Amor Mundi 05/29/16

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.

Run Toward The Noise

Real Talk, The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College's 9th Annual Fall Conference - October 20-21, 2016

In the wake of last fall’s campus protests, the protests that inspired this year’s Arendt Center Conference, Real Talk (October 20th and 21st), Nathan Heller checks in with one of the most prominent cases, Oberlin College:

“In mid-December, a group of black students wrote a fourteen-page letter to the school’s board and president outlining fifty nonnegotiable demands for changes in Oberlin’s admissions and personnel policies, academic offerings, and the like. “You include Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity,’ ” it said, “when in fact this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.”The letter was delivered by hand, but it leaked onto the Internet, and some of the more than seven hundred students who had signed it were hit with threats and hate speech online from anonymous accounts. The president, Marvin Krislov, rejected the letter’s stance, urging “collaboration.” All across Oberlin—a school whose norms may run a little to the left of Bernie Sanders—there was instead talk about “allyship”: a more contemporary answer to the challenges of pluralism. If you are a white male student, the thought goes, you cannot know what it means to be, say, a Latina; the social and the institutional worlds respond differently to her, and a hundred aggressions, large and small, are baked into the system. You can make yourself her ally, though—deferring to her experience, learning from her accounts, and supporting her struggles. You can reach for unity in difference.”

Heller spoke with Jasmine Adams, one of the signees of the fourteen-page letter. ““Me trying to appeal to people? Ain’t working. Me trying to be the quiet, sit-back-and-be-chill-and-do-my-work black person? Doesn’t work. Me trying to be friends with non-black folks? Doesn’t work.” She draws out her final syllables. “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work! So you’re just, like, I’ve got to stand up for myself.” “I have to be political,” Slay says. “I have to be political in whatever form or fashion,” Adams says. “Because I have nothing else to do.” There were negative responses to the fifty demands (which included a request for an $8.20-an-hour activism wage, the firing of nine Oberlin employees deemed insufficiently supportive of black students, and the tenuring of black faculty).”

That students are being political is something we should applaud. Hannah Arendt applauded students who engaged in politics. She supported students who requested leaves from classes to engage in political organizing. To make political claims. To seek to realize their interests. To live a political life. For Arendt, these are essential attributes of citizenship. Arendt even wrote that of all the students engaging in violence in the 1960s, she understood the violence of the black students the best because they were fighting for real political interests.

At the same time, Arendt insisted we separate politics from education. She saw education as at once conservative and revolutionary. Education is conservative insofar as it seeks to lead a student into the common world. The educator teaches students to love the world, the love of the world, Amor Mundi. We are, Arendt thinks, to love the world in full cognizance of its terrors and tribulations. And one important characteristic of the world that we love is that it is never static, never unquestionable, never sedentary. There is, she insists, always the possibility of a revolution, of a new direction, of an unexpected transformation. To love the world is to love it with both its horrors and its revolutionary potential. If liberals are too often overly critical and dismissive of the world we are living in, conservatives are frequently dismissive of revolutionary change. Education, for Arendt, is the teaching of the love of the world in both its conservative and revolutionary elements.

It matters, however, what one’s political argument is. Calling for people one disagrees with to be fired and seeking to shut down the exchange of opinions that is at the heart of both politics and academic life are demands that while political go against the very idea of both politics and education. So too are the efforts to stop the teaching of so-called offensive books. One student objected to the teaching of Sophocles’ Antigone, arguing in the campus newspaper the Oberlin Review that Antigone’s case for suicide was a potential trigger. According to Heller, the student “argued that trigger warnings were like ingredient lists on food: “People should have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their minds, just as they have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their bodies.”” The demand for trigger warnings emerges from the medicalization of campus discussion so that literature is no longer part of the humanities and opinions are extracted from their traditional political context; now all words and images are understood medically as potential triggers that may induce traumas. Traumas, of course, are real and can be debilitating. Once the language of trauma invades the academic and political spheres, however, reason and persuasion give way to preventative medicine.

What we are seeing emerge on college campuses is a hierarchy of oppressions in which each group insists that its sufferings need to be addressed and that it too must be protected from hostile and unwelcome speech. On February 25th, an Oberlin publication published an article that included screenshots from the Facebook feed of Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin. The posts suggested, among other things, that Zionists had been involved in the 9/11 plot, that ISIS was a puppet of Mossad and the C.I.A., and that the Rothschild family owned “your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” The posts did not sit well with everyone at Oberlin, where, weeks earlier, a group of alumni and students had written the president with worries about anti-Semitism on campus; the board of trustees denounced Karega’s Facebook activities. As a teacher, however, she’d been beloved by many students and considered an important faculty advocate for the school’s black undergraduates. The need for allyship became acute. And so, with spring approaching, students and faculty at one of America’s most progressive colleges felt pressured to make an awkward judgment: whether to ally themselves with the black community or whether to ally themselves with the offended Jews.”

It is a sad day when a professor at an elite institution fans false, anti-Semitic, and hateful propaganda. Professors have a power to speak and be believed by students and spreading false facts corrupts the fundamental role of the professor as someone who leads students into the truth and beauty of the common world. But it is also sad the board of trustees felt the need to get involved. The answer to such claptrap is to respond clearly and strongly. Professors, students, and administrators should speak out, making clear that such statements are wrong and dangerous. There is no need to attack the professor personally. This is not a personal matter. It is a matter of the responsibility of a college to teach young people how to engage intellectually around controversial and difficult questions on which we may legitimately disagree. Yes the Professor was wrong. But we should attack her facts and her arguments.

If there is a ray of hope visible in the chaos at Oberlin, it is the advice that Michelle Obama gave to the Oberlin students at a speech there last year. AT the 2015 commencement address, the First Lady advised Oberlin students to “run toward the noise.” Oberlin’s President told Heller that many students actually are eager to talk these matters through themselves. “One of the things we’ve heard from students is that they want to talk about difficult issues among themselves—they would prefer not to have people who purport to speak for them.” That is the right approach. What Heller finds at Oberlin, however, is that students want to run away from the noise. “But at Oberlin a number of students seem to want to run away. More than a few have told me that they are leaving Oberlin, or about to leave Oberlin, or thinking about leaving Oberlin—and this at one of the country’s most resource-rich, student-focussed schools…. Many also speak of urges to leave due to a fraying in their mental health, a personal price paid for the systemic stresses of campus life.”

At Bard, the Hannah Arendt Center is working with students to create a “Dorm Room Conversation” series modeled after the national “Living Room Conversations” model, in which six students who disagree will sit down for difficult conversations on difficult issues that divide the campus. We also have inaugurated a “Tough Talk” lecture series designed to bring highly controversial speakers to campus, speakers who can and will challenge students in their basic presumptions. And we are dedicating our 2016 Fall Conference to the topic of “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” There are real questions about inequalities of race, sex, and religion on campus, not to mention class and other inequalities that structure campus social and political life. It is worthwhile to talk about and struggle against such inequalities. But we must do so in a way that honors our common commitment to a shared political and intellectual world. The First Lady’s advice is sound: Run toward the noise.


amor mundi signup

Stop Play

lady justice

Mark Hertsgaard chronicles what happens after the whistle gets blown on the Pentagon:

“The Bush administration’s mass surveillance efforts were partly exposed in December 2005, when the New York Times published a front page article by reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, which revealed that the NSA was monitoring international phone calls and emails of some people in the US without obtaining warrants. Eight years later, that story would be dwarfed by Snowden’s revelations. But at the time, the Bush White House was furious – and they were determined to find and punish whoever had leaked the details to the New York Times. According to Crane, his superiors inside the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office were eager to help. Henry Shelley, the general counsel – the office’s top lawyer – urged that the IG office should tell the FBI agents investigating the Times leak about Drake and the other NSA whistleblowers. After all, the NSA whistleblowers’ recent complaint had objected to the same surveillance practices described in the Times article – which made them logical suspects in the leak. Crane objected strenuously. Informing anyone – much less FBI investigators – of a whistleblower’s name was illegal. After debating the matter at a formal meeting in the personal office of the inspector general, Shelley and Crane continued arguing in the hallway outside. “I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out my copy of the Whistleblower Protection Act,” Crane recalled. “I was concerned that Henry was violating the law. Our voices weren’t raised, but the conversation was, I would say, very intense and agitated. Henry [replied] that he was the general counsel, the general counsel was in charge of handling things with the Justice Department and he would do things his way.” There the disagreement between Crane and Shelley stalled. Or so it seemed until 18 months later. On the morning of 26 July, 2007, FBI agents with guns drawn stormed the houses of Binney, Wiebe, Loomis and Roark. Binney was toweling off after a shower when agents accosted him; he and his wife suddenly found themselves with guns aimed directly between their eyes, the retired NSA man recalled.”

Continue reading

rage violence

Recognizing Rage and Legitimate Acts of Violence

By Laurie E. Naranch

“The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

–Hannah Arendt, On Violence

Violence circulates throughout our human experiences. Whether physical or psychological, exceptional or ordinary, at the hands of an authority figure or as a result of structural inequalities, violence surrounds us and pulses through our lives. But how do we capture or make sense of violence? Continue reading

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 8/31/14

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.

Dignity and Reason

arthur_koestlerThe Guardian is asking writers and critics to choose the book that changed them. Rafael Behr answers Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler. It is a good choice. Behr writes: “When I went to university I was only tangentially interested in politics. Then, during the summer holiday at the end of the first year, driving across France, I borrowed Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon from a friend. He was studying philosophy and had been ordered to read it. I was studying languages and was avoiding some untranslated set text. I had never been gripped by anything so theoretical before. The story is sparse. Rubashov, an ageing first-generation revolutionary, is imprisoned and interrogated by an ambitious thug from the steelier, younger generation. Execution is certain. Pacing his cell, Rubashov recalls his past work for the party abroad, manipulating and ultimately destroying idealistic but dispensable foreign communist agents. He composes a tract on ‘the relative maturity of the masses’ which submerges his personal dilemma – to die in silence or serve the party one last time by submitting to a show trial – in a sweeping quasi-Marxist rumination on history and destiny. The drama is not contained in the action. What excited 19-year-old me was the guided tour of a totalitarian mind.” Rightly, Behr sets Darkness at Noon next to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, as “companion volumes in my imagination.” Both Koestler and Arendt are spurs against the seductions of totalitarian rationalism. For more on Darkness at Noon, take a look at Roger Berkowitz’s essay Approaching Infinity: Dignity in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

Lost in Translation From the Classroom to the Dining Room

ask_big_questionsDavid Bornstein asks, “How can we repair our public discourse?” And in a recent essay he answers that we need to re-learn how to listen and have meaningful conversations, which is the goal of the initiative “Ask Big Questions.” Bornstein writes: “Imagine that you’re among a group of college students who want to discuss the big issues of the day. What can be done to bring peace to the Middle East? How can we reduce sexual assaults on campuses? What should be done about immigration? These questions have the potential to produce rich explorations. But they’re equally likely to devolve into shouting matches that increase anger and mistrust. Is there a way to frame conversations so that people actually listen to one another?… Ask Big Questions helps students discover how to establish a foundation of trust and confidentiality in a group, invite contributions from everyone, and guide others into deeper learning by interpreting the meaning of poems, texts or images, reflecting on their lives and the implications for action. The interpretive part of the discussion is essential, says Feigelson: ‘If you don’t have some sort of a text or interpretive object, the conversation can easily veer off into bad group therapy.'” The initiative teaches students how to think and speak about hard questions by seeking to understand opposing views and imagining that the truth might have various shades. This is, of course, one premise of a liberal arts education, which makes one wonder why the lessons from the classroom are not being translated to the dining room.

As the Old Saying Goes…

historyAdam Gopnick takes on the old adage about those who don’t learn from history, suggesting that repetition is even more likely when the history being read is a self serving one: “Studying history doesn’t argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening… The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been-and, thus, than they really are-or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling-even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse…Those of us who obsess, for instance, particularly in this centennial year, on the tragedy of August, 1914-on how an optimistic and largely prosperous civilization could commit suicide-don’t believe that the trouble then was that nobody read history. The trouble was that they were reading the wrong history, a make-believe history of grand designs and chess-master-like wisdom. History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations.”

A Reason to Fight

ferris_wheelMolly Crabapple tries to think of an ethical response to the horror and violence of the last few months. One response, to affirm her complicity as a white woman for the police violence in Ferguson, evidences a basic fallacy of collective guilt. Crabapple is not guilty of killing Michael Brown. And if someone is guilty, her musings about her own guilt minimizes his guilt. But Crabapple’s second response is infinitely more moving: to affirm the beauty of the world: “Power seeks to enclose beauty-to make it scarce, controlled. There is scant beauty in militarized zones or prisons. But beauty keeps breaking out anyway, like the roses on that Ferguson street. The world is connected now. Where it breaks, we all break. But it is our world, to love as it burns around us. Jack Gilbert is right. ‘We must risk delight’ in the summer of monsters. Beauty is survival, not distraction. Beauty is a way of fighting. Beauty is a reason to fight.” Crabapple’s musings on beauty in dark times call to mind Berthold Brecht’s poem”To Posterity“:

Truly, I live in dark times!
An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead
Points to insensitivity. He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
And he who walks quietly across the street,
Passes out of the reach of his friends
Who are in danger?

In Praise of Universalism

classicsJoseph Luzzi suggests a reason why some books remain important long after their original place and time, attempting to rehabilitate the idea of the universality of literature in the process: “This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work’s ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality. We hold the word with suspicion because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what’s supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that presumes to speak for everybody else. And yet certain elements and experiences do play a major role in most of our lives: falling in love, chasing a dream, and, yes, transitioning as Pinocchio does from childhood to adolescence. The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time-that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind.”

Featured Events

teachoutA Discussion with Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United and a Democratic Primary Candidate in the upcoming Gubernatorial Election, will be visiting Bard College to address students, staff and community members.

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, 3:00-4:00 pm

For more information about this event, please click here.




Kenan MalikLunchtime Talk with Kenan Malik

Details soon to follow.

Wednesday, September 17h, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm




congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: “The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America’s model of democratic self-government.”

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm


October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center’s annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Roger Berkowitz emphasizes the need to restore spaces where freedom can be enjoyed in the Quote of the Week. American poet and writer Sylvia Plath provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a lecture by Philippe Nonet on the history of metaphysical freedom in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz remarks on the needlessly specialized nature of modern humanities scholarship in the Weekend Read.


A Sport of Nature

Nadine Gordimer, one of the greatest and most courageous political novelists of the 20th century, died this month. Gordimer helped write the intensely powerful “I Am Prepared to Die” speech that Nelson Mandela gave at the conclusion of his trial in 1964. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. And Gordimer is one of those rare individuals who succeed in giving birth to an idea. Continue reading

Amor Mundi 9/15/13


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.

Juvenile U

moocsquareIn 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.”

The Public Need Strong Private Lives

votingEmma 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.

Crimes and Translations

catcher“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.”

Bring on the Adjuncts?

teacherThe 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.

Featured Events

annaliaSeptember 18-20, 2013

Annalia 1933

A Three Day Festival at FDR Library & Bard College

Learn more here.


smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, “Failing Fast:The Educated Citizen in Crisis”

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.




minimovieOctober 13, 2013

Hannah Arendt: A Film Screening, Lecture, and Discussion with Roger Berkowitz

One Day University

Learn more here.


From the Arendt Center Blog

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.

The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie “Good Will Hunting”:

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.


Miracles and Politics

In one of the Facebook comments responding to my post about Paul Ryan, a friend suggested I read Jon Rauch’s book Government’s End. The specific Facebook friendly recommendation read: “does the most cogent job of explaining why the US is stuck in rut.” I tend to take such recommendations seriously, so I did.

The first quotation that stopped me was this one:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed. What you see now in Washington is basically what you will get for a very long time to come, even though many people, in fact probably a majority of people, may both wish and vote for something quite different.

Rauch presents himself, first, as a teller of hard truths. The hard truth Rauch tells is that the price we pay for stable societies is sclerosis—he calls it Demosclerosis to emphasize that it is a particular affliction of liberal democracies. He builds his theory out of Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, a book that argues “the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests.” Smaller groups will out organize larger groups, which means that smaller groups will have an outsized interest in politics. As groups proliferate, these groups will succeed in pursuing their parochial interests over the national majority. This will, in the end, lead to a government fully answerable to a myriad of interest groups and resistant to any will by the majority to resist those interests.

Rauch insists that this is not because there are bad people in government. Nor is it because of liberals or conservatives. Nor is it a failure of specific policies or electoral methods. The media is not to blame. The people are not at fault. Better education and better civic engagement will not solve the problem. No, for Rauch, this is simply the fact of government in the late 20th and now early 21st century. The best thing we can do, he writes, is to accept it.

Second, Rauch argues that his point is non-partisan and that both liberals and conservatives are equally indebted to and caught up in the system of Demosclerosis he describes.

 ” Many liberals have long assumed that Washington can do almost anything it puts its mind to, if only the right people are in charge.” Against the liberals, he argues that more and more programs will not solve the problem. Indeed, it makes it worse. Anyone who has witnessed well-meaning efforts to fight poverty, improve education, or protect the environment blossom and fail over the last century has to have sympathy with Rauch’s basic point. While countless individuals have been educated by state schools and fed by state programs, and while particular rivers are cleaner than they would be without state intervention, it is hard to argue that poverty is less or the environment is healthier. The overwhelming benefactor of the state’s enormous largesse has been the state and the people who feed off it.

Conservatives are more comfortable with the idea that government cannot solve all of our problems. But conservative rhetoric about limiting government ignores what Rauch sees as the basic fact: ” Demosclerosis turns government into more and more of a rambling, ill-adapted shambles that often gets in the way but can’t be eliminated.”  While conservatives may decry big government, they have refused and continue to refuse to honestly tell the voters what a smaller government would actually mean: “Less stuff for you.” As Rauch writes,

In their eagerness to make government-cutting sound easy and fun, conservatives have helped persuade the electorate that there is no reason to support any actual hard work of cutting anything except “waste” (read: somebody else’s programs). Thus has American conservatism become handmaiden to the “big government” that it so stridently condemns.”

Third, Rauch argues that there is simply no realistic alternative to Demosclerosis. It is simply part of Mancur Olson’s social scientific theory of the way the world works. Thus, the best thing we can do is abandon our unrealistic hope to change the system. We must expect less of government, and “reward politicians who chip away at the empire of the entrenched interests.” “Real-world success means not “returning government to the people” (or whatever) but simply putting additional pressure on particular lobbies at every opportunity, a less dramatic but far more attainable goal.” We need to reward incrementalism, small but determined efforts to free parts of the nation from sclerotic special perks.

Above all, then, Rauch argues that we must change our expectations of government. We should accept that government is a sclerotic and sickly beast that is poor at solving problems and honestly expect it to do less and less for us. This analytical and honest approach will bring about the “End of government,” namely the end of the expectation in and hope for a government that truly reflects the will and serves the needs of the people. It is important, Rauch writes, for “Americans of the broad center not to expect miracles.”

Even as I was reading Rauch’s Government’s End, I was also reading Hannah Arendt’s essay What is Freedom? Near the end of this exceptional essay Arendt writes:

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which always happens automatically and therefore always must appear to be irresistible.

What Arendt reminds us is that the very kinds of automatic processes that in Rauch’s telling comprise the irreversible system of governmental sclerosis are, as human creations, changeable. It is precisely at those times when the government seems most automated and when disaster seems most unavoidable that salvation appears in the form of miracles.

In speaking of miracles, Arendt does not have in mind a deus ex machina. Instead, she affirms the basic fact of human life, that human beings are surprising and spontaneous. While it may seem an inviolable scientific law that humans in large groups don’t organize together in the common interest, at times they do. Such organizations happen, as they recently did in Egypt and Tunisia, and as they did in this country in the late 18th century. Social scientists will also be shocked and surprised by such uprisings of revolutionary common sense as they were in Egypt, because human beings are free. That means that humans are in the end unpredictable. What that means as well is that it is simply folly to say, as Rauch does, that our current situation cannot be reversed.

Of course it may be that Rauch’s conclusion is less folly than it is a sad hope. For all of Rauch’s talk of telling of hard truths, one cannot but also sense that Rauch finds the situation of Demosclerosis he describes oddly satisfactory. In his final section, titled “Why Dreams Must Be Buried,” Rauch writes:

In truth, this demise [of the dream of good government] is no disaster. The Social Security checks will still go out, the budget will still be passed (most years), and patchwork reforms and emergency bills will still be approved….In some ways, in fact, the death of the dream may be to the good. Americans tend to be obsessed with government. Liberals hunt for a governmental solution for every problem; conservatives hunt for a governmental cause for every problem…. All of them are governmentalists, in the sense that they define their ideologies and social passions in relation to government.

That Americans are governmentalists could also have its root in the fact that Americans love freedom. One basic premise of freedom is self-government, the insistence that we can as a people govern ourselves wisely and freely. To turn our back on government is to abandon not simply big government, but the ideal of freedom itself.

There are, of course, different ideas of freedom. Traditional liberals like Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, see freedom as something pursued in the private sphere. Government exists simply to protect our private pursuit of individual ends. For Arendt, however, and for Americans over the last 200 years, freedom has meant as well public freedom, the dream that we can, as a people, collectively create something meaningful and great.

I have deep respect for Rauch’s telling of hard truths. His book should be read. That is why it is this week’s weekend read. His account of demosclerosis may be truthful. It is a critique liberals and conservatives must take to heart. But his enthusiastic rejection of the miracle of political freedom is decidedly less realistic.

Read an excerpt of Government’s End here. Better yet, download Government’s End on either or an Itunes. Or support a used bookstore and order it here.


Respecting the Revolutionaries in Homs

Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and author of Human Rights as Politics and Idolotry, has an essay out calling for intervention in Syria. We should all, he writes, feel shame for abandoning the opposition.

The fighters in Homs are holding out now because utter desperation puts them beyond fear. Watching them fight on, we have reason to be ashamed if we think the only thing we can do is send them bandages. More

Ignatieff’s is the attitude of the savior from afar. Yes, we should be ashamed, but for very different reasons.

Instead of shame at our abandoning of the Syrians, we should feel gratitude to them for showing us what it means to fight and stand up for and suffer for what they believe in. We should be ashamed less for abandoning the Syrians in Homs than for not heeding their example, for feeling defeated by a corrupt political system, for apathy in the face of a bankrupt political culture, and for not taking responsibility and acting to change our world.

Hannah Arendt was always careful to insist that life is not the most important human right. The core right of humanity is to speak and act in public, which Arendt also called The Right to Have Rights. The Right to Have Rights includes the right to resist and even to die for one’s beliefs. To do so is human, and is not senseless, especially when one is then remembered for bravery and heroism. Indeed, human life can often have more meaning in martyrdom then in a comfortable life. Whatever else one can say about Syria, it is the case that people fighting and struggling there are being seen and heard both in Syria and around the world. For that, we should be grateful, awed, and respectful.

That respect may lead some to aid them in words, money, or action. I agree and am not opposed to some of the prescriptions Ignatieff suggests. But let’s begin with respect for their incredible courage and willingness to act. We might be able to help the Syrians, but we may have more to learn from them.

Click here to read more about Arendt and Human Rights.