The Crisis in Education: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Education

The focus of this essay/thinking exercise, Chapter 5 in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, is the crisis of education in America. This she says has become an important factor in politics (incomparably more important than in other countries), because of the difficulty of ‘melting together’ diverse ethnic groups, which can only be accomplished through schooling, so that English, and what it means to be an American, can be learned by all groups. In America education is seen as a political activity to make a better world, but Arendt thinks this is dangerous and that education should be kept separate from politics.

“Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity [i.e. wants to brainwash them – see Chapter 3, What is Authority?]. Since one cannot educate adults, the word “education” has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretence of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force.”(p.173/4)

Arendt starts this chapter by writing:

“… no great imagination is required to detect the dangers of a constantly progressing decline of elementary standards throughout the entire school system.” (p.170)

She connects the crisis of education to the crisis of authority, which she has written about in Chapter 3 under the title ‘What is Authority?’ and also to the loss of tradition, which she writes about in Chapter 1, ‘Tradition and the Modern Age’.

“The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” (p.191)

“That means, however, that not just teachers and educators, but all of us, in so far as we live in one world together with our children and with young people, must take toward them an attitude radically different from the one we take toward one another. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.” (p.191/2)

In addition to authority and tradition, Arendt also thinks equality is an important issue in American education. She points out that the UK system of education as meritocracy leads to an oligarchy. This she says contradicts the principle of equality, but, she writes, equality can only be achieved at the cost of teachers’ authority and the progress of gifted students (p.177).

According to Arendt there have been three basic assumptions, all connected to the loss of authority, that have led to the crisis.

  1. That there exists a child’s world in which children are autonomous. Arendt says that children cannot be autonomous, either from the adult world, or from their own group.
  2. Teaching is emancipated from the material to be taught. “A teacher, so it was thought, is a man who can simply teach anything; his training is in teaching, not in the mastery of any particular subject.” (p.179).
  3. You can know and understand only what you have done yourself, and as such, doing is substituted for learning, and the inculcation of skills is considered more important than the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum.

All of this raises two questions for Arendt.

  • What is the essence of education?
  • What is the true reason for the abandonment of common sense in education? i.e. that we know what we are teaching.

Arendt writes that education is about the world and education is about life.

“Thus the child, the subject of education, has for the educator a double aspect: he is new in the world that is strange to him and he is in the process of becoming, he is a new human being and he is a becoming human being. This double aspect is by no means self-evident and it does not apply to the animal forms of life; it corresponds to a double relationship, the relationship to the world on the one hand and to life on the other.” (p.182)

Educators cannot be non-authoritarian. They must protect the life of the child and protect the humanly built world. Their qualification is to know the world and to take responsibility for it, such that they allow young people to grow into the world and renew and change it, but also such that they protect the world. Education should in some sense be conservative (in the sense of conservation); it should cherish and protect “the child against the world, and the world against the child, the new against the old, and the old against the new.” (p.188)

The essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world (p.171). Each new generation grows into an old world, that already exists, and it is the role of teachers to prepare children for the world of the adult, when they will be responsible for changing the world. But children are not just undersized adults. The focus should be on teaching about the world as it is,  in all its plurality, rather than what we want it to be. Children should not be indoctrinated. Education should be both conservative (conserving the world as it is) and revolutionary (allowing for change and the new).

“Education is the point at which we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young would be inevitable.

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.” (p.193)


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

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3 thoughts on “The Crisis in Education: Hannah Arendt

  1. jennymackness January 18, 2021 / 1:31 pm

    @juandoming has posted this comment on Twitter:

    “Completamente e n desacuerdo ya que quitar ala autonomía de los estudiante y abogar el aumento de la autoridad de los docentes nos hace entrar en un bucle de regreso al pasado”

    …. which I translate to mean that he completely disagrees with the idea of taking away student autonomy and advocating for increased teacher authority. This he sees as taking us back to the past.

    I think this is just the sort of comment that Arendt would welcome. She wants us to think about the questions she raises, but my perspective is that this comment is a misunderstanding of what Arendt was trying to discuss. I take full responsibility for this, as I know that I have not done justice to her essay in this one short post.

    My understanding is that Arendt wanted us to learn from the past – hence her essays on the ‘Concept of History, Ancient and Modern’ and ‘Tradition and the Modern Age’ (see previous posts, but better still read the essays in her book ‘Between Past and Future’. She wanted us to use the past to inform the future. At the very least she wanted us to think in the gap between past and future, and to weigh up the alternative perspectives.

    But she has neither said that she wants to take away student autonomy, nor does she advocate for increased teacher authority. What she does say is laid out in Section II of her essay, p.177- 181.

    To take the question of authority first, Arendt is considering the loss of authority that a teacher gains through knowledge of his/her subject. Writing in the 1954, Arendt is dismayed by the view that “A teacher… is a man who can simply teach anything; his training is in teaching, not in the mastery of any particular subject”. This she writes, led to a loss of teacher authority. We should remember that Arendt was writing specifically about American education, but this was a view that I encountered here in the UK when I was a teacher trainer 20 years ago.

    We should also remember that Arendt had a particular perspective on the meaning of authority – see previous post on What is authority? where I wrote: “For her [Arendt] authority does not mean being forced, persuaded or compelled to accept a situation as authentic and undisputable, but instead we obey and accept authority because we freely desire to do so. For Arendt, authority does not require coercion and does not involve violence.” Arendt does not see authority as negative.

    Arendt also thinks of autonomy in a particular way. She is not advocating taking away student autonomy. She is talking specifically about children, and saying that autonomy is simply not a possibility for them, because if they are emancipated from the authority of adults, then they are subject to the even more tyrannical authority of the child group. She writes on p.178

    “Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subject to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee to any other world because the world of adults is barred to them. The reaction of the children to this pressure tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency, and is frequently a mixture of both.”

    What I took from this essay, as a whole, is that teachers have to think very carefully about what is their responsibility, both to the child and to the world, and that includes thinking about what we understand by authority and autonomy.

    Many thanks to @juandoming for his thought-provoking comment on Twitter.

  2. authorbengarrido March 21, 2022 / 12:54 pm

    This is excellent. Thank you very much.

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