When Evil is Trivialized
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.
When Evil is Trivialized
In his final interview before his death last year, Zygmunt Bauman recalls when he first heard the term “bystander” used to mean “a person who witnesses evil being done but turns their eyes the other way and does nothing to stop it.” It was during a moral panic in the 1960s around violence by immigrants. Bauman suggests that the “bystander” is a category of persons that must be thought in connection to genocide and criminality. This is because violence is becoming so routine and gratuitous today that it eludes understanding and loses its power to shock. Instead of provoking thought, violence and evil today are banal.
We are being quietly adjusted to this logic-defying, indeed mind-boggling, state of affairs. Breivik is anything but an exceptional, one-off blunder of nature, or a solitary monster without likes and progeny: the category of which he is a member is notorious for recruiting ever new members through the mechanism known as the “copycat.” Look, for instance, around American campuses, schools, and public gatherings; watch the terrorist and other violent acts incessantly screened on TV; check the repertoire of cinemas near you, or browse through the successive lists of bestselling books, to see how much we are daily exposed to the sights of random, gratuitous, unmotivated violence—violence for its own sake, and no other….
Evil has been fully and truly trivialized, and what really counts among the consequences is that we have been, or are rapidly being, made insensitive to its presence and manifestations. Doing evil no longer demands motivation. Has it not—bullying included—been shifting in its great part from the class of purposeful (indeed, meaningful) actions to the space of (for a growing number of bystanders) pleasurable pastime and entertainment?!
The Bitter Rapture Which Attends the Discovery of Truth
Peter Baehr turns to Rebecca West for the model of an adult liberal thinker. At a time when conciliation is preferred to truth and mobbing given precedence over argument, West stands out as a thinker who “brushed against orthodoxy like barbed wire against chiffon.” What Baehr finds most seductive in West’s writing is her conviction that “Freedom carries obligations,…the first of which is to grow up.” There is in Rebecca West that same boldness and self-thinking one finds in Hannah Arendt. It is not surprising that West, again like Arendt, was not at home in any academic discipline. For both West and Arendt, there is, in Baehr’s words, a “bitter rapture which attends the discovery of any truth.”
A writer who draws on multiple traditions can never sink into the dogmas of any one of them. Or indulge their extremes. But while West’s politics were multiform, her liberalism stands out, today, as her most admirable quality. This is not just because those committed to free expression must keep speaking to and against those who would hear only one voice, and because today’s most popular forms of feminist expression promote censorship and victimhood. West’s liberalism also feels morally urgent because liberals are engaged in an ongoing fight with themselves. In that fight, the priority should not be compassion or conciliation but truthfulness. As West observed, ‘it is never possible to serve the interests of liberalism by believing that which is false to be true…The fact-finding powers of liberals have, therefore, always to be at work.’
Another Day, Another Mobbing
Toby Young details the fact-free shaming of a young scholar in the form of a collectively written open letter by 200 professors. I have no idea about the merit of Noah Carl’s scholarship. What I do know is that if someone disagrees with that scholarship, they should have the capacity and courage to argue their case as an individual and on the basis of fact. Collectively written mass-letters accusing a colleague of “racist pseudoscience” without deigning to cite the scholar’s work or bothering to argue with specifics is not simply cowardly. It is the definition of mob rule and the antithesis of intellectual maturity.
Another day, another mobbing. On the front page of today’s Times there’s a story about an attempt by over 200 academics to ruin the reputation of a young scholar called Noah Carl. These researchers, many of them professors, have written an ‘open letter’ objecting to the fact that Dr Carl, who describes himself as a ‘conservative’, has just been awarded a prestigious research fellowship by St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.
Entitled ‘No Place for Racist Pseudoscience at Cambridge’, the letter attacks Dr Carl for his ‘public stance on various issues, particularly on the claimed relationship between “race”, “criminality” and “genetic intelligence”’, and accuses him of producing work that is ‘ethically suspect’ and ‘methodologically flawed’:
As members of the academic community committed to defending the highest standards of ethical and methodological integrity in research and teaching, we are shocked that a body of work that includes vital errors in data analysis and interpretation appears to have been taken seriously for appointment to such a competitive research fellowship.
What’s odd about the letter is that it makes these career-ruining allegations without offering a scintilla of evidence to support them. No specific papers of Dr Carl’s are cited and there isn’t a single quote from anything he’s written. The words ‘race’, ‘criminality’ and ‘genetic intelligence’ are quoted, but these are scare quotes not actual quotes taken from Dr Carl’s work. I’ve looked at his published academic research and cannot find a single instance of him using the phrase ‘genetic intelligence’, which isn’t surprising since no serious scholar writing about group or individual difference in IQ would use such a phrase.
Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist and 2017 Hannah Arendt Center Fellow was arrested and then released this week for her participation in a protest against Decree 349, a new regulation pertaining to artistic freedom and institutional censorship in the Republic.
Quote of the Week: Hannah Arendt On the Oasis of Friendship
By Dr. John Douglas Macready, a Professor of Philosophy at Collin College in Plano, Texas. His work focuses on critical issues in social and political philosophy with specific attention paid to the philosophy of human rights. He is the author of Hannah Arendt and the Fragility of Human Dignity (Lexington, 2018).
In the isolation of the artist, in the solitude of the philosopher, in the inherently worldless relationship between human beings as it exists in love and sometimes in friendship — when one heart reaches out directly to the other, as in friendship, or when the in-between, the world, goes up in flames, as in love. Without the intactness of these oases we would not know how to breathe, and political scientists should know this.
— Hannah Arendt
Dark times are inevitable in a human life. The isolation of a private existence and the bellicosity of a contentious public life can leave a person feeling as if she is lost in a desert. In the Spring of 1955, in the midst of her own desert of loneliness, Hannah Arendt discovered that friendship could be a life-giving oasis. Friendship, she learned, was a temporary refuge from a barren world where “one heart reaches out directly to the other” — an assemblage of persons marked by intimacy, equality, and freedom.
From February until the end of May 1955, Arendt was a visiting professor at the University of California Berkley. The scale and prestige of the university, coupled with her separation from her husband Heinrich Blücher, who remained in New York, had an isolating effect on Arendt. When she arrived at Berkeley in February of 1955, she wrote to Karl Jaspers and described her condition as “a bit alone and wondering how this is all going to turn out.” Arendt’s loneliness was exacerbated by the partisan environment at Berkeley that reflected the political partisanship of the mid-1950s. Berkeley was a socially and intellectually dry place for Arendt where the life-giving springs of thinking had dried up, leaving faculty and students separated into their theoretical siloes. This experience inspired the concluding remarks to her “History of Political Theory” course at Berkley.
In her reflections, she argued that modern politics is characterized by a transition from a common world that joins people together to a “desert-world” that separates them and makes politics impossible. Although seemingly pessimistic, Arendt emphasized that as long as human beings were still capable of acting together, politics was still possible. But how could an individual endure the desert conditions of modern political life? Arendt named four oases — “life-giving resources” — wherein one could sustain oneself and learn to breathe and act again: art, philosophy, love, and friendship. Of these, it was the oasis of friendship that allowed Arendt to live and breathe again during her time at Berkeley.
After receiving Arendt’s letter describing her loneliness, Karl Jaspers responded almost immediately. He knew well the experience of loneliness, and he wanted to connect Arendt with some scholars at Berkeley with whom she might have some common interests, so he recommended that she reach out to Leonardo Olschki and Manfred Bukofzer. Jaspers admitted that both men had “some stature intellectually but… none in human terms.”  Desperate to escape her loneliness, Arendt reached out quickly to Leonardo Olschki and met with him. The day after the meeting, Arendt sent Jaspers a postcard with a panoramic image of the University of California Berkeley, which she referred to as a “desert,” with the following note: “As you can see I went right to the Olschkis’ — an oasis in the desert. You were much in our thoughts”
To which Leonardo and his wife added a personal note: “In time Frau Arendt will find still more camels of this breed in this particular desert.” Leonardo Olschki had become a camel in the desert of Berkeley. He had learned how adjust to the barren conditions by escaping into pure culture and scholarship, but Arendt resisted this world-denying metamorphosis.
The notes, as it turned out, were contrived, as Arendt pointed out almost a month later in a letter to Jaspers, “the postcard I wrote there wasn’t altogether honest. I wrote what he, and she in particular, so obviously wanted me to write… That happens to me sometimes. And then, it is also somehow true that this is a beautiful desert, of all the deserts the most beautiful. The only problem is that the Olschki’s can’t be an oasis for me anymore. I can’t return to that world of pure culture, which isn’t even very pure.” Arendt understood that Olschki had turned scholarship into an escape from the desert-world, and she knew that the invitation to join him on the oasis of “pure culture” would have been a flight from the world. As she pointed out in her final lecture at Berkeley, “… we ruin the life-giving oases when we go to them for the purpose of escaping…” What Arendt was seeking was an oasis in the desert that would help her avoid succumbing to the desert conditions of a professional academic life but would also not become an escape from the world. She found this oasis in her friendship with Eric Hoffer.
As she wrote to Jaspers:
The first real oasis I found appeared in the form of a longshoreman from San Francisco who had read my book and was in the process of reading everything of yours that is available in English. He writes himself — and publishes, too — in the manner of the French moralists. He wanted to know everything about you, and I mean everything, and we were friends right off. He showed me San Francisco the way a king shows his kingdom to an honored guest. He works only three or four days a week. That’s all he needs. With the rest of his time he reads, thinks, writes, goes for walks. His name is Eric Hoffer, of German background but born here and without any knowledge of German. I’m telling you about him because his kind of person is simply the best thing this country has to offer. And don’t forget that I met him through a colleague, and he has lots of friends at the university. You couldn’t take him to Olschki’s house, and that speaks against Olschki.
Hoffer had none of the pretentions of a seasoned and cynical academic. He was working-class and made reading, writing, and independent thinking the center of his life; he had no aspiration to become a “scholar.” After their first meeting, Hoffer sent Arendt a copy of his book The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms, a book Arendt loved and heavily annotated. The gift of the book and Arendt’s response to Hoffer illustrate the intimacy and reciprocity of their friendship that made interpersonal disclosure and recognition possible:
That was a happy day indeed. Like a king who shows his realm you showed me San Francisco; you are king bounty not only to your godson. I think I never understood the Walt Whitman side of this country so clearly before I met you and you told me how you used to wander and live the elements, where every man is your brother and nobody is your friend… I love the book you sent me because it has the same quality. You won’t know that; it is the side of ourselves which must remain dark to us and can appear — shine really — only to others. It is the same sovereignty, the majesty of solitude which shines through every sentence.
Hoffer sent a short note in response to Arendt: “Thanks for the most beautiful letter. After you took the train I thought of the enormous pleasure I derived from giving you pleasure. Is this not partly the meaning of friendship? It was a golden day…”
In friendship, the law of the desert, which alienates and territorializes, pitting one person against another, is suspended; the abyss that opens between people in the desert-world is overcome by an oasis of friendship wherein “one heart reaches out directly to another”.
In our contentious age, where the desert-world of American politics threatens to become a wasteland, it is perhaps prudent to find and maintain those friendships that can serve as temporary refuges from the conditions of desert life. But as Arendt would remind us, it is important neither to adjust to the desert conditions nor to succumb to the temptation to escape the desert. Instead, she would have us see our friendships as places of renewal and resources for re-engagement with the world.
 Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009), 202.
 Hannah Arendt, Courses, University of California, Berkeley, Calif. “History of Political Theory,” lecture, “Tocqueville, Alexis de, and Karl Marx, and conclusion, 1955,” Series: Subject File, 1949–1975, n.d., The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., #007034. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=04/040610/040610page.db&recNum=10&itemLink=/ammem/arendthtml/mharendtFolderP04.html&linkText=7
 Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, Berkeley 4, Cal., February 6, 1955,” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #162, 251.
 Karl Jaspers, “Karl Jaspers to Hannah Arendt, Basel, February 18, 1955,” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #163, 254, 255.
A copy of Olschki’s book Machiavelli the Scientist in Arendt’s personal library at The Stevenson Library at Bard College bears an inscription from Olschki dated February 27, 1955 indicating the date of their meeting. http://library.bard.edu/search?/cJC143+.M404/cjc++143+m404/-3%2C-1%2C0%2CE/frameset&FF=cjc++143+m404&1%2C1%2C
 Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #164, 256.
 Hannah Arendt, “Postcard to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955,” Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany, Karl Jaspers Archiv.
 Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #164, 256, fn. 1.
 Ibid., #164, 257.
 Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 203.
 Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #165, 257–258.
 See Arendt’s annotated copy of Eric Hoffer’s book The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms in the Arendt Collection at the Stevenson Library at Bard College: http://library.bard.edu/search?/cPS3515.O232+P3/cps+3515+o232+p3/-3%2C-1%2C0%2CE/frameset&FF=cps+3515+o232+p3&1%2C1%2C
 Hannah Arendt, “Letter to Eric Hoffer, March 13, 1955,” The Hoover Institute, Eric Hoffer papers, Box 25, Folder 12, Hoover Institution Archives.
 Hannah Arendt, “Letter to Eric Hoffer, March 13, 1955,” The Hoover Institute, Eric Hoffer papers, Box 25, Folder 12, Hoover Institution Archives.
 Eric Hoffer, General, 1938–1976, n.d., “Hi-Hy” miscellaneous, 1955–1974, Series: Correspondence File, 1938–1976, n.d., “Letter from Eric Hoffer to Hannah Arendt, March 16, 1955,” The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., #007034. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=02/020650/020650page.db&recNum=26&itemLink=%2Fammem%2Farendthtml%2FmharendtFolderP02.html&linkText=7
 Eric Hoffer, General, 1938–1976, n.d., “Hi-Hy” miscellaneous, 1955–1974, Series: Correspondence File, 1938–1976, n.d., “Letter from Eric Hoffer to Hannah Arendt, March 16, 1955,” The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., #007034. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=02/020650/020650page.db&recNum=26&itemLink=%2Fammem%2Farendthtml%2FmharendtFolderP02.html&linkText=7.
 Hannah Arendt, “Epilogue,” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), 202.
Journal Feature: The Gold Standard of Educational Reform
By John Seery.
This essay was first published in HA Journal III, 2015.
Is education in crisis? And if it is, what should we do? Big questions. But what do I know? I’ve read a bunch of theory books, but I often lose sleep at night not knowing how to inspire my own teenage kids to do their algebra homework. I’m no educational expert, especially not about K–12 schools.
Realize that as a college teacher I operate on a daily basis in a precious educational bubble, a rarefied environment. The kids who are attracted to and attend Pomona College are, to a person, wildly smart, humble, hardworking, thoughtful, friendly, service-minded, carbon-neutral, kind to small animals—in short, exemplary individuals in every respect. They scare me. They take advanced Arabic to supplement their Italian and German. They read everything I throw at them. They don’t steal glances at their mobile devices during seminar discussions. I enjoy reading their papers, and I learn from them. Academic stuff. Truly I do. Last year, I read a paper written by a freshman upending every reading of Dante’s infernal appropriation of Virgil that I’ve ever encountered. Knocked my socks off. These kids have aced every standardized test that has been put before them, but they explicitly disclaim the importance of such tests. They’re nice. They’re adorable. There’s not a jerk among them. They wear their intelligence lightly.
Who are they? They come from all over the country, so there must be environments that produce or nurture or at least don’t screw up such students, even if they emerged as the local exceptions to the rule. Mind you, for the most part, they aren’t a privileged elite—20 percent are first generation in the family to attend college, and more than half are on ample financial aid, thanks to our need-blind admissions and no-loan policies. All of which is to say that, from my skewed perspective, not to mention my very limited and cherry-picked database, something is going on incredibly right, at some level, across the country, or parts of the country. From my vantage point, I don’t see a generation of slackers, zombies, and Twitter-heads coming into and out of the Pomona Colleges of the country. Instead, I see upstanding and creative Socratic citizens in the making. True, out of the 18 million undergraduates in the United States today, only 100,000 attend residential, small, liberal arts colleges in Pomona’s category. Still, because I see what I see and know what I know, facing the actual students who occupy those chairs around the seminar tables where I teach, I’m reluctant to engage in Chicken-Littlish crisis narratives about the state of U.S. education. I’m no Pollyanna, nor am I an ostrich with my head buried in the national sands. But I think we could draw some lessons from success stories and build upon them, rather than acceding entirely to a cynical view of the prospects for education.
Small liberal arts colleges typically attract a different kind of student, one who hasn’t sought out a big brand name university with a nationally ranked football team and a nationally televised reputation to go along with it. They have decided to fly under the radar; they have deliberately chosen a liberal arts curriculum against a national narrative loudly advising them otherwise. They have put some, really much, of their utilitarian anxieties about getting a job on the shelf for a good chunk of the four-year stretch of their time at college, which is what you have to do—put those concerns in abeyance, take those risks, proceed on faith—if you are going to spend a lot of time during your undergraduate years reading and discussing long novels, or performing in a theater production, or studying quite a few subjects outside your comfort zone and wheelhouse. Poring over the pages of a long novel doesn’t survive a cost-benefit analysis if you’ve construed the point and purpose of your education as delivering you to a high-flying, lucrative job (though it may do well so, albeit as a derivative and largely backdoor benefit).
Which is to suggest, on my part, that I think we need to explore motivations and incentives for education that aren’t well understood from an economic standpoint. Or to put it differently, we need to consider educational environments that have lavishly granted students the freedom, the luxury, and the indulgence to suspend economic considerations as the main reason they are doing what they are doing.
Today I want to project the Pomona College liberal arts atmosphere (as I’ve sketched it) backwards onto K–12 schools. What would it take, what does it take, to motivate students toward the free inquiry of the lib- eral arts? We don’t have good longitudinal data on which to base, with any confidence, our educational reform efforts, so I’m going to draw on one elongated case study that I know pretty well—namely, my own upbringing. Bear with me. Here it goes.
My formative years were spent in Iowa. My parents were the first to split from scores of generations of farmers and settle, in their late twenties, in the city. They chose Cedar Rapids. But they didn’t attend college. No one in their families had ever attended college, and their expectations and hopes for their five kids were for vaguely upward mobility. To us, college was a remote dream, too far off to make it worth dreaming about, and it would have been fine, not tragic, had I remained the Teamster truck driver that I was from the age of 15 onward.
Today I look back on my classmates, the people I grew up with, who came from similar backgrounds, a farm-manure-soaked primordial soup (sorry for that metaphor), and I see enormous success stories in conventional terms: award-winning musicians, engineers, CEOs, celebrated and uncelebrated poets, lots of professors and teachers, multimedia artists and filmmakers, sports figures, writers, entrepreneurs, and so on. Cedar Rapids, the land of Grant Wood, proved to be a wellspring of creativity. I say this because we weren’t at the time all that ambitious. Not outwardly so, at least. We weren’t locked into a national scheme of things that defined our activities and guided our aspirations. In fact, I think we were sheltered from such ambitions, intentions, and incentives largely because we were landlocked in Iowa, relegated to flyover territory. We were thus innocent and unassuming, and that allowed us to go behind the barn and throw baseballs into hay bales, becoming Bob Feller figures in the meantime.
The public schools in that post-postwar period featured robust art pro- grams, in-house sports programs, one-on-one music lessons, and in high school, shop class and home economics. In grade school, we had a lot of recess. We played a lot of games. Teachers were quirky characters that were regarded as pillars of the community. They had great leeway to do what they wanted to do in their classrooms, and they seemed to have great pride in what they did—and they had fun. Sure, there were a few duds in the schools, but you could survive a dud or two. I think I can still name the names of most of my K-12 teachers, and on Facebook today my classmates commemorate with tremendous gratitude those teachers’ lives 40-some years after the fact. And I think the feeling was mutual. The teachers had the freedom to get to know and to care for us as real persons rather than as merit-pay data points.
But I don’t know how to re-create that halcyon atmosphere. That’s not my structural point here today. What I do want to submit for consideration is that back in those days, Iowa was the one state in the nation that opted out of the AP system at the high school level. We didn’t have those classes and those tests. We didn’t do much testing, even though Iowa was the home of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which was administered across much of the country. We too took that battery of tests once a year, which by the way included a test for map-reading skills. But those standardized tests didn’t have any consequences unless you bombed them.
Instead of AP testing, Iowa developed its own writing program, emphasizing writing instead of testing. I don’t think it had anything to do with what became the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. But that’s part of the same landscape (or was). We wrote a lot from first grade onwards. Writing in those Cedar Rapids classes wasn’t a solitary or formulaic experience. We wrote our essays, and then we would read them aloud to the rest of the class, standing in front of everyone. Writing then was a frolicking group activity; when you put pen in hand you started to develop a sense of audience, because, well, you’d soon have an audience: Gary and Bill and Janet and the others in front of you, your friends. And you developed a voice, or tried out several voices, several ploys, to get reactions, to see what worked. We would try to be funny. Or wry. Or imaginative. Or highfalutin. It was creative. It was fun. Education was fun. Or maybe fun isn’t the right word. You felt alive, thinking and talking and writing and laughing and then working hard. But it didn’t feel like working. School was an inducement to life itself. It wasn’t boring.
Let me sing you a song. “I don’t like you, I don’t like you, you stinky poo, you smell good, too, we are the Garfield Grade School band.” I remember my friends and I were singing that ditty quite a bit at recess during my sixth-grade year. It was silly. It was beneath us. But it was fun. Our bandleader in the school from fourth to sixth grade was Roland L. Moehlmann, who was founding director of the city municipal band and taught in the public schools from 1929 to 1972. He composed and arranged music, achieving a bit of renown for his Bach arrangements in particular, earning him the title Bach-Moehlmann on the larger band circuit. In that stinky poo song, he was trying to get us to learn a melody and a refrain via a lyrical mnemonic that would help us on our individual horns. Well, we learned it, with giggles. And the reason we went home and practiced our instruments was that we wanted to get better at school so that we could play that song and other songs better, and play it for a recital, bonding with our teacher and each other over our inside joke. And we found ourselves making music together.
In contrast, you don’t get a bunch of grade school kids to play music, to work at their technique, to endure several formative years of squawks and squeaks and woefully out-of-tune honks—you don’t nurture that educational experience by a testing regime, or by playing the trombone in front of a laptop, or by insisting that playing music is a way to hone skills, or to get into college, or ultimately to get a globally competitive job. My music upbringing is still the ambient sound track to everything I do today, and I’m so thankful that I grew up in a musical city, where there was some kind of subterranean agreement that the schools, the colleges, and the city were to be unified by music, and sport, and writing, and art, and story- telling as part of an overall civic paideia. You want to talk about creating citizens? Check to see whether there’s a municipal band in town; better yet, check the arts programs in the schools. John Dewey told us as much in Democracy and Education, wherein he insisted that a viable education ought to combine work with play, or better, to break down that distinction. Otherwise schools would become places, he warned, filled with “drudgery and externally imposed tasks.”
I see my earlier self in many of my Pomona College students. They’ve been lucky; they’ve been given the chance to flourish away from some national treadmill of economic anxiety. Yes, some are walking resumes, conforming to David Brooks’s cartoon description of today’s “organizational kids,” those kids who have checked all the boxes, who do what they’re told, who game their transcripts, and who eventually hedge their liberal arts bets by becoming econ majors. But most aren’t that way. Most come to Pomona receptive to broad-based and exploratory liberal arts learning.
Still, this current crop has come up through the No-Child-Left-Behind testing regime. They haven’t written much. They haven’t had much recess along the way. They haven’t had much fun. They haven’t found their passions and their voices and their curiosities. We have to remind them that college affords them a huge opportunity: four years of freedom, utter freedom, and if they squander that freedom by trying to direct their education too deliberately toward the modern economy, they may well find them- selves, at 40, a huge success in financial terms, but wondering how in the world, when given a chance to read and discuss Shakespeare or Toni Morrison with others when they were younger in college, or to perform in a play, or to throw clay on a wheel, or to conduct experiments in a biology lab, or to take up racquetball, or to brood in personal reverie, they cheated themselves out of those activities. How did that happen? How did the adults in charge of education, of institutions, of culture, of cities, allow that to happen? Who killed so many of the public schools in this country and made them so boring and joyless?
Here’s my bottom-line point, if it isn’t already clear: the data-driven, standardized testing, outcomes assessment, robo-learning, MOOC-hyping, race-to-the-top classroom modality is squashing the joy, the pleasure, the fun, the meaning, the sociality, the serendipity, the integrity, and the importance out of learning. They’ve done it K-12, and now they want to do it K-16. Reducing college to getting a job is to go about educational reform all the wrong way. I know, to the bean counters, and to some wonks and pundits and efficiency experts, talking about the pleasures of the classroom, the joys of learning, sounds profligate. But most of those folks just don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about the classroom, or they just aren’t guided by an informed experience that works.
Many of these educational reformers pay lip service to the notions of fostering critical thinking and independent judgment and maybe even creative innovation, but then they promote educational models that seem designed to spit out bored-to-death bots. And some are enthusiastic about decimating classrooms and in fact eliminating teachers, classrooms, campuses, and communities altogether. Coursea cofounder Daphne Koller said that we need to “release ourselves from the shackles” of “in-class teaching.” What poppycock. As if kids don’t need a bandleader. As if hands-on lab science can be taught over the Internet. Online education will supplant face-to-face education the day when online sex supplants face-to-face sex, though you do hear some lonely hearts claiming that new whiz-bang technologies will soon obviate actual human contact.
Don’t let the for-profit brokers in pornography prevail. I say we need to remind ourselves of that distinctively American model of education, the small residential liberal arts college, and try to find ways and the money to make it available to more Americans so that we don’t end up with a two- tiered system whereby rich students will still get to attend rich colleges that actually feature real teachers and real classrooms, while everyone else will have to be satisfied with receiving credit-badges by watching hour after hour of Khan Academy videos or the like. Let me quote John Dewey’s Democracy and Education again:
Democratic society is peculiarly dependent for its maintenance upon the use in forming a course of study of criteria which are broadly human. Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class.
We know what the gold standard model of education is—small classrooms with dedicated teachers and real, three-dimensional human beings together pursuing broad, rigorous, and enticing subjects—and we ought to have the courage of our convictions to provide that kind of education widely, rather than settling for a cheap and dreary substitute.
Video Feature: Thinking Under Siege
A talk given by Masha Gessen at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 10th Annual Fall Conference, Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times
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