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

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