Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
12Nov/121

Leading Students Into the World

“The teacher's qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world.  Vis-à-vis the child, it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child:  This is our world."

-Hannah Arendt, "A Crisis in Education"

Teachers must lead their students into the world. They are qualified to do so because of their knowledge of the world as well as their ability to teach others that knowledge.  There is an inherent conservatism enmeshed in the activity of teaching.  That conservatism comes from simultaneously needing to protect children who are learning care for the world from being damaged by it and from needing to protect the world from representation by the child who does not yet understand it.

The culture wars have resulted from the loss of a unitary cultural world that serves as an authority for tradition.  This loss of authority is often taken for an inability to teach now that (in the case of The United States) the western tradition is not seen as the only measure of educational truth.  Nonetheless, we can still know a world that is, for lack of a better word, post-modern, and teachers can still represent that world to students.  The complexity of our world is that it does not share a single culture or tradition and that the authority of the public realm, which rested on these things, is gone.  But simply because our world is not tethered to a single idea (such as the polis of Ancient Greece) or to the cultural authority of one city (such as the Roman Empire’s ties to Rome), does not mean we are unable to represent it to students.

To represent the world, though, we have to understand it, in the old sense of standing in for the world—of being its representative.  If the world is the world of things, then the teacher who understands the world is the one who can bring it before students for them to learn it.  This process of understanding is “loving the world” according to Arendt.

A few weeks ago, Roger Berkowitz discussed another Arendt quote from “A Crisis in Education” in which Arendt equates the process of education to loving the world. In that post, Roger wrote that as teachers we must exclude our judgments of non-reconciliation (e.g. Arendt’s choice to condemn Eichmann to death so that the world no longer contains something that we cannot love) in the process of education because those moments are not about loving the world, but about shaping it or acting in it.  The process of education must be protected from these kinds of judgments because they are different modes of being human.  In the same way that we cannot think and will at the same time, we cannot divide ourselves from the world while trying to represent it to students.  Judging is a different task from understanding.

The authority of teachers lies, at least in part, in their ability to understand and to set aside judging. That is, teachers have a special authorial role in presenting the world to students.

We may have lost the permanence and reliability of the world as a singular, recognizable culture, but this is not the same thing as the loss of the world.  We still have the “human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us,” as Arendt writes in “What is Authority?”  Teachers, qualified teachers, use this human capacity for preserving the world to show students how the world works, so that students may graduate and take their place in the world.

Taking up the activity of caring for the world belongs to all adults, but the task of representing the world belongs uniquely to teachers as a kind of authorship.  Authority here has two senses, the first underwritten by the second:  First, the teacher’s authority comes from the sense of a right conferred by their recognized social position. Second, this social authority is underwritten by the teacher’s authority as a qualified author:  Teachers create a work or a set of plans that is then read or built by others.  This combined educational authority is the authority of the teacher.

By representing the world to students in its richness (that of all adult inhabitants) the teacher preserves the world for its future adults by showing it to students as it is. The key is to present the world in such a way that it is both true to the teacher’s expertise and yet still recognizable to the students as having a place for them.  This requires a careful balance between the teacher’s expertise and the students’ newness.  This way of representing the world is a creative act that enables students to end their education and care for the world in the new ways that they create.

Not all people can manage this balance.  Arendt acknowledges that teachers can teach without learning and students can learn without becoming educated.  The teacher must have expertise to offer and the student must be willing and able to learn.

But when it comes to reform, however, Arendt insists tha neither of these things can be judged well from outside of the educational process itself.  She suggests that subject experts and teaching experts can best judge the process of education.  This may sound self-serving as those with the most at stake in education are the ones who should monitor its progress.  But to think otherwise is to misunderstand Arendt’s feeling that decisions that stand outside of the realm of politics should be made by experts.

For Arendt, this is a conceptual distinction between the realm of democratic politics in which decisions about government are made by citizens and the realm of social policy in which non-political decisions are made by experts in their respective fields.  Teachers are the experts who know the world well enough to represent it to students.  Excellent teachers are the ones who need to monitor the process of education.  Nonetheless, expertise is not the same thing as authority in this case.

-Ellen Rigsby

28Sep/120

The Crisis Must Matter

The crisis must matter.

The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.

The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."

A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.

It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.

We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.

According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:

We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once.  Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.

Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.

Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.

Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.

Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.

Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age.  It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.

There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.

If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".

-RB