At Duke University and the University of North Carolina, two highly popular professors have transformed their course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue into a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that is taken by 170,000 people from all over the world at one time. This is old news. There is nothing to worry about when hundreds of thousands of people around the world watch flashy lectures by top professors on how to think and argue. Better such diversions than playing Temple Run. There are advantages and benefits from MOOCs and other forms of computer learning. And we should not run scared from MOOCs.
But the alacrity with which universities are adopting MOOCs as a way of cutting costs and marketing themselves as international brands harbors a danger too. The danger is not that more people will watch MOOCs or that MOOCs might be used to convey basic knowledge inside or outside of universities. No, the real danger in MOOCs is that watching a professor on your Ipad becomes confused with education.
You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:
We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.
If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will over time be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. There is no reason that computers or televisions can’t convey knowledge as well or even better than humans. Insofar as professors and colleges imagine themselves to be in the “business of creating and disseminating knowledge,” they will be replaced by computers. And it will be their own fault.
The rising popularity of MOOCs must be understood not as a product of new technology, but as a response to the failure of our universities. As Scott Newstock has argued, the basic principle behind MOOCs is hardly new. Newstock quotes one prominent expert who argues that the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." What you might not expect is that this prediction was made in 1885. "The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses." What Newstock’s provocation shows is that efforts to replace education with knowledge dissemination have been around for centuries. But they have failed, at least until now.
MOOCs are so popular today because of the sadly poor quality of much—but certainly not all—college and university education. Around the country there are cavernous lecture halls filled with many hundreds of students. A lone professor stands up front, often with a PowerPoint presentation in a darkened room. Students have their computers open. Some are taking notes, but many are checking Facebook or surfing the Internet. Some are asleep. And others did not bother to show up, since the professor has posted his or her lecture notes online so that students can just read them instead of making the effort to make it to class. Such lectures may be half-decent ways to disseminate knowledge. Some lectures are better than others. But not much learning goes on in such lectures that can’t be simply replicated more efficiently and maybe even better on a computer. It is in this context that advocates of MOOCs are correct. When one compares a large lecture course with a well-designed online course, it may very well be that the online course is a superior educational venture. That it is cheaper too makes the advance of MOOCs seemingly inevitable.
As I have written here before, the best argument for MOOCs is that they may finally put the large and impersonal college lecture course out of its misery. There is no reason to be nostalgic for the lecture course. It was never a very good idea. Aside from a few exceptional lecturers—in my world I can think of the reputations of Hegel, his student Eduard Gans, Martin Heidegger, and, of course, Hannah Arendt—college lectures are largely an economical way to allow masses of students to acquire basic introductory knowledge in a field. If the masses are now more massive and the lectures more accessible, I’ll accept that as progress.
What this means is that there is an opportunity, at this moment, to embrace MOOCs as a disruptive force that will allow us to re-dedicate our universities and colleges to the practice of education as opposed to the business of knowledge dissemination. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.
“Education,” as Martin Luther King wrote, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born. (I have written more about King’s thoughts on education here).
In her essay “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes that education must have a double aspect. First, education leads a new young person into an already existing world. The world is that which is there before the child was born and will continue to exist after the child dies. It is the common world of things, stories, and experiences in which all of us spend our lives. All children, as newcomers who are born into a world that is at first strange to them, must be led into the already existing world. They must be taught to speak a common language, respect common values, see the same facts, and hear the same stories. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In its first aspect, then, education must protect the world from “the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation.” This is the conservationist function of education: to conserve the common world against the rebelliousness of the new. And this is why Arendt writes, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”
At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.
Now is the time to use the disruption around MOOCs to rethink and re-invigorate our commitment to education and not simply to the dissemination of knowledge. This will not be easy.
A case in point is the same Duke University Course mentioned above, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” In a recent article by Michael Fitzgerald, the Professors— Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke and Ram Neta of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill— describe how teaching their MOOC led them to radically re-conceive how they teach in physical university classrooms. Here is Fitzgerald:
“The big shift: far fewer in-class lectures. Students will watch the lectures on Coursera beginning Monday. "Class will become a time for activities and also teamwork," said Sinnott-Armstrong. He's devised exercises to help on-campus students engage with the concepts in the class, including a college bowl-like competition, a murder mystery night and a scavenger hunt, all to help students develop a deeper understanding of the material presented in the lectures. "You can have these fun activities in the classroom when you're not wasting the classroom time with the lectures," he said.”
What we see here is that the mass appeal of MOOCs and their use as a way of replacing lectures is not being seized as an opportunity to make education more serious, but as an excuse to make college more fun. That professors at two of this country’s elite universities see it as progress that classes are replaced by murder mystery games and scavenger hunts is evidence of a profound confusion between education and infotainment. I have no doubt that much can be learned through fun and games. Children learn through games and it makes all the sense in the world that Finland allows children in schools to play until they are seven or eight years old. Even in primary or at times in secondary school, simulations and games may be useful. But there is a limit. Education, at least higher education, is not simply fun and games in the pursuit of knowledge.
As Arendt understood, education requires that students be nurtured and allowed to grow into adults who think for themselves in a serious and engaged way about the world. This is one reason Arendt is so critical of reformist pedagogy that seeks to stimulate children—especially older children in secondary schools and even college—to learn through play. When we teach children a foreign language through games instead of through grammar or when we make them learn history by playing computer games instead of by reading and studying, we “keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level. The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood.” The same can be said of university courses that adopt the juvenile means of primary and secondary education.
The reasons for such a move to games in the classroom are many. Games are easy, students love them, and thus they fill massive classes, leading to superstar professors who can command supersized salaries. What is more, games work. You can learn a language through games. But games rarely teach seriousness and independence of thought.
The rise of MOOCs and the rise of fun in the college classroom are part of the trend to reduce education to a juvenile pursuit. One hardly needs an advanced degree to oversee a scavenger hunt or prepare students to take a test. And scavenger hunts, as useful as they may be in making learning fun, will hardly inculcate the independence of mind and strength of character that will produce self-thinking citizens capable of renewing the common world.
The question of how to address the crisis in education today—the fact that an ever more knowledgeable population with greatest access to information than at any time in the history of the world is perhaps the most politically illiterate citizenry in centuries—is the theme of the upcoming Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.” In preparation for the conference, you can do nothing better than to re-read Hannah Arendt’s essay, "The Crisis in Education." You can also buy Between Past and Future the book of essays in which it appears. However you read it, "The Crisis in Education" is your weekend read.
“[Augustine] distinguishes between the questions of "Who am I?" and "What am I?" the first being directed by man at himself […] For in the "great mystery," the grande profundum, which man is (iv. 14), there is "something of man [aliquid hominis] which the spirit of man which is in him itself knoweth not. But Thou, Lord, who has made him [fecisti eum] knowest everything of him [eius omnia]" (x. 5).”
-Hannah Arendt, Human Condition
In the Human Condition Arendt raises major concerns about the place of man but she does not intend to respond to the loss of the earth as a unique human condition with a restoration of solid ground. To the question “What am I?” the only answer is: “You are a man—whatever that may be.” In lieu of an answer that would give man a new foundation, Arendt offers a description of man's ever changing territory.
Following Augustine, Arendt claims that only God could have the distance to answer the question of "who" man is with anything resembling a concrete statement of human nature. She respects the unknown “spirit of man,” even beyond the knowledge provided by religion.
When philosophy attempts to answer this question, it ends up creating its own image of a higher power, which remains linked through projection to man. Importantly though, philosophy should still ask the question.
Some context can help to open Arendt's question here for readers in English speaking countries where philosophical anthropology never gained the same traction as in Germany. Her challenge picks up on the heated debates of the 1920s and 30s over how to take the collapse of universal values seriously without falling back to simple subjectivism that culminated in the work of Husserl and Heidegger.
In the space of four pages of Being and Time (46-49), Martin Heidegger specifies his criticism with reference to Dilthey, Bergson, Scheler, and Husserl, as well as views from ancient Greek philosophy and Genesis. Heidegger says he has focused his analytic of Dasein on the question of Being and that it cannot therefore provide the fully ontological basis of Dasein needed for "'philosophical' anthropology'" but states that part of his goal is to "make such an anthropology possible." Later though, in section 10, Heidegger provides a further explanation of his criticism of anthropology: in "the attempt to determine the essence of 'man,' as an entity, the question of Being has been forgotten."
In its turn to experience and consciousness, philosophical anthropology forgets to ask the question of ontological definition of perceptual experience (cogitationes). Heidegger thus suggests that his investigation might provide the basis for an anthropology but does not claim to actually deliver this basis. He opens the question of the definition of man, but does so to orient man (recast as Dasein) toward his relation to Being. In a parallel manner, we can understand Arendt's reading of Augustine as opening the question of the relation between the "who" and “what” man is, but not closing it. Her work here is provocative because it can not be said to be in the service of a simple secularization that removes a higher power for human measure. Nor does she wish to save or restore divine guarantee. Perhaps Augustine allows her to pose similar questions of philosophical anthropology to those raised by Heidegger, but to win some distance from her teacher so that she can open a new space of freedom of action rather than freedom of thought.
The word designating military drones comes from the word for bee. This is true all over the world, in countless languages. Partly because of this linguistic consistency, it is a common misperception that drones take their name from the buzzing sound when unmanned aircraft fill the air. More accurately, however, drones trace their etymological lineage to the male honey-bee that is called a drone. The male drone-bee is distinguished from the female worker-bees. It does no useful work and has one single function: to impregnate the queen-bee. What unites military drones with their apiary namesakes is not sound, but thoughtless purposefulness.
The beauty of the drone-bee—like the dark beauty of the military drone—is its single-minded purpose. It is a miracle of efficiency, designed to do one thing. The drone-bee is not distracted by the perfume of flowers or the contentment of labor. It is born, lives, and dies with only one task in mind. Similarly, the military drone suffers neither from hunger nor from distraction. It does what it is told. If necessary, it will sacrifice itself for its mission. It is a model of thoughtless efficiency.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Ernst Jünger’s novel The Glass Bees, in which a brilliant inventor produces tiny flying glass bees that offer limitless potential for surveillance and war. Today I turn to Jake Kosek’s recent paper “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.” Kosek does not cite Jünger’s novel, and yet his article is in many ways its non-fiction sequel. What Kosek sees is that the rise of drones in military strategy is tied deeply to their ability to mimic the activity and demeanor of male honey-bees. It is because bees can fly, swarm, change direction, alter their course, and yet achieve their single purpose absent any intentionality or thinking that bees are so useful in modern warfare.
Bees have long been associated with military endeavors, both metaphorically and literally. Kosek tells that our word bomb comes from the Greek bombos, which means bee. The first bombs were, it seems, beehives dropped or catapulted into the heart of the enemy camp. Bees are today trained to sniff out toxic chemicals; and beeswax was for generations an essential ingredient in munitions.
In the war on terror, bees have taken on a special significance. The “enemy’s lack of coherence—institutionally, ideologically, and territorially— makes the search for the enemy central to the politics of the war on terror.” War in the war on terror is ever less a contest of armies on the battlefield and is increasingly a war of knowledge. This means that surveillance—for centuries an important complement to battlefield tactics—comes to occupy the core of the modern war on terror. In this regard, drones are essential, as drones can hover in the air unseen for days, gathering essential intelligence on persons, groups, or even whole cities. All the more powerful would be miniature drones that fly through the air unseen and at ground level. That is why Kosek writes that “Intelligence gathering [is] not just limited to psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, and military planners, but [has come] to include biologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, and even entomologists.” What the military use of bees promises is access to information and worlds not previously open to human knowledge. Bees, Kosek writes, are increasingly the model for the modern military.
The advantage of bees is not simply their thoughtlessness, but is found also in their ability to operate as part of a swarm. Current drone technology requires that each drone be controlled by a single pilot. What happens when hundreds of drones must share the airspace around a target? How can drones coordinate their activity? Kosek quotes a private contractor, John Sauter, who says:
“A central aspect of the future of warfare technology is to get networks of machines to operate as self-synchronized war fighting units that can act as complex adaptive systems. . . We want these machines to be fighting units that can operate as reconfigurable swarms that are less mechanical and more organic, less engineered and more grown.”
The point is that drones, be they large or small, must increasingly work in conjunction with each other at a speed and level of nuance that is impossible for human controllers to manage. The result is that we must model the drones of the future on bees.
The scientists working with the Pentagon to create drones that can fly and function like bees are not entomologists, but mathematicians. The DNA of the glass or silicone bees of the future will be complex algorithms inspired by but actually surpassing the ability of swarms “to coordinate and collect small bits of information that can be synchronized to make collective action by drones possible.” Once this is possible, one controller will be able to manage a single drone “and the others adapt, react, and coordinate with that drone.”
Kosek’s article is provocative and fascinating. His ruminations on empire strike me as overdone; his insights about the way our training and use of bees has transformed the bee and the ways that bees are serving as models and inspiration for our own development of new ways to fight wars and solve problems are important. So too is his imagination of the bee as the six-legged soldier of the future. Whether the drones of the future are cyborg bees (as some in Kosek’s article suggest) or mechanical bees as Jünger imagined half a century ago, it is nevertheless the case that thinking about the impact of drones on warfare and human life is enriched by the meditation on the male honeybee. For your weekend read , I offer you Jake Kosek’s “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.”
“The shift from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the coming into being, of nature or life or the universe....Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process, and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their function in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Bookending Arendt’s consideration of the human condition “from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” is her invocation of several “events, ” which she took to be emblematic of the modern world launched by the atomic explosions of the 1940s and the threshold of the modern age that preceded it by several centuries. The event she invokes in the opening pages is the launch of Sputnik in 1957; its companion events are named in the last chapter of the book--the discovery of America, the Reformation, and the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science.
Not once mentioned in The Human Condition, but, as Mary Dietz argued so persuasively in her Turning Operations, palpably present as a “felt absence,” is the event of the Shoah, the “hellish experiment” of the SS concentration camps, which is memorialized today, Yom HaShoah. Reading Arendt’s commentaries on the discovery of the Archimedean point and its application in modern science with the palpably present but textually absent event of the Holocaust in mind sheds new light on the significance of her cautionary tale about the worrying implications of the new techno-science of algorithms and quantum physics and its understanding of nature produced through the experiment.
What happens, she seems to be asking, when the meaning of all “particular things” derives solely from “their function in the over-all process”? If nature in all of its aspects is understood as the inter- (or intra-) related aspects of the overall life process of the universe, does then human existence, as part of nature, become merely one part of that larger process, differing perhaps in degree, but not kind, from any other part?
Recently, “new materialist” philosophers have lauded this so-called “posthumanist” conceptualization of existence, arguing that the anthropocentrism anchoring earlier modern philosophies—Arendt implicitly placed among them?—arbitrarily separates humans from the rest of nature and positions them as masters in charge of the world (universe). By contrast, a diverse range of thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, Diana Coole, and Cary Wolfe have drawn on a variety of philosophical and scientific traditions to re-appropriate and “post-modernize” some form of vitalism. The result is a reformulation of an ontology of process—what Connolly calls “a world of becoming”—as the most accurate way to understand matter’s dynamic and eternal self-unfolding. And, consequentially, it also entails transforming agency from a human capacity of “the will” with its related intentions to a theory of agency of “multiple degrees and sites...flowing from simple natural processes, to human beings and collective social assemblages” with each level and site containing “traces and remnants from the levels from which it evolved,” which “affect [agency’s] operation.” (Connolly, A World Becoming, p. 22, emphasis added). The advantage of a “philosophy/faith of radical immanence or immanent realism,” Connolly argues, is its ability to engage the “human predicament”: “how to negotiate life, without hubris or existential resentment, in a world that is neither providential nor susceptible to consummate mastery. We must explore how to invest existential affirmation in such a world, even as we strive to fend off its worst dangers.”
An implicit ethic of aiming to take better care of the world, “to fold a spirit of presumptive generosity for the diversity of life into your conduct” by not becoming too enamored with human agency resides in this philosophy/faith. In the entanglements she explores between human and non-human materiality—a “heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies” —one can discern similar ethical concerns in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things.” Conceptualizing nature as “an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” Bennett affirms a “vital materiality [that] congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to persevere or prolong their run,” (p. 118, emphasis in the original) where “bodies” connotes all forms of matter. And she contends that this vital materialism can “enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public.” Yet, without some normative criteria for discerning the ways this new materialism can work toward “sustainability,” it is by no means obvious how either a declaration of faith in the “radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the non-human” or having greater “attentiveness to the indispensable foreignness that we are” would lead to a change in political direction toward more gratitude and away from more destructive patterns of production and consumption. The recognition of our vulnerability could just as easily lead to renewed efforts to truncate or even eradicate the “foreignness” within.
Nonetheless, although these and other accounts call for a reconceptualization of concepts of agency and of causality, none pushes as far toward a productivist/performative account of matter and meaning as does Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism.” Drawing out the implications of Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Barad develops a theory of how “subjects” and “objects” are produced as apparently separable entities by “specific material configurings of the world” which enact “boundaries, properties, and meanings.” And, in her conceptualization, “meaning is not a human-based notion; rather meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility...Intelligibility is not an inherent characteristic of humans but a feature of the world in its differential becoming. The world articulates itself differently...[H]uman concepts or experimental practices are not foundational to the nature of phenomena. ” The world is immanently real and matter immanently materializes.
At first glance, this posthumanist understanding of reality seems consistent with Arendt’s own critique of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics and her understanding of the implicitly conditioned nature of human existence. “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.” Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between them. For Barad, “world” is not Arendt’s humanly built habitat, the domain of homo faber (which does not necessarily entail mastery of nature, but always involves a certain amount of violence done to nature, even to the point of “degrading nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity.” (H.C., p. 156, emphasis added.) “World” is matter, the physical, ever-changing reality of an inherently active, “larger material configuration of the world and it ongoing open-ended articulation.” Or is it?
Since this world is made demonstrably real or determinate only through the design of the right experiment to measure the effects of, or marks on, bodies, or “measuring agencies” (such as a photographic plate) made or produced by “measured objects” (such as electrons), the physical nature of this reality becomes an effect of the experiment itself. Despite the fact that Barad insists that “phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence” and that technoscientific practices merely manifest “an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena” (p. 361), the importance of the well-crafted scientific experiment to establishing the fact of matter looms large.
Why worry about the experiment as the basis for determining the nature of nature, including so-called “human nature? For Arendt, the answer was clear: “The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared imagine...unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself has created...[A] universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation...With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought.”
The transcendence of representationalism does not trouble Barad, who sees “representation” as a process of reflection or mirroring hopelessly entangled with an outmoded “geometrical optics of externality.” But for Arendt, appearance matters, and not in the sense that a subject discloses some inner core of being through her speaking and doing, but in the sense that what is given to the senses of perception—and not just to the sense of vision—is the basis for constructing a world in common. The loss of this “sensually given world” found its monstrous enactment in the world of the extermination camps, which Arendt saw as “special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
If there is a residual humanism in Arendt’s theorizing it is not the simplistic anthropocentrism, which takes “man as the measure of all things,” a position she implicitly rejects, especially in her critique of instrumentalism. Rather, she insists that “the modes of human cognition [science among them] applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?” (H.C., p. 11, emphasis in the original) And then there is the question of responsibility.
We may be unable to control the effects of the actions we set in motion, or, in Barad’s words, “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails.”
But no undifferentiated assignation of agency to matter, or material sedimentations of the past “ingrained in the body’s becoming” can release us humans from the differential burden of consciousness and memory that is attached to something we call the practice of judgment. And no appeal to an “ethical call...written into the very matter of all being and becoming” will settle the question of judgment, of what is to be done. There may be no place to detach ourselves from responsibility, but how to act in the face of it is by no means given by the fact of entanglement itself. What if “everything is possible.”?
-Kathleen B. Jones
Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking
that makes what we read ours.
- John Locke
One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.
One of my favorite images in Arendt's writings comes not from Arendt herself, but her citation of the poem "Magic" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke's poem reads (in an approximate translation):
From indescribable transformation originate
Amazing shapes. Feel! Trust!
We suffer often: To ashes turn our flames;
Yet art can set on fire the dust.
Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment
The ordinary word appears elevated
But sounds as real as if the dove called
To seek its invisible mate.
Arendt cites Rilke's poem in the final section of the chapter of the Human Condition on Work. It is part of her discussion of art and her claim that "the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought."
Art, Arendt writes, has its foundation in thinking. Works of art, she writes, are "thought things." They are thingifications of thoughts, or to use a word that is so often abused, they are reifications of thoughts—The making of thoughts into things. It is this process of transformation and transfiguration that Rilke captures in "Magic": To "set fire to the dust" and bring beauty and truth to the real world. That is what art does.
My mind turned to Rilke's poem as I watched the great South African artist William Kentridge deliver the first of his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Kentridge spoke in praise of shadows, and situated his talk within a reading of Plato's allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic. The story of the cave begins with prisoners shackled and unmovable who see shadows along a wall projected by a fire. First one sets himself free and climbs out into the light of the sun and, slowly, painfully, comes to recognize in the light of the sun that the shadows were indeed shadows, untrue. The parable illustrates the error of sensible things and is one part of Plato's illustration of his theory of ideas. The ideas, supersensible truths of reason and logic, do not deceive and change like the shadowy things of the world. Only what lasts eternally is true; all that is sensible and fleeting is false.
Kentridge tells the story of Plato's cave to explain why he sees art, and especially his art, in opposition to the Platonic idea of truth. If Plato celebrates the primacy of the eternally true over the shadows, Kentridge argues that art elevates the image above the truth. For this reason, at least in part, Kentridge's art works with shadows. Shadow figures and shadow puppets.
Kentridge lauds shadows. In the very limitations of the shadows, in the gaps, in the gaps that inspire in us leaps to complete an image, that is where we think and learn. The leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition. It is in shadows that we find our agency in apprehending the world.
Shadow art is, for Kentridge, political. Plato's politics depends on a truth known and understood by the few and then imposed on the many. In this sense philosophy is, in Arendt's words, opposed to politics, and the philosopher either must seek merely to be left alone by the people (which is difficult because philosophers are dangerous), or they will always seek to dominate and tyrannize the polity with their reason. Arendt's lifelong battle is to free politics from the certainty of rational and philosophical truth, to open us to a politics of opinion and openness.
Knowledge is power and there is, in Kentridge's words, a relation between knowledge and violence. Kentridge embraces shadows and silhouettes to oppose the philosophical and Platonic tyranny of reason. He writes elsewhere:
I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.
Optimism must be kept in check since any certainty about the destination can underwrite the need for violence to bring others to that end. For Kentridge, "There is no destination. all destinations, all bright lights, arouse our mistrust."
Kentridge offers us an image of the artist. He speaks from the studio and from his notebook to emphasize the source of artistic truth in the thought image rather than the logical word. An artist thinks. He sees. He makes art. He makes things that reflect not truth and certainty but gaps, misgivings, and questions. Kentridge gives reality to the questionability of the world in his shadow art. In this way his art reminds us of the magic of Rilke's fire that transfigures dust into flame.
Few modern artists work magic like William Kentridge. His Norton Lectures are a great introduction to his art and the thinking behind his art. If you are not graduating this weekend, take the time to hear and look at what Kentridge says and makes.
You can view Kentridge's First Norton Lecture here. Consider it your visual weekend read.
“It is perfectly true that ‘all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,’ in the words of Isak Dinesen, who not only was one of the great storytellers of our time but also—and she was nearly unique in this respect—knew what she was doing.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics, p. 262
“‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them’ –Isak Dinesen” (The Human Condition, 175 [one of two mottos for Chapter 5: Action])
Arie Amaya-Akkermans has recently and beautifully used this space to reflect on the importance of Dinesen for Arendt, specifically in the way the latter relies on Dinesen for a notion of the praxis of storytelling that is central to Arendt’s conception of politics and of the life of the mind. In calling attention to these two moments where Arendt leans on Dinesen’s claim about life, loss and narrative, I hope to shed a different light on what it means (for Arendt) to quote another, and thus to reflect on the very praxis of this “quote of the week.” I want to reflect for a moment on the different ways in which Dinesen’s formula informs these two pieces, to what effects, and with what ends in mind. In this way, I suspect, we might discover something about why—in reading and writing for this initiative of the Center—we are engaging in something different from two other practices which this resembles, namely, academic commentary and “ordinary” blogging. Along the way, perhaps, we might learn together something that will provide further resonance to what Amaya-Akkermans has provided us.
In thinking about these two quotations of the same sentence, and how they might function differently—even before thinking about the broader context of the two pieces in which the sentence appears, and the argumentative goals thereof and so on—two things come to light. In the first instance, Arendt stresses that what she is quoting is true—perfectly true, even—and then goes on to tell us not only whose words they are, but also what is remarkable about that person (in the context of trying to think through the supposed opposition between truth and politics, an opposition complicated by the fact of Diensen as someone who speaks truth (“perfect truth” even) while engaging in a practice that is never free of the political. In the second, Arendt simply lets Dinesen speak for her by placing the latter’s words as an independent expression of what most needs to be said in what has to be concerned one of the most important moments in her whole body of work: the chapter in Human Condition where she makes a case for action as the true life of the human being, possible only in our spontaneous appearance to one another in our plurality.
These two gestures to Dinesen, diverging in intent and even as they respond to exactly the same content, point toward something I highlighted when I recently had the privilege to share some thoughts (on the practical and productive importance of rhetoric as the art of seeing what can be persuasive) with the Hannah Arendt Center in March: the importance of fabrication. What is crucial here is that while the one who would “think what we are doing” must always be insatiable in the search for what is, they must also be sensitive and crafty in articulating what they have found in their search: it is not enough to know how to discover truths—be they factual, rational, scientific, or moral; one must also share these with the others. And this requires storytelling, which (as Dinesen knew and lived) entails “knowing what one is doing” in the sense to which Arendt refers in her first quotation.
I take it that what we are trying to do here is very much like what Arendt was trying to do in addressing Dinesen. We want, that is, to engage with our own moment, with the world as it discloses itself to us here and now, but we also recognize that the only way in which that is possible is through a self-constituting practice of speaking aloud to those who might share the world in which we aim to live. We must fabricate, together with the others, the world that appears to, in us and through us.
Arendt sees, and shows us in the feature of her work as an exercise, that such joined creation, of humans in our plurality, best begins when the solitary thinker addresses the others by means of a shared other. That is, thinking does not begin or proceed in isolation, with the sage who withdraws into a cave, or climbs to a highest peak, or (say) retreats into the Black Forest. Rather, we think, as we act, in concert. Quotations serve a beautiful symbol of this fact, but also as a clever means by which to solicit the participation of the others who are needed for our own projects (of thinking, and of world-creation) to have any chance of succeeding.
Why “quote of the week,” then? I am sure that there are more reasons than one. But one, profoundly Arendtian, reason is that we are already halfway home to thinking and acting in Arendtian mode when we understand ourselves as truly beginning to speak only when we speak (in and through, with and against) the words of another, who—as far as we can tell—has told the truth, has fulfilled the demand: legein ta eonta.