Using Hannah Arendt to think about Research and Reform in Education

How might we resist the ‘banality of thoughtlessness’ that pervades education management, and education in general? Is it possible, as Hannah Arendt demanded, to ‘think without a banister’? 

In this Wednesday’s ESRI research seminar, Professor Helen Gunter of Manchester University gave an eloquent and impassioned critique of education management and policy, based on her recent study of the work of Hannah Arendt. Arguing that our schools are being taken away from us by privatisation, with the residualisation of basic skills for those who cannot afford to pay, Professor Gunter posed the question of why we seem to feel unable to resist. Do we belong amongst those who ‘say nothing or leave’ when faced with systemic social injustice, and thereby perpetrate what Arendt called ‘passive evil’?

Talking about her previous and current research into the practices and discourses of educational leadership, Professor Gunter identified a ‘banality of leadership’ that transforms disciplinary and practical knowledge into empty activity. The result is, she suggested, a condition akin to Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism, with characteristics such as the construction of fictitious worlds (ie schools), the practice of ‘total terror’ that blames the innocent and silences dissent, the destruction of social bonds, and a powerful bureaucracy that hides behind ‘front organisations’ such as, here, the National College of School Leadership.

Professor Gunter’s presentation sparked a lively discussion about the severity of the current condition, and the challenges facing those who want to resist. We may not have measured up to Arendt’s demand to ‘think without a banister’, but we were definitely provoked and stimulated to think differently about current dilemmas. Fortunately, we will be able to learn more about Professor Gunter’s adventures with Hannah Arendt in her forthcoming book, to be published in 2013.

Maggie MacLure

One thought on “Using Hannah Arendt to think about Research and Reform in Education

  1. Hi Maggie – thanks for this excellent write up. I really enjoyed Helen’s seminar and also found her work stimulating and challenging in getting us to think not just about how we might use different theories to examine what may appear rather banal and straightforward in order to think about how power works in and through education reform, but also, in doing so, turning a critical spotlight on the current trends in education policy under this government and the behaviour of those individuals and organisations leading this (head teachers, the National College, policymakers, CEOs of academy chains). I haven’t really engaged with Arendt’s work before and have been inspired to do so – her work on superfluous people is helpful I think to my current observations and writing around the attribution (and denial) of value and worth to particular parents and young people after the riots, and the latest austerity policy agendas around benefits and social housing where families must now prove they ‘make a special contribution’ (Big Society style!) in order to be eligible.

    I also liked Helen’s (and Arendt’s) provocation to ‘think without banisters’ but was struck that this wasn’t just a call to us as academics, but also said something about how teachers and other practitioners might navigate this terrain and the challenges it brings re. social justice. It reminded me of the issues i raised in a previous post which you responded to ( ) about how teachers might resist and subvert current discourses of professionalism and policy agendas which mitigate against a socially just education system but are coming to define the purpose and subjects of education in a particular way. Not consenting but challenging can, as I argued there, be a renegade act, a taboo, which brings many risks – so my question is who can withstand being in that wobbly, precarious place which comes with challenging the status quo and refusing to perpetuate acts of passive evil?

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