This is the second of three posts about Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition (1958), placed in the context of the classroom.
The implements and tools of homo faber, from which the most fundamental experience of instrumentality arises, determine all work and fabrication. Here it is indeed true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organises them. The end justifies the violence done to nature to win the material, as the wood justifies killing the tree and the table justifies destroying the wood. Because of the end product, tools are designed and implements invented, and the same end product organises the work process itself, decides about the needed specialists, the measure of cooperation, the number of assistants, etc. During the work process, everything is judged in terms of suitability and usefulness for the desired end, and nothing else.
What is the end of education? How is this apparent in the way schools are organised? What violence is done to justify the means of reaching these ends?
'Work', as defined by Arendt, is the fabrication of products for use. She describes the trouble with the notion of utility of goods produced through fabrication as follows:
The relationship between means and end on which it relies is very much like a chain whose every end can serve again as a means in some other context. In a strictly utilitarian world, all ends are bound to be of short duration and to be transformed into means for some further ends.
Utility established as meaning leads to meaninglessness, what Arendt describes as the ‘limitless devaluation of everything given’.
We can only attach meaning through making something the end in itself. What is the use, the meaning, of the knowledge and qualifications children 'acquire' at school? Are qualifications and knowledge ends in themselves, or/and as the means to acquire something else?
The danger of making qualifications the ends in themselves is that anything becomes justifiable as a means of meeting them, at the expense of all else. This is apparent in the practices adopted in many schools today. Perhaps, then, we might ignore qualifications and make ‘knowledge’ the end in itself? This does not seem a satisfactory response to the student who asks ‘why are we learning this?’.
Alternatively, the view of a knowledge as primarily having value in exchange (through qualifications), degrades it to the status of a commodity, thus losing intrinsic worth. Marx described the change from use value to exchange value the original sin of capitalism. In the modern age, exchange value has triumphed over use value, and there is no reason to suggest that this is not also the case in schools.
It is wholly likely that education, viewed as the individual acquisition of knowledge as an exchangeable commodity, has led to dehumanisation and alienation, and inevitably the marketisation and commodification of schools, teachers and children alike.
What can 'we' do to counteract the (what I would consider, negative) characteristics of labor and work in educational practice? In the third and final post, I will suggest that Arendt's notion of action might provide some hope for a better education.