“The Crisis of Education” Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt "The Crisis of Education"Hannah Arendt’s “The Crisis of Education” (published in 1954) continues to be massively relevant to the ongoing conversation about education. Were we to bring her back, she would doubtless waste no time writing a sequel to “The Crisis in Education” which would be equally scathing of large swathes of what professes to be the most progressive philosophy of education.

Disturbingly, the central problem remains exactly as she characterised it back in the 1950s: a lack of common sense. Those who champion the autonomous learning of the digital natives passionately following their own learning objectives online using the latest apps and aided by their self-created personal learning networks blissfully disregard the common sense that Hannah Arendt took pains to restate – the common sense that learning does not equal education. As Arendt puts it, “one can go on learning to the end of one’s days without for that reason becoming educated.”

Learning does not equal education. Doesn’t that sound odd?

So what is education? Heck! Is it really necessary to state the obvious? But having read ideas like those of Sugata Mitra, for instance, who takes his hole in the wall project to be a model for a new approach to learning, it seems it might just be necessary to go back to basics and restate the blindingly obvious: Education is the process of gradually introducing children to the adult world that they have been born into – a process that must come to a stop at some point, so while it makes sense to talk about lifelong learning, it makes no sense to talk about lifelong education. The process begins in the family, but then requires the school as a half-way house between the private space of the family and public space of the adult world.

School. Does that word not also sound odd now? A disturbing amount of the hype about digital learning implies that school could easily be abolished once things on the internet are sufficiently well organised to provide children with the resources they need at home (or in the walls of their slums) to pursue their own learning objectives (perhaps with the aid of online facilitators, who may or may not be flesh and blood people).

What about the teacher? Here things become even odder. Teachers must play the role of representatives of the public adult world, and act with authority. Arendt puts it like this:

Insofar as the child is not yet acquainted with the world, he must be gradually introduced to it; insofar as he is new, care must be taken that this new thing comes to fruition in relation to the world as it is. In any case, however, the educators here stand in relation to the young as representatives of a world for which they must assume responsibility although they themselves did not make it, and even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is. This responsibility is not arbitrarily imposed upon educators; it is implicit in the fact that the young are introduced by adults into a continuously changing world.

The teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-a-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.

Arendt is referring here to the half of the teacher’s vocation that so many of the progressive pedagogues have forgotten: answering to the claims of the world that the children are to be introduced to. The progressives who think that education is about acquiring knowledge, and that knowledge is information have a real blindspot here. The teacher has, on the one hand, the children, and, on the other, the world that the children must gradually become a part of. Becoming a part of the adult world goes way beyond learning information about it. It involves becoming able to feel a part of it and wanting to act responsibly within it. They have to be able to reach the point where they say: This is our world.

A precondition of this process – Arendt argues – is that teachers assume responsibility for the world the children are to enter. The lack of that responsibility was a crucial feature of the crisis Arendt perceived in the 1950s (writing about America). She saw this as a function of two more general crises: the crisis of authority in society, and the crisis of tradition. Although Arendt was prepared to embrace a skepticism about authority and tradition among adults in public life, she insisted that in the education of the young a different attitude had to prevail: The respect for tradition and authority had to be cultivated. To fail at this would lead to ruin – increasing “that estrangement from the world by which we are already threatened on all sides.”

The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its
very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed
in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by
tradition. That means, however, that not just teachers and educators, but all of
us, insofar as we live in one world together with our children and with young
people, must take toward them an attitude radically different from the one we
take toward one another. We must decisively divorce the realm of education
from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to
apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which
are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general
validity in the world of grown-ups.

Can those who are currently advocating the digital learning revolution affirm the values of tradition, authority and taking responsibility for the world? How does this square with the progressive anxiety about having the teacher leave the front of the classroom as quickly as possible to circulate instead around the children pursuing their personalised learning tasks? If there is an insistence on sidestepping the values of tradition, authority and responsibility, what do they have to say about the worsening sense of estrangement?

Arendt is exceptionally strict with would-be educationalists who would rather shirk the issues of authority, tradition and responsibility: “Anyone who refuses to assume joint responsibility for the world should not have children and must not be allowed to take part in educating them.” Perhaps Arendt goes too far in banning childrearing for those of us who are congenitally allergic to anything that smacks of policing, but I see a lot of common sense in her reminder that education must be about promoting the world at the same time as promoting the development of the individual who is to join that world.

A lot of the discourse about promoting autonomous learning slips in a reference to holism, but that sort of pseudo-holism still remains one sided insofar as it imagines the individual learner as floating free in some worldless educational non-space. A truly holistic approach to education is the common sense one that Arendt describes in which we balance the claims both of the individual child and the world that the child is to enter.

The key word here is “balance.” Arendt is very careful to emphasise that we must not snuff out the spark of originality in the child as we introduce her to the world. Here is how she describes the process:

The essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something of the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new. …. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.

Education at its best is a skilled balancing act that does justice both to the claims of the old world and to those of the children whose initiative and originality promise to revitalise, improve and advance it.

This is how Hannah Arendt ends the essay:

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. 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 task of renewing a common world.”


Read the full text of Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis of Education” HERE

written by Torn Halves on October 19, 2012 in education and pedagogy with 2 comments