Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
31May/150

Amor Mundi 5/31/15

Arendtamormundi

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upA Title IX Inquisition

title ixLaura Kipnis wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on sexual paranoia in the academy. She argued that new campus sexual misconduct codes "infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives." She also asserted that "students' expanding sense of vulnerability, and new campus policies that fostered it, was actually impeding their educations as well as their chances of faring well in postcollegiate life, where a certain amount of resilience is required of us all." Students at her university, Northwestern, protested. Instead of responding to her arguments, they filed a petition with the University President to have her disciplined. Two students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis, suggesting that her published essay "had a 'chilling effect' on students' ability to report sexual misconduct." Kipnis, noting the irony that such Title IX cases are having a chilling effect on professors and academic freedom, quickly found herself immersed in the non-transparent quasi-legal world of the Title IX kangaroo courts: "I'd plummeted into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules, and I wasn't supposed to tell anyone about it.... The Title IX bureaucracy is expanding by the minute. A recent emailed update from my university announced new policies, programs, hires, surveys, procedures, websites, and educational initiatives devoted to sexual misconduct. What wasn't quantified is how much intellectual real estate is being grabbed in the process. It's a truism that the mission of bureaucracies is, above all, to perpetuate themselves, but with the extension of Title IX from gender discrimination into sexual misconduct has come a broadening of not just its mandate but even what constitutes sexual assault and rape. Ambivalent sex becomes coerced sex, with charges brought months or even years after the events in question. Title IX officers now adjudicate an increasing range of murky situations involving mutual drunkenness, conflicting stories, and relationships gone wrong. They pronounce on the thorniest of philosophical and psychological issues: What is consent? What is power? Should power differentials between romantic partners be proscribed? Should eliminating power differences in relationships even be a social goal--wouldn't that risk eliminating heterosexuality itself?" What is often forgotten in the debate around Title IX is that bureaucracies Title IX has spawned are aimed not simply at the real problem of rape and the potential problems of ambiguous sexual relations but also at the discussion, writing, or reading of anything sexual. There is a desire to make college campuses safe, not merely physically safe but intellectually safe, which flies in the face of the very idea of a university. Kipnis' essay is more than worth reading to see how the Title IX bureaucracy is morphing and expanding to insist upon intellectual and political conformity. And you can read a draft of my new essay discussing campus Title IX sexual misconduct codes here.

The Windows of Our Souls

window soulColson Whitehead interrogates our obsession with photographs in an iPhone world, arguing in the NY Times Magazine that pictures offer a window into our souls. "Lynching photography proves the enduring truth of the phrase 'The eyes are the window of the soul.' In a 1919 picture of the burning corpse of William Brown, for example, dozens of men pose for the camera while the body is consumed by flames in the foreground. One man knows which is his 'best side' and offers his strong right profile to the lens. Some of the men are smiling over their accomplishment. One boy touches his fingers to his chin thoughtfully, his lips curled in amusement. What do we see in their eyes, what glimpse of their souls? Pure American darkness. 'When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.' That was Nietzsche, and he could have been describing the scene at the lynching of Rubin Stacy in 1935. It was an all-ages affair. In the intimate photograph, Stacy hangs from a tree, while a few feet away two young girls of 5 or 6 squint up at his limp body, their faces covered by a shadow. Another girl, a bit older, is more adventuresome and stands closer to the dangling man. She grins up at his corpse. Given her youth at the time of the picture, she may still be alive today, occasionally sifting through her box of souvenirs to reminisce. There were plenty of pics, and yet it didn't matter. 'Or it didn't happen' is a colossal mandate, undermining the brutalities that escape the lens. Certainly the current surfeit of footage chronicling lethal encounters doesn't speak to an increase in incidents, but merely an increase in our ability to capture and transmit. 'Or it didn't happen' erases all those victimized when there was no one present to record, the thousands of human beings strung up when there was no one to testify for them. When there was no one to say, This is our history, whether we want to remember it or not."

Government Jobs and the Black Middle Class

black middle classAmidst all the articles and analyses of the Great Recession over the last seven years, only a few pointed out the racial implications, that the retreat of public sector jobs and the attacks on public sector unions (whether right or wrong) has had a disproportional and disastrous impact on the Black middle class. Patricia Cohen has an essay in the NY Times that gives the issue some context. "Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. They are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics. 'Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,' said Jennifer Laird, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been researching the subject. During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. An incomplete recovery is part of the reason, but a combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls. At the same time, attempts to curb collective bargaining, like those led by Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have weakened public unions."

Boyhood

Nelson Family Evening Round the Table.Rebecca Onion takes a look at an online archive of 19th century boyhood, a "library" of nearly 60 hand-written books created by the three young Nelson brothers as a way to pass the long New Hampshire winters: "An existing set of 19th-century juvenilia produced by children like the Nelsons--farmers' kids, who lived in a rural setting and didn't go on to become famous authors--is rare. Reading the Nelsons' books, we get a unique perspective on late-19th-century American childhood, learning how farm kids felt about farm work; how young, rural readers processed and remixed the books and magazines they read; and how boys absorbed the era's ideas about manhood. Like the Brontës, the Nelsons created an imaginary world--what scholars call a 'paracosm'--and all of their stories took place inside of it. The Nelsons' paracosm, the Big, Long, and Round Continents, had a history of war and colonization and was undergoing rapid and enthusiastic infrastructural development and agricultural improvement. This backdrop provided plenty of room for adventure stories, but also for world-building of a more prosaic nature. Most of the publications that the Nelsons created were for imaginary readers who lived on one of the continents: newspapers like the Chit-Chat, which reported on the visits of residents of one continent to another; seed catalogs trumpeting varieties specially adapted to the growing conditions in an imaginary place; and 'history' books remembering military events like the fictional Battle of Poplington. The Nelsons were influenced by the print culture they had access to in rural New Hampshire. The town had a library during the years that the Nelsons were producing their books, though we don't know which titles that library held. (Walter Nelson, who wrote a history of Goshen in 1957, described the collection that formed the basis for the town library of the 1890s as 'rather extensive and cosmopolitan.') A few years after the boys ceased production on their collaborative writings, Elmer, the oldest brother, wrote a school assignment on the topic 'My Library'; from this composition we know that the Nelsons liked to read adventure fiction. Elmer mentioned Uncle Tom's Cabin ('intensely interesting'), one Oliver Optic book, a few James Fenimore Coopers, and Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff ('I consider [it] far ahead of some of his book[s] like "A Trip to Moon" [sic] "Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea"'). Elmer wrote that he liked adventure books 'both for the story and for the word Pictures which I get of foreign or distant places.' 'Perhaps [because] I am restless whatever the season,' he wrote, 'such books interest me.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upCroesus' World

human rightsSamuel Moyn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a critique of human rights that begins with the ancient King Croesus: "Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus, after the king of ancient lore who, Herodotus says, was so 'wonderfully rich' that he 'thought himself the happiest of mortals.' Impossibly elevated above his fellow men and women, this modern Croesus is also magnanimous. He does not want people to starve, and not only because he needs some of them for the upkeep of his global estate. Croesus insists on a floor of protection, so that everyone living under his benevolent but total ascendancy can escape destitution. Health, food, water, even paid vacations, Croesus funds them all." Croesus' world is, Moyn argues, largely the world of human rights, one in which a tiny rich minority applauds itself for keeping the vast majority alive and free from torture and the worst deprivations. Human rights offers a floor, but little more. Gone in a world where human rights represents our vision of the good is a vibrant vision of social democracy or welfarism. Thus human rights has little or nothing to offer in the fight against inequality. "After the 1970s, Croesus' world came closer and closer to being a reality, for his dreams became our dreams. To the extent that a utopia of justice survived, it was global but minimal, allowing for the worst state abuses to be decried, while in the socioeconomic domain it pictured a floor of protection without a ceiling on inequality. Whatever its potential in theory, the human rights movement adapted in practice to the new ambiance. For one thing, the idea of human rights followed the transformation of political economy to a global outlook. Further, activists no longer gave priority to the agency of states to launch and manage national welfare but rather to the rights of individuals to be free from harm and to enjoy a rudimentary government that averts disaster and abjection. In the economic realm, social equality was forsaken as an ideal. In exchange for its cosmopolitanism, the human rights movement abandoned postwar egalitarianism in both theory and practice."

Comedy as Commentary

amy schumerMegan Garber suggests that, in the internet age, to be a comedian may mean being a public intellectual: "The point of comedy has always been, on some level, a kind of productive subversion. Observational comedy, situational comedy, slapstick comedy, comedy that both enlightens and offends--these are forms of creative destruction, at their height and in their depths, and they've long allowed us to talk about things that taboos, or at the very least taste, might otherwise preclude. Long before Jon Stewart came along, there was Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers and George Carlin. There were people who used laughter as a lubricant for cultural conversations--to help us to talk about the things that needed to be talked about. The difference now, though, is that comedians are doing their work not just in sweaty clubs or network variety shows or cable sitcoms, but also on the Internet. Wherever the jokes start--Comedy Central, The Tonight Show, Marc Maron's garage--they will end up, eventually and probably immediately, living online. They will, at their best, go 'really, insanely viral.' The frenzy to post a John Oliver rant after it airs on HBO has become a cliché at this point; its effect, though, is to create a kind of tentacular influence for an otherwise niche comedy show. Some people may watch Oliver's stuff live, or DVRed; but most watch it while riding the bus, or waiting for a meeting, or eating a sad desk lunch, delivered via Facebook or Twitter or the Huffington Post. Most people watch Schumer's stuff that way, too. And Wilmore's. And Stewart's. Comedy, like so much else in the culture, now exists largely of, by, and for the Internet. Which is to say that there are two broad things happening right now--comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention--and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They're exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They're sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They're providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day. Amy Schumer on misogyny, Key and Peele on terrorism, Louis C.K. on parenting, Sarah Silverman on Rand Paul, John Oliver on FIFA ... these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers--as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment."

The End of History

isis cultural destructionFrederick Bohrer places the recent destruction of Iraqi antiquities by ISIS into a global context: "The destruction of artworks and antiquities is hardly the unique behavior of a single group much less an essential property of any culture. We can recall the allied bombs that dropped on the Dresden Museum as on that of Baghdad, or the savage shelling of the Parthenon by Venetian armies that resulted in the disastrous collapse of its roof. If we had a video of the almost complete destruction during the French Revolution of the legendary medieval church of Cluny, or similar devastations wreaked on St. Denis or Notre Dame, it would likely have much the same effect as that of ISIS. Moreover, to any listing of secular destructions in the West must be added those of religious authorities, such as the systematic and wholesale destructions of images under the periods of Byzantine iconoclasm. As in ISIS', these attacks on the human image were accompanied by attacks on humans themselves in a long-running history of mutilations of the bodies of enemies--blinding, castration, rhinokopia (cutting off the nose), and more. Of course, the murderous activities on behalf of Christianity are hardly confined to Byzantium. The French wars of religion in the 17th century slaughtered as many as 4 million people. The massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in Paris alone, in 1572, was responsible for the deaths of up to 30,000 lives of French Huguenots. For that event, 'The Pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung as special Thanksgiving (a practice continued for many years after) [...].' Accordingly, there is no unique Islamic propensity to perpetual iconoclasm and violence, much less one to be contrasted with a civilized and 'iconophilic' West. Rather, there are enough crimes to go around."

All Day, Everyday

everyday bordersThe short film Everyday Borders tracks "bordering from the margin into the center, from the extraordinary to the everyday life," which in the wake of the UK's 2014 immigration act "is threatening to destroy the conviviality of pluralist, metropolitan London and multicultural Britain in general," says Nira Yuval-Davis in the film's opening minutes. It goes on to consider what it means to be British, while not looking so, in an environment that encourages citizen surveillance and restricts the actions and movement of Britons, naturalized or not, within Britain.

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #9

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

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

Friday, June 5, 2015

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

 

 


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

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


From the Arendt Center Blog

human conditionThis week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson uses Arendt and David Eggers' The Circle to understand man's quest to free himself from nature and to infinitely expand his knowledge in the Quote of the Week. C. S. Lewis distinguishes a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth from one committed to finding comfort in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Hannah Arendt's copy of The Foundations of music in human consciousness in this week's Library feature.

This coming Friday, June 5th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the ninth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 24-26 of The Human Condition.

The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more, including how you can join!

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
9Jul/130

MOOCs, Sufi Devotion, and the Ethics of “Presence”

ArendtEducation

The recent ascendance of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has generated considerable enthusiasm among college faculty members and administrators. But it has also created a great deal of anxiety, as Nathan Heller notes in his recent article “Laptop U,” which appeared in the May 20 edition of The New Yorker. Among their other concerns—the elevation of star professors at the expense of other faculty, the difficulty of evaluating student learning, the elimination of large numbers of academic jobs—skeptics fear that MOOCs will diminish if not eliminate in-class discussion. For academics like Harvard professor Peter Burgard,

“College education in general is sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

I sympathize with these sentiments, and I worry about the impact of MOOCs on the teaching and learning that occur in the most stimulating college classrooms. And yet I also feel that MOOC detractors have not stated their objections with the necessary precision. What specific work does in-class discussion do? And what in particular is lost if it is not a central element of education? The critics of large-scale online courses rarely provide cogent answers to these questions.

mooc

The current debate would profit, I think, from a wider frame of reference, one that might throw into relief some of the premises that animate the skeptics’ position. One far-flung but potentially illuminating starting point occurred to me as I was reading Brian Silverstein’s book Islam and Modernity in Turkey (2011), which examines one Istanbul-based branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Like other adherents of Sufism, Naqshbandis rely on a series of devotional techniques to cultivate their habits and sensibilities as observant Muslims. Since the emergence of the order in the fourteenth century, these techniques have been grounded in the practice and reasoning of the Islamic tradition. In the past two decades, however, they have also come to be articulated with mass media technologies in telling ways.

One of the most important means of cultivating Islamic devotion for Turkish Naqshbandis is the sohbet, which Silverstein translates as “companionship-in-conversation.” The sohbet is typically structured around the oral reading and explication of hadith (accounts of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by a sheikh, a mature master who acts as a model and guide for the order’s rank-and-file disciples. The content of the sheikh’s discourse—that is, the hadith he recites and the interpretation he provides—certainly furthers the spiritual knowledge of the devotees who attend him. But this aspect of the sohbet is ultimately less significant than the social relationships that are formed during the skeikh’s address. For many Naqshbandis, the sohbet is first and foremost a means of creating the companionships that help to form the dispositions, emotions, and habits of pious Muslim selves.

In Silverstein’s analysis, the sohbet is embedded in both the Islamic and broadly Aristotelian traditions. On the one hand, Naqshbandis trace the sohbet to the exemplary practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who also sought to impart his teachings through companionship and conversation with his disciples. In the process, Naqshbandis attribute particular authority to the oral—as opposed to written or scriptural—transmission of ethical instruction, a stance that accords with the centrality of spoken revelation and recitation in Islam more generally. For these and other reasons, Naqshbandis do not regard their devotion as opposed to Sunni Muslim orthodoxy, a point that distinguishes them from some other Sufi orders (not to mention romantic Western accounts of Sufi mysticism).

On the other hand, Naqshbandis follow classical Greek thinkers, including Aristotle, in conceiving and pursuing the sohbet as a mode of ethical action. Rather than merely conveying a set of ideas or beliefs, the sohbet is a “spiritual exercise” that forms and molds practitioners’ sensibilities in line with a particular vision of the virtuous life. When viewed in this light, communal conversations with a sheikh provide one key means for disciples to work on themselves, to train their emotions and desires, so that they might become more pious in the eyes of God. Yet individual devotees do not pursue such self-cultivation in isolation. Instead, the sohbet harnesses social relations so that the sheikh and his disciples, in and through their companionship, come to influence one another’s dispositions in edifying ways. The sohbet thereby constitutes, to use Silverstein’s apt phrase, a “discipline of presence.” It is a project of concerted ethical self-formation that relies heavily on oral, face-to-face interaction.

Significantly, this mode of devotion has been transformed as Naqshbandis have engaged more intensively with mass media technologies. In particular, the branch of the order studied by Silverstein launched its own radio station in 1994. In addition to other kinds of programming, it regularly broadcast live and pre-recorded sohbets of several prominent sheikhs. At least in the station’s early years, these sohbets drew sizable audiences. Many of the order’s adherents eventually came to perceive, however, that the radio sohbets lacked the compelling intimacy and force of their face-to-face counterparts. Although listeners appreciated the fact that the sohbets were now more widely accessible, many nevertheless lamented that disciples were no longer in the oral, face-to-face presence of the sheikh or, for that matter, a community of fellow devotees. Moreover, many of them came to regard the radio sohbets less as a spiritual exercise and more as a “service” (hizmet) that injected Islamic informational content into a wider public sphere.

In short, mass media transmission had substantially altered the social relations and contexts that had been central to the sohbet’s status as a discipline of presence. Many Naqshbandis came to question radio sohbets’ ability to mold their sensibilities as Muslims, and they worried about the effects that this transformation of sheiks’ authority, and the order’s sociability, would have on its members’ ethical conduct.

There are, to be sure, several obvious differences we could highlight between Naqshbandi devotion and American higher education. Perhaps above all, Naqshbandis are engaged in practices that we commonly define as “religious,” while American professors and students are participating in a process that we widely regard as “secular” and “liberal.” And yet we can also observe important parallels between the two groups’ activities and the concerns that at least some of their members express about mass mediation. In particular, some members of both groups attribute particular importance to the face-to-face discourse that occurs between a figure of spiritual or intellectual authority and her or his attendees. Some members of both groups also feel that the quality of their devotional or educational practice is lessened when it is channeled into mass media formats that diminish the role of face-to-face discourse.

sufti

This comparison has important implications for MOOC skeptics and, perhaps, for all of us who participate in American higher education. In particular, it suggests that college instruction is not only or even primarily a process of conveying information (ideas, concepts, arguments, frameworks, theories, etc.) from teachers to students. Rather, it is a mode of ethical self-formation like the sohbet, one that does not merely form “educated” habits and sensibilities, but one works best through particular modes of oral, face-to-face intercourse. In other words, it too is a discipline of presence.

If that is the case, then there is reason to be concerned about the proliferation of large-scale online education. It threatens to undercut the very social relations and modes of discourse through which educated sensibilities, at least in favorable circumstances, have been cultivated in the past. But this line of argument then makes it incumbent on MOOC skeptics to outline their vision of the virtuous life, to specify the ethical aims that in their estimation guide (or should guide) American higher education. In the end, then, it is not enough for the critics of MOOCs to praise the “chemistry” of in-class discussion. They must also clarify the philosophical, even “spiritual” project for which such chemistry is to be mobilized.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
25Jan/130

Labor of Love

China has embraced the idea of a Western college education in a big way.  As the NY Times reported recently, the country is making a $250 billion-a-year investment designed to give millions of young Chinese citizens a college education. “Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.”

But for most of these newly minted college graduates, jobs are scarce. One reason is that these graduates often have few marketable skills and they refuse to take the jobs that actually exist. What China needs are people to work in factories. But for college graduates, factory work has little or even no allure.

Forbes Conrad for the New York Times

Consider the case of Wang Zengsong.

Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Mr. Wang, 25, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard.

But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Mr. Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages.

“I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked.

This story is actually not unique to China. In the United States too, we here repeatedly that small businesses are unable to expand because they cannot find qualified workers. The usual reprise is that high school graduates don’t have the skills. Rarely asked is why college graduates don’t apply? I assume the reason is the same as in China. College graduates see production work as beneath them.

Plenty of college graduates, many with debt, are interning for free or working odd jobs that pay little; yet they do not even consider learning a skill and taking a job that would require them to build something. Just like their comrades in China, these young people identify as knowledge workers, not as fabricators. For them, a job making things is seen as a step down. Something that is beneath them.

Disdain for manual labor combined with respect for cognitive work is the theme of Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Craft as Soul Craft, based on his article by the same name that appeared in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Crawford’s writing is rich and his thinking profound. But boiled down, I took three main points from his book and article.

First, there is a meaningful and thoughtful component to manual labor. To make something is not thoughtless, but requires both skill and intelligence. This is true if you are building a table, where you must think about the shape, functionality, and aesthetics of a table. But even in factory work, there is the challenge of figuring out how to do something better. And in the modern factory, labor demands technical skill, problem solving, and creativity.  Whether you are building a house or making a battery, making things requires thought. What is more, it is good for the soul. Here is how Crawford writes about the soul benefits of craft:

Hobbyists will tell you that making one’s own furniture is hard to justify economically. And yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future. Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions. More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says. “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”

Arendt values those who make things, especially things that last, because lasting objects give permanence to our world. And such workers who make things are above all thinkers in her understanding. Work is the process of transfiguring the idea of something into a real and reliable object.

But even laborers who make consumable goods are, for Arendt, doing deeply human activity. To be human has been, for time immemorial, also to labor, to produce the goods one needs to live. A life without labor is impoverished and “the blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence.”  Granted, in repetitive factory labor these blessings may seem obscure, but then again, Dilbert has taught us much about the supposed blessings of office work as well.

Second, Crawford tells the story of how schools in the U.S. have done away with shop classes, home economics, and auto-repair, all classes I and many others took in junior high and high school. In the pursuit of college preparation, education has ceased to value the blessings of labor and work.

Third, Crawford argues that in a global economy it will be work with out hands and not just work with our brains that pays well. When legal analysis can be outsourced or replaced by robots as easily as phone operators, the one kind of job that will remain necessary for humans is repair work, fixing things, and building things. Such work requires the combination of mental and physical dexterity that machines will unlikely reach for a very long time. Thus, Crawford argues that by emptying our schools of training in handwork, we are not only intellectually impoverishing our students, but also failing to train them for the kinds of jobs that will actually exist in the future.

Many of my students might now agree. I have former students who have written excellent senior theses on Emerson and Heidegger now working on Organic farms or learning the trade of gourmet cheese production. Others are making specialty furniture. One is even making a new custom-built conference table for the Hannah Arendt Center here at Bard. These students love what they do and are making good livings doing it. They are enriching the world with meaningful objects and memories that they are producing, things they can share as gifts and sell with pride.

Many of the best jobs out there now are in the specialty craft areas. These jobs require thought and creativity, but also experience with craftsmanship and labor. Crawford does not argue against training people well in the liberal arts, but he does raise important questions about our valuation of intellectual over manual labor. We here in the U.S. as well as our friends in China should pay attention. Perhaps we need to rethink our intellectual aversion to production. Maybe we should even begin again to teach crafts and skills in school.

Crawford will be speaking at the next Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Educated Citizen” on Oct. 3-4, at Bard College. We invite you to join us. Until then, I commend to you his book or at least his essay; Shop Craft as Soul Craft is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".