Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
4May/150

Amor Mundi 5/3/15

Arendtamormundi

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upOur Daily Routine

nazi trialAnna Sauerbrey has an op-ed in the NY Times about the ongoing trial of Oskar Gröning, what will likely be the last trial of a German Nazi for crimes against humanity. One captivating aspect of the trial is that Gröning has long admitted to his role in the genocide and expressed regret for it. For Sauerbrey, the core of the trial is Gröning's uncanny banality. "At the trial, Mr. Gröning said that from his perspective, the killing of the Hungarian Jews, which had been meticulously planned and for which several new gas chambers had been built in Auschwitz, was 'routine.' What shocked him were merely individual outbursts of violence, like an SS man beating a crying infant to death. The killings in the gas chambers, he said, were 'orderly' and 'clean.' He rarely said the word 'murder.' 'In 24 hours you could take care of 5,000 people,' he said. 'After all, that's how things went in a concentration camp.' Mr. Gröning's language naturally makes one think of Adolf Eichmann, and how his detached explanation of his role as a bureaucrat, at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, led Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase 'the banality of evil.' Ms. Arendt was, some say, fooled by the defendant, and that Eichmann had embraced the hatred fueling the killing machine. But if Ms. Arendt was wrong about Eichmann, she was on to something, something we now see in what Mr. Gröning is saying. It is the horrifying, mind-wrecking banality of evil condensed in a sentence like 'that's how things went in a concentration camp' that has sustained the German self-narrative of guilt, much more than compassion ever could have. Mr. Gröning makes us question ourselves. I, too, am afraid I wouldn't have resisted. The victims tell us: We must never forget. The perpetrators say: We might do it again." Arendt did not accept Eichmann's claim that he was a mere bureaucrat; she insisted that he chose to participate in genocide and should be killed for his acts. More importantly, she agreed with Sauerbrey that the key question of the Eichmann trial was why some Germans chose to resist Nazi evil while others participated thoughtlessly. The question was, and remains, thus: why could people like Gröning conclude that the orderly planned killing of Jews was routine even as they were shocked by disorderly outbursts of violence? After a semester teaching a course on moral and political courage, it is now clear that what separates those who resist from those who cooperate is simple: it is character. The people who resist simply have an idea of themselves that disallows them from doing certain things. They have a sense of self and the courage to be who they are no matter the costs. They have depth, which is the opposite of banality.

Psycho Babble

psychologyWe live in an age of social science. Everywhere we turn, and in every newspaper we read, we are bombarded with statistics about human behavior. Policy wonks from Cass Sunstein to David Brooks want to use social science research to nudge people to behave in more rational and more responsible ways. But not everyone is an advocate of such research. In her lifetime, Hannah Arendt was eternally suspicious of social science data. First, because she insists that human freedom means that we are never as predictable as data would have us believe. And second, because the admitted success of data as a predictor of mass behavior leads to a loss of faith in the freedom and thus greatness of human action, thus an acceptance of the machine-like behavior of humans. It is thus helpful to remember that many of the seemingly endless studies about human psychological behavior are total bunk, as Kas Thomas writes (in admittedly colorful language). "An effort to replicate 100 research findings in psychology turned up the disturbing fact that key findings from only 39 of the published studies could be reproduced. From the 30 April 2015 article in Nature: 'The results should convince everyone that psychology has a replicability problem,' says Hal Pashler, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of one of the papers whose findings were successfully repeated. 'A lot of working scientists assume that if it's published, it's right,' he says. 'This makes it hard to dismiss that there are still a lot of false positives in the literature.' But Daniele Fanelli, who studies bias and scientific misconduct at Stanford University in California, says the results suggest that the reproducibility of findings in psychology does not necessarily lag behind that in other sciences. There is plenty of room for improvement, he adds, but earlier studies have suggested that reproducibility rates in cancer biology and drug discovery could be even lower. 'From my expectations, these are not bad at all,' Fanelli says. 'Though I have spoken to psychologists who are quite disappointed.' In other words, these results aren't that bad, really, because they're just as shitty as in other, 'harder' sciences!"

Order and Violence

baltimore protestsViolence can be useful. In response to injustice, it can even be justifiable on a utilitarian scale if violence brings attention to injustice and thus serves the doing of justice. But usually, violence does not lead to justice but rather to more violence. That is the danger of political uses of violence, as Hannah Arendt understood it in her essay On Violence. Responding to the protests following the unexplained brutal beating and subsequent death of Freddie Gray while he was held in police custody in Baltimore, Ta-Nehisi Coates says that calls for 'nonviolence' are being made in bad faith, although that does not in turn justify violence: "When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is 'correct' or 'wise,' any more than a forest fire can be 'correct' or 'wise.' Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community." The violent protests in Baltimore shed light on the injustice of police violence. There is a question of whether the violent protests were necessary in that aim. But so far, it is hard to deny that the violent protests have yielded what they sought and that they may prove to be one of those rare instances when violence proves itself in the service of justice.

Civility and Truth

salaitaThe American Association of University Professors has released a report on the firing of Steven Salaita. As the report concludes, "At the heart of this case is the question of Professor Salaita's employment status at the University of Illinois when Chancellor Wise informed him that she would not forward his appointment to the board of trustees." Since the AAUP finds, correctly, that Salaita had indeed been hired, his irregular firing without procedural safeguards was a violation of his protected status. A larger question in the report concerns the claim by the University of Illinois that the firing was justified because of the uncivil nature of Professor Salaita's comments. On this point, the AAUP's report takes a strong stand against civility: "Statements by Chancellor Wise and the trustees insisted that 'civility' was a standard by which the fitness of a scholar and teacher could be judged. They used synonyms such as courtesy and respect, and they maintained that incivility threatened the comfort and security of students. The trustees claimed that disrespectful speech 'is not an acceptable form of civil argument' and 'has no place . . . in our democracy.' There are three objections to these claims. The first is that 'civility' is vague and ill-defined.... The second objection is that, inevitably, the standard of civility conflates the tone of an enunciation with its content.... The third objection is that, even if the tone of one's expression is highly charged, it does not constitute grounds for punishment. Whether it is a matter of First Amendment rights or of the principles of academic freedom, there is concurrence on the dangers to democracy of attempting to outlaw emotionally provocative speech. The CAFT report cites a 1971 Supreme Court case that struck down punishment because of a speaker's use of an offensive expletive-'an expletive Dr. Salaita's tweets are much given to.' The Court ruled, 'We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which practically speaking may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated.' In the Davis case at UCLA, one of the dissenting regents put it similarly: 'In this day and age when the decibel level of political debate . . . has reached the heights it has, it is unrealistic and disingenuous to demand as a condition of employment that the professor address political rallies in the muted cadences of scholarly exchanges. Professors are products of their times even as the rest of us.'" One problem with such reasoning, however, is that the AAUP wants to insist that professors are different from the rest of us and that professors deserve extra protection of academic freedom because they are engaged in the pursuit of truth that may and often is unconventional and controversial. If that is true, and it should be, then it may well require that professors act professorial in order to claim their academic freedom. In other words, the civility that often is out of place in political arguments is a structuring condition of academic inquiry.

amor_mundi_sign-upAn Ideologue and a Meddlesome Egoist

pope francisPope Francis is on a mission, and the measure of his potential success is the fear he is causing. Garry Wills asks the right question: who is scared of Pope Francis? It turns out some very wealthy and powerful people are. "Those who profit from what harms the earth have to keep the poor out of sight. They have trouble enough fighting off the scientific, economic, and political arguments against bastioned privilege. Bringing basic morality to the fore could be fatal to them. That is why they are mounting such a public pre-emptive strike against the encyclical before it even appears. They must not only discredit the pope's words (whatever they turn out to be), they must block them, ridicule them, destroy them. The measure of their fear is demonstrated by an article in First Things, the Catholic journal that defended the donations to bishops of the pederast religious founder Marcial Maciel. The First Things writer Maureen Mullarkey calls the pope 'an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist,' and continues: 'Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.'" At a time of incredible inaction around the world on all issues from climate change and inequality to corruption and terrorism, the one world leader who seems able and willing to take bold action informed by common sense moral intuitions is the Catholic Pope. One hopes some other leaders follow his example.

Consider the Paragraph

paragraphElisa Gabbert wonders after prose's forgotten unit of organization: "Reading a book, I always glance ahead to see where the section or chapter ends, so I know when I can stop reading if I want or need to. Stopping mid-paragraph is deeply unsatisfying--no sense of closure, no easy way to remember where I left off when I next pick it up. Claustrophobic tendencies aside, of late I am actively interested in paragraphs, their formal possibilities. Sentences are taken to be the basic unit of prose, and we use them metonymically--we say 'She writes wonderful sentences' when we mean to praise the author's prose. James Salter is so well-known for his sentences that it rises to the level (or sinks, I suppose) of critical cliché. In a 2013 profile in the New Yorker, Salter is quoted, in a letter to a friend: 'I wanted to get past the great-writer-of-sentences thing. I don't care about that, at this stage.' But why is it, I wonder, we rarely talk about a writer's way with paragraphs? It may be because there is a lot more you can do with a sentence to vary it; syntax and diction, all those micro-choices that add up to the macro-style of (say) a novel, happen at the level of the sentence. There are pretty much only two ways to vary your paragraphs. The first is length. Some writers work in short paragraphs, some in fluctuating lengths, others in long, multi-page-spanning paragraphs, like our incantatory friend above. Some writers work at both ends, depending on the book--compare As I Lay Dying to Absalom, Absalom! It's no coincidence that the former, with its many breaks, is easier to read; it could almost pass for YA. Bestsellers keep paragraphs and chapters short as a tactic--they make for more addictive, snack-like reading, so the reader repeatedly thinks I'll just read one more."

Not Just Clowning Around

Bernie SandersMatt Taibbi thinks Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders's run for the presidency could invigorate our moribund political culture, and he is infuriated that some people don't think that the Senator is being serious: "this whole question of 'seriousness'--which will dominate coverage of the Sanders campaign--should really be read as a profound indictment of our political system, which is now so openly an oligarchy that any politician who doesn't have the blessing of the bosses is marginalized before he or she steps into the ring."

Forgetting to Forget

warMichelle Garcia offers a haunting tale of memory and time that somehow unite her father's death and her decision to go and work in refugee camps in the Sahara: "No longer do I organize time chronologically. Keeping time reminds me of where I went wrong. Saturday afternoon: I call my father and promise to call back on Sunday. The conversation was difficult, we talked about my brother. Sunday: I prepare for bed and remember to call my father, but my boyfriend says, The last conversation upset you and it's late. Call tomorrow first thing. I remember the moment vividly. Monday morning: I walk into the office, sit down at my desk, and lift the phone to call my father. My cellphone rings. It's my brother and he's crying. Time, in that moment, was like a record player needle on a scratched album, unable to advance. But I was just about to call, the phone was in my hand.... Neat divisions of time are largely obliterated in the war of forgetting. The past and present co-mingle, speak to, and inform each other. Anyone who has ever lived through war, with its echoes of regret, knows that a war of forgetting endures after the bodies are buried, the peace accords are signed, and the soldiers remove their uniforms. The war of forgetting is the undocumented legacy of war, often relegated to the psycho-analytic bins of trauma, nostalgia, and remorse. For the next seven years, the war of forgetting would dominate my travels and my attention, but after each experience, I hesitated to write about what I had seen until I could give shape and words to the absence, the missing."

The Courage to Not Be Busy

from the heartOmid Safi diagnoses the modern disease of business, or busyness. "This disease of being 'busy' (and let's call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.... It doesn't have to be this way. In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they're doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one's heart. In reality, we ask, 'How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?' When I ask, 'How are you?' that is really what I want to know. I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you're more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence. Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #8

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt's use of the "Archimedean point" in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition helps us understand the Anthropocene in the Quote of the Week. Ray Bradbury provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate a photo of a personal Arendt library that includes, among other things, a thinking cap that is used to aid the reader in the battle of ideas in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Apr/150

Ray Bradbury’s Thoughts on Thinking: Unconscious Creativity

ray bradbury

Source: New York Times

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”

— Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury's Biography

Ray Bradbury was an American fantasy and horror author who rejected being categorized as a science fiction author, claiming that his work was based on the fantastical and unreal. His best known novel is Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian study of future American society in which critical thought is outlawed. He is also remembered for several other popular works, including The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury won the Pulitzer in 2004, and is one of the most celebrated authors of the 21st century. He died in Los Angeles on June 5, 2012, at the age of 91.

(Sourced from Biography.com)

For more Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
28Feb/140

Privacy and Politics

ArendtWeekendReading

In the most recent NY Review of Books, David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy:

“Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?”

Cole is beyond convincing in listing the dangers to privacy in the new national security state. Like many others in the media, he speaks the language of necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world, but suggests we are trading away too much and getting back too little in return. He warns that if we are not careful, privacy will disappear. He is right.

gorey

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

What is often forgotten and is absent in Cole’s narrative is that most people—at least in practice—simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving.

Cole simply assumes the value of privacy and doesn’t address the benefits of privacy until his final paragraph. When he does come to explaining why privacy is important, he invokes popular culture dystopias to suggest the horror of a world without privacy:

More broadly, all three branches of government—and the American public—need to take up the challenge of how to preserve privacy in the information age. George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report all vividly portrayed worlds without privacy. They are not worlds in which any of us would want to live. The threat is no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s here. And as both reports eloquently attest, unless we adapt our laws to address the ever-advancing technology that increasingly consumes us, it will consume our privacy, too.

There are two problems with such fear mongering in defense of privacy. The first is that these dystopias seem too distant. Most of us don’t experience the violations of our privacy by the government or by Facebook as intrusions. The second is that on a daily basis the fact that my phone knows where I am and that in a pinch the government could locate me is pretty convenient. These dystopian visions can appear not so dystopian.

Most writing about privacy simply assume that privacy is important. We are treated to myriad descriptions of the way privacy is violated. The intent is to shock us. But rarely are people shocked enough to actually respond in ways that protect the privacy they often say that they cherish. We have collectively come to see privacy as a romantic notion, a long-forgotten idle, exotic and even titillating in its possibilities, but ultimately irrelevant in our lives.

There is, of course, a reason why so many advocates of privacy don’t articulate a meaningful defense of privacy: It is because to defend privacy means to defend a rich and varied sphere of difference and plurality, the right and importance of people actually holding opinions divergent from one’s own. In an age of political correctness and ideological conformism, privacy sounds good in principle but is less welcome in practice when those we disagree with assert privacy rights.  Thus many who defend privacy do so only in the abstract.

keyhole

When it comes to actually allowing individuals to raise their children according to their religious or racial beliefs or when the question is whether people can marry whomever they want, defenders of privacy often turn tail and insist that some opinions and some practices must be prohibited. Over and over today, advocates of privacy show that they value an orderly, safe, and respectful public realm and that they are willing to abandon privacy in the name of security and a broad conception of civility according to which no one should have to encounter opinions and acts that give them offense.

The only major thinker of the last 100 years who insisted fully and consistently on the crucial importance of a rich and vibrant private realm is Hannah Arendt. Privacy, Arendt argues, is essential because it is what allows individuals to emerge as unique persons in the world. The private realm is the realm of “exclusiveness,” it is that realm in which we “choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives, personal friends and those we love.” The private choices we make are guided by nothing objective or knowable, “but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.” Privacy is controversial because the “rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness are, and always will be, in conflict with the standards of society.” Arendt’s defense of mixed marriages (and by extension gay marriages) proceeds—no less than her defense of the right of parents to educate their children in single-sex or segregated schools—from her conviction that the uniqueness and distinction of private lives need to be respected and protected.

Privacy, for Arendt, is connected to the “sanctity of the hearth” and thus to the idea of private property. Indeed, property itself is respected not on economic grounds, but because “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.” Property guarantees privacy because it enforces a boundary line, “ kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both.” In private, behind the four walls of house and heath, the “sacredness of the hidden” protects men from the conformist expectations of the social and political worlds.

In private, shaded from the conformity of societal opinions as well from the demands of the public world, we can grow in our own way and develop our own idiosyncratic character. Because we are hidden, “man does not know where he comes from when he is born and where he goes when he dies.” This essential darkness of privacy gives flight to our uniqueness, our freedom to be different. It is privacy, in other words, that we become who we are. What this means is that without privacy there can be no meaningful difference. The political importance of privacy is that privacy is what guarantees difference and thus plurality in the public world.

Arendt develops her thinking on privacy most explicitly in her essays on education. Education must perform two seemingly contradictory functions. First, education leads a young person into the public world, introducing them and acclimating them to the traditions, public language, and common sense that precede him. Second, education must also guard the child against the world, care for the child so that “nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The child, to be protected against the destructive onslaught of the world, needs the privacy that has its “traditional place” in the family.

Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general…Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however, strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.

The public world is unforgiving. It can be cold and hard. All persons count equally in public, and little if any allowance is made for individual hardships or the bonds of friendship and love. Only in privacy, Arendt argues, can individuals emerge as unique individuals who can then leave the private realm to engage the political sphere as confident, self-thinking, and independent citizens.

public

The political import of Arendt’s defense of privacy is that privacy is what allows for meaningful plurality and differences that prevent one mass movement, one idea, or one opinion from imposing itself throughout society. Just as Arendt valued the constitutional federalism in the American Constitution because it multiplied power sources through the many state and local governments in the United States, so did she too value privacy because it nurtures meaningfully different and even opposed opinions, customs, and faiths. She defends the regional differences in the United States as important and even necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of dispersed power that she saw as the great bulwark of freedom against the tyranny of the majority. In other words, Arendt saw privacy as the foundation not only of private eccentricity, but also of political freedom.

Cole offers a clear-sighted account of the ways that government is impinging on privacy. It is essential reading and it is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
16Jan/130

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.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.