15 de Junho, 2024

Education, Politics and Learning



1) Education and politics must be kept separate, and

2) Adults cannot be educated, by Arendt’s definition of the term.

The Hannah Arendt Center

Oct 22, 2023

Max Botstein

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

“Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity. Since one cannot educate adults, the word “education” has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretense of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force”

Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education (1958)

Hannah Arendt’s polemical 1958 essay, “The Crisis in Education,” provides rich material for discussion and debate, including many previous Quotes of the Week. Here, however, I want to briefly discuss one of Arendt’s more provocative statements, in which she makes two separate, but related claims: 1) Education and politics must be kept separate, and 2) Adults cannot be educated, by Arendt’s definition of the term.

I cannot pretend to offer any conclusions in this brief space, but I believe it is productive to “think with Arendt,” or even to “think with Arendt against Arendt.” I will first consider Arendt’s argument, present the context in which she wrote, and then ask what might be important or valuable in her perspective, or what might cause one to question her conclusions, especially in today’s climate where politics seems to infect every aspect of American life, and arguments rage over our own education system. Given the increasing prominence of adult and continuing education programs, some might be inclined to reject Arendt’s conclusions out of hand as being simply factually incorrect.

Arendt’s argument rests on her belief that children, who are “human beings in the process of becoming but not yet complete,” must be protected, insofar as it is possible, from the “merciless glare of the public realm.” As adults, we have a responsibility to those we have brought, involuntarily, into the world to prepare them for it, not to place upon them the additional burden of fixing it — of solving political and societal problems we ourselves are unable to resolve. Conversely, it would be equally objectionable to treat adults as if they were children, still in need of guidance and authority, and thus as something other than complete human beings themselves. Arendt goes on to say that “education, as distinguished from learning, must have a predictable end. In our civilization this end probably coincides with graduation from college.” Thus, she puts the boundary between childhood and adulthood at roughly the age of 21.

To be sure, Arendt was not the first philosopher to tackle the relationship between politics, education, and adulthood. In her essay, she explicitly references Plato’s argument from The Republic that it would be necessary to banish everyone above the age of ten to ensure that the flaws of the present world are not passed down to the next generation. Arendt suggests that this drastic measure would be the only true way to bring into existence a new kind of political community by education, but of course she rejects this course of action. She likewise explicitly attacks the pedagogical tradition, which she identifies with Rousseau, “in which education became an instrument of politics, and political activity itself was conceived of as a form of education.” She stands in opposition to the instrumentalization of children’s education, even if the intended purpose is the creation of virtuous citizens or good democrats.

It is specifically the American tradition of “progressive education” for which Arendt reserves most of her critique. There are many aspects of this program with which Arendt takes issue, but what concerns us here is the progressive understanding of the relationship between politics, specifically democracy, and education. Arendt never names John Dewey, the most famous philosopher of progressive education, but it is clearly his work she has in mind. For Dewey, one of the goals of education was to produce democratic citizens, and only by organizing schools on democratic principles and allowing students to practice democracy could they be prepared for democratic life.

Arendt’s essay, in which she takes the “bankruptcy” of progressive education in America as self-evident, was part of a general rejection of that philosophy in the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis (1957), but how should we evaluate her piece today?

To begin with, one has to acknowledge the complications introduced by the disjuncture between Arendt’s rhetoric about education and politics in America and the actually-existing conditions in the United States in 1958. American rates of educational attainment certainly far outstripped those of the most comparable countries, including Germany, but they remained quite low by modern standards. Only about 40% of Americans over the age of 25 had completed high school and about the same number had no more than an eighth-grade education. Thus, when Arendt claims that politics is always the realm of the already-educated, she must either understand “education” to mean something far more expansive than formal schooling to adulthood (the subject of her essay) or infer that a vast number of American citizens do not participate meaningfully in political life at all. The latter possibility is disquieting, insofar as it indicates that those who have suggested there is an anti-democratic strain within Arendt’s philosophy might be onto something. One could perhaps argue that Arendt is speaking in terms of an ideal, in which all citizens are educated and all citizens participate in politics, but then one might ask what her point was in making the distinctions in the first place.

Similarly, another potential objection is that the absolute contrast Arendt seems to draw between adults, who are educated and participate in politics, and children, who are not and who do not, is also fundamentally unsustainable. Children evidently participate in politics today — much of the activism on the issues of climate change around the world, gun control in the US, and pro-democracy protests in places like Hong Kong is driven by young students. Likewise, the boundary between adulthood and childhood is a fuzzy one. One obvious example of this fuzziness is the fact that when Arendt wrote her piece, the typical age of graduation from college (and thus the end of education) and the voting age were the same. Since 1971, when the franchise was extended, American eighteen-year-olds have participated directly in democratic politics by voting and standing for election (although they have also since lost the right to drink). Has the age at which education becomes learning changed, or are college students and young adults simply at a stage where childhood and adulthood overlap?

Another, and perhaps more significant potential critique of Arendt’s argument is that education in a democracy is largely public and political because it usually takes the form of public schooling. Education depends on public funding and therefore its curriculum is debated publicly on the local, state, and national levels. The politicization of education might be greater today than ever before. Much of contemporary media, both right and left-wing, is devoted to denunciations of bias, indoctrination, and malfeasance in public schools and universities. Given the debates over American history, to take one example, and the passions raised by the dueling curricula of the “1619 Project” and Trump-sponsored “1776 Commission,” it seems difficult to imagine a future in which history education for children is not an intensely political question.

Given Arendt’s own recorded support of the non-violent student movements of the 1960s, perhaps we must understand her distinction between adults and children as a difference of degree, rather than kind, even as her language seems to imply more absolute categories. If education and learning (childhood and adulthood) are not as fixed as Arendt’s words might suggest, should we also see her argument about the separation between politics and education in a similar light? Should we perhaps take Arendt’s position to be not so much that education can have nothing to do with politics, but instead as a plea not to view the education of children purely in terms of producing future partisan voters? Education is necessary to furnish students with the capacities to deal with the claims of politics, but there is a crucial difference between intellectual training and indoctrination. If we take seriously Arendt’s argument that education exists to prepare children for the world, which of course involves preparing them to be political, that then pre-supposes political questions. Nevertheless, we do education a great disservice if we treat students purely as future voters or pawns in our political struggles, rather than as children to whom we owe a degree of protection from the failings of the world into which we adults have brought them.

About the Author:

Max Bostein is the Fritz Stern Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He studies the intellectual history of modern Europe, with a focus on the development of higher education and democratic thought. His dissertation, “Democracy and the University: America and the Reconstruction of West German Higher Education, 1945–1966” (Harvard University, 2023), examined the postwar efforts to reform German universities and the debates over the role of education in the new German democracy. His research interests include the transatlantic intellectual exchange between the United States and Europe, the interplay between intellectual debates and bureaucratic institutions, and the relationship between politics, society, and culture.





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