Education as a liminal state

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I have been reading Thomassen’s (2014) ‘Liminality and the modern: living through the in-between’. Liminality comes up in my work on a daily basis, whether I am thinking about the connections we make through models of hybrid learning, interdisciplinary learning, or learning spaces – topics from the last week for me.

Right from the outset Thomassen explains liminality as ‘peaking in transfiguring moments of sublimity.’ (p. 1) Thank you! I have written and talked about intersections, boundary crossing and networked and non-formal space as being the richest spaces of all for the learner. In the post Learning Walks with Awe are Good for You I explore the sublime and note it is the rare experience of the world at the extreme.” Even though it is defined by its rarity, it creates a worthwhile challenge for the academic as designer: how can we accommodate the potential for sublime experiences?

Thinking about liminality gives us a starting point. As Thomassen says,

the concept of liminality can help us understand transition periods and social processes of change in a different light… Liminality reminds us of the moment we left our parents’ home, that mixture of joy and anxiety, that strange combination of freedom and homelessness; that pleasant but unsettling sensation of infinity and openness of possibilities which – at some moment, sooner or later – will start searching for a new frame to settle within.

Thomassen (2014, p.4)

There’s plenty to think about in this book including a good account of how the anthropologist van Gennep developed the concept of liminality, though struggled to gain recognition. There is some irony in that struggle given that one of the ways I think about liminality, learning, knowledge and innovation is moments of personal struggle, stretch and acute transition and motivation. I find it is often referred to quite simply as threshold challenges that are constructed by others to form rites of learning passage. If Thomassen says, “‘liminality refers, quite literally, to something placed in an in-between position” (p. 8), a student-centred and ecological perspective requires us to ask who places the ‘something’ and to think more about open-ended situations good active learning design should foster – spaces of self-determination and discovery.

He also describes liminality “as a loss of home and a ritualized rupture with the world as we know it” and this signals a role for the university in creating secure spaces for personal discovery and, for me, helps to explain the importance of non-formal learning and non-formal space – neither formal nor informal, but opportunities and space that accommodate each learner, individually or socially, in their learning transition; a regular theme for me here.

I thoroughly recommend this book. It is helpful and thought provoking.


Thomassen, B. (2014). Liminality and the modern: living through the in-between. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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2 Responses to Education as a liminal state

  1. I like the fact that his concept of liminality is referent to transcendental phases, like in “limbo” according to the religious understanding of transcending from human terrenal life into the eternal salvation or damnation… and yet there is something hopeful in the luminal, it’s a sense of possibility, of essential potentiality. Really nice post specially for students starting university, or academics returning to an uncertain campus, or even our own suspicion of not being out of the woods regarding COVID and expecting or fearing another lockdown. Is it time to accept liminality as potentiality rather than uncertainty?

  2. amiddlet50 says:

    Yes Beatriz – it is this sense of possibility in transition that we could do well to explore further in education. Elsewhere I have referred to this as the learner valuing the state of being and being aware of their state of becoming. I think the word ‘hope’ captures it nicely too!

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