Arendt’s crisis in education

18 min read

On the Michaela Community School (UK) website, Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay on education, The Crisis in Education, is used to justify their approach to strict discipline policy and a curriculum based on knowledge.

They defend their approach against criticism, that their approach is authoritarian, they say authoritarianism applies only to violent totalitarian states and make a clear distinction between their own strict behaviour policy and state-level violent authoritarianism:

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes (Michaeala Blog post).

My purpose here is not a critique of Michaela Community School, I have my reservations about it, I have not visited, we’ll leave it there. But Michaela did lead me to Hannah Arendt’s essay at a time when I have been reading her work more generally. However, her essay is misrepresented on the Michaela blog, that was my first impression at least. So, this blog post (essay) is something of an investigation from that starting point. To be fair Arendt’s essay is a complex piece, wrestling with her own self-acknowledged ignorance about public education in the USA and drawing on her own ideas about authority and ideas of past and future. Her philosophy is so entwined with totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s communist Russia that these themes weave through the essay as barely seen threads.

Arendt’s essay on education features in her book Between Past and Future first published in 1961 in the US. Jerome Kohn’s introduction in the later Penguin Edition (Arendt, 2006) explains that the underlying theme in each essay in Between Past and Future is the rupture in the Western philosophic-political tradition. In the first essay, “Tradition and the Modern Age”, Arendt presents a view that the tradition of political philosophy culminates and ends in the thought of Karl Marx. The philosophical ‘tradition’ was of that of the authority of the philosopher and it was the function of ordinary people to enact such ‘truths’. Marx turns this on its head; thought and political ideas were more pragmatic and dialectic. The philosophical authoritative tradition was broken with a new conceptual assemblage, one of tensions, peoples, society, class and struggle. This is at the heart of what Arendt refers to as a crisis in authority, not necessarily in a deprecative way, but as an observer, as a political philosopher.

Before looking at Arendt’s essay in detail, I want to set out the context – the context of public education in the USA in the 1950s at the time when she penned her image of educational crisis. Arendt arrived in the USA in 1941, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. Public education in the USA had been undergoing reforms for a many years. Cremin (1961) traces changes in American education back to the 1890s . Cremin[1] cites the influences of William James, Francis W. Parker, Edward L Thorndike and John Dewey which all stem from Herbert Spencer. These influences led to the espousal of child-centred or progressive education. Egan (2003) characterises progressivism as based on a belief that in order to educate a child effectively “…it is vital to attend to [their] nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these” (Egan, 2003, p. 5).

Cuban (1993) describes how in the decades after 1890 there was increased efforts to introduce student-centred teaching practices in schools. “By 1940, the vocabulary of pedagogical progressives had rapidly turned into the mainstream talk of both teachers and administrators” (p. 45). However, in spite of the discourse, the reality in schools between 1920 and 1940 was that teachers constructed hybrid practices based on traditional teacher-centred practice and progressive child-centred practice. Cuban considers that teachers faced a fundamental dilemma as they attempted to reconcile the influence of progressives with the day-to-day realities of schools, which more naturally calls for austere teacher-centred approaches. There was something in the process of implementation of progressivism that contorted it and led it away from the advocates’ vision [2].

Dewey’s vision for an education based on the needs of individual children was, according to Cremin (1964), misinterpreted and misunderstood. It had been Dewey’s intention to develop a curriculum that started with the child’s experience and culminate in more traditional disciplines. However, this was lost in a wave of national anti-intellectualism (Toch, 1991 cited in Kinsler & Gamble, 2001). Anti-intellectualism appears a defining feature of public life in the USA, at times, like the present, it becomes fervent, at other times it abates. Hofstadter (1963), in a Pulitzer Prize winning work of non-fiction on the subject, attributed American anti-intellectualism to religion, politics and business. Through this, it is likely that progressivism was led to abandon the teaching of knowledge in the traditional sense, but this was not a Deweyian vision.

The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern Protestantism. Religion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinement in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism (Hofstadter, 1963, p. 55).

McCarthyism in the 1950s was something of a past zenith in American political anti-intellectualism where critical thought was treated with at best disdain at worst as treasonable. It is important to note that at the time Joseph McCarthy was leading political repression, Arendt was contemplating authority and crisis in education.

For education, there is something of a perfect storm for progressivism, the misinterpretation of the educational philosophy of progressive child-centred education, the challenges and twists as reform ideas are implemented in the classroom against an anti-intellectual backdrop with derision for knowledge and ideas. It is not my intention in this essay to defend progressive or child-centred education, but I am in accord with some of its philosophy, although I am opposed to approaches that rely on children (re)discovering knowledge. John Dewey was undoubtedly a progressive educator but with a strong sense of scholarship and intellectualism. Hofstadter is critical of Dewey’s progressivism, but there appears to be a misunderstanding of Dewey’s educational philosophy, which an aspect of is as follows:

…education is neither a process of unfolding from within nor is it a training of faculties resident in mind itself. It is rather the formation of mind by setting up certain associations or connections of content by means of subject matter presented from without. Education proceeds by instruction taken in a strictly literal sense, a building into the mind from without (Dewey, 1916, chapter 6).

There is little sense here and in other work, that Dewey was an anti-intellectual progressive, his education ideas were progressive and child-centred but not in the absence of knowledge.

In the context of Arendt writing her essay on the crisis in education, there are particular circumstances that must be considered:

  • There is a progressive child-centred reform agenda in public education in the 1950s.
  • Practically many teachers speak the talk of progressivism but classrooms still have the character of traditional teaching with, for example, the traditional classroom formatting, tables in rows and teacher-directed learning.
  • There is a cultural context of anti intellectualism further exacerbated by McCarthyism from 1947 to 1956.

It is reasonable to conclude, as Arendt did, that the crisis of education was a result of anti-intellectual progressivism. Let us now look at the particulars and contexts of her direct criticism of progressive education. She summarises these “ruinous measures” as three assumptions as follows:

The first is that there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar be left to govern… [The adult] can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening (Arendt, 2006, p. 177).

In this, Arendt characterises progressivism in terms of children’s discovery, where children live in a separate and distinct world from adults and this, as a tenet of child-centred teaching, must be respected and supported. She is deeply critical of the formation of what she sees as a separate child and adult world, with children characterised as an oppressed minority. She then goes on to address the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy.

The second basic assumption which has come into question in the present crisis has to do with teaching. Under the influences of of modern psychology and the tenets of pragmatism, pedagogy has developed in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught…This in turn means not only that the students are actually left to their own resources but the most legitimate source of the teacher’s authority as the person who, turn it whatever way one will, still knows more and can do more than oneself is no longer effective (p. 178 – 179).
Arendt’s third assumption is aimed at the notion that “you can know and understand only what you have done yourself….”(p. 179), the teacher’s role is to not to pass on ‘dead knowledge’ but to “…constantly demonstrate how it’s produced” (p. 179). This seems, on the face of it, the dichotomy of knowledge and skill that are regularly barked over on social media today.

Arendt’s three progressive assumptions are: a) the existence of an autonomous child world, b) that pedagogy does not involve the teaching of knowledge or teacher authority and c) learning is doing rather than the acquisition of knowledge. But this is not the main point of Arendt’s essay as I will show, and indeed, having launched what appears to be an assault on progressivism she draws back. Vis-à-vis the third progressive assumption, she says, ” this description is at fault … because it obviously exaggerates in order to drive home a point” (Arendt, 2006, p. 180). This is the point about her criticism of progressivism, she is making a point. Yet reflecting and echoing the media coverage “reported daily in newspapers” (p. 170), she recognises that while newspapers are reporting declining standards, and that while she restates the above well-rehearsed criticisms of progressive education, she acknowledges that “Certainly more is involved here than the puzzling question of why Johnny can’t read” (p. 171). In other words, there is something more than an assault on progressivism. But there is a legitimate criticism to be made about the implementation of an anti-intellectual progressivism.

Arendt goes on to state a critical question and what is the crux of the essay:

Which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves…And, second, what can we learn from this crisis for the essence of education…? (p. 180).

Arendt’s criticism of progressivism is largely built around the idea of authority. While the author of the piece for Michaela Community School site has taken that to mean that children need strict discipline, the point Arendt is making is wholly more subtle. You see for Arendt authority demands obedience, but what she means by this can easily be misunderstood.

Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance (Arendt, 2006, p. 92).

For Arendt, the essence of authority is hierarchy and this comes from the tradition of intellectual hierarchy as part of the western philosophical political tradition. But, as she observes, this authority of tradition, based on and in the past is contemporarily in crisis. This is the backdrop for the compilation of essays in which The Crisis of Education appears.

This leaves us with something of an unresolved problem, having dispatched the progressive educational model in which children are treated as a distinct society, in which they have to form their own authority and politic, we cannot then turn to the traditional authority as an escape. What Arendt drives at is the superiority of adult over child, but this is temporary as the child develops. Arendt’s sense of authority in education is based on a fluid dynamic of adult superiority which evolves as the child develops. It is what I might describe as ‘professional relationships’ to trainees on an initial teacher education programme. It is the idea that the teacher has adult authority and can communicate a set of rules or principles, but at the same time the child is growing to adulthood and must ultimately be respected as an equal. There is in no sense the espousal of a zero-tolerance or no-excuses approach to education as a resolution of the crisis in education.

Arendt’s criticism of progressive education, as she believed to be existent in American schools, is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies:

…by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority[…]the tyranny of their own group against which they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee because the world of adults is barred to them (Arendt, 2006, p. 178).

Overall, Arendt raises some valid criticisms about education, criticism that continue to be relevant. In the essay, she does not propose a particular solution. This is understandable since, as she acknowledges, she is not a professional educator. She suggests that necessarily education must be conservative, in the sense of ‘conservation’.

[Conservatism] is the essence of educational activity, whose task is to cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new (Arendt, 2006, p. 188).

But she is happy to recognise that this is a paradox, because, she says, if the world strives to retain the status quo, then this can only lead to destruction. It follows that what vexes educators is the paradox of educational conservatism in a changing world. She observes:

Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve the newness and introduce it as a new thing in an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction (p. 189).

In spite of this paradoxical and impossible demand on the educator, Arendt makes a clear statement of what schools should do, “…the function of a school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (p. 192).

To conclude, Arendt identifies the problems with 1950s American educational progressivism, the criticisms are justified in the historical context.  What she develops from this is what schools should do, though this is paradoxical. Can we, therefore, derive anything from Arendt’s critique? Yes, I think she sets educators a considerable challenge to deliver a critical progressivism, not dissimilar to the approach put forward by Dewey. In that the educator, the teacher that is, must manage tensions of conservatism and progress, and past and future, in a developmentally appropriate way. What is clear is that Arendt is not arguing for a strict and exclusively knowledge-based education as proposed by the Michaela Community School.


[1] I have cited Cremin’s historical analysis from:

Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] I imagine something similar to Black and Wiliam’s ideas of formative assessment being implemented, or Dweck’s mindset theory. The implementation of which takes little account of cultural practices and the result is kind of superficial enactment rather than principled implementation. This diminishes the power of the original idea.


Arendt, H. (2006). Between past and future: eight exercises in political thought. New York: Penguin Books.
Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957 (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J (1916). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. The Macmillan Co.
Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-intellectualism in American life (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Kinsler, K., & Gamble, M. (2001). Reforming schools. London ; New York: Continuum.


  1. This is baffling. You have acknowledged the importance of “obedience” to Arendt. Yet this expectation of obedience is *exactly* the belief that separates those who espouse ” a zero-tolerance or no-excuses approach” from those who oppose it.

    1. Yes, Arendt considers obedience necessary in education, but she expressly states that obedience is not coercion or persuasion. No excuses or zero-tolerance are inherently coercive. Her view is that obedience comes from the superiority of the teacher and student’s recognition of that authority. As the child mature then that relationship has to change.

      1. Sorry, but what she says still fits in with the zero tolerance and no excuses approach more than it does the alternative. These terms refer to the expectation of obedience, not to the methods of enforcing it. A zero tolerance or no excuses school doesn’t have extra punishments that other schools don’t have, they are just used more thoroughly and consistently to ensure higher standards.

        As you named Michaeala, I should point out that they use 20 minute detentions, i.e. ones shorter than other schools; they just use them much more consistently and with an expectation of obedience. As I say, the difference is over expectations, not coercion.

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