Hannah Arendt: American Education

hannah-arendtHannah Arendt (1906-1975), a German-born Jewish-American political theorist, wrote an essay on America’s education system in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959) discusses de-segregation, bussing, states’ rights, etc. Some of her insights still apply, especially re: Common Core. Learning Spaces (pdf) has the complete article.

It is perfectly true, as Southerners have repeatedly pointed out, that the Constitution is silent on education and that legally as well as traditionally, public education lies in the domain of state legislation. The counter-argument that all public schools today are Federally supported is weak, for Federal subvention is intended in these instances to match and supplement local contributions and does not transform the schools into Federal institutions, like the Federal District courts. It would be very unwise indeed if the Federal government—which now must come to the assistance of more and more enterprises that once were the sole responsibility of the states were to use its financial support as a means of whipping the states into agreement with positions they would otherwise be slow or altogether unwilling to adopt. ….

The right of parents to bring up their children as they see fit is a right of privacy, belonging to home and family. Ever since the introduction of compulsory education, this right has been challenged and restricted, but not abolished, by the right of the body politic to prepare children to fulfill their future duties as citizens. The stake of the government in the matter is undeniable—as is the right of the parents. The possibility of private education provides no way out of the dilemma, because it would make the safeguarding of certain private rights dependent upon economic status and consequently underprivilege those who are forced to send their children to public schools. Parents’ rights over their children are legally restricted by compulsory education and nothing else. The state has the unchallengeable right to prescribe minimum requirements for future citizenship and beyond that to further and support the teaching of subjects and professions which are felt to be desirable and necessary to the nation as a whole. All this involves, however, only the content of the child’s education, not the context of association and social life which … develops out of his attendance at school; otherwise one would have to challenge the right of private schools to exist. ….

Because the many different factors involved in public education can quickly be set to work at cross purposes, government intervention … will always be rather controversial. Hence it seems highly questionable whether it was wise to begin enforcement of civil rights in a domain where no basic human and no basic political right is at stake, and where other rights—social and private—whose protection is no less vital, can so easily be hurt. (500-02)

Arendt, Hannah.  “Reflections on Little Rock.”  Dissent 6.1 (1959): 45-56.  Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law.  Ed. Werner Sollors.  Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2000.  492-502.

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