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.
The Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has published an open letter on the recent threats to universities and to the humanities in particular. He warns against the idea that the humanities should be thought of as teaching basic literacy or “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. “There is nothing wrong with arguing that a good humanistic education will produce graduates who are critically literate, by some definition of critical literacy. However, the claim that only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy seems to me hard to sustain, since it is always open to the objection: if critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself? Would that not be simpler, and cheaper too?... I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.”
Recently, the New Statesman asked several prominent artists and scholars what revolution means to them. Some, like filmmaker Judd Apatow, poet Fatima Bhutto, and cartoonist Molly Crabapple, give long answers. Others keep it short; Chinese artist Ai Weiwei answered, simply "The revolution is a bridge that connects the past and the future. It is necessary, unpredictable and inevitable." The revolutions of the modern era were central to Arendt’s writing and thinking and she held up the American Revolution in particular as the great example of a liberation movement that succeeded in founding a free body politic. It is helpful to recall her own definition of revolution, if there is one: “The modern idea of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold, was unknown prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century…. Crucial, then, to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.”
In an interview about his new book Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma describes his ambivalence about heroes: "You need heroes sometimes in periods of crisis. You need them when you’re being occupied by the Nazis and in similar situations. But heroes tend not to be very nice people. They can be. There are of course heroic resistors who do it out of sheer decency but there are a lot of adventurers. To be a hero, especially when it involves violence, means you have to be pretty ruthless. Churchill was a hero but he was absolutely ruthless. The British people were absolutely right to cast him out in 1945. Clement Attlee was the man you needed then just as Churchill was the man you needed instead of Chamberlain and Halifax."
Lee Siegel looks at two new studies arguing that reading fiction promotes empathy. “The results were heartening to every person who has ever found herself, throughout her freshman year of college, passionately quoting to anyone within earshot Kafka’s remark that great literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.” The subjects who had read literary fiction either reported heightened emotional intelligence or demonstrated, in the various tests administered to them, that their empathy levels had soared beyond their popular- and non-fiction-reading counterparts.” But Siegel wonders whether we should promote literature on the practical ground that it fosters empathy: “Though empathy has become something like the celebrity trait of emotional intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sensitivity and gentleness popularly attributed to it. … There is, for example, no more empathetic character in the novel or on the stage than Iago, who is able to detect the slightest fluctuation in Othello’s emotional state. Othello, on the other hand, is a noble and magnanimous creature—if vain and bombastic as well—who is absolutely devoid of the gift of being able to apprehend another’s emotional states. If he were half as empathetic as Iago, he would be able to recognize the jealousy that is consuming his treacherous lieutenant. The entire play is an object lesson in the emotional equipment required to vanquish other people, or to protect yourself from other people’s machinations. But no one—and no study—can say for sure whether the play produces more sympathetic people, or more Iagos.”
November 20, 2013
The Letters Between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin
A Lunchtime Talk with Thomas Wild and Matthius Bormuth
The Hannah Arendt Center
Learn more here.
November 26, 2013
Spaces of “Politics” - Aspects of Transnationality in Arendt's Thinking
A Lunchtime Talk with Stefania Maffeis
The Hannah Arendt Center
Learn more here.
This week on the Blog, Jeff Champlin revisits Bonnie Honig’s classic article on Arendt and Derrida on the question of constitutions. We look again at Roger Berkowitz's essay on Arendt's understanding of the difference between thought and action. Elsewhere, Arendt Center Visiting Scholar Cristiana Grigore appeared on Al Jazeera.
"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.
Stanley Kaufmann has a over-the-top critique of “Hannah Arendt” in The New Republic. As with most such reviews, it is driven more by personal animus towards Arendt than by any consideration of the film. Here is one representative graph:
Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did. The immense horror of the Holocaust washed away any philosophical distinctions. Any sparing of Eichmann would have left millions of people feeling guilty of not fulfilling their duty. (An incidental bother: Before the war Arendt had been the student and lover of Martin Heidegger, who became a Nazi, and Arendt returned to him briefly after the war. This was presumably more a matter of Venus than politics; still it bothered many.) But Arendt’s strict adherence to her views resulted in her discharge from her teaching position, and the picture closes with her defiant parting address to her class.
First, Arendt did not return to her love affair with Heidegger after the war. Why imply she did?
Second, Arendt was not dismissed from a teaching position.
Mr. Kaufmann seems to have slept periodically through the movie and mixed up fantasy and reality in his fertile imagination. These are of course small points, but they are indications of just how deeply some people feel the need to discredit Arendt with personal attacks instead of addressing her ideas.
The Dorm Wars have not yet caused the numerous bankruptcies amongst minor and maybe even some more established colleges that seem inevitable. What they have done is change the nature of college education. Whether at Harvard or Ramapo, students want luxury dorms with private bathrooms and glitzy campus centers. And since students—fueled with cheap student debt are the all-powerful consumers—campus administrators have followed the money. Unfortunately, they also too often followed their students into debt. As the NY Times reports today,
A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt. Oftentimes, students are stuck picking up the bill.
I recently visited my alma mater for a reunion and was housed in the building where decades ago I labored long into the night as an editor for my beloved Prism magazine. It is the dorm in which I once put my hand through a glass door in the midst of a late-night editing and layout session. I barely recognized the Pratt Dormitory, which resembled more a Tablet style hotel than a college dormitory.
Such lavish quarters are now seen as necessary to attract the best students—something that is sad if it is true. And this perception, true or false, has unleashed the dorm wars. Some colleges, like the one I attended, don’t need to borrow to build. But many others think that they do.
“If Ramapo College was going to respond to what students wanted, which was larger, more comprehensive programs and residential housing, then we were going to have to go out and borrow,” Peter P. Mercer, President of the public liberal arts college in New Jersey told the Times.
How wrong is that. Borrowing can of course be justified. But if you want to build something, there are other options. You can, for example, go out and raise the money. That requires work, convincing people, many of whom have no personal connection to your college, that what you are doing is important and worthy of support. Excessive borrowing is, too often, the resort of those unwilling to take the longer and yet more responsible path of building an institution that people are willing to invest in and support.
More importantly, the enormous borrowing of colleges reported by the Times is evidence of an educational system that has simply lost its way. The fastest growing costs at colleges across the country are for administrators and for capital projects. Much of the borrowing is financing new luxury buildings and a bloated services staff. The priorities are wrong and real focus on teaching and learning seems to have been largely ignored. As students and parents confront extraordinary costs that go increasingly to pay interest on debt and support lavish undergraduate living, many are increasingly rebelling.
And for the first time in generations, students have other options. The rise of Internet learning is going to disrupt college education in this country as the Internet has transformed nearly every other area of life. And it will do so at the very moment when the finances of colleges and universities around the country are shakier than they have been in generations. The shake out will be painful.
What needs to be thought here is what is it that allowed debt to become so infectious within and amongst our educational institutions. With $1 trillion in student debt and $200 billion in institutional debt, education more and more resembles the housing and financial sectors of our economy.
Education is supposed to be a conservative enterprise, a bastion of learning and teaching the accumulated history and knowledge of the past. Somewhere along the line, education changed from being an experience of teaching and forming young individuals and citizens and became something very different. Higher education is now a progressive launching pad for careers. It is job security for tenured professors. It is the center of research and the producer of valuable sports franchises. Lost in the mix, I fear, is original mission itself. Just as banks and financial institutions abandoned their old job of lending and saving money and sought to become investment banks, so too have colleges changed from being educational institutions to being consumer brands selling luxury and success instead of the life of the mind. Some can do both. But many more will go the way of Pan Am and Hostess.
"Teaching is not a lost art but the regard for it is a lost tradition. Hence tomorrow's problem will not be to get teachers, but to recognize the good ones and not discourage them before they have done their stint."
—Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America
Jacques Barzun has died. With his passing we lose another of the grand European-born intellectuals who made America their home. Barzun was born in 1907, one year after Hannah Arendt. He did not come to the United States persecuted for his religion. He came in 1920 to pursue a university education at Columbia. He graduated Columbia in 1927, received his Ph.D. in 1932 and taught at Columbia until his retirement in 1975. Along the way he became one of the nation's preeminent scholars and public intellectuals.
Here is what Edward Rothstein writes today in the New York Times:
[Barzun] wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.
Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.
As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.
But he was also a popularizer, believing that the achievements of the arts and scholarship should not be divorced from the wider American culture. Writing for a general audience, he said, was “a responsibility of scholars.”
Barzun's work touched nearly every part of humanistic thought, from his work on Berlioz to his late epic on the decadence of Western culture. In “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage," he took up the critique of scientific culture initiated by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber. As did Hannah Arendt, Barzun worried deeply about the way scientific thinking was intruding upon the realm of human freedom and human creativity. His last book, From Dawn to Decadence, traces Western civilization from the renaissance to the present. It is at once sad in its mourning of lost greatness and optimistic about the impending regeneration. Barzun is a brilliant guide through the ages of the western mind.
Above all Barzun was a teacher. For all of us committed to the dual goals of enlivening and making accessible the world of ideas, the loss of Jacques Barzun is a day to recall the nobility of that enterprise.
"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable."
—Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education
Hannah Arendt writes that the fact that we are born into the world—the fact of natality—is the essence of education. She means that every newborn baby comes into the world both free and yet also constrained. Newcomers are free insofar as there is no way of knowing in advance what a young person will become or who she will be. The newcomer is constrained, however, because he is always born into an already-existing world, one with particular customs, limitations, and opportunities. To educate that newcomer is to respond both to the freedom and constraint into which he is thrown. As free, the child must be taught to act courageously in new and surprising ways. As constrained, the newcomer must accept the responsibility as a member of an already existing world, one he must somehow make his own.
From the Latin educare, to educate means to lead into or draw out. Education is the activity of leading a child into the world, of drawing her into the world. Parents educate their children by drawing them out of their private selves and into the world of the family, their community, and their society.
Schools educate, in turn, by drawing students out of the confines of their families and into the wider political and social world. Education is always an entry into an old world. And yet, it is always a new experience with infinite possibilities for every new initiate.
Education, Hannah Arendt tells us in the quotation above, is about the love for the world. To have children, something she did not do, and to educate young people, something she did brilliantly, is to bring new young people into an old and existing world. To make that choice is to "assume responsibility" for that world, to love it enough—in spite of all of the evil and ugliness—to welcome the innocent. Only when we decide to assume such an awesome responsibility for the world as it is and to love that world, can we begin the activity of education.
Education is also a process of saving the world from ruin—a ruin that is inevitable for all mortal and human endeavors. Made by humans acting together, the world will disappear if we do not care for it and refresh it. The world is not a physical entity but is the "in-between" that connects us all. Like a "table that is located between those who sit around it," the world is the world of things, actions, stories, and events that connect and divide all persons living together in a common world. Without newcomers who are introduced into the world and taught to love it as their own, the world will die out.
There are of course some who reject the love for the world that makes education possible. There are always reasons to do so, ranging from poverty and racism to war and famine. Rebellion is, of course, sometimes justified. There are times, as with Arendt's judgment of Adolf Eichmann, where one must say simply: A world with such people as Eichmann in it is not a world I can love. That is why Arendt argues that Eichmann must be killed. But such judgments of non-reconciliation are, for Arendt, inappropriate in the act of educating young people.
To love the world enough to lead students into it means also that we love our children enough to both bring them into the world and leave to them the chance of changing it. Arendt writes:
And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing the common world.
If we love our children, and our world enough, then we do not make the decision to expel the children from that world. We don't make the decision of rebellion or non-reconciliation for them. The point is that education of the young must leave to the young the right of "undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us."
A teacher must not cross the line and tell the student what to do about the world, for that is the right of the student himself. All the teacher can and should do is prepare students for such a decision, by leading them into an existing world and offering them examples of those who, through freedom and constraint, have throughout history worked to renew and re-inspire our common world.
While teaching is never easy, it is particularly difficult in the 21st century, at a time when the "common world," the world of things that unite us, is changing at such a pace that that teachers and students increasingly live in very different worlds. It's one thing for teachers to not be up on the latest fashions or music; but when teachers and students increasingly get their news from different media, live in different virtual realities, and communicate differently about the worlds they inhabit, the challenges grow. Teaching is of course still possible, but it takes significantly more effort and reflection to think about what that common world is into which we are leading our students. The love of the world has never been so difficult or so necessary.
The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
-Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979
Contemporary observers of secondary education have appropriately decried the startling lack of understanding most students possess of the American presidency. This critique should not be surprising. In textbooks and classrooms across the country, curriculum writers and teachers offer an abundance of disconnected facts about the nation’s distinct presidencies—the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique time-bound crises that give character and a simple narrative arc to each individual president. Some of these descriptions contain vital historical knowledge. Students should learn, for example, how a conflicted Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress for sweeping domestic programs against the backdrop of Vietnam or how a charismatic and effective communicator like Ronald Reagan found Cold War collaboration with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.
But what might it mean to ask high school students to look across these and other presidencies to encourage more sophisticated forms of historical thinking? More specifically, what might teachers begin to do to promote thoughtful writing and reflection that goes beyond the respective presidencies and questions the nature of the executive office itself? And how might one teach the presidency, in Arendtian fashion, encouraging open dialogue around common texts, acknowledging the necessary uncertainty in any evolving classroom interpretation of the past, and encouraging flexibility of thought for an unpredictable future? By provocatively asking whether the president “matters,” the 2012 Hannah Arendt Conference provided an ideal setting for New York secondary teachers to explore this central pedagogical challenge in teaching the presidency.
Participants in this special writing workshop, scheduled concurrently with the conference, attended conference panels and also retreated to consider innovative and focused approaches to teaching the presidency.
Conference panels promoted a broader examination of the presidency than typically found in secondary curricula. A diverse and notable group of scholars urged us to consider the events and historical trends, across multiple presidencies, constraining or empowering any particular chief executive. These ideas, explored more thoroughly in the intervening writing workshops, provoked productive argument on what characteristics might define the modern American presidency. In ways both explicit and implicit, sessions pointed participants to numerous and complicated ways Congress, the judiciary, mass media, U.S. citizens, and the president relate to one another.
This sweeping view of the presidency contains pedagogical potency and has a place in secondary classrooms. Thoughtful history educators should ask big questions, encourage open student inquiry, and promote civic discourse around the nature of power and the purposes of human institutions. But as educators, we also know that the aim and value of our discipline resides in place-and time-bound particulars that beg for our interpretation and ultimately build an evolving understanding of the past. Good history teaching combines big ambitious questions with careful attention to events, people, and specific contingencies. Such specifics are the building blocks of storytelling and shape the analogies students need to think through an uncertain future.
Jimmy Carter’s oval office speech on July 15, 1979, describing a national “crisis of confidence” presented a unique case study for thinking about the interaction between American presidents and the populations the office is constitutionally obliged to serve. Workshop participants prepared for the conference by watching the video footage from this address and reading parts of Kevin Mattson’s history of the speech. In what quickly became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter attempted a more direct and personal appeal to the American people, calling for personal sacrifice and soul searching, while warning of dire consequences if the nation did not own up to its energy dependencies. After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter believed, America needed a revival that went beyond policy recommendations. His television address, after a mysterious 10-day sequestration at Camp David, took viewers through Carter’s own spiritual journey and promoted the conclusions he drew from it.
Today, the Malaise Speech has come to symbolize a failed Carter presidency. He has been lampooned, for example, on The Simpsons as our most sympathetically honest and humorously ineffectual former president. In one episode, residents of Springfield cheer the unveiling of his presidential statue, emblazoned with “Malaise Forever” on the pedestal. Schools give the historical Carter even less respect. Standardized tests such as the NY Regents exam ask little if anything about his presidency. The Malaise speech is rarely mentioned in classrooms—at either the secondary or post-secondary levels. Similarly, few historians identify Carter as particularly influential, especially when compared to the leaders elected before and after him. Observers who mention his 1979 speeches are most likely footnoting a transitional narrative for an America still recovering from a turbulent Sixties and heading into a decisive conservative reaction.
Indeed, workshop participants used writing to question and debate Carter’s place in history and the limited impact of the speech. But we also identified, through primary sources on the 1976 election and documents around the speech, ways for students to think expansively about the evolving relationship between a president and the people. A quick analysis of the electoral map that brought Carter into office reminded us that Carter was attempting to convince a nation that looks and behaves quite differently than today. The vast swaths of blue throughout the South and red coastal counties in New York and California are striking. Carter’s victory map can resemble an electoral photo negative to what has now become a familiar and predictable image of specific regional alignments in the Bush/Obama era. The president who was elected in 1976, thanks in large part to an electorate still largely undefined by the later rise of the Christian Right, remains an historical enigma. As an Evangelical Democrat from Georgia, with roots in both farming and nuclear physics, comfortable admitting his sins in both Sunday School and Playboy, and neither energized by or defensive about abortion or school prayer, Carter is as difficult to image today as the audience he addressed in 1979.
It is similarly difficult for us to imagine the Malaise Speech ever finding a positive reception. However, this is precisely what Mattson argues. Post-speech weekend polls gave Carter’s modest popularity rating a surprisingly respectable 11-point bump. Similarly, in a year when most of the president’s earlier speeches were ignored, the White House found itself flooded with phone calls and letters, almost universally positive. The national press was mixed and several prominent columnists praised the speech. This reaction to such an unconventional address, Mattson goes on to argue, suggests that the presidency can matter.
Workshop participants who attended later sessions heard Walter Russell Mead reference the ways presidents can be seen as either transformative or transactional. In many ways, the “malaise moment” could be viewed as a late term attempt by a transactional president to forge a transformational presidency. In the days leading up to the speech, Carter went into self-imposed exile, summoning spiritual advisors to his side, and encouraging administration-wide soul searching. Such an approach to leadership, admirable to some and an act of desperation to others, defies conventions and presents an odd image of presidential behavior (an idea elaborated on by conference presenter Wyatt Mason). “Malaise” was never mentioned in Carter’s speech. But his transformational aspirations are hard to miss.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
It is this process—the intellectual act of interpreting Carter and his [in]famous speech as aberrant presidential behavior—that allows teachers and their students to explore together the larger question of defining the modern presidency. And it is precisely this purposeful use of a small number of primary sources that forces students to rethink, through writing and reflection, the parameters that shape how presidents relate to their electorate. In our workshop we saw how case studies, in-depth explorations of the particulars of history, precede productive debate on whether the presidency matters.
The forgotten Carter presidency can play a disproportionately impactful pedagogical role for teachers interested in exploring the modern presidency. As any high school teacher knows, students rarely bring an open interpretive lens to Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ronald Reagan, as the first political memory for many of their parents, remains a polarizing a figure. However, few students or their parents hold strong politically consequential opinions about Carter. Most Americans, at best, continue to view him as a likable, honest, ethical man who is much more effective as an ex-president than he was as president.
Workshop participants learned that the initial support Carter received after the Malaise Speech faded quickly. Mattson and some members of the administration now argue that the President lacked a plan to follow up on the goodwill he received from a nation desiring leadership. Reading Ezra Klein, we also considered the possibility that, despite all the attention educators give to presidential speeches (as primary sources that quickly encapsulate presidential visions), there is little empirical evidence that any public address really makes much of a difference. In either case, Carter’s loss 16 months later suggests that his failures of leadership both transformational and transactional.
Did Carter’s speech matter? The teachers in the workshop concluded their participation by attempting to answer this question, working collaboratively to draft a brief historical account contextualizing the 1979 malaise moment. In doing so, we engaged in precisely the type of activity missing in too many secondary school classrooms today: interrogating sources, corroborating evidence, debating conflicting interpretations, paying close attention to language, and doing our best to examine our underlying assumptions about the human condition. These efforts produced some clarity, but also added complexity to our understanding of the past and led to many additional questions, both pedagogical and historical. In short, our writing and thinking during the Arendt Conference produced greater uncertainty. And that reality alone suggests that study of the presidency does indeed matter.
Stephen Mucher is assistant professor of history education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College.
The workshop, Teaching the American Presidency, facilitated by Teresa Vilardi and Stephen Mucher, sponsored by the Institute for Writing and Thinking and Master of Arts in Teaching Program in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College was offered as part of the Center’s 2012 conference, “Does the President Matter? American Politics in an Age of Disrepair.”