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The Educated Citizen in Washington

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Last week the Arendt Center held its Sixth Annual International Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.” The conference was an incredible success. More than double the number of people registered for the conference this year over last year; more than 1,000 people attended over two days; another 250 watched the conference live on the web. You can now watch the whole conference here.  Above all, the conference generated incredible discussions and provocations. Here is one response we received from someone on a post-conference survey sent to attendees:

“Richard Rodriguez’s opening keynote lecture was a model of lucidity and profundity. It set the tone for two days of discussion about the tense boundary between private and public personhood and citizenship. The interaction of Rodriguez’s call to speak with strangers and Leon Botstein’s defense of a public self was clear and powerful, and contrasted meaningfully with James Tooley’s advocacy for private schools. The combination was deeply meaningful and provocative.”

For your Weekend Read, here is a transcript of Roger Berkowitz’s introductory remarks. You can watch his speech and the entire conference here.

Richard Rodriguez giving the keynote lecture at the Arendt Center Conference.

Richard Rodriguez giving the keynote lecture at the Arendt Center Conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis

Roger Berkowitz

Oct. 3, 2013

In the early years of our federal-constitutional-democratic-republican experiment, cobblers, lawyers, and yeoman farmers participated in Town Hall meetings.  They would judge how much to pay in taxes in order to pay for how many teachers and how many firemen. By engaging citizens in governance, town hall meetings imbue in citizens the habit of democratic self-governance.

Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern and we have lost the habit of weighing and judging those issues that define our body politic. Why is this so?

Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear that participation in governance is a personal responsibility?

Do the size and complexity of bureaucratic government mean that individuals are so removed from the levers of power that engaged citizenship is rationally understood to be a waste of time?

Or do gerrymandered districts with homogenous populations insulate congressmen from the need for compromise?

Whatever the cause, educated elites are contemptuous of common people and increasingly imagine that the American people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the American people, for their part, increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed government that provides social services cheaply and efficiently?

It is against this background that we are here to think about “The Educated Citizen in Crisis.”  Over the next two days, we will ask: What would an educated citizen look like today?

Maybe it’s the homeowner underwater on his mortgage who, in 2010, disgusted with decades of failed policies that enabled the largest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, was shocked to see Congress award a bailout to the very bankers who were responsible for the crisis.

Maybe its woman who told the pollster that people are mad about what has happened, but that they are even angrier that “no one in Washington is listening to them.”

Maybe it’s the author who concludes:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business.

That author was John Rauch of the Brookings Institute. He goes on to say that the American 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.

Or, maybe it is a reader of Hannah Arendt who is struck by Arendt’s bracing claim that the

transformation of all government into bureaucracies… may turn out to be a greater threat to freedom and to that minimum of civility… than the most outrageous arbitrariness of past tyrannies has ever been.

In all these personas, today’s concerned and educated citizen is angry at the betrayal of American democracy. He or she is dismayed that at the power of money, the legal corruption of lobbyists, and a bureaucracy that seems impervious to popular control.

Such a citizen might, very well, in 2013—and here I beg the self-satisfied partisan liberals amongst you to suspend your disbelief for a moment—look and sound a lot like Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House of Representatives.

To be clear, there is no claim that Hannah Arendt would be or should be a supporter of the Tea Party. She was not the type to join a movement and certainly not one with as much ugliness and racism circulating around it.

But as we stare blankly upon the theatre of the absurd in Washington, it behooves us to take Representative Cantor and his fellow House Republicans seriously; at least, that is, if we are serious about thinking about what it means to be an educated citizen.

First, let’s dispose of any elitist condescension that portrays Cantor and his fellow Republicans as wild children in need of stern parenting. This begins with Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who joys in describing the House Republicans as “vexatious,” “banana Republicans” who are engaged in “kid’s stuff.” He vowed every day this week not to negotiate with “anarchists” and “extremists.”

Representative Cantor is a man who has a B.A. from The George Washington University, a J.D. from The College of William and Mary, and his MA from Columbia University in New York. Interestingly enough, his website fails to say what that Masters degree was in. A little digging shows it was in Real Estate Development.  But I ask you: don’t sit here at Bard and be snarky and condescending — and relieved that Cantor’s Masters is not in something serious like political science or philosophy.

Ok, But isn’t Senator Reid right that Cantor and his ilk are churlish juveniles laying waste to the common good? President Barack Obama—another deeply educated citizen—has put the matter clearly. The country had a debate about health care. The President and his party won. The Republicans lost. The Supreme Court has upheld the President’s healthcare law. The President was reelected. The Healthcare law is the law of the land. Given these facts, it is irresponsible and petulant for a small group of Republicans to demand concessions in return for passing a budget. As the President says, if he negotiates with the Republicans now, every future President will be subject to the same kind of shakedown on any issue every time an important piece of legislation needs to be passed. This is hardly a recipe for good governance.

Educated citizens must ask: is the shutdown of government coercion instead of persuasion? Consider this quotation reported yesterday from Cantor’s House colleague Steve King:  “Now the pressure will build on both sides, and the American people will weigh in.” He is right. The American people will weigh in. And if Americans weigh in on the side of the President and the Democrats, the consequences for the Republican Party will be disastrous – something for which many here might well celebrate Cantor and King.

Cantor and his colleagues are not actually threatening anyone. They are with utter clarity of purpose standing up for a principle; and they are taking a huge risk that they can convince the American people that the Affordable Care Act and other entitlements are part of the general overreaching and enlargement of government that has eroded the power of individual self-government and thus brought about a crisis of educated citizenship.

Cantor’s is an unpopular and uphill struggle to say the least. It is further corrupted by association with racist elements. Moreover, it is also dishonest to the extent that it refuses to own up to the pain his plans will cause. For all these reasons, it is likely that the House Republicans will fail. [Update. as of today, Friday Oct. 11, it seems that the Republicans are admitting defeat and agreeing to accept the Affordable Healthcare Act, although the negotiations are ongoing.]

But success or failure is not the point.

The educated citizen must ask himself today whether good governance is what is called for. Certainly the freedom riders of the Civil Rights Movement did not think good governance was called for. Nor did the Texas State Senator Wendy Davis when she filibustered a Texas bill that restricted abortions.  It will be easy to say that there is a difference between fighting for civil rights and fighting to take away health insurance. There is a difference. And yet both fights are waged in the name of freedom, albeit two very different ideas of what freedom means.

Freedom is at the very center of Hannah Arendt’s political thinking. To be free, Arendt thought, was what it meant to be human. Politics exists because it is in and through politics that human beings can build common worlds in which we can speak and act together in ways that are new and surprising. Arendt’s valuation of freedom, however, made her deeply suspicious of education, at least in its relation to politics.

In “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes: “education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated.” What Arendt means is that in democratic politics we are all equal and no one has the authority to teach others. Some may be geniuses, and others loved. Some are liberals, other conservatives. Some may be racist. And some may hate rich people. But whatever our private feelings, in politics we encounter each other on a field of equality and respect as educated citizens.

Politics for Arendt is allergic to truth claims. It is about opinion and for this reason respectful and reasoned “debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”

Arendt worried that when politicians, pundits, or people talk about educating voters—when they complain that other citizens are ignorant or condescend to speak and argue with those they demean—they are really seeking to use the rhetoric of education to achieve a unanimity that is foreign to politics.

During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. How to solve poverty? Education.  How do we address global warming? Education. How to heal our divided country? Education.

Behind such arguments is the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated they would see the truth and agree with me.” But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Education will not make people see eye to eye, end political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.

What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great schools and great teachers?

Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given.

But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.

For Arendt, Education teaches self-thinking. Education propels us from the darkness of private life into the bright light of the public sphere. In short, education leads us into the common world where we can take our place as an equal and free already-educated citizen.

We are asking over the next two days, “What is an educated citizen?” And “why is the educated citizen in crisis?”

We might ask, then, why it is that so few on the left are responding to the attack on the healthcare bill and entitlements more generally? Why is it that the only Americans who are upset enough at what is going on in Washington to protest, mobilize, and get involved are members of the Tea Party? Where is the new left that pundits like Peter Beinart argue is in ascent? Where is Occupy Wall Street? Are they biding their time? Are they waiting for the right time to pounce and to respond? In my world, they are qvetching on Facebook and Twitter.

Or might it be that Americans on the left—especially younger Americans who have grown up in an era of state-sponsored capitalism and Occupy Wall Street—harbor such a deep cynicism toward the federal state and government that their support for entitlements is deflated by their disdain for government.

We are witness today to a widespread distrust and disdain for government. Few people seem to care. On both left and right, government and politics no longer embody our collective aspirations to care for the common good. Government is administratively necessary, but an irritant to daily life; it is a set of services we outsource rather than an activity we engage.

Confronting unprecedented challenges from the environment to terrorism and the decline of the middle class, we need to resurrect our political institutions. We need to inspire citizens to once more care about the common world that we—through politics—build together. New institutions are needed—political, technological, and social—to bring citizens together to speak and act alongside those with whom we disagree but share a more fundamental commitment to a common good.

Our goal, over the next two days, is to think together about what it means to be an educated citizen. In the most literate and technologically savvy society of all time, we have produced politically uneducated and disengaged citizens. What would it mean to reverse that trend? And how do we do so? These are the questions I ask you to keep in your mind as you listen to the excellent speakers who have generously agreed to guide and provoke us over the next two days.

 

You can watch Roger Berkowitz deliver his speech and the entire conference here.

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Posted on 11 October 2013 | 10:50 am

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