Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
5Aug/130

We Create the Conditions that Condition Us

Arendtquote

This "Quote" of the week originally ran on May 28, 2012

"The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in 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."

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment.  We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.

We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli.  It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.

mouse

On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force.  Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment.  The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive.  Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.

Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned.  An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction.  Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century.  And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual's capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.

In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker.  In saying that, "the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers," she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us.  We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment.  The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.

The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.  A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:

The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)

The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world.  The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are "the work of men's hands," cautions that "they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them."  Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, "all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, "as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it," although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, "you made your bed, go lie in it!"  During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us," while Mark Twain humorously observed that, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  More recently, we have been told, "ask a silly question, get a silly answer," to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, "garbage in, garbage out."  Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us," and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, "we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us," as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan's media ecology aphorism, "the medium is the message."

All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post.  And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

The "conditions" that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment.  In this sense, our self-made conditions mediatebetween ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life.  And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment.  And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:

Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.  This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.  Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition.  The impact of the world's reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force.  The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

eye

This last point is quite striking.  It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud:  "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."  We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments.  Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.

But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole.  The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak.  And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.

As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized.  We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts.  We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt's view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.

In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.

-Lance Strate

4Jan/130

The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

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.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.

-RB

11Dec/120

Mark Twain on Thinking

"The man with a new idea is a crank - until the idea succeeds."

-Mark Twain

28May/120

We Create the Conditions that Condition Us

"The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in 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."

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958, p. 9

The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment.  We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.

We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli.  It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.

On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force.  Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment.  The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive.  Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.

Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned.  An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction.  Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century.  And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual's capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.

In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker.  In saying that, "the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers," she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us.  We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment.  The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.

The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.  A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:

The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)

The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world.  The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are "the work of men's hands," cautions that "they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them."  Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, "all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, "as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it," although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, "you made your bed, go lie in it!"  During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us," while Mark Twain humorously observed that, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  More recently, we have been told, "ask a silly question, get a silly answer," to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, "garbage in, garbage out."  Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us," and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, "we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us," as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan's media ecology aphorism, "the medium is the message."

All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post.  And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

The "conditions" that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment.  In this sense, our self-made conditions mediate between ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life.  And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment.  And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.

Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:

Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.  This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.  Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition.  The impact of the world's reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force.  The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

This last point is quite striking.  It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud:  "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."  We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments.  Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.

But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole.  The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak.  And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.

As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized.  We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts.  We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt's view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.

In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.

-Lance Strate