“I’m glad you’re all here instead of at the beach”, says lecturer Julien Kloeg as he begins the lecture. It’s a sunny day in late summer and the temperature has climbed past thirty degrees. The aircon is humming and the curtains are drawn, but they can’t keep out the heat.
Lecture: Essential Contemporary Challenges: Philosophy and Practice (Wednesdays at 4pm in the Theil building, CB-5)
Lecturer: Julien Kloeg
Subject: Reflection on Hannah Arendt’s views on education
Audience: Despite the lovely weather outside, there were nearly two hundred sweaty students in the lecture hall.
Reason to attend the lecture: One of the students, Alessandro, expresses it like a true philosopher: “This lecture makes me question many things in life, and my life feels more meaningful.”
Little Rock Nine
The big screen behind Kloeg is showing a photo from 1957 that captured an historic moment: it shows Elisabeth Eckford walking to school, carrying a book. White students stand behind her, shouting. Eckford is one of the Little Rock Nine – nine Black teenagers who were in the spotlight during the fight against racial segregation in American education.
In 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court decided that laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional, and Black children could therefore officially attend any school.
Three years later, the school board in the city of Little Rock opened the doors to both Black and white students. The governor of the state was strongly opposed to this decision. When nine Black students – the Little Rock Nine – tried to enter their new school for the first time, white protesters hurled abuse at them. The governor even had the students stopped by members of the Arkansas National Guard.
A student in the middle of the lecture hall whispered to the student next to him: “Shit, she’s probably as old as my grandma now.”
Social versus public domain
The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote down her reflections on the Little Rock Nine in 1959. In her essay, she wrote that it is not for the government to declare whether racial segregation in a school is unconstitutional. According to her, what happened in Little Rock was the politicisation of education, and children were the victims.
“So”, one student asked, “she was in favour of racial segregation?”
“Her views are more nuanced”, the lecturer replies. Arendt divided the world into three domains: personal, social and public. The personal domain is where individual lives are lived. In the social domain, the community sets the rules, while the public domain is where society is governed. “She didn’t approve of racial segregation, but she didn’t think politicians should make the rules.”
Arendt’s point was that equality is a political concept that exists in the public domain, whereas education is in the social domain. She believed that you can’t apply the idea of equality to education, because in doing so you politicise education. “When politicians get involved, education becomes a tool”, the lecturer explains. Arendt believed that schools – as social communities – should decide their policies for themselves.
Food for thought
One of the students, Annelisa, listened closely to the lecture. She finds the subject fascinating. “You’re part of the education system from a young age, but you never stop and think: what exactly is education? Who gets to make the rules?”
Another student, Maud, is sitting on the other side of the lecture hall. She says it took her a while to get used to this lecture. She is a second-year Business Administration student who is taking Philosophy this year for the first time. “Philosophy lectures are more about telling a story, whereas in Business Administration I get presented with facts and methods. Here, you’re challenged to think, and to form your own opinion. Fortunately, the lecturer explains the story clearly, using simple examples and images. I find that more enjoyable than reading big chunks of text.”
Her fellow student Alessandro found the discussion to be the most valuable part of the lecture. “It’s fascinating to see how varied people’s opinions on a subject can be. It stimulates and enriches you. The icing on the cake is that the lecturer leads the discussion skilfully and provides us with new insights.”
Editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema follow a college every month. Together, they describe and depict how teaching is done, what happens in the lecture hall and what students think of the lecture.
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