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.
A.O. Scott reflects on the juvenile nature of American culture in "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture:" "[T]he journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups 'should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.' Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as 'Don't tell me what to do!' as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff. It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon. Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of 'Harry Potter' or 'The Hunger Games.'" Scott captures something essential in American culture, that in their solidarity with children, Adults enact a "refusal of maturity [that] also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean." He is right that, increasingly in public, "nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable." Yet Scott is too much part of the culture of immaturity to be willing to judge it. "A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what's going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight." The crisis of authority will not be overcome by calls for renewed authority; that said, we do suffer from the lack of adult judgment in public. Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
Betsy Huete suggests something counterintuitive about making art: "art is not a creative endeavor. It is an athletic one. If any artist still sits in her studio waiting to be struck with genius inspiration, she is playing an artist, not being one. Artists don't wait, they practice. And fail. And try again, and so on until they get it right, until their work is resolved. Just like their counterparts, athletes spend hours per day training, failing, trying, not quitting. To be either means one must have an enormous amount of resolve and resiliency, and the courage to constantly face the possibility of rejection. Whether it means getting benched, getting cut from the team, losing the championship game, getting a proposal rejected, losing grant money, not getting accepted into a residency: both sides are filled with victories and losses both large and small. Both must work extremely hard to achieve whatever goals they have set for themselves. It is no coincidence that some of the most successful contemporary artists of our day, like Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney, were former athletes."
In a long essay that amounts, more or less, to a eulogy, writer and eminent professor Marina Warner describes why she loved the University of Essex, and why she left it: "What is happening at Essex reflects on the one hand the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business - one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars - and on the other reveals a particular, local interpretation of the national policy. The Senate and councils of a university like Essex, and most of the academics who are elected by colleagues to govern, have been caught unawares by their new masters, their methods and their assertion of power. Perhaps they/we are culpable of doziness. But there is a central contradiction in the government's business model for higher education: you can't inspire the citizenry, open their eyes and ears, achieve international standing, fill the intellectual granary of the country and replenish it, attract students from this country and beyond, keep up the reputation of the universities, expect your educators and scholars to be public citizens and serve on all kinds of bodies, if you pin them down to one-size-fits-all contracts, inflexible timetables, overflowing workloads, overcrowded classes."
Jack Goldsmith wonders aloud at President Obama's "Breathtaking Expansion of a President's Power to Make War:" "Future historians will ask why George W. Bush sought and received express congressional authorization for his wars (against al Qaeda and Iraq) and his successor did not. They will puzzle over how Barack Obama the prudent war-powers constitutionalist transformed into a matchless war-powers unilateralist. And they will wonder why he claimed to 'welcome congressional support' for his new military initiative against the Islamic State but did not insist on it in order to ensure clear political and legal legitimacy for the tough battle that promised to consume his last two years in office and define his presidency. 'History has shown us time and again . . . that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch,' candidate Barack Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007. 'It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.' President Obama has discarded these precepts. His announcement that he will expand the use of military force against the Islamic State without the need for new congressional consent marks his latest adventure in unilateralism and cements an astonishing legacy of expanding presidential war powers." Worries about the Imperial Presidency are now common and for good reason. But as Jeffrey Tulis argues in the latest version of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, the real issue is a feckless legislature: "I want to suggest something different - that the presidency is very strong, but not imperial. This executive strength may indeed pose problems for democratic governance, but the source of those problems does not lie in the presidency. The presidency looks somewhat imperial today because of the failure of the Congress. In other words, the problem of presidential power today is actually not the exercise of presidential power; it's the gross abdication of responsibility by the legislative branch, the Congress of the United States."
Aaron Gilbreath considers the past and the present of the mechanized restaurant: "In Japan, where restaurant mechanization has been constant for decades, something in the culture or the economy has ensured that human interaction remains prominent. At Matsuya, shokkenki have freed staff from having to push register keys, make change, chit-chat, and stand idly by while customers decide what to order. But whenever I entered one, people were still on hand to cook, deliver, and clean. The machines seemed to me like a supplement to human service, a way to remove one task from the chain of production and lower costs, rather than a step toward eliminating everyone. The corporate rhetoric, at least, is that tabletop devices and self-serve kiosks will function the same way in the United States. We already use ATMs instead of bank tellers, place takeout orders by phone, check ourselves out at some grocery stores, and check ourselves in at the airport. We require technicians and programmers to keep the machines running, as well as staff to stand nearby and tell us to place our groceries back down on the scanner before placing them in the bag. The ideal, in this telling, is that technology and automation give us more time for human interactions with our friends and family. The reality, of course, is that they often just give us more time with our other tech."
Gal Beckerman speaks with Bettina Stangneth and asks, "Why do you think Arendt was so taken in by Eichmann's performance on the stand? Does it tell us something about her?" Stangneth, author of the newly translated Eichmann Before Jerusalem, responds: "If it tells us something about her, it tells us something about nearly every spectator of the trial in 1961. It is a legend that only she was misled by Eichmann. But we have forgotten the other reports about the trial. Example? Alfred Wolfmann, the correspondent from Germany's most important Jewish newspaper, Allgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung, described him as a 'pathetic weakling.' Joachim Schwelien wrote in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Eichmann was nothing more than a 'Hanswurst' [a buffoonish character from German folklore]. And everybody agreed. Some years later, Arendt only repeated these words, and people were shocked. In 1961 the astonishment about Eichmann was that he seemed to be a man without his own thoughts and convictions. This was common sense. When Arendt restated this common experience in 1963, it provoked a scandal. This tells us something about Hannah Arendt: She was not willing to deny the public astonishment of the year 1961 - she wanted to understand it."
In honor of Constitution Day, or "Citizenship Day."
Wednesday, September 17h, 2014
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 pm
As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.
Monday, October 6, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm
Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds discusses the importance of work and how it helps produce a sharable world in the Quote of the Week. Helen Keller provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a discussion with Roger Berkowitz, Walter Russell Mead, Jay Rosen, and Megan Garber on the state of journalism today in our Video Archives. We appreciate a note of gratitude written to Arendt in our Library feature. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on the crisis of authority and adulthood in American society in the Weekend Read.
“Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by the citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency.”
–Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
Hannah Arendt was a capacious thinker. She tackled topics such as totalitarianism in Fascist and Stalinist forms, the tradition of Western political philosophy, the human condition, international law and human rights, and the destruction of the world in an atomic age. Moreover, as her former students and current readers can attest, her range of knowledge is daunting as she moves with ease among languages, time periods, historical detail, and philosophical abstraction. Yet Arendt was also invested in fragments, moments, poetry, and individuals as a way to remember the past and speak to present political needs. One place where this is well-represented is in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.
It is a little over year since the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott praised the movie “Hannah Arendt” for answering a “hunger for engagement with the life of an extraordinary mind.” “Arendt,” Scott wrote, “was a writer of long books and a maker of complex arguments.” She was possessed with the “glamour, charisma and difficulty of a certain kind of German thought.” The only problem with the movie by Margarethe von Trotta, Scott suggested, was that it wasn’t long enough. He clearly relished the existence of a serious movie for adults, one that was also engaging and watchable.
Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer is the new English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s exhaustive history of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Her book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to try to understand Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi lieutenant colonel who was responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust.
Stangneth has pieced together the scattered transcripts of the interviews Eichmann gave with the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen in multiple archives, she has tracked down full essays and fragments of Eichmann’s own writing in mislabeled files that have never been considered before, and above all she has pieced together the written record of Eichmann’s life with a diligence and obsessiveness that is uncanny and likely never to be repeated. Stangneth knows more about Adolf Eichmann than any other person alive and probably more than any person in history, past or future.
**This post was originally published March 9, 2012**
Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century; to the European revolutions of 1848; to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011 one cannot mistake the fact that politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
“Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.”
– Hannah Arendt, Preface to Between Past and Future, 1961
Hannah Arendt called Between Past and Future her most important book. The essay collection deals with fundamental political-philosophical terms such as freedom, authority, power and reason. Its subtitle—“Exercises in Political Thought”—points towards the genre of the book, essay, which of course comes from the French essayer, meaning something like to try, to experiment and, in this sense, to exercise. It was from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais—the wonderfully experimental, experience-based reflections on topics both philosophical and mundane, first published in 1580—that the genre got its name. Arendt read Montaigne both in the original French and in English translation, and the two respective versions of Essais in her library prove that she read them carefully, and with a pencil at the ready. Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin developed and expanded the possibilities of this genre in their own unique ways, and both thinkers count among Arendt’s key interlocutors. It is however less well known that Arendt’s work in the genre of “essay” also have another starting point: in American literature, from the writings of Emerson and Melville, both of whom she grew to know through the writings of the literary critic Alfred Kazin.
Arendt and Kazin became close friends in the late 1940’s. Their conversation in letters began with Kafka and continued through literature, friendship, and genuine interest in each other's work. Kazin helped Arendt find a publisher for her first American book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” and also played a central role in editing that groundbreaking study. At the same time Arendt was reading Kazin’s essay collection “On Native Grounds,”—she read it “every day at breakfast,” in fact, as she wrote to him. For Arendt, who had arrived in the USA only a few years earlier, Kazin’s book was an introduction to the literature and history of her new homeland—as well as a paradigm of the “essay” genre. At the highpoint of their friendship, in the summer of 1956, Arendt told Kazin in a letter that she had written him into her will as “literary executor for all things in English.” In the very same letter that links their literary legacies in such a meaningful way, Arendt comes back to “On Native Grounds,” and to the “essay:” Harcourt Brace, who published both authors, had suggested to Arendt “that I prepare also a volume of essays,” yet she “shuddered at the thought of it,” since she understood the great challenges posed by the genre that in her eyes Kazin was mastering. It took five more years for Arendt to set aside her “shudder,” and to publish Between Past and Future.
In the meantime, Arendt and Kazin sent other writings to each other, among which two texts in particular continued their conversation about the “essay.” The first is a preface written by Kazin to a new edition of Moby Dick. The novel, Kazin writes, “is not so much a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale as it is an experience of that quest.” To understand writing as an invitation to experience something—an invitation to a process of thinking, to an exercise—echoes the project of Arendt’s Exercises in Political Thought. “This is only to say, what we can say of any true poem,” Kazin continues, “that we cannot reduce its essential substance to a subject, that we should not intellectualize and summarize it, but that we should recognize that its very force and beauty lie in the way it is conceived and written.” “The Introduction is wunderbar,” Arendt wrote Kazin enthusiastically, using the German word both as a sign of intimacy and because the German “wunderbar” more strongly connotes the spirit of “wonder” than the English “wonderful.”
Soon thereafter Alfred Kazin published a large anthology of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Many of Arendt’s American readers rightfully wonder why Emerson does not appear more frequently in her writing. There seems to be such an intriguing correspondence between both writers’ style of thinking and care for language. But Arendt’s copy of Kazin’s anthology shows just how attentively she read Emerson: the volume is heavily underlined. The markings begin in the introduction and revolve — perhaps not so surprisingly, since Emerson was one of the founding figures of American essay writing—around his writing style. “He is a writer who lives entirely by ideas, but who really lives them,” Kazin writes at the very beginning. “He is not a philosopher, not a maker of systems or a prover of systems or a justifier of them. He starts from a conviction about man’s central importance in the world which he never really elaborates, but which he accepts as necessary and evident and profoundly human – he could almost have said, the only human account of the world in modern, ‘scientific’ times.” It is a description that strikingly resembles the fundamental concept of love for the world —amor mundi—which Arendt was writing in The Human Condition at the very same time. Her books moved and excited him, Kazin later wrote to Arendt, “in a way that no ‘technical philosophy’ ever could. What a visionary you are, as my most beloved poets are!”
As visionary as a poet? Or is this more a view of poetic thinking? Hannah Arendt coined the term “poetic thinking” in her essay on Walter Benjamin. Her catchy formulation is explained in a series of negative characterizations. To fundamentally comprehend Benjamin, according to Arendt, one must understand that he was “very scholarly, but in no way a scholar; that his major subject was text and the interpretation of texts, but that he was no philologist; […] that he was a writer whose greatest ambition was to build a text entirely comprised of quotes from other texts—that is, to override his own role as writer; […] he published countless book reviews and many conventional essays on dead and contemporary writers and poets, but he was no literary critic.” The list is much longer in the original, but it continues in the same vein: Benjamin doesn’t belong to any discipline nor profession; readers need to understand that he “thought poetically.”
Arendt’s remarks on Benjamin find an astounding echo in Kazin’s efforts to answer his own question about Emerson: “What kind of writer shall we call him?” “He is not, of course, a novelist or a dramatist,” Kazin writes, “in fact, he could hardly read novels or wholly enjoy great plays for their own sake. Although he was a remarkable and inventive poet, no one can claim that poetry is the major side of his work. As we have said, he is not a philosopher – not even a philosopher like Nietzsche, who so much admired him.” What, then, could a suitable description look like? Kazin finds a surprising turn of phrase: “And though one falls back on the term ‘essayist,’ the term hardly explains why the essay form, as Emerson developed it, attains a free form that is profoundly musical and fugal, a series of variations starting from a set theme.”
“The essay form,” are the three words of the quote that Arendt underlined in her copy. They echo the passage from Between Past and Future quoted here at the beginning: “Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.” On the same page of this preface, Arendt expands the resonance and meaning of these “related keys” in a highly intriguing way. Her investigations between past and future seek to discover the “spirit” which has “so sadly evaporated from the very key words of political language,” such as freedom and justice, responsibility and virtue. In order to trace the “wunderbaren” spirits that Arendt roused from the key words of our political language, we need to listen to the keys in which these exercises and essays in political and poetic thinking were composed and written.
-Translated from German by Anne Posten
“The teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-à-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.”
-Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education"
Nearly midway through my first year as a high school teacher, my mind returns to these lines from Arendt’s “The Crisis in Education” quite often. These sentences strike me as containing some of Arendt’s plainest explanations of what teachers actually do. Teachers need to have both a broad and deep knowledge of the world to be able to lead newcomers into it. They also need a particular attitude toward the world in order to lead with authority, an attitude which Arendt defines here as “assum[ing] responsibility” for the world and elsewhere in her essay as loving the world. A teacher, Arendt suggests, is someone who stands between her students and the broader world into which we were all thrown at birth, and a good teacher is someone who is able to lead them into an understanding of the world that inspires a renewed commitment to it. Teachers, in other words, seek to help young people feel at home in the world by accomplishing their transition from their beginning as “strangers and newcomers” in an already existing world to their maturity as people ready and willing to assume responsibility for the world through their freedom to act and change it.
While I find this a helpful and inspiring framework for understanding the role of teachers in a society, this vision of teaching is also frustratingly (and perhaps intentionally) ambiguous. While Arendt is clear what she means by “world” as an aspect of the human condition, she gives no indication what the “this” might be specifically when she imagines the teacher saying, “This is our world.” The question is: what should teachers point to when they teach their students about the world?
The problem is that Arendt’s analysis of the modern crisis in education suggests that this question is in some sense unanswerable in today’s world. Arendt is clear that the crisis in education is a crisis of authority and tradition: in a world no longer structured by the past, it is difficult to say for sure what “the world” is and what newcomers need to know about it in order to do more than simply make a living to stay alive (and even this is difficult when educators recognize that many of the jobs today's students will have don’t exist yet). But while it may be difficult to tell what the world is when it is changing so rapidly, Arendt is clear that education does work when teachers show that they love the world despite its complexity or, I believe in the best cases - because of its complexity. Teachers regain authority by assuming responsibility for this world in crisis and showing that they love it.
I have caught only glimpses of what it might mean to really lead my students into the world in the way I think Arendt describes. I think particularly of my ninth grade “World Literature” class which challenges me to think about how to present the entire world - including its historical dimension - to my students through diverse but finite number of literary representations of human experience. Last September, I saw an opportunity to connect our discussion of nationalism in Lord of the Flies and E.B. White’s essay “Intimations” to the debate regarding military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. While I didn’t manage to integrate this connection fully into my lesson plans, I had several conversations with my classes in which we the themes and concerns presented in the novel and essay helped illuminate underlying political tensions of the issue that were not obvious from the news coverage alone. It may be that glimpses of this kind of engaged teaching and learning about the world are all that we can expect in a complex world, but I hold onto them and strive for them as I design my lessons.
Perhaps another source of inspiration for teaching in a complex and rapidly changing world is a historical figure that Arendt does not discuss in her essay on education, but who she discuses elsewhere as a profound teacher. Thanks largely to Plato’s allegory of the cave, Socrates has a profound if implicit influence on many of our metaphors for teaching and learning.
In “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Arendt paraphrases what happens when Socrates introduces people to a more true understanding of the world: “you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.” As I read it, if Arendt’s ultimate goal is to get people to “think what we are doing,” then her discussion of Socrates as someone who could get people to think serves as a model for education. In a world so obviously full of perplexities, the most important thing to do is share them and discuss them, especially with newcomers.
In Socrates’ time and for much of western history since, the activity of thinking (philosophy) was seen as inimical to politics, but as Arendt’s work testifies, there are times of crisis, times “when the chips are down,” in which thinking becomes politically necessary. In the preface to Between Past and Future she suggests that in a world oriented toward the future rather than structured by the tradition of the past, the need to think “became a tangible reality and perplexity for all; that is it became a fact of political relevance.” Teachers today must teach critical thinking by first loving and caring about the perplexity of our current global, political, environmental, political, and technological situation. Arendt believes that when teachers assume responsibility for the world through this committed critical engagement with the world, they also “save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” Therefore we must seize every opportunity to share the perplexities of our times with young people, for doing so might inspire them to take up the task of thinking about and re-making the world for themselves.
“To interpret, to quote – yet only to have witnesses, also friends.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 756 (November 1969), my translation.
When we quote someone, we often seem to do so in order to appeal to some kind of authority. We use a statement of Arendt, for instance, in order to shed light on a contemporary event or phenomenon that calls for our attention. We consider her as a “theorist” who supposedly has “relevant” things to say that may help us “solve” a contemporary problem of understanding. We ask ourselves: “What would Hannah Arendt say?”
For several reasons, however, this practice is problematic. Firstly, as Arendt herself repeatedly insisted, thinking, understood as the never-ending attempt to make sense of events, experiences, and phenomena that occur, is an activity that we can only perform for and by ourselves. Secondly, by “applying” an authoritative “theory” to concrete events, we run the risk of explaining them away, rather than to “save the phenomena” in their concrete particularity. Finally, we run the risk of doing injustice to the “authority” in question. Arendt’s work is much too multi-vocal and perspectival for it to be reduced to a bag of “relevant” propositions that we can use at will. Much of what she says is more complicated and puzzling than it may seem, and requires a serious and sustained effort of interpretation. “Results” are by no means guaranteed. In this sense, the self-evident practice of quoting her every week entails the risk that she becomes all-too-familiar to us, that she is turned into someone whose “convictions” we no longer question, but complacently apply.
The use of Arendt as an authority becomes especially problematic when she is read in what could be called a “pessimistic” or “nostalgic” way, as if the most important thing that we can learn from her consists in a “diagnosis” of “our time”, which entails the claim that politics has been “lost”, that culture and education are in “crisis”, etc. By reading her this way, we run the risk of reinforcing an “objectifying” picture of our contemporary situation, as if the terms “loss” and “crisis” refer to objective facts that are “out there”, rather than to conceptual interventions that may (and perhaps should) invite our own counter-interventions. What is more, we run the risk of placing ourselves on the side of the few who really “got it”, against the many who still do not get it and will perhaps never get it, lest they start reading – and quoting – Arendt.
This is not to say that there is no basis at all in her work for reading her like this, but it is at odds with what may be considered as a more promising and liberating reading – a reading which invites us to begin something new, both in thinking and by acting, however difficult this may seem to be. Invoking Arendt as an authority, by contrast, may precisely serve as a substitute for thinking, rather than as its starting point.
By taking as our starting point a quote about quoting, we hope to make the practice of quoting Arendt into something uncommon, something unfamiliar. The quote in question, cited above, is a singular entry from Arendt’s Denktagebuch, the “thinking diary” that she kept from the early fifties until a few years before her death, and which she never intended for publication. The sentence is from November 1969, when she was working on what would become the first volume of The Life of the Mind, called Thinking, in which she addresses the question, what are we “doing” when we do nothing but think.
The meaning of the sentence – perhaps “meditation” is a better term – is by no means easy to grasp. It appears as a moment of self-reflection, a moment in which she stops, steps back, and thinks about the very thing she has been doing in her notebook: to interpret, to quote. It almost reads as a warning: make sure you consider these interpretations and quotations only as witnesses [Zeugen], also friends [Freunde], rather than as – we are tempted to add – authoritative statements, or – to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own – nuggets of pure truth to keep between the pages of your notebook and keep on the mantelpiece forever.
What does it mean to consider the practice of “interpreting, quoting” as a means to have “witnesses, also friends”? In the entry that immediately follows, Arendt uses the word “friend” twice: “Thought speaks with itself (as with a friend)…” and “In thought, the self is a friend…” Only two entries earlier, she had written that critical thinking consists in a giving-of-account [Rechenschaft geben] in a dialogue with oneself. She cites Kant as the genuine representative of this form of thinking, who had distinguished the quaestio facti – how one comes in possession of a specific concept, or what the origin of a specific term is – from the quaestio juris – with what right one possesses and makes use of a specific concept.
The process of a giving-of-account in this latter sense requires that you are friends with yourself. If there is too much distance, you do no longer talk with yourself, and the inner dialogue comes to an end. Yet the activity of talking something through also comes to an end when there is not enough distance, when you do no longer disagree with yourself at all. As Arendt writes earlier in her notebook: “Only because I can speak with others, can I also speak with myself, i.e., think. Ergo: Aristotle is not right: A friend is not “another self”, rather, the self is another friend.”
Perhaps it is here that we should bring the notion of a “witness” into play. The figure of a witness may be described as someone who testifies to an event that is beyond our own immediate experience, something we were not there to see with our own eyes, perhaps something unheard of. In the entry on critical thinking mentioned above, Arendt notes that our conscience finds its origin in our activity of thinking in the sense of a giving-of-account of something, in a dialogue with ourselves. In another Denktagebuch-entry, written in December 1969, so one month later, she uses the notion of a witness precisely in the context of explaining the workings of our conscience. When our conscience speaks, it serves as our inner witness by reminding us of something we did, and in calling us to account for it. Obviously, the point here is not that we were not present at the actual event, but that we do not want to hear about it anymore.
In the context of our quotation, we may say that a witness confronts us with a certain perspective on our conception of a certain event or experience, perhaps a strange or unsuspected one. Thereby, he or she invites us to give account of our own convictions and interpretations. However, the addition “also friends” is required: only if we approach a witness as a friend – a friendly interlocutor – will the thinking dialogue actually come to pass, will we start thinking something through.
By quoting, we may now suggest, we invoke a testimony by someone who calls us into thinking. By interpreting a quotation, we may add, we gain the opportunity to think something through by and for ourselves, rather than to use it as a means of adding authority to our already existing convictions and interpretations or to use the “answers” it contains in order to “solve” our problems for us. Or, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as quoted by Arendt in her essay on him: “Quotations … are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieves an idler of his convictions.”
"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113
Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.
Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.
Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:
Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).
People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.
From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.
As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.
While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.
“Neither education nor ingenuity nor talent can replace the constituent elements of the public realm, which make it the proper place for human excellence.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
I am proud to attend a college that envisions education as a life devoted to intellectual excellence. I am also proud of the fact that the school promotes a genuine love for knowledge and ideas and not simply what is practical and useful. It is easy to believe that education represents the peak of human excellence. And I have experienced few joys in my education as deeply as that of reading Hannah Arendt.
What a surprise, therefore, to see that Hannah Arendt writes that education and ingenuity are not and have never been the proper place for the display of human excellence. Arendt writes that excellence is found only in the public realm, that space to which “excellence has always been assigned.” Educational achievements—for example learnedness and scholarship—are important for students, but have nothing to do with excellence. But what does Arendt mean by human excellence? And why does it require a public realm? More to the point of modern debates, why is education not the proper locus of excellence?
Education is one of the elementary and necessary human activities. The word education comes from the Latin verbs educare (to mold) and educere (to lead out). To teach and educate is to take a human being in the process of becoming and lead him or her out of the confines of the home into the world, into his or her community. Formal education, Arendt argues in The Crisis in Education, is the time when schools and teachers assume the responsibility for “what we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents.” This is the stage in the educational development of the student in which he or she is not only introduced to the world, but when he or she becomes freely and spontaneously acquainted with those qualities that make one unique and further refined as a person.
It is also in school that we learn what human excellence is and the conditions in which human excellence is properly displayed. Human excellence, Arendt argues, is what the ancient Greeks called arête and the Roman virtus. The concepts of arete and virtus were always used by the ancients to denote the good and distinctive qualities embodied by those who performed in public. Drawing upon these concepts, Arendt argues that human excellence is a public act that manifests what she calls “inspiring principles,” e.g, prudence, justice, and courage, qualities of conduct that allow one to excel and distinguish oneself from all others.
Unlike the realm of the school, where one is expected only to learn and develop the characteristics used to make these principles manifest, the public realm demands that one act and embody excellence. It is our capacities for speech and action that allows for this display of excellence to be distinctively human. Arendt argues that only “in acting and speaking, [do] men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identity and thus make their appearance in the human world.” In contrast to education, which is concerned with the development of talents and virtues of the developing human being, in the political realm, these talents and virtues are fully developed and displayed.
Schools for Arendt are neither public nor private but “the institutions that we interpose between the private domain of home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world.” Schools are hidden from the world, as are the activities through which the student first displays his or her qualities and talents. Schools offer the student “the security of concealment in order to mature undisturbed.” But in order to achieve excellence, action needs an audience, a stage, a public realm where these characteristics can be properly manifested and properly received. Activities completed in school hide these characteristics and nurture the creative process, in contrast to those performed public, which always display the virtuosity, the excellence inherent in action.
The public realm is also the space of equality, which is alien to schools. In schools, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the one who knows the world, and in order to teach it, deference to authority is required. Arendt argues that this responsibility of authority is given to the educator because the educator not only knows the world but also belongs and acts in it. In the school, the educator acts as a representative of that world by “pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world.” Once the student knows the world and assumes responsibility for it, he or she can go into the world and act virtuously, display human excellence and start something new, which could potentially change it. This is why Arendt argues that school is not the “proper place” to display excellence, to act, and create something new. The ability to be excellent—to act, and to start something new—demands responsibility for the world. In education, this responsibility takes the form of authority, which is why it is given to the educator, and not to the student.
This does not mean, however, that Arendt is against changing the world; she is against changing it by disturbing the activity of education. Change, the new, is a phenomenon of the political realm, an activity performed among equal and fully-grown human beings. For Arendt, the “conservative function” that preserves traditions and the status quo in education comes to an end in the political realm. This conservative attitude in politics, she says, can only lead to destruction. As she explains: “because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. To preserve the world from the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.” Arendt maintains that to act and to change the world is expected of those who get educated and enter the community of adults and the political world.
As an immigrant student, I was surprised by the extraordinary commitment of my peers to be excellent. The dream of greatness and the desire for changing the world is also common among armchair “politicians” in academia. This ever-present enthusiasm for changing the world in academia is natural, especially if one believes to be living the true life of excellence. This desire, at times overconfident or even arrogant, is particular to Americans, not only in academia but also in every other sphere of life, and arises from what Arendt calls the “indefinite perfectibility” spirit that characterizes Americans.
At a place like Bard College, most students I come in contact with trade insights and debate about what has to be changed on a daily basis. This constant craving for the new and their commitment to excellence uplifts my spirit and has stirred in me the desire to do great things as well; this is very inspiring. Yet, we are still students and Bard or any other educational institution is not the public world, and, as Arendt argues, “it must not pretend to be.” Bard represents the sphere where we are welcomed to and learn about the world from educators, so that one day we can change it, hopefully through human acts that embody excellence.
School for Arendt is where we learn and decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and renew it or watch it fall as a victim of our very own condition of mortality. In order to change the world, one has to love and understand it. For Arendt, one has to learn to love the world, whether ones wishes to propagate and preserve it or to set it entirely anew; love of the world for her is what constitutes the world because it “fits me into it,” it allows one to ‘under-stand,’ to grasp while being in the midst of things. The world has to be constantly renewed but this can only happen once we leave the concealment of the classroom and acquire the courage to enter the political realm.
“The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Last week brought two events into focus: the annual July 4th celebration commemorating the American Revolution of 1776 preceded one day before by the overthrow of the first freely elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Although on the surface there seems little connecting these events, thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the former may bring forth some interesting points about revolutions and the foundation of modern democracy to light, which may be relevant to the evolving situation in Egypt.
In On Revolution, Arendt put forth a controversial interpretation of revolution and its relationship to violence, a theory that, contra popular opinion, lauded the success of the American while decrying the French Revolution’s legacy that “a revolution must devour its own children” as if terror were its inevitable course. The success of the American Revolution for Arendt resulted from its “deep concern with forms of government,” a concern she saw equally in the “initial stages of the French Revolution.” But when the concern with political solutions to the problem of tyranny was, in her assessment, overwhelmed by “the social question”—the problems of necessity, of abject need, confronting the “multitude of the poor—the French Revolution abandoned the task of “building a new body politic” in favor of searching for a more immediate, and, in her view, less political solution to the problem of poverty. “It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom,” Arendt wrote. Yet, she emphasized, there was nothing inevitable about this change of course.
To Arendt, any suggestion that a revolution would, and presumably must, take a predictable course was an example of ideological thinking that masked the genuine meaning of revolution. As she wrote, “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”
By every aspect of this definition, the Arab Spring uprising that sparked Egypt into full-scale protests and regime change to remove an autocratic ruler two years ago, and embark on an unpredictable path to “bring about the formation of a new body politic” constitutes a revolution in the Arendtian sense. But what matters is not whether the extraordinary events in Egypt fit her definition, but what Arendt’s exercise in thinking about revolutions, their successes and failures, can tell us about the great difficulties, challenges, and opportunities involved in Egyptians’ struggle to “build a new house where freedom can dwell.”
Modern revolutionaries face the enormous task of bringing into the public realm those who have been excluded from participation in it and, if they are to avoid a state of permanent war and violence, simultaneously creating a relatively stable set of institutions to organize and enable the expression of different points of view. A few days ago, the New York Times trumpeted the current crisis in Egypt under a headline proclaiming there were “two Egypts” locked in a raging conflict with each other over legitimate rulership of the country. Both Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi forces claim to embody the demand for representation for “all Egypt.” Representing the point of view of the anti-Morsi forces, a participant in the renewed protests justified the removal of Morsi: “They tried to rule the whole country for themselves...But if you want to rule Egypt, you have to rule for everyone or the people will stand against you.” (NYT July 6, 2013) In fact, pro-Morsi factions echoed similar sentiments by contending not only that there had been a military coup overthrowing a legitimately elected leader, but also that the removal of Morsi was designed to push them out of the political process. And this morning, the ultra-Conservative Al Nour party announced its decision to withdraw from further participation in efforts to form an interim government.
Whether the election of Morsi itself had been premature—he was brought to power with the support of only 24% of the voting electorate and pushed through a constitution largely created by the Muslim Brotherhood—its aftermath suggests that the process of creating a new form of government was far from complete. Soon after he took power, many different groups complained that Morsi appeared to have set himself up as a dictator in the mere five months he’d been in power. Clearly, in Arendtian terms, the rebellion started in 2011 had not yet resulted in the “truly revolutionary element” in constitution-making, which lies not in the creation of limited government, but in the act of a people (here Arendt quotes Thomas Paine) “constituting a government.”
There is an enormous difference, Arendt wrote, “in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.” But “the people”, for Arendt, implied all factions, all parts of the polity, had to be involved in the process; a government not only “for” the people, but also “of” and “by” it. The current conflagrations in Egypt represent yet another stage of opportunity in the effort to revolutionize the Egyptian polity in this direction, a stage which had harbingers of its arrival, but no predictable outcome.
The great difficulty Egypt faces is not only the vast gap in different groups’ understandings of who “the people” are, and the different degrees of organized mobilization of those groups, but also derives from the fundamentally opposed interpretations of which appropriate principles—Islamist, moderate or more conservative; non-Islamist; pluralist?—should legitimate a new polity in Egypt. And this difficulty is only compounded by an expressed urgency to find solutions to a deteriorating economy. Arendt would have hoped that the urgency of immediate needs would not overwhelm the revolutionary process of “constituting a government.”
It turns out, Arendt argued, that once “the source of authority had been severed from the colonial body politic in the New World,” the key problem confronting the American Revolution “turned out to be the establishment not of power but of authority.” How this authority (not to be confused with either power or violence) will be established in Egypt depends in the long run on all sides being able both to engage in discussions of principle, and not only contests over power or need, as well as participate in the search for institutionalized mechanisms to stabilize what Arendt called “the tremendous strength inherent in mutual promises.” If specific parties withdraw from this process, or persist in vilifying one group of the other, the violence that is now occurring may not yet be stemmed.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being”. – “And all this ... arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”
-Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969
Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future Arendt discusses the profound changes which modernity brought about through technological progress and simultaneous world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world to self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities.
All this opened the way to transgress traditional boundaries and to give in to the temptation to be omnipotent. The totalitarian movements transformed the nihilistic “all is allowed” into “all is possible”.
Is is precisely the same thesis that Freud, Castoriadis and others advanced: the lust for omnipotence is neither an exception nor the experience of a limited number of human beings but the general experience of early childhood. The experience of omnipotence precedes the recognition of otherness. Recognition of the other has to be learned in the course of development from the pre-social to the socially shaped human being. According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook, we are thus confronted with a constant working of “the negative” in us.
“The experience of omnipotence is significant for the normal as well as for the abnormal child, for youth and for adulthood. Examples can be found in religious, aesthetic and erotic experiences, in the state of being in love, in mass phenomena and in certain forms of psychosis.”
In this context it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress the boundaries to omnipotence. For example, we can distinguish between hooligan crowd violence, sniper killings in wartime and the mass murder committed by the Norwegian Anders Breivik. Transgressing boundaries in the case of hooligans consists of crossing the boundary from respect for the physical integrity of the other to illegal physical injury, in the case of snipers from a ban on killing to legally controlled or uncontrolled killing of enemy combatants, and in the case of Breivik in the annihilation of all representatives of the enemy. In Eichmann’s case, as we know, the maximum transgression consisted in the endless annihilation of entire peoples and populations.
What we find in the first case, the fierce violence of hooligans, is lust for power and temporary transgression. Here a code of honour prescribes that violence should be fierce and brutal, but not fatal, that those not involved should not be attacked, that the use of weapons is forbidden and that conflicting groups should be similar in number and strength. Hooligans do not intend to destroy their opponents but merely to gain victory over them. Consequently their violence has nothing to do with delusions of omnipotence, but a great deal to do with lust for power. There is, however, an element in their behaviour that could pave the way for omnipotence. They themselves describe this as a kick, a surge of violence that can be produced instantly and only stopped on the threshold of destroying the other. In the interests of journalism, the American journalist Bill Buford socialized with British hooligans for some time and observed in himself the euphoria that accompanied each transgression, a sense of transcendence that rose to ecstasy, where the individual was completely absorbed into the crowd. “Violence is one of the strongest sensations of pleasure." He described the vast majority of hooligans as what we might call ordinary neighbours.
The second group are the snipers. What makes them transgress boundaries is the lust to kill enemies as defined by the state, the army or the militia to which they belong. Chris Kyle, for example, the best sniper the US army ever produced, officially shot 160 enemy combatants in Iraq, 250 in his opinion, and described killing as his job and the war as his area of work.
“When you kill someone the first time, you’re stirred up. You think: Am I really allowed to kill this guy? Is this OK? But once you kill an enemy, you realize it’s alright. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy cannot kill you and your compatriots. You do it until there’s no one left to kill. "
Chris Kyle became a killing machine employed by the state.
When his marriage was threatened, he returned to the United States. There too, death remained his main topic. He became an alcoholic, was involved in brawls, shot two car thieves, set up a company to train snipers and took care of traumatized veterans by accompanying them to shooting ranges. In February of this year he was shot by one of the traumatized ex-soldiers at a shooting range. Chris Kyle received numerous awards. The nation is proud of him.
The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik represents the third form of transgression. His deed is not marked primarily by the lust for power or the lust to kill but by the ideological justification of an omnipotent action. He bombed the government district of Oslo, killing eight people, and massacred 69 participants of a social-democrat youth camp. He justified this act in a fifteen hundred page manifesto entitled 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. He claimed to represent a Norwegian and European resistance movement and to be a member of the “indigenous population” struggling against the decline of Norway due to uncontrolled immigration policies by liberals and representatives of a multicultural society.
“It is 100 percent certain that there will be a war between nationalists and internationalists in Europe. We, the first militant nationalists, are the first raindrops indicating that a big storm is coming. ... To die as a martyr for his people’s survival is the greatest honour in a man’s life.”
As a single perpetrator Breivik needed a particularly strong ideological justification and defined himself as a martyr who was sacrificing his life for the ethnic community. To do this he needed to distance himself emotionally from his fellow citizens and avoid any kind of interaction for several months, which he spent exclusively playing violent video games.
The same occurs with guerrilla groups. A crucial prerequisite for their deeds is the ideologically justified dehumanization of the potential victims and the transformation of the guerrilla fighters into cold-blooded killers. It is not only permissible to kill the “lackeys of imperialism” but the murders must be carried out in the most cold-blooded manner to be effective. In his Message to the Tricontinental in 1967 Che Guevara declared:
“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”
We tend to underestimate the ongoing existence of violence and the lust for omnipotence. When we talk about recognition we forget the disregard, humiliation and negation of the other and consider this of secondary importance. When we talk about state monopoly on the use of force, we tend to forget that violence still exists, that there are permanent no-go areas and terrorist groups, and that there is violence that is permitted, trained and paid for by the state and violence exercised by our neighbours. Whether legal or illegal – there is an irreconcilable relationship between civilized behaviour at work during the week and violent behaviour on weekends, and between a democratic family father who respects the rule of law in one country and systematically kills in another.
When Arendt searched the origins of totalitarianism she found them in the non-totalitarian modernity (unsolved minority problems, un-political human rights concepts, administrative colonialism, nationalist concepts of politics, etc.) Violence belongs to them. It holds in itself not only the negation of plurality and freedom but also the delusion of the omnipotence.
“Hannah Arendt” the movie by acclaimed Director Margarethe von Trotta, opened in the United States this week at Film Forum in New York. It will begin its national release on June 6th. Around the world the movie has garnered rave reviews and played to excited audiences. Reviews in the U.S. are appearing, including a rave by A.O. Scott in the New York Times.
In reading the many reviews and comments on the film, one trend stands out. This trend is epitomized by Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times last weekend. Kaplan plays umpire and seeks to adjudicate whether Arendt was right or wrong in her controversial judgment of Adolf Eichmann. And like so many others in recent years, Kaplan tries to have it both ways. He writes that Arendt was in general right about the fact that “ordinary people become brutal killers,” but she was wrong about Eichmann. In short, Kaplan claims that Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is right, but Eichmann himself was not banal, he was a monster.
This Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment is now a commonplace. One sees it pop up in reviews of the new film in Europe and here in the U.S. Take, for example, Elke Schmitter, reviewing the film in the German Weekly Der Spiegel. Schmitter likes the film, and writes that von Trotta has “made an extremely vivid cinematic essay, thrilling in its every minute, deeply moving in its seriousness and suitably unsettling.” Yet Schmitter’s review prefigures Kaplan’s in its Janus faced analysis. She points to the interview with Eichmann by Willem Sassen as evidence that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann:
The [Sassen] tapes clearly show that Eichmann was an ardent anti-Semite, incapable of the direct use of force, and yet determined to exterminate the Jewish people. His performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception.
For both Kaplan and Schmitter, the larger truth of Arendt’s thesis that evil emerges from thoughtlessness must not obscure the apparent fact that Eichmann put on an act at trial and deceived Arendt. This view of Eichmann the actor who pulled the wool over Arendt’s eyes has become now the dominant reading of Arendt’s analysis. My colleague and fellow political thinker David Owen agrees with this basic Yes/No thesis. Writing on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog, Owen argues:
And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews.
The Yes and No analysis of Arendt’s argument relies largely on what are now known as the Sassen tapes, based on an interview with Eichmann done by Willem Sassen, a fellow member of the SS who also fled to Buenos Ares. Partial transcripts of the tapes were published in Life Magazine before the Eichmann trial and were read by Arendt, but the tapes and the entire transcript only became available much later. Scholars like David Cesarani, Bettina Stangneth, and Deborah Lipstadt argue that the tapes show Arendt was—through no fault of her own, they usually emphasize to display their magnanimity—wrong in her judgment of Eichmann. It is simply a matter of the emergence of new facts.
This “factual claim” has gotten a free pass. What exactly do the Sassen tapes show? Above all, the tapes show that Adolf Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Here is one quotation that is nearly always referred to and that Kaplan brings forth. Eichmann says: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”
Kaplan actually leaves out an extra sentence between the last two quoted sentences, in which Eichmann adds: “Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist." Leaving out that line is hardly innocent as it establishes the context of Eichmann’s remarks, his claim to general participation in the Nazi thought process.
Critics point to the tapes to show that Eichmann was an anti-Semite. This is nothing new. Everyone knew Eichmann was an anti-Semite. And of course Arendt knew it. There are a few who argue that she denies this and some who go so far to argue that she thought Eichmann was a Zionist, but these are crazed and irresponsible Jeremiads. Arendt scoffed at Eichmann’s self-professed Zionism. She said that he said he was a Zionist and that he claimed he had no animus towards Jews. She did not credit these claims.
The revelation in the tapes is not that Eichmann was anti-Semitic. The claim is that if she had heard the tapes or seen the transcript, she would have been compelled to admit the ferocity of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and thus the fact that his anti-Semitism contributed to his actions to a far greater extent than she believed.
Now this is an important point. Recall that the essence of Arendt’s rarely understood argument about the banality of evil is that evil motivations—that which really drives modern bureaucratic evil—is superficial, not deep. There is, of course, evil that is rooted deeply in hatred, as for example when I out of rage at a colleague who insults me I intentionally stick a dagger into his breast or when a suicide bomber blows himself and civilians up in a café from out of hatred and infinite hope that his actions will change the world. But such crimes, as horrible as they are, are not the true face of evil in the modern world. That face is recognizable in the mass administrative exterminations of innocent people for no justifiable reason other than their race or religion or creed. There are of course reasons for such evil acts, but those reasons have more to do with the internal logic of movements than personal animus. Such evil, she argues, may be initiated by psychopaths, but it is carried out by thoughtless nobodies. Eichmann, as a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of Bureau IV-B-4, the Gestapo division in charge of Jewish Affairs, was such a mid-level bureaucrat.
Now, if Arendt’s critics are correct, we must not only question her analysis of Eichmann, but her more general claims as well. Two scholars who recognize this are S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher. These two psychologists have written an intriguing paper taking on both Arendt and Stanley Milgram. As is well known, Milgram was led by the Eichmann trial to conduct experiments where residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support. For many, Milgram’s experiment is confirmation of Arendt’s banality of evil thesis.
Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.
The importance of Haslam and Reicher’s essay is to take the criticism that Eichmann was actually motivated by anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion. Haslam and Reicher say that Arendt’s portrayal was partial, and like Deborah Lipstadt, they fault Arendt for not staying to the end of the trial. But Arendt poured over the transcripts, and did view much of the trial. It is not at all clear what more viewing of Eichmann would have done to change her mind of his clownishness, an opinion shared by many who did watch the whole trial. But let’s assume that someone who watched the whole trial and heard the tapes came to a different conclusion. Namely, (Haslam and Reicher’s summation of the historical research):
Eichmann was a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his ‘achievements’…. In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do.
Haslam and Reicher argue that if one looks closely at Milgram’s and other related studies, one sees that people do not blindly and mindlessly obey. Some do and others do not. So from these obedience studies, they write,
It is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Rather both studies (and also historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly…. People do great wrong, not because they are unaware of what they are doing but because they consider it to be right.
For Haslam and Reicher, the question is not: why are people thoughtless cogs in bureaucratic machines, but rather, why do people identify with hateful ideologies that allow them to participate in mass excursions of evil? Their point is that if indeed Eichmann committed his crimes because of his virulent anti-Semitism, that suggests that the bureaucrats who participate in great schemes of administrative evil are not simply unthinking nobodies and that Arendt’s overarching thesis about the banality of evil is wrong as well.
Haslam and Reicher have done a great service with their essay insofar as they at least pierce the halo that surrounds Milgram’s conclusions. What they show, and here they agree with Arendt against Milgram, is that human beings are not simply slaves to their situations. Character and thoughtfulness (or thoughtlessness) matter. Human action is not simply behavior. Or, as Arendt writes, in political and moral matters, obedience and support are the same.
At the same time, however, Haslam and Reicher are altogether too sure of their ability to know why Adolf Eichmann acted. Like David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, Bettina Stangneth, and others, they believe that somehow listening to the Eichmann tapes gives them more insight into Eichmann’s true character than Hannah Arendt’s viewing of him on the witness stand for three weeks. There is, it seems, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that Eichmann’s boasts about his importance and his refusal to express regrets in his conversations amongst former Nazis is better evidence of his character than his testimony in Jerusalem.
But why privilege the interviews over the trial? In both the trial and the interviews, Eichmann refused to express regret for what he did. In both, he admitted wanting to carry out his job to the fullest of his abilities. In both he denied murdering or killing anyone. The real difference is that at trial in Jerusalem Eichmann claimed to have wanted to help the Jews and in Argentina he claimed to share the Nazi anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews. Of course, no one in Jerusalem believed his claims of philo-Semitism, least of all Arendt. What she saw and what she argued is that his anti-Semitism alone was not of the type that would lead someone to do what he had done.
To evaluate the factual claim made by Kaplan and his fellow critics, we must also consider the context of the Sassen interviews themselves. Amongst the community of former Nazis in Buenos Aires, Eichmann was different. Many of these Nazis repudiated the final solution, claiming it was Allied propaganda. Eichmann, who had been mentioned frequently in Nuremburg, could confirm or reject that claim. It was thus that Sassen, who was working as a journalist, sought Eichmann out through Eberhard Fritsch, another Nazi who published a German-language journal in Buenos Ares and argued for a new ascent of National Socialism. Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann met for a series of conversations that Sassen taped and used for articles he wrote that appeared in Life Magazine.
Eichmann himself had much to gain from these interviews. The Adolf Eichmann who agreed to be interviewed by Sassen was living as a poor man struggling to support his family. It was a far cry from his position of power and relative wealth in Germany during the War. And if there is one quality of Eichmann that Arendt and her critics can agree upon it is his vanity. Eichmann was, as Arendt noted, quite boastful. He desperately desired to be important and meaningful. Bettina Stangneth saw the same quality in Eichmann: “Eichmann hated being anonymous. He missed power. He wanted to matter again. On some level I think he even enjoyed his trial.” It is far from clear that Eichmann bared his true soul to Willem Sassen.
How to know whether the Eichmann speaking to former Nazis and seeking friends and importance is the truer Eichmann than the Eichmann brought before posterity at the trial in Jerusalem? One can, of course, argue that neither is the true Eichmann, that he would say whatever he thought would endear him to the crowd he was in, but that would simply go to support and confirm Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was a nobody, a joiner. If Eichmann thought that lying about his anti-Semitism would convince anybody, and if he thought that saying he was just obeying orders would help him whereas it hadn’t his predecessors at Nuremburg, he was as thoughtless as Arendt said he was. In any case, there is nothing in the Sassen transcripts that shows Arendt’s factual analysis of the trial to be wrong.
Arendt thought that it was a fact that Eichmann was thoughtless. Listening to his clichés and his boasts and hearing how he worshipped bureaucratic hierarchy, she determined that he had insulated himself from thinking. Her critics, in response, say he was creative and intelligent in carrying out his tasks. He was. He was not stupid, Arendt writes. He was thoughtless. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t anti-Semitic. What she means by thoughtlessness, contrary to much commentary, is not simple.
Arendt’s argument about thoughtlessness is complex and subtle. First, Arendt says that what drove Eichmann to join the SS was not virulent hatred of Jews, but the need of a job and the desire to find meaning in his life. On this point, she and her critics largely agree. As a Nazi officer, Eichmann became a virulent anti-Semite. He adopted the rhetoric and language of those around him, even as he took pride in his ability to work with Jewish leaders. Even such an anti-Semite, however, insisted he did not kill Jews himself. That was important to him. He knew such killing was wrong. While he may indeed have wanted Germany to be free of Jews, and while he may have spoken in favor the killing itself, he knew that gassing Jews was wrong. He was not the kind of psychopath that breathes blood and relishes pulling the trigger. Eichmann describes how he was initially bothered and unsettled by the decision to gas the Jews, but that, over the course of about four weeks, he came to see the transport of Jews not as wrong, but as his legal obligation, one that he took pride in carrying out. In the space of one month, his moral universe around the question of genocide was upended. This is the famous inversion of Eichmann’s conscience that is at the core of Arendt’s argument.
It is this transition from anti-Semite who knows killing innocents is wrong to bloodless bureaucratic executioner who imagines it his conscientious and moral duty to follow the laws and orders by implementing the Final Solution that, Arendt argues, has its source neither in anti-Semitism nor a lack of goodness, but in moral weakness and thoughtlessness. In this sense, thoughtlessness is a willingness to abandon one’s common sense of right and wrong in order to fit in, be part of a movement, and attain success in the world. What thoughtlessness means is a lack of self-reliance, in an Emersonian vein, or, as Arendt puts it, the inability to think for oneself.
At the source of modern thoughtlessness is what Arendt calls the break in tradition that occurs in the modern era. Throughout history people have done wrongs, even great wrongs. But they eventually came to understand the wrongness of those wrongs as against religious, traditional, and customary rules. The rules persisted as rules, even in their breach. The distinction of the modern era and totalitarianism is that the old rules no longer held good. Eichmann and thousands like him in Germany and Soviet Russia were able to see bureaucratic genocide as lawful and right. They could only do so by abandoning their moral sense to the conventional wisdom of those around them. This is what Arendt means by thoughtlessness. The core of Arendt’s argument is that while anti-Semitism can explain hatred of the Jews and even pogroms and murdering of Jews, it cannot explain the motivation behind generally normal people putting aside their moral revulsion to murder and genocide and acting conscientiously to wipe out a race of human beings.
It is very possible that Arendt is wrong or that her argument is overstated. It may be as Haslam and Reicher argue that such action is motivated out of hatred and ideology. But all who think that should read Arendt’s book and see Margarethe von Trotta’s movie and look at the simplicity and clownishness and pettiness of Adolf Eichmann—and decide for themselves.
The question we who confront her text should ask is not, “is she right or wrong.” Rather, we should seek with her to understand how it is possible for Eichmann and people like him to have done what he did. If Arendt is wrong about Eichmann, than her thesis that thoughtlessness is the motivation for modern evil is questionable as well.
We must be honest: the hypothesis that "she was right in general, but wrong about Eichmann" is contradictory. If she was right and mechanized evil is only possible with bureaucratic thoughtlessness, then how can Eichmann not be bureaucratically thoughtless? Why do we insist on making him a monster? The answer is that we still don't fully accept her argument that Eichmann transformed from a normal anti-Semite with a moral sense into someone for whom morality meant following the law requiring him to destroy Jews. In denying Eichmann’s normality we still need to make him into a monster and thus refuse to confront—and also to resist— the dangerous truth Arendt is seeking to make visible.
As you prepare to see Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” do some reading. For one, read my review of the movie in The Paris Review and A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. Also read Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times. I suggest as well David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann. And then read S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher’s “Questioning the Banality of Evil.” Finally, check out the Arendt Center’s collection of Reviews of the film here. Best of all, of course, re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself. There is a lot to get through here, but take your tablet to the beach. You have a lot to get through for your weekend read.
Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.
Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.
But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.
Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.
I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:
The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.
New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."
The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:
However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.
Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?
The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.
At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.
What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.
Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?
For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.
When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment. Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power. Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.
It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.
Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:
First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?
Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.
“Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.”
It may be the twinkle in the eye when a light flashes in the student’s mind, or the subtle rise of the head as insight hits, or a purposeful nod as veils of darkness flutter amidst a gust of comprehension. These moments are transformative for students. They also give meaning and hope to those who teach. However we make sense of the art and experience of teaching others, the student teacher connection is a noble and quintessentially human experience.
Philip Roth offers this paean to teachers in general and to his high school homeroom teacher Doctor Bob Lowenstein in particular: “The tang of the real permeated his talk. Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.” Roth experienced the transformative impulse even though he never actually studied a particular subject with Doc Lowenstein. The future novelist learned neither French nor Proust from his mentor. Rather, in the persona of Lowenstein, Roth saw someone who opened a world. Lowenstein was “unassumingly in possession of a Ph.D., and what was recognizable even to a 12-year-old was that this was a formidable man who did not gladly suffer fools.” The true teachers are those with the force of authority—those whose courage and generosity transport us from out of our private concerns into the shared world of ideas and the common good. It is no accident that Hannah Arendt insists that educators study not teaching, but their subject matter—for the key to teaching is unassuming possession of authority, which results from mastery rather than skill.
I wrote awhile back about Leon Wieseltier’s swoon over teachers, part of his jeremiad against homeschooling and unschooling. We need such remembrances of the power of pedagogy ever more these days, especially as educators around the land are prostrating themselves before the coming age of online education. I have defended the use of online resources to achieve certain goals and as a useful tool in education. But let us not commit a sin against teachers and students alike by confusing the usefulness of online tools with the oxymoronic idea of online education.
Roth’s eulogy was published in the Sunday New York Times. One of the advantages of perusing the Sunday paper in its endangered pulpish format is that Roth’s encomium straddles the top of two page above the jump from an essay by A.J. Jacobs on the advantages and disadvantages of online education. “I learned many fascinating things while taking a series of free online college courses,” Jacobs writes.
But the first thing I learned? When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses, like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and EdX, you can forget about the Socratic method. The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.
Many defenders of physical on-site college education will take solace from Jacob’s essay. That would be a mistake, at least in part. And this is not only because MOOCs will get better.
The importance of Jacob’s critique of online teaching is that it applies equally to the vast majority of reality-based college courses in the United States, courses in which 100s and even 1,000s of students sit faceless in large lecture halls taking notes before a professor with whom they will never speak. The reason that MOOCs are causing such excitement is not that they offer the potential for a great or even a good education. Rather, MOOCs promise to provide the same poor educational experience currently offered at large universities around the country for a fraction of the cost in time and money.
Massive Open Online Courses will improve. There will be more and less expensive varieties. Some courses will offer well-staffed online forums with barely-paid facilitators—the sad future for the vast majority of those now pursuing Ph.Ds. These courses will replace the large lectures that now dominate the curriculum at universities around the country—this is already happening. The best universities will adapt, accepting MOOC credit and using this an opportunity to allow students to graduate more quickly and to pursue more advanced and more personalized work in smaller classes with professors more adept at teaching inspiration than in conveying knowledge. Most will gradually cease to be universities and morph into glorified brands offering accredited degrees that certify graduates as employable.
In short, for those of us who care deeply about teaching, MOOCs should be welcomed. By highlighting the gulf between the transmission of knowledge and education, MOOCs may, and should, return the luster to the calling of teaching. We are poised for a renaissance in teaching, one that will reemphasize the gulf between certification and transformation.