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Situating the Walls of the Classroom

Published onJun 06, 2023
Situating the Walls of the Classroom

In 1961, Hannah Arendt published a collection of essays in her work Between Past and Future – an apparently enigmatic title she is quick to demystify in her introduction. The post-war breaking point is, for her, opening a hole in time and space, pontifical in its discontinuation of conventional modes of thinking. Hence, in these six ‘exercises in political theory,’ Arendt aims to manifest renewed “experience in how to think; …throughout these exercises the problem of truth is kept in abeyance; the concern is solely how to move in this gap – the only region perhaps where truth eventually will appear” (2006/1961, p. 14). Education, to her, was an “immediate, topical [problem] with which we are daily confronted;” an issue which necessitates a reconsideration of its fundamental principles and purpose. (p. 15) We will consider and employ several of Arendt’s principles to structure our observations on higher education in our contemporary European context – one in which its course is apparently steered primarily by pressures exerted from outside its walls. Following an expository reading of Arendt’s fifth essay, “The Crisis in our Education,” we will, from our point of view as students, dialectically engage with the current neoliberal discourse surrounding universities and posit our hopes for new horizons in higher education as the prime sphere for development of the self in its pursuit to promote responsible citizenship.

Arendt observed a general crisis, neglected in the turmoil of the 20th Century, to have arisen in the realm of American education which manifests itself in a progressive lowering of the nation’s educational baselines – an alarming prospect the potentiality of which is present in any context, as the singularity of “specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries” has been harshly disproven (2006/1961, p. 174). Oddly, directly after the above assertion, she somehow posits that America is, fundamentally, a positive colonial project, promising “A New Order of the World”: an abolitionist and egalitarian bastion of liberty which, from its inception by the founding fathers, “welcomed all the poor and enslaved of the earth.” (p. 176) Even more, Arendt argues that the ever-growing population of immigrants evidently affirms the truth of the American promise and hence advocates for the necessity of schools as the second home in which children are to be raised into a homogenized standard of Americanness, given the failure of their first. These claims are obviously deeply problematic and wrong given the overt institutionalized racism permeating many facets of American life to this day. We will, then, from here on disregard Arendt’s shocking, unsound revisionist historical commentary and instead shift towards an interpretation which extracts the actual philosophical underpinnings she puts forward, most importantly by rendering her notion of the ‘world’ into a productive one, as an abstraction of the constructivist natures of social life, as opposed to a literal inhabitation of the ‘New Order’.

This moment in time provided her with the unique opportunity “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 174). It leads her to conclude that, presently, education fails to engender the transience of humanity, for “it is in the very nature of the human condition that each new generation grows into an old world, so that to prepare a new generation for a new world can only mean that one wishes to strike from the newcomers’ hands their own chance at the new” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 177). Regardless of the imaginative intentions of the educating generations, the educational curriculum remains grounded in the old world – depriving its pupils of the opportunity to ever conceive an actual newness. For Arendt, this predominant conception of schooling as an equalitarian homogenising institution in the children’s sphere coupled with the almost cult-like adoration of mastery of the pedagogical method above plain expertise lays at the root of the educational crisis. Therefore, education grew to represent a sphere of being wholly separate from the harsh realities of the world as inhabited by adults, namely “a child’s world and a society formed among children” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 181). The enactment of such Manichaeism as a newfound reality leads the adult to no longer bear authority over and have normal relations with the children they are educating. Instead, the say of dominant groups of children is increasingly valued, consequently allowing them to dictate that world’s norms and values. This situation, constituting the intentional “[emancipation] from the authority of adults,” makes the non-conforming individual grow more helpless and hopeless than before, as it is now to face the “much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority […] of the majority” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 181). Arendt argues that opting for a broader view of time – one in which it is acknowledged that “childhood is a temporary stage, a preparation for adulthood” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 184) – is vital, as the current artificiality of the children’s world is ultimately detrimental to the personal development of the child as an actual human being. The child’s world makes children into something which they are not; instead of being recognized as humans operating at a level of immaturity, their supposed autonomy is heavily romanticised and the curriculum correspondingly adapted to their often-superfluous interests and competencies.

This arbitrariness, then, prompts Arendt to distinguish between play and work and translate them into doing and learning in the educational context respectively. Hence, the fabrication of the worldly dichotomy brought about a shift in focus from working towards the future to playing and savouring childhood – a popularly disregarded truth often reframed as abolitionary instead: “the child’s characteristic activity, so it was thought, lies in play; learning in the old sense, by forcing a child into an attitude of passivity, compelled him to give up his own playful initiative” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 183). This insistence on ‘doing’ further strains the relation of the child to their life’s next stage – it renders premature engagement with the realities of adulthood, by virtue of valuing work over play, virtually impossible; it allows for the culmination of the child’s radical sheltering and subsequent harmful detachment from reality. Aversion to ‘learning’ also engenders a shift in the dialectic of authority from the supposedly antiquated reverence for knowledge – and hence the past – to veneration for the present fabricated childhood and its related pedagogical figments (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 191). Embedded in this negated reality can the actual, twofold task of education for Arendt be found. The child, she argues, finds themselves in “a state of becoming.” Crucially, it does so within a ‘world.’ (Arendt, 2006/1961, pp. 185-186) Its existence as a living form is not developmental in the sense of becoming as such, because other species grow up too, but instead, its newness lies in its “relation to the world that was there before him, that will continue after his death, and in which he is to spend his life” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 185). Such worldliness, then, an anthropocentric construct imposed on human life and education, should thus not only concern itself with “the life and development of the child but also the continuance of the world” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 185-186). Hence, for Arendt, education needs to protect the child from the oldness of the world but also protect the world from the child’s newness. A delicate balance must be struck between letting the child be radically free to opt for its own, probably new modes of thinking and conservatively teaching it solely the old ways, for “to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 192).

We find this balance to be largely lacking in our contemporary system of higher education. While we are not under the illusion that the child’s world is sustained, we do find that by and large, the pursuit of workful education is forsaken in favour of playful learning – precisely to function in the world of adults. In recent years, we find policies related to undertaking an education at the bachelor’s level to have grown increasingly lenient, with meagre attendance policies and possibilities for physical disengagement from the educational sphere becoming somewhat of a norm. Many student parties proclaim that these developments in higher education should be celebrated and embraced even more by further allowing the neoliberal conditions of adulthood to seep through, for example by involving market-based companies more explicitly in devising the curriculum, along with the rapid expansion of administrative staff unparalleled by the growth in academic support (Ginsberg, 2013). The inclusion of more general courses in the student’s educational trajectory – i.e., courses explicitly focused on education – is often experienced as more of a hindrance than a valuable addition to one’s personal capital, since its effects do not prove immediately palpable in the job market. These effects are supposedly brought about by way of higher education’s emphasis on specialisation, in which “it no longer aims to introduce the young person to the world as a whole, but rather to a particular, limited segment of it” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 196). We do not propose that specialisation as such is inherently problematic: in our current capitalist reality, one of the functions of education is to prepare students for the job application process. We do, however, believe these processes of specialisation to currently be too far-reaching and no longer adequately grounded in a sense of civil responsibility but rather fully subject to market-based demands. This bears severe implications on the much sought-after preservation of worldliness as higher education appears to have largely grown detached from that end – an awareness lacking in today’s decision-makers, and hence vital to at least attempt to instil in those in charge of our common future. Higher education is thus supposed to prepare students’ ability to critically take position in the world and relate themselves to it in the present, past and future. This capacity is lost in the pervasive emphasis on specialisation, which prevents them from reaching this state of freedom and self-development by forcing them into a niche and its associated preconceived notions of the world; a celebratory wide-spread acceptance of such a tunnel-vision, to the end of conformity to the conservative demands posited by the old world, permeates and unconsciously preserves, perhaps in hindsight fatally so, our current social context and structures undisposed to face our futures. Education, then, should primarily concern itself with bringing about responsible citizens.

Given this primary goal, the practical implication of such a theoretical basis is that we believe universities to also hold the responsibility for safeguarding the social and private spheres of students, thereby protecting them from the totality of the public sphere, constituent of an absence of concealment and privacy and a place where “life qua life does not matter” (Arendt, 2006/1961, p. 195). Arendt states that “we must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life …” (2006/1961, p. 192) – a very definitive view on education, grounded in the belief that education should convey to students “what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (2006/1961, p. 192). Essentially, Arendt posits that education should not indoctrinate students by instilling only one political ideology or framework in them. Rather, it should help to convey the world as is. In spite of its praiseworthy idealism, we do not believe this notion to be entirely true or feasible. Politics do inform much of what is taught in (higher) education, in a way that is almost inevitable, and sometimes even desirable, in its pursuit to attain certain national standards or a standardised set of civil development. One of the implications of this realization, for example, is that even disciplines commonly regarded as fact-based, like history, are unable to present a neutral account of even the most basal events of our past. Historization has grown to become an incessantly politicized notion, the alteration of which the historian can only attempt to struggle against, never subvert (Benjamin, 1940, p. 248). Hence, rather than arguing for a radical disengagement from politics, we suggest that the focus of universities should be shifted towards the protection of the social and private sphere of students. Students will be able to engage in political spheres with universities committed to safeguarding the social interests of students – in this way facilitating an environment that fosters growth. Presently, the cost of the tight link between the private sphere, that is, the university, and actual careers out in the world is vast, as we observe individuals base their decision on what to study on their potential earning capacity in a particular field, instead of opting for an education based on their actual interests. Education should not be restricted to acting as a form of social signalling or career development but should hold potential social and personal value, as curiosity and learning are - or at least should be - goals in themselves.

A step in this direction has been attempted by University Colleges offering Liberal Arts and Sciences degrees, vehemently opposing the shift towards specialisation on the market and the corresponding rhetoric that, as jobs are changing rapidly, the student must, dogmatically, too. The small-scale nature of classrooms, which are predominantly organized as seminars, apparently still poses a frightening prospect for many students who, consequently, grasp every promise of security offered by external institutions – causing study delays, stress and a loss of internal motivation –, all in pursuit of fitting the straitjacket of the world after. Therefore, we stress the importance of interpreting education in diverse ways based on the skill set of the student to maximally equip them for the variety of challenges encountered in their later life. The well-developed citizen is constructed not through the homogenization of content or the method underlying its delivery but rather by offering them an education which Arendt conceptualises as encompassing the experience of becoming human. She presents education as a moral responsibility: “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 young, would be inevitable” (2006/1961, p. 195). Education should thence transcend its popular utilitarian conceptualization as instructional and rather seek to prepare students for what the world is like. University Colleges attempt to enact this by delaying specialisation and offering a broad foundation instead, seeking to raise well-rounded citizens. Like Arendt, we believe that education must advance this development by nurturing students’ critical thinking skills – yet it must do so without imposing unnecessary rigidity and overtly seceding to what Arendt conceptualises as conservative education: the perpetuation of a past unfit to face the new world, thereby halting progress (2006/1961, p. 192). Thus, education must not institutionalize a certain conception of the responsible citizen, as this assumes there to be far more order in the world than actually exists – in which case education could actually be adapted to the world students occupy.

Even within the University College system we observe a pressure towards specialisation, ultimately harbouring a bias towards certain educational topics and the inability to choose subjects as freely as intended. Considering a more general approach, there exists often the assumption that classes taught in the same way en masse will necessarily lead to well-developed citizens and predispose them to an acquiescence of capital adequate for the job market. In reality, there is often no direct connection between higher education and the day-to-day responsibilities of student’s future careers (Robinson et al., 2007). Still, there exists a socially-mandated pursuit of a degree despite its obtention not actually improving the performance of students who end up in unrelated fields – demonstrative of the increasing importance of education as a method of social signalling as opposed to being an end in itself. Part of this ties in with the discussion on cost and accessibility, factors currently preventing many from attaining a university degree whilst simultaneously acting as constitutive of part of the prestige manufactured by the commercialization of education. For us and Arendt, this indicates the need to separate the above conceptualization of education from vocational pursuits, ‘the art of living,’ as they are not mutually inclusive. Regardless of its importance to the market, education plays a vital role in the establishment of a vibrant public life – a role that must not be lost track of during students’ pursuit of employment.

We have attempted to argue that universities can function as an integral part of the process of becoming human, by coming spaces where individuals may conduct work on themselves and grow into well-equipped citizens, ready to commit to the preservation and sustainment of the world. A concerning trend favouring the preservation of the artificial world of play and away from the authority of educators, has resulted in increasingly lenient standards where what is taught in classrooms often, perhaps too much so, relies on students’ own interests and beliefs, rather than being informed primarily by those with the relevant expertise and experience. Springing from this, following our disbelief in the efficacy of the commodification of academia, we hope students will exert pushback against such severe interferences with the material. Students’ apparent desire for voluntary attendance should not overrule the importance of physical presence in the classroom – a prerequisite to proper education – since we regard community as the foundation of much of the process of preserving worldliness and building responsible citizens: to educate an individual is namely to teach them how to exist in the world by using their own skills and characteristics effectively in the broadest sense. Furthermore, higher education should be regarded as inherently meaningful instead of positing specialisation as an absolute condition for success, allowing for some separation of public and private spheres. Students should be given informed flexibility when it comes to their education and vocational pursuits – not merely the illusion of choice as conditioned by external factors. While these choices already exist on paper, the pressures surrounding their future careers tend to punish students that do not approach education strategically – i.e., pursuing workshops on networking and prioritising their vocation over personal interests every step of the way. We believe this to be a loss and wasted opportunity. Instead, we dream of a system of higher education that allows one to make decisions informed by preferences and an intimate knowledge of the self, conceived by students’ earlier education and “becoming,” rather than a system grounded in neoliberal necessity and obligation.


Arendt, H. (2006). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics. [Original work published in 1961].

Benjamin, W. (2015). Illuminations (H. Arendt, Ed.; H. Zorn, Trans.). The Bodley Head. [Original work drafted in 1940].

Ginsberg, B. (2013). The Fall of the Faculty. Oxford University Press.

Robinson, J. S., Garton, B. L., & Vaughn, P. R. (2007). Becoming Employable: A Look at Graduates’ and Supervisors’ Perceptions of the Skills Needed for Employability. NACTA Journal, 51(2), 19–26.

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