Hannah Arendt on Education

… it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something — the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new

—Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a very versatile thinker, but by no means a philosopher of education. Yet in her article with the ominous title “The Crisis in Education” she says things about education — its meaning and function, what it is and what it certainly is not — that nowadays are very hard to find in educational theory; things about the responsibilities of educators, about the authority of teachers, and about the importance of what today might be called culture-centered education.

For Arendt education in both its informal and formal manifestations is tied to the assumption of a strict and clear difference between children and youngsters on the one hand and adults on the other. Strictly speaking children do not (yet) belong to the world in its fullest and most human manifestation i.e. the political world. They have not (yet) crossed from the private or pre-political realm of the family and the neighborhood to the greater world of conflicting interests, opinions, and meanings that make deliberation, exchange, debate and decision-making (however temporarily) possible and necessary.

In order to enter this world children and youngsters have to learn a lot, they have to get acquainted with the world. In Arendt’s words: they have to be ‘introduced’ into this world, and education’s prime task is to take care of this. By setting up an educational system, by establishing schools, a community takes care to introduce the new generation into the world. This takes place by the careful selection and presentation — or rather re-presentation — of important cultural goods to this newcomers, including of course a language, a math’s system, and many facts and insights that make up the curriculum of the school.

It is important to note that the difference between the presentation and the re-presentation of culture is, ever since Comenius in the seventeenth century gave us his Orbis sensualium pictus or Picture-book of the world, constitutive for what schools do. Things of the world always come in represented form in school: a picture of a cow, a film on water management, a newspaper clip on the fires in Canada. Although Arendt does not mention Comenius, she reasons along similar lines: ‘… school in a sense represents the world, although it is not yet actually the world’ (p. 185).

School is an intermediary between the oikos, the family and the household, and the larger society or ‘world’ in which the older generation assumes responsibility, not only for the children and youngsters under their care, but also for the world. Arendt is harsh on educators who do not wish to carry these responsibilities: ‘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’ (p. 186). I think this statement not only applies to Arendt’s well-known ‘love of the world’ (amor mundi) in general but also and more particular to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes we want our children and students to find ‘desirable’.

If what we teach them has no value for us, why would it have any value for them? I think Arendt makes us aware of the importance for teachers to believe in what they do, in what they stand for — their ethos, not only as an individual teacher but also as a member of a team of teachers, and as responsible and involved citizens. Still, Arendt gives another clue to why education is, to her worry, in crisis, and that is the steady disappearance of (educational) authority. A curriculum that is full of traditions, however, needs teacher authority to be implemented and its contents to be acquired by the students. I do not believe Arendt herself wanted to ‘go back’ to the authoritarian authority that once ruled the school system, however she is not clear in what kind of authority we need instead. My own idea is that in our time we are in need of ‘dialogical authority’ (my term, and certainly not Arendt’s) by which is meant that we continuously engage in debate and conversation with our students about the situation at hand and about the positions of the participants in it. This makes it possible to keep the distinction between a parent and a child, or between a teacher and a student while at the same time making it possible for everyone to acknowledge the other in that position. This mutual recognition, to my mind, is the starting point for every form of learning that strives to be meaningful.

As stated earlier Arendt makes a sharp distinction between children and adults and their respective worlds. In accord with this is her statement that ‘we must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life …’ (p. 192). Although I take this to be a relevant and incisive plea not to have politics interfere in matters educational (we hear the echo of Arendt’s Little Rock reflections), I also think it’s naive to suppose that ‘politics’ — in the broad sense that Arendt herself attaches to this concept — can and should somehow be kept outside of the school building. For two reasons: one, children and students (and teachers, and parents) take politics with them into school; and second, don’t we want children and students to deliberate, exchange knowledge, insights and opinions, investigate, experiment and think? This is of course a rhetorical question, for these activities constitute core elements of any curriculum that takes itself seriously, and transcend a mere ‘work’ quality. It’s what education and growing up are all about. This, on the other hand, does not mean that everything should be allowed to come into our schools, and/or be part of the curriculum. Here, again, come teacher authority and teacher responsibility, and the ethos of the school as a whole into play. They need to answer the pressing question: what do we think of value to (re)present to our children? What do we allow into the classroom, because it is meaningful and can induce growth in our students, and what should be kept out?

So: not a ‘divorce’, but a filter, based upon firm convictions about what is needed for the new generation. It is Arendt’s great merit to have sharpened our idea about what education stands for: to introduce children and youngers into the world, by — to use another of her great metaphors — seating them around ‘the table of the world’ on which meaningful and exciting things are (re)presented, and having them look, listen, feel, and use all their senses so that they may construct their own particular view of the world, and appear in it.


Joop Berding (1954) from The Netherlands is a philosopher of education, and a former assistant professor at Rotterdam University of Applied Science. His latest books on Arendt (in Dutch) are about her outlook on education, and on professionalism in education, care and welfare. More on his website www.joopberding.nl (with an English page).


The Quote of the Week is a feature of Amor Mundi, a weekly publication by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens of a scholar.

The Hannah Arendt Center

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The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens of a scholar.

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