Teachers Need Renewal

As I prepare to announce the summer scholars who will be working on the political theory of Hannah Arendt with me this summer at Bard College, an article in today’s New York Times about the state of public education in the U.S. gave me pause. Thousands of teachers will be notified in June that they may lose their jobs. We’ve been here before. Yet, as I am about to engage a group of 16 educators in the demanding, and also exhilarating, thinking journey that reading key works by Hannah Arendt always entails, I am disturbed by the dire circumstances that educators and their students will be continue to face next year.

In 1958, in an essay originally published in Partisan Review, Arendt wrote about what she considered an American “crisis in education.” (The essay had the same title). Her views in that essay were, like so many other things she wrote, quite controversial: she was attacking trends in progressive education and bemoaned what she considered “the decline in standards.” Yet, however much her somewhat patrician views might be criticized by contemporary educators–as I am sure we will discuss in my upcoming seminar–with at least one thing Arendt wrote in that essay today’s teachers would agree. Arendt worried when pedagogy became its own “science of teaching in general” detached from its subject matter. The effect was to create the idea, she continued, that a teacher “could teach anything; his (sic) training is in teaching, not the mastery of any particular subject.”

Today, the effect of an attempt to economize in our schools and balance our budgets, in part, by decreasing public spending on education has led to a dangerous trend. Teachers are moved from school to school and classroom to classroom with little regard for the particular needs of the students or even the subjects intended to be instructed in those classrooms. According to research cited in the Times report, in Cleveland, for instance, one study of theme schools found “teacher layoffs, carried out by seniority, had stripped Cleveland’s specialty schools of key teachers. A Spanish-English immersion school had lost its dual language teachers; a school for gifted children had lost teachers who had special training to work with those students.” (NYTimes)

To reverse this trend will require concerted effort on the part of the public to recommit to the ideal of public education with adequate funds to enable teachers to do their jobs well. And that includes continuing to fund programs like the NEH, which provide teachers with a chance to deepen the intellectual and scholarship-based dimensions of their subjects, renewing themselves and enriching their students as a consequence.

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