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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 11/22/2010

Hannah Arendt and the point of education

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Kenneth J. Bernstein, an award-winning veteran teacher in the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at

By Kenneth Bernstein
Recently while reading a book about teaching, I encountered a quote on education by Hannah Arendt. Here is that quote:

Education is the point at which we decide whether 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 the 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.

Some thoughts:

something unforeseen by us -- If we can grasp that idea, then our notion of education would be very different than what have been imposing and are imposing upon the young people entrusted to the care of teachers and schools. Learning cannot be merely cramming more and more information in, its success measured by ever increasing numbers of tests with higher stakes for teachers and schools as well as students. There must be time and opportunity for play, for exploration, for failure and the learning therefrom.

whether we love the world enough -- I often think that much of what we impose is not from love but from fear.

except for renewal -- We must find new ways of thinking, of observing, of considering. Yes, that can be scary, because we might not always succeed in our attempts at finding ways of renewal. But we learn from our attempts, unless we are so willfully blind that we only interpret them as reasons not to try anything new, no matter how destructive continuation of our current patterns might be.

I am thinking quite a bit about my own teaching. Part of that is a continuation of my encounter with Parker Palmer, with rereading works I knew and encountering others (such as The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Paradox in the Christian Life) that I had not known.

It is also a reoccurring part of my understanding of how I must approach teaching - to constantly reflect upon what I am doing and why, to consider its impact upon the students entrusted to my care, not only within my classes but as they carry whatever they may value from what they encounter into the rest of their lives.

We often encounter arguments that people become more conservative as they get older. Certainly we have seen voting from fear among a significant portion of our older electorate. Perhaps that is normal. But does it have to be?

I will be 65 in about six months. I find I am becoming increasingly radicalized as I age. I think that is very much because I spend so much of my time with young people. I wonder what we are doing to the world we are leaving them.

Should not we be including them as soon as possible in thinking about how we save and renew the world? Should not our approach to education encourage them to think outside the patterns upon which we have relied which are proving so destructive?

Let me return to Arendt again:

...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.

something unforeseen by us - We need new eyes and new ideas. Yes, we want them aware of the heritage we can pass on, if for no other reason than perhaps they can learn from our mistakes. One does not renew the world by remaking it from scratch, one must first see what is to imagine what might be truly possible.

This past weekend I had time to reflect. Teaching should never be automatic or rote. Even the lessons that worked well last year need to be reexamined: Why am I planning to do this lesson with these students now?

My answer needs to be something far more than the state or the College Board will test them upon the material. It must be for some larger reason, one that includes them, their hopes and dreams, as well as the hope that I have as a teacher to leave something of value behind when I pass from this world.

The words of Hannah Arendt spoke to me. I share them with you.



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By Valerie Strauss  | November 22, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  education, guest bloggers, hannah arendt, kenneth bernstein, standardized tests  
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Next: The social cost to academic achievement -- Willingham


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Posted by: tonycumming | November 22, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

As the Cheshire cat told Alice, "…which way…depends on where you want to go" In President Obama's speech of November 2009 he mentioned the educational way as leading to the goals of national prosperity, international competition, earnings, jobs, a quality future, success, a knowledge economy, and eliminating the cost of achievement gaps. I would suggest that these are secondary goals, and even as secondary goals there are many important omissions such as the joy of learning, excitement of discovery, creative adventures, and just the contentment of knowing. We need a primary educational goal that is simple, engenders common agreement, and encompasses all secondary goals. In this regard, the best expression I have heard is that trite but powerful phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | November 22, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

This whole article is so beautifully written and the content so wise......every statement triggered a response, but I've chosen the following to comment on:

"There must be time and opportunity for play, for exploration, for failure and the learning therefrom."

The Lesson of the Kite
Many years ago, when I took a class in design, the professor gave us a mid-term exam that consisted of creating a kite: the only 2 rules were that it could not be shaped like a traditional kite, and in order to get a passing grade, the kite had to fly....our kites would be 'tested' on the university football field on an appointed day.

The day arrived, and the whole class showed up with an admirable display of very unusual-looking kites that one would expect from art students. (Mine was a giant rose with a tail of rosebuds; I was so proud). When the professor gave the signal, we all started running madly down the football field, each hoping that our own kite would fly the highest.

Doom. Despondency. Out of an entire class, only ONE kite flew; one that was a perfect circle. The rest of us, chastened, disgusted, demoralized, sat on that football field and wondered where we had gone wrong.

I finally asked the girl whose kite had flown, how she had settled on the design of a circle, and she responded, "Oh, I decided to look up some information on aerodynamics, and found that a circle was an excellent shape for flying." (Is that where the idea of flying saucers comes from?) Aerodynamics?!? It hadn't occurred to the rest of us to think about this notion.

I got a 'D' on my midterm kite for my efforts.

But, revenge is sweet. Years later, when I was a teacher to a class of mostly high school boys, I wanted a lesson to grab them. I thought longingly of my failed kite, and then, knew what to do - I got the physics teacher to come give us a lesson on aerodynamics as applied to kites.
The whole class made magnificent kites, and they all flew. Not only that, the boys were inspired to make a giant kite, one twice the size of any of the others. They had to figure out how to make the kite stronger to withstand great winds and pressure, and what materials would do best.

That giant kite flew, and we all cheered.

Nearly 15 years after my design class, I finally felt I'd earned an 'A'.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 22, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse


Nice story. Thanks. I made many kites in my youth (most flew nicely), but I had an initial guide, which was found within the "Make and Do" book, a volume of the childrens' World Book Encyclopedia (from the 1960's). Fun.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 23, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

Thanks shadwell1.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 23, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I am a concerned parent of two school-aged children. I am concerned about the future of education in our public schools. However, I am NOT concerned about achievement test scores. I do NOT care about No Child Left Beyond assessments. I care about the quality of the teaching and learning experience children receive in schools.

Parents, we need to understand that teaching to pass No Child Left Beyond assessments and quality teaching and learning experiences are not the same thing. However, if the Arnie Duncan and other “reformers” get their way, teachers will be evaluated according to their students’ achievement test scores and not the quality of the classroom experience provided to children. This is wrong.

What is prompting me to write this letter is the amazing experience my daughter is having in school this year. She comes home and talks about what they did in school without any prompting. She brings home library books that are connected to her classroom experiences. She asks questions about the things she is learning about during the day. She is using technology to investigate other questions she has concerning the things she is learning about. In other words she in fully engaged. The question: What is happening during the school day that has ignited a fire for learning in my child? The simple answer is she has a teacher that cares deeply about learning. This is the heart of quality teaching and it will never be measured on a test.

However, I fear that if the current “reform” movements continue to swallow public schools my daughter’s teacher runs the risk of changing her approach to teaching and learning. If the pressure for test scores continues to drive policy discussions concerning classroom experiences, teaching, and curriculum, the most valuable experiences associated with learning will be dismissed and her teacher will be pressured into teaching for tests. This will be a sad day for many parents.

While I chose to highlight the experience of my daughter in this letter the bigger picture is that this is happening to all of our teachers. The drive for achievement scores has sucked the life out of teaching and learning. Our children are being denied quality learning experiences and our teachers are forced to treat children as possible test scores. The future of teaching and learning in our public schools is in danger. Politicians, “reformers,” and others have decided that they know what is best for our children. This top down, condescending view of parents, teachers and local schools needs to stop.

If we (citizens, parents, business owners and community members) care about the quality of our schools, then we need to be talking about learning—not test scores.

Posted by: tds121 | November 23, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

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