Guest Blog Posts

Each year, I invite present and past summer scholars to reflect on their NEH Arendt Summer Seminar experiences and, if they choose to, submit a blog posting to share with those who visit this web site.

I have been behind on posting some of these wonderful entries and today I became determined–especially in light of the continuing government shutdown and cancellation of our NEH directors’ meeting, which had been scheduled for next week–to post some essays that scholars from these seminars past have submitted.

Here are two entries, and more will follow soon.

Mary Finn, 2011, describes the project she developed during the seminar and where implementation of that project has taken her.

Michael Scoblete, 2009, talks about Arendt’s ideas about science and technology in relation to current debates about teaching about science.

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“The Creation of Polis,” by Mary Finn

I applied and was accepted to the NEH Summer Seminar for Teachers in 2011, which was held at Bard College. I was initially attracted to the seminar, “The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt”, because I wanted to deepen my knowledge of Arendt’s philosophical and political writing and thinking. I wanted to find out more about Arendt as a person- what did it mean to be an escapee from Nazi Germany and how did this life experience influence her view on the world? I anticipated leaving the seminar at the end of the summer with knowledge and understanding.

I expected the NEH seminar on Arendt to be informative but I did not expect for it to be transformative.

My thinking and actions on my place in the world (two areas of the human experience that interested Arendt very much) were fundamentally altered by my participation in the NEH seminar.

My thinking about my relationship to the “public” world was transformed by the combination of both the content and the process of the NEH seminar. The seminar group was composed of educators from all of the country and the diversity of perspective in the group was rich. Our facilitator and leader, Prof. Kathleen Jones, pushed the group to focus on the texts but also on the rhetoric we used when we engaged in dialogue with one another (often passionately and with diverging opinions).  In many ways, the process and expectations for discourse during the daily seminar mirrored Arendt’s conception of what it means to engage in the public realm, albeit often messy and unpredictable.

Each NEH seminar participant was expected to produce a culminating work that served as an indication of inquiry and growth on our understanding of Arendt’s writing. Professor Jones was clear in her expectations for the project: She encouraged us to think broadly and creatively about our final piece and to focus on an essential question that would cause us to investigate Arendt’s thinking in greater depth.

I was intrigued by two main questions: “What does it mean to ‘live in public’? How does our engagement with diverse ‘others’ impact political/civic life?”

Instead of writing an academic paper on these questions in Arendt’s work, I decided to take an academic risk and go out of my comfort zone; I wanted to see if I could create a prototype for a “space of appearance” (as Arendt calls it) in the ‘real’ world. I set out, with Professor Jones’ guidance and encouragement, to create a blue print for an organization that would allow for many of Arendt’s theories on living in public to be put into practice. The result of my NEH culminating project was an organization called Polis.

In the year since leaving the NEH program I became more and more motivated to try to bring Polis from the blueprint stage to reality.

In 2008 I was a staffer on the Obama presidential campaign. On that campaign I was trained in organizing techniques meant to build community and exponentially grow a base of people interested in participation. I decide to approach the birth of Polis using these same community organizing skills (it was all I knew how to do given no formal business experience!).

Last year I talked with over 80 people in one on one conversations in an attempt to both test my assumptions about the need for Polis as well as to listen to the ideas and suggestions of people from all walks of life.

I think I have borrowed nearly ever “start your own business” book from the San Francisco Public Library!

What I learned from the conversations and my reading is that adults are hungry for real world, face to face, off line community and connection. The pendulum seems to be swinging ever so slightly away from a tech-centric model of connecting and building community virtually toward connection that is spontaneous and personal- connection where people are seen and known beyond a username.

Polis is going to be a place where people can find and build an authentic community around the big ideas and questions of the liberal arts and sciences.

I left my position as a teacher and Dean of Studies in July 2013 in order to dedicate my time as fully as possible to the start-up phase of Polis.

I am thrilled that we will be launching our first two courses in October. All Polis courses are centered on a question and a text(s) and each course/discussion is lead by a expert in their field as well as being a skilled facilitator. The first classes are titled, “What does it mean to live a good life (the text is Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych) and “What does it mean to tell a true story?” (short stores and essays )

Polis is meant to help adults answer the question: Your life is busy, but is it full?

When I was at Bard College for the NEH seminar in 2011 my busy life receded into memory and for the summer (thanks to the NEH grant) was replaced with a sense of purpose, connection, meaning, and fullness. I aim to recreate this sense of meaning for busy adults in the Bay Area (CA) with Polis.

Why ‘Polis’ as a name?

I was inspired by Arendt’s notion of and appreciation for the Greek ideas of the polis. In the Human Condition, Arendt writes, The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (HC, 198).  So then, society doesn’t exist without public discussion.

Very simply: Polis is a place where people will act and speak together about a text and essential question without a defined and predetermined end goal in sight.  I am convinced by Arendt’s writing that seemingly small actions and discussions can be filled with spontaneity’. The types of discussions that we will have at Polis are ripe for misunderstanding and for increased empathy; they are the core ingredient of a democratic society.

Who knew that the NEH summer seminar would have such a profound and transformative impact on my life and the lives of future Polis students? I am so grateful to have had the opportunity of participation in the seminar.

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“The Sky is Still Falling: Our Post-Human Condition” by Mike Scoblete

Michael Scoblete and Kathleen B. Jones, 2009

(February 2013).  My half-cynical, half-naive students often ask: isn’t the world supposed to end this year?  Having just survived a near-approach from an asteroid, Kony’s army of child-soldiers and various Mayan and Biblical predictions of the apocalypse, it’s perhaps a good time to reflect on some earlier and more scholarly predictions of doom.   The first half of the 20th century and its attendant horrors naturally inspired much pessimism, in fiction* and non-fiction.

We might at first dismiss that dystopian legacy:  Hayek’s Road to Serfdom proved to be a road not travelled, London’s Iron Heel has yet to descend on our necks, and Arendt’s fears in Origins of Totalitarianism –that it could happen here- seem distant; 1984 has come and gone, and Bradbury’s book-burners are nowhere to be found.  Despite this unbroken record of ‘apocalypse not’, one of the enduring features of doom-mongering is that it endures!   Our narrow escapes from dystopia never convince us that the threat isn’t real. Perhaps it is not a bad thing that we are not yet so jaded that we don’t respond when we hear cries of “wolf”.   So with that said, I’d like to indulge in some doom-saying that I think still stands the test of time.

Let’s consider Francis Fukuyama.  Now there’d be no sport in piling on more criticism of his – shall we say premature – conclusion that human civilization had reached  The End of History in 1989 (and again in 1992); I would like instead to consider his subsequent work: Our Post-Human Future in which he warns that we are rapidly losing our sense of what it is to be human, and that biotechnology must be banned to save the human race from what we might become: unnaturally selected, augmented, life-extended  immoral cyborgs.  Does science really threaten our humanity qua humans? Is biotechnology (genetic engineering, human-computer interfaces and the like) really going to snuff out our souls, not unlike the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers? As a science teacher,  a grant-recipient from the National Endowment of the Humanities and an inveterate pessimist, I feel permitted to add my two cents to this discussion, and I’d like to invoke Hannah Arendt to lend credibility to this dystopic vision.

Fukuyama’s concerns – that the unintended consequences of our ‘beneficial’ technical pursuits will destroy us, if not physically, then conceptually, via changes to our basic identity and nature, are echoed most clearly in the beginning of Arendt’s The Human Condition.  Hannah Arendt may be regarded as a political theorist, a philosopher, a journalist, a provocateur, but rarely is she regarded as an optimist.  Indeed she is rather sour on our prospects as humans.  Her works include only a few points of optimism, such as the brief mention of some cases of those who remained morally sane in insane times (from Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she otherwise concluded that evil was the product of isolated, middle-class cogs in a morally blind machine that could really happen anywhere). Her other notable optimistic point comes at the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, when she notes how human imperfections might prevent communism from becoming permanent and inescapable.

With totalitarianism on the rise in her time and the evidence of its features cropping up in the West as well, she was notably alarmed at the state of the world and of the humans in it.  We can leave a debate about drones, torture and apple-pie for some other time, because it is not Arendt’s political fears, but her technological ones that concern me.

Arendt opens The Human Condition with the prospect that we would sever our ties to nature, to the earth, to our very identity as humans and that I believe is proceeding apace. The twin scientific threats to our humanity in her time lay in opposite physical scales: the atom bomb and human exploration into space. The first threatened to destroy our cities and our world, the second offered us the opportunity to abandon those and with it our natural lives on earth for an artificial life-support  system spreading out into space.

Just like the flying cars we’ve been promised, space-colonization has yet to materialize; indeed, her specific concerns seemed not to have progressed much in the last three-quarters of a century. And in the years since Hiroshima, while many more bombs were made and by several more nations, collectively, we’ve yet to descend into nuclear war. Indeed the recent North Korean nuclear test demonstrates that we are still perched on the edge of that abyss, but continue to avoid actually taking that plunge.  Space has also proven to be a plunge more difficult than our wallets were willing.  As we speak, a space-station with a paltry crew orbits close to earth – not much further than Sputnik- busying itself with science-fair experiments to justify its expense.  There may be many militarists and fanatics seeking a-bombs and many private space enthusiasts who are ready to leave earth behind, but Arendt’s concerns about annihilation or cosmic diaspora seem dated and over-wrought.

While the particulars of her concerns failed the test of the twentieth century, I think the essence of her (and Fukuyama’s) concerns remains valid: the human condition is indeed threatened by our technologies, by our economies, and by our ideologies.  The economics of wastefulness (described in Origins of Totalitarianism as the misadventure of surplus money and superfluous men) have only continued to drown us in debt, in kitsch, in imperial overstretch and have trashed the planet in the process.  The commodification of humans as labor, as consumer, as one machine among many in the production process continues apace.

While Fukuyama worries that  we’ll engineer our genes (and our children) to meet the competitive demands of the marketplace, Arendt had already noted that we’d engineered our working lives.  In The Human Condition she warned how mechanization and industrialization forced laborers to adapt and degrade their bodies to serve the demands and rhythm of the machines of mass production.  These concerns can be redoubled in considering how we have trained and drained our minds enthralled to our digital addictions.  We don’t need Fukuyama’s cyborb implants, we have smart-phones.   And, as Katrina, Sandy and the drought stricken mid-west can testify, we didn’t need to push the button to bomb our cities;  our pollution time-bomb accomplishes the same thing.

So let us add Arendt’s  (and Fukuyama’s) concerns, not to a list of anti-science Chicken-Littles who were disproven in the fullness of time, but rather to a list of thoughtful scholars who provide necessary if only approximate warnings of the potential threats our technical progress creates. And the place for that list of thoughtful techno-pessimists is not just in a humanities seminar, but also in the science classroom.

Education, of necessity, looks to the future. We teach the next generation conscious of what they may need, what they may face, and what they may become.  Moreover, the science classroom is perhaps predisposed to futurism and to optimism.   The fantasies of science fiction often become science fact  (the gadgets particularly); the students of science envision a future where nearly anything is possible, where technology and research can surmount any challenge.  They hear routinely that in ten more years, such-and-such disease will be cured.  All too often science education is so forward looking and confident in human progress that we look back only to congratulate ourselves on steady and certain progress, and to make note of a few “great men” credited for making it happen.  The humanities are a welcomed salve for this myopia.

However object oriented a scientific endeavor may be, it – like all endeavors- are reflections of the subject, reflections of ourselves. Scientists are humans and members of communities long before they are the writers of formulae or the decanters of strange chemicals.  Their goals, their means and how they view their own efforts must needs be embedded in the human experience – both particular to their time and place, and universal to the human condition.  Getting the student to see both pictures simultaneously – of research as a study of the physical world and of a reflection of the priorities and perspectives of the human world can be a challenge.  Without an awareness of who we have been, and what we have done, we can not fully understand and take responsibility for where our society is now, and where it can go in the future.

None of the answers to pressing questions are singular and certain – we must embrace plurality and ambiguity. That many scientists  have been so optimistic about the future, and that authors, philosophers and other public intellectuals have at times been so pessimistic speaks to the nature of our human condition more so than our abilities to prognosticate.**

In chemistry, we are never far from the application of our theories to the world around us – chemicals are woven into the fabric of our lives, often quite literally.  We must always keep in focus not just the technical details of their creation, but also the benefits and harms that  plastics, petroleum, pharmaceuticals and the like have brought to our society and our ecosystems.  Teachers can cultivate an appreciation for how our evolving environment (natural and political) is the context of all our cultural and economic endeavors, and a fraught one: neither under our control, nor safe from the effects of our activities.    The science classroom should be neither cheer-leader nor fear-monger, but it must address the risks and benefits of science in a frank manner.

Arendt herself was neither pro-science nor anti-progress.  If Arendt’s yet to be realized fears have taught us anything, it is that unthinking action will prove more dangerous than any atom bomb or test-tube baby.  Whether our future is posthuman or not, it is our obligation as humans to be prepared for it.

*For an excellent and accessible arbitration between Orwell and Huxley’s competing dystopias, see Stuart McMillan’s cartoon Who was Right available at http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2010/08/who-was-right-huxley-or-orwell/ adapted from a forward to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

** Like any good generalization, this is a broad and simplistic view of a much more complex history employed for rhetorical purpose instead of statistical veracity.

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1 Comments

  • mary finn
    Reply

    I am so glad that the NEH funded the Arendt seminar for 2014. Teachers deserve to have the opportunity to study this complex thinker and to be guided in conversation by Prof. Jones. The Arendt seminar was one of the most formative professional development experiences of my life.

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