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.
"[T]here is another even more cogent reason for [the layman] concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis—which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices—to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…"
-Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education"
It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis,” or weiji, means a combination of “danger” and “opportunity,” and every so often the trope appears in the highest echelons of American politics. Linguist Benjamin Zimmer cites its frequent use by John F. Kennedy in speeches leading into the 1960 presidential election; and more recently, Al Gore in 2006-7 used weiji to anchor both his Congressional testimony on the problem of climate change, and his Vanity Fair article (“The Moment of Truth”) concerning the same. During her January 2007 trip to the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters of conditions in the region, "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity…And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."
This use of weiji has irked some linguists. Zimmer calls Gore’s Chinese riff a “linguistic canard” and writes that in all these cases, “[T]he trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action.” Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, identifies a “fatal” error of interpretation that centers on the second character, ji, which rather than “opportunity,” here means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, “A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.”
To those still seeking New Age wisdom in the danger/opportunity coupling, Mair points to the old Greek usage. Modern “crisis” stems from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, decide, or judge. The word reached Middle English in the 15th century via Latin, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that by mid-16th century it meant judgment related specifically to sickness and the sudden change of disease (The Online Etymology Dictionary cites Hippocrates using krinein in the same way.). Soon thereafter it referred more generally to “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point,” as well as judgment or decision simply, and “A point by which to judge; a criterion; token; sign.”
In moments of crisis the important connection between “danger” and “opportunity” centers on their common source in a disruption of normal order, a disruption that entails instability and volatility, but also openings to previously precluded or unimagined possibilities for action. The moment of crisis is transient, and in political matters the statesman’s virtue is two-fold—not only to manage (or “seize”) a crisis situation, but also to recognize the situation when it arises (See Lenin, “The Crisis Has Matured,” September 29, 1917) or foresee its coming. By recognizing a crisis for what it is—a moment of decision—we can wrest the decision to ourselves.
Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” seems to offer a different understanding of social and political crisis—one less concerned with critical moments and more concerned with the “elemental structures” of modernity that “crystallize” over time and manifest today in a variety of ways. The essay starts by observing that “The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms.” In America the general crisis has assumed the form of “the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude[.]” This introduces a recurring theme in the essay, that while examining a particular political crisis in America, the essay is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about “a more general crisis and instability in modern society.”
This more general crisis is the modern crisis of authority that is “closely connected with the crisis of tradition…the crisis in our attitude towards the realm of the past.” Seeing how this bears on the crisis of education requires examining “whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.” At the same time, Arendt writes, “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” a world that, because it is made by mortals, “runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.” And thus—because the essence of education is natality, and the “newcomers” need a world in which to live and act, but the world in which we live and act constantly “is or is becoming out of joint”—the problem of education concerns how to stabilize this world for the “newcomers” without also stifling their capacity to renew or even drastically alter it: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” Arendt writes, “education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world[.]”
Here the crisis of modernity and education converge—for the process of giving students a world has historically relied on the authority of tradition and the past. But if these authorities can no longer be relied upon, then what remains? Stunningly, Arendt locates a new authority for modern conditions in the teacher’s “assumption of responsibility for that world.”
Arendt’s account of the American crisis of education illustrates the connection between local political crises around the world and a larger civilizational crisis. Indeed, a central goal of “The Crisis in Education” is to highlight the blind spots in understanding that result when one regards “a local phenomenon” like the crisis of education as “unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States” (as for example its history of “continuous immigration”). To localize such problems is tempting because “However clearly a general problem may present itself in a crisis, it is nevertheless impossible ever to isolate completely the universal element from the concrete and specific circumstances in which it makes its appearance.” But while “There is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected”— “It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false” (emphasis added).
This false belief prevents us from, among other things, ascertaining “which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves” (in a local crisis)—that is, “the true reasons that for decades things could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense.” And events continue in this manner due in part to the illusion that situation-specific and/or scientific solutions, which may (or may not) satisfactorily solve local problems in the short term, actually touch upon the heart of the matter. The illusion manifests in “repeat performance” of the crisis, “though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.” Arendt’s criticism of the futility of pragmatist pedagogy in addressing the crisis of authority in the classroom represents a case in point.
In recent months and years, few words have achieved more prominence in Washington politics than crisis. As recently as February 3, President Obama said in a CBS interview that “Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis.” And following the latest inconclusive negotiations over the country’s fiscal situation and looming (depending on who you ask) “debt crisis,” a recent article in the Huffington Post bemoans the “pattern of a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis” that has become “all too familiar—and predictable. The trend goes something like this: As a deadline approaches, Republicans repeat their calls for spending cuts. Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking. A short-term agreement is then reached that averts economic calamity, but ultimately kicks the can down the road for yet another fight.”
What does it mean for a Congress to routinely “govern from crisis to crisis”? Does “governing by crisis” constitute functioning politics, or a political crisis of the first order? In The Crisis in Education Arendt writes that “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” and allows one “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” But to state the obvious, if “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” then such tearing and obliteration requires that “the very fact of crisis” be recognized and acknowledged. In the current governing crisis in Washington, what fundamentally new, to say nothing of unprejudiced, questions—other than how Washington’s two parties will “compromise” and avoid self-destruction—have been asked? Who has spoken seriously, truthfully, and critically, in an effort to lay bare the essence of the matter?
At a time when happenings in Washington “could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense” (How else are we to understand “governing by crisis”?), Hannah Arendt reminds us to seek out and overcome those “prejudices” and “preformed judgments”—including the obligatory moves to technocratic and ideological narratives—that preclude the introduction of new questions and corresponding answers that require direct and original judgments and, perhaps most importantly, thinking and responsibility. Counterintuitively, in such situations Arendt highlights the importance of questions rather than solutions in confronting political crisis—that the proper response to crisis requires thinking rather than knowledge. To narrowly search for efficient policy “solutions” or ideological “compromises” based on prior prejudices simply misses the point.
If crisis does not seem especially urgent to Arendt in “The Crisis on Education,” she does warn that, in the end, “unreflective perseverance…can only…lead to ruin.” Ironically, one of the prejudiced assumptions that seems most prevalent in Congress today—that abandoning one’s prejudices and preformed judgments spells political death—may be most indicative of our current political crisis.–—And yet if, as Arendt suggests on more than one occasion, one answer to the modern crisis of authority lies in the “assumption of responsibility”—be it responsibility for the world in the classroom, responsibility for extraordinary action in politics (Arendt once attributed Lenin’s revolutionary authority to his singular willingness to “assume responsibility for the revolution after it happened.”), or even responsibility for truthful speech (as opposed to “mere talk”) and action in normal, everyday politics—then notwithstanding whatever the American crisis is, whoever has the courage to speak truthfully and accept political responsibility may wake up to find real power and opportunity suddenly within his grasp.
"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."
Hannah Arendt, On Violence
The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons. Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012: the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.
Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,
the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.
LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One. But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.
That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers. And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals how to use firearms.
Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.
Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power. Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.
American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All. And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.
In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.
In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.
In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence. And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.
The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.
Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.
Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally. Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.
Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.
While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.
In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.
I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:
The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.
Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.
We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.
There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.
“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”
I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.
What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.
First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.
Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.
Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.
Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.
My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:
Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.
The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.
Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.
Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.
First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.
Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.
Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.
“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, "A Crisis in Education"
Teachers must lead their students into the world. They are qualified to do so because of their knowledge of the world as well as their ability to teach others that knowledge. There is an inherent conservatism enmeshed in the activity of teaching. That conservatism comes from simultaneously needing to protect children who are learning care for the world from being damaged by it and from needing to protect the world from representation by the child who does not yet understand it.
The culture wars have resulted from the loss of a unitary cultural world that serves as an authority for tradition. This loss of authority is often taken for an inability to teach now that (in the case of The United States) the western tradition is not seen as the only measure of educational truth. Nonetheless, we can still know a world that is, for lack of a better word, post-modern, and teachers can still represent that world to students. The complexity of our world is that it does not share a single culture or tradition and that the authority of the public realm, which rested on these things, is gone. But simply because our world is not tethered to a single idea (such as the polis of Ancient Greece) or to the cultural authority of one city (such as the Roman Empire’s ties to Rome), does not mean we are unable to represent it to students.
To represent the world, though, we have to understand it, in the old sense of standing in for the world—of being its representative. If the world is the world of things, then the teacher who understands the world is the one who can bring it before students for them to learn it. This process of understanding is “loving the world” according to Arendt.
A few weeks ago, Roger Berkowitz discussed another Arendt quote from “A Crisis in Education” in which Arendt equates the process of education to loving the world. In that post, Roger wrote that as teachers we must exclude our judgments of non-reconciliation (e.g. Arendt’s choice to condemn Eichmann to death so that the world no longer contains something that we cannot love) in the process of education because those moments are not about loving the world, but about shaping it or acting in it. The process of education must be protected from these kinds of judgments because they are different modes of being human. In the same way that we cannot think and will at the same time, we cannot divide ourselves from the world while trying to represent it to students. Judging is a different task from understanding.
The authority of teachers lies, at least in part, in their ability to understand and to set aside judging. That is, teachers have a special authorial role in presenting the world to students.
We may have lost the permanence and reliability of the world as a singular, recognizable culture, but this is not the same thing as the loss of the world. We still have the “human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us,” as Arendt writes in “What is Authority?” Teachers, qualified teachers, use this human capacity for preserving the world to show students how the world works, so that students may graduate and take their place in the world.
Taking up the activity of caring for the world belongs to all adults, but the task of representing the world belongs uniquely to teachers as a kind of authorship. Authority here has two senses, the first underwritten by the second: First, the teacher’s authority comes from the sense of a right conferred by their recognized social position. Second, this social authority is underwritten by the teacher’s authority as a qualified author: Teachers create a work or a set of plans that is then read or built by others. This combined educational authority is the authority of the teacher.
By representing the world to students in its richness (that of all adult inhabitants) the teacher preserves the world for its future adults by showing it to students as it is. The key is to present the world in such a way that it is both true to the teacher’s expertise and yet still recognizable to the students as having a place for them. This requires a careful balance between the teacher’s expertise and the students’ newness. This way of representing the world is a creative act that enables students to end their education and care for the world in the new ways that they create.
Not all people can manage this balance. Arendt acknowledges that teachers can teach without learning and students can learn without becoming educated. The teacher must have expertise to offer and the student must be willing and able to learn.
But when it comes to reform, however, Arendt insists tha neither of these things can be judged well from outside of the educational process itself. She suggests that subject experts and teaching experts can best judge the process of education. This may sound self-serving as those with the most at stake in education are the ones who should monitor its progress. But to think otherwise is to misunderstand Arendt’s feeling that decisions that stand outside of the realm of politics should be made by experts.
For Arendt, this is a conceptual distinction between the realm of democratic politics in which decisions about government are made by citizens and the realm of social policy in which non-political decisions are made by experts in their respective fields. Teachers are the experts who know the world well enough to represent it to students. Excellent teachers are the ones who need to monitor the process of education. Nonetheless, expertise is not the same thing as authority in this case.
There are few more contentious issues in thinking about education today than the place of technology in the classroom. For all of us parents struggling to figure out how to respond to the inevitable request from our children to use the ipad or the iphone—to play Brainquest, of course—there is an obvious trade off: No doubt, our kids learn math and reading with the ipad. And yet, there is something that seems wrong as they spend more and more time in front of the screen, interacting with a machine instead of with other human beings. As efficient and productive as that machine is at teaching, it thinks and acts like the electronic circuits that it is. As parents, we can't help but worry what is lost as our children spend an increasing amount of time engaged with machines—even educational machines.
For those of us who are teachers, there are similar trade offs. I wrote about one last weekend in my essay on the flipped classroom. I made it clear that there were many reasons to like the flipped classroom, and not only because it offered enormous cost savings. The main reason is that it frees the classroom up for advanced discussion, the clarification of uncertainties, and teacher-student engagement. A good seminar is based on the discussion of a book that all students have read. Now imagine that prior to the seminar the students have both read the book and watched a lecture by the professor on the book. They may even be able, in addition, to answer study questions about the book and the lecture. By the time they attend class, they are ready for a real engagement.
In an excellent comment on my post, Steven Tatum makes a strong case for the advantages of the flipped classroom. He writes that the flipped classroom would
look much more like a collaboration between students and teachers than a knowing teacher giving information about the past to passive students. We could turn to Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blucher, as an example of such a teacher. He saw teachers as “more experienced collaborators” who are engaged in the same thought process as their students: “[the teacher] must think together with his students and work out with them the problems of vital concern to the modern personality. He must place himself together with his students right into the midst of the situation which the modern world has created for man.” This situation is the loss of tradition and authority – and in the classroom, the teacher has to be a model for the kind of re-reading of the past that such times call for. This is undoubtedly the goal of an Arendtian education – to create the kind of independent and engaged thinkers that [Roger Berkowitz] talked about [in his original post]. How could we expect students to practice this kind of thinking if they don’t see their teachers practicing it too?
I do agree with Steven's citation from Blücher that a teacher "must place himself together with his students right into the midst of the situation which the modern world has created for man.” Any good teacher in a regular or a flipped classroom must reconcile him- or herself to the reality of our world, which includes the loss of tradition and political authority. That I find indisputable.
But there is a difference between reconciling oneself to the loss of political authority and reconciling oneself to the loss of authority in the parent-child or teacher-child relationship. Indeed, Arendt writes "The Crisis in Education" to counter the crisis in education. In doing so, she takes an approach that is deeply unpopular today, but is consistent throughout her work. In many essays—"Reflections on Little Rock," "Truth and Politics," "On Violence," and "The Crisis in Education"—Arendt insists that education not be seen is part of the public or political realm. Nor is education in the social realm. It is part of the private realm.
The importance of the private realm is core to Arendt's thinking about politics. It is in private that the child is free, with their parent or teacher, to grow into the person they are. The desire to mold or Americanize or normalize students in school is, for Arendt, an affront to the plurality of persons and the basic principle of individual uniqueness. She is not afraid of allowing some children to grow up in families or in schools that are racist or antisemitic or homophobic. This of course does not mean she is racist; it means only that her respect for plurality reaches even to her respect for individual prejudices.
Arendt is willing to accept prejudicial persons in the world, but only so long as those persons limit their prejudices to the private and the social realms. In the political realm, all persons must accept the fundamental political principle of equality. But we can only have a vibrant political realm in which plural persons talk and act in public when those people have grown up in a private realm, sheltered from the normalization of the social and the glare of the public, so that they have strong opinions and prejudices, precisely what makes them plural and different.
The private realm is and must be shielded from the public realm. "Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness." Children need a "place of security where they can grow." The political realm of equality, in turn, depends on a vibrant private realm of uniqueness and real difference. There are many reasons for this. One, which Arendt explores in "Truth and Politics," is that the public realm is the realm of opinion and makes no room for truth. Truth depends on the authority of the truthteller, someone who must be outside the political realm. One common place for the emergence of truthtellers is the university, a non-political space in which truth can emerge that is then essential for politics. Such truth is never prospective, but always turned toward the past. Which is why it is "the function of the school to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living." Arendt insists that educating citizens to be good citizens is something fully different from teaching them to be citizens. It is, instead, introducing them to the truth of the world as it presently is.
Arendt insists—against what she calls the "illusion" that public schools "serve to Americanize" children—that the "true situation" is that "children are introduced, even in America, [into] an old world, that is, a pre-existing world, constructed by the living and the dead." This is not a world of equality, but a world of prejudice and difference. It is not a homogeneous world of civic equality, but a plural world of private prejudices. It is a world of discrimination, inequality, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, consumerism, nihilism, and loneliness. It is also a world of opportunity, liberty, freedom of speech, plenty, individualism, globalization, travel, and self-actualization. School is not, for Arendt, a means by which "a new world is being built through the education of children." It is, rather, a means to introduce people to the old world, the present world, as it is.
All of this is to say that while a teacher today must recognize and accept the world in which we live as a world without authority and tradition, the teacher cannot accept such a loss of authority in the classroom. We may, Arendt writes, "remove authority from political and public life." But we cannot do so in education. She writes:
"In education, on the contrary, there can be no such ambiguity in regard to the present-day loss of authority. Children cannot throw off educational authority as though they were in a position of oppression by an adult majority."
It is of course true that "the more radical the distrust of authority becomes in the public sphere, the greater the probability naturally becomes that the private sphere will not remain inviolate." But Arendt does not conclude from this that we must reconcile to the loss of authority in private education. On the contrary, she doubly insists that "education must be conservative." She writes that "conservation... is the essence of educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new." Education, she insists, must preserve the newness newcomers and children by teaching them the old, what the world is, and leaving to the children the task of revolution and renewal.
Steven writes in his comment that when Arendt
calls on teachers to teach “the world as it is,” she is insisting that teachers have the responsibility to make judgments about what should be taught, what elements of the past are worth learning about. The progressive educators she criticizes are the ones who a) think it should be up to the students to decide what’s worth learning (which often leads to education in “the art of living,” that is, practical training) and b) present the world as it could be, interpreting it for their students instead of presenting it as it is. Teachers make these decisions before they step into the classroom.
I agree fully with that. What I questioned in my post was the possibility, and it seems the reality according to the article about MIT that I cited, that the flipped classroom would dilute the teacher's responsibility to make judgments about what will be taught. This is the crux of what I was trying to point out in my post.
If teachers don't "teach" in the classroom but do so online, they may still tell people what to read or give a online lecture, but the reading and lecture are now read and digested by students on their own schedule, at their own time. Students can read a book half asleep. They can watch a lecture at 1.5 speed, fast-forwarding when they want, or while they are checking their email. The point is that the flipped classroom removes the performance of the teacher as an authority in the classroom. By diffusing the connection between teacher and student, by taking away the experience of being in the same room, by removing eye contact and physical interaction, by putting the teacher at the mercy of the student's fast forward, pause, and delete buttons, the video lecture empowers the student and dis-empowers the teacher and professor. The students can, precisely, increasingly decide what is worth learning, as Steven writes above about progressive educators. Above all, education becomes less and less a process of personal interaction and more an avenue of knowledge distribution.
Heinrich Blücher was renowned as a brilliant lecturer and teacher. He enraptured students. Inspired them. And yet, to read transcripts of his lectures or to listen to recordings of them now is to be struck by how unclear and unpersuasive they are as written texts. This does not mean they were bad lectures, but it does point to the power of personal presence and individual interaction in education. There is no doubt that the video lecture in a flipped classroom will sacrifice that experience.
Steven is right, that Arendt is less interested in pedagogy than in the fact that teachers have authority—by which she means that the teacher, not the student, guides and controls the educational experience. It is possible, of course, that in a flipped classroom the teacher facilitators in the classroom will remain respected figures who can push and challenge students to see uncomfortable and challenging truths about the world they share. But this is unlikely. Empowered, it is most likely that students will increasingly drive the classes. These courses will be judged by how popular they are and syllabi and lectures will be held to the metrics of "Like" and "Number of Eyeballs." This is already happening to some extent through the dominance of student teacher evaluation forms; but these forms still have limited power. That will no longer be the case in the flipped classroom, where the consumer will be King. This is, of course, not a revolution so much as a continuation of a longstanding trend. Which does not make it any less worrisome.
For those of us who care about education, at either the college or high school level, there is nothing more exciting and terrifying today than the promise of the use of technology in teaching. At this moment, numerous companies around the country are working with high schools and colleges to create online courses, tutorials, and webinars that will be able to provide training and information to millions of people around the world. In fact, I just took a webinar today, required by the New York Council for the Humanities, a mandatory course that was supposed to train me to facilitate a Community Conversation on democracy that will be held next week at the Arendt Center.
Many of these web-based courses are offered free. They will be taught by leading experts who teach at the best universities in the world. And they will be available to anyone in any country of any income with a computer. The possibilities and potential benefits of such courses are extraordinary. And yet, as with any great new technology, these courses are also dangerous.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes Tony Hyun Kim, a MIT graduate who moved to Mongolia and spent three months tutoring and teaching local high school students as they took a course in circuits-and-electronics class, a class that is usually taken by MIT sophomores. The class offered free online by edX, a consortium of MIT and Harvard, uses video and interactive exercises and is available to anyone who signs up. What Mr. Kim did is use this advanced course taught by MIT professors as a basic resource for his high school students in Mongolia. He then helped the young students to take the course. Twelve of his students passed the course and earned a certificate of completion. "One 15-year-old, Battushig, aced the course, one of 320 out of students worldwide to do so." According to the Chronicle:
The adventure made the young MIT graduate one of the first to blend edX's content with face-to-face teaching. His hybrid model is one that many American students may experience as edX presses one of its toughest goals: to reimagine campus learning. EdX ended up hiring Mr. Kim, who hopes to start a related project at the university level in Mongolia.
What is now being called the "flipped classroom"—authoritative professors lecture thousands or hundreds of thousands in their dorm rooms while young facilitators then meet with students physically in classrooms—has enormous consequences for education around the world and also in the United States.
Currently, every university hires Ph.D.s as professors to teach courses and high schools hire teachers. These professors and teachers teach their own courses, set their curriculum, and are responsible for creating an educational environment. Often they are large lectures or poor classes in which students learn very little. Sometimes at research universities the professors have graduate students who spend time with the undergrads while professors do their own work. Often these graduate students in turn care less about teaching than their own research, leaving poor undergraduates to fend for themselves. In most instances, large lecture courses provide students with painfully little personal attention, the kind of one on one or small group interaction in which real education happens. What is more, these courses are expensive, since the universities subsidize the research and training of the professors.
Now imagine that community colleges and even large universities embrace the flipped classroom? Why not have students take a course from edX or Coursera, another similar service. The course is free. The college or university could then hire facilitators like Mr. Kim to work one on one with students. These facilitators can be cheap. They may even be free. As the Chronicle reports, Harvard professors E. Francis Cook Jr. and Marcello Pagano are working to mobilize a crowd of volunteers to help teach their courses.
The veteran professors will teach a class on epidemiology and biostatistics this fall, one of Harvard's first on edX. Details are still being worked out, but they hope to entice alumni to participate, possibly by moderating online forums or, for those based abroad, leading discussions for local students. Mr. Cook sees those graduates as an "untapped resource. We draw people into this program who want to improve the health of the world," he says. "I'm hoping we'll get a huge buy-in from our alums."
There will be many young people who will volunteer to facilitate such courses. In return they will learn something. They will meet smart young potential employees and recruit them to work in their business ventures. And they will do a service to their alma maters. This enlistment of free labor to help with online learning is already happening. And it will upend the teaching profession at all levels, just as star doctors at major hospitals will increasingly diagnose hundreds of patients a day from their offices while assistants around the world simply follow their instructions.
Will the new educational regime offer a better education for the students? In some cases yes. There are unmistakable advantages both in cost and maybe even in quality that such flipped courses offer. But there is also a profound loss of what might be called educational space and, more importantly, educational authority.
If such facilitators are recent college graduates, like Mr. Kim, or if they are Ph.D.s but hired not as professors and thus without the authority of present professors, there is a loss of the very sense of what a university or college is—a space for the transmission of knowledge from scholars and scientists to young citizens. What does it mean to lose the community of professors who currently populate these educational institutions?
And what about when this hollowing out of the professoriate infects elite universities like MIT and Harvard themselves? The Chronicle asks:
One question is how edX might improve elite universities, which are late to the e-learning game. In the spring, MIT tested the edX circuits class with about 20 on-campus students. It was a hit: A majority said they would take another Web class....Another benefit: Students could rewind or fast-forward their professor. Data showed MIT students tended to watch the videos at 1.5 speed, which makes voices sound almost like chipmunks but delivers information more rapidly. "I do want MIT to offer more online education," Ms. LaPenta says.
A hit with students it may be. And they may indeed learn the material and pass the course. But listening to their professor's lectures at 1.5 speed—that is fascinating and frightening. We all are aware of the ways that technology divorces us from the traditional pace of human life. We drive or fly and travel distances in hours that used to take years. We send mail at the speed of the internet. But what will it mean when we speak at 1.5 speed? And speaking is one thing. But teaching and learning?
I have no doubt that studies are being done right now to measure the optimal speeds at which students can listen to lectures and still process the information. Pretty soon students will watch lectures like many of us now watch t.v., on delay so that it can be fast-forwarded, rewound, and sped up. It is one thing to imagine this as useful for individuals who want to learn how to program a computer or fix an engine or publish a book. But to think that our most illustrious liberal arts institutions will adopt the motto of education at the personal speed of the internet is more than simply strange.
Education, writes Hannah Arendt in The Crisis in Education, is predicated on the basic fact that human beings are born into the world. Young people come into the world and, because they are newcomers and uninitiated, need to be educated, which means they must be introduced to the world. Parents do this to some degree in the home, bringing the child from the home into the wider world. But the primary institutions in which children are educated, in which they are led into the world, are schools.
Normally the child is first introduced to the world in school. Now school is by no means the world and must not pretend to be; it is rather the institution we interpose between the private domain of the home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world possible at all.
For Arendt, the key element of education is the authority of the parent, teacher or professor. The teacher takes responsibility for bringing the child into the world, which requires authority:
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.
The authority of the teacher is, at bottom, a matter of his or her willingness to take responsibility for the world. In other words, the teacher must be conservative in the sense that his or her role is to "cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new." The teacher conserves both the world as it is—insofar as he teaches the child what is rather than what should be or what will be—and the child in her newness—by refusing to tell the child what will be or should be, and thus allowing the child the experience of freedom to rebel against the world when and if the time is right.
Arendt's point is that education requires that a child be confronted with the world as it is, not how the student wants it to be. This will often be painful and uncomfortable. It requires authority, and it requires that the student learn to conform to the world. An essential part of education, therefore, is that the student not be in control and that students be led by an external, adult, and respected authority. Which is why, for Arendt, education depends upon the authority of teachers and professors. The idea that our best institutions are imagining an educational present where students spend more and more of their time online where they, and not the professors, control and determine their way of learning does present a threat to education.
Of course, the goal of education is to create independent thinkers. The capstone experience at Bard College, where I teach, and at Amherst College, where I studied, is a senior thesis (at Bard this is mandatory, at Amherst only for honors students). The senior thesis is the transition from education to adulthood and it can be an extraordinary and moving experience. But it is a mistake when students insist—as they often do—on doing too many tutorials or seminars too early in their careers. Students must first learn and such learning requires being led by an authority. Too many students and professors today ignore the importance of authority in education. Technology threatens to feed that already present cultural tendency to free students from their tutelage to professors.
Amongst the myriad of benefits promised by distance learning and the flipped classroom, it is imperative to see where the real dangers and pitfalls lie. The grave danger of the flipped classroom is precisely in the perpetuation of the dominant trend of progressive education that has infiltrated teaching at all levels since Piaget and Dewey. It is the claim that students can and ought to be in charge of their own education.
In freeing students from the classroom, in distancing them further from the authority figure of a professor, in replacing Ph.D.s and professors with lesser trained facilitators, in giving students the power to speed up or slow down the professor's lecture, we are empowering and liberating students and giving them ever more control over their education. This may allow them to learn better or graduate more quickly. It may reduce the cost of college and high school and it may train people better for certain jobs. They may enjoy their education more. But such an education does not teach students what the world is like. It does not insist that they first learn what is before they begin to fashion the world as they want it to be. It comes from a loss of faith in and love for the world as it is, a loss that pervades our society that no longer believes in itself. Such an attitude does not assume responsibility for the world and insist that young people must first learn about the world, at least as the world is now. And it is just such a responsibility that educators must adopt.
The real problem with the rush towards technological education is that is focused interminably on the future. On qualifications for jobs and preparation for what is to come. Education, at least education that might succeed in introducing young people into a common world which they love and treasure, requires a turn towards the past. Just such a turn from the backwards-glancing education of the liberal arts to the forward-thrusting education to prepare students for jobs and careers is the real threat inherent in the present mania for technologically-enhanced pedagogy. Technology is not evil; it can be greatly helpful. But we must first understand why it is we are so desperate for it if we are to integrate it into our world. Otherwise, it will break the world.
Modern secular-liberal sensibilities commonly presume that a fundamental opposition exists between freedom and authority, and they often equate freedom with autonomy of the will. That is, they associate freedom with an individual’s capacity to exercise a form of independent self-governance that does not bow to political dictates, religious injunctions, and other social constraints.
Hannah Arendt takes issue with this conception in her essay “What is Freedom?” Among her other objections, she insists that such a preoccupation with the autonomous will leads us to equate freedom with sovereignty (rather than, as in her argument, with the human penchant for making beginnings and bringing novelty into the world). “Within the conceptual framework of traditional philosophy,” she writes, “it is indeed very difficult to understand how freedom and non-sovereignty can exist together or, to put it another way, how freedom could have been given to men under the condition of non-sovereignty” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 455).
Although Arendt had something somewhat different in mind, her remark aptly addresses many of the issues raised by recent anthropological work on the Islamic revival, including Mayanthi Fernando’s research on pious Muslim women in France. As Fernando relates in “Reconfiguring Freedom,” a 2010 article that appeared in American Ethnologist, many Muslim women regard their piety as an expression of their desire for a full and authentic relationship with God. On the one hand, they assert that they seek this relationship voluntarily and on the basis of their own reasoned convictions, not because it has been imposed on them by imams or male relatives. In this respect, they invoke a sense of personal autonomy that resonates with French secular-liberal sensibilities.
On the other hand, these women regard their pious practices, including their adoption of the headscarf, as the means to realize true ethical selfhood through, rather than against, the authority of the Islamic tradition. In their understanding, veiling and other forms of Islamic devotion are not optional signs of their faith, but necessary and even obligatory modes of cultivating a Muslim subjectivity.
While the believer decides to pray, fast, and veil, she is also guided by authoritative texts and arguments that prescribe the norms to be adopted. In the process, these women “subtly but fundamentally reconfigure secular notions of personal autonomy and modern religiosity such that normative religious authority and inner, individual desire are not constituted by a relationship of opposition, but rather are inextricably linked” (Fernando, p. 26). They thereby challenge the notion that freedom is necessarily located within, and enacted by, a sovereign self.
Significantly, this conception and practice of devotion is largely unintelligible within French law and wider public discourse. French legal thought draws a basic distinction between the believer’s “inner” conscience and the “outward” manifestation of that conscience, and it insists that limitations on the public expression of religious conviction do not fundamentally violate constitutionally guaranteed rights to religious liberty. This distinction was central to the 2004 law that banned the headscarf and other “conspicuous religious signs” in French public schools, but as I have already suggested, many French Muslim women (and men) do not regard their pious practices as merely contingent and dispensable expressions of their religious beliefs.
At the same time, secular-liberal critics of veiling continue to presume that the notion of religious obligation negates any claim that a pious practice is (also) the result of personal desire and decision-making. In this perspective, “individually inspired choices emerge in the absence of authority (religious or otherwise), and religious obligations (or ‘requirements’) are understood as non-autonomous behavior defined and compelled by normative authority” (Fernando, p. 27). Such an understanding fails to acknowledge many Muslim women’s avowal that they are genuinely following their conscience in a manner that aligns with secular-liberal sensibilities. Moreover, in its more pointed formulations, this conception presumes that women who veil limit other (non-veiling) women’s autonomy by effectively pressuring them to conform to authoritative religious norms.
In the face of such entrenched skepticism, many Muslim opponents of the 2004 law have sought to defend veiling as a matter of women’s personal choice and individual freedom. They have also avoided most references to religious obligation for fear of being disqualified from public debate as a “fundamentalist.”
To my mind, the preceding discussion illustrates the ongoing relevance of Arendt’s thought, but it also suggests that we should read her work with care. After all, she contends in her essay “What is Authority?” that the modern world has witnessed the thorough-going breakdown of established forms of religion, tradition, and authority. This claim is not borne out in Fernando’s work: indeed, many French Muslims continue to orient their lives toward a tradition “[handed] down from one generation to the next [through] the testimony of the ancestors, who first had witnessed and created the sacred founding and then augmented it by their authority through the centuries” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 488).
This passage actually refers to the relationship the ancient Romans adopted toward the establishment of Rome and their defining body politic. But the thought relates remarkably well to Muslim understandings of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation as the founding event of Islam as well as its later elaboration in the sunna, hadith, and other bodies of commentary. In the end, the Islamic revival in France and other countries reveals many Muslims’ active commitment to a mode of religious authority that rests, in Arendt’s words, on “an obedience in which men retain their freedom” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 474). Such authority has not dissolved in the crucible of modernity. It has only been resituated and redefined.
In my last blog (June 20, 2012), I highlighted a few scholars’ recent efforts to situate current patterns of African American imprisonment within this country’s longer history of racial conflict and subjugation. More specifically, I focused on some of the central claims in Robert Perkinson’s book Texas Tough (2010), which offers a sharp account of the historical connections between racial hierarchy and mass imprisonment in the Lone Star State and the larger American South. In its broadest outlines, Perkinson’s book contends that incarceration in Texas has, from its very outset, been closely bound up with chattel slavery and its legacies.
This entanglement is perhaps most evident in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced inmate labor, much of which took place—as late as the 1970s—on state-run prison farms that bore a striking resemblance to antebellum plantations. It is also discernible in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century practice of “convict leasing,” which allowed private entrepreneurs to purchase the right to use inmate labor power from the state prison system.
Despite regulations that required the humane treatment of prisoners, convict leasing generated widespread neglect and abuse, and in the early twentieth century it drew the ire not only of many African Americans, but also of white labor leaders, radical farm organizers, and progressive middle-class reformers. This last group launched a concerted campaign to move the state prison system away from punitive revenue-bearing production and toward newer, ostensibly more benevolent forms of rehabilitation. In the second decade of the twentieth century, modernizers in the prison administration implemented a variety of reform measures, including better food and medical care, religious services and reading classes, ten-hour workdays, and even nominal compensation for prison workers (ten cents per diem). In Perkinson’s account, however, these efforts were undermined by vocal opposition from prison personnel and, perhaps counter-intuitively, a surge in inmate dissent and rebellion. This uptick in prisoner discontent in particular prompted administrators and lawmakers to reassert penal authority, and the prison system basically reverted to its former pattern of plantation agriculture and severe discipline.
To be sure, progressive reform campaigns reemerged in Texas in the late 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. They commonly looked for inspiration to similar initiatives in New York (which represented the cutting edge of inmate participation in prison management) and California (which led the way in inmate counseling and the professionalization of prison staff). But they also responded to homegrown scandals, including a spate of self-mutilations among Texas prisoners in the 1940s. In a desperate effort to avoid and/or protest harsh work conditions, unsanitary housing, and guard mistreatment, hundreds of inmates chopped off digits or limbs, injected gasoline into their arms and legs, or severed their Achilles tendons. As Perkinson notes, similar tactics were common in the era of slavery and convict leasing, and prisoners’ recourse to such deliberate violence against the self ultimately drew a more sustained response from the state government than previous reform efforts.
Nevertheless, when a new system of prison management coalesced in the 1950s, it continued to emphasize “work and force” (Perkinson, p. 228) as the central pillars of incarceration, even as it embraced certain forms of rehabilitative programming like church services, formal schooling, vocational training, and after-work programs. This emerging style became known as the “control model,” and it garnered significant praise for Texas in the national press and in professional organizations like the American Correctional Association. As eventually became clear, however, the “control” that this model promoted ultimately rested on a culture of routine repression among prison guards as well as systemic reliance on convict enforcers, or “building tenders.” Since the late nineteenth century, building tenders in Texas prisons had dispensed disciplinary violence against fellow inmates with impunity, and they had enjoyed a variety of unsanctioned privileges, including the prerogative to engage in consensual and non-consensual sex with other prisoners.
In the face of such endemic brutality, a small number of convict activists began to draw on the 1871 Civil Rights Act to sue the state of Texas for violations of their constitutional rights. One of the most prominent activists, David Ruíz, filed a petition in June 1972 that offered a harrowing chronicle of his treatment at the hands of prison staff and building tenders, and a small team of lawyers and judges transformed it into a class action lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, on behalf of the state’s entire inmate population. The presiding district judge ruled in 1980 that the Texas penal system had subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived them of due process of law on a massive scale, and he ordered the state government to undertake sweeping changes. The Ruiz decision effectively ended Texas’s regime of plantation-style prison farming, and it represented the most comprehensive reform order that a federal court had issued to a state penal system up to that point. Drawing on the momentum created by the lawsuit, prison modernizers in the early 1980s lobbied for the redistribution of the state’s inmate population into smaller, less isolated facilities with understated security and extensive links to outside communities.
These reform efforts were (yet again) outweighed, however, by rising crimes rates, the ascendance of the New Right, and a concomitant turn toward “law-and-order” politics on both the state and national level. Texas’s prisoner population increased dramatically as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers passed stiffer sentencing guidelines and curtailed inmates’ eligibility for parole. These trends spurred a massive prison construction boom, but with the collapse of the control model following the Ruiz decision, the new facilities were increasingly structured less like plantations and more like warehouses that emphasized “confinement, separation, and complete architectural control” (Perkinson, p. 315). As violence against both prisoners and guards increased once more, Texas prisons resorted to extended “administrative segregation” (i.e., solitary confinement) and “super segregation” cell blocks in their efforts to contain not just disruptive inmates, but relatively compliant ones as well.
This recent punitive turn in criminal justice has not been restricted to Texas: rates of incarceration and prison construction have increased sharply in most states over the past three decades, as has the proportion of African American and Latino inmates. Meanwhile, the federal government—particularly under former Texas governor George W. Bush—has displayed a striking commitment to expanded law enforcement, extended sentencing, and more frequent recourse to capital punishment. In Perkinson’s analysis, then, the historical arc of American imprisonment has not bent toward the rehabilitative goals championed most forcefully in northern states like New York. Rather, “the northern prison became more southern rather than the other way around…. If northern prisons once gestured toward freedom and southern penal farms toward bondage, the whole Union is in alignment now, pointing back toward the eternal bifurcations of slavery” (Perkinson, pp. 362-363).
This provocative argument raises serious questions about America’s commitment to the granting of ostensibly inalienable rights to all its citizens, and it suggests that race continues to shape how we approach the protection and violation of human dignity. To be sure, there are moments when Perkinson’s claims overstep the limits of his evidence. I am not convinced that the recent proliferation of prisons in Texas and other parts of the South and wider U.S. can be read as a reaction to the end of Jim Crow and the successes of the civil rights movement. I also doubt that the second Bush administration’s conduct in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be traced to the practices of southern slavery and imprisonment as neatly as he suggests. Nevertheless, the heart of Perkinson’s argument skillfully outlines disturbing historical linkages between slavery and incarceration without equating these two forms of domination. In the process, he implies that we may need to rethink the relationship that prisoners, especially prisoners of color, have maintained with American citizenship in both the past and present.
On some occasions, incarcerated people have not merely constituted a recognized exception to juridical norms, which nevertheless enjoys “some kind of human equality,” as Hannah Arendt described criminals in The Origins of Totalitarianism (p. 286). Rather, they have formed a social category whose claim to “retain [their] rights over [their] bodies” (p. 444) has been substantially limited by their exposure to forced labor, sexual degradation, and violence that often has not been subject to public scrutiny and political accountability. This point does not imply that prisoners’ experiences can therefore be conflated with those of slaves, stateless persons, or concentration camp inmates, to name only a few of the dominated groups that concerned Arendt in the Origins. But it does suggest that prisoners’ enjoyment of constitutional and human rights cannot be taken for granted, as she seems to presume. It is still an exaggeration, I think, to say that prison inmates live “outside the pale of the law” (p. 277) in Arendt’s understanding of that phrase. But I would also insist that, in all too many instances, they have resided closer to its margins than we may care to admit.
Polling often confirms the obvious, but sometimes it is important to be faced with the fact. The NY Times does just today when it reports,
Just 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing and three-quarters say the justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal or political views. Approval was as high as 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 approached 50 percent.
The loss of respect for the Court is important. Hannah Arendt understood that the Supreme Court was the only institution in American Democracy that could offer stability and authority to the vagaries of democratic will. The Court is the institution that stands above politics, or at least it used to.
For Arendt, the "great measure of success" of the American experiment in government was the founding of a "new body politic stable enough to survive the onslaught of centuries to come." Arendt writes that the success of American Constitutional Republicanism was secured "the very moment when the Constitution began to be "worshipped." The worship of the Constitution meant that the Court decisions where cloaked in a patina of authority. The Court spoke not for itself, nor for the democratic people, but for the American People constituted as a Republic.
The importance of the Supreme Court was that it lacked power and thus stood outside of politics.
Institutionally, it is lack of power, combined with permanence of office, which signals that the true seat of authority in the American Republic is the Supreme Court. And this authority is exerted in a kind of continuous constitution-making, for the Supreme Court is indeed, in Woodrow Wilson's phrase, 'a kind of Constitutional Assembly in continuous session.
The Court was both a truthteller that stood outside politics and, equally essential, a model of free and reasoned discussion about the core constitutional issues of the day.
The decline of the Supreme Court has a long history. It begins with the innovation of the Justices issuing long and reasoned decisions, something that only becomes common in the early 20th century. The long opinions and multiple dissents pierced the veil of authority and showed the Court to resemble bickering legislatures more than reasonable jurists. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's court-packing scheme further politicized the Court, as did the activism of the Warren Court. But it was only in the 1980s and the bitter confirmation battles along with the litmus tests for judges on issues like abortion and affirmative action that has produced a Court that sees itself as an increasingly politicized body. The Bush v. Gore intervention that decided the 2000 election and most recently the Citizens United decision that made unconstitutional a century-long practice of limiting the influence of money in elections have stripped the Court of its last veneer of authority.
The loss of authority may not be reversible, but nor is it a minor event. How we respond to the loss of the Court's authority—with denial, with an effort to return the Court to its prior glory, with an ever-more partisan and thoughtless politics, or with a concerted effort to create new institutions that will conserve and deepen the sense of who we are as a nation—will go a long way to determining whether the United States' will persist as a beacon of freedom and stability.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's final work, Childism, was published soon after her untimely passing in December of 2011. In the book, Young-Bruehl, a long time psychoanalyst and child advocate, focuses on the pervasive prejudice she feels overshadows many children in our society. Be it abuse, or the modern day phenomenon of helicopter-parenting, she felt these injustices served to demarcate children, marking them as less worthy than adults. The resulting consequences result in unhealthy and damaging parent-children relationships.
Arendt Center intern, Anastasia Blank, is reading Childism and providing us with a chapter by chapter review, highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Her previous posts about the book can be read here. Today, she shares her thoughts and impressions of Chapter 4. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.
Is it fair to harm or neglect a child because of a parent's own anxieties? Many parents struggle with the responsibility of parenting and fear for the type of human being they are raising. These feelings are present in the adult; the child does not implant them there while their parents are sleeping. We can neither deny these feelings nor blame children for them. What, then, is to be done?
In Chapter Four of Childism, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes the way that parents and children often want very different things, a difference that yields a conflict of generations. She writes, “[The] conflict of generations is a conflict over the child's identity. Parents often want, narcissistically, to impose an identity on their children; children want to claim their own identities. The conflict embraces those identities, those the young wanted to assert and those adults wanted to erase.”
Young-Bruehl argues that parenting should be about raising a child who is able to integrate into society. Too often, however, parents resent the way the child is developing and often imagine the child as a rebuke to themselves. Images of children as being rebellious and ungrateful have permeated the thinking of many adults. Such stereotypes play upon a fear of adolescence and a worry that as children reach the brink of adulthood, they inherit power to disobey and reject their parents. The parent challenges rebellious youth, often viewed as possessing a disregard for authority and anti-traditional attitudes.
So how does childism shape one’s thinking in dealing with this fear? Here we must distinguish between adults who are prey to childist thinking and those who are not. Childist adults fear development, so they attempt to stifle it through neglect and abuse. They fear a child’s growth because they expect their children to serve their own needs or conform to their own views, to admire them, to abide by them. This expectation often hits a brick wall come adolescence. Children begin to form their own opinions and put their wants before the approval of their parents. This does not indicate immaturity; this designates a transition into an autonomous self.
Children can simultaneously serve their own needs while abiding to the rules set by adults. However, it is near impossible to have one’s needs fulfilled (be it through one’s self or one’s parent(s)), if they are being repeatedly physically or sexually abused or neglected. This is harmful to a child because it confuses their identity. This confusion is one of the aims of childism. When an adult asserts their power through abuse and/or neglect, the child loses their sense of self because they feel helpless. The child becomes a subject on whom the needs of the adult are projected.
This chapter of Young-Bruehl’s book made a distinction that the previous chapters had been leading up to: childism indicates an immaturity within the adult. A Childist wants to assert his or her ownership over a child. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with a human being owning another human being. Thinking of this sort is terribly skewed and probably results from a lack of incomplete thinking or underdeveloped perspective. Those who believe that they can or should harm a child to fulfill their own wants and needs have obviously not considered the deconstructive implications this will have on a child’s self-image and capability to be a happy and functional adult. Further, Young-Bruehl hopes to clarify that abuse is not limited to physical harm, which she demonstrates with cases of verbal abuse and emotional neglect:
[The abuse] consistently serves one purpose: eliminating or eradicating the child irritant, the source of headaches, the child needing and expecting love, the child viewed as draining away limited material and emotional resources and as refusing to parent the neglector.
In the realm of the family, parents fear the position of their patriarchal or matriarchal “rights.” The child threatens the power of the parent; suddenly one’s self-needs are challenged by the needs of another. In the political realm, those who currently possess power often fear the counter-cultures of the youth and a new wave of opinions that will threaten the current structure.
It is rash to “eliminate the threat.” Children grow up, this fact is inevitable. In whatever way a person yields to childism, be it physical or emotional abuse or neglect, the child subject to prejudice will still grow up. It is the adults’ responsibility to nurture growth, not stunt it. The greatest gift a child can receive is hope. Hope for the future, hope that they will figure out who they want to be, hope that they will be happy. Sure, an adult can eliminate this hope and belittle the child’s selfhood, but this merely breeds confusion. It is not a child’s goal to “take down” their parents, as often as children may interrogate their parent’s motives. Children are growing, learning, testing, and questioning; this is not to be confused with revolt. By “eliminating” the child, adults are just reproducing the shame and insecurity manifest in themselves. Neither the older nor younger generation should fear one another; childism is sadly another reason why they do.
I spent an exciting day at the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology. Along with Matthias Bormuth, Morris Kaplan, and our host Michael Steinman, we enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion centering around Hannah Arendt's essay Truth and Politics, but reaching deep into Arendt's thinking about law and politics as well.
Much of the discussion at our seminar discussed the status of the Supreme Court as a truthteller. Arendt saw the great innovation of the American form of government to be the shift of the seat of authority to the Supreme Court. By authority, Arendt means that pre-political claim of obedience that flows from tradition, religion, or possibly from charisma. In Rome authority was located in the Senate, and the Senators
"held their authority because they represented, or rather reincarnated, the ancestors whose only claim to authority in the body politic was precisely that they had founded it, that they were the 'founding fathers'. Through the Roman Senators, the founders of the city of Rome were present..."
In America, authority was vested in the Supreme Court. The Justices, like the Roman Senators, hold their authority because they had no power themselves, since they "'possessed neither Force nor Will but merely judgment.'" The Justices' authority comes not from power, but from their being linked back to the founders as interpreters of the founding moment, thus as a continuation of the constitutional convention in permanent session.
How the Supreme Court and its justices tie themselves back to the founding moment as reincarnations of the founding fathers partakes, of course, of the mysterious. The initial success of the American Constitution resulted from the founders causing the US Constitution to be worshipped. This worship depended upon and allowed an ambiguity to persist in the sense and understanding of the Constitution, on its becoming both ‘an endurable objective thing’, on the one hand, and yet one that could be approached from many angles and many interpretations. It must be amendable and changeable, and yet impervious to any subjective states of mind or influences of will.
The miracle of the Constitution’s foundational authority – it being worshipped as both a text and a continual reincarnation of the founding revolutionary act – is made possible only by a prior miracle – the miracle of beginning. As Arendt argues throughout her work, all men ‘are equipped for the logically paradoxical task of making a new beginning’. As beginners, we men are uniquely capable of understanding the mysterious way in which a beginning can also rest on ancient and unyielding foundations. Since men are themselves, as part of the human condition, beginners who can and do appear in the world to start things anew – since men are thrown into the world that we must respond to – thus are we uniquely open to the idea of finding in the first and foundational act not only an arbitrary deviation but also an authoritative principle.
For men, therefore, the act of beginning anew is not an arbitrary deviation from the foundation. The foundation is in the past, and yet it remains a forceful part of everyday practice. The beginning, Arendt argues, ‘carries its own principle within itself, or, to be more precise, that beginning and principle, principium and principle, are not only related to each other, but are coeval’. As beginners, men are open to the claim of the beginning and foundation as an origin that carries with itself a principle and thus simultaneously allows for augmentation and conservation.
Arendt's locating of authority in the Supreme Court is part and parcel of her respect for the American Constitution and for federalism. The seat of American freedom is, in Arendt's understanding, the diffusion of powers and the refusal of absolute sovereignty in the American system of government.
It is, I think, worth recalling that the present arguments about the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court concern precisely this question of federalism. If the Court holds the Act unconstitutional, it will be because we live in a constitutional republic defined by the separation of powers including the division of power between a centralized national government and de-centralized state governments. According to this theory, liberty is best protected by diffusing power. The federal government has the right to regulate commerce. But to hold that people who do not purchase health care are engaged in interstate commerce is to say that the government can regulate anything we do, even non-commercial activities, simply by insisting that we buy something and then calling it commerce. By this theory, the act removes any and all limits on federal power and violates the constitutional idea of the diffusion and separation of powers.
I have no idea what Arendt would have thought of the Affordable Care Act. Clearly the Act is both flawed and ambitious, and it carries both much that is good and some that is less so.
But it does seem undeniable that the Affordable Care Act is a significant expansion of governmental power, both the power of the federal government over the states as well as the power of government over individuals. It confirmation would be another step in the long chain of 20th century cases eroding the separation of powers that Arendt held so important a bulwark for human freedom.
As the debate around the Affordable Care Act rages on, and as the judges retire to their chambers to commune with our ancestors, it is well worth your time to revisit Chapter Four of Hannah Arendt's defense of On Revolution. It is your weekend read. Click here to download.
“And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?”
—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”
Within the last two years, nine teenage students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin public school district have committed suicide (and many more have attempted to). The driving force behind this “epidemic” is the persecution, by other children at the district’s middle and high schools, of students perceived to be gay.
The persecution is encouraged by prominent local individuals and organizations, and until recently was allowed to continue by virtue of a school district policy of nonintervention.
That much was reported, in much greater and highly affecting detail, in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s February 2 article in Rolling Stone, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.” The most recent developments were taken up by The New York Times: the federal government has finally intervened in the name of civil rights, forcing the Anoka-Hennepin district to adopt new anti-harassment policies and to agree to five years of monitoring by the departments of Justice and Education.
Setting aside the particular minority group concerned, the immediate question in Anoka in 2012 is the same as in Little Rock in 1957: can a socially unwanted minority be excluded, by a combination of official policy and casual intimidation, from public education? Hannah Arendt’s difficult answer to the Little Rock question (difficult because prejudice had nothing to do with it, and she thus had no common cause with those who answered in the same way) was: yes, because the school is a social space subject to the laws of free association, not a political space subject to the laws of equality. What Arendt insists on is that the government must not “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults … have confessed being unable to solve themselves.” Hence her outrage that the push for desegregation had begun in the schools, rather than where she urgently wanted to see racial equality realized, namely in marriage law. (Would her insistence on the fundamental political right “to marry whom I please” extend to gay marriage? An interesting but tangential question.)
I do not think Arendt would be similarly able to dismiss the situation in Anoka as not politically relevant, because the social conflict playing itself out there is inseparable from a set of political conditions to which Arendt’s own thoughts on government call our urgent attention. In scenes reminiscent of her Origins of Totalitarianism, the public sphere has been so utterly vacated of authority that the social has become the political to dizzying effect, and even the official agents of the government appear as just another social interest group struggling to exercise power on the ground. Local officials act in accordance with whatever group happens to have the upper hand at the moment; the prevailing law is not written down; and in the midst of this, a new tactic of political violence emerges with startling effectiveness.
Children make the ideal agents of this violence, not because they do not realize the violence they are doing—on the contrary—but because, being children, they instinctively know how to carry out this violence against other children, which adults never could, and because they lack the moral impulse to stop it, in other words, the ability to think for themselves. In harrying those of their peers who have been designated as “gay,” they are precisely not thinking for themselves.
They are being cruel, as children will be, but in order for their cruelty to take on the degree of directedness and organization that it has—for it to become conscious of “gays” as a group to be eliminated—adults logically have to be thinking for them. Indeed, the decision to remove homosexuality from the schools came from parents and from the prominent local antigay movement. At first it was merely a decision to remove any talk of homosexuality, to silence anyone who might defend homosexuals. There was no need for the adults in question to envision the violent path things would take from there. There was no conspiracy to speak of. Once the objective of removing “gay influence” was in place, the children themselves knew how best to achieve it; among them, as Erdely documents, there was never any doubt that the object of the game was to force “gay” kids to kill themselves.
Thus a peculiar combination of town hall strategy and schoolyard tactics spontaneously generated a form of organized, fatal violence for which, amazingly, nobody is directly responsible. Besides the parents and the children, the third set of (non)agents in this scenario is of course the school employees. I’d like to focus in on the particular reasons for their inaction, because they reveal the heart of this problem, the baffling failure of authority and of political structure.
The district policy that specifically prevented school staff and teachers from intervening to stop the antigay harassment in school was referred to as a “neutrality policy.” In official language, “neutrality” consisted in the stipulation that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” The vagueness of this language notwithstanding, the real effect of the “neutrality” policy consisted in its becoming an unwritten law. The official language was never published in any official district policy handbook, never conveyed to employees in writing at all; after its adoption, the policy was promulgated purely by word of mouth. This already incredible circumstance allowed the interpretation of the policy to expand even further, to the point where it was understood that adults in the schools were not to mention homosexuality in any context whatsoever, under the threat of losing their jobs. This meant that when confronted with instances of anti-gay harassment, they would reliably err on the side of inaction, out of concern that any action they might take could be held against them.
What governed the teachers’ conduct was thus more rumor than policy, but the enormous influence that the antigay movement wields over the Anoka-Hennepin school board, not to mention the broader local community, meant that the threats were real. The “neutrality” policy was drafted by the antigay movement, submitted to the school board, and adopted with no changes. At no point, then, did elected officials engage in legislating this policy. There are, to be sure, strong ties between the local antigay movement and the region’s congressional representative, Michelle Bachmann, but these ties do not lead through the political structure; they stem from Bachmann’s involvement in private organizations.
This means that a public official had both the motive (sympathy with the antigay movement) and the means (though, I must note, there is no extant allegation that she exercised them in this case; probably, she did not have to) to act upon local school policy as a private, interested party. All the while, the proper local authority over this type of policy—the elected district school board—functioned at every turn not as an independent deliberating and decision-making body but as a symbolic functionary. That they voted, five to one, to accept the recent agreement with the Department of Justice only underscores the total helplessness of their proceedings, since they had also voted to institute the “neutrality” policy in the first place. They merely perceived that for a moment, the Justice Department had the upper hand, and aligned themselves with the temporarily prevailing authority.
In this light, statements such as that of the district superintendent that “[w]e have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues” can be rephrased as: we have no way of deciding between our public duties and the demands placed upon us by private interest groups. In fact, the federal government is perceived in Anoka-Hennepin as just another private interest group, included among the “people on the left.” The reaction to the recent Justice Department settlement was to immediately frame it in terms of the local power struggle: an effort to “abolish conservative moral beliefs,” as a local activist told the Times. This points to another weakness of the government’s intervention: what is the likelihood that a future Department of Justice (perhaps under the administration of a conservative Republican president, say) will decline either to follow up on this agreement or to take similar action should the situation in Minnesota replicate itself elsewhere?
To reiterate: what ultimately allowed political violence to enter the schools was the fact that the teachers declined to intervene, and the teachers did so because if they acted in accordance with their public duty (which would obviously be to protect their students’ physical safety), they risked real retribution at the hands of private groups wielding effective power over them. Faced with a choice between their own financial security and the physical security of their students, teachers tended to prioritize their own interests. This is a perfect concrete instance of the phenomenon of “polycracy” that Greg Moynahan discussed in a recent essay on this site. Polycracy, which Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism, arises when multiple instances of authority place demands on a person to act in multiple different ways, and the person in question is unable to discern which authority has the higher claim on her obedience. In general, when one’s public office calls on one to act in a way that might be damaging to one’s social position, one ought to be able to declare without much hesitation that the public good has the higher claim on one’s obedience. But under conditions of polycracy, such criteria for deciding vanish, replaced in every particular instance by an unspoken calculation of which authority wields de facto power over the others. In Anoka-Hennepin, the power was with the antigay movement. The fact that it has just now shifted to the federal government—where it seems unlikely to remain for long—does not address the underlying vacuum of authority, especially of local authority.
One final remark. The persecution of “gay” students in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was never really about their sexuality as such. Not all of the targeted students were “really” homosexual—as if teenagers’ sexual orientations were that stable to begin with. As Arendt emphasizes in “Little Rock,” a minority group must appear as such within a larger body politic; it is quite literally their perceptible appearance (voice, skin color, etc.) that determines their separate status. What marks so-called “gay” kids as different is obviously not their sexual activity. It is other kinds of behavior: the way they dress, talk, and otherwise express their individuality. The victims of antigay harassment are almost always described in terms that have nothing to do with sexuality as such: they are “sensitive,” “offbeat,” “stylish,” “bookish,” “musical,” etc. These are the attributes that other children use to identify them as targets. I wonder if what antigay movements really want to eliminate from the public sphere is not precisely these qualities, which can be found in individuals of all sexual preferences, and which together point to the more fundamental qualities that Arendt most prized in human beings: individuality and thinking.
Thinking is connected to fundamental human difference and individuality, both in that people differ from each other fundamentally with respect to their way of thinking and in that it is by thinking that we puzzle over and come to grips with everything that distinguishes us from one another. “Gay” behavior was, in this case, a visible expression of original thinking. Truly original thought is always found in a minority of people, and the attempt to make minorities disappear is secretly the attempt to make original thinking disappear.
-Stephen Haswell Todd
Today marks the six month anniversary of our "Quote" of the week feature. We've had many wonderful scholars participate, and the contributing group continues to grow. However, this week we thought we would pause and look back at our very first "Quote" of the week from September 19, 2011. Aptly, Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, provided our first submission and chose a quote seminal to the Center and what we try to do. Enjoy.
What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.
No theme, no word, no action better captures the passion of Hannah Arendt than her insistence that we think what we are doing. The need to think was, as Alfred Kazin has written, an incessant refrain in Arendt's conversations with friends. It was also the force that breathes life into every one of her books.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt's first published book, locates the roots of totalitarian government in loneliness, rootlessness, and thoughtlessness. What is needed, she writes, is not to understand totalitarianism, but to comprehend it, by which she means "the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality—whatever it may be." Only once we admit that in our time "everything is possible," can we confront ourselves and see ourselves honestly for whom we are. And only then can we resist the dangerous reality that is our world.
In 1961, Arendt published a series of essays Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. The theme of these essays is, again, the activity of thinking, the activity that happens in the "gap between past and future."
"Only insofar as [man] thinks... does man in the full actuality of his concrete being live in this gap of time between past and future."
The trouble, Arendt writes, is that few people at any time in history have been equipped to and practiced in the art of thinking. For most of history, the widespread absence of thought was not a problem since the "gap was bridged over by what, since the Romans, we have called tradition." Because tradition, religion, and authority told us how to behave and defined our moral notions of right and wrong, the mass of humanity did not need to think for themselves; and the fact that most people at most times do not think was not a tragedy.
We are the first people in the history of the world who live without tradition and thus without well-worn guideposts that bridge the chasm separating man from his living together with others in a shared world. If tradition is that which hands down a common world into which we are born and educated, the loss of tradition means that we live increasingly without the bannisters that orient us in our living with one another.
Shorn of tradition and deprived of its authority that covers over the gap, the modern age faces the distinctive challenge that "the activity of thought"—once "restricted as an experience to those few who made thinking their primary business"—must now now become "a tangible reality and perplexity for all." In other words,
"[Thinking] has become a fact of political relevance."
Arendt pursued the political relevance of thinking everywhere in her work, but nowhere more doggedly than in her account of Adolf Eichmann. In her engagement with what she saw as Eichmann's thoughtlessness—his banality, his reliance on clichés, and his bureaucratic mentality—she understood that it was his inability to think that enabled his inhuman crimes. It was thus her experience of Eichmann that led Arendt to ask:
"Could the activity of thinking as such be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually 'condition' them against it."
What Arendt demands is that we think; we must, in other words, reconcile ourselves to the fact that in our world we can no longer rely on tradition, morality, or religion to chart our course or guide our actions. Adrift in a world in which everything and anything is possible, thinking is the only activity standing between ourselves and the most heinous of evils.
In The Human Condition, Arendt insisted that we must think what we are doing, by which she meant the thoughtless way that humanity was embracing science, technology, and automation to an extent that threatened the basic conditions of human life. If automation replaces labor, consumption displaces work, and scientific rationality replaces action, thought, and judgment, then the primary activities of human life will, she argues, be sacrificed to the desire for certainty, security, and happiness. Arendt never condemns this tradeoff, but she does insist that we think about what we are doing.
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: politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
But what is democracy? In his essay, "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Jacques Rancière offers one particularly compelling answer, one that is illustrative of the fate of global politics. Democracy, Rancière writes, is most fundamentally a paradoxical politics. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government. It is good government, or a legitimate order, a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. On the other hand, democracy means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people.
The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilize and revolutionize democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order. And democratic government—if it is to remain a government—requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule.
We can of course see this paradoxical essence of democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeatedly emphasized, our democratic government allows protest and individual expression and we must permit the voices of those with whom we disagree. At the same time, Bloomberg argued that democratic government sets limits on those dissenting voices, authorizes regulations upon them, and, eventually, requires that they respect the authority and order of the existing democratic establishment. From this governmental perspective, the messy aspects of personal democracy and democratic individualism—the call to mobilize the people to pursue their plural and discordant interests—is a threat to good democratic government.
Democracy, in Rancière's words, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today. And yet it also insists upon unruly individualism and dissent that must be limited and contained in order to ensure a democratic state.
Beyond the democratic paradox, Rancière argues that true democratic politics is on the side of the messy, individualist, and disruptive aspect of democracy. His word for this is "dissensus," and Rancière insists that "democracy implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs." Democracy, in other words, is the practice of disrupting all statist orders, even democratic state orders. It is an "anarchic principle" and "insofar as it is anarchic it precludes the self-grounding of politics." Politics, democratic politics, modern politics, is unavoidably open and anarchic.
In his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the priority of dissensus, Rancière reflects much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt. Both Rancière and Arendt oppose politics to philosophy, since philosophy trades in truths that shut down politics, which is about opinions. Rancière, as does Arendt, defines politics as a form of action—politics is an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. And if Rancière sees political action as manifesting "dissensus," Arendt insists that political action be spontaneous and capable of beginning something new into the world. Which is why Arendt argues that "the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known before, is about to unfold" is at the very center of modern democratic politics.
The centrality of revolution to Arendt's thought means that "the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide." Because politics is by its nature revolutionary action, Arendt refuses to call it democracy, because democracy is—like all "cracy's"—derived from the Greek kratein, expressing rule and order. Democracy, as majority rule, opposes revolutionary action, and is, therefore, "simply another form of rulership." As does Rancière, Arendt insists that freedom demands that we move beyond democracy as simply a form of government.
Similarities aside, Rancière builds his theory of dissensus in opposition to Hannah Arendt's work. In both "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and "Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?" Rancière explicates his idea of politics as dissensus against Arendt's revolutionary politics.
In "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?", Rancière locates his split with Arendt around her division of the political from the social. In line with many who read Arendt as erecting rigid boundaries between the social, the political and the private, Rancière worries that "Arendt's rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life" sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out. By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the lofty realm of politics, Arendt, pace Rancière, depoliticizes politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices.
Such readings of Arendt make rigid her rich descriptions of the political, social, and private realms; they offer a pale representation of the fire that burns brightly in Arendt's writing. It is common today to imagine that Arendt makes strict distinctions between political and non-political activities, just as it widespread to think that the divisions between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition are impenetrable. Yes Arendt distinguishes the political from the social. But that does not at all mean that economic and social interests are never political. Of course, as Arendt concedes often, some level of social security is part of the political realm. Her point is simply that such social concerns are at odds with freedom, which is the true aim of political action.
In "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Rancière offers a better and more meaningful distinction between himself and Arendt. Here, he makes clear his view that "democracy cannot consist in a set of institutions." Institutions, he argues, mean nothing in themselves. "The reason for this is that one and the same constitution and set of laws can be implemented in opposite ways depending on the sense of the 'common' in which they are framed." Rancière's point is, on one level, obvious. At times, the constitution and the laws are invoked to stifle debate and dissent. At other times they are called upon to enable and further the call for new political institutions. In themselves, the constitution and the laws are not decisive.
But Rancière goes further. Not only are political institutions not decisive in politics, they occupy the field of politics with a claim to legitimacy and thus delimit and shrink "the political stage." By establishing what is constitutional and legal protest and who can protest and who is even a citizen, the institutions of politics limit politics in "a biased way." They police the boundaries and access to politics "in the name of the purity of the political, the universality of the law or the distinction between political universality and social particularity."
In his suspicion of institutions, Rancière does indeed depart from Arendt in a meaningful way. For Arendt, modern politics, as revolutionary politics, means a free and new founding of freedom. What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that "power and freedom belong together."
The genius of the American Revolution in Arendt's telling is that it found what she calls a new experience of power. This American experience of power "was embodied in all institutions of self-government throughout the country." It goes back to the Mayflower Compact drawn up on the ship and signed by the first settlers upon landing, an act that displays their
obvious confidence that they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a 'civil Body Politik' which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise 'in the Presence of God and one another', supposedly was powerful enough to 'enact, constitute, and frame' all necessary laws and instruments of government.
From out of the basic experience of power through mutual action with others, the American colonists developed their institutions of town halls, constitutional conventions, and local government in townships, counties, and states. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."
Unlike Rancière for whom institutions are biased watchmen patrolling the entry into politics, Arendt sees the institutions of self-government as the common world within which plural citizens congregate, talk, and act. Without such institutions, there would be no public space, no commons, in which politics happens. Politics needs not only revolution and dissensus, but also some prior consensus—an acknowledgement of the facts of the political world we are born into. From there one can, and sometimes must, resist and revolt.
Rancière sees all consensus, all that is common, as exclusionary, violent, and apolitical. But the common world itself is not oppressive and anti-political. It is, what it is, and the first requirement of politics is that one reconciles oneself to the world we share with others. That is not giving in to the system, but is, rather, the very possibility of political and revolutionary action.
Rancière's engagement with Arendt is one of the most important in modern political theory. You can read Jacques Rancière's "Does Democracy Mean Something?" here.
I also encourage you to buy the Dissensus, Rancière's book that includes "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and also "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?". Buy it here.
And as a bonus, if you want a different take on the relationship between Arendt and Rancière, you can read Adam Schapp's essay on the topic here.
"From this, it follows that it is futile to search for an absolute to break the vicious circle in which all beginning is inevitably caught, because this ‘absolute’ lies in the very act of beginning itself. In a way, this has always been known, though it was never fully articulated in conceptual thought for the simple reason that beginning itself, prior to the era of revolution, has always been shrouded in mystery and remained an object of speculation. "
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
I have always had the feeling that all of the problems of political legitimacy can be summed up by the above quote. How could political foundation be legitimized, that originary act of an order that pretends to be, in itself, legitimate? This question which in the political science of our time seems proper only to modernity appears in Arendt’s quote as proper to every foundation of an order.
In her work Arendt is particularly careful to distinguish power, and indeed, the origin of power, from authority, and the foundation of authority. What really interests me in this distinction is that at the same time as Arendt highlights that power is reliant on the human capacity to act in concert, she understands that this capacity - in order to contribute to the formation of lasting institutions - needs to in some way find stabilization in an element outside the actuality of power. Although from the earliest ages to the era of modern revolutions this stabilization has longed to settle itself upon an extra-political source, in the latest instance it cannot but be referred to the very human capacity to begin. Thus, it is in the preservation and transmission of the beginning in itself that we find – as in the Roman experience of authority or in the worship of the Constitution in the American Revolution – the only truly political foundation for authority, that is, the only truly political stabilization for the preservation of power which arises from the action of men.
Therefore Arendt tells us that the human capacity of beginning is itself the only source of power, and that absolutes can only vicariously give an answer to the vicious circle of beginning. And yet, she also teaches us that new beginnings rightly long for a source of law from where to derive a lasting authority so as to be able to offer some (instable) stability to a political realm which is built on the pure actuality of human – all too human - power.
"If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with that of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth. The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms."
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Arendt's concluding image in The Origins of Totalitarianism leaves us with a bleak sense of how the mass of lonely and isolated individuals in modern society – the desert –can readily be swept into the "sandstorm" of totalitarianism.
The book sketches the forces that drive this new form of frenetic political motion, as well as the traditional resources that prevented it earlier: the loneliness of the frightened person as opposed to the solitude of the reflective individual; the community of discussion instead of the techniques of "mass movements."
Of the specific principles of totalitarianism that Arendt raises, few are as intriguing as her recasting of what is now termed polycracy [Neumann/ Hüttenberger/ Broszat], the notion that at every level individuals in a totalitarian society found themselves within overlapping systems of bureaucracy and power, unsure which level was of the most import. "All levels of the administrative machine in the Third Reich," she notes as a principal example, "were subject to a curious duplication of offices, with a fantastic thoroughness." At every level of society, individuals were unsure of how to calibrate actions and statements to their context for self-promotion, defense, or simply to be left alone, since there were often two or more overlapping systems of organization defining their position. The average worker, for instance, might be unsure what factor was decisive for their fate: the role of their actual boss, the party connections of colleagues, the intrigues of the secret police, the family connections of acquaintances, or even their role in apparently secondary organizations such as an automobile association. Ultimately, "regular" politics could never pertain, while the politics of the "movement" always had some traction.
The result in Arendt's telling was often a necessary striving beyond proscribed roles to express alignment with the ideals of the party and in the quest for advantage or mere safety. Unlike aspects of her later argument for the "banality of evil," here simply "fitting in" was not enough. In this manner, later scholars have argued, the decisive feature of totalitarian societies was neither the passive "structure" of organization nor the simple "intent" of members, but rather a new middle term created from the ill ease of masses of individuals.
The "conditions under which we exist today" no doubt still include the original possibilities of totalitarianism, but Arendt would also have us ask what has changed, what new aspects of society facilitate or act as windbreaks, so to speak, for such "sandstorms." Earlier windbreaks passively functioned, as Arendt suggests for even relatively dystopian societies such as tyrannies, through the exercise of clear lines of authority, the existence of an active private sphere of life, and the possible formation of a discursive community of individuals, even if only in small groups.
At first glance, the new social technologies credited in recent uprisings and protests suggest a strengthening of these windbreaks by giving voice to critiques of incompetent and unjust administration, the solitary opposition of conscience, and, perhaps most decisively, the possibility of organizing coordinated discussion and action on wide scales. Yet, apace with these changes there are also darker transformations allowed by vast increases in computing memory and power that make tracking information and people on social media progressively easier. In repressive societies this is already occurring through the aggregation of past communications, the profiling of individuals, and guilt by association with members of one's social orbit.
By definition secret, statistical, and yet deeply connected with personal preference and affiliations, the aggregation of data concerning the individual in the context of social networking presents a real potential for abuse by any number of outside powers. Although most apparent in directly repressive societies, this transformation has the potential for abuse in numerous forms of governance. For if not managed properly, the laws and infrastructure of the internet could increasingly give rise to the sense – and reality – that one's words and actions could be interpreted in any number of contexts and by many forms of institutions. The malign influence of polycracy on individual decision, previously a signal feature of totalitarian regimes, might start to appear in any political system whatsoever.
As data about the individual becomes potentially available to a spectrum of interests and parties, ranging from credit agencies and divorce lawyers to political opponents and work rivals, it is easy to imagine individuals (and software) attempting to "mask" or redefine preferences, interests, and affiliations.
The result would be a pervasive self-censorship, but also – in light of this confusing secondary power – a corollary attempt to act out in the manner that seems most open to reward. The ability of individuals to first believe in the honesty of their own choices and speech, and with this the honesty of others, could be profoundly altered, as would the nature of civil society.
Precisely in first connecting the private and public spheres in new ways, groups of friends and political action, social media has the possibility to atomize anew. Debates over the role of law and infrastructure in shaping these contexts takes on a new relevance for preserving the basis of the windbreaks of civil society, ranging from recent initiatives such as "do not track" to the separation of terrorist investigations from other forms of surveillance (such as occurs in Germany), to larger innovations such as the E.U.'s "right to data privacy" or plan for the "right to be forgotten." Although integral perhaps to preventing the "sandstorms" Arendt warned of, these innovations may also prove critical to amplifying the positive features of individual conscience and civil society allowed by social media.
"Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home."
-Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
Facing the command of the ghost, Hamlet laments his task of revealing that his uncle murdered his father to rule Denmark: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." As the heir to the throne, Hamlet's personal situation is inherently political and Shakespeare's tragedy stages the premature death of the father as genealogical break that raises the question of succession. Arendt generalizes Hamlet's words in a manner that might appear paradoxical at first: how can the world always be becoming out of joint? Is there never a moment of rest or cohesion from which the disjunction starts?
Her conception of finitude is key here: humans make a world (comprised of structures and practices of living together) that lasts only for a set period. In this sense "home" for Arendt does not offer the permanent refuge that philosophers and poets often long for. The crisis in education that she writes of in the late 1950s is in part one of a particular time and place. She does critique specific pedagogical trends such as an emphasis on play-like activities in the classroom over "the gradually acquired habit of work." In a broader sense, however, the crisis of education actually responds to the crisis in authority that she sees occurring over a long historical arc. While she recognizes the declining power of the parent, teacher, and expert, however, Arendt does not merely advocate a harsh return to old models. Instead she advocates a "minimum of conservation" that allows the most basic operation of reinterpreting the past based on new conditions. The word "education" derives from the Latin root ēdūcĕre, meaning "to lead forth" but for Arendt such a journey could have little confidence in its destination.
Political and economic shifts in the post Cold-War era have put pressure on education such that today it is increasingly charged with directly preparing students for integration into a system of world trade. Students have in recent months raised demands against student debt in higher education which is the result of a system of individual financing that appears less reasonable to those now facing uncertain careers.
At the same time, higher education budgets continue to be cut in general (especially at public institutions) and the Humanities continue to come under specific attack, usually under the rubric of lack of immediate relevance. Rising debt without prospect of repayment and budget cuts both suggest something worse than a crisis in education: a threat to education itself in its role in transmitting ideas of the past in order to enable the new generation to reconfigure a common world.
I recently was sent the following quotation by Friedrich Hayek, the economist and political thinker.
Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into or prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.
The quote is from an essay titled "Why I am Not a Conservative." Hayek is still today labeled a conservative (for whatever labels are worth). Here Hayek rejects the label, while also disdaining the modern conceptions of both liberalism and socialism. His efforts to stake out a position that defends freedom is as honest as it is relevant. It deserves to be read.
Hayek's quote is making the rounds not because of an interest in Hayek. Rather, the quote is being used (dare I say abused?) because it is thought to show the anti-science obscurantism and thoughtlessness of those who refuse to believe in evolution or global warming. The duplicitous refusal of politicians to even acknowledge the now undeniable scientific consensus about global warming is just the kind of obscurantism Hayek disdains. But it is a mistake to find in Hayek's attack common cause with efforts to enlist the government in the environmental cause.
Hayek's chief complaint with conservatism is its often uncritical defense of authority. The "main point" he takes issue with is the "characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds." In other words, the conservative is willing to put so much trust in authority and leadership that he tends to overlook those instances when government exceeds its authority and impinges on individual freedoms. This is why Hayek argues that conservatives are often closer to socialists than to liberals. Like socialists, conservatives are willing to excuse governmental action they agree with, even when such action impedes on liberty.
It should be clear that many who go by the name liberal today are not liberal in the sense Hayek means--which is closer to libertarian, although he also rejects that label and what it represents. His problem is with all those who would excuse government overreach for particular ends, when that regulation will restrict individual liberty.
Hayek's thought warns about the political dangers for freedom posed by both conservatism and socialism, two forms of increased respect for authority, one in the persona of a charismatic leader and the other in the rationality of bureaucracy and the welfare state. On both scores, Hayek's impassioned defense of freedom shares much with Hannah Arendt, although she undoubtedly disagrees with Hayek and liberalism's location of freedom in the private sphere.
For Arendt, liberal constitutional government is absolutely essential insofar as it is the best way to protect the realm of private liberty Hayek values so highly. For Arendt, however, it is not enough to protect freedom as a private citizen. Freedom includes not simply the right to do as one will in private, but also the right and the ability to act and speak in public. Freedom—human freedom—is more than the freedom simply to live well. Freedom also demands spaces of appearance, those institutionally protected realms where free citizens can engage in the debate and action about the dreams and hope of their life together. It is this freedom to be participate and act directly in government that is too frequently forgotten by those like Hayek.
That said, few thinkers better call us to vigilance in the cause of freedom. You can read the entirety of Hayek's "Why I am Not a Conservative" here.
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