Guest Commentary: Teaching Arendt by Chris Zegar, NEH Arendt Seminar 2011

We are ending our fourth week of the NEH seminar on Arendt, held again this summer at Bard College, under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities. Soon, participants will present their research and creative projects, which have been developing over the summer weeks we have been studying Arendt together.

I invited one of the summer scholars last year to submit material to this blog exploring ways he used the seminar materials this past year in his classroom. The following blog entry, by Chris Zegar, is one example of “taking Arendt to school.”

When entering the summer seminar at Bard last year, I was intrigued by the opportunity to become more familiar with Arendt’s body of work. Hannah Arendt’s philosophy is hard to pin down into a specific genre. She is a political philosopher, but not like any traditional political theorist. She has an existential quality to her however, she is not an existentialist.
I was not sure how I could apply Arendt’s ideas to my high school history classes. I was worried that I would not be able to really implement Arendt’s books or ideas into my teaching, and I was wondering whether high school students could relate to Arendt’s ideas.

The summer seminar was not just deeply enriching for me, but also extremely helpful to my students this year. Arendt’s works contain deep meaning for both educators and students alike. Specifically, Arendt’s focus on identity and liberty are fundamental concepts that teenagers grapple with in their day to day lives. In this post I hope to share some practical ways to incorporate Arendt in the classroom.

In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt examines how Germany and Russia moved towards a rejection of personal responsibility and individual identity towards the catastrophe of totalitarianism. The book discusses how these populations willfully rejected the ability to think and gave themselves up to be cogs in a machine. According to Arendt, it is a person’s ability to think and discuss issues truthfully in the public sphere that allows for liberty. Therefore, Arendt removes totalitarianism from political structuralism, and makes it an internal struggle within each of us. It is at times hard to help students wrap their heads around Arendt’s understanding of totalitarianism. Movies, however, can help bridge the gap between an abstract book and concrete experiences.

The Hunger Games and the Neverending Story can both help students understand both external and internal responsibility in the public sphere. In my class, students have watched both of these movies for extra credit and analyzed them through Arendt’s quotes (all assignments are posted on the wiki).

In the Neverending Story, “The Nothing” (loss of imagination and individual thought) is destroying the land of Fantasia. The Nothing is a shapeless movement that consumes everything in its path, laying waste to all that it finds. It is also a metaphor for the lack of imagination in the modern world, how we as a modern society are all too ready to become cogs in the modern “everydayness” of society, and live inauthentic lives. The Neverending Story, however, like Arendt’s work, demonstrates the power of the concept of natality (the constant renewing of the world through new people). Arendt states that new people can always challenge the existing order, and even in a totalitarian regime individuals can reject the urge to conform and break the movement. True to Arendt’s ideas, the main character in the movie, rejects the banality and idleness of the expectations of modern life, and is able to think for himself and recreate all that is lost. The main character’s struggle is an excellent example of the struggle within all of us to ensure we think for ourselves and take on the burden of living a meaningful individual live.

In the Hunger Games, the main character Katniss helps students with the concept of responsibility under dictatorship. Like the previous assignment, students will analyze the move and how it relates to quotes from Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” and Origins of Totalitarianism. In the movie or the book the Hunger Games, Katniss understands that in a totalitarian system there is an enormous amount of effort exhibited by those who control the means of political violence and the means of production to perpetuate the current system, even if the system created is one that is fundamentally unfair.

Like Arendt, Katniss also understands that individuals living under totalitarian rule must take responsibility for the world that they are creating; this includes those that are being victimized by it. Arendt calls on the reader to not accept the false dichotomies that are presented by the system and choose one’s own path. Katniss is the embodiment of this and refuses to accept the world that exists and dedicates herself to rejecting the system. She refuses to follow the rules of society even choosing freedom of choice over life itself. Katniss becomes the personification responsibility under dictatorship and natality for young readers and moviegoers alike. After students have completed the assignment, they participate in a dialogue to examine who is ultimately responsible for the terrible conditions in Panem.

Another of Arendt’s themes that is extremely important for high school students is identity. In the United States, we often define identity as something that is individually constructed, however, it is hard to describe oneself without using terms that others attribute to you, like loyal, kind, or deceitful. In reality, we are as much a construction of perception as we are one of personal construction. This is a concept that high school students know all too well as they are constantly judged by their peer groups, or the organizations or activities in which they belong. Students are always trying to answer the question “who am I?” Furthermore, students can become depressed and apathetic as they see themselves trapped by their identity, or even worse, believe perceived identity does not matter and have their world come crashing down when they are confronted by the fact that they will always be seen as a member of a group. Arendt explains the dualistic nature of the human condition through her description of the pariah and the parvenu in Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt examines Jewish identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how the Jewish population found themselves as either active pariahs or parvenus within Central and Western Europe.

In the Sound of Music, Austrian identity and what it means to be perceived as Austrian is hidden in the story of the musical. The Sound of Music is not just about what it means to be Austrian in the late 1930s, but also what it means to try to recreate identity after a horrendous tragedy. Like the previous two assignments, students are asked to watch the movie and compare it to Arendtian quotes, and furthermore, students are asked to read and understand the Austro-fascist period of 1934 – 38. The Vonn Trapp family in the Sound of Music is in a struggle for Austrian identity under the Anschluss period, however, there is more identity searching in the film than there appears to be on the surface. The musical itself is a way of trying to shape identity. After the war, Austrians and the world alike had to answer the question “what does it mean to be Austrian?”. When the assignment is done, the students engage in a much larger dialogue of what identity truly is, and if Arendt if right, what are the larger ramifications of people and nations who do not come to grips with their own identity.

Hannah Arendt, though complex, is a very important political philosopher of the twentieth century, and as I have found and I hope you do too, very approachable for high school students.

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