Educating for “the world” – a statement of purpose

For my first foray into the blogosphere I would like to address the quote that welcomes visitors to this page:

“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.”

This quote is by Hannah Arendt, in my opinion one of the twentieth century’s greatest political theorists, from an essay entitled “The Crisis in Education”, first published in 1954, and is one that resonates with me as I begin what I hope will be a long career teaching and researching in higher education.

For Arendt, the earth and the world are not the same. Whereas the earth is the general condition of organic life, the world is the condition under which, and realm within which, specifically human life can be at home on earth. The world is a uniquely human condition that we enter into at birth and leave behind in death, and which we therefore have in common with all those who live with us, with all those who came before us, and with all those who will come after us. It is an inter-subjective “in-between” that, while it transcends our lifespan into the past and future alike, is also incredibly fragile. Our earthly existence may be guaranteed by the continued existence of the earth as biologically hospitable to human life, but the continued existence of the world, and our human existence within it, is not so guaranteed. Arendt was brought from philosophy to political reflection by the rise of the Nazi regime, the horrors they perpetrated, and how ordinary people could so easily fall in line and enable the commission of crimes on such a monstrous scale, crimes which aimed precisely to destroy the human world of plurality and re-engineer the human race. These were experiences that taught Arendt of the fragility of the human world and, therefore, also of the need to care for it.

By our actions, by the institutions we create, the policies we pursue, the injustices we choose either to ignore or to address, we continually (re)create and maintain the world we hold in common. Each individual has the capacity (which Arendt calls “natality”) to do something unforeseen and unexpected and thus introduce change into the world. Precisely because the character of the human world – and thus whether it is a world that enables and is fit for action among equals – is dependent upon the actions of human beings, it is incumbent on us to think and to act responsibly; to think and act toward the world in such a way that will preserve it, as a world fit for human existence, for those yet unborn. Education plays a special role in this loving, or caring for, the world. Our children, and young adults, need not only to understand “the world” as it currently is – the world that they had no role in creating but into which they will nevertheless be thrown – but also their role in it and their responsibility for it once they leave the relative safety and predictability of the academy. Cultivating this understanding and this ethic of responsibility is not only a responsibility of the teacher toward the student, but of the teacher toward the world. And this is how I see my role as a teacher and scholar of political theory, human rights, and forced migration – decidedly worldly problems. My role is not to tell my students what to think, but to help them learn how-to think. My role is not to tell my students what they should do about any particular problem or issue once they enter the world, but to cultivate the awareness that they can, and should, do something – to help them to understand themselves as responsible citizens; responsible for the world they are to enter. Preparing them in this way is my own way of loving – assuming my responsibility for – the world.

In “The Human Condition”, the book which contains Arendt’s most extended reflections on action and the world, she ends her introduction by stating that her purpose in writing is “nothing more than to think what we are doing.” As an early career academic I still have much to learn about teaching and, indeed, about the world that my students are to enter after their brief time with me. As I move forward with this blog I hope to reflect on my own teaching practice, as well as on my research, to think about what it is we are doing, and how we can best cultivate this practice in our students.



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