Renewing Responsibility – Reimagining Authority

Co-Author Rivkah Greig

The following is a an abstract for a paper originally planned for St. John’s College Symposium 2020, which we are still writing.

And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

The central idea in Hannah Arendt’s , “The Crisis in Education”, claims that the true stakes of education are those of taking responsibility to ensure that our world will be renewed. Arendt challenges that “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” Arendt goes on to say: “And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Education itself is a perpetual crisis, a nexus of the energies of the old and new, adults and children, authority and freedom, and the stakes are no more and no less than the continuation of a human world.  

In this paper we first investigate a few questions that flow from these stakes. What does it mean for an adult to assume responsibility for the world? What is the nature of such responsibility? Then we question such abstractions: Does this responsibility require the moral demand to sit down and face another human–or in the physical presence of a particular place? We argue that one prepares for this responsibility first through a cultivation of love of such a particular, and that this cultivation is not sprung freshly from the spirit of anyone, but rather through the encounter of education in ones’ youth. We will argue that recognition and acceptance of responsibility is formed by this love, and that it is this acceptance of responsibility that confers authority rather than demands it–while many institutions and systems are built upon the inverse idea, i.e. authority is demanded in order to educate, and that such authority is established by position, power or prestige. The idea of authority in a tradition, or a canon, would thus flow not from the anointing of authority by the powerful or prestigious, but by a recognition that some authors/teachers took up this mantle of responsibility and when pursued with intent, intelligence and when connected to others who did the same, we recognize in their works a love of the world sufficient to take responsibility. It doesn’t mean that they were right, in part or whole, but it does make them crucial to consider. And, when understood this way, a canon  would necessarily be expanded–even if traditional ideas of authority do not grant such works sufficient for this honor. For many of the most responsible are persons who had to take responsibility from the very margins of society and the world, and so their voices, while carrying authority, are not always recognized with the canonical authority that students are due. We conclude that those that teach must consider what kind of power their materials’ authority derives from, and then specifically consider for whom in particular a given work takes or denies responsibility. At a minimum, how this affects the arguments at stake in the work must be discussed. This is a central question, not a marginal one, as responsibility for and to particular students, individual faces and souls, born to an ever dying world they did not choose but to which they wholly belong– is the perpetual crisis of education.