906); The Legend of the Ba’al-Shem (1908); and Ecstatic Confessions (1909). In 1909-11 in Prague, Martin Buber delivered what were to become famous lectures on Judaism to the Jewish student organization Bar Kochba. These lectures (published in 1911 as Three Addresses on Judaism) stand in contrast to Orthodox Judaism with their emphasis on essence rather than observance. From 1916 to 1924 he edited Der Jude, an influential journal (and was working on his path breaking book I and Thou – published in 1923).

From 1924 to 1933, Martin Buber lectured in Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. At this time he was also working with Franz Rosenzweig on a new German translation of the Hebrew Bible (Verdeutschung der Schrift). Under Hitler, he had to curtail his university teaching (he resigned his professorship immediately after Hitler’s seizure of power) – but he continued to organize adult bible courses. In 1938 he finally left Germany to join the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Thus far, we can see that Buber’s theoretical focus can be split into two stages (Avnon 1998: 33 – 45):

Mysticism (1897-1923) – where his interest lay in people’s ability to transcend profane conceptions of reality.

Dialogue (1923- 1938) – that reflects Buber’s move away from the supremacy of the ecstatic moment to the unity of being and a focus on relationship and the dialogical nature of existence (perhaps most strongly linked to his book I and Thou).

With the move to Israel, it can be argued that he moved into a third:

Attentive silence (1938 – 1965) – wherein dialogue remains central, but there is a deepening recognition of ‘the eternal, “silent” background of being and dialogue’ (ibid.: 33)

Buber’s emphasis on dialogue and Hebrew humanism made him unpopular with significant sections of the local Jewish population. He founded, with others Ichud (unity) and worked for the co-operation of Jews and Arabs and the establishment of a bi-national state. After the establishment of Israel he continued to work for Jewish-Arab understanding and the re-opening of dialogue with German thinkers and institutions. He also established the School for Adult Educators in Jerusalem in 1949 (influenced by Grundtvig’s vision of the folk high school). His house in Talbyen, Jerusalem became the destination for seekers (like Aubrey Hodes and Maurice Friedman). He undertook many lecture tours, but with Paula’s death in Venice in 1958, Martin Buber began to fall ill more frequently. He died at home on June 13, 1965 – and was buried in the cemetery Har-Hamenuchot in Jerusalem.

I-You, I-It

I and Thou, Buber’s best known work, presents us with two fundamental orientations – relation and irrelation. We can either take our place, as Pamela Vermes (1988: 40-41) puts it, alongside whatever confronts us and address it as ‘you’; or we ‘can hold ourselves apart from it and view it as an object, an “it”‘. So it is we engage in I-You (Thou) and I-It relationships. This basic distinction becomes complex – as we can see from the following extract. (Buber’s poetic tendencies are also at full throttle in this piece!)

Exhibit 1: Martin Buber on I-You and I-It

I can look on (a tree) as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number…

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.

Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, pages 19-20)

I-You involves a sense of being part of a whole. The “I” is not experienced or sensed as singular or separate; it is the “I” of being.

The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, not can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; and as I become the I, I say Thou.

All real living is meeting. (Buber 1958: 24-25)

The meeting involved isn’t just between two people or between someone and the world. Buber believed that ‘every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou‘ (ibid.: 99). In other words, each and every I-You relationship opens up a window to the ultimate Thou. As Aubrey Hodes (1972: 42) has noted, ‘God has to be approached through an I-Thou relationship with people, animals, trees, even… a heap of stones’. Not surprisingly such moments can be fleeting. The I-You relation ‘flows and ebbs and flows back again. Nothing exists that cannot become a you for me, but inevitably it will withdraw sooner or later to the separation of an it’ (Vermes 1988: 41).

I-It involves distancing. Differences are accentuated, the uniqueness of “I” emphasized. Here the “I” is separated from the self it encounters. Buber believed that there had been a movement from relation to separation, that there was a growing crisis of being or existence in ‘modern’ society. He believed that the relationship between individuals and their selves (see selfhood), between people, and people and creation was increasingly that of I-It. As a result it was becoming more and more difficult to encounter God.


For Buber encounter (Begegnung) has a significance beyond co-presence and individual growth (see encounter). He looked for ways in which people could engage with each other fully – to meet with themselves. The basic fact of human existence was not the individual or the collective as such, but ‘Man with Man’ (Buber 1947). As Aubrey Hodes puts it:

When a human being turns to another as another, as a particular and specific person to be addressed, and tries to communicate with him through language or silence, something takes place between them which is not found elsewhere in nature. Buber called this meeting between men the sphere of the between. (1973: 72)

Encounter (Begegnung) is an event or situation in which relation (Beziehung) occurs. We can only grow and develop, according to Buber, once we have learned to live in relation to others, to recognize the possibilities of the space between us. The fundamental means is dialogue. Encounter is what happens when two I‘s come into relation at the same time. This brings us back to Buber’s distinction between relation and irrelation. ‘All real living is meeting’ is sometimes translated as ‘All real life is encounter’. This, as Pamela Vermes (1994: 198) has commented, could be taken as the perfect summary of Buber’s teaching on encounter and relation. However, it seems unlikely that he would have agreed with the notion that where there is no encounter life is ‘unreal’. It appears to be in encounter ‘that the creative, redemptive, and revelatory processes take place which Buber associates with the dialogical life’ (op cit.).

The picture of the Martin Buber stamp is taken from from Flickr and is reproduced under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Creative Commons licence. The photostream is listed as 'On Being'. photos/speakingoffaith/4970374742/


Dan Avnon (1998: 5) comments, ‘the reality of “space” that is between persons is the focus of Buber’s philosophy’. At its root is the idea that self-perfection is achievable only within relationship with others. Relationship exists in the form of dialogue. Furthermore, self-knowledge is possible only ‘if the relation between man and creation is understood to be a dialogical relationship’ (Buber quoted by Avnon op cit). Significantly, for Buber dialogue involves all kinds of relation: to self, to other(s) and to all forms of created being. Recognizing this allows us to see that it is ‘the conceptual linchpin of his teachings’ (Avnon 1998: 6).

Exhibit 2: Buber – three kinds of dialogue

There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them. There is technical dialogue, which is prompted solely by the need of objective understanding. And there is monologue disguised as dialogue, in which two or men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources (Buber 1947: 19)

The meeting involved in genuine dialogue is rare, and is, in a real sense, a meeting of souls. (‘The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being’, Buber 1958: 24). The life of dialogue involves ‘the turning towards the other’ (Buber 1947: 22). It is not found by seeking, but by grace. In a very real sense we are called to genuine dialogue, rather than actively searching for it. (In a slightly different context, Gadamer talks about us being led by conversation rather than us leading it – see dialogue and conversation).

Technical dialogue is driven by the need to understand something and need not engage the soul. Monologue, a distorted form of dialogue, is what happens most of the time. Words are said, but there is little or no connection.

In his mature work (and in his meetings with others), Buber looked to the role silence plays in dialogue. For example, Aubrey Hodes reports that all his conversations with Buber began in the same way.

He would meet me at the door and lead me into his study. Neither of us spent much time on the usual social preliminaries. Our minds were already on the coming talk. After sitting down there was always a silence – not a tense silence, uneasy as between two people who were not sure of each other, but a silence of expectation. This was not consciously agreed between us. It was a flow of peace and trust forming a prelude to speech. The silence was the silence of communication. (Hodes 1972: 22)

Silence, for Buber, plays a crucial part in dialogue. Indeed, it could be argued that ‘attentive silence’ is the basis of dialogue (Avnon 1998: 42-3). This is an idea that may seem strange at first sight, but is fundamental to the experience of groups such as the Quakers.

In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out…. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence. (Lacourt 1970: 9, 26)

Dialogue, especially where people who are open to an I-You relation, is likely to involve both silence (stillness) and speech. In stillness there is communion. Where a person is able to release themselves to silence, ‘unreserved communication streams from him, and the silence bears it to his neighbour’ (Buber 1947: 4). In dialogue, a person is present to another (and the other), they are attentive and aware – listening and waiting. In the stillness of this ‘in-between world’ they may encounter what cannot yet be put into words. One of the significant features about this stillness is that it is generated in dialogue, when people are gathered. It has, therefore, a rather different quality to that which may be experienced through individual meditation. The experience of being out of time and space that this can involve helps to explain how Buber came to see that God could only be approached through an I-You relation. At such a time, as Lacourt notes (above), the (inner) light may begin to glow.

This leads us on to another key notion of Buber’s (and not revealed in the 1957 translation of I and Thou) – lev or heart. For Buber, the heart ‘is the point of unmediated impressions’ (Avnon 1998: 58). Heart is the core, it involves our being, our moral sense and our spirit. To open the heart is allow oneself to see and experience that beyond the immediate. It brings to bear a form of ‘silent knowing’. The light that glows is a form of understanding or appreciation that comes before mental interpretation. Buber argues that ‘in dialogue as it truly is, the turning toward the other conversant occurs in all truthfulness; that is it is an address of the heart’ (Buber quoted in Avnon 1998: 140). Each person participating in such a conversation, ‘must be ready in his heart always to say that which is in his heart’ (op cit).


Buber recognized that the social and political implications of his thought were profound – and his courage in expressing these led to him be viewed by many within Israel as treacherous (it meant, for example, he looked to some form of reconciliation with Germans earlier than many of his peers, and he argued that Israel should not be an exclusively Jewish State – indeed, he looked to a time when the nation state might be obsolete). He saw political activity as a means of transforming the relationships of ‘Man and Man’. However, this was not just a case of working for justice and economic advancement, it was also a way of bringing about spiritual transformation. He sought to create dialogical community – a third way between individualism and collectivism.

On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge where I and Thou meet, there is the realm of ‘between’. This reality, whose disclosure has begun in our time, shows the way, leading beyond individualism and collectivism and collectivism, for the life of future generations. Here the genuine third alternative is indicated, the knowledge of which will help to bring about the genuine person again and to establish genuine community. (Buber 1949)

Here I want to look at community as the realm of the ‘between’ (Beziehung – often translated into English as ‘relation’) and the institutional arrangements that flow from Buber’s vision – community as association.

Relation or ‘the between’ is a result, at the personal level of ‘of the opening of the person to dialogue’ (Avnon 1998: 149). When ‘man meets man’, when one human being turns to another human being as another, the possibility of relation arises. Individuals will move between I-It and I-You relations (and back again). The quality of life in a community or society will depend on the extent to which I-You relations exist. The combination of open inter-subjective dialogue with ‘a dialogue between man and man and man and God’ allows a common discourse to develop and crystallize – and it is this that is essential for holding a society together and sustaining cultural creativity’ (Eisenstadt 1992: 11).

Reading Buber, it seems that such processes do not appear spontaneously. True community does not just arise out of people having feelings for one another (although this may be involved). Rather, it comes about through:

first, their taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre, and second, their being in living mutual relation with one another. The second has its source in the first, but is not given when the first alone is given. Living mutual relation includes feelings, but does not originate with them. The community is built up out of living mutual relation, but the builder is the living effective Centre. (Buber 1958: 65)

Buber appears to be arguing here that at the heart of communities are special people – the builders. They are the living, active centre. They live the dialogical life. Builders both express and symbolize relation, and in some sense animate community. There are some parallels here with the role of informal educators who are part of local networks. However, in contrast with that role, builders take on a significant leadership role.

Two important questions arise from this. First, when Buber talks about builders does he mean a single person as the active, living Centre, or a group of people? If it is the former then there is some tension with his emphasis on co-operative effort and ‘pluralistic socialism’, for example in Paths to Utopia. Over-reliance on the vision and activities of a single person can both problematic in practical terms (what happens when that person is unavailable or withdraws, for example), and be a threat to democratic activity. It can all too easily foster dependence and even a disposition towards authoritarianism. However, there are some counterbalances. This exemplary individual is only exemplary for as long as they live the dialogical life and, presumably Buber thought people would turn away from them as soon as they recognized a shift. (How realistic this is is a matter of some debate.) An alternative reading is that Buber would allow that more than one person could comprise the active, living Centre of community. This line would hold that community depends upon some sort of network or grouping of builders (perhaps expressed in terms of a church, or association, or a more informal set of connections).

A second question here may well be competing or contrasting models of leadership that people draw upon when interpreting Buber’s work. Some, more traditional, understandings emphasize the vision and organizing abilities of the individual leader and the creation of a following – and are not desperately dialogical! Other understandings look to the educative and facilitating aspects of leadership. It is the latter, ‘shared’ view of leadership that would appear to be closest in spirit to Buber’s writing – but there still appears to be some confusion here (see Avnon 1998: 155-170 for a discussion of the builder).

Community has to be nurtured. For it to take concrete form convivial institutions are required to sustain and express its presence. Communities characterized by dialogue and relation require particular types of institution. Such institutions need to be dialogical, just and allow room for growth and exploration. In Paths in Utopia we can see Buber drawn to a co-operative and associational organization. In his view a ‘structurally rich’ society is one in which comprises local communes and trade communes which in turn are part of democratic associations. He recognized that special care had to be taken around the question of ends and means.

Exhibit 3: Buber on ends and means

Kropotkin summed up the basic view of ends in a single sentence: the fullest development of individuality ‘will combine with the highest development of voluntary association in all aspects, in all possible degrees and for all possible purposes; an association that is always changing, that bears on in itself the elements of its own duration, that takes on the forms which best correspond at any given moment to the manifold strivings of all’. This is precisely what Proudhon had wanted in the maturity of his thought. It may be contended that the Marxist objective is not essentially different in constitution; but at this point a yawning chasm opens up before us which can only be bridged by that special form of Marxist utopics, a chasm between, on the one side, the transformation to be consummated some time in the future – no one knows how long after the final victory of the Revolution – and, on the other, the road to the Revolution and beyond it, which road is characterized by a far-reaching centralization that permits no individual features and no individual initiative. Uniformity as a means is to change miraculously into multiplicity as an end; compulsion into freedom. As against this, the ‘utopian’ or non-Marxist socialist desires a means commensurate with his ends; he refuses to believe that in our reliance on the future ‘leap’ we have to have now the direct opposite of what we are striving for; he believes rather that we must create here and now the space now possible for the thing for which we are striving, so that it may come to fulfilment then; he does not believe in the post-revolutionary leap, but he does believe in revolutionary continuity. (Buber 1949)

Buber makes particular use of the work of his friend, the anarchist Gustav Landauer. He believed that people should learn by personal example how to live with each other (hence the significance of the builder). For Buber, authentic communities had to be communities of spirit. They involved commitment, work and dialogue. To be successful, they often arise out of practical needs rather than the application of theory. Furthermore, they make connections with other communities: ‘For the real, the truly structural task of the new village communes begins with their federation, that is, their union under the same principle that operates under their internal structure’ (quoted in Friedman 1993).

The educator on education

Buber was both a great teacher, and a significant thinker about education. Many of those who were his students or partners in conversation talk of his ability to stimulate engagement and reflection.

Exhibit 4: Buber as a teacher

He was basically a teacher – for me, the greatest teacher of our generation. He was an educator in the true sense of the word and within the limits of his own definition of it. He did not try to impose a self-evident formula upon his pupils, but posed questions which forced them to find their own answers. He did not want his pupils to follow him docilely, but to take their own individual paths, even if this meant rebelling against him. Because for him education meant freedom, a liberation of personality. Perhaps, too, it is as a great teacher, embracing a consideration of the whole of human existence in his approach to his pupils that his influence on our time will be most enduring.

The right way to teach, he said, was ‘the personal example springing spontaneously and naturally from the whole man’. This meant that the teacher should constantly examine his conscience. Indeed, every man should do this; but a teacher most of all, as he could not teach others if his own example was flawed.

The purpose of education was to develop the character of the pupil, to show him how to live humanly in society. One of his basic principles was that ‘genuine education of character is genuine education for community’….’For educating characters you do not need a moral genius,’ Buber declared, ‘but you do need a man who is wholly alive and able to communicate himself directly to his fellow beings. His aliveness streams out to them and affects them most strongly and purely when he has no thought of affecting them.’

The real teacher, he believed, teaches most successfully when he is not consciously trying to teach at all, but when he acts spontaneously out of his own life. Then he can gain the pupil’s confidence; he can convince the adolescent that there is human truth, that existence has a meaning. And when the pupil’s confidence has been won, ‘his resistance against being educated gives way to a singular happening: he accepts the educator as a person. He feels he may trust this man, that this man is taking part in his life, accepting him before desiring to influence him. And so he learns to ask….

But his method was not pedagogical in the narrow sense. He was little concerned with the how of teaching, with such matters as syllabuses, methods and examinations. What concerned him was the why; how to give the pupil a sense of his identity, of his organic unity, how to show him the way to responsibility and love. This is what Buber looked for when judging the success of a teacher. And it was this emphasis which led teachers to come to him, slowly and then sometimes in groups, not to consult him about technical problems but to ask him what they should teach, how they should reconcile conscience and faith.

Aubrey Hodes (1972) Encounter with Martin Buber, pages 136 – 7, 140

As well as his university teaching Buber played a significant role in the nurturing of adult education initiatives. While in Germany he founded the Centre for Jewish Adult Education (and working as its director until 1938) and helped to establish the School for Adult Educators in Jerusalem in 1949. The latter offered one of the first specialist training programmes for adult educators in the world.

Kalman Yaron (1994) argues that perhaps Buber’s two most noteworthy contributions to educational thinking lay in the development of his work around dialogue (especially the notion of inclusion); and his conception of a demarcation line between ‘heavenly’ values and ‘earthly’ realities. We will examine each in turn.

On dialogue and inclusion

Buber believed that, ‘the relation in [genuine] education is one of pure dialogue’ (Buber 1947: 98). In order to help the realization of the best potentialities in the student’s life,

[T]he teacher must really mean him as the definite person he is in his potentiality and his actuality; more precisely, he must not know him as a mere sum of qualities, strivings and inhibitions, he must be aware of him as a whole being and affirm him in this wholeness But he can only do this if he meets him again and again as his partner in a bipolar situation. And in order that this effect upon him may be a unified and significant one he must also live this situation, again and again, in all its moments not merely from his own end but also from that of his partner: he must practise the kind of realization which I call inclusion (Umfassung). (Buber 1958: 164 -5)

Inclusion, in this sense, means the capacity to develop a ‘dual sensation’ among those participating in dialogue. Yaron (1994: 137) describes this as ‘experiencing oneself and simultaneously perceiving the ‘other’ in its singularity’. In this way one can come to know the other physically and spiritually. By this Buber does not mean empathy. Inclusion is not an entry into another, the ability to transpose oneself into another situation. This can all too easily entail the losing of oneself. Rather it is the extension of oneself. Its elements are relation; an event experienced in common; and the fact that ‘this one person, without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other’ (1947: 97). A relation involving inclusion may be seen as a dialogical relation.

Buber is also at some pain to explain students’ dependency on their teacher. He contrasted the education of children with that of adults – the latter involved full mutuality, the former on a more asymmetrical relationship. (Interestingly, he talks about adult education being founded on ‘real questions’, ‘rather than on Socratic challenges or on preparation for examinations’, Yaron 1994: 144). School classrooms are, in his view, charactized by a lack of mutuality and an emphasis on the authority of the teacher. This situation can be transcended, he argues, through ‘one-sided inclusion’ by the teacher.

[The teacher] experiences the pupil’s being educated, but the pupil cannot experience the educating of the educator. The educator stands at both ends of the common situation, the pupil at only one end. In the moment when the pupil is able to throw himself across and experience from over there, the educative relationship would burst asunder, or change into friendship. (Buber 1947: 100-101)

This is a position that would be debated strongly by many other advocates of dialogic inquiry such as Vygotsky. The counter case may well be that all co-operate in the construction of an environment in which education can take place. They may well come to the encounter with different areas of knowledge and differing understandings of the process, but there can be a genuine sharing in the creation of a community of practice.

On ethical education and the person of the educator

‘Education worthy of the name’, Buber (1947: 104) wrote, ‘is essentially the education of character’. He added, ‘Genuine education of character is genuine education for community’ (1947: 116). Such an education is not achieved through the direct teaching of ethics (although it will involve some reflection upon them), nor through the educator acting upon others. Rather, as we have seen, it entails educators engaging with others with their whole being.

Everything depends on the teacher as a man, as a person. He educates from himself, from his virtues and his faults, through personal example and according to circumstances and conditions. His task is to realize the truth in his personality and to convey this realization to the pupil. (Buber in Hodes 1972: 146)

Education for community builds on two key autonomous instincts that Buber believed all children have:

The originator instinct involves the drive to create and make things, to shape the world. It is aimed at doing (1947: 86).

The instinct for communion in contrast, involves ‘the longing for the world to become present to us as a person, which goes out to us as we to it, which chooses and recognizes us as we do it, which is confirmed in us as we in it’ (1947: 88).

The job of the educator is to attend to these instincts and to work to channel the creative forces of the first toward the second. Communion in education ‘means being opened up and drawn in’ (and freedom in education ‘is the possibility of communion’) (1947: 91).

Buber’s notion of a demarcation line comes into play when making decisions about communal affairs.

[Buber] was aware of the fact that life is, by its very nature, inextricably bound with injustice, particularly in matters of communal affairs. In the face of this tragic reality the human being is forced to distinguish constantly between the minimum amount of wrong that his very survival demands, and the maximum good that he must perform in order to preserve his human image. In regard to the tension between the desirable and the actual the human being is asked repeatedly to draw a demarcation line between the imperative demands and relative possibilities of their fulfilment in daily life. Buber demands that in every hour of fateful decision we should consider how much wrong must be committed to preserve the community, and accept just so much and no more. (Yaron 1994: 142)

This runs very close to the concern for well-being and wisdom that lies at the heart of informal education (see informal education – living with values).

In conclusion

Buber’s writings are not the easiest to approach, but his explorations of being, encounter, dialogue and community have profound implications for educators – at least for those who seek genuine relation. Such educators need to find and guard ‘the narrow ridge’.

The narrow ridge is the meeting place of the We. This is where man can meet man in community. Any only men who are capable of truly saying ‘Thou’ to one another can truly say ‘We’ with one another. If each guards the narrow ridge within himself and keeps it intact, this meeting can take place. (Buber quoted in Hodes 1072: 70)

Through encountering each other as truly human we can both place ourselves in the world’ and glimpse God.

Further reading and references

Key texts for informal educators:

Buber, Martin (1958) I and Thou 2e, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Translation: R. Gregory Smith. 171 pages. A stunning, poetic book, first published in German in 1923, that places ethics, belief in the context of dialogical encounter. Part one sets out the nature of I-You, and I-It relationships; Part two looks to I-It; and Part three returns to the relation between the I and its everlasting You. A postscript (1957) picks up on a number issues that have been raised about the book. There is another translation available (by Walter Kaufman – Scribner, New York, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, I970-1), but it has not proved as popular as the original, but sometimes awkward work by Smith.

Buber, Martin (1947) Between Man and Man, London: Kegan Paul. Transl. R. G. Smith. 211 + viii pages. Republished 2002. A collection of pieces that fills out I and Thou – and that has a special resonance for educators. . Comprises ‘Dialogue’, 1929, ‘Education’, 1928, ‘The Question to the Single One’, 1936, ‘The Education of Character’, 1939, and ‘What is Man?’ 1938. New edition 2002 – published by Routledge

Buber, Martin (1949, 1958, 1996) Paths in Utopia, translated by R. F. C. Hull, London: Routledge; Boston: Beacon Press; Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. Explores political idealism and various examples of utopian Socialist community and organization with the aim of setting out the possibilities for the development successful communes within Israel.

Buber, Martin et al (1977) The Martin Buber-Carl Rogers Dialogue: A new transcript with commentary, New York. SUNY Press. 138 pages. A transcript of the sole meeting between these two key figures that explored the relationship between Buber’s philosophy and Rogers’s client- and person-centered approach to interpersonal relations. Anderson and Cissna also discuss the central issues of the conversation, including the limits of mutuality, approaches to “self,” alternative models of human nature, confirmation of others, and the nature of dialogic relation itself.

Other books:

These have been listed in alphabetical order – and taken, with some minor augmentation, from the select bibliography compiled by Pamela Vermes (1988):

Buber, Martin (1952) At the Turning: Three Addresses on Judaism, Farrar, Strauss and Young, New York.

Buber, Martin (1980) Besod Siach (In the Secret of Dialogue), Jerusalem: Bialik.

Buber, Martin (1968) Biblical Humanism, Macdonald, London, 1968. ed. Nahum Glatzer.

Buber, Martin (1965) Daniel: Dialogues on Realization, McGraw-Hill, New York. Trans. M. Friedman.

Buber, Martin (1953) Eclipse of God, Gollancz, London. Transl. M. Friedrnan et al.

Buber, Martin (1958) For the Sake of Heaven, Meridian Books, New York. Transl. L. Lewisohn.

Buber, Martin (1953) Good and Evil, Charles Scribner s Sons, New York. Transl. P. G. Smith.

Buber, Martin (1948) Hasidism, Philosophical Library, New York. Transl. C. and M. Witton-Davis.

Buber, Martin (1958) Hasidism and Modern Man, Horizon Press, New York. Transl. M. Friedman.

Buber, Martin (1952) Images of Good and Evil, Routledge and KeganPaul, London.

Buber, Martin (1963) Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis, Schocken, New York.

Buber, Martin (1965) Kingship of God, Harper and Pew, New York, Allen and Unwin, London.Transl. R. Scheimann.

Buber, Martin (1965) The Way of Man (new edn. 2002), London: Routledge

Buber, Martin (1967) The Knowledge of Man, Harper and Pew, New York, Allen and Unwin, London.Transl. M. Friedman.

Buber, Martin (1973) Meetings, Open Court Publishing, La Salle, Illinois. Transl. M. Friedman.

Buber, Martin (1946) Moses, East and West Library-Harper Torchbooks, New York.

Buber, Martin (1967) On Judaism, Schocken, New York. Ed. Nahum Glatzer. Transl. Evajospe.

Buber, Martin (1985) OnZion: The History of an Idea, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh. Transl. S. Goodman.

Buber, Martin (1963) Pointing the Way, Harper Torchbooks, New York. Ed. and Transl. M. Friedman.

Buber, Martin (1969) The Prophetic Faith, Macmillan-Harper Torchbooks, New York. Transl. C. Witton-Davis.

Buber, Martin (1947) Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters, Schocken, New York. Transl. 0. Marx.

Buber, Martin (1948) Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, Schocken, New York. Transl. 0. Marx.

Buber, Martin (1974) The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, Souvenir Press, London. Transl. M. Friedman.

Buber, Martin (1951, 1961) Two Types of Faith, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; Harper Torchbooks, New York. Transl. N. P. Goldhawk.

Books on Martin Buber

From my reading, the best introduction to Buber as an educator for those new to his thought is Aubrey Hodes’ Encounter. Pamela Vermes provides a good, brief introduction to his life and thought – with a strong section on I-Thou. Dan Avnon has written a very helpful introduction to Buber’s dialogical focus. Maurice Friedman has provided the ‘the definitive biography’.

Avnon, D. (1998) Martin Buber. The hidden dialogue, Lanham: Rownman and Litterfield. 277 + x pages. Provides an intellectual biography plus chapters on dialogical philosophy, dialogical community an dialogue as politics.

Friedman, M. (1955, 1960, 1975, 2002) Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue. London: Routledge. 336 pages. Friedman had a close relationship with Buber – translating a number of his works. This book was the first to provide a complete overview of Buber’s thought. It remains a key reference point.

Friedman, M. (1993) Encounter on the Narrow Ridge. A life of Martin Buber, New York: Paragon House. 496 pages. This book benefits from access to many thousands of unpublished letters as well as Friedman’s earlier biographical work. (The narrow ridge is the place where I and Thou meet).

Hodes, A. (1972) Encounter with Martin Buber, London: Allen Lane/Penguin. 245 pages. (Also published as Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait, Viking Press, New York, I971). Very readable account of the writer’s relationship with Buber that brings out a number of key aspects of Buber’s life and thinking.

Vermes, P. (1988) Buber, London: Peter Halban. 116 + xi pages. Potted account of Buber’s life and thought. Chapters on first influences; encounter with Hasidism; early writings; I and Thou; The Hebrew Bible; Palestine; and the final decades.

Other material:

Cohen, A. A. (1975) Martin Buber, London: Bowes and Bowes.

Cohen, A. (1983) The Educational Philosophy of Martin Buber, Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Press.

Freedman, M. (1983) Martin Buber’s Life and Work, Vols. I, II and III, New York: E. P. Dutton.

Lacourt, P. (1970) God is Silence, translation J. Kay, London.

Schaeder, G. (1973) The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber, Wayne State University Press, Transl. N. J. Jacobs.

Schmidt, G. G. (1996) Martin Buber’s Formative Years. From German culture to Jewish renewal, 1897 – 1909, University of Alabama Press. 184 pages.

Tillich, P. (1967) ‘Martin Buber’, in J. Bowden and J. Pichmond (eds.), A Reader in Contemporary Theology, London: SCM Press.

Vermes, P. (1980) Buber on God and the Perfect Man, Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Ward, C. (1991) Influences. Voices of creative dissent, Bideford: Green Books.

Yalom, K. (1994) ‘Martin Buber’ in Z. Morsy (ed.) Thinkers on Education Volume 1, Paris: UNESCO.


By far the best starting point in English is the Martin Buber Homepage put together by Andreas Schmidt. A more comprehensive German version is also available. This has good categorized links plus a range of original material.

Acknowledgement: Opening picture – Martin Buber photographed by Boris Carmi – Wikipedia Commons | CCA4. The photograph of Martin Buber teaching is in the public domain because its copyright has expired – Wikipedia Commons 2007. The picture of the Martin Buber stamp is taken from from Flickr and is reproduced under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Creative Commons licence. The photostream is listed as ‘On Being’. photos/speakingoffaith/4970374742/

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2000, 2009