Learning From Crisis
“[T]here is another even more cogent reason for [the layman] concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis—which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices—to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…”
-Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education”
It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis,” or weiji, means a combination of “danger” and “opportunity,” and every so often the trope appears in the highest echelons of American politics. Linguist Benjamin Zimmer cites its frequent use by John F. Kennedy in speeches leading into the 1960 presidential election; and more recently, Al Gore in 2006-7 used weiji to anchor both his Congressional testimony on the problem of climate change, and his Vanity Fair article (“The Moment of Truth”) concerning the same. During her January 2007 trip to the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters of conditions in the region, “I don’t read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity…And I think that states it very well. We’ll try to maximize the opportunity.”
This use of weiji has irked some linguists. Zimmer calls Gore’s Chinese riff a “linguistic canard” and writes that in all these cases, “[T]he trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action.” Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, identifies a “fatal” error of interpretation that centers on the second character, ji, which rather than “opportunity,” here means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, “A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.”
To those still seeking New Age wisdom in the danger/opportunity coupling, Mair points to the old Greek usage. Modern “crisis” stems from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, decide, or judge. The word reached Middle English in the 15th century via Latin, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that by mid-16th century it meant judgment related specifically to sickness and the sudden change of disease (The Online Etymology Dictionary cites Hippocrates using krinein in the same way.). Soon thereafter it referred more generally to “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point,” as well as judgment or decision simply, and “A point by which to judge; a criterion; token; sign.”
In moments of crisis the important connection between “danger” and “opportunity” centers on their common source in a disruption of normal order, a disruption that entails instability and volatility, but also openings to previously precluded or unimagined possibilities for action. The moment of crisis is transient, and in political matters the statesman’s virtue is two-fold—not only to manage (or “seize”) a crisis situation, but also to recognize the situation when it arises (See Lenin, “The Crisis Has Matured,” September 29, 1917) or foresee its coming. By recognizing a crisis for what it is—a moment of decision—we can wrest the decision to ourselves.
Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” seems to offer a different understanding of social and political crisis—one less concerned with critical moments and more concerned with the “elemental structures” of modernity that “crystallize” over time and manifest today in a variety of ways. The essay starts by observing that “The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms.” In America the general crisis has assumed the form of “the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude[.]” This introduces a recurring theme in the essay, that while examining a particular political crisis in America, the essay is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about “a more general crisis and instability in modern society.”
This more general crisis is the modern crisis of authority that is “closely connected with the crisis of tradition…the crisis in our attitude towards the realm of the past.” Seeing how this bears on the crisis of education requires examining “whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.” At the same time, Arendt writes, “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” a world that, because it is made by mortals, “runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.” And thus—because the essence of education is natality, and the “newcomers” need a world in which to live and act, but the world in which we live and act constantly “is or is becoming out of joint”—the problem of education concerns how to stabilize this world for the “newcomers” without also stifling their capacity to renew or even drastically alter it: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” Arendt writes, “education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world[.]”
Here the crisis of modernity and education converge—for the process of giving students a world has historically relied on the authority of tradition and the past. But if these authorities can no longer be relied upon, then what remains? Stunningly, Arendt locates a new authority for modern conditions in the teacher’s “assumption of responsibility for that world.”
Arendt’s account of the American crisis of education illustrates the connection between local political crises around the world and a larger civilizational crisis. Indeed, a central goal of “The Crisis in Education” is to highlight the blind spots in understanding that result when one regards “a local phenomenon” like the crisis of education as “unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States” (as for example its history of “continuous immigration”). To localize such problems is tempting because “However clearly a general problem may present itself in a crisis, it is nevertheless impossible ever to isolate completely the universal element from the concrete and specific circumstances in which it makes its appearance.” But while “There is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected”— “It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false” (emphasis added).
This false belief prevents us from, among other things, ascertaining “which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves” (in a local crisis)—that is, “the true reasons that for decades things could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense.” And events continue in this manner due in part to the illusion that situation-specific and/or scientific solutions, which may (or may not) satisfactorily solve local problems in the short term, actually touch upon the heart of the matter. The illusion manifests in “repeat performance” of the crisis, “though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.” Arendt’s criticism of the futility of pragmatist pedagogy in addressing the crisis of authority in the classroom represents a case in point.
In recent months and years, few words have achieved more prominence in Washington politics than crisis. As recently as February 3, President Obama said in a CBS interview that “Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis.” And following the latest inconclusive negotiations over the country’s fiscal situation and looming (depending on who you ask) “debt crisis,” a recent article in the Huffington Post bemoans the “pattern of a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis” that has become “all too familiar—and predictable. The trend goes something like this: As a deadline approaches, Republicans repeat their calls for spending cuts. Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking. A short-term agreement is then reached that averts economic calamity, but ultimately kicks the can down the road for yet another fight.”
What does it mean for a Congress to routinely “govern from crisis to crisis”? Does “governing by crisis” constitute functioning politics, or a political crisis of the first order? In The Crisis in Education Arendt writes that “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” and allows one “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” But to state the obvious, if “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” then such tearing and obliteration requires that “the very fact of crisis” be recognized and acknowledged. In the current governing crisis in Washington, what fundamentally new, to say nothing of unprejudiced, questions—other than how Washington’s two parties will “compromise” and avoid self-destruction—have been asked? Who has spoken seriously, truthfully, and critically, in an effort to lay bare the essence of the matter?
At a time when happenings in Washington “could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense” (How else are we to understand “governing by crisis”?), Hannah Arendt reminds us to seek out and overcome those “prejudices” and “preformed judgments”—including the obligatory moves to technocratic and ideological narratives—that preclude the introduction of new questions and corresponding answers that require direct and original judgments and, perhaps most importantly, thinking and responsibility. Counterintuitively, in such situations Arendt highlights the importance of questions rather than solutions in confronting political crisis—that the proper response to crisis requires thinking rather than knowledge. To narrowly search for efficient policy “solutions” or ideological “compromises” based on prior prejudices simply misses the point.
If crisis does not seem especially urgent to Arendt in “The Crisis on Education,” she does warn that, in the end, “unreflective perseverance…can only…lead to ruin.” Ironically, one of the prejudiced assumptions that seems most prevalent in Congress today—that abandoning one’s prejudices and preformed judgments spells political death—may be most indicative of our current political crisis.–—And yet if, as Arendt suggests on more than one occasion, one answer to the modern crisis of authority lies in the “assumption of responsibility”—be it responsibility for the world in the classroom, responsibility for extraordinary action in politics (Arendt once attributed Lenin’s revolutionary authority to his singular willingness to “assume responsibility for the revolution after it happened.”), or even responsibility for truthful speech (as opposed to “mere talk”) and action in normal, everyday politics—then notwithstanding whatever the American crisis is, whoever has the courage to speak truthfully and accept political responsibility may wake up to find real power and opportunity suddenly within his grasp.
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