Arendts concerns in 1950s America are still being reflected in today’s debates on education reform
It is sometimes thought that the idea that there is a crisis in education began when Tony Blair and New Labour said that the priorities of the government were education, education education. Or was it Callaghan’s Ruskin speech? But the sense that our education system is in permanent crisis clearly goes back many years, both here and in the States. Take a look at “The Crisis in Education” by Hannah Arendt (1954) which attacks various assumptions underpinning what she termed progressive education. She began her essay ‘The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms. In America, one of its most characteristic and suggestive aspects is the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become’ .Plus ca Change. Arendt writes ‘Though the crisis in education may affect the whole world, it is characteristic that we find its most extreme form in America, the reason being that perhaps only in America could a crisis in education actually become a factor in politics.’ With the benefit of hindsight How wrong was she on that score ! Politics and education go hand in hand. Arendt accepts that politicians influenced by among others the thinking of Rousseau, use education as an instrument of politics, and political activity itself was conceived of as a form of education. Arendt claimed that in the 1920s and 1930s ‘The significant fact is that for the sake of certain theories, good or bad, all the rules of sound human reason were thrust aside’. Common sense disappeared in the name of ‘ progressive education’. She wrote ‘nowhere have the education problems of a mass society become so acute, and nowhere else have the most modern theories in the realm of pedagogy been so uncritically and slavishly accepted. Thus the crisis in American education, on the one hand, announces the bankruptcy of progressive education and, on the other, presents a problem of immense difficulty because it has arisen under the conditions and in response to the demands of a mass society’.
These ruinous measures in education can be schematically traced back to three basic assumptions, all of which are ‘only too familiar’, she posits . The first is that there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. But Arendt says ‘the line drawn between children and adults should signify that one can neither educate adults nor treat children as though they were grown up; but this line should never be permitted to grow into a wall separating children from the adult community as though they were not living in the same world and as though childhood were an autonomous human state, capable of living by its own laws.’
The second ‘ruinous’ assumption has to do with teaching. She wrote ‘ Under the influence of modern psychology and the tenets of pragmatism, pedagogy has developed into a science of teaching in general in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual 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.’ This ,he says, has resulted in recent decades in’ a most serious neglect of the training of teachers in their own subjects, especially in the public high schools. Since the teacher does not need to know his own subject, it not infrequently happens that he is just one hour ahead of his class in knowledge. ( ie the antithesis of the teacher as a scholar). This in turn means not only that the students are actually left to their own resources but that the most legitimate source of the teacher’s authority as the person who, turn it whatever way one will, still knows more and can do more than oneself is no longer effective.’ One can see these themes resonating through the recent arguments here about core knowledge and the curriculum reforms and Gove’s focus on the reform of ITT and the Blob dominating the education establishment. We also see many of today’s arguments about what a child needs to know in the third assumption. Arendt writes ‘the third basic assumption in our context, an assumption which the modern world has held for centuries and which found its systematic conceptual expression in pragmatism. This basic assumption is that you can know and understand only what you have done yourself, and its application to education is as primitive as it is obvious: to substitute, insofar as possible, doing for learning. The reason that no importance was attached to the teacher’s mastering his own subject was the wish to compel him to the exercise of the continuous activity of learning so that he would not, as they said, pass on “dead knowledge” but, instead, would constantly demonstrate how it is produced. The conscious intention was not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill, and the result was a kind of transformation of institutes for learning into vocational institutions which have been as successful in teaching how to drive a car or how to use a typewriter or, even more important for the “art” of living, how to get along with other people and to be popular, as they have been unable to make the children acquire the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum.’ Does this Ring any bells when one looks at today’s debates on education reforms ? I think so.
Arendt concludes that ‘The present crisis in America (ie in 1950s) results from the recognition of the destructiveness of these basic assumptions and a desperate attempt to reform the entire educational system, that is, to transform it completely. ‘