Arendt and Teacher Authority
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Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) is a philosopher and political thinker who is most famous for her writings on the genealogy of totalitarianism, her theory of political action, and her analysis of evil in the context of the Holocaust. Born in Germany to a secular Jewish family, she fled to Paris in 1933 and then later to the United States, which granted her citizenship in 1951. It was in the United States where she gained prominence as a public intellectual; she also held academic positions there at several higher education institutions, including the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research.
Although not conventionally thought of as a philosopher of education, Arendt’s two primary essays on education, “The Crisis in Education” (1961a/2006) and “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959), both originally published in the mid-twentieth century, position her as an educational conservative who sought to recuperate teacher authority and the teaching of tradition in response to the progressive education movement. Her defense of authority and tradition did not stem, though, from a belief that the past should be preserved unquestioningly, but rather, from a conviction that these played an important role in renewing the world.
This entry begins by introducing Arendt’s analysis of modernity as the backdrop of her defense of authority. It then provides an overview of her critique of the progressive education movement and her argument defending teacher authority. Finally, it briefly summarizes some of the main criticisms of her writings on education.
Arendt’s defense of teacher authority must be situated within her broader analysis of Western modernity, found mainly in The Human Condition (1958/1998) and the essays in Between Past and Future, as well as her analysis of authority, scattered across several essays but most notably in “What is Authority?” (1961b/2006).
Underlying Arendt’s analysis of Western modernity is her axiom that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (1959/1998). Arendt disagrees with the view that members of a political community must act in conformity to one another. She recognizes each individual in a political community as unique and having a distinct viewpoint that ought not to be silenced. At the same time, she recognizes that this inescapable plurality translates into the challenge of finding common grounds from which concerted political action can emerge. Previous generations, Arendt points out, were characterized either by greater ethno-cultural homogeneity or a common religion, which provided more common reference points around which people could rally. The multicultural and secular composition of modern Western political communities magnifies the challenge of finding what she calls a “common world.”
Arendt’s concept of “world” is an adaptation of Martin Heidegger’s. Heidegger, her professor at the University of Marburg, used the notion of “world” to refer to humans’ meaningful interpretation of the purely physical environment. An animal interacts with the environment; however, only a human, with his reason and hermeneutic understanding, lives in a world. Heidegger’s image of the world, though, is one where each human encounters the world as an individual perceiving and responding to objects. His criticism of the anonymous “They” [das Man] similarly portrays an individual responding to “the They” that is mass society. Heidegger does not have an image of the world being discussed by a plurality of people. In contrast, this is one of the most memorable images in The Human Condition. Arendt depicts the political realm as a group of people sitting around a table and having a conversation about whatever is on the table. The table and its contents represent the world of common “inter-ests” (Arendt’s play on words that emphasizes that the world is in between people), which each participant looks at from their own unique vantage point.
Arendt’s notion of the world is part of a key distinction that she makes throughout her political thought: the distinction between the political and the social realm. Both the social and the political realm are public. Both of them involve several people rather than just one. How, then, are they different? For Arendt, one of the most important differences between the two is that the social realm tends to be worldless, whereas in the political realm, people are simultaneously related and separated by a world. In the social realm, the basis for commonality is not the world that lies in between people about which they have different viewpoints, but rather, people’s similarities, such as a common ethnicity, a common nationality, or other forms of shared identities. Thus, while the political realm tends to allow plurality to flourish, the social realm tends to encourage sameness.
To return to Arendt’s analysis of modernity: one of the characteristics of modern political communities is the estrangement people feel from the world because of the lack of common reference points. Arendt identifies several additional phenomena that further exacerbate this experience that she calls “world alienation.” Some of these phenomena emanate from structures of authority, such as tyrannical and totalitarian tendencies in politics. Some emanate from the people themselves, such as a fixation on economic rather than political concerns (e.g., as seen in the rise of the consumer society). One of these modern phenomena that she believes worsens the problem of world alienation is the growing skepticism of authority brought about by a greater belief in equality.
Arendt’s understanding of authority stems from her analysis of ancient Roman politics. In Roman politics, authority was vested in an institution, the Senate. The Senate was viewed as the bearer of the founding principles of the political community; it was this characteristic that endowed it with authority. Through this, the Senate grounded the Roman political community and gave it a sense of stability amid the inevitably changing winds of politics. The people obeyed this authority absolutely but also freely and voluntarily, because they recognized and embraced these principles.
In modern times, the source of authentic authority is the rule of law, where law itself – especially in the Constitution, in the case of the United States – emerges as an expression of the founding principles of a political community. The concept of political authority, however, has become confused with tyranny and totalitarianism, where leaders are not subjected to the law and where obedience to leaders often requires coercion. Arendt calls for a re-discernment of the differences among authority, tyranny, and totalitarianism; she advocates a recuperation of authentic authority which connects citizens to the founding principles of their political communities.
For Arendt, the devaluation of authentic authority that characterizes modern political communities is mirrored in the twentieth-century changes in Western (especially American) education. In “The Crisis on Education,” Arendt argues that the progressive education movement has undermined teacher authority. In its attempt to be child-centered, the movement isolates children in a world of their own, separating them from the world and the concerns of adults, and thus damaging the natural relationship between children and adults where children learn from their elders. Additionally, in its emphasis on pedagogical technique rather than content, teacher education further cripples teacher authority by depriving teachers of the expert knowledge from which some of their authority is derived.
Arendt writes that the weakening of teacher authority in schools translates, ironically, into a greater disempowerment of children. Without the experience of measuring their own responses to the authority of the teacher (e.g., learning to rebel or to make conscious decisions to act autonomously from the teacher), pupils later enter the adult world without knowing the push-and-pull of exercising one’s power against the authority of political leaders.
A healthy educational environment, then, is an intergenerational one, where teachers take seriously their primary responsibility, which is to introduce the world and the community’s traditions (i.e., the beliefs, intellectual heritage, and cultural markers) to the next generation. Adults also have the responsibility to protect children, though; therefore, this introduction must be done within the safe boundaries of school, which Arendt envisions as a realm distinct from but not dissociated from the adults’ world of politics. In “Reflections on Little Rock,” she controversially criticizes the American school desegregation movement for the manner in which it thrusts individual children into the public eye, an act which she thinks might harm them. For her, the space of politics is not a safe space for children, even though schools are meant to prepare children for their eventual entry into the political space upon reaching adulthood.
By exercising their authority, teachers help children to balance their innate natality, which in turn helps them learn to become adults. Arendt uses the word “natality” in her works to describe the human capacity to initiate new ventures. While natality belongs to people of all ages, it is exceptionally strong among children, on account of their literal newness in the world. Thus, teachers help children when they exercise their authority, because doing so teaches them to restrain their natality with passivity. Although Arendt does not discuss the concept and value of passivity in great detail, a possible interpretation can be gleaned from the way she contrasts play with work. She describes the uneducated child as one who is naturally preoccupied with play, and the educated adult as one who, having to temper natality with the attitude of passivity, is capable of working. In the history of modern philosophy, work is usually portrayed as the exercise of human agency over the material world. Arendt’s insight here is that work also involves passivity and not merely agency. This makes sense when we see that work is not arbitrary: the form that work takes is also shaped by the material on which we are working. A sculptor cannot do anything he wants with a block of wood; the shape that the sculpture takes is also determined partially by the material itself. This appears to be the element of passivity that is required by work, which contrasts it with the pure agency of play.
Apart from the way the exercise of teacher authority helps the student, Arendt also argues that restoring teacher authority benefits the larger political community. Teacher authority, coupled with an education in the traditions of the political community (i.e., the beliefs, intellectual tradition, and cultural markers of the community), can help protect the political community from the “onslaught” of the younger generation.
Why does the political community need protection from children? Historically, the entry of each new generation who wishes to embark on a novel path has always threatened the continuity of the shared world (the fear of this threat is expressed, for example, by those who worry that younger people are changing the traditional norms of a community). In previous eras, though, children’s natural drive toward novelty was tempered and balanced by their voluntary obedience to authority figures, such as parents, teachers, or religious/political leaders. Modernity’s growing mistrust of authority, however, creates an imbalance that threatens to overwhelm the political community with the newness of the youth.
Arendt believes, then, that the crisis of authority demands a counter-movement. This counter-movement ought to take place, not within the broader political community, where a groundless assertion of authority and tradition may slide down a slippery slope toward coercion and tyranny, but rather, within schools. There, the authority of teachers remains legitimate because of the recognition that children are sent to schools to be educated.
Thus, the school is a place for exercising authority and teaching tradition. The goal of teaching tradition, however, is not to extinguish change. Rather, schools must teach tradition with the recognition that each new generation will inevitably renew the world rather than repeat the past. As Mordechai Gordon (1999) has pointed out, the difference between Arendt and conventional educational conservatives is that Arendt considers the natality of children to be paramount. She recognizes that the next generation might interpret the traditions they are taught in new ways and possibly in ways radically different from previous generations. Moreover, they may collectively decide when they grow up to move the community in an altogether different direction from that of previous generations. The tradition, however, gives the children, as well as the entire political community, a common object to discuss, a common starting point. This is crucial because the presence of a common object makes political discourse possible, even when the parties in the conversation disagree with one another.
In sum, Arendt’s educational thought has a number of significant implications for teacher education. She frames the teacher’s role within the larger political community, presenting the teacher as a representative of all adults therein. She sees the teacher’s main responsibility as one of inducting the children into the intellectual heritage and principles of the community. In relation to this, she criticizes teacher training that focuses on pedagogical techniques and an educational philosophy that equates learning with skills acquisition.
One of the most controversial aspects of Arendt’s writings on education has been her criticism of the school desegregation movement in “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959). In the essay, she disagreed with the call for forced desegregation of schools. Her position was met with strong reactions at the time it was first published, and her argument continues to be both criticized and defended in scholarly journals today. Recent critics of the essay have ranged from those who treat it as an anomaly in her corpus resulting from a blind spot in her philosophy, to those who conclude that her position reveals her racial prejudice. Defenders of the essay have argued that her position about mandatory desegregation has been misunderstood and has called for a more nuanced reading of the text. They emphasize that Arendt did not disagree with the end-goal of racial integration in schools, only with the method of arriving at it.
Another notable criticism that extends beyond her educational work has been her rigid distinction among the private, social, and political realms, and her insistence that schools ought to not be political spaces (a distinction central to her argument against mandatory school desegregation). Many educational scholars otherwise sympathetic to her work have disagreed with Arendt on this point. Such scholars have adopted a looser reading of Arendt, utilizing some of her concepts to further their own arguments without keeping to the strict distinctions she defended in her own philosophical framework.
These criticisms notwithstanding, the educational interest in Arendt’s work seems to be increasing rather than waning. Prominent educational theorists in the last few decades who have drawn heavily on Arendt’s work include Maxine Greene, Gert Biesta, and Jan Masschelein. It has become common in recent years to describe Arendt as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century; no doubt, her influence on the realm of education will continue.
- Arendt, H. (1958/1998). The human condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago.Google Scholar
- Arendt, H. (1959). Reflections on little rock. Dissent, 6(1), 45–46.Google Scholar
- Arendt, H. (1961a/2006). The crisis in education. In Between past and future (Introduction by Jerome Kohn, pp. 170–193). New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
- Arendt, H. (1961b/2006). What is authority? In Between past and future (Introduction by Jerome Kohn, pp. 91–141). New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar