“To interpret, to quote – yet only to have witnesses, also friends.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 756 (November 1969), my translation.
When we quote someone, we often seem to do so in order to appeal to some kind of authority. We use a statement of Arendt, for instance, in order to shed light on a contemporary event or phenomenon that calls for our attention. We consider her as a “theorist” who supposedly has “relevant” things to say that may help us “solve” a contemporary problem of understanding. We ask ourselves: “What would Hannah Arendt say?”
For several reasons, however, this practice is problematic. Firstly, as Arendt herself repeatedly insisted, thinking, understood as the never-ending attempt to make sense of events, experiences, and phenomena that occur, is an activity that we can only perform for and by ourselves. Secondly, by “applying” an authoritative “theory” to concrete events, we run the risk of explaining them away, rather than to “save the phenomena” in their concrete particularity. Finally, we run the risk of doing injustice to the “authority” in question. Arendt’s work is much too multi-vocal and perspectival for it to be reduced to a bag of “relevant” propositions that we can use at will. Much of what she says is more complicated and puzzling than it may seem, and requires a serious and sustained effort of interpretation. “Results” are by no means guaranteed. In this sense, the self-evident practice of quoting her every week entails the risk that she becomes all-too-familiar to us, that she is turned into someone whose “convictions” we no longer question, but complacently apply.
The use of Arendt as an authority becomes especially problematic when she is read in what could be called a “pessimistic” or “nostalgic” way, as if the most important thing that we can learn from her consists in a “diagnosis” of “our time”, which entails the claim that politics has been “lost”, that culture and education are in “crisis”, etc. By reading her this way, we run the risk of reinforcing an “objectifying” picture of our contemporary situation, as if the terms “loss” and “crisis” refer to objective facts that are “out there”, rather than to conceptual interventions that may (and perhaps should) invite our own counter-interventions. What is more, we run the risk of placing ourselves on the side of the few who really “got it”, against the many who still do not get it and will perhaps never get it, lest they start reading – and quoting – Arendt.
This is not to say that there is no basis at all in her work for reading her like this, but it is at odds with what may be considered as a more promising and liberating reading – a reading which invites us to begin something new, both in thinking and by acting, however difficult this may seem to be. Invoking Arendt as an authority, by contrast, may precisely serve as a substitute for thinking, rather than as its starting point.
By taking as our starting point a quote about quoting, we hope to make the practice of quoting Arendt into something uncommon, something unfamiliar. The quote in question, cited above, is a singular entry from Arendt’s Denktagebuch, the “thinking diary” that she kept from the early fifties until a few years before her death, and which she never intended for publication. The sentence is from November 1969, when she was working on what would become the first volume of The Life of the Mind, called Thinking, in which she addresses the question, what are we “doing” when we do nothing but think.
The meaning of the sentence – perhaps “meditation” is a better term – is by no means easy to grasp. It appears as a moment of self-reflection, a moment in which she stops, steps back, and thinks about the very thing she has been doing in her notebook: to interpret, to quote. It almost reads as a warning: make sure you consider these interpretations and quotations only as witnesses [Zeugen], also friends [Freunde], rather than as – we are tempted to add – authoritative statements, or – to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own – nuggets of pure truth to keep between the pages of your notebook and keep on the mantelpiece forever.
What does it mean to consider the practice of “interpreting, quoting” as a means to have “witnesses, also friends”? In the entry that immediately follows, Arendt uses the word “friend” twice: “Thought speaks with itself (as with a friend)…” and “In thought, the self is a friend…” Only two entries earlier, she had written that critical thinking consists in a giving-of-account [Rechenschaft geben] in a dialogue with oneself. She cites Kant as the genuine representative of this form of thinking, who had distinguished the quaestio facti – how one comes in possession of a specific concept, or what the origin of a specific term is – from the quaestio juris – with what right one possesses and makes use of a specific concept.
The process of a giving-of-account in this latter sense requires that you are friends with yourself. If there is too much distance, you do no longer talk with yourself, and the inner dialogue comes to an end. Yet the activity of talking something through also comes to an end when there is not enough distance, when you do no longer disagree with yourself at all. As Arendt writes earlier in her notebook: “Only because I can speak with others, can I also speak with myself, i.e., think. Ergo: Aristotle is not right: A friend is not “another self”, rather, the self is another friend.”
Perhaps it is here that we should bring the notion of a “witness” into play. The figure of a witness may be described as someone who testifies to an event that is beyond our own immediate experience, something we were not there to see with our own eyes, perhaps something unheard of. In the entry on critical thinking mentioned above, Arendt notes that our conscience finds its origin in our activity of thinking in the sense of a giving-of-account of something, in a dialogue with ourselves. In another Denktagebuch-entry, written in December 1969, so one month later, she uses the notion of a witness precisely in the context of explaining the workings of our conscience. When our conscience speaks, it serves as our inner witness by reminding us of something we did, and in calling us to account for it. Obviously, the point here is not that we were not present at the actual event, but that we do not want to hear about it anymore.
In the context of our quotation, we may say that a witness confronts us with a certain perspective on our conception of a certain event or experience, perhaps a strange or unsuspected one. Thereby, he or she invites us to give account of our own convictions and interpretations. However, the addition “also friends” is required: only if we approach a witness as a friend – a friendly interlocutor – will the thinking dialogue actually come to pass, will we start thinking something through.
By quoting, we may now suggest, we invoke a testimony by someone who calls us into thinking. By interpreting a quotation, we may add, we gain the opportunity to think something through by and for ourselves, rather than to use it as a means of adding authority to our already existing convictions and interpretations or to use the “answers” it contains in order to “solve” our problems for us. Or, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as quoted by Arendt in her essay on him: “Quotations … are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieves an idler of his convictions.”
"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113
Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.
Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.
Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:
Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).
People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.
From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.
As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.
While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.
“Neither education nor ingenuity nor talent can replace the constituent elements of the public realm, which make it the proper place for human excellence.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
I am proud to attend a college that envisions education as a life devoted to intellectual excellence. I am also proud of the fact that the school promotes a genuine love for knowledge and ideas and not simply what is practical and useful. It is easy to believe that education represents the peak of human excellence. And I have experienced few joys in my education as deeply as that of reading Hannah Arendt.
What a surprise, therefore, to see that Hannah Arendt writes that education and ingenuity are not and have never been the proper place for the display of human excellence. Arendt writes that excellence is found only in the public realm, that space to which “excellence has always been assigned.” Educational achievements—for example learnedness and scholarship—are important for students, but have nothing to do with excellence. But what does Arendt mean by human excellence? And why does it require a public realm? More to the point of modern debates, why is education not the proper locus of excellence?
Education is one of the elementary and necessary human activities. The word education comes from the Latin verbs educare (to mold) and educere (to lead out). To teach and educate is to take a human being in the process of becoming and lead him or her out of the confines of the home into the world, into his or her community. Formal education, Arendt argues in The Crisis in Education, is the time when schools and teachers assume the responsibility for “what we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents.” This is the stage in the educational development of the student in which he or she is not only introduced to the world, but when he or she becomes freely and spontaneously acquainted with those qualities that make one unique and further refined as a person.
It is also in school that we learn what human excellence is and the conditions in which human excellence is properly displayed. Human excellence, Arendt argues, is what the ancient Greeks called arête and the Roman virtus. The concepts of arete and virtus were always used by the ancients to denote the good and distinctive qualities embodied by those who performed in public. Drawing upon these concepts, Arendt argues that human excellence is a public act that manifests what she calls “inspiring principles,” e.g, prudence, justice, and courage, qualities of conduct that allow one to excel and distinguish oneself from all others.
Unlike the realm of the school, where one is expected only to learn and develop the characteristics used to make these principles manifest, the public realm demands that one act and embody excellence. It is our capacities for speech and action that allows for this display of excellence to be distinctively human. Arendt argues that only “in acting and speaking, [do] men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identity and thus make their appearance in the human world.” In contrast to education, which is concerned with the development of talents and virtues of the developing human being, in the political realm, these talents and virtues are fully developed and displayed.
Schools for Arendt are neither public nor private but “the institutions that we interpose between the private domain of home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world.” Schools are hidden from the world, as are the activities through which the student first displays his or her qualities and talents. Schools offer the student “the security of concealment in order to mature undisturbed.” But in order to achieve excellence, action needs an audience, a stage, a public realm where these characteristics can be properly manifested and properly received. Activities completed in school hide these characteristics and nurture the creative process, in contrast to those performed public, which always display the virtuosity, the excellence inherent in action.
The public realm is also the space of equality, which is alien to schools. In schools, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the one who knows the world, and in order to teach it, deference to authority is required. Arendt argues that this responsibility of authority is given to the educator because the educator not only knows the world but also belongs and acts in it. In the school, the educator acts as a representative of that world by “pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world.” Once the student knows the world and assumes responsibility for it, he or she can go into the world and act virtuously, display human excellence and start something new, which could potentially change it. This is why Arendt argues that school is not the “proper place” to display excellence, to act, and create something new. The ability to be excellent—to act, and to start something new—demands responsibility for the world. In education, this responsibility takes the form of authority, which is why it is given to the educator, and not to the student.
This does not mean, however, that Arendt is against changing the world; she is against changing it by disturbing the activity of education. Change, the new, is a phenomenon of the political realm, an activity performed among equal and fully-grown human beings. For Arendt, the “conservative function” that preserves traditions and the status quo in education comes to an end in the political realm. This conservative attitude in politics, she says, can only lead to destruction. As she explains: “because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. To preserve the world from the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.” Arendt maintains that to act and to change the world is expected of those who get educated and enter the community of adults and the political world.
As an immigrant student, I was surprised by the extraordinary commitment of my peers to be excellent. The dream of greatness and the desire for changing the world is also common among armchair “politicians” in academia. This ever-present enthusiasm for changing the world in academia is natural, especially if one believes to be living the true life of excellence. This desire, at times overconfident or even arrogant, is particular to Americans, not only in academia but also in every other sphere of life, and arises from what Arendt calls the “indefinite perfectibility” spirit that characterizes Americans.
At a place like Bard College, most students I come in contact with trade insights and debate about what has to be changed on a daily basis. This constant craving for the new and their commitment to excellence uplifts my spirit and has stirred in me the desire to do great things as well; this is very inspiring. Yet, we are still students and Bard or any other educational institution is not the public world, and, as Arendt argues, “it must not pretend to be.” Bard represents the sphere where we are welcomed to and learn about the world from educators, so that one day we can change it, hopefully through human acts that embody excellence.
School for Arendt is where we learn and decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and renew it or watch it fall as a victim of our very own condition of mortality. In order to change the world, one has to love and understand it. For Arendt, one has to learn to love the world, whether ones wishes to propagate and preserve it or to set it entirely anew; love of the world for her is what constitutes the world because it “fits me into it,” it allows one to ‘under-stand,’ to grasp while being in the midst of things. The world has to be constantly renewed but this can only happen once we leave the concealment of the classroom and acquire the courage to enter the political realm.
“The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Last week brought two events into focus: the annual July 4th celebration commemorating the American Revolution of 1776 preceded one day before by the overthrow of the first freely elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Although on the surface there seems little connecting these events, thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the former may bring forth some interesting points about revolutions and the foundation of modern democracy to light, which may be relevant to the evolving situation in Egypt.
In On Revolution, Arendt put forth a controversial interpretation of revolution and its relationship to violence, a theory that, contra popular opinion, lauded the success of the American while decrying the French Revolution’s legacy that “a revolution must devour its own children” as if terror were its inevitable course. The success of the American Revolution for Arendt resulted from its “deep concern with forms of government,” a concern she saw equally in the “initial stages of the French Revolution.” But when the concern with political solutions to the problem of tyranny was, in her assessment, overwhelmed by “the social question”—the problems of necessity, of abject need, confronting the “multitude of the poor—the French Revolution abandoned the task of “building a new body politic” in favor of searching for a more immediate, and, in her view, less political solution to the problem of poverty. “It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom,” Arendt wrote. Yet, she emphasized, there was nothing inevitable about this change of course.
To Arendt, any suggestion that a revolution would, and presumably must, take a predictable course was an example of ideological thinking that masked the genuine meaning of revolution. As she wrote, “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”
By every aspect of this definition, the Arab Spring uprising that sparked Egypt into full-scale protests and regime change to remove an autocratic ruler two years ago, and embark on an unpredictable path to “bring about the formation of a new body politic” constitutes a revolution in the Arendtian sense. But what matters is not whether the extraordinary events in Egypt fit her definition, but what Arendt’s exercise in thinking about revolutions, their successes and failures, can tell us about the great difficulties, challenges, and opportunities involved in Egyptians’ struggle to “build a new house where freedom can dwell.”
Modern revolutionaries face the enormous task of bringing into the public realm those who have been excluded from participation in it and, if they are to avoid a state of permanent war and violence, simultaneously creating a relatively stable set of institutions to organize and enable the expression of different points of view. A few days ago, the New York Times trumpeted the current crisis in Egypt under a headline proclaiming there were “two Egypts” locked in a raging conflict with each other over legitimate rulership of the country. Both Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi forces claim to embody the demand for representation for “all Egypt.” Representing the point of view of the anti-Morsi forces, a participant in the renewed protests justified the removal of Morsi: “They tried to rule the whole country for themselves...But if you want to rule Egypt, you have to rule for everyone or the people will stand against you.” (NYT July 6, 2013) In fact, pro-Morsi factions echoed similar sentiments by contending not only that there had been a military coup overthrowing a legitimately elected leader, but also that the removal of Morsi was designed to push them out of the political process. And this morning, the ultra-Conservative Al Nour party announced its decision to withdraw from further participation in efforts to form an interim government.
Whether the election of Morsi itself had been premature—he was brought to power with the support of only 24% of the voting electorate and pushed through a constitution largely created by the Muslim Brotherhood—its aftermath suggests that the process of creating a new form of government was far from complete. Soon after he took power, many different groups complained that Morsi appeared to have set himself up as a dictator in the mere five months he’d been in power. Clearly, in Arendtian terms, the rebellion started in 2011 had not yet resulted in the “truly revolutionary element” in constitution-making, which lies not in the creation of limited government, but in the act of a people (here Arendt quotes Thomas Paine) “constituting a government.”
There is an enormous difference, Arendt wrote, “in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.” But “the people”, for Arendt, implied all factions, all parts of the polity, had to be involved in the process; a government not only “for” the people, but also “of” and “by” it. The current conflagrations in Egypt represent yet another stage of opportunity in the effort to revolutionize the Egyptian polity in this direction, a stage which had harbingers of its arrival, but no predictable outcome.
The great difficulty Egypt faces is not only the vast gap in different groups’ understandings of who “the people” are, and the different degrees of organized mobilization of those groups, but also derives from the fundamentally opposed interpretations of which appropriate principles—Islamist, moderate or more conservative; non-Islamist; pluralist?—should legitimate a new polity in Egypt. And this difficulty is only compounded by an expressed urgency to find solutions to a deteriorating economy. Arendt would have hoped that the urgency of immediate needs would not overwhelm the revolutionary process of “constituting a government.”
It turns out, Arendt argued, that once “the source of authority had been severed from the colonial body politic in the New World,” the key problem confronting the American Revolution “turned out to be the establishment not of power but of authority.” How this authority (not to be confused with either power or violence) will be established in Egypt depends in the long run on all sides being able both to engage in discussions of principle, and not only contests over power or need, as well as participate in the search for institutionalized mechanisms to stabilize what Arendt called “the tremendous strength inherent in mutual promises.” If specific parties withdraw from this process, or persist in vilifying one group of the other, the violence that is now occurring may not yet be stemmed.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being”. – “And all this ... arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”
-Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969
Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future Arendt discusses the profound changes which modernity brought about through technological progress and simultaneous world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world to self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities.
All this opened the way to transgress traditional boundaries and to give in to the temptation to be omnipotent. The totalitarian movements transformed the nihilistic “all is allowed” into “all is possible”.
Is is precisely the same thesis that Freud, Castoriadis and others advanced: the lust for omnipotence is neither an exception nor the experience of a limited number of human beings but the general experience of early childhood. The experience of omnipotence precedes the recognition of otherness. Recognition of the other has to be learned in the course of development from the pre-social to the socially shaped human being. According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook, we are thus confronted with a constant working of “the negative” in us.
“The experience of omnipotence is significant for the normal as well as for the abnormal child, for youth and for adulthood. Examples can be found in religious, aesthetic and erotic experiences, in the state of being in love, in mass phenomena and in certain forms of psychosis.”
In this context it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress the boundaries to omnipotence. For example, we can distinguish between hooligan crowd violence, sniper killings in wartime and the mass murder committed by the Norwegian Anders Breivik. Transgressing boundaries in the case of hooligans consists of crossing the boundary from respect for the physical integrity of the other to illegal physical injury, in the case of snipers from a ban on killing to legally controlled or uncontrolled killing of enemy combatants, and in the case of Breivik in the annihilation of all representatives of the enemy. In Eichmann’s case, as we know, the maximum transgression consisted in the endless annihilation of entire peoples and populations.
What we find in the first case, the fierce violence of hooligans, is lust for power and temporary transgression. Here a code of honour prescribes that violence should be fierce and brutal, but not fatal, that those not involved should not be attacked, that the use of weapons is forbidden and that conflicting groups should be similar in number and strength. Hooligans do not intend to destroy their opponents but merely to gain victory over them. Consequently their violence has nothing to do with delusions of omnipotence, but a great deal to do with lust for power. There is, however, an element in their behaviour that could pave the way for omnipotence. They themselves describe this as a kick, a surge of violence that can be produced instantly and only stopped on the threshold of destroying the other. In the interests of journalism, the American journalist Bill Buford socialized with British hooligans for some time and observed in himself the euphoria that accompanied each transgression, a sense of transcendence that rose to ecstasy, where the individual was completely absorbed into the crowd. “Violence is one of the strongest sensations of pleasure." He described the vast majority of hooligans as what we might call ordinary neighbours.
The second group are the snipers. What makes them transgress boundaries is the lust to kill enemies as defined by the state, the army or the militia to which they belong. Chris Kyle, for example, the best sniper the US army ever produced, officially shot 160 enemy combatants in Iraq, 250 in his opinion, and described killing as his job and the war as his area of work.
“When you kill someone the first time, you’re stirred up. You think: Am I really allowed to kill this guy? Is this OK? But once you kill an enemy, you realize it’s alright. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy cannot kill you and your compatriots. You do it until there’s no one left to kill. "
Chris Kyle became a killing machine employed by the state.
When his marriage was threatened, he returned to the United States. There too, death remained his main topic. He became an alcoholic, was involved in brawls, shot two car thieves, set up a company to train snipers and took care of traumatized veterans by accompanying them to shooting ranges. In February of this year he was shot by one of the traumatized ex-soldiers at a shooting range. Chris Kyle received numerous awards. The nation is proud of him.
The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik represents the third form of transgression. His deed is not marked primarily by the lust for power or the lust to kill but by the ideological justification of an omnipotent action. He bombed the government district of Oslo, killing eight people, and massacred 69 participants of a social-democrat youth camp. He justified this act in a fifteen hundred page manifesto entitled 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. He claimed to represent a Norwegian and European resistance movement and to be a member of the “indigenous population” struggling against the decline of Norway due to uncontrolled immigration policies by liberals and representatives of a multicultural society.
“It is 100 percent certain that there will be a war between nationalists and internationalists in Europe. We, the first militant nationalists, are the first raindrops indicating that a big storm is coming. ... To die as a martyr for his people’s survival is the greatest honour in a man’s life.”
As a single perpetrator Breivik needed a particularly strong ideological justification and defined himself as a martyr who was sacrificing his life for the ethnic community. To do this he needed to distance himself emotionally from his fellow citizens and avoid any kind of interaction for several months, which he spent exclusively playing violent video games.
The same occurs with guerrilla groups. A crucial prerequisite for their deeds is the ideologically justified dehumanization of the potential victims and the transformation of the guerrilla fighters into cold-blooded killers. It is not only permissible to kill the “lackeys of imperialism” but the murders must be carried out in the most cold-blooded manner to be effective. In his Message to the Tricontinental in 1967 Che Guevara declared:
“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”
We tend to underestimate the ongoing existence of violence and the lust for omnipotence. When we talk about recognition we forget the disregard, humiliation and negation of the other and consider this of secondary importance. When we talk about state monopoly on the use of force, we tend to forget that violence still exists, that there are permanent no-go areas and terrorist groups, and that there is violence that is permitted, trained and paid for by the state and violence exercised by our neighbours. Whether legal or illegal – there is an irreconcilable relationship between civilized behaviour at work during the week and violent behaviour on weekends, and between a democratic family father who respects the rule of law in one country and systematically kills in another.
When Arendt searched the origins of totalitarianism she found them in the non-totalitarian modernity (unsolved minority problems, un-political human rights concepts, administrative colonialism, nationalist concepts of politics, etc.) Violence belongs to them. It holds in itself not only the negation of plurality and freedom but also the delusion of the omnipotence.
“Hannah Arendt” the movie by acclaimed Director Margarethe von Trotta, opened in the United States this week at Film Forum in New York. It will begin its national release on June 6th. Around the world the movie has garnered rave reviews and played to excited audiences. Reviews in the U.S. are appearing, including a rave by A.O. Scott in the New York Times.
In reading the many reviews and comments on the film, one trend stands out. This trend is epitomized by Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times last weekend. Kaplan plays umpire and seeks to adjudicate whether Arendt was right or wrong in her controversial judgment of Adolf Eichmann. And like so many others in recent years, Kaplan tries to have it both ways. He writes that Arendt was in general right about the fact that “ordinary people become brutal killers,” but she was wrong about Eichmann. In short, Kaplan claims that Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is right, but Eichmann himself was not banal, he was a monster.
This Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment is now a commonplace. One sees it pop up in reviews of the new film in Europe and here in the U.S. Take, for example, Elke Schmitter, reviewing the film in the German Weekly Der Spiegel. Schmitter likes the film, and writes that von Trotta has “made an extremely vivid cinematic essay, thrilling in its every minute, deeply moving in its seriousness and suitably unsettling.” Yet Schmitter’s review prefigures Kaplan’s in its Janus faced analysis. She points to the interview with Eichmann by Willem Sassen as evidence that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann:
The [Sassen] tapes clearly show that Eichmann was an ardent anti-Semite, incapable of the direct use of force, and yet determined to exterminate the Jewish people. His performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception.
For both Kaplan and Schmitter, the larger truth of Arendt’s thesis that evil emerges from thoughtlessness must not obscure the apparent fact that Eichmann put on an act at trial and deceived Arendt. This view of Eichmann the actor who pulled the wool over Arendt’s eyes has become now the dominant reading of Arendt’s analysis. My colleague and fellow political thinker David Owen agrees with this basic Yes/No thesis. Writing on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog, Owen argues:
And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews.
The Yes and No analysis of Arendt’s argument relies largely on what are now known as the Sassen tapes, based on an interview with Eichmann done by Willem Sassen, a fellow member of the SS who also fled to Buenos Ares. Partial transcripts of the tapes were published in Life Magazine before the Eichmann trial and were read by Arendt, but the tapes and the entire transcript only became available much later. Scholars like David Cesarani, Bettina Stangneth, and Deborah Lipstadt argue that the tapes show Arendt was—through no fault of her own, they usually emphasize to display their magnanimity—wrong in her judgment of Eichmann. It is simply a matter of the emergence of new facts.
This “factual claim” has gotten a free pass. What exactly do the Sassen tapes show? Above all, the tapes show that Adolf Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Here is one quotation that is nearly always referred to and that Kaplan brings forth. Eichmann says: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”
Kaplan actually leaves out an extra sentence between the last two quoted sentences, in which Eichmann adds: “Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist." Leaving out that line is hardly innocent as it establishes the context of Eichmann’s remarks, his claim to general participation in the Nazi thought process.
Critics point to the tapes to show that Eichmann was an anti-Semite. This is nothing new. Everyone knew Eichmann was an anti-Semite. And of course Arendt knew it. There are a few who argue that she denies this and some who go so far to argue that she thought Eichmann was a Zionist, but these are crazed and irresponsible Jeremiads. Arendt scoffed at Eichmann’s self-professed Zionism. She said that he said he was a Zionist and that he claimed he had no animus towards Jews. She did not credit these claims.
The revelation in the tapes is not that Eichmann was anti-Semitic. The claim is that if she had heard the tapes or seen the transcript, she would have been compelled to admit the ferocity of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and thus the fact that his anti-Semitism contributed to his actions to a far greater extent than she believed.
Now this is an important point. Recall that the essence of Arendt’s rarely understood argument about the banality of evil is that evil motivations—that which really drives modern bureaucratic evil—is superficial, not deep. There is, of course, evil that is rooted deeply in hatred, as for example when I out of rage at a colleague who insults me I intentionally stick a dagger into his breast or when a suicide bomber blows himself and civilians up in a café from out of hatred and infinite hope that his actions will change the world. But such crimes, as horrible as they are, are not the true face of evil in the modern world. That face is recognizable in the mass administrative exterminations of innocent people for no justifiable reason other than their race or religion or creed. There are of course reasons for such evil acts, but those reasons have more to do with the internal logic of movements than personal animus. Such evil, she argues, may be initiated by psychopaths, but it is carried out by thoughtless nobodies. Eichmann, as a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of Bureau IV-B-4, the Gestapo division in charge of Jewish Affairs, was such a mid-level bureaucrat.
Now, if Arendt’s critics are correct, we must not only question her analysis of Eichmann, but her more general claims as well. Two scholars who recognize this are S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher. These two psychologists have written an intriguing paper taking on both Arendt and Stanley Milgram. As is well known, Milgram was led by the Eichmann trial to conduct experiments where residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support. For many, Milgram’s experiment is confirmation of Arendt’s banality of evil thesis.
Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.
The importance of Haslam and Reicher’s essay is to take the criticism that Eichmann was actually motivated by anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion. Haslam and Reicher say that Arendt’s portrayal was partial, and like Deborah Lipstadt, they fault Arendt for not staying to the end of the trial. But Arendt poured over the transcripts, and did view much of the trial. It is not at all clear what more viewing of Eichmann would have done to change her mind of his clownishness, an opinion shared by many who did watch the whole trial. But let’s assume that someone who watched the whole trial and heard the tapes came to a different conclusion. Namely, (Haslam and Reicher’s summation of the historical research):
Eichmann was a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his ‘achievements’…. In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do.
Haslam and Reicher argue that if one looks closely at Milgram’s and other related studies, one sees that people do not blindly and mindlessly obey. Some do and others do not. So from these obedience studies, they write,
It is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Rather both studies (and also historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly…. People do great wrong, not because they are unaware of what they are doing but because they consider it to be right.
For Haslam and Reicher, the question is not: why are people thoughtless cogs in bureaucratic machines, but rather, why do people identify with hateful ideologies that allow them to participate in mass excursions of evil? Their point is that if indeed Eichmann committed his crimes because of his virulent anti-Semitism, that suggests that the bureaucrats who participate in great schemes of administrative evil are not simply unthinking nobodies and that Arendt’s overarching thesis about the banality of evil is wrong as well.
Haslam and Reicher have done a great service with their essay insofar as they at least pierce the halo that surrounds Milgram’s conclusions. What they show, and here they agree with Arendt against Milgram, is that human beings are not simply slaves to their situations. Character and thoughtfulness (or thoughtlessness) matter. Human action is not simply behavior. Or, as Arendt writes, in political and moral matters, obedience and support are the same.
At the same time, however, Haslam and Reicher are altogether too sure of their ability to know why Adolf Eichmann acted. Like David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, Bettina Stangneth, and others, they believe that somehow listening to the Eichmann tapes gives them more insight into Eichmann’s true character than Hannah Arendt’s viewing of him on the witness stand for three weeks. There is, it seems, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that Eichmann’s boasts about his importance and his refusal to express regrets in his conversations amongst former Nazis is better evidence of his character than his testimony in Jerusalem.
But why privilege the interviews over the trial? In both the trial and the interviews, Eichmann refused to express regret for what he did. In both, he admitted wanting to carry out his job to the fullest of his abilities. In both he denied murdering or killing anyone. The real difference is that at trial in Jerusalem Eichmann claimed to have wanted to help the Jews and in Argentina he claimed to share the Nazi anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews. Of course, no one in Jerusalem believed his claims of philo-Semitism, least of all Arendt. What she saw and what she argued is that his anti-Semitism alone was not of the type that would lead someone to do what he had done.
To evaluate the factual claim made by Kaplan and his fellow critics, we must also consider the context of the Sassen interviews themselves. Amongst the community of former Nazis in Buenos Aires, Eichmann was different. Many of these Nazis repudiated the final solution, claiming it was Allied propaganda. Eichmann, who had been mentioned frequently in Nuremburg, could confirm or reject that claim. It was thus that Sassen, who was working as a journalist, sought Eichmann out through Eberhard Fritsch, another Nazi who published a German-language journal in Buenos Ares and argued for a new ascent of National Socialism. Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann met for a series of conversations that Sassen taped and used for articles he wrote that appeared in Life Magazine.
Eichmann himself had much to gain from these interviews. The Adolf Eichmann who agreed to be interviewed by Sassen was living as a poor man struggling to support his family. It was a far cry from his position of power and relative wealth in Germany during the War. And if there is one quality of Eichmann that Arendt and her critics can agree upon it is his vanity. Eichmann was, as Arendt noted, quite boastful. He desperately desired to be important and meaningful. Bettina Stangneth saw the same quality in Eichmann: “Eichmann hated being anonymous. He missed power. He wanted to matter again. On some level I think he even enjoyed his trial.” It is far from clear that Eichmann bared his true soul to Willem Sassen.
How to know whether the Eichmann speaking to former Nazis and seeking friends and importance is the truer Eichmann than the Eichmann brought before posterity at the trial in Jerusalem? One can, of course, argue that neither is the true Eichmann, that he would say whatever he thought would endear him to the crowd he was in, but that would simply go to support and confirm Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was a nobody, a joiner. If Eichmann thought that lying about his anti-Semitism would convince anybody, and if he thought that saying he was just obeying orders would help him whereas it hadn’t his predecessors at Nuremburg, he was as thoughtless as Arendt said he was. In any case, there is nothing in the Sassen transcripts that shows Arendt’s factual analysis of the trial to be wrong.
Arendt thought that it was a fact that Eichmann was thoughtless. Listening to his clichés and his boasts and hearing how he worshipped bureaucratic hierarchy, she determined that he had insulated himself from thinking. Her critics, in response, say he was creative and intelligent in carrying out his tasks. He was. He was not stupid, Arendt writes. He was thoughtless. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t anti-Semitic. What she means by thoughtlessness, contrary to much commentary, is not simple.
Arendt’s argument about thoughtlessness is complex and subtle. First, Arendt says that what drove Eichmann to join the SS was not virulent hatred of Jews, but the need of a job and the desire to find meaning in his life. On this point, she and her critics largely agree. As a Nazi officer, Eichmann became a virulent anti-Semite. He adopted the rhetoric and language of those around him, even as he took pride in his ability to work with Jewish leaders. Even such an anti-Semite, however, insisted he did not kill Jews himself. That was important to him. He knew such killing was wrong. While he may indeed have wanted Germany to be free of Jews, and while he may have spoken in favor the killing itself, he knew that gassing Jews was wrong. He was not the kind of psychopath that breathes blood and relishes pulling the trigger. Eichmann describes how he was initially bothered and unsettled by the decision to gas the Jews, but that, over the course of about four weeks, he came to see the transport of Jews not as wrong, but as his legal obligation, one that he took pride in carrying out. In the space of one month, his moral universe around the question of genocide was upended. This is the famous inversion of Eichmann’s conscience that is at the core of Arendt’s argument.
It is this transition from anti-Semite who knows killing innocents is wrong to bloodless bureaucratic executioner who imagines it his conscientious and moral duty to follow the laws and orders by implementing the Final Solution that, Arendt argues, has its source neither in anti-Semitism nor a lack of goodness, but in moral weakness and thoughtlessness. In this sense, thoughtlessness is a willingness to abandon one’s common sense of right and wrong in order to fit in, be part of a movement, and attain success in the world. What thoughtlessness means is a lack of self-reliance, in an Emersonian vein, or, as Arendt puts it, the inability to think for oneself.
At the source of modern thoughtlessness is what Arendt calls the break in tradition that occurs in the modern era. Throughout history people have done wrongs, even great wrongs. But they eventually came to understand the wrongness of those wrongs as against religious, traditional, and customary rules. The rules persisted as rules, even in their breach. The distinction of the modern era and totalitarianism is that the old rules no longer held good. Eichmann and thousands like him in Germany and Soviet Russia were able to see bureaucratic genocide as lawful and right. They could only do so by abandoning their moral sense to the conventional wisdom of those around them. This is what Arendt means by thoughtlessness. The core of Arendt’s argument is that while anti-Semitism can explain hatred of the Jews and even pogroms and murdering of Jews, it cannot explain the motivation behind generally normal people putting aside their moral revulsion to murder and genocide and acting conscientiously to wipe out a race of human beings.
It is very possible that Arendt is wrong or that her argument is overstated. It may be as Haslam and Reicher argue that such action is motivated out of hatred and ideology. But all who think that should read Arendt’s book and see Margarethe von Trotta’s movie and look at the simplicity and clownishness and pettiness of Adolf Eichmann—and decide for themselves.
The question we who confront her text should ask is not, “is she right or wrong.” Rather, we should seek with her to understand how it is possible for Eichmann and people like him to have done what he did. If Arendt is wrong about Eichmann, than her thesis that thoughtlessness is the motivation for modern evil is questionable as well.
We must be honest: the hypothesis that "she was right in general, but wrong about Eichmann" is contradictory. If she was right and mechanized evil is only possible with bureaucratic thoughtlessness, then how can Eichmann not be bureaucratically thoughtless? Why do we insist on making him a monster? The answer is that we still don't fully accept her argument that Eichmann transformed from a normal anti-Semite with a moral sense into someone for whom morality meant following the law requiring him to destroy Jews. In denying Eichmann’s normality we still need to make him into a monster and thus refuse to confront—and also to resist— the dangerous truth Arendt is seeking to make visible.
As you prepare to see Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” do some reading. For one, read my review of the movie in The Paris Review and A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. Also read Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times. I suggest as well David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann. And then read S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher’s “Questioning the Banality of Evil.” Finally, check out the Arendt Center’s collection of Reviews of the film here. Best of all, of course, re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself. There is a lot to get through here, but take your tablet to the beach. You have a lot to get through for your weekend read.
Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.
Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.
But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.
Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.
I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:
The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.
New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."
The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:
However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.
Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?
The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.
At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.
What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.
Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?
For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.
When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment. Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power. Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.
It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.
Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:
First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?
Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.
“Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.”
It may be the twinkle in the eye when a light flashes in the student’s mind, or the subtle rise of the head as insight hits, or a purposeful nod as veils of darkness flutter amidst a gust of comprehension. These moments are transformative for students. They also give meaning and hope to those who teach. However we make sense of the art and experience of teaching others, the student teacher connection is a noble and quintessentially human experience.
Philip Roth offers this paean to teachers in general and to his high school homeroom teacher Doctor Bob Lowenstein in particular: “The tang of the real permeated his talk. Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.” Roth experienced the transformative impulse even though he never actually studied a particular subject with Doc Lowenstein. The future novelist learned neither French nor Proust from his mentor. Rather, in the persona of Lowenstein, Roth saw someone who opened a world. Lowenstein was “unassumingly in possession of a Ph.D., and what was recognizable even to a 12-year-old was that this was a formidable man who did not gladly suffer fools.” The true teachers are those with the force of authority—those whose courage and generosity transport us from out of our private concerns into the shared world of ideas and the common good. It is no accident that Hannah Arendt insists that educators study not teaching, but their subject matter—for the key to teaching is unassuming possession of authority, which results from mastery rather than skill.
I wrote awhile back about Leon Wieseltier’s swoon over teachers, part of his jeremiad against homeschooling and unschooling. We need such remembrances of the power of pedagogy ever more these days, especially as educators around the land are prostrating themselves before the coming age of online education. I have defended the use of online resources to achieve certain goals and as a useful tool in education. But let us not commit a sin against teachers and students alike by confusing the usefulness of online tools with the oxymoronic idea of online education.
Roth’s eulogy was published in the Sunday New York Times. One of the advantages of perusing the Sunday paper in its endangered pulpish format is that Roth’s encomium straddles the top of two page above the jump from an essay by A.J. Jacobs on the advantages and disadvantages of online education. “I learned many fascinating things while taking a series of free online college courses,” Jacobs writes.
But the first thing I learned? When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses, like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and EdX, you can forget about the Socratic method. The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.
Many defenders of physical on-site college education will take solace from Jacob’s essay. That would be a mistake, at least in part. And this is not only because MOOCs will get better.
The importance of Jacob’s critique of online teaching is that it applies equally to the vast majority of reality-based college courses in the United States, courses in which 100s and even 1,000s of students sit faceless in large lecture halls taking notes before a professor with whom they will never speak. The reason that MOOCs are causing such excitement is not that they offer the potential for a great or even a good education. Rather, MOOCs promise to provide the same poor educational experience currently offered at large universities around the country for a fraction of the cost in time and money.
Massive Open Online Courses will improve. There will be more and less expensive varieties. Some courses will offer well-staffed online forums with barely-paid facilitators—the sad future for the vast majority of those now pursuing Ph.Ds. These courses will replace the large lectures that now dominate the curriculum at universities around the country—this is already happening. The best universities will adapt, accepting MOOC credit and using this an opportunity to allow students to graduate more quickly and to pursue more advanced and more personalized work in smaller classes with professors more adept at teaching inspiration than in conveying knowledge. Most will gradually cease to be universities and morph into glorified brands offering accredited degrees that certify graduates as employable.
In short, for those of us who care deeply about teaching, MOOCs should be welcomed. By highlighting the gulf between the transmission of knowledge and education, MOOCs may, and should, return the luster to the calling of teaching. We are poised for a renaissance in teaching, one that will reemphasize the gulf between certification and transformation.
"[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.