UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Educating without bannisters : Hannah Arendt on thinking, willing, and judging Jensen, Jill Michelle


As a school principal I make explicit and tacit judgments that affect (often vulnerable) other people each day, a responsibility for which I have little preparation or institutional encouragement. Indeed, exercising judgment has become especially difficult in modernity because of the absence of secure traditions for guidance. Here I draw on Hannah Arendt’s ideas about judging developed in response to the Holocaust that—while not consistent, congruent, or even complete—point to powerful ways to think and judge in a world that lacks ethical bannisters. I begin by outlining Arendt’s efforts to reimagine the ancient Athenian vita activa for a modern pluralistic democratic society. In The Human Condition Arendt describes its destruction and begins to develop democratic remedies based on reconceiving the relationship between public and private spaces—an effort that was severely challenged by the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Particularly alarming to Arendt was the Nazis’ success at destroying the public and private realms, eliminating the conditions she deemed essential for ethical-political judging. In response, Arendt begins to reimagine the vita comtemplativa based on her iconoclastic interpretations of Aristotle and Kant. She drafts the first two sections of The Life of the Mind, Thinking and Willing, before succumbing to a heart attack in 1975. Instead of thinking as searching for answers, she understands thinking as continuous questioning or wondering and as introspectively searching for meaning. Instead of willing as implementing self-sovereignty (as in will-power), she develops the idea of a non-sovereign Will that exercises freedom understood as responsible autonomy in a plural, contingent world. While Arendt never wrote the final section on judging, she did leave various pieces that point to important considerations involved in making ethical-political judgments in “dark times,” that is, when the required private and public spaces for democratic action are absent. Some considerations include: Seeing the individual person; judging as a spectator; choosing our company carefully; finding suitable examples; and imagining possible appraisals. Throughout my thesis I use Arendt’s ideas to understand my own experience and point to implications for my practice.

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