The first page test: Hannah Arendt edition

There’s an amazing amount of dreck about – masquerading as the latest thinking. It’s not that there isn’t a lot to think about, so it’s easy to think you should read this or that. How to choose? One of my filters is the first page test, or even the first paragraph test. Does the first paragraph have arresting ideas in it. Ideally does it intimate a whole bunch of ideas in ways that make you think the author might have been pondering them for some time, bringing them into some compelling relation to each other.

Because there are books that start well and you then end up wading through dreck, you can also apply the random paragraph or page test. This also helps because you can get an idea in the bookstore and read the first chapter on your ebook sample.

Why am I telling you this. Because over the fold I have the first page of an essay by Hannah Arendt called “The Crisis in Education”. Imagine if every first page had what it has? Note, during the afternoon, I ran into another cracker of an opening, and so you’ll find it below Arndt for your delectation.

(Disclaimer and declaration of conformity with Troppo’s ethics policy: I’ve rushed into print. I’ve not got beyond the paragraphs quoted below. Perhaps she goes on to develop the thesis that our education system is in crisis because of alien abduction. Perhaps she thinks it will all be fixed by a giant monocle mounted on a pedestal. If that is the case then my ‘front page test’ is thus refuted. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s pretty much plain sailing as far as I can see.)

“The Crisis in Education” by Hannah Arendt (1954)

The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms. In America, one of its most characteristic and suggestive aspects is the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude, reported on almost daily in the newspapers. To be sure, no great imagination is required to detect the dangers of a constantly progressing decline of elementary standards throughout the entire school system, and the seriousness of the trouble has been properly underlined by the countless unavailing efforts of the educational authorities to stem the tide. Still, if one compares this crisis in education with the political experiences of other countries in the twentieth century, with the revolutionary turmoil after the First World War, with concentration and extermination camps, or even with the profound malaise which, appearances of prosperity to the contrary notwithstanding, has spread throughout Europe ever since the end of the Second World War, it is somewhat difficult to take a crisis in education as seriously as it deserves. It is tempting indeed to regard it as a local phenomenon, unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States which are not likely to find a counterpart in other parts of the world.

Yet, if this were true, the crisis in our school system would not have become a political issue and the educational authorities would not have been unable to deal with it in time. Certainly more is involved here than the puzzling question of why Johnny can’t read. Moreover, there is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected. It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false. One can take it as a general rule in this century that whatever is possible in one country may in the foreseeable future be equally possible in almost any other.

Aside from these general reasons that would make it seem advisable for the layman to be concerned with trouble in fields about which, in the specialist’s sense, he may know nothing (and this, since I am not a professional educator, is of course my case when I deal with a crisis in education), there is another even more cogent reason for his concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis–which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices–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. The disappearance of prejudices simply means that we have lost the answers on which we ordinarily rely without even realizing they were originally answers to questions. A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgments. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides.

But wait there’s more. Here’s the opening of Amatya Sen on “Merit and Justice”.

Justitia and Justitium

I have been asked to write on “Justice in Meritocratic Environments.” The idea of meritocracy may have many virtues, but clarity is not one of them. The lack of clarity may relate to the fact, as I shall presently argue, that the concept of “merit” is deeply contingent on our views of a good society. Indeed, the notion of merit is fundamentally derivative, and thus cannot but be qualified and contingent. There is some elementary tension between (1) the inclination to see merit in fixed and absolute terms, and (2) the ultimately instrumental character of merit—its dependence on the concept of “the good” in the relevant society.

This basic contrast is made more intense by the tendency, in practice, to characterize “merit” in inflexible forms reflecting values and priorities of the past, often in sharp conflict with conceptions that would be needed for seeing merit in the context of contemporary objectives and concerns. Some of the major difficulties with “meritocracy” arise, I would argue, from this internal conflict within the concept of “merit” itself.

When I received the invitation to write on justice in meritocracies, I was reminded of an amusing letter I had received a couple of years earlier from W. V. O. Quine (addressed jointly to John Rawls and me, dated December 17, 1992):

I got thinking about the word justice, alongside solstice. Clearly, the latter, solstitium, is sol + a reduced stit + from stat-, thus “solar standstill”; so I wondered about justitium: originally a legal standstill? I checked in Meillet, and he bore me out. Odd! It meant a court vacation. Checking further, I found that justitia is unrelated to justitium. Justitia is just(um) + –itia, thus “just-ness,” quite as it should be, whereas justitium is jus+stitium.

I shall argue that meritocracy, and more generally the practice of rewarding merit, is essentially underdefined, and we cannot be sure about its content—and thus about the claims regarding its “justice”—until some further specifications are made (concerning, in particular, the objectives to be pursued, in terms of which merit is to be, ultimately, judged). The merit of actions — and (derivatively) that of persons performing actions—cannot be judged independent of the way we understand the nature of a good (or an acceptable) society. There is, thus, something of justitium or “standstill” in our understanding of merit, which involves at least a temporary “stay” (if not quite a “court vacation”). Indeed, examining the nature of this “standstill,” which is ethically and politically illuminating, may be a better way of understanding the place of meritocracy in modern society than seeing it as a part of some categorical justitia that demands our compliance.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Philosophy, Political theory. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The first page test: Hannah Arendt edition

  1. Well the only quality of alien abduction, about Arendt’s “The crisis in education” is, why the heck is it not a well known, lucid, classic ??
    Thanks for putting it up +1

  2. derrida derider says:

    Sen’s opening is characteristically limpid, and is a good illustration of your point that it means the rest is probably worth reading (as indeed Sen usually is worth reading).
    Arendt’s is both pompous and convoluted – perhaps its a translation? Anyway it doesn’t make me want to read the rest, but I suppose YMMV.

    • DD
      She was a philosopher , its worth persevering.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks DD. Sen’s beginning struck me as a very nice illustration of the kind of discourse that’s shunted away from normal economists’ schtick because it begins by interrogating a concept. That’s enough to make any typically trained economist nervous, because they’re thinking ‘when do we get to the real work – i.e. the mathematical jujitsu?’

  3. R. N. England says:

    While science continues to advance every year, non-science has been in crisis for the last 60, at least. The lesson in that is that there is a perfectly good science of human behaviour that has been shunned.

  4. R. N. England says:

    The science of human behaviour that B. F. Skinner developed is the solid foundation the humanities need, but its established practitioners are outraged by it because it undercuts some of their passionately held beliefs, as well as the foundations of their hard-earned status. John Passmore likened Skinner to Stalin, for example. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner reminds us that the humanities have advanced little since the days of ancient Greece, lurching from crisis to crisis through history, whereas science continues to advance, mostly steadily, far beyond the ideas of the ancient Greeks. That book deals with the philosophy of the science of human behaviour, as well as the reasons why it is so difficult for people trained in the humanities to accept. There is a review of it here.

    Skinner also wrote books on verbal behaviour and the technology of teaching. It’s a pity he didn’t write much about economics, though he pioneered the science behind gambling. Money is, of course, a conditioned reinforcer, and it is clear that he thought “the good life” to be much richer than one shaped mainly by money.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Skinner ey?

      Well I can’t say I’ve paid a lot of attention to him. His enterprise seemed to be pretty scientistic to me. Perhaps I only know him from caricatures of his views. It was his influence, I presume behind the kinds of madness against which Harry Harlow battled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.