Guest Commentary: Thinking Like Penelope and Teaching Like Hölderlin: Learning the Art of Teaching from Hannah Arendt

Beginning a few years ago, the NEH opened the competition for summer seminars for schoolteachers to doctoral students. This year, I was lucky enough to have several excellent doctoral candidates apply. John Douglas Macready is a doctoral student and adjunct instructor of philosophy at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. He is currently focusing his research on the problem of human dignity in the work of Hannah Arendt. He will join me and fifteen other colleagues this summer at Bard College for in-depth investigation of the political theory of Hannah Arendt.

John also blogs on philosophy at The Relative Absolute. I invited him to contribute a post to our Arendt blog and the following is his contribution.


Thinking Like Penelope and Teaching Like Hölderlin: Learning the Art of Teaching from Hannah Arendt

If there is one fact about Hannah Arendt that is often overlooked in all of the commentary on her work, it is that she was a teacher. As her overflowing classrooms at the New School for Social Research testified, she was a brilliant, engaging, and inspiring teacher, whom students were both drawn to and unsettled by. As a new teacher myself, I was delighted to find Peter Stern and Jean Yarbrough’s article on Hannah Arendt’s teaching in Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (New York: Basic Books, 1981). The article provided me with a model for becoming an effective and inspiring teacher.

Arendt combined passion and reason in her teaching. While she read her lectures from prepared manuscripts, which typically lasted an hour, they were “lively, exciting, and sometimes overwhelming in the power and insight they expressed” (Stern and Yarbrough, p. 190). Arendt made philosophical and political ideas a tangible reality that students could locate themselves in and respond to. Her passionate delivery of the rational analysis of a subject was a catalyst for student thinking and learning.

Arendt was a great story teller. Whether in the classroom, her office, or her living room, Arendt told stories to illustrate her thought. As Stern and Yarbrough point out, Arendt had the “gift of thinking poetically,” in which she combined two seemingly contrary modes of thought: literary sensibility and logical precision (Stern and Yarbrough, p. 192-193). This uncanny ability to explore ideas in narrative frameworks was likely due to her love of poetry and fiction, especially Hölderlin and Kafka. Her poetic insight and clarity of thought provided students with a metaphorical space for thinking.

Arendt also taught the dangerous and never-ending art of thinking. As she wrote in The Life of the Mind, “there are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous…” (Arendt, LOM, I, p. 176). Thinking is dangerous because it is an activity that is continually open to new ideas and answers. The activity of thinking refuses to find a resting place in creeds and dogmas. Arendt used “the image of Penelope’s weaving to capture what was for her one of the most striking aspects of this kind of thinking: that it never reaches its goal” (Stern and Yarbrough, p. 196). Thinking weaves together the rich fabric of knowledge each day, only to unweave it again each evening. It is an activity that requires an ongoing, and erotic, search for truth. Arendt had no doubt learned this from her own teacher, Karl Jaspers, who wrote that modern philosophical thought had scarcely “progressed beyond Plato” (Jaspers, The Way to Wisdom, p. 8).  She gave her students the most effective remedy for resisting the modern malaise of thoughtlessness: thinking—the ability to think for themselves.

Finally, Arendt was an available to her students and was a source of encouragement. Stern and Yarbrough describe Arendt as an “accessible” teacher, who wrote letters of recommendation promptly and returned dissertation chapters “in two weeks” (Stern and Yarbrough, pp. 202, 203). She invited her students into her home and took them out to dinner on special occasions in order to celebrate their accomplishments (Stern and Yarbrough, pp. 203, 204). But, in her personal encounters with her students, Arendt exhibited a peculiar excellence for listening and encouraging her students. During her office hours, she would “hunch forward and stare straight at [the student], eyes intent, her forefinger curled slightly, moving back and forth against her upper lip like a metronome measuring the rhythm of her thought as it absorbed, then weighed, what [the student] had to say” (Stern and Yarbrough, p. 204). In comments on papers and dissertations, Arendt “was never begrudging or petty; if she had criticisms, they were constructive and to the point” (Stern and Yarbrough, p. 203). Her goal was to encourage her students to improve, not to disparage them as unfit for academic life. Arendt’s accessibility and encouragement prepared inspired her students to confidence and intellectual excellence.

Hannah Arendt can serve as a model for good teaching. Her passionate presentation of ideas inspired her students to dare to rethink the broken tradition they had inherited. Her poetic mind conjured stories that ignited the minds of her students to question the political climate of their day. Her willingness to be present and listen to her students encouraged them to give the best of themselves to their work, much as she had done.

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