Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Defending the Humanities While Trashing Them


Leon Wieseltier, the longtime cultural editor of the New Republic, dedicated his commencement address at Brandeis last month to a defense of the humanities. He asks, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” It was a rhetorical question, and Wieseltier offers a full-throttled defense of teaching and studying the humanities. The culprit, he writes, is technology.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

I too value the humanities and have dedicated my life to them. I agree with Wieseltier about the distracting influence of technology and also the danger of scientism.


But I do wonder why it is that Wieseltier did not ask also what the humanities might have contributed to the fact that nationally now only 7% of students choose to study the humanities. Even at Harvard, only 20% of students are majoring in the humanities. Are all these students eschewing the humanities out of evil or ignorance? Or is there something wrong with the way we are teaching the humanities? 

The truth is that too much of what our humanities faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students and even by our colleagues. It is an amazing truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. Even by other academics. 

The standard response to such whispered confessions is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for centuries. Or that it is like basic research, useful in itself. The problem with these arguments is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. The increasing specialization of academic life leads to professors knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. As I have written elsewhere,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

One might think that given his concern with technology changing and threatening our humanity, Wieseltier might find an ally in Hannah Arendt.  Hannah Arendt is one of the most articulate defenders of the connection between humanities learning and political and an engaged political life. For her, politics depends upon the stories and actions that preserve the traditions and the institutions that give meaning and sense to our common lives. The crisis in the humanities is, Arendt understood, deeply connected to our political crisis.


Wieseltier has never been a fan of Arendt’s writing, which of course is fine. But with the opening of the new movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, he seems to have decided to establish the new New Republic as ground zero of irresponsible Arendt bashing. Under his guidance, the New Republic has published not one but two scathingly critical reviews of the film, each riddled with errors. I wrote already about the glaring factual mistakes plaguing Stanley Kaufmann’s review last week, in a post on the Febrile Imagination of Arendt Haters. I only recently became aware of a second attack by Saul Austerlitz.

The Austerlitz review is given the subtle title “A New Movie Perpetuates the Pernicious Myth of Hannah Arendt.” Austerlitz calls Arendt a “threadbare hero,” and complains that the movie eschews “serious consideration of the sustained critical response to Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That is strange given the prominence in the film given to Arendt’s critics, including Kurt Blumenfeld (who also utters damning words written by Gershom Scholem), Charlotte Beradt, Norman Podhoretz, and, most forcefully, Hans Jonas. Undoubtedly the film comes down on Arendt’s side. But when Jonas turns away from Arendt after her lecture, the moral clarity of his accusation of arrogance weighs on through till the credits.

Some of Austerlitz’s criticisms hit home. For example, he worries, as I have, that the encounter between Siegfried Moses and Arendt is too one-sided, even if he does not know that the actual encounter was much different.

But mostly Austerlitz just follows the herd by attacking Arendt not by engaging her work (he never once cites Arendt), but by quoting from others. Mostly Austerlitz chooses to cite Deborah Lipstadt, author of a revisionist account of the Eichmann trial in which suggests without any reason or supporting evidence that Arendt defended Eichmann (something she certainly did not do) in order to excuse or please her former lover Martin Heidegger. Such contentions would be laughable if they weren’t then adopted uncritically by others as fact. In any case, here is what Austerlitz writes about Eichmann in Jerusalem (giving no indication whatsoever whether he has read it):

The book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history, as many have asserted in the decades since its publication. As historian Deborah Lipstadt observes of Arendt in The Eichmann Trial (2011), “The only way she could have concluded that Eichmann was unaware was to give more credence to his demeanor and testimony at the trial than to what he actually did during the war.” 

One wonders, upon reading such a paragraph, what Lipstadt was saying Arendt was unaware of? Since Austerlitz’s preceding sentence accuses Arendt of believing that Eichmann, “bore the Jews no special animus, intent merely on carrying out his duties to the utmost,” it suggests that Lipstadt is arguing that Arendt is unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. But if one goes back to Lipstadt’s book itself, she is in fact arguing that Arendt said that Eichmann was unaware that he had committed crimes.


Whether or not Eichmann was aware that he committed crimes is an important question. It certainly cannot be decided as Lipstadt does by appealing to but never citing the memoir Eichmann wrote while in Argentina. Over and over in that memoir, Eichmann asserts his belief that he was justified in doing what he did and that he violated no laws in doing so. Indeed, Arendt herself argued that Eichmann’s pleas of having a “clear conscience” were made questionable by “the fact that the Nazis, and especially the criminal organizations to which Eichmann belonged, had been so very busy destroying evidence of their crimes during the last months of the war.” And yet Arendt, trying to take Eichmann’s statements in Argentina seriously, recognized also that the destruction of evidence 

proved no more than recognition that the law of mass murder, because of its novelty, was not yet accepted by other nations; or, in the language of the Nazis, that they had lost their fight to “liberate” mankind from the “rule of subhumans,” especially from the dominion of the Elders of Zion; or, in ordinary language, it proved no more than the admission of defeat. Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? 

Whether or not Eichmann was or was not possessed of a guilty conscience may be open for debate, but the claim that Arendt was unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is folly.  As is Austerlitz’s also unsupported claim that “Eichmann bore the Jews no special animus.”  I realize others have pedaled such trash before, but repeating falsities does not make them true.

There is irony in Wieseltier’s condemning the decline of the humanities even as he oversees publication of two irresponsible reviews about a movie that, whatever its failings, is the most significant attempt to bring a major humanist to the screen in a thoughtful and respectful way. I am not asking for cheerleading, but serious engagement would be welcomed.   

Ignore the reviews and instead read Wieseltier’s commencement speech celebrating the humanities. It is your weekend read.  And then review my own defense of the humanities here.



The Progeny of Teachers II: Philip Roth


“Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.”

 —Philip Roth

It may be the twinkle in the eye when a light flashes in the student’s mind, or the subtle rise of the head as insight hits, or a purposeful nod as veils of darkness flutter amidst a gust of comprehension. These moments are transformative for students. They also give meaning and hope to those who teach. However we make sense of the art and experience of teaching others, the student teacher connection is a noble and quintessentially human experience.


Philip Roth offers this paean to teachers in general and to his high school homeroom teacher Doctor Bob Lowenstein in particular: “The tang of the real permeated his talk. Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.”  Roth experienced the transformative impulse even though he never actually studied a particular subject with Doc Lowenstein. The future novelist learned neither French nor Proust from his mentor. Rather, in the persona of Lowenstein, Roth saw someone who opened a world. Lowenstein was “unassumingly in possession of a Ph.D., and what was recognizable even to a 12-year-old was that this was a formidable man who did not gladly suffer fools.” The true teachers are those with the force of authority—those whose courage and generosity transport us from out of our private concerns into the shared world of ideas and the common good. It is no accident that Hannah Arendt insists that educators study not teaching, but their subject matter—for the key to teaching is unassuming possession of authority, which results from mastery rather than skill.

I wrote awhile back about Leon Wieseltier’s swoon over teachers, part of his jeremiad against homeschooling and unschooling. We need such remembrances of the power of pedagogy ever more these days, especially as educators around the land are prostrating themselves before the coming age of online education. I have defended the use of online resources to achieve certain goals and as a useful tool in education. But let us not commit a sin against teachers and students alike by confusing the usefulness of online tools with the oxymoronic idea of online education.

Roth’s eulogy was published in the Sunday New York Times. One of the advantages of perusing the Sunday paper in its endangered pulpish format is that Roth’s encomium straddles the top of two page above the jump from an essay by A.J. Jacobs on the advantages and disadvantages of online education. “I learned many fascinating things while taking a series of free online college courses,” Jacobs writes.

But the first thing I learned? When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses, like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and EdX, you can forget about the Socratic method. The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.

Many defenders of physical on-site college education will take solace from Jacob’s essay. That would be a mistake, at least in part. And this is not only because MOOCs will get better.

The importance of Jacob’s critique of online teaching is that it applies equally to the vast majority of reality-based college courses in the United States, courses in which 100s and even 1,000s of students sit faceless in large lecture halls taking notes before a professor with whom they will never speak. The reason that MOOCs are causing such excitement is not that they offer the potential for a great or even a good education. Rather, MOOCs promise to provide the same poor educational experience currently offered at large universities around the country for a fraction of the cost in time and money.


Massive Open Online Courses will improve. There will be more and less expensive varieties. Some courses will offer well-staffed online forums with barely-paid facilitators—the sad future for the vast majority of those now pursuing Ph.Ds.  These courses will replace the large lectures that now dominate the curriculum at universities around the country—this is already happening. The best universities will adapt, accepting MOOC credit and using this an opportunity to allow students to graduate more quickly and to pursue more advanced and more personalized work in smaller classes with professors more adept at teaching inspiration than in conveying knowledge. Most will gradually cease to be universities and morph into glorified brands offering accredited degrees that certify graduates as employable.

In short, for those of us who care deeply about teaching, MOOCs should be welcomed. By highlighting the gulf between the transmission of knowledge and education, MOOCs may, and should, return the luster to the calling of teaching. We are poised for a renaissance in teaching, one that will reemphasize the gulf between certification and transformation.



The Progeny of Teachers

San Jose State University is experimenting with a program where students pay a reduced fee for online courses run by the private firm Udacity. Teachers and their unions are in retreat across the nation. And groups like Uncollege insist that schools and universities are unnecessary. At a time when teachers are everywhere on the defensive, it is great to read this opening salvo from Leon Wieseltier:

When I look back at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.

I share Wieseltier’s reverence for educators. Eric Rothschild and Werner Feig lit fires in my brain while I was in high school. Austin Sarat taught me to teach myself in college. Laurent Mayali introduced me to the wonders of history. Marianne Constable pushed me to be a rigorous reader. Drucilla Cornell fired my idealism for justice. And Philippe Nonet showed me how much I still had to know and inspired me to read and think ruthlessly in graduate school. Like Wieseltier, I can trace my life’s path through the lens of my teachers. 

The occasion for such a welcome love letter to teachers is Wieseltier’s rapacious rejection of homeschooling and unschooling, two movements that he argues denigrate teachers. As sympathetic as I am to his paean to pedagogues, Wieseltier’s rejection of all alternatives to conventional education today is overly defensive.

For all their many ills, homeschooling and unschooling are two movements that seek to personalize and intensify the often conventional and factory-like educational experience of our nation’s high schools and colleges. According to Wieseltier, these alternatives are possessed of the “demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world.” These movements believe that young people can “reject college and become “self-directed learners.”” For Wieseltier, the claim that people can teach themselves is both an “insult to the great profession of pedagogy” and a romantic over-estimation of “untutored ‘self’.” 

The romance of the untutored self is strong, but hardly dangerous. While today educators like Will Richardson and entrepreneurs like Dale Stephens celebrate the abundance of the internet and argue that anyone can teach themselves with simply an internet connection, that dream has a history. Consider this endorsement of autodidactic learning from Ray Bradbury from long before the internet:

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

In this interview in the Paris Review, Bradbury not only celebrates the freedom of the untutored self, but also dismisses college along much the same lines as Dale Stephens of Uncollege does. Here is Bradbury again:

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself. 

What the library and the internet offer is unfiltered information. For the autodidact, that is all that is needed. Education is a self-driven exploration of the database of the world.

Of course such arguments are elitist. Not everyone is a Ray Bradbury or a Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, who taught himself Latin in a few days. Hannah Arendt refused to go to her high school Greek class because it was offered at 8 am—too early an hour for her mind to wake up, she claimed. She learned Greek on her own. For such people self-learning is an option. But even Arendt needed teachers, which is why she went to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. She had heard, she later wrote, that thinking was happening there. And she wanted to learn to think.

What is it that teachers teach when they are teaching? To answer “thinking” or “critical reasoning” or “self-reflection” is simply to open more questions. And yet these are the crucial questions we need to ask. At a period in time when education is increasingly confused with information delivery, we need to articulate and promote the dignity of teaching.

What is most provocative in Wieseltier’s essay is his civic argument for a liberal arts education.  Education, he writes, is the salvation of both the person and the citizen. Indeed it is the bulwark of a democratic politics:

Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection.

That education is the answer to our political ills is an argument heard widely. During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. Wieseltier trades in a similar argument: A good liberal arts education will yield critical thinkers who will thus be able to parse the obfuscation inherent in the media and vote for responsible and excellent candidates.

I am skeptical of arguments that imagine education as a panacea for politics. Behind such arguments is usually the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated and knew what they were talking about, they would see the truth and agree with me.” There is a confidence here in a kind of rational speech situation (of the kind imagined by Jürgen Habermas) that holds that when the conditions are propitious, everyone will come to agree on a rational solution. But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Politics involves plurality and the amazing thing about human beings is that educated or not, we embrace an extraordinary variety of strongly held, intelligent, and conscientious opinions. I am a firm believer in education. But I hold out little hope that education will make people see eye to eye, end our political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.

What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great teachers? Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.

To teach the world as it is, one must love the world—what Arendt comes to call amor mundi. A teacher must not despise the world or see it as oppressive, evil, and deceitful. Yes, the teacher can recognize the limitations of the world and see its faults. But he or she must nevertheless love the world with its faults and thus lead the student into the world as something inspired and beautiful. To teach Plato, you must love Plato. To teach geology, you must love rocks. While critical thinking is an important skill, what teachers teach is rather enthusiasm and love of learning. The great teachers are the lovers of learning. What they teach, above all, is the experience of discovery. And they do so by learning themselves.

Education is to be distinguished from knowledge transmission. It must also be distinguished from credentialing. And finally, education is not the same as indoctrinating students with values or beliefs. Education is about opening students to the fact of what is. Teaching them about the world as it is.  It is then up to the student, the young, to judge whether the world that they have inherited is loveable and worthy of retention, or whether it must be changed. The teacher is not responsible for changing the world; rather the teacher nurtures new citizens who are capable of judging the world on their own.

Arendt thus affirms Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative, to take up the divine idea allotted to each one of us, resonates with Arendt’s Socratic imperative, to be true to oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and personal viewpoints, eschewing political education and seeking, simply, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as independent and unique individuals. From this perspective, the progeny of teachers is the educated citizen, someone one who is both self-reliant in an Emersonian sense and also part of a common world.