Education, Crisis, and Whether We Love the World Enough08-02-2015
By Laurie E. Naranch
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.”
-- Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education” 1954
Education in the United States is generally seen to be in crisis. At the secondary school level, we frequently hear how our scores in math and science lag behind other nations. Here we see that social class is a greater predictive factor of graduation than are other factors given the ways public education is funded through local property taxes and state-level funding. These economic disparities correlate all too often to the locations of racial and ethnic minorities. Teachers in public schools are closely scrutinized as test scores are used to determine their worth; common narratives frame teachers who resist as if they don’t care about good teaching and learning accountability.
Meanwhile, at the college and university level, we have a crisis of student indebtedness as costs soar while wages and general job growth remain stagnant despite pockets of phenomenal growth such as in technology. More and more colleges and universities rely on temporary instructors as tenure-track positions wane. Moreover, the lament about the place and value of a liberal arts curriculum in a risky world economy is quite familiar.
In her rather rambling but suggestive essay on “The Crisis of Education,” Arendt makes points both philosophical and particular concerning the educational crises she sees in the mid-century United States. To her, the general philosophical point about education and the human condition in modern life remains valuable. Arendt writes: “And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the renewing of a common world.”
[caption id="attachment_16382" align="aligncenter" width="532"] Source: Earth Porm[/caption]
“Renewing of a common world”--a simple yet provocative statement that may seem hopelessly abstract and out of touch. Yet what Arendt suggests remains important: the purpose of education is to foster a care for the world in the sense of protecting the individuality of each person--even as different traditions of personhood, whether more individualistic or collective, come into conflict--and to care for the health of the world as our common location and ecosystem, which includes attuning ourselves to the world's beauty and horror so as to be ready to face the violences of the present.
This is not what the parent of a prospective college student typically expects to hear.
Arendt’s particular formulation of educational crises relate to worries about mass society, conformism, delinquency, and the loss of expertise in teaching. And while she relies on an immigration narrative that renews the nation and misses the slave society that also marks the U.S. at its inception, she is surely right to recognize the value of equality in education. For Arendt, such equality has both a positive side in terms of access and a downside in terms of the loss she sees in meritocracy and teaching authority. Much remains to be done still. Let’s take two particular concerns at the college level that relate to equality and excellence: debt and the value of the liberal arts.
Debt for today’s college students is an ordinary occurrence. Still, on average, a college degree remains a good investment. As reported in the New York Times:
“Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees who have jobs has risen by 9 percent, while employment has fallen for everyone else. The unemployment rate for graduates of four-year colleges between the ages of 25 and 34 was 3.3 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For high school graduates in the same age group who had not attended college, it was 11.8 percent.” (June 13, 2013).
Yet the average debt load is around $33,000, with the class of 2015 having the most student debt yet recorded. Getting that degree is materially challenging for many students despite the subsequent job benefits.
[caption id="attachment_16383" align="aligncenter" width="531"] Source: NerdWallet, Inc.[/caption]
Moreover, the debt load is one reason there is also a crisis about the value of a liberal arts degree. Recently, journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria took a stab at defending liberal arts by arguing that the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) need liberal arts for fostering the entrepreneurship that is necessary in a flexible economy and for sustaining the self-government that started in democratic Athens (Washington Post March 26, 2015). Fakaria is not alone in making a business and civics case for the liberal arts.
However, I think Arendt’s general view of education is broader, riskier, and more true to what’s at stake. After all, the new can bring something wonderful or terrible, and we need people who can discern the difference. “A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments,” Arendt notes in this essay. Putting pragmatic concerns of affordability, job growth, and citizenship front and center is important. But so is resisting the idea that education is simply for “use,” whether entrepreneurial or civic. As Arendt says: “Basically we are always educating for a world that is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands for a limited time as a home.”
In light of continuing inequalities, war, terrorism, violence, waves of migrants fleeing war and economic destitution, environmental disasters, and persistent human rights abuses, do we have the capacity to create a home that is the world? Can education prepare us for renewing the world as well?
To learn more about the crisis in education, please refer to the theme of our 2013 fall conference, "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis." You can also watch video footage from the conference here, or you can watch the full webcast of the two-day event here.
(Featured image sourced by BU Today.)