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Children and the world

Research associates reflections by Hannah Arendt on education with concepts from her political writings

German philosopher attends a 1969 lecture in New York: critique of the U.S. educational system

Neal Boenzi/New York Times Co./Getty Images German philosopher attends a 1969 lecture in New York: critique of the U.S. educational systemNeal Boenzi/New York Times Co./Getty Images

German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906 to 1975) wrote only one essay about education in the midst of her eminently political body of works. The text, entitled “The crisis in education” (1958), published in Brazil in 1974 in the book Entre o passado e o futuro (Between the past and the future), challenges the educational guidelines that were believed to be the most advanced at the time by pedagogues and educators in the United States, where Arendt was living. She intentionally set out on the opposite track from prevailing thought when she advocated an educational system that would not place the highest importance on practice but rather move toward the task of presenting children with a cultural legacy of historical achievements. “The philosopher shows us that changing methods does not solve the problem of education unless there is a discussion about its very substance,” explains Celso Lafer, professor emeritus of the School of Law at the University of São Paulo (USP) and former president of FAPESP.

“The function of a school is to teach children what the world is like, not to instruct them in the art of living,” Arendt wrote in an excerpt from the essay, referring to the New School movement, in which American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was the most important figure. That educational line of thought became known for recommending “lifelong learning.” According to Professor Carlota Boto from the School of Education at USP (FE-USP), “Arendt’s essay is an important reference because of her criticism of fads in education and because it pointed out some mistakes that were in vogue, such as attaching value in the classroom only to what the children themselves created.”

The essay by the German philosopher poses several challenges. “The reflections on education are intricate and assume that the reader is reasonably familiar with the complex fabric she uses in her political writings,” says José Sergio Fonseca de Carvalho, a FE-USP professor. Investigating such relationships in the author’s works and thus more fully understanding her thoughts about education has been the focus of Carvalho’s studies for 15 years. The most recent study, his postdoctoral thesis Educação: uma herança sem testamento (Education: a legacy without a will) (2013), will come out in book form under the same title early in 2017, published by Perspectiva. “My thesis does not try to offer technical solutions but rather to question the very raison d’être of the educational process,” says Carvalho in a comment consistent with the statement by Arendt that the relationship between children and adults “must not be restricted to the science of pedagogy alone,” because “it pertains to everyone.”

In attempting to arrive at a deeper understanding of the dichotomy between the concepts of world and life presented by Arendt in “The crisis in Education,” Carvalho found the distinction between public and private domains in works by Arendt such as The Human Condition (1958) and O que é politica? [What is Politics?] (1955). In the private realm, among the tasks in child raising is handling the activities associated with survival and maintaining life while schools perform the function of immortalizing and overcoming an inheritance received from the world. “To Hannah Arendt, that is how training and the educational experience become meaningful in the public realm, not through the preparation of individuals for integration into the economy,” Carvalho explains. According to Maria Helena Patto from the USP Institute of Psychology, who specializes in school psychology, at that point in the text Arendt argues that the task of adapting to society, which schools very often assume to be their duty, “is more deformation than formation.”

Class in a São Paulo school: adults must transmit the legacy of humanity

Leo Ramos Class in a São Paulo school: adults must transmit the legacy of humanityLeo Ramos

Arendt rejected the idea of education provided in the service of any political purpose. “She denounced the instrumentalization of education to suit political purposes and the idea that it is up to the educators to prepare children for a pre-defined idea of citizenship,” says Yara Frateschi, a professor in the Philosophy Department of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) (IFCH-Unicamp). “That can always hide a desire to take the possibility of creating something new out of the hands of new generations.”

The crisis in education referred to in the title of the essay does not necessarily result in a disaster, as the philosopher warns in her text. Crises, she wrote, are situations in which society loses sight of the answers that had been accepted previously, but without realizing what the questions were that prompted those responses. This means, says Carvalho, that the “modern world does not stand firmly behind tradition or authority, two elements that, according to Arendt, education absolutely cannot do without.” According to the philosopher, crises force us to go back to the original questions. The complexity of the situation in contemporary education, she says, is that it represents a prolonging of a “crisis in the modern world.” Frateschi explains that such loss of tradition is a concern of Arendt provoked by the impact of her studies on Nazi-Fascist totalitarianism. “Her work is a tireless search for the motives that had led humanity to a degree of barbarity that none of the available theoretical resources are sufficient to explain,” the researcher says.

The world to which the philosopher refers in her essay does not correspond to planet Earth, nor even to the public sphere by mere contrast with the private realm. “More than anything else, it is a creation of the human artifice, a legacy to which recent arrivals must be initiated by education,” Carvalho explains. During the educational process, that initiation will cause the public legacy to become each child’s own legacy “transforming what belongs to him by right into something that belongs to him in fact.”

One concept from Arendt’s body of work linked to her notion of school is that of amor mundi (love of the world), which she developed from her doctoral dissertation on the idea of love in the philosophy of St. Augustine (354-430), defended at Heidelberg University (Germany) in 1928. Love of the world is what is expected of educators when they transmit and accept responsibility for the human legacy. According to Carvalho, this has three implications: sharing the appreciation for humanity’s effort to immortalize its mortal existence; creating the sensation of belonging; and welcoming children to a world “in which they feel comfortable, but not overly so.” The “overly so” is said to produce an uncomfortableness that is the engine that propels people to action, even revolutionary actions.

088_Educacao_01_247_altaLeo RamosIn order to achieve the inclusion of children in a world for which they cannot yet take responsibility, it is vital that adults take the reins, both in and out of school. “Even if they don’t like the world the way it is, adults must not, in performing their educational task, give up being responsible for it as a legacy,” says Carvalho. “If we do not have roots in the past, which is what defines our humanity, we will be shallow beings who live only in the present, as merely cogs in a wheel.”

About that mission, Arendt writes that “education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” Such responsibility is necessary because, according to the philosopher, the world belongs not to children, but to adults. “She argues that a group of children left on their own, to do whatever they want, creates a tyranny of the many over the few, and bullying is a clear example of this,” says Lafer.

Carvalho believes there is the notion of natality, which lies at the heart of education’s dynamic role in human history, was also developed by Arendt from St. Augustine and is present in her book The Human Condition. “To Arendt, the meaning and nature of education stem from the fact that the birth of each child represents simultaneously the presence of a new being in the circle of life as well as a new being in the world of men,” Carvalho says. The simultaneity can be divided, in light of Arendt’s thought, into two moments: biological birth and birth to the world, the latter being a function of the school.

Hannah Arendt proposed a radical separation between the domains of education and politics. “She maintained that education is an integral part of a pre-political realm because of its duty to safeguard new beings from assuming a responsibility for the world that they are not yet able to assume,” explains Adriano Correia Silva, a professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). As a consequence, the philosopher asserted that “we must protect the child from the world and the world from the child.” To that end it is essential that the educator hold a kind of authority—defined by Lafer as “more than a council but less than a command” –that is achieved only through the respect awakened in the students by the responsibility that the school must embrace. “Protection should be removed gradually,” Carvalho says. “That is the educational process.”