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.
Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
News that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”
Foreign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.
Comparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.
Noam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."
This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.
Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.
Learn more here.
'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'
The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin
March 27-28, 2014
Learn more here.
Have you seen "Hannah Arendt," the critically acclaimed film by Margarethe von Trotta? It has spurred a storm of commentary, including my recent essays in the New York Times and the Paris Review. The best reaction to the film is to re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself, the powerful book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann that first unleashed the controversy fifty years ago.
With the movie being seen by hundreds of thousands of people, this is an exciting time for the Arendt Center. I have been speaking around the country at Q&A sessions after the movie. Audiences are hungry to confront the questions Arendt highlighted: the dangers of thoughtlessness and loneliness that together can lead to ideological conformism and unthinking evil.
We have a unique opportunity in the wake of this cultural interest in Hannah Arendt to bring the power of Arendt's thinking to a wider and politically engaged audience. I founded the Hannah Arendt Center to forge a middle ground between partisan think tanks churning out white papers and universities living in a bubble. All my experience since the founding sustains the truth that there is a yearning for passionate thinking about the major questions and challenges of our age.
I turned to Hannah Arendt as a symbol and the embodiment of humanistic thought grounded in thorough understanding. No other American thinker so engages (and, yes, sometimes enrages) citizens and students from all political persuasions, resisting all attempts at categorization on the right or the left, and all the while insisting on human dignity. Arendt's writings attract the minds and hearts of individuals who wish to think for themselves. She is that rare writer who compels her readers to think and re-think their most fundamental ethical and political convictions.
The Arendt Center engages citizens everywhere in Arendt-like thinking: relentless examination of issues from multiple points of view, with an emphasis on unimagined and unintended consequences --"thinking without banisters" is the phrase most closely associated with Arendt's methods; "the banality of evil" is the sound bite by which she is best known. We are continually striving to nurture engaging and thought provoking lectures, discussions, and events. And the next few months will be truly exciting.
- Our sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen" will be happening at Bard College on October 3-4 and will bring together such luminaries as Richard Rodriguez (Hunger of Memory), Matthew Crawford (Shop Craft as Soul Craft), Danielle Allen (Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education), Bard President Leon Botstein (Jefferson's Children), and many more.
- 2013 will see the publication of the second annual edition of the HA Journal which revisits the best talks, essays, and lectures of the previous year.
- "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual"-- our New York City Lecture Series-will continue this fall, beginning with a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead with Media Critic Jay Rosen on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 5pm at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC.
- The great American theatre director Robert Woodruff will be a senior fellow at the Arendt Center in the Fall and teach a course "Performing Arendt," designed to work with students to develop a multi-disciplinary performance piece inspired by Arendt's thinking.
- We will welcome back Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason and three new post-doctoral fellows who will teach courses at the Bard Prison Initiative as well as on Bard's Annandale campus.
- We are editing a volume of essays "Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch," based on a week-long working group we hosted last summer to read and discuss Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, the book of thoughts she kept for over 30 years.
- We will hold our second annual Berlin conference in May of 2014 in conjunction with ECLA of Bard.
- This fall we will launch a new annual series on Bard's campus teaching historical consciousness by focusing on a single fascinating year in history. The first event on September 19-20 features short talks by a dozen scholars about events from the fateful year 1933 as well as a Cabaret featuring songs and food from the period.
- Supported by a grant from the NY Council for the Humanities, the Arendt Center will host a series of public conversations in low-income neighborhoods throughout New York State in conjunction with our fall conference and centered on discussions of Richard Rodriguez's book, Hunger of Memory.
- We expect the NEH Seminar at Bard to continue in 2014 for the third year, directed by Kathy Jones, and bringing 17 high school teachers to the Arendt Center for five weeks to learn how to teach Hannah Arendt's political thinking to high school students.
- The Arendt Center and the Hannah Arendt Library recently acquired the complete transcript of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem—one of only three copies in the United States—and plan on digitizing the transcript as pat of our continuing effort to make the material of the Arendt Library widely available and useful for Arendt scholars around the world.
- As part of a new initiative to encourage scholarship on and explore the enduring question of hate in human civilization, the Arendt Center will sponsor a syllabus competition to spur development of liberal arts courses on human hatred that will be taught in the fall semester 2014.
- If you missed it, take a look at my recently published essay on Hannah Arendt in the New York Times.
- We will continue to bring you thoughtful and timely commentary and content on our blog and website.
All of this and much, much more is in the works. But, we need your help and your support. The Arendt Center nurtures the foundational thinking that encourages the active citizenship that can humanize an often-inhuman world. But this programming comes at a cost.
Today we launch a 10 day/100 member challenge. Please click here and become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center. If you are already a member, we would ask you to renew your membership now. The Arendt Center needs the help of supporters like you, those that understand that we must "think what we are doing."
Learn more about membership here. One exciting new benefit of membership will be our virtual reading group. Members will be able to log on monthly to a live discussion about an essay or chapter by Arendt with members of the Arendt Center community.
We thank you in advance and look forward to seeing you at future real and virtual Hannah Arendt Center events.
For too long now high school has been a waste of time for too many people. I always remind my students that Georg Friedrich Hegel developed his lectures on the Philosophy of Right as a course for a German Gymnasium, the equivalent of high school in the United States. Most American high schools have long abandoned the idea of offering challenging courses that demand students think and engage with the world and the history of ideas. Our brightest students are too often bored, confirmed in their intelligence, but rarely pushed. This is especially true of our public high schools in our poorest neighborhoods.
One of the most heartening trends in response to this tragedy is the idea of early college. Bard College has been a leader in the early college movement, now embraced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.
The New York Times has an excellent article on Bard’s newest Early College in Newark:
Across the country in communities like Newark, the early college high school model is being lauded as a way to provide low-income students with a road map to and through college. According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, 68 percent of all high school graduates make it to a two- or four-year institution, but only 52 percent of low-income students do the same. Of poor students in four-year institutions, only 47 percent graduate within six years, compared with 58 percent of the general population.
Not surprisingly, the challenges are greatest for students whose parents did not attend any college: their graduation rate hovers around 40 percent. Early college high schools seek to rectify that, by merging high school and some college. Students can earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree, and some are set on the path to a four-year degree.
Educators and big-ticket donors have praised the schools for saving students money and time — most schools compress the academic experience into four years. Since 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided more than $40 million toward initiatives. The Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York have also chipped in. President Obama is a proponent, giving a shout-out in his State of the Union address to P-Tech, a public-private partnership that pairs the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with I.B.M., which promises graduates a shot at a well-paying job.
There are now more than 400 early college high schools across the country — North Carolina has 76 of them — educating an estimated 100,000 students.
Bard, a liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is at the vanguard of the movement, with a president, Leon Botstein, who has long chastised the American high school system for its inefficiencies. More than 30 years ago, Bard took over Simon’s Rock, a private college for 11th graders and up in Great Barrington, Mass. In 2001, it opened an early college high school in Lower Manhattan, enormously popular with hyper-motivated New Yorkers, and in 2008 it started one in Queens that has become a magnet for the high-achieving offspring of Chinese, Polish and Bengali immigrants. Until now, Bard’s model has largely focused on elite students.
In Newark, Bard moved into a school building across from a tire shop and a bail bond business. Hanging outside is a cheerful red banner with the Bard name etched in white, as if to signal that new life is being breathed into the neighborhood.
The New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.
I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did. There are huge numbers of talented people who are simply not intellectuals and don’t enjoy or get much out of college. This is not destiny. A great or good teacher might perk them up. But largely it is a waste of their time and money for them to struggle through (or sleep through) classes that bore them. If anything, the forced march through Shakespeare and Plato make these students less engaged, cynical, and self-centered as they turn from common sense to the internal pursuit of self interest in partying and life in private.
The story should raise the big question that everyone tiptoes around in this current debate about college: Who should go to college?
The obvious answer is those who want to and those who care about ideas. Those who see that in thinking and reading and talking about justice, democracy, the scientific method, and perspective, we are talking about what it means to live in a large, democratic, bureaucratic country at a time of transition from an industrial to a information-age economy. College, in other words, is for those people who want to think about their world. It is for people who are willing and eager to turn to the great thinkers who came before them and, also, the innovative scientists and artists who have revealed hidden secrets about the natural and the human worlds. It is, in other words, for intellectuals. And this of course raises the “E” question: the question of elitism.
It is folly to think that everyone is or should be interested in such an endeavor. In no society in history have intellectuals been anything but a small minority of the population. This is not a question of privilege. There is no reason to think that those who love ideas are better or more qualified than those who work the earth, build machines, or engineer websites. It may very well be otherwise.
Hannah Arendt was clear that intellectuals had no privileged position in politics. On the contrary, she worried that the rise of intellectuals in politics was specifically dangerous. Intellectuals, insofar as they could get lost in and captivated by ideas, are prone to lose sight of reality in the pursuit of grand schemes. And intellectuals, captivated by the power of reason, are susceptible to rationalizations that excuse wrongs like torture or suicide bombing as means necessary for greater goods. The increasing dominance of intellectuals in politics, Arendt argued, is one of the great dangers facing modern society. She thus welcomed the grand tradition of the American yeoman farmer and affirmed that there is no need to go to college to be an engaged citizen or a profound thinker. The last of our Presidents who did not attend college was Abraham Lincoln. He did just fine. It is simply ridiculous to argue that college is a necessary credential for statesmanship.
While intellectuals have no special claim to leadership or prominence, they are nevertheless important. Intellectuals—those who think— are those people in society who stand apart from the mainstream pressures of economy and influence and outside the political movements of advocacy and propaganda. In the Arendtian tradition, intellectuals are or can be conscious pariahs, those who look at their societies from the outside and thus gain a perspective from distance that allows them to understand and comprehend the society in ways that people deeply embedded within it cannot. Those who stand apart from society and think are important, first because they preserve and deepen the stories and tales we as a society tell about ourselves. In writing poetry, making art, building monuments, writing books, and giving speeches, intellectuals help lend meaning and gravity to the common sense we have of ourselves as a people.
One problem we have in the current debate is that College has morphed into an institution designed to do many (too many) things. On the one hand, college has historically been the place for the education of and formation of intellectuals. But for many decades if not many centuries, that focus has shifted. Today College is still a place for the life of the mind. But it is also a ticket into the middle or upper-middles classes and it is equally a job-training and job-certification program. Of course, it is also a consumer good that brands young people with a certain mystique and identity. For many localities colleges are, themselves, job creation machines, bringing with them all sorts of new businesses and throwing off patents and graduating students that reinvigorate local communities. The university is now a multiversity, to invoke Clark Kerr’s famous term. When we talk about college today, the debate is complicated by these multiple roles.
It is difficult to raise such issues today because they smack of elitism. Since college-educated people think they are superior to those without a fancy diploma, their egalitarianism then insists that everyone should have the same experience. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that some people may not want to go to college. Instead, we are told that if they had a better education, if they knew better, if they just were taught to understand, they would all want to sit in classrooms and read great books or do exciting experiments.
We are stuck today with what Hannah Arendt called, in a related context, the “democratic mentality of an egalitarian society that tends to deny the obvious inability and conspicuous lack of interest of large parts of the population in political matters as such.” In politics, Arendt argued that what was needed were public spaces from which a self-chose “élite could be selected, or rather, where it could select itself.” Similarly, in education today, colleges should be the spaces where those who want to select themselves as an educated élite might lose themselves in books and experiments and amongst paintings and symphonies. There is simply no reason to assume that most people in society need to or should be interested in such an endeavor.
One reason the question of elitism is so present in debates about college is the disgusting and degenerate state of American public high schools. If high schools provided a serious and meaningful civic education, if they taught not simply reading and writing and arithmetic, but history and art—and taught these well—we would not need to send students to remedial education in college where they could be taught these subjects a second time. While many academics wring their hands about making college available to all, they might do much better if they focused on high schools and grammar schools around the country. If we were to redistribute the billions of dollars we spend on remedial college education to serious reform efforts in high schools, that money would be very well spent.
To raise the question of elitism means neither that college should be open only to the rich and connected (on the contrary, it should be open to all who want it), nor that the educated elite is to be segregated from society and kept apart in an ivory tower. When one reads Shakespeare, studies DNA, or dances with Bill T. Jones, one is not simply learning for learning's sake. Few understood this better than John Finley, Greek Professor at Harvard, who wrote General Education in a Free Society in 1945. Finley had this to say about the purposes of a college education:
The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition. Neither the mere acquisition of information nor the development of special skills and talents can give the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved…. Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall short of the ideal.
What college should offer—as should all education at every level except for the most specialized graduate schools—is the experience of thinking and coming to engage with the world in which one lives. College is, at its best, an eye opening experience, an opportunity for young people to learn the foundational texts and also be exposed to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. The ideas of justice, truth, and beauty one learns are not valuable in themselves; they are meaningful only insofar as they impact and inform our daily lives. To read Plato’s Republic is to ask: what are the value of the ideas of good and the just? It is also to meditate on the role of music and art in society. And at the same time, it is to familiarize oneself with characters like Socrates and Plato who, in the world we share, epitomize the qualities of morality, heroism, and the pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead. This can also be done in high schools. And it should be.
It is simply wrong to think such inquiries are unworldly or overly intellectual. Good teachers teach great texts not simply because the books are old, but because they are meaningful. And young students return to these books generation after generation because they find in them stories, examples, and ideas that inspire them to live their lives better and more fully.
As Leon Botstein, President of Bard College where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, writes in his book Jefferson’s Children,
No matter how rigorous the curriculum, no matter how stringent the requirements, if what goes on in the classroom does not leave its mark in the way young adults voluntarily act in private and in public while they are in college, much less in the years after, then the college is not doing what it is supposed to do.
The basic question being asked today is: Is college worthwhile? It is a good question. Too many colleges have lost their way. They no longer even understand what they are here to offer. Faculty frequently put research above teaching. Administration is the fastest growing segment of university education, which is evidence if anything is that universities simply do not know what their mission is anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many of our brightest young people will begin to shy away from the thoughtless expectation that one must attend college.
All around us, people are opting out of college. The mania for online education is at least in part fueled by the hunger for knowledge from students and others who do not want or need to attend college. The Times highlights Uncollege and other organizations that advocate “hacking” your education. Recall that Lincoln was better schooled in the classics of poetry and politics than most every college educated President who followed him. At a time when many colleges are so confused and trying to do so many things, they often do none well. It may be the case today that we need to evolve new networks and new organizations where intellectualism can flourish. And it may be small liberal arts colleges that are more flexible and more able to make that transition than large, bureaucratic research institutions.
The real question this debate needs to raise, but avoids, is: Who should get a college education? The answer, “not everyone,” is one few want to hear. And yet it might be the beginning of a real conversation about what a college education is for and why we are today so often failing to provide it to our students.
We are thrilled to announce that the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has been awarded a prestigious NEH Challenge grant of $425,000. The grant, which requires recipients to match funds on a three-to-one basis, will help raise a $1.7 million endowment for the Center over the next four years. This grant, in conjunction with a Bard College matching grant, will ensure that the Hannah Arendt Center will receive $2.50 for each dollar that we raise.
NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities, supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. The Hannah Arendt Center received the highest grant amount given and was competing with institutions of the highest caliber across the United States.
The grant and its matching funds will help to support the Hannah Arendt Center Fellows Program, help establish an annual First-Year Seminar Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Lectureship in the Humanities, support annual Arendt Center Working Groups in the Humanities, and initiate the NEH-Arendt Center Speaker Series at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
Additionally, the funding will help the Center to continue sponsoring its annual conference, numerous lectures and lunchtime talks. The Center will continue to expand the understanding and appreciation of Hannah Arendt's humanistic approach to thinking through content created by scholars and individuals around the world that are shared through published volumes, a media archive, a robust blog and website.
Click here for more information.
Click here to help us meet our goal by becoming a member of the Hannah Arendt Center.
The Hannah Arendt Center's fourth annual conference,
"Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts"
October 28-29, 2011 10:30AM-7:00PM
Olin Hall, Bard College
On-site registration begins at 9:30 AM each morning.
Click here to watch a live simulcast of the conference.
Click here to view the conference program.
Tweet about the conference to @arendt_center.
Post a comment about the conference on Facebook here.
I was born in 1990, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and just before the first web page went up on the Internet. That year, the global population was 5.3 billion, NASA launched four manned space missions and Back to the Future III was released. Now I am 21 and the global population is about to reach 7 billion. A person born in the sixties would have seen the world population double in their lifetime, and a centenarian could claim to have lived through the quadrupling of all human life on earth. In these past 100 years, the face of our planet has changed more drastically than ever before in human history. More information is now exchanged and processed than ever before. Some even claim that we have wrestled nature into submission. But what does the future look like? The accelerated changes of our time are widening the eerie chasm between man and nature and it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what will come next. The pace and magnitude of these changes are unprecedented and therefore almost impossible to grasp, quantify or come to terms with. It is this predicament that I believe constitutes the profoundest dilemma in our search for truth. But does this alleviate the need for truthtelling? Certainly not, it amplifies it. In the course of this essay, I seek to demonstrate the importance of truthtelling with reference to the social, political and environmental spheres of our world.
What has become of the American Dream? The glory days of flagship capitalism, shiny metal and indomitable spirit have been phased out by a delirium of economic recession, plastic asphyxiation and national self-doubt. It must have been a sad day when, on July 8th of this year, the Atlantis took off on its final manned flight for the NASA space shuttle program and parents had to explain to their children that this spectacle marked the last time that America would be launching any astronauts into space.
The nation’s pride as vanguarded by the triumph of rocket science and other feats in engineering is over. And while the scientific knowledge of those times has only since evolved, it is the authority afforded by an ability to put theory into practice that has waned. We have, in recent decades experienced a growing divide between theory and practice. The democratisation of knowledge as facilitated by the Internet has diffused knowledge of most subjects, for better or worse. In the public sphere, respect for scientific truths has given way to flippant rejection of facts in defense of more convenient viewpoints. Hannah Arendt quite relevantly commented, some forty years ago, that unwelcome facts are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions. This “fact nihilism,” so common these days, seems therefore to suggest that the facts of our times must really be quite unwelcome. Well, they are. The infrastructure upon which our society is based is showing cracks, global oil extraction has begun to go into decline while demand continues to grow, and global weather patterns are becoming more erratic. And the dangers of denying such facts are, plainly, that we end up doing nothing to address them.
Politically speaking, we have lost sight of the “common good.” In Ancient Greece, the polis or city-state, represented the greatest concentric circle of the community and politics the common pursuit around which all members of the polis were united. Aristotle defined humans as “political animals,” suggesting that it is in our nature not only to live out our private lives, but to rule and be ruled in the affairs of society as a whole. The fact that people in America wish to have no part in governance is symptomatic of a larger problem. Perhaps it is because our democratic process alleviates any need for active participation in government, so long as the individuals submit their ballots and pay their taxes. Some would argue that the problem runs even deeper. Henry Miller believed that “it is the American vice, the democratic disease which exposed its tyranny by reducing everything unique to the level of the herd.” Does this mean that the people should not govern? Or does it mean, rather, that they should be endowed with greater responsibility, thus making them accountable for the state of their nation, thereby incentivising them to make more qualified decisions. I believe it is the latter. Were we to be more truthful about the volatile state of our world and our own role in it, a general regard for truthtelling would begin to take hold and good leaders be encouraged to step up to the pedestal.
Education is the fundamental building block of informed change. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, made a wise move when he introduced the “Citizen Science” program, geared towards instilling greater scientific literacy in students. After all, many of the political problems we face today will require scientific expertise to be resolved. From our bold beginnings as inventors of the stone tool, we have evolved to domination of the animal kingdom. From DDT to nuclear bombs and genetic engineering, there are countless examples of how man likes to play god. And every time we have done so in the past, we have gotten away with it. Is it foolish to assume that there are no limits? I think so, and repercussions could be plentiful. Committed as we are to reinventing the natural order of the world around us, we would be well advised at least to be fully conscious of our actions and their implications. Consider the pharmaceutical industry, where the race to develop new vaccinations as fast as pathogens adapt and form new mutations is neck-to-neck. What if we lose? These are eventualities that we as a culture should be collectively conscious of and that we should hold as a central threat to our pursuit of the common good. Lying about them won’t help.
should hold as a central threat to our pursuit of the common good. Lying about them won’t help.
Also worth considering is that there might be an underlying evolutionary drive to the seemingly reckless ways of our collective being. Leon Trotsky famously once stated that “war is the locomotive of history.” What he articulated was an aphoristic yet subtle insight; that it is only through discord and a breakdown of harmony that the true nature of things reveals itself and new things come into being. Perhaps it is out of a subconscious weariness of gradual change and sagacity that we, as a society, are speeding up as we navigate these unknown waters. It would seem as though the truths we are familiar with and yet choose to ignore are not sufficient to our pursuit of grand truths. Like the little boy who is warned of the dangers of touching the flame and does it anyway, we know what history teaches us about delusions of grandeur yet choose to find out for ourselves, in the hope that maybe this time will be different. What we are up against are the laws of nature. The big laws, laws that we have known to be constant and unchanging throughout history, that nontheless we choose to challenge. It is a formidable move. Like a dialectician playing devil’s advocate to a seemingly sound position, we, it seems, will not settle with the working hypothesis. Does everyone make this choice knowingly? Will the outcome do justice to the rich truth-seeking heritage of our civilization? Is there a more desirable way of going about this business? These are questions that I will leave up to the reader to answer. But they necessarily must be asked.
It is the end of an era. In his “Ode to Man” the great tradgedian Sophocles observed that nothing “towers more deinon than man.” Contained within the ancient greek word deinon is the complete dichotomy of the human happening:greatness and terror. In light of this, I call upon the reader to be fully honest about their role in the world, to “know their deinon” and act accordingly. It is Max Weber’s basic precept for anybody acting politically to act with full consciousness of the possible consequences. So, when we assume the role of challenger, we must do so boldly: “I am living like this because I wish to truly know, even if it may be at my own cost.” Only then can we say that we know what it means to be human. If, on the other hand, we no longer want to play this game, we must say so and act accordingly. But what we cannot do is pretend that everything is just fine as it is and proceed as usual. The times they certainly are a changin’ and we must face the truth, before it really is too late.
In October, a yellow school bus full of Bard High School Early College Students made the trip to Bard College for the Hannah Arendt Center's Human Being in an Inhuman Age Conference. Alexandra Eaton--videographer, Bard grad, and friend of the Arendt Center--was on the bus with the students and followed them along during the conference. Here is her remarkable video essay of the early college students and their engagement with the conference.
On Dec. 1, 2010, director and choreographer BILL T. JONES and Hannah Arendt Center Academic Director Roger Berkowitz held a public conversation titled Thought and Action, including a performance of Mr. Jones' work, Floating the Tongue, by dancer and Education Director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Leah Cox. The evening was sponsored by the Bard Dance Program.
As he told Roger Berkowitz in their conversation, Bill T. Jones has long been fascinated with the work of Hannah Arendt. Back in January, 2009, he cited Arendt's The Human Condition on his blog. In a post concerning the dangers that the exponential growth of technology poses for human freedom, he cited Arendt's warning that,
"While such possibility still may lie in a distant future, the first boomerang effects of science's great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that 'the truths' of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will not longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thoughts...We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is."
When human life, human action, and our humanly created world are no longer expressible in a human language, then thinking--which Arendt imagines as a dialogue with oneself that must take place in language--is also threatened. It is this endangered relation between thought and action that Mr. Jones has found so provocative, and which he himself explored in his 1976 work, Floating the Tongue.
While Mr. Jones choreographed Floating the Tongue before reading Arendt, he tells me in this discussion that he has come to see the questions he was exploring--the possible expression of thought in action and of action in thought--to be similar to those Arendt raises in her unfinished last book, The Life of the Mind.
You can Watch Leah Cox dance Floating the Tongue here.
You can watch the discussion here.
And the Q&A that followed, here.
Director and choreographer BILL T. JONES is the co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. He is a two-time Tony Award winner and MacArthur "Genius." He and his company are resident artists at Bard, engaged in a unique teaching partnership with the College’s Dance Program. Bill T. Jones joined us here just a few days before he traveled to Washington, DC to receive Kennedy Center Honors alongside Oprah Winfrey, Merle Haggard, Paul McCartney and Jerry Herman. He was recently inducted in to France’s Order of Arts & Letters. His musical FELA! is playing on Broadway and recently opened at the National Theater in London to much acclaim.
Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights ROGER BERKOWITZ is the Academic Director of Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking. As an interdisciplinary scholar, teacher, and writer, Roger guides the Center’s mission to foster thinking about problems and crises that reflect the insight and independence that Hannah Arendt brought to bear on political and ethical themes.
The first installment was a wide-eyed look at the Singularity movement, profiling Ray Kurzweil who will be speaking at the Arendt Center Conference on Friday, Oct. 22. Kurzweil will speak for an hour, followed by a discussion between Mr. Kurzweil and Bard President, Leon Botstein.
The latest entry looks at the rapid advance of speech software and artificial intelligence that allows machines to have meaningful conversations and perform tasks that require comprehension, conversation, and some level of thinking and learning.
For decades, computer scientists have been pursuing artificial intelligence — the use of computers to simulate human thinking. But in recent years, rapid progress has been made in machines that can listen, speak, see, reason and learn, in their way. The prospect, according to scientists and economists, is not only that artificial intelligence will transform the way humans and machines communicate and collaborate, but will also eliminate millions of jobs, create many others and change the nature of work and daily routines.
This raises as well the question of what the role of humans will be in the world when machines do more of the work that we have traditionally done. As Bill Joy worried in Wired, what besides altruism will lead our political leaders to keep superfluous workers alive when not only factory work but also teaching, warfare, and administration can be done by an automated workforce?
The advances, according to The Times, herald an era in which we interact with machines much as we do with friends and co-workers:
"Our young children and grandchildren will think it is completely natural to talk to machines that look at them and understand them,” said Eric Horvitz, a computer scientist at Microsoft’s research laboratory who led the medical avatar project, one of several intended to show how people and computers may communicate before long.
The question here, as with so much in the world of artificial intelligence, is what actually distinguishes humans from machines. If it is simply the ability to think, to reason, and to calculate, the day is coming when that difference will be no difference. This requires that we ask about the soul, the heart, and the ineffable nature of humanity. And as more and more of the beings we interact with and institutions we work with are governed by computer rationality, what does it mean today to be human?