“Neither education nor ingenuity nor talent can replace the constituent elements of the public realm, which make it the proper place for human excellence.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
I am proud to attend a college that envisions education as a life devoted to intellectual excellence. I am also proud of the fact that the school promotes a genuine love for knowledge and ideas and not simply what is practical and useful. It is easy to believe that education represents the peak of human excellence. And I have experienced few joys in my education as deeply as that of reading Hannah Arendt.
What a surprise, therefore, to see that Hannah Arendt writes that education and ingenuity are not and have never been the proper place for the display of human excellence. Arendt writes that excellence is found only in the public realm, that space to which “excellence has always been assigned.” Educational achievements—for example learnedness and scholarship—are important for students, but have nothing to do with excellence. But what does Arendt mean by human excellence? And why does it require a public realm? More to the point of modern debates, why is education not the proper locus of excellence?
Education is one of the elementary and necessary human activities. The word education comes from the Latin verbs educare (to mold) and educere (to lead out). To teach and educate is to take a human being in the process of becoming and lead him or her out of the confines of the home into the world, into his or her community. Formal education, Arendt argues in The Crisis in Education, is the time when schools and teachers assume the responsibility for “what we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents.” This is the stage in the educational development of the student in which he or she is not only introduced to the world, but when he or she becomes freely and spontaneously acquainted with those qualities that make one unique and further refined as a person.
It is also in school that we learn what human excellence is and the conditions in which human excellence is properly displayed. Human excellence, Arendt argues, is what the ancient Greeks called arête and the Roman virtus. The concepts of arete and virtus were always used by the ancients to denote the good and distinctive qualities embodied by those who performed in public. Drawing upon these concepts, Arendt argues that human excellence is a public act that manifests what she calls “inspiring principles,” e.g, prudence, justice, and courage, qualities of conduct that allow one to excel and distinguish oneself from all others.
Unlike the realm of the school, where one is expected only to learn and develop the characteristics used to make these principles manifest, the public realm demands that one act and embody excellence. It is our capacities for speech and action that allows for this display of excellence to be distinctively human. Arendt argues that only “in acting and speaking, [do] men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identity and thus make their appearance in the human world.” In contrast to education, which is concerned with the development of talents and virtues of the developing human being, in the political realm, these talents and virtues are fully developed and displayed.
Schools for Arendt are neither public nor private but “the institutions that we interpose between the private domain of home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world.” Schools are hidden from the world, as are the activities through which the student first displays his or her qualities and talents. Schools offer the student “the security of concealment in order to mature undisturbed.” But in order to achieve excellence, action needs an audience, a stage, a public realm where these characteristics can be properly manifested and properly received. Activities completed in school hide these characteristics and nurture the creative process, in contrast to those performed public, which always display the virtuosity, the excellence inherent in action.
The public realm is also the space of equality, which is alien to schools. In schools, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the one who knows the world, and in order to teach it, deference to authority is required. Arendt argues that this responsibility of authority is given to the educator because the educator not only knows the world but also belongs and acts in it. In the school, the educator acts as a representative of that world by “pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world.” Once the student knows the world and assumes responsibility for it, he or she can go into the world and act virtuously, display human excellence and start something new, which could potentially change it. This is why Arendt argues that school is not the “proper place” to display excellence, to act, and create something new. The ability to be excellent—to act, and to start something new—demands responsibility for the world. In education, this responsibility takes the form of authority, which is why it is given to the educator, and not to the student.
This does not mean, however, that Arendt is against changing the world; she is against changing it by disturbing the activity of education. Change, the new, is a phenomenon of the political realm, an activity performed among equal and fully-grown human beings. For Arendt, the “conservative function” that preserves traditions and the status quo in education comes to an end in the political realm. This conservative attitude in politics, she says, can only lead to destruction. As she explains: “because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. To preserve the world from the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.” Arendt maintains that to act and to change the world is expected of those who get educated and enter the community of adults and the political world.
As an immigrant student, I was surprised by the extraordinary commitment of my peers to be excellent. The dream of greatness and the desire for changing the world is also common among armchair “politicians” in academia. This ever-present enthusiasm for changing the world in academia is natural, especially if one believes to be living the true life of excellence. This desire, at times overconfident or even arrogant, is particular to Americans, not only in academia but also in every other sphere of life, and arises from what Arendt calls the “indefinite perfectibility” spirit that characterizes Americans.
At a place like Bard College, most students I come in contact with trade insights and debate about what has to be changed on a daily basis. This constant craving for the new and their commitment to excellence uplifts my spirit and has stirred in me the desire to do great things as well; this is very inspiring. Yet, we are still students and Bard or any other educational institution is not the public world, and, as Arendt argues, “it must not pretend to be.” Bard represents the sphere where we are welcomed to and learn about the world from educators, so that one day we can change it, hopefully through human acts that embody excellence.
School for Arendt is where we learn and decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and renew it or watch it fall as a victim of our very own condition of mortality. In order to change the world, one has to love and understand it. For Arendt, one has to learn to love the world, whether ones wishes to propagate and preserve it or to set it entirely anew; love of the world for her is what constitutes the world because it “fits me into it,” it allows one to ‘under-stand,’ to grasp while being in the midst of things. The world has to be constantly renewed but this can only happen once we leave the concealment of the classroom and acquire the courage to enter the political realm.