One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.
How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).
As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.
Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.
These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”
Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”
As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:
What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.
Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?
For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?
Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.
Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.
On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.
You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.
Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here.