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How to Exist Politically and Learn from It: Hannah Arendt and the Problem of Democratic Education


by Gert Biesta — 2010

Background/Context: In discussions about democratic education, there is a strong tendency to see the role of education as that of the preparation of children and young people for their future participation in democratic life. A major problem with this view is that it relies on the idea that the guarantee for democracy lies in the existence of a properly educated citizenry so that once all citizens have received their education, democracy will simply follow.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The question that is explored in this article is whether it is possible to think of the relationship between education and democracy differently than in terms of preparation. This is important not only to be able to acknowledge the political nature of democratic education but also to be able to acknowledge the political “foundation” of democratic politics itself.

Research Design: The argumentation in the article is developed through a critical analysis and discussion of the work of Hannah Arendt, with a specific focus on her ideas about the relationship between education and politics and her views on the role of understanding in politics.

Findings/Results: Arendt’s writings on the relationship between education and politics seem to be informed by a “developmentalistic” perspective in which it is maintained that the child is not yet ready for political life, so education has to be separated from politics and seen as a preparation for future participation in political life. Arendt’s writings on politics and the role of understanding in political life point in a different direction. They articulate what it means to exist political—that is, to exist together in plurality—and highlight that political existence is neither based on, nor can be guaranteed by, moral qualities such as tolerance and respect.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The main conclusion of the article is that democratic education should not be seen as the preparation of citizens for their future participation in political life. Rather, it should focus on creating opportunities for political existence inside and outside schools. Rather than thinking of democratic education as learning for political existence, it is argued that the focus of our educational endeavours should be on how we can learn from political existence.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 2, 2010, p. 556-575
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15744, Date Accessed: 12/18/2017 3:35:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Gert Biesta
    University of Stirling
    E-mail Author
    GERT BIESTA is professor of education and director of Postgraduate Research at the Stirling Institute of Education, University of Stirling, United Kingdom, and visiting professor for education and democratic citizenship at Örebro and Mälardalen University, Sweden. He is editor-in-chief of Studies in Philosophy and Education. He conducts theoretical and empirical research and has a particular interest in the relationships between education and democracy, the philosophy of education, the philosophy and methodology of educational research, lifelong learning, and teachers’ professional learning. Recent books include Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future (Paradigm Publishers, 2006) and Derrida, Deconstruction and the Politics of Pedagogy (Peter Lang, 2009, with Michael A. Peters).
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