Never have I read anything quite like Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Education.” True to form, Arendt writes a piece far more compelling than her title portends. By the time she’s done, not only has everything familiar about “education” been upended, but a clear and workable “solution” has been proposed. And yet, although Arendt writes in fluent English, her points of reference derive from foreign conventions, presumably German ones, giving her performance something of the strangeness of a handball game played on a tennis court.
For example, I want to quote a passage that, while perfectly sensible as to content, struck, for me, an alien note: it is not customary in the United States now, and I don’t believe that it was any more so when Arendt was writing, to speak of family life as she does, at least in connection with education.
Because the child must be protected against the world. his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members daily return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitutes a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for the life of children but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed. In the public world, common to all, persons count, and so does work, that is, the work of our hands that each of us contributes to our common world; but life qua life does not matter there. The world cannot be regardful of it, and it has to be hidden and protected from the world.
Arendt ignores the liberal precept that respects privacy by refusing to discuss it. “Liberal” privacy is simply whatever happens behind closed doors; so long as no harm is done, private matters are of no public concern. We should not be surprised that this less-than-robust standard has been skeletonized by security agencies preoccupied with the harm that might be done behind closed doors, and Arendt is not content with such lassitude. She insists that there are things that must take place, because they can only take place, within the family. The personhood upon which civilization rests, she claims, can only take shape behind “these four walls.”
This idea of the family as a secure bastion of privacy is fundamental to Arendt’s expectations of education, which takes place in the prolonged transitional stage between infancy and adulthood. At the root of Arendt’s thinking about education is the concept of natality. I have never come across this idea anywhere else, and I cannot tell how much of it is all Arendt’s own. Natality describes civilization as under perpetual invasion by newborns. Civilization must be protected from the ignorance of these newborns, whose imagination in turn must be protected from civilization. “Education” is nothing more nor less than the reconciliation of civilization and newborns. If successful, education informs newborns about civilization in ways that allow them to adapt it to unforeseen circumstances. Ideally, education teaches children how to help a civilization to grow.
For this to happen, it is essential to have teachers who embody the authority of the civilization, who say, “I will teach you about the world in which you are about to take your place.” This means taking responsibility for the world as it is, “although [teachers] themselves did not make it, and even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is.”
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.
This startling outburst is clearly aimed at the countercultural drift that was taking hold of American education when Arendt was writing. It is a breathtakingly simple rule, and when I use it to look back on teachers good and bad in my own experience, it is obvious that the best ones were the most emphatic about taking responsibility for the world, even as the foundations of that world shifted beneath their feet. Such teachers were rare. By the end of the Sixties, American adults generally were prone to a self-pitying irresponsibility that Arendt clearly despises:
“In this world even we are not very securely at home; how to move about in it, what to know, what skills to master, are mysteries to us too. You must try to make out as best you can; in any case you are not entitled to call us to account. We are innocent, we wash our hands of you.”
It was a bleak time. The only common alternative to this lament was an unthinking, fundamentalist denial that the world had changed at all. Taking responsibility for the world as it is means understanding that the world is ever-changing. No one can ever expect to be certain about skills and careers. Nor is the world as it is simply the world of today. In order to grasp changes that are in process, the world as it was yesterday must be understood, too. If you are going to help a civilization to grow (or at any rate to keep fresh), you must understand how it has grown.
Arendt is very clear that education and learning are two different things, separated pretty much at the line between high school and college. (It is axiomatic for her that adults cannot be [re-]educated.) Pointing out that she is not herself an educator, she does not concern herself with educational curricula. I am confident that she would have best approved of a high-school program devoted to languages, living and classic, and to the history of science and politics, and that she would have been happiest with a perspective from which languages and histories were seen as two faces of the same quantity. Education prepares some people for lives of learning, but it must prepare everyone to function in civilization.
Since Arendt wrote “The Crisis in Education,” the world has been swept by a tide of technological change that is far from spent. It has, if nothing else, provided a powerful distraction from the problems that beset mid-century America; it has also begun to yield a crop of adults who have not been infantilized by an ignorance of new technology. Many of them are engaged in developing possibilities for a better world. I pray that they will not take long to recognize the importance of taking responsibility for the world as it is.