Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 9/6/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upA Post-Privacy Future

ashley madison hack 1In commenting on the enormous dump of private email addresses associated with the marital affairs website Ashley Madison, Albert Wenger takes the approach of radical transparency. Since privacy will be impossible in the future, Albert proposes that we have to move past privacy. This means we need to change our values and our morals. "I believe that this hack and subsequent data leak provides a glimpse of a post privacy future. As I have argued before here on Continuations it is not ultimately possible to protect data and what we should be focused on instead is protecting people. Whether en masse, as in this case, or one person at a time, data will continue to come out. We need to work towards a society and individual behaviors that acknowledge this fact and if anything err on the side of more transparency and disclosure. People have always had affairs. There is nothing new about that. People have also used technology as part of their affairs. For instance, when letters were the technology of the day people wrote letters to their lovers, which then occasionally were discovered. That's for instance how Eleanor Roosevelt found out about FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer. So it shouldn't be at all surprising that people have been using the internet to have affairs. Facebook is apparently cited in one third of divorce cases. The way forward here is not to pretend that there is a technological solution or to be sanctimonious about affairs. Instead what we need is to acknowledge that affairs are part of human behavior." The comments below Wenger's essay are worth reading as well. As Ryan Borker writes: "I think a post-privacy world leads us dangerously close to a 1984 future. This is especially true since our actions, emotions, and even beliefs change. Since we're 'biologically designed' to forget, full, permanent disclosure enabled by technology only prevents you from erasing the past. This would be horrible, since every single mistake you'd make is on public record." The debate about full transparency and the move beyond privacy always has at least two steps. The first is technological, that privacy is impossible. The second is messianic, that transparency will lead to a new kind of human freedom. And there is always a suspicion that the second belief gives credence to the factuality of the first assumption. What is always overlooked is what is lost when privacy is lost. For Hannah Arendt, the great danger of full transparency was the sacrifice of depth, which is also the essence of thinking. Discussion about this drive for transparency will be front and center at the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming fall conference "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?" You can register now.

The Expectation of Privacy

ashley madison hack 2Writing in The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo has a slightly different response to the Ashley Madison hack and the prospect of a post-privacy future. While agreeing with Wenger about the need for increased tolerance about personal indiscretions, Manjoo also thinks we need to take concrete steps to protect our privacy. "But the victims of the Ashley Madison hacking deserve our sympathy and aid because, with slightly different luck, you or I could just as easily find ourselves in a similarly sorry situation. This breach stands as a monument to the blind trust many of us have placed in our computers--and how powerless we all are to evade the disasters that may befall us when the trust turns out to be misplaced. 'I feel reticent to blame people for ignorance or the consequences of their actions when they're simply sitting there at home doing something perfectly reasonable in an environment where there was an expectation set for privacy,' Mr. Hunt told me. 'I think what this does is demonstrate that everything you put online may become public.' There are several steps to take to minimize future damage from hackings like this one. But first, we could all become a bit more tolerant of online lapses; maybe the way to solve the problem of rampant disclosure of private stuff is to strive to look away from the stuff when it leaks--and to give those who've been harmed the benefit of the doubt. Second, we should all learn a little 'opsec'--hackers' jargon for 'operational security,' or a guide for conducting yourself online to minimize the possibility of your secrets getting spilled. It wouldn't hurt the tech industry to help us in that endeavor, building warnings and guidelines into the same machines that are leaking our secrets. Perhaps we should even start teaching opsec in schools." Manjoo goes on to list concrete technological steps to help protect your privacy online. His suggestions are worth reading.

We Come as Saviors

hubert sauperDocumentarian Hubert Sauper, whose most recent film is about the founding of South Sudan, talks about the kind of documentary about Africa he tries not to make and how he sometimes makes that movie anyway: "I don't watch these very much because I get bored easily. Too many have the same tone. They're actually very postcolonial. Basically: 'I am from this sophisticated world, and I'm going to this chaos to show you guys back home in New York all these problems that these Africans have. And I will also, in the film, provide some solution, usually represented by someone from our culture.' To stretch a cliché, it would be a blond woman from Europe or the US taking children under her arms. She is us, of course, and she is there doing a good job. It's not only boring, it actually angers me, because it doesn't stir people up, it comforts the audience. In a political sense, it's counterproductive...They're basically an extension of this Judeo-Christian salvation nonsense. It's like Jesus comes and saves everyone. I went to Tanzania with my friend. You go to a village and, like with any other white person, the kids all run up to you to say hello, and you rub their heads. They look up at you as this figure from somewhere else, and you represent all these clichés that are implanted in our brains, our sick memory of colonialism: that we are hygienic, are wise, that we bring security--that we are something close to what we refer to as God. And we were doing just that. As two white dudes, that's what you do. Sometimes we saw footage of ourselves, and it was painful. How stupid it looks. How awful. Then I saw this movie about Jesus, where that cliché is pushed to the breaking point. Jesus comes to these villages, he's this long-haired, hippie-like dude and everyone looks up to him. It's exactly the same! And I don't know if you remember, but I took a piece of this movie--where Jesus brings all the fish--for Darwin's Nightmare, because this is the same narrative. But my film is not [meant] to describe an injustice, or some kind of world that could be better, because if you do that, you're claiming to know what 'better' is."

To the Most Parve Place on Earth

sayed kashuaRuth Margalit profiles Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli writer enormously popular with Jewish Israelis who recently moved to Champaign, Illinois to teach Hebrew to college students. Kashua is, Margalit writes, "the most visible representative of Palestinian life in Israel." But Kashua has left the Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem in which he lived, and he says he's not going back. In her portrait, Margalit teases out the paradoxes--and the dangers--of Kashua's identity: "Political debate in Israel is vigorous, if not always elegant, often summoning the old Hebrew phrase that describes 'a dialogue between deaf people.' But it has been dampened in recent years by a series of government-sponsored bills: one demanding that non-Jewish Israelis take loyalty oaths; another authorizing the finance ministry to withhold funds from organizations deemed--however vaguely--to be violating Israel's foundational tenet of a 'Jewish and democratic' state. Kashua, like other Arab Israelis in the public eye, was used to having his words scrutinized. But the summer's events felt different. As the conflict in Gaza escalated into war, the première of a movie based on his memoir 'Dancing Arabs' was hastily scrapped. Flag-draped extremists in Tel Aviv brandished metal rods at antiwar demonstrators. The atmosphere of intimidation became so intense that Ayman Odeh, the youthful leader of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-backed parties that represent Palestinian aspirations in Israel, announced that an 'age of ostracism' had taken hold. Within the Green Line that separates Israel proper from Gaza and the West Bank, Arab Israelis make up twenty per cent of the population. For liberal Israelis, and for Arabs who hope to be accepted as equals, Kashua embodied the country's stated ideal of coexistence--of Arab Israelis' full legal and civil integration. For a decade, he had lived with his wife, Najat, in Ramat Denya, a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, and their children attended the city's only bilingual school. In a country where columnists have a flair for grandiloquence, Kashua's columns are conversational, confiding, anecdotal, centered on the rituals and trials of bourgeois life, like the 'holiday tour' that includes stopping at sixteen relatives' houses, or the visiting electrician who reprimands him for his children's excessive television viewing. While his writing is rarely explicitly political, a sense of uprootedness lurks; when the electrician, also an Arab, overhears the kids speaking Hebrew, Kashua can't stop apologizing. Coexistence of the kind that Kashua represents seems increasingly out of reach these days, when more than a third of Jewish Israelis openly say that Arab citizens shouldn't be entitled to equal rights. Of 1.7 million Arabs in Israel, perhaps forty thousand lead middle-class lives in mixed cities. Ayman Odeh told me that his party's goal is for Arab citizens 'to take part in every institution in the country--except for security, foreign relations, and immigration absorption, because these institutions blur the lines of our national identity.' But even his more hopeful speeches don't envision such inclusiveness for ten more years."

amor_mundi_sign-upAnd He Was There

jorge ramosMarcela Valdes writes in The New York Times Magazine about what causes the admiration among the Spanish speaking audience in the United States for journalist Jorge Ramos--the journalist whose recent confrontation with Donald Trump has made him a hero to some. "A few months later, Ramos asked the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari if he had ordered the assassination of his would-be successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in 1994, a death that traumatized Latin American politics for years. Salinas's response, transcribed in Ramos's 2001 book, 'A la caza del león' ('Hunting for the Lion'), begins with this parry: 'Luis Donaldo Colosio was my dear friend.' Dissatisfied with the absence of an explicit no, Ramos renews his attack: 'I want to ask again: You had nothing to do with Colosio's assassination?' 'I was among those who lost the most with Colosio's death,' Salinas replies. It is precisely this pattern of confrontation--not his poker-faced anchoring of the nightly news with his colleague Maria Elena Salinas on 'Noticiero Univisión'--that has won Ramos the trust of so many Hispanics. They know that in many countries south of the United States, direct questions can provoke not simply a loss of access but also a loss of life. Ramos's aggressive reporting on Latin America is possible because he is based in Miami. 'The United States is my journalistic trench,' he has written, 'and I am extremely grateful.' It's very unlikely that he expected to contend with bodyguards here."

Calling Adjuncts to Arms

adjunct facultyRandall Smith argues that the situation of adjunct professors at our nation's largest universities is so abysmal that the time has come for the guild of university professors to fight for their poorest and most abused members. He calls for a general strike. "Today, adjunct instructors make up half or more of all faculty. There is, of course, a legitimate role for such faculty. The category was created to cover those outside the academy who might come in to share their expertise in a special course--say, for example, a marketing executive who comes in to teach a business school course on marketing. These people aren't looking to achieve a tenured academic position, but they are 'faculty' nonetheless. What such people are generally paid is what we might call an 'honorarium' rather than a salary. We can't really afford to pay the high-level executive what she earns at her regular job, but we feel it 'honors' her to be paid something. The justification for not paying them benefits is due to the presumption that they have benefits (and usually better benefits) through their full-time jobs, and so offering them employee benefits such as health insurance (as opposed to, say, free parking, use of the library, and access to the gym) would be superfluous. The kind of 'adjunct' faculty we're discussing now, however, are not in this category. Most of the adjunct faculty that now make up more than half of higher education faculty are not 'honored' members of the community who have come into the university to provide students with the benefits of their practical experience. They are hired at poverty-level wages with no health-care benefits and no guarantee of continued employment from semester to semester.... Senior faculty must demand basic justice for those who are at the lowest end of the hierarchy and who are the weakest before the ever-increasing power of the corporate university establishment: the 'invisible' men and women of the adjunct faculty. These academic guilds have been able to get themselves together to do all sorts of things--print journals, arrange conferences in expensive hotels in big cities, condemn apartheid, affirm global warming, decry racism--but somehow they never have had the time or will to vote for something that might involve 'goring their own ox,' so to speak: namely, a nationwide strike among all the guilds of any and all institutions that do not agree to transition all adjunct faculty in the country who do not have full-time jobs elsewhere to 'Instructor' or 'Assistant Professor' rank, with a regular salary and health-care benefits."

The Case of the Patchwork Holmes

zach dundasZach Dundas suggests Sherlock Holmes is as much a product of a fascinated culture as the work of one man: "As I researched my recent book The Great Detective, an examination into the history of Sherlock Holmes in popular culture, I was struck by the degree to which Conan Doyle's creation belongs to others as much as to him. Long before the post-meta-everything fan fiction milieu took over, Sherlock Holmes evolved as a boundless collaborative project, with many hands molding critical components of the mythos. The actor William Gillette, for example, helped enshrine 'Elementary, my dear Watson' as the detective's motto; illustrator Sidney Paget welded Holmes to his deerstalker. The character thrived because so many people grabbed this and that from Conan Doyle and made it their own. And yet, paradoxically, Holmes remains Conan Doyle's creature, too--essentially of the author, but not wholly by him any more. So it is with Old Holmes: the idea of the detective in his retirement, even dotage, aged far beyond the Victorian era of his canonical adventures. Many have taken their crack. At this point, with literally millions of fan-fiction stories adrift on the Internet's high seas and uncounted thousands of more conventional pastiches and parodies gathering dust in collectors' libraries and used bookshops, there have been innumerable extra-Conan Doyle versions of retired Sherlock Holmes. A quick consultation of amateur fan-fiction websites like Archive of Our Own reveals 'Retirementlock' as a healthy subgenre within a vast literary sub rosa. But like all things Sherlockian, Old Holmes starts with Conan Doyle himself."

Privacy and Politics

hillary clintonIn five easy lessons, Scott Horton explicates the complicated relationship that politicians have with their secrets. Lesson one: "Secrets are routinely leaked by politicians for political gain; many of those who regularly complain about leaks are leakers themselves. The current controversy offers us a whirlwind of leaks within leaks and leaks about leaks. If it leaves any lasting footprint, then it will be as a demonstration of the art of simultaneously leaking and suppressing information to serve purely partisan political goals." Also worth noting is Lesson Five: "Secrecy regularly deprives decision-makers of the information they need in order to form valid judgments. Beltway insiders routinely agree that Washington makes far too many secrets. They also accept that secrecy is a tool used for bureaucratic antics. But by and large they insist that there's no real downside to the secrecy game. This is nonsense. In fact, secrecy regularly stands in the way of an informed public and a sensible political discussion of questions that are vital for the nation's future. It protects those who have made serious mistakes and fear accountability." Horton will be speaking on privacy and security with Robert Litt, General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, at the upcoming Hannah Arendt Center conference "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?" You can register now.

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson discusses how bureaucracy, as imagined by both Kafka and Arendt, embodies an ideology of necessity through which humans abdicate responsibility for their common world in the Quote of the Week. Thomas Jefferson comments on the value and glow of thoughts in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We welcome Dr. Ulrich von Bulow, a visiting scholar with the Hannah Arendt Center and the German Studies Program, to Bard College. Finally, Ryan Butler, a student of environmental activism, shares an image of his personal Arendt library with us in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Amor Mundi Newsletter 3/9/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Why the Jews?

antiAnthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.

The SAT is Part Hoax, Part Fraud

satNews that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”

What Does the West Have to Prove?

ukForeign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”

Fiction is Not a Means

royIn The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.

Whither the MOOC Participant

moocComparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.

The Afterlife of the American University

ameNoam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.

Featured Events


hireshousekeepingcoverBard Big Read

Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.

Learn more here.




'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'

The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin

March 27-28, 2014

ICI Berlin


Learn more here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Bowling Green Cuts 11% of its Faculty

There is a petition going circulating asking Bowling Green University to rescind its decision to cut 11% of its faculty—nearly 100 positions—while simultaneously planning to increase enrollment. The petition reads:

Slashing faculty numbers while planning to increase enrollment by 6,000 students (as you publicly announced in 2012) will greatly diminish BGSU’s position as one of Ohio’s top-rated public universities. Your plans would compromise the education of current students, and it would reduce the prestige of degrees that have already been granted by BGSU.

The decision is designed to save $5.2 Million, just over the $5 Million that the university is set to lose as a result of Ohio’s recent budget cuts to public university education.

On the one hand, this is a story that will be repeated over and over in the coming years. On the other hand, why is it that the university chooses to fill the entirety of its budget gap by letting faculty go? There was no announcement about cutting administrators, pairing back expensive sports programs, and halting an expensive building plan. Here is what the The Bowling Green State University Faculty Association said:

“[T]he $5.2-million savings is suspiciously close to the $5 million number that BGSU officials have floated as the loss from state share of instruction under Ohio’s new funding plan,” the statement indicates. “In other words, Mazey may have decided that faculty alone should absorb any budgetary challenges. It’s certainly easier than cutting six-figure administrators, in-the-red athletics, expensive residence halls, luxurious renovations to the rec center, high-priced outside consultants, failed football bowl games, or Mazey’s team of spin doctors which, as Mazey administration spending indicates, are her true priorities.”

It does seem that the University is cutting the faculty in a disproportionate and severe manner, especially given the announced intent to increase enrollment. It would be much better to cut administration and sports teams. But the sad fact remains, colleges like Bowling Green are going to suffer as public funding is cut back, student debt levels depress enrollments, and alternatives to college emerge. At the same time, technology will begin to displace many faculty members and allow colleges to educate more students with fewer professors.

Given the changes coming to higher education, it is important that colleges and universities adapt intelligently. We might start by cutting back on administration and luxury dorms. One big question is whether tenured faculty positions will continue to make sense at a time that demands flexibility and innovation. It is worth noting that Bowling Green cut exclusively amongst adjuncts and part-time faculty, leaving its tenured faculty untouched. How much longer that will continue to happen is real question.


For more HAC coverage of the financial woes of higher education, read "The Dorm Wars", "The Merging of High Schools and Colleges",  and "The Higher Education Bubble? Not So Fast".


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The Higher Education Bubble? Not So Fast.

We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.

In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.

Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value.  We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.

Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.

More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.

For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.

Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post,  has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:

  1. [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.

Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.

It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:

[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.

Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.

I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.

As I have written before:

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.