Same All Over??

As readers of this blog know, I have gone on (and on) about the deteriorating condition of education in this country. I have tended to focus on the United States because that is where I live and our system is the one I know best — from reading and from personal experience. But I find that things are not much better in many other parts of the world (except Finland, apparently) and have read timely criticisms from other bloggers in England, Canada, and most recently in India where I read a couple of entries written by a blogger who calls himself “MrUpbeat.” In one of those posts he noted that:

“Our education system is still teaching us how to become clerks and do what [we are] being told to do. Have we become habituated to do what is commanded to us ?”

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist I do wonder aloud if there is a concerted effort being made in this country to keep the young dumb and obedient (“clerks”) so they can do the jobs allotted to them and Heaven forbid they be made to think.  Years ago, In Italy, one of the leading radicals,  Antonio Gramsci, insisted that students be taught the classics that make them think rather than the grunt courses that teach them only how to make widgets and follow orders. Gramsci was convinced that in his day and in his country the wealthy had developed a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Those in power, he noted, propagate their own values and norms so that those values become the common sense values of all and thus maintain the status quo.  Noam Chomsky would agree, as he told us not long ago, referring to America:

“[Officials insist] This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats. But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”

I know my complaints against an obdurate educational system in this country that has serious problems become tiresome. I do apologize. But this is a pattern that is developing around the world and it does not bode well. We need folks who can think and solve problems now more than ever — and in a democracy we need citizens who will elect the wisest leaders (not fools even if they claim to be a “genius”). So many of the complaints we all have and which we air from day-to-day come down to an uneducated electorate that is frustrated and acts on impulse and is finding it increasingly difficult to find its way out of the proverbial paper bag.

In one sense it is reassuring to read blogs from around the world that reinforce one’s own thoughts. But when those thoughts are based on a deep concern for the system of education that is unable to turn out thoughtful young people it is disheartening to hear others around the world share the same concerns.

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E-Literacy

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she “can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.” High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators. They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy “is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.” So say its defenders who go on to insist that “The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside,  thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with others. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going. Their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.

Uncomfortable People

The removal of Jon Greenberg from his teaching position in a Seattle High School is disturbing for a number of reasons. Apparently, Mr. Greenberg taught a course called “Citizenship and Justice” that employed what is called the “courageous conversations” teaching method that encouraged honest confrontations among students about their personal experiences of racial discrimination and injustice. The course had been taught successfully for ten years but recently a student complained to her parents that the course made her feel uncomfortable because Greenberg “created an intimidating educational environment.” Her parents complained to the school board who removed Mr. Greenberg from his position and moved him elsewhere. The story contains a brief, but telling, comment by another teacher in the same school system who suggests that the move will have ramifications:

Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.

Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.

“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”

There can be little doubt that the decision by the school board will have a “chilling effect” on the teaching of controversial subjects throughout the Seattle school system — if not beyond. Whenever a teacher is told that he or she must steer away from certain subjects, or teach the subject differently — by an administrator or the administrator’s superiors — the results will invariably be felt throughout the system. It is not simply a matter of academic freedom, which is a value recently honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a matter of an open system that is designed to help students think for themselves as opposed to a system in which students are simply taught what to think and when to think it. In a word, it is the difference between a system that focuses on education, properly conceived, and education reduced to training. The people in Seattle should be disturbed by the fact that their school board seems to want their schools to turn out robots rather than thinking adults.

But there is a feature of this story that disturbs me even more: it is the notion that a student can complain to her parents and the result is that the entire weight of the Seattle school bureaucracy is brought down on the shoulders of a man who is, from all reports, a stellar teacher of young people. As Edelstein said, “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.” No doubt. No one individual should have that sort of power. And those who call for more involvement in the schools by the parents might do well to think about the involvement of this student’s parents in this particular course. It’s not that unusual for the parents to side with the administration against the teacher (and vice versa) when they think their child has been mistreated.

Academic freedom is a precious and absolutely necessary value to defend in our schools at all levels. Teachers must not be told what to teach, though if what they teach turns out to be offensive there must be a way for the student to withdraw from that course without penalty if he or she is made to feel “uncomfortable.” But the truth often makes people feel “uncomfortable,” and we must be wary of those who want people fired or silenced simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Our problem is, on the whole, we are much too comfortable and as Arnold Toynbee said years ago, humans cease to think when that is the case.

Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

Being Judgmental

[This is the second of two “re-blogs” resulting from the visit of our granddaughters last week. I have reworked it a bit.]

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she thinks is “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not “look themselves in the mirror,” i.e.,  cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. This is why engaging with people who disagree with us is so terribly important to real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we show not to think and to associate only with others of like minds that is the greatest danger as we are surrounded by the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation, and with cultural diversity rather than intellectual diversity. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with our own agendas and with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Unexamined Life

In Hannah Arendt’s superb book Responsibility and Judgment she draws lessons from the terrors that occurred in Germany before and during the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she calls “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. She is convinced evil comes from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think — to exercise our faculty of judgment.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however, as a moment’s consideration of “talk shows” on radio and TV will attest. Socrates showed us many times that our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudices that prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought. For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and the insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, he only knew that he did not know. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers, like Heidegger), but a few ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but as responsible individuals we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt, and even skepticism, must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought.

Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities almost certainly would never have happened. The refusal to be “judgmental” is irresponsible. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we succumb to the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with “making a living” and the attendant creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Training Or Education?

I have argued this topic before, but it bears repeating in light of an excellent comment making the rounds on Facebook. The comment was made by Chris Hedges, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to the New York Times, among other major papers. His comment, in part, reminds us that “We’ve bought into the idea that education should be about training and ‘success’ defined monetarily rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers…” I couldn’t agree more.

Bearing in mind that education begins in the home with parents who have time for their children and are eager to see them learn, there are a number of things wrong with the direction American education has taken since the 1940s at least. We have bought into the progressive education fiction that teaching is about the kids when it is supposed to be about what the kids learn. Robert Hutchins and John Dewey fought over this issue for years and Dewey’s child-centered system of education won the day. But Dewey soon left Columbia Teachers College after his triumph and washed his hands of the whole thing: he didn’t like the way his ideas were being misrepresented by his “supporters.” Educators have further watered down Dewey’s ideas of “child-centered” education.

We like to think that we have placed the kids first when in fact they are forgotten in the jargon-filled nonsense about entitlement and self-esteem. Kids are told they are wonderful just because they breathe in and out, whether or not they have actually done anything worthy of praise. They know this is a lie: they sense lies the way a squirrel senses where the nut is hidden. And they are handed the keys to the educational kingdom rather than having to work for them, forgetting that those things that come too easily are really not worth having — while the nonsense about entitlement leads to rampant grade inflation and passing along kids who have learned nothing. Real learning takes effort and that effort is rewarded by a sense of accomplishment that becomes inner satisfaction and requires no pat on the head. And the subject matter that is learned is of central importance.

But Hedges has his finger on the single most dangerous mistake we have made in recent years: we have confused education with job training. It started in the 1950s when the educational establishment was concerned that drop-out rates were climbing dangerously and needed to be stopped. They did research and discovered that high school and especially college graduates made more money in their lifetimes than did those who dropped out of school. So the marketing machine was set in motion and the theme was developed that kids should stay in school in order to be successful — monetarily, as Hedges says (the terms we have decided are the only ones by which success can be measured). Big Mistake! Education is not about jobs or making money. It is about putting kids in possession of their own minds, helping them to achieve true freedom, the ability to think for themselves, separate truth from nonsense, and not to suffer fools. These are the critical skills Hedges mentions and he couldn’t be more right.

The current presidential contest reveals the consequences of this sort of confusion. Instead of dealing with the major issues facing this country and this planet, about which we hear practically nothing, we are focused instead in “jobs and the economy” as though these things are the only things that matter. But a society made up of miseducated people who have been trained to work and not to think can easily be duped into swallowing this line of nonsense — without even knowing what they have ingested.

What matters are not the jobs and the economy in the end. What matters is the survival of human beings on a planet under siege by corporate greed and a business mentality that has convinced us that money is the only thing that really matters and is solidly behind the misperception that education is all about job training. As Hedges goes on to conclude, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.” Amen to that!

Nuts and Bolts

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells about how disenchanted employers are with their employees who have majored in business but can’t use their minds. That comes under the heading of “Duhhh.” As the article notes, The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses. I have been saying this ad nauseam, as readers of these blogs and my book on education and published articles will attest. It has been known for years that those trained to do specific tasks are too close to the trees to see the forest.  For example, students who major in business have historically scored low on the LSAT tests required by law schools, a fairly accurate indicator of weak analytical skills. As this article notes, such students lack communication skills as well. Employers have been saying for some time that they need employees who can make an oral presentation, read and write memos, and “think outside the box.” This complaint is not all that new.

The explanation is not hard to find. Increasingly in recent years local school boards, made up of small businessmen and businesswomen, farmers, and a cross-section of the local population have embraced the business model that stresses the bottom line and have been pushing vocational courses in the public schools. At the level of higher education, the business model has been adopted as well and administrators are increasingly trained in “academic administration,” with a smattering of liberal arts courses and the faculties themselves are for the most part trained in narrow disciplines while the liberal arts wallow in obscurity and enrollments dwindle. It is perfectly understandable that the business world would now discover that its employees cannot use their minds even though they can do a few things fairly well. But it is not only business that has suffered from the increased emphasis on vocational training.

Society, especially a democratic society, needs people who can think, who can make the intelligent choices and work through the mud that surrounds them. But while companies, especially large corporations, may complain about the inability of their employees to think critically,  they assuredly do not want people who are likely to stir up the mud. And you can’t have it both ways. So they have not been willing to endorse a meaningful course of study in the liberal arts for future employees and have been only too willing to push for more business courses and increasing emphasis on “career” paths through the minefield of both lower and higher education. So the result is a plethora of well-trained but uneducated employees who have a narrow focus and cannot see the wider canvas.

Employers will continue to complain that they need employees with communication skills who can write an intelligible memo and make persuasive oral presentations, solve problems and think critically. But, liberal arts courses are expensive and don’t appeal to the masses of poorly trained students coming out of the high schools who want a piece of paper that will make them marketable in the short term. Furthermore, employers will continue to choose those graduates with business and marketing majors because they don’t need expensive training, and they won’t be likely to think too much about what they are doing. Eventually the companies will figure out that they can’t have it both ways and they will have to choose between employees who can think for themselves or employees who will do what they are told. It’s not hard to guess which choice they will make.

Note the irony: the education establishment has increasingly embraced the business model and even introduced a plethora of business courses into high school and college curricula (with the encouragement of business itself) and now those in business are complaining that the people working for them can’t use their minds.  It’s called being “hoist by your own petard.”

Socratic Doubt

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil — which she calls “banal” — and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by suggesting that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged in our culture these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we listen to the bloat and rhetoric of the politicians and demagogs who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”