Leading a Student Into the World05-04-2012
As long as our world changes so rapidly that children can expect to live very differently than their parents, it is likely that education and child rearing will always be in crisis.
This is the first sentence of a senior project I am reading today, the first of many I will read over the next two weeks. If the others are as fascinating as this one, it will be a happy two weeks.
The Bard senior project is the culmination of a Bard Student's year-long inquiry into a topic of their choosing. In this case, my student Steven Tatum—an aspiring teacher who will attend Bard's Master in Teaching Program next year—set out to explore the sense and import of our crisis in education.
In its most basic sense, education is how we lead new human beings into the world and introduce them to it. The Latin root of our word “educate” is educo, which means to rear or bring up a child, but it also means to lead forth and draw out. For most of Western history, education in this sense was a relatively simple matter of leading children into the lifestyles that their families had maintained for generations. But with the modern emphasis on equality, self-determination, and social mobility, the task of leading children into the world became much more difficult since educators could never know how a given student would choose to live in the world. Schools were given the task of leading students into a world of freedom and possibilities.
While these benefits for human freedom certainly make the increased burden on education worth bearing, this difficulty becomes a crisis when parents and teachers cannot be sure what the world will be like when their children and students reach adulthood. How can parents and teachers lead the next generation into a world that neither generation knows?
Tatum's Senior Project asks how to lead a student into the world, and seeks guidance from Hannah Arendt's essay, The Crisis in Education.
In this project I follow Arendt through the crisis in education as a way of learning with her about the essence of education and the educational challenges we face in our uncertain time. I begin at the beginning of education: the birth of a child. For Arendt, the fact that new people are continuously born into the world is the essence of education. In addition to marking the beginning of a living growing being, Arendt focuses on birth as the origin of our capacity to make new beginnings of our own throughout our lives by acting in the world. She believes the task of education is to preserve and foster this capacity for action so that the members of each new generation can participate in building and rebuilding a common world.
The tension in education today is between the need to lead people into an already existing world and the equally pressing imperative to prepare them for a new world that certainly is approaching, faster and more unpredictably than any of us imagine. The news this week is filled with articles about new initiatives at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT to create new corporations that will offer courses on the internet. This is part of the trend to orient education toward the future, in the hope that we can teach students more quickly and more efficiently what they will need to know in the new economy.
Underlying much contemporary educational thinking is the assumption that our present world will not last long. More important than leading students into the world, is the need to give them the tools of the future. And this is not wrong. We do live in a world in which the constancy of tradition has been disrupted. Ours is a world in which the foundations are fluid and we cannot rely on past verities, be they moral, political, or scientific. Everything is changeable, and we must prepare our children for such a world.
And yet, even in a world in which we must "think without banisters," there is still a world, a common sense and a common space where people congregate. As Arendt writes,
The loss of worldly permanence and reliability ... does not entail, at least not necessarily, the loss of the human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us.
It may be that we live in a time of flux and change, one where permanence and structure are necessarily fleeting. At the same time, it is human to build structures that last, to tell stories that are meaningful, and build works that memorialize. As much as education is about preparing students for the new, it is also about teaching them the stories, showing them the works, and introducing them to the heroes that together comprise the world into which they have been born. Education is importantly a collective effort at remembering and thus calling to mind the world in which we live.
With that in mind, it is helpful to consider these lines from Steven's Thesis.
While I focus on the arguments she makes in her published work, studying Arendt has also allowed me to reflect on how my own education has taken place. As a student at Bard College, I found Hannah Arendt’s grave in the college cemetery well before I read any of her work. In writing this project, I have found more and more ways in which I share a common world with her. I did research in her personal library, read her letters, spoke with people who knew her, and sat by her grave. I also learned recently that one of the desks in the classroom at Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center where I took a class on her book Between Past and Future is the desk from her apartment in New York City. These experiences have done more than add personal touches to my research; they resonate with the content of this project in the sense that they have lead me to a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the world that I am entering.
For your weekend read, I commend to you Hannah Arendt's essay, The Crisis in Education.