“Everything that is appears; everything that appears disappears; everything that is alive has an urge to appear; this urge is called vanity; since there is no urge to disappear and disappearance is the law of appearance, the urge, called vanity, is in vain.‘Vanitas vanitatum vanitas’—all is vanity, all is in vain.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, 796
Arendt writes this entry in her Denktagebuch in September 1970. She is 63 years old and long familiar with the law of disappearance. For years the record of her thoughts has been interrupted by mention of the death of friends and mentors: May 1951 “[Hermann] Broch died on 30 May and was buried on 2 June 1951”; February 1969 “Jaspers dies”; November 1968: “Tonight I dreamed of Kurt Blumenfeld… in the dream I didn’t know that he was dead.” The following month the law would bear down again and she would write an entry beginning: “On 31 October Heinrich died…”. Within a little over four years of her husband’s death she would herself be gone.
“Vanitas vanitatum vanitas.” This could be despair. It could be that dreadful thought that forces itself on us in moments of grief and anxiety, the thought that a life’s endeavor has been for naught, that all our achievements have turned out to be worthless. It could be the distress at the Nietzschean reflection that not only must we each die, but this human race and this earth will eventually disappear without trace. Perhaps it is the same as the horror Sophocles savors when he warns us: “Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when man has seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.”
It could also be frustration at the sheer urgency of the desire to rush into full view when thinking is always conducted in darkness and quiet, at a remove from the world. It might be a distaste, for instance, for glib self-promotion that stands in for political action on the part of candidates for public office, or for everything about the modern university that insists that “research” be published prematurely, rendering it hypocritical, superficial and irrelevant (Denktagebuch, 703).
Yet, though her frustration is real, and though she grieves, Arendt uses the word vanity without judgment. A few weeks ago Ian Storey introduced a “Quote of the Week” that came from the same late period of the Denktagebuch, and wrote movingly of the sense of end that suffuses these last entries. (It’s beautiful and touching and well worth your while.) He writes also of the shades of Arendt’s response to our endedness, from bitter sadness to old contentment. In the same way, she reacts to the vanity of our beginnings both with an austere refusal of even the fantasy of immortality and wonder that any of it came to be at all.
After all, no one asks to be born. No one demands to come into the world as if birth were a special favor, a privilege granted to some but not to others. We’re propelled into the light of day before we know it, by an urge that has nothing to do with ego and does not belong to us any more than it belongs to our parents or our species. We share it with everything alive. However, if we think of it as a great surging drive towards life or survival, it threatens to diminish thinking and overwhelm the senses as a great unfathomable force; if we think of it as a drive to appear it produces instead the refinement of difference and the delight of variegation.
In these same years Arendt reads about biology and studies up on the science of genetics. She reads the work of the philosophical zoologist Adolph Portmann whose most remarkable studies concern the vast variety in the size, shape and color of butterflies (The Beauty of Butterflies, 1951). Instead of submitting the phenomenon of this variety—and butterflies make up just one terrifically flamboyant example—to the demands of natural and sexual selection as in the mainstream of evolutionary theory, Portmann identifies an Aristotelian desire to appear. Arendt adds to this an existential claim for recognition and even praise. “All that appears wants to be seen and recognized and praised. The highest form of recognition is love: volu ut sis.—The wonder implies affirmation” (Denktagebuch, 701). The moment our surprise at the color of a butterfly turns into wonder that it should have somehow come to be and come to be precisely this color, we affirm its existence. We could never have called up in imagination all the colors of butterflies’ wings, and no-one could have planned the immense series of mutations and other tiny contingencies that brought them all into existence but, exposed to a small section of their uncalled-for variety, astonished by it, wondering at it, affirming it, we will that it be. This is what it means to love the world.
This love comes as a sort of gratitude, even if we’re not sure whom we should be grateful to. Believers thank the creator god. Arendt may not believe—at least not like that—but she reaches for the word blasphemy and so also for a sense of something sacred that needs protection from profanity. In October 1969 she writes: “The desire for earthly immortality is blasphemous, not because it wants to overcome death, but because it negates birth” (744). The problem is not that we want to play God by refusing to die, but that we balk at making way for a new, different world. From her reading in genetics she knows the role of genetic mutation in the generation of natural variety and the many millions of mistakes that had to happen to produce the living world we see. She has noted Portmann’s bon mot: “One of the surest methods for the regular occurrence of new [genetic] combinations is that peculiar game that biologists call sexuality.” What is sacred, then, is the fact of all those butterfly wings, all the fish scales, animal ears, nose shapes, eye colors, skin tones, smiles that could easily have happened in some other way but that appear to us now, just as they are, the needlessly glamorous and constantly renewed results of contingency.
All vanity, yes, and all in vain, certainly. But praise be.
My post on the proposed cuts to political science funding has drawn many comments. The political science community has mobilized strongly, sending out emails emphasizing the fact that Congressman Flake's cuts do not actually cut any money from the NSF budget, but just from political science, thus in effect redirecting it to other disciplines. Steven Mazie also makes this worthy point. As questionable as political science research is, I have no doubt that political scientists have not cornered the market on irrelevant research.
But such arguments beg the real question, of whether we need federal funding of social science research as it is currently practiced. The social scientists—fearful of being cut off from the sustaining stream of federal funds—are rallying their troops. I have in the last two days received numerous appeals from the American Political Science Association and related groups asking me to write my senators trying to kill these proposed cuts. In the appeals, I am directed to a new virtual edition of the American Journal of Political Science, which features a selection of supposedly exemplary articles produced with NSF funds. I did visit the virtual journal and there found the following:
Self-Organizing Policy Networks: Risk, Partner Selection, and Cooperation in Estuaries. This study looks explicitly at networks involving policy makers dealing with coastal estuaries. [It finds] that in riskier settings (where the resource is the most fragile) highly connected networks spring up and these are important for preventing further resource decline. ·
Not by Twins Alone: Using the Extended Family Design to Investigate Genetic Influence on Political Beliefs. This is one of an increasing number of studies providing evidence for a strong genetic component to political attitudes. The point to the research is not that politics is purely genetic – but that individuals are born with personality traits that carry with them through their life. These are related to political attitudes. ·
Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences. This research looks at the threat that rising income inequality has for democracy. The findings call into question the idea that changes in inequality result in a shift in mass opinion toward more liberal ideas. Indeed the research indicates that increases in inequality shifts mass public opinion in a more conservative direction.
My colleague and friend of the Arendt Center, Walter Russell Mead, had these wise words to say on his excellent blog:
There is a real baby and bathwater problem here. While much academic research is so worthless that not even other academics in the same field bother to read it, some of this research represents high triumphs of the human spirit, opens the door to new medical treatments, or otherwise deepens our understanding of the world around us and increases our ability to live richer, better lives.
The reconstruction of the American university is going to take some time, and nobody knows now exactly how the new system should look. In general, Via Meadia thinks that the “research model” works less well in the humanities and in most social sciences than it does in the natural sciences. In many cases, undergraduate teaching could be separated from scholarly research with no loss to the quality of undergraduate education — and perhaps a substantial gain.
In any case, we think Congressman Flake’s proposals deserve a fair and careful hearing. The policy usefulness of most political science research is at best questionable; at a time of tight government budgets it makes sense to look hard at non-essentials.
There is a real need to rethink the point of academic research in the university system. Every academic knows that the vast majority of published material is not worth publication. We also know that so much is published and almost none of it is read by more than a very few friends and colleagues. Whether that research is nonetheless valuable as a contribution to the storehouse of knowledge and the slowly evolving advance of science is a good question. But the short answer is that most of it is not.
Mead raises an important question about whether humanities and social science professors need to be part of the research model of modern academic institutions. On the one hand, it does seem strange to think of humanities professors as "researchers." It fits us into the scientific model and suggests that thinking is somehow the product of research, which is a deeply questionable presumption. More likely, research deadens thinking, as it normalizes and limits it.
What thinking does need is time, and that is the challenge that humanities scholars are confronted with today. The demands of teaching and researching and publishing, let alone administering, are such that few academics today have time to read and think. We must insist on a distinction between the time to think and the need to publish.
Of course, one might argue that reading and thinking are what happen in teaching. If we simply teach great books we can read and re-read them, allowing us time to think, inspired by the masters of the past and also the present. That is certainly my approach to teaching, which is why I have always found teaching to be an integral part of my intellectual and writing life. My best papers and articles are the products of classroom insights. Might it be, then, that the research model is the enemy of thinking in the humanities?
That is, of course, too simple a conclusion. Thinking and teaching go together, although teaching hundreds of students and grading thousands of papers every semester is not really teaching, just as writing paper after paper is not really thinking. Teaching requires time, as does thinking. Both time to think and time to talk with students, to engage with them, and inspire them. And to be inspired by them. There is less and less time to do that in our research universities, and even in some of our liberal arts colleges that insist on mimicking the research university model. The model needs to be rethought. We should not run away from that opportunity.
Student debt is suddenly spurring the once unthinkable debate: Is college necessary? Of course the answer is no. But who needs it and who should pay for it are complicated questions.
Arendt herself had an ambivalent relationship to academic culture. She never held a tenure-track job in the academy and she remained suspicious of intellectuals and academics. She never forgot how easily professors in Germany embraced the rationality of the Nazi program or the conformity with which Marxist and leftist intellectuals excused Stalinism. In the U.S., Arendt was disappointed with the "cliques and factions" as well as the overwhelming "gentility" of academics, that dulled their insights. It was for that reason that she generally shunned the company of academics, with of course notable exceptions. A free thinker—she valued thinking for oneself above all—she was part of and apart from the university world.
We plan to keep the discussion about college and debt going on the Arendt Center blog. Here are a few thoughts to get the debate going.
First, college is not magic. It will neither make you smart nor make you rich. Some of our best writers and thinkers somehow avoided writing five-page papers on the meaning of Sophocles. (That of course does not mean that they didn't read Sophocles, even in the Ancient Greek.) And many of the most successful Americans never graduated or attended college. On the other hand, many college grads and Ph.D.'s are surviving on food stamps today. Some who attend the University of Phoenix will benefit greatly from it. Many who attend Harvard squander their money and time. Especially today, college is as much a safe path for risk-averse youth as it is a haven for the life of the mind or a tasseled path to the upper classes.
Second, College can be a transformative experience. As I prepare to say goodbye to another cohort of graduates at Bard, I am reminded again how amazing these students are and how much I learn from them every year. I wrote recently about one student who wrote a simply stunning meditation on education. Today I will be meeting with two students about their senior projects. One is a profound, often personal, and yet also deeply mature exploration of loneliness in David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. The other is a genealogy of whistleblowing from T.E. Lawrence to Bradley Manning, arguing that the rise of whistleblowing in the 20th century is both a symptom of and a contributor to the lost facts in public life. Both are testaments to the fact that college can inspire young adults to wrestle meaningfully and intelligently with the world they must confront.
Third, Most students do not attend college because they want to. Of course some do and I have enormous respect for those who embrace the life of the mind that college can nurture. I also respect those who decide that college is not for them. But the simple fact is that too many college students are here thoughtlessly, going through the motions because they are on a track. College has become a stepping stone to a good job which is a stand in for a good life. Nothing wrong with that, but is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of your time simply to get a credential? College students are young and full of energy. Too often they spend four of their most energetic years studying things they don't care about while they sleep late, drink a lot, and generally have a good time. This cannot be the best use of most young people's time.
Fourth, it is not at all clear that college is a good investment. There is no limit of students who tell me that taking out debt for an education is always a good investment. This is usually around the time they want to apply to law school or graduate school. And I can only repeat to them so many times that they are simply wrong. Finally, the press is catching up to this fact, and we are treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about the dangers of student debt. College debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 Trillion, more than credit card debt (although far smaller than mortgage debt). The problem is widespread, as 94% percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993. And the problem is deep: The average debt in 2011 was $23,300. For 10% of college graduates, their debt is crippling, as they owe more than $54,000. Three percent owe more than $100,000.
The most egregious debt traps are still the for-profit colleges, which serve the working classes who cannot afford more expensive non-profit colleges. These schools prey on the perception, partly true, that career advancement requires a college degree. But now even public universities and private elite colleges are increasingly graduating students with high debt loads. And then there are law schools and culinary schools, which increasingly graduate indebted and trained professionals into a world in which does not need them.
he result is as sad as it is predictable. Nearly 1 in 9 young graduate borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. This is about double the rate in 2005. The numbers vary: 15% of recent graduates from for-profit schools are in default. Also 7.2% of public university graduations and 4.6% of private university graduates are defaulting. Each of these groups requires a separate analysis and discussion. And yet overall, we are burdening way too many young people with debts that will plague them their entire lives.
Fifth, to defend college education as a good investment is not simply questionable economically. It also is to devalue the idea of education for its own sake and insist that college is an economic rather than an intellectual experience. One unintended consequence of the expansion of college to a wider audience of strivers is that a college education is decidedly an economic and bourgeois experience, less and less an intellectual adventure. Was college ever Arcadia? Surely not. For much of American history college has been a benefit reserved for the upper classes. And yet to turn education into a commodity, to make it part of the life process of making a living, does further delimit the available spaces for the life of the mind in our society.
Sixth, college is not necessary to make us either moral or enlightened citizens. College education does not make us better people. There are plenty of amazing people in the world who have had not studied Aristotle or learned genetics in college. The United States was built on the tradition of the yeoman farmer, that partly mythical but also real person who worked long days, saved, and treated people honorably.
Morality, as Hannah Arendt never tired of pointing out, is not gained by education. Or as Kant once pointed out to a certain Professor Sulzer in a footnote to his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, morality can only be taught by example, not through study. Arendt agreed. She saw that many of those who acted most honorably during WWII were not the intellectuals, but common people who simply understood that killing neighbors or shooting Jews was inhuman. What is more, it was often the intellectuals who provided themselves and others with the complex and quasi-scientific rationalizations for genocide. To think rationally, and even to use a current buzzword, to think critically, is no barrier to doing evil. Critical thinking—the art of making distinctions—is no guarantee of goodness.
Seventh, college cannot and should not replace a failed primary and high school system. Our primary schools are a disgrace and then we spend a fortune on remedial education in community colleges and even in four-year colleges, trying to educate people who have been failed by their public schools. We would do much better to take a large part of the billions and billions of public dollars we spend on higher education and put them towards a radical restoration of our public grammar and high schools. If we actually taught people in grammar schools and pushed them to excel in high schools, they would graduate prepared to hold meaningful jobs and also to be thoughtful citizens. Maybe then a college education could then be both less necessary and more valuable.
Bard College, which houses the Hannah Arendt Center, has been engaged for years in creating public high schools that are also early colleges. The premise is that high school students are ready for college level work, and there is nothing to prevent them from doing that. These Bard High School Early Colleges are public high schools staffed by professors with Ph.D's who teach the same courses we teach at Bard College. In four years, students must complete an entire four-year high school curriculum and a two-year college curriculum. They then receive a Bard Associates Degree at graduation, in addition to their high school diploma. This Associates degree —which is free— can either reduce the cost of graduation from a four-year college or replace it altogether.
Early colleges are not the single answer for our crisis of education. But they do point in one direction. Money spent on really reforming high schools and even primary schools will do so much more to educate a broad, racially diverse, and economically underprivileged cohort of young people than any effort to reform or subsidize colleges and universities. The primary beneficiaries of the directing public money to colleges rather than high schools are Professors and administrators. I benefit from such subsidies and appreciate them. But that does mean I think them right or sensible.
We would be much better off if we redirected our resources and attention to primary and secondary education, which are failing miserably, and stopped obsessing so about college. Most college graduates, wherever they go, will learn something from their four or more years of classes. But the mantra that one only becomes a full human being by going to college is not only false. It also is dangerous.
Professor Stevens response to my post on genetically choosing traits in our offspring suggests that I, and Arendtians (whatever such a thing may be) think "technology is inimical to nature, and therefore undesirable." He diagnoses a fear of technology, and, it seems, a nostalgia for a pre-technological age.
In the thinking of Arendt and her followers, it seems that changes in 'humanity' -- especially changes caused by technology and its interdependence with modern government -- lead automatically to 'inhumanity', i.e., to an undesirable absence of what is figured as having been, so far, human nature.
The point of concern is not that technology brings change. Far from it. I can't imagine any reader of mine or of Arendt's--to take one example, her paean to revolutions in On Revolution-- thinking her inimical to change. She values, above all, spontaneity and creativity and thus the possibility for the emergence of the new.
The points I hoped to make in my post were:
1. That one essential characteristic of humanity is that human beings are subject to chance, change, newness, and unpredictability. Now this is not a claim about some natural inborn human nature. But it does say that humans, if they are to be human, exist in such a way that the world can be surprising and new. If Christians thought humans were created by God and Kant saw humans as rational beings, Arendt thought that humans, at the very least, were free to act in surprising ways.
2. This is not at all anti-technological. On the contrary, Arendt distinguishes humans from animals precisely because humans can create and build an artificial world. In other words, there is no human civilization with technologies and without a built and fabricated world. Only animals live in a purely natural existence. Humans make their world.
3. What is worrisome in the age of modern science is not technology and not fabrication, but the increasing possibility that human creative powers will become so great that the human power to create an artificial world will overtake the human itself as something given, freely existing by a mystery impervious to human mastery.
I doubt very much that humans will ever extinguish the mystery of human being. And yet, I do believe that the spaces of freedom in our time are shrinking greatly. The dream to control our fate by purchasing our progeny in a genetic boutique will not lead to homogeneity. People will pick differently. Nor will it lead to dominance by one class, since life is impossible to fully control. But it does move us further down the road towards a time when the selection of human qualities is so rationalized by an artificially intelligent mind that the mysterious quintessence of humanity is forgotten.