Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”
(Featured Image: Norman Rockewell's "Portrait of America," Source - Brenna Eaton)
“Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”
– E. B. White
Before becoming the author of a few famously heart-warming children’s novels, E. B. White was the author of one of the most chilling pages of non-fiction in the English language. Written on Aug. 27, 1939, it describes an entire nation’s “long vigil at the radio”, a world twitching “nervously from the likelihood of war at 86 on the dial to the possibility of peace at 100”. In the face of a monstrosity that everyone knew was coming but had not yet begun, time had been suspended, the world having shrunk to the size of a radio “box [everyone] live[d] in”. “Hour after hour”, White writes, “we experience the debilitating sensation of knowing everything in the world except what we want to know – as a child who listens endlessly to an adult conversation but cannot get the gist, the one word or phrase that would make all clear.” It was published on Sept. 2--the day after the German invasion of Poland began.
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.
In the Weekend Read on Friday, Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs. While MOOCs can be valuable, we need to distinguish the practice of education from the business of knowledge dissemination. “At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “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 a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.”
Emma Green considers a recent study that suggests that widows and widowers are less likely to vote than others in their respective demographics. In so doing, she provokes us to reflect on Hannah Arendt’s insistence that an engaged public sphere depends upon a vibrant private realm. Green concludes: If “public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it's also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens? It's well established that people who are married vote more than those who are not, said the authors, and this study provides evidence that this isn't a coincidence of age or stage of life -- influence from a spouse is part of the reason people vote." Green shows that the crisis of the educated citizen—which is the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center’s Oct. 3-4 Conference at Bard College—flows at least in part from a related diminishment of private life.
“Over the Abyss in Rye.” That is the traditional title of The Catcher in the Rye in Russian. Reed Johnson writes that the Communist “Party authorized the novel’s translation believing that it exposed the rotting core of American capitalism.” In the New Yorker, Johnson explores the outrage caused by Max Nemtsov’s new translation of The Catcher in the Rye into Russian. Nemstov’s title, “Catcher on a Grain Field” begins with this first paragraph: “If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ’rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth.” According to Johnson, “Nemtsov employs a mélange of English-language calques, Russian provincial speech, neologisms, slang originating in Soviet prison camps, and contemporary hipsterish lingo. The mixture of unconventional speech is deliberate: advocates of foreignizing like to claim that such “marginalized” language, through a bizarre sort of syllogism, best represents the absolute difference of the foreign original. In other words, the Soviet prison slang in Nemtsov’s translation is actually meant to stand in for the original’s foreignness—its Americanness—for the Russian reader."
The rise of the MOOC has forced college Professors to defend themselves against the charge that computers can do their jobs better than they can. Now, on the other side, a study at Northwestern concludes that lowly-paid adjuncts are more effective teachers than their highly-paid senior colleagues with tenure. "There are many aspects relating to changes in the tenure status of faculty – from the impact on research productivity to the protection of academic freedom," the study says. "But certainly learning outcomes are an important consideration in evaluating whether the observed trend away from tenure track/tenured towards non-tenure line faculty is good or bad. Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem," says the paper.” The trend to “full-time designated teachers,” in the turgid prose of this study, furthers the overarching trend of turning college education into high school education, with standardized tests, learning goals, and unending assessments. Anyone who cares about the life of the mind should be worried; but the culprit is the professoriate themselves, who continues to defend the status quo of jargon-filled research and overly-specialized teaching. If we don’t return universities to sites of intellectual fervent, the bureaucratic reformers will turn them into glorified high schools.
A Three Day Festival at FDR Library & Bard College
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The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Educated Citizen in Crisis"
Olin Hall, Bard College
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Hannah Arendt: A Film Screening, Lecture, and Discussion with Roger Berkowitz
One Day University
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John LeJeune gives us the Arendt quote of the week and considers the place of language education in the education of the citizen. Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs.
A U.S. District Court Judge ruled late yesterday that college students from Bard College, Marist College, and other local colleges could indeed vote, even though the local Dutchess County Elections Commissioner had refused their registrations, because they left the Room number of their dorms off of their registration forms. Here is the short story in the Mid Hudson News:
Poughkeepsie area college students, who were denied the ability to vote in the election by Dutchess County Elections Commissioner Erik Haight, may so do after all. Haight maintained they did not properly list their campus addresses on their voter registration forms. But, US District Court Judge Kenneth Karas ruled late Monday they may, in fact, vote on Tuesday. The students from The CIA, Marist College and Bard College filed a class action lawsuit against Haight and the Dutchess board of Elections maintaining they do have the right to vote. The students were represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and their law firm. “This is a victory for voting rights,” said NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. “The right to vote is preservative of all other rights in a democracy, and deserves the strictest constitutional protection possible.”
That college students vote is important for many reasons, above all because acquiring the habit of voting early will increase the likelihood of someone's voting throughout their life. Voter participation rates for young voters are pitifully low. We should be encouraging young people to get involved and vote. Instead, county commissioners around the country pull out every trick in their power to prevent students from voting.
In Dutchess County, where Bard is located, there are two arguments against student voting. Most cynically, the county is heavily Republican. College voters are thought to be Democrats, although this is not always as true as one believes. In any case, these towns are often small and the presence of a large number of students can at times tip the balance in close local elections.
The less cynical and more principled reason for limiting the student vote comes down to a question of community. Locals argue that students are not actually part of the local community. They have not decided to make their lives there, but are simply visiting the community for four years on their way somewhere else. They resent the fact that these young interlopers who often have little connection to or understanding of the community will have an outsized influence on local politics.
The mistake in such reasoning is that the students are part of the local community. Bard students, to take just one example, live in Dutchess County. They use the buses, drink the water, and shop in the stores. These students bike on the roads and walk the streets alone at night. They also work in the bakeries and babysit the children of many locals. They have a strong stake in the flourishing and safety of the community and as young adults they have a right and an obligation to be involved. They also have a choice to vote with an absentee ballot from their home or to participate in the local politics where they are spending four years. Many do care about the community and to deny them that civic right of participation is wrong.
There is, however, one crucial difference that separates young voters from other voters—most first time voters do not and have not paid taxes. It is much easier for young voters to demand services from government, to vote for school bonds, to support tax increases, and to generally support big government because they have not yet had the experience of looking at their paychecks and seeing how much money is taken out for taxes. I do understand why locals can be resentful of a large block of young and idealistic voters who, from the perspective of the conservative community members, don't understand the struggles and values of the working people in the community. But that is not an excuse to exclude them from the ritualistic practice of self-government.
You can read more about the lawsuit at the Bard Free Press.
"Thinking isn't agreeing or disagreeing. That's voting."
I recently received the following excerpted from a long comment from Justine Parkin, a reader and a recent college graduate from the University of California, at Berkeley. Justine wrote:
The question posed in the 2012 Hannah Arendt conference “Does the President matter?” remains on my mind. It is, I think, related to another important question, namely “Does voting matter?” I know and have met several people who have decided not to go to the voting booth this election season. This is of course not an entirely unordinary decision, particularly for people who, like me, live in states like California and who because of the electoral system seem to think that their vote matters little and thus can with an undisturbed conscience decide not to vote. Yet it seems that in the case of this election, there are many, who even if the electoral college were to be replaced by a popular vote, would nevertheless remain firm in their decision not to vote. I admit sometimes that I myself have had a similar conclusion after recognizing little difference between the candidates, thinking everything they say is just “rhetoric” with few direct answers and little real substance and feeling that my vote is merely a decision “between the lesser of two evils.” All of these observations have at times led me to conclude that choosing not to vote may in fact be the more truly political act. And yet, I wanted to probe my choice to inaction further. I wanted to think not only “does voting matter?” but “what if voting did really matter?” In other words, if my participation in politics, or lack thereof, is to be one that is not just a confirmation of what politics is, but rather what politics should be, how would I act? I make no claim that one’s participation in the voting booth is the most important or the only form of political action that we must participate in. To think that merely casting one’s ballot is the ultimate and most necessary political act, I think, is a severe relinquishing of political responsibility. The act of voting is highly limited, not just in the sense of the construction of ballots which provide a particular formatted set of options with a certain illusion of choice, but voting is always a highly individual and closed act, not the “public” or “political” sphere of engaging a plurality of individuals which Arendt praises. Thus not only our political participation but our more essential human identity should stretch beyond the confines of the voting booth. Nevertheless, I wonder if this current form of apathy towards politics is itself a dangerous relinquishing of the human responsibility to thought.
These thoughtful reflections from a young voter—and Justine tells me in a future email that she will indeed vote—are apt reminders on election day of the extraordinary place of voting in our lives.
Quite simply, voting is our national civic exercise, as weak an exercise as it may be. It is the act by which we affirm our belonging to the democratically structured constitutional federal republic that is the United States of America. I have to admit that as cynical as I can be about voting—and having voted primarily in New York, Massachusetts, and California where my Presidential votes have never mattered, (I can be pretty cynical)I get goose bumps every time I line up with my fellow citizens and wait to vote. I remember once waiting hours to vote in a polling station in Berkeley, Ca. It was by far the most inconvenient voting experience of my life, and yet also it was the most meaningful. I stood on line, talking with fellow voters, thinking that we lived in a country where people cared enough about their country to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot that, statistically speaking, meant almost nothing. Weirdly enough, that was one of the days in my life I felt most proud of being an American.
There is no doubt that our political muscles are atrophying. With the loss of town councils we have lost the main educational experience of politics that nourished American democracy for nearly a century. We still have such an institution in law where the jury system teaches citizens to engage meaningfully and solemnly with the fundamental issues of right and wrong. But our political system now largely functions without the participation or engagement of citizens. All we have left for most of us is voting.
And the activity of voting is changing. There are early voting drives and get out the vote marathons. The benign goal is to increase the vote. But one side effect of such efforts is the weakening of the public and communal experience of voting together at polling stations on Election day. The risk is that in making voting so bureaucratic and easy and private and unobtrusive we further expel it as a communal experience and a public ritual.
So Justine is right. Voting is an extraordinarily weak expression of political activity. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. In voting, he understood, the "character of the voters is not staked."
Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” But the voting box can be a public place if and when it is a place where people congregate to vote. I admit it is still a weak space of politics, as the majority of the people who stand on line to vote are firm in their convictions. And yet the public act of standing in line, waiting, mingling with one's fellow citizens, and casting a vote, is a deeply symbolic affirmation of at least one important part of one's responsibility as a citizen. It can also be, as it often is for me, deeply moving.
In a column in The Daily Beast, Buzz Bissinger writes:
The tipping point toward a candidate is perhaps the greatest act of individuality in our unique democracy, although in this day and age of unprecedented political divide, telling somebody who you are voting for has no upside: There is no respect for your right as a citizen, but outright hatred from those who do not agree with you. I fear that I will lose friends, some of whom I hold inside my heart. Of course, I will also lose friends I really don’t like anyway.
There are two points in this short paragraph that bear reflection. The first is the claim in the opening sentence, that deciding whom to cast one's vote for is the greatest act of individuality in our democracy. From my view, that is a bit like saying that deciding which brand of potato chips to buy is the greatest act of individuality in our capitalist economy.
If choosing between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama exemplifies who I am, then I don't think there is much to my individuality. These two paperboard figures are eerily similar in spite of their profoundly different lives. One white, one black. One born rich, the other poor. One a community organizer and the other a capitalist. Yet both are products of the meritocratic culture of Harvard professional schools. Both have an unceasing faith in data and experts. Both are self-satisfied, arrogant, and confident in their unique abilities. And both are politicians who will do or say almost anything to get themselves elected. What is a choice between them really saying about oneself?
The very idea that voting is at the essence of our political world has sent thinkers into a tizzy. Henry David Thoreau had a different view of voting:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.
And Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words,
They knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.
Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions."
This brings us to Bissinger's second point, that he today is fearful of saying his opinion in public for fear of losing his friends. What kind of democracy is it when we are so afraid of and contemptuous of divergent opinions that we turn dissidents into pariahs. I know that I am only somewhat comfortable making my profound dislike of President Obama felt in my liberal academic circles, and only am able to do so because I have an equally visceral dislike of Mr. Romney. If I were to consider voting for Romney, that would be sacrilege to many of my friends and colleagues.
Yet that doesn't bother me. Voting is something that should be secret. If you hold back your voting preference you can actually have mature and thoughtful conversations, even one's that go against the grain of the groupthink you happen to exist in. You can critique the party of your friends and praise alternative policies. People are still rational on the issues. It is simply on the matter of the final vote that they insist on loyalty. But maybe the reason few care so little about the final vote is that the focus on the winner makes the impact ever less meaningful. If we focused more on the actual discussions of issues and less on the final outcome, we would have a more civil and thoughtful political world, one that tolerated much more disagreement and engagement.
The hard reality is that our generation as a whole is under informed and over complacent. The system may be flawed, but the only way to bring about significant change is to engage ourselves in the democratic process. Our generation seems more celebrity obsessed and needs to realize the effects of choosing apathy over engagement, before we become a politically voiceless generation.
We cannot expect favorable results when we do nothing to bring them about. That is at the core of P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign, and the message he tried to convey to us back in 2004. Do something or expect nothing. Still, we should not rely on P. Diddy or any other Hollywood celebrities to engage our generation in political participation. We can do it ourselves!
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