Thinking With Hannah Arendt About Responsibility

What makes 20th-century political theorist Hannah Arendt’s analysis so relevant to our times, and what might educators gain from studying her works?

Since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, references to the writings of the 20th-century political theorist Hannah Arendt have increased. What makes Arendt’s analysis so relevant to our times, and what might educators gain from studying her works? 

A German Jewish intellectual who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, living in France as a stateless refugee before immigrating to the United States in 1941, Arendt wrote about circumstances that crystallized in the rise of totalitarianism. In Origins of Totalitarianism, she identified key conditions: increasing xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism; deep distrust of mainstream parties and an intensified alienation of the “masses” from government; the alarming willingness of large numbers of people to abandon facts or to “escape from reality into fiction;” and an exponential increase in the number of refugees and stateless peoples, coupled with the inadequacy of nation-states to guarantee them rights. Many commentators see parallels between these trends and today’s sociopolitical climate.

In the face of increased hostility and heightened threats to the most marginalized people, educators may find it more difficult to talk about or teach civility, respect and inclusion. According to the Teaching Tolerance report After Election Day, The Trump Effect, 90 percent of educators who responded to a survey reported that school climate has been negatively affected by the 2016 presidential election, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. Eighty percent reported heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students. Pushing past hostility and divisiveness seems more important now than ever. And Arendt’s works, whether read by educators to develop their own thinking and teaching or used as classroom resources, can help with this task.

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it. … 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.

—Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education”

What exactly did Arendt mean by taking responsibility for the world through education? And how can we best prepare children for the task of “renewing a common world”? The National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Arendt, which I direct, provides educators with an opportunity to explore these questions.

Besides deepening our understanding of the history of totalitarianism and examining its contemporary parallels, exploring Arendt’s writings can help foster development of what she called “thinking with an enlarged mentality.” This kind of critical thinking allows the standpoint of others to come into view by cultivating an ability to disengage from narrow self-interest and develop an imaginative engagement of empathy. 

“When I introduce students to themes from the seminar, … the idea that evil is not the devil with horns but ordinary people, caused by the absence of thought,” reported one Georgia AP History teacher, “then a profound air comes into the room; I can feel students actually think.” Learning with Arendt, for this classroom, helped complicate the notion of evil among people. It also emphasized the importance of critical thinking—or its lack—when it comes to how we treat others.

A government teacher in Virginia shared how she overcame her fear of introducing controversial topics after participating in the seminar. She explained how studying Arendt with colleagues from across the country helped her to “think about how to set a discussion and create an environment where all opinions are welcome and so students will also be able to understand the sensitivity of others.”

A California AP Government and History teacher created a multi-week lesson based, in part, on Arendt’s “We Refugees” essay, inviting students to explore the issue of statelessness and learn about the scope of the ongoing refugee crisis and the urgent need for action. A New York teacher developed a course in which students compared the Nuremberg trials in Germany and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

A Texas teacher created a disciplinary literacy program using excerpts from Arendt’s essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem to enable students to develop critical reading, writing and thinking skills. Taking a passage from the essay, the teacher provides students with a list of categories (resistors, participants and humans) to associate with a set of pronouns (I, they, we, our, us) Arendt uses in the passage. The excerpt and activity prompt students to think about individuals’ roles in upholding justice; students consider personal choices.

About the literacy program, the teacher reflects:

[The lesson] gets them to contextualize why people think in a particular way and I always end with that story [from Eichmann in Jerusalem] of the two peasant boys who refused to join the SS [the Schutzstaffel] because they knew what they’d be asked to do. ... Yes, most will conform, but there are those who don’t and if you want to be one of those who don’t conform you have to be a thinker and ... even be willing to make a sacrifice in terms of your own life in the most extreme of circumstances.

As evidenced in these teachers’ work and reflections, thinking with Arendt has helped them bring critical thinking and innovation into their classrooms, professions and lives. As one educator put it, “Arendt helped me see more clearly the moral necessity of thinking through what we are doing.”

Jones is director of the NEH Summer Seminar for Schoolteachers on Hannah Arendt’s Political Theory and author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey With Hannah Arendt.

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