Below is a working document that will be distributed tomorrow via the UCEA blog. Feel free to comment.
Over the past year, I have been reading the works of Hannah Arendt as I move towards new research venues in the areas of educational politics and policy. One consistent theme that cuts across her extensive body of work is the danger of not thinking things through or thoughtlessness. While Arendt most famously addressed the spectacular moral failures of Adolph Eichmann, whose thoughtlessness was lethal for literally millions of Jews,1 she also examined those individuals who were able to think clearly, make moral judgments, and then act decisively under very harsh circumstances. For example, Arendt noted that the Catholic Bishop of Turkey and Greece, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli aided Jews escaping from the Holocaust in a determined defiance of his Vatican superiors who were loathe to antagonize Hitler. Today, Roncalli is better known as the beloved Pope John 23rd.2
In Arendt’s framing, thoughtlessness is a cultivated ability. We are not born with a specific talent or instinct for thoughtlessness. But we can be encouraged to act with thoughtlessness and then be subsequently rewarded by our professional superiors, colleagues, as well as by our friends and family members. Furthermore, thoughtlessness is not confined to any specific identity, but cuts across all social and political classes. Political and social elites can be dangerously thoughtless, while more humble people, like the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, can be heroic for their capacity to think clearly, make moral judgments, and then act according to those moral judgments.
As professors, we can be placed in the ironic position of being praised for our scholarly insights while at the same time being utterly blind to the moral crises surrounding us.3 And so, in light of reading Arendt, I need to address the child sexual abuse scandal that has come to light at my alma mater, The Pennsylvania State University.
Clearly, the leadership of Penn State knew of several instances when Mr. Sandusky is alleged to have sexually assaulted boys. The allegation of child rape in the University’s football facilities, the subsequent bureaucratic non-response, and possible perjury by members of the university’s upper leadership team are all simply horrifying. And yet, the University has long been guilty of believing its own marketing hype, that it was morally superior to other institutions, particularly in the area of intercollegiate athletics. Consequently, although leaders knew there was an on-going grand jury investigation of Mr. Sandusky, and that a local paper was closely following and reporting on this investigation, they simply ignored, and possibly fueled, the sickness operating freely within their own institution.
Now, this false idol of supposed moral superiority–this moral smugness–has been utterly smashed. For many Penn State students, alumni, faculty and staff, the acknowledgement of this harsh and brutal reality has been quite shattering. Additionally, with more possible sexual abuse victims coming forward, the advent of a federal Department of Education investigation into possible violations of the Clery Act, and now an investigation by the San Antonio, Texas police department, the parade of horrors may have only begun. But this outrageous tragedy was enabled by a basic thoughtlessness by multiple university leaders, including the most famous of football coaches. As I have written elsewhere:
Evil isn’t a drooling monster with horns and pitchfork who shows up on your doorstep. Instead, evil is the most winning football coach in Division 1 history who looks like grandpa but, by failing to act in a meaningful way, condoned the rape of an unknown 10-year old boy by default.
As Arendt repeatedly stresses across her body of scholarship, we are all moral actors who have responsibilities beyond our families, jobs, and communities. Furthermore, our moral judgments can be quite fallible, particularly when we fail to see the world as it is and not as what we expect it or wish it to be. We can all fall into moral morasses when we are more concerned with re-assuring our students, our bosses, our colleagues, and most especially ourselves than confronting painful truths. But the price of thoughtlessness is always borne by more than those who embrace it.
1. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (New York, Penguin Books), 1963.
2. Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times. (New York: Mariner Books), 1970.
3. Arendt stopped calling herself a ‘philosopher” in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Noting that Western civilization, philosophy, and philosophers had utterly failed, instead, she used the term “political theorist” to describe herself. The distinction was thus: Philosophy dealt with the nature or condition of man. Arendt was more interested in the condition of “men.” Since all humans lived in community, it was this collective that was most important for investigation and analysis. This approach did not ignore individual moral responsibility, but it was individuals acting collectively that could steer countries towards good or genocide. See Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company), 2010.