Wayne Veck, Helen M. Gunter (Eds.): Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times

Julien Kloeg

Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis Book Cover Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis
Wayne Veck, Helen M. Gunter (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £81.00

Reviewed by: Julien Kloeg (Erasmus University College)

Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis (ed. W. Veck & H. Gunter) is an edited collection which seeks to connect the thought of Hannah Arendt to education in the broadest possible sense. There are nine chapters in total, plus an extensive introduction that extensively prepares the themes considered in the book and a conclusion that takes stock of what has been achieved. Contributions cover a wide range. As the title suggests, there are interventions that are mostly practical in nature. Critical discussions of privatization in education (Gunter, chapter 5) and ‘Holocaust education’ (Morgan, chapter 7) are examples of this practical orientation. On the other, more theoretical end of the spectrum stand considerations on the notion of educational authority (Berkowitz, chapter 1) and the promise of narrative imagination in connection with the work of Paul Ricoeur (Dillabough, chapter 4). The volume as a whole is structured by the idea that we can today legitimately speak of “not only a crisis in education, but rather about the crisis of education”, which “encompasses the entire public realm” and thus creates “an existential crisis for the very idea of public education itself” (3). A sense of discomfort at the disorientation of adults, a general disconnect from the world, and the aforementioned privatization agenda pervades the volume. The public prominence of the likes of Greta Thunberg (1) and Malala Yousafzai (155) are included as convincing examples of admirable public action which is itself however a ‘symptom’:

“Nothing (…) could speak more loudly of the shunning of adult responsibility to the young than the situation in which newcomers feel themselves left with no other recourse than to take up responsibility for safeguarding the earth” (1).

But why is Arendt’s perspective the one that is chosen to explore this crisis of education? Arendt wrote two essays devoted to education, which means that from an exegetical perspective education plays a relatively minor role in her work. In the conclusion, the editors state the other structuring thought of the volume: of primary importance are Arendt’s “broader insights into the public realm that help educators and researchers to think about the purposes of education” (151). The typical approach of the contributions is thus as follows: first, a theme from Arendt’s writing on education is selected (authority, renewing the world, pearl-diving) and then, second, connected to more ‘mainstream’ writings by Arendt, mostly her political writings but also for instance her final, unfinished work The Life of the Mind (1977). Third, the elaborated theme is then either connected to a current challenge to education or put to the test on a conceptual level, depending on the practical/theoretical orientation of the chapter.

This three-step could have been a formulaic approach, but in truth this almost never shows. The only exception is the tendency of each author to once more explain Arendt’s The Crisis in Education (1954), which of her two essays on education is the main one that is referred to. The second, Reflections on Little Rock (1959), is controversial and does not receive as much attention in the volume – although Berkowitz (Chapter 1), Baluch (Chapter 2), and Nixon (Chapter 3) provide varying and thought-provoking evaluations of the latter. The editors seem to have avoided repetition with respect to themes from The Crisis in Education as much as possible, and the different emphases and points of departure of the contributions also mean that even when similar fragments from Arendt are selected, they are put to different uses. The only alternative seems to be to offer a ‘shared interpretation’ in the introduction, which contributors can then simply refer to – but this would somewhat break the integrity of the individual contributions. It thus seems that in volumes such as this one it is the nature of Arendt’s work itself that necessitates a certain level of ‘setting up’ and thus repetition. Future volumes would do well to follow the approach taken by the editors of Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times.

The second step, which connects Arendt’s writing on education to her other writings, sees the contributors relate to a wide variety of Arendtian themes and writings. Popular choices in the volume are The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958) and The Life of the Mind. This broadly reflects the general orientation of the volume: respectively the threat of the closure and destruction of the public sphere, Arendt’s technical notions of action and the world, and imagination, thinking and judgment. Still, the range of the references is impressive, featuring both the most well-known titles but also various more ‘minor’ writings. The references are laid out in a highly accessible fashion, following Bowring’s use of abbreviations of Arendt’s titles. This is clearly a good choice. At a few points in the volume references are made to entire works. When contributors simply refer to ‘(OT; HC)’, which happens in some of the chapters, one does wonder whether a more specific support for the contributors’ claim about Arendt would not have been preferable. In part this is perhaps a trade-off: the sheer inclusiveness of the volume with respect to Arendt’s work means that some ideas are not discussed in full. As a result of the wide range of works that is discussed, the volume has the considerable advantage that it can serve as an introduction to many of Arendt’s writings, for readers with an educational interest but also more generally for those interested in Arendt’s work as it speaks to our times. Authority in the Twentieth Century (1956) and Elemente und ursprünge totaler Herrschaft (1955) could have been consulted and Arendt’s doctoral thesis on Love and Saint Augustine (1929) is used quite sparsely considering the importance of Augustine for Arendt’s notions of action, temporality, and newcomers – all of which are important to the volume. Still, these are minor comments which reflect a specific approach to Arendt’s oeuvre. The volume breathes Arendtian scholarship throughout and on top of that makes Arendt highly relevant to current thinking about education. This is to be commended.

The third step takes us from Arendt on education and her other work to either a theoretical or practical area of interest where the Arendtian perspective on education is fully realized. Before we consider the success of this third step, we should reflect on the theoretical/practical continuum itself and the role it plays in the volume. The nine contributions are organized thematically in three parts of three chapters each: The Promise of Education, Education and Crisis, and Education for Love of the World. The three parts are set up dialectically: the first part “brings together new insights into the depth and complexity of Arendt’s thinking about and for education and its promise” (8), which then paves the way for reflections on the current crisis of education (3) in the second part through the perspective of “various social crises” (8). The final section is focuses on “prospects for education” (8). Much of the introduction is devoted to showing how the individual contributions fit into this thematic organization – however, the volume’s contents protest its dialectics. The contribution by Nixon (Chapter 3) in effect combines all three themes, reflecting on populism before connecting elements of Arendt’s ‘educational’ forays to possible strategies to move beyond today’s ‘dark times’. The following contribution by Dillabough (Chapter 4) indicates in its title that education theorizing is at stake, and does not connect to ‘social crises’ in the way Gunter (Chapter 5) does in connection to privatization in education, or in the way that Gunter (Chapter 6) does in connection to the education of refugee children. Chapters 5 and 6 do fit excellently. Whereas Nixon’s contribution seems to straddle the divides between the three parts, Dillabough’s contribution simply does not feel at home in the most practically oriented part of the volume. The third part is thematically the most open-ended and this is born out by the contributions: from ‘Holocaust education’ (Morgan, chapter 7), a comparison between Dewey and Arendt on the topic of their respective institutional-democratic proposals (Schutz, chapter 8), and, closing out the book, a reflection on Arendt’s notion of thinking and its connection to an educational perspective on her work (Duarte, chapter 9). There is thus more variety to the volume than it seemed to want to allow itself. This warrants a short discussion of the individual contributions.

The first chapter is by Roger Berkowitz, who is among other distinctions the academic director of the Hannah Arendt center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. His contribution reengages with the notion of authority, which is central to Arendt’s work on education and is also part of her history of politics. Berkowitz convincingly problematizes Arendt’s view of education as taking place within the private sphere, while also showing the power of her educational thought without avoiding Reflections on Little Rock. The political aspect of authority is not really considered as such; nor is there a consideration of earlier work on educational authority by Mordechai Gordon, which is mentioned in the introduction to the volume. However, the reflection on the importance of privacy adds to both educational and political considerations of Arendt’s work and sets up a valuable notion of public education.

Faisal Baluch, who is a versatile political scientist, reflects on education and temporality. He uses the notion of ‘thinking with Arendt against Arendt’ (Sayla Benhabib) to unravel the interdependency between Arendt’s notion of education and her notion of the political, keeping in mind Arendt’s own “method of reading” (32). This methodological exploration is both interesting and convincing. The interdependency between education and the political is based on Arendt’s notion of temporality, according to Baluch. As above, Gordon’s work would have been a useful reference point; this is also where a reflection on Arendt’s Augustinian notion of time would have added further depth to the text. The argument itself is philosophically inspired and may make readers wish for a more long-form reflection.

Rounding off the first part is John Nixon’s chapter on worldliness and education in a world of difference. This is in part a continuation of Nixon’s project in Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship (2015), one that in this volume is focused on the ‘dark times’ we live in and what this should mean for how we think about education. Important to this consideration is the threat of populism, which is mentioned at other points in the volume as well but here receives theoretical treatment – discussions of populism in other contributions can be overly general, which comes with the risk that the victory achieved by educational theory against populism is based on a strawman fallacy. In Nixon’s contribution populism is approached through the work of Jan-Werner Müller. Here, too, however, one may wonder whether this solves the problem completely. Müller’s work, while highly influential, offers a normative description of populism that does not sit well with Arendtian distinctions between morality and politics – and there are independent philosophical reasons to be critical of such a description as well. Here it shows that Arendtian notions of education and Arendt’s insight in public concerns more generally often intersect and interact with each other. Nixon’s educational answer to the threat of dark times itself is very interesting: he proposes to view education as a protected space devoted to and supportive of thoughtfulness, always in close connection with the world as it really is. This combines insights by Arendt on various topics, in various works, to produce a true synthesis.

The fourth chapter is by Jo-Anne Dillabough, who has researched a wide variety of topics related to youth culture and education, with a continued engagement with Arendt’s work. Using Ricoeur’s work, she argues for a notion of selfhood between self and other and shows how this links up naturally with Arendtian notions such as the plurality of public space. Dillabough suggests that ‘seeing each other as ethically meaningful’ requires a storied and interconnected rather than an isolated self. Education, then, is at its most powerful when it “moves us beyond ourselves precisely for the sake of others, and in the name of others” – and this again is connected to the Arendtian theme of the primary importance of action rather than the actor (78). Dillabough’s contribution, by adopting this perspective, also provides a strong argument against a bureaucratized notion of education “in the name of endless and perilous competition” (ibid). As indicated above, it is not clear that this chapter concerns ‘social crises’. Dillabough’s reflections on the ‘storied self’ and the way this is implied positively and negatively in different ways of thinking about education are highly memorable. It would be interesting to reflect more on the relationship between Berkowitz’ contribution, which insists on the ‘darkness’ of individual subjects, and this account of selfhood: this is simultaneously to ask to what extent – or perhaps in what sense – this account of selfhood remains Arendtian.

The two remaining contributions are by the editors – Helen Gunter writes on privatization and education policy, and Wayne Veck on providing education to refugee children. Both have written extensively on theory and philosophy of education as well as educational policy. These chapters are clearly the most practical in nature, addressing specific societal concerns and seeking to apply Arendt’s thought – not in order to generate clear-cut answers, but in order to offer another way of thinking about them. Gunter zooms into UK educational policy relevant to English schools and how its ‘privatism’ is depoliticized by references to biological determinism and eugenics, which she likens in Arendtian terms to the crystallization of totalitarian conditions (91-92). For Gunter, this has implications for social scientists who should avoid “becoming trapped by their own ideas” (79; 159) by seeing the “rationality in the segregation and disposability of children” and teachers, but instead should “challenge the attack on humanity” (92). All in all, this is a passionate knock-down argument against an entrenched normality, which could draw even more from The Origins of Totalitarianism than it currently does: for instance, related to the importance of the appeal to ‘anonymous’ forces such as History. Veck, in his own chapter, argues against ‘merely compensatory’ approaches to educating refugee children. Said children are ‘newcomers’ in a double sense and thus pose particularly pressing questions both of education and of the responsibility of educators (95). Here Arendt’s distinction between responsibility for the life of the child and responsibility for the education of the new person to orient them in a world that is not theirs is crucial. Approaches to the education of refugee children focus on the former at the expense of the latter, Veck convincingly argues; whereas refugee children, perhaps even more than other children, need to be introduced to the world as theirs. This enrooting in the world can take place precisely by allowing refugee children to withdraw from it at school, offering time and space for solitude (as opposed to loneliness, in Arendt’s technical sense) which allows “thinking and remembering” (105). This at the same time provides a powerful argument against narratives of assimilation. The contributions by Gunter and Veck are both exemplary applications of Arendt to pressing ‘social crises’, with Veck’s chapter especially demonstrating the sheer power of Arendt’s work, creating a new and forceful argument out of positions taken from different (sometimes less well-known) texts.

The third and final part starts with a reflection on ‘Holocaust education’ by Marie Morgan, who like Veck works at the University of Winchester and has written influentially on Post-Holocaust Jewish thought in America. Teaching on the Holocaust has difficult dimensions: disrupting and being disrupted is important, but in considering the Holocaust we are confronted with unimaginable suffering. Does this fit the protective environment of the school? Morgan shows how the freedom of the newcomer is not compromised by being exposed to suffering we may never understand, but rather enabled; but also that this makes the position of the educator particularly difficult, and that high demands are placed on his/her own ability to be at home in the world.  The chapter is also instructive for the continuity it establishes between ‘the political’ and ‘the educational’, in the face of the threat posed by totality.

Aaron Schutz, in the penultimate chapter of the book, draws on his research into theories of democratic education in schools and collective action for social change. His contribution can be construed as a reflection on the relationship between those two fields. Schutz uses John Dewey and then Arendt as his guides, even though the questions relevant to the two thinkers are in fact different, as Dewey is interested in outcomes and Arendt in action as such. The central question is: how does small-scale collaborative democracy in the style of what Schutz calls ‘classroom democracy’ translate to institutional politics on a larger scale? Here lies the problem with what Jane Mansbridge termed the ‘paradox of size’. Dewey did not solve the problem of ‘the public’ to his own satisfaction; Arendt can be usefully seen as carrying forward the discussion in a different, more inherently democratic, way. Schutz, with James Muldoon, offers the democratic council system praised in Arendt’s On Revolution as a “proof of concept” for the requirements Arendt poses for politics in terms of the participation of each unique voice in the public realm (132). Schutz gives the Deweyan perspective further importance by using it to reflect on potential shortcomings of a council system. This chapter provides a very insightful piece of analysis of the requirements and accompanying difficulties besetting a truly ‘public’ form of politics.

In the final contribution, Eduardo Duarte, who is well-known for philosophical work on education and musicality, unearths deep philosophical roots for Arendt’s “almost dialectical” note on schools in The Crisis in Education: “the function of the school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (137). These roots reach back to ancient philosophy in an attempt to reconstruct the ontological meaning of the common world for Arendt. Epictetus stands for the art of living, in the Stoic mold, and Heraclitus stands for teaching what the world is like. The Stoic starts with powerlessness in the face of inexorable Logos which leads to “passivity and fatalism” (147), whereas Arendt, as quote by Duarte, sounds a Heraclitian note: “For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality” (136). The repair and renewal of the world is thus a mimesis of the ever-changingness and permanent flux of the world on an ontological level, and that helps us to understand Arendt’s somewhat puzzling remarks about the out-of-jointness of the world. While it may be too much “to recognize in the Stoic sophos the prototype of the banality of evil” (147), which according to Duarte is not difficult to do, the ancient philosophical positions brought in to bear witness to Arendtian themes succeed in their purpose overall. While Duarte makes the clearest reference to Augustine in the volume, here too one wonders to what extent it is the Augustinian influence that makes itself felt, either directly or via criticism of his works.

In the conclusion (‘The promise of education revisited’), the editors return to the “themes that have shaped the essays” in the volume (151). This is structured by the idea of the ‘promise of education’, which was also the first theme of the volume. It thus seems that the reflections on social crises and love of the world have enriched the theoretical material out of which an Arendtian approach to education can be constructed: they jointly form an account of the “reality, potential and challenges” of and to the promise of education (152). The conclusion provides a summary of the preceding positions and debates and ends on a call for thoughtful research.

Many enduring lessons are on offer in this volume, which advances Arendtian scholarship as well as educational thought, and itself embodies the thoughtful research it calls out for. There is still much exploring to be done, of course, but the intention of the book was never to provide the final word on issues of education. All contributions are just that – solid contributions that clearly show the continued importance of Arendt in our day and age. It establishes, among other things, the importance and the problematic nature of authority, the interconnection between education, politics and the public realm, and the idea of thoughtfulness in education secured by a protective space of solitude in which to think and remember. Above we have already expressed the view that the reflections on populism in this volume do not yet rise to the challenge of the current ‘populist moment’, in Chantal Mouffe’s term. In addition, it is surprising that, in a volume that opens with a discussion of Greta Thunberg, climate change is only listed as an example along with other examples. Especially in terms of education in (response to) a crisis, one would perhaps expect a more sustained reflection on climate change education ‘with and against Arendt’, for instance in terms of her notions of world and earth. While these are critical remarks, it is always a good sign when new scholarship leaves the reader not only happy to have encountered it, but also wanting more.

Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis makes a solid contribution to a research agenda that is theoretically promising and at the same time remains in touch with some of the most pressing problems of our age. It is an important document for anyone interested in Arendtian perspectives on education, and for many others, too.

Leave a Reply