Hannah Arendt

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Somewhere there has to be a manual for bloggers that says, “Never announce what you intend to write in your next post,” but I forgot to read the instructions again. My previous post rashly promised that my next one would be about changes in classical studies during the last fifty years. This isn’t it.

Instead I want to think about one unexamined assumption in an open letter that is currently part of the conversation here at Bryn Mawr. It is directed to Haverford College’s president, signed by “Women of Color House, Black Students Refusing Further Inaction, Black Student League, and every single BIPOC student this institution has failed,” and can be read here.

The writers assert that “This campus runs on the physical and emotional labor of FGLI + students of color through our (usually multiple) jobs, extracurriculars, and classes.” They then call for a strike—a “disruption of the order”—through withdrawal of that labor. Their labor, it seems, includes nearly every organized activity in student life: participating in a seminar on Plato, for example, playing on the tennis team, or working at the circulation desk in the library. So they won’t do any of these things: attend classes, participate in extracurriculars (except, I presume, for the student organizations behind the strike), or show up for their student jobs. That conflation of jobs, extracurriculars, and classes as “labor” strikes me as sad, but beyond that, it reflects confusion about the purpose of a college and alienation from the idea of liberal education.

Student jobs are not the same kind of thing as extracurriculars and classes, and only one of them really deserves the name “labor.” Asking cui bono?—who benefits?—shows why. Colleges, like the academic world in general, benefit a great deal from underpaid student labor, often disguised as financial aid or an educational experience. If Haverford or Bryn Mawr had to pay market rates for library clerks, research assistants, and deli counterpersons (to name only the jobs I see students performing every day), they would be poorer places. In a strike, the powerless acquire power by withdrawing their labor from the powerful who benefit from it. It makes sense for students with a grievance against a college to organize and withdraw their labor from tasks that benefit that institution and make it run.

But ask the same question—cui bono—about classes and extracurriculars, and the striking students’ confusion becomes plain. Who benefits from a seminar on Plato? What benefit accrues to a college from its student government? These and similar activities are things that a college does for its students, and the benefit that students receive from them justifies—or ought to—the tuition fees that they pay. Students who feel aggrieved or dissatisfied with this arrangement would, I think, be justified in an organized refusal to pay tuition—a boycott, not a strike. But there is no labor to withdraw from the action of education, and so a strike is impossible.

In using the term “action” for Plato seminars and student government, I am invoking Hannah Arendt’s distinction in The Human Condition among labor, work, and action. For Arendt, “labor” is aimed at producing what we need to live. Students need to eat, and so they take on part-time jobs. That’s labor. “Work,” Arendt thought, is more satisfying because it produces some durable product of human endeavor. (That’s why it’s hard to imagine an art student, for example, “striking” by refusing to draw any more, or a poet refusing to create poems. Painting and writing, on Arendt’s terms, are work, not labor.) But “action” is the one that matters in liberal arts education. Action names the activities by which we discover humanity in ourselves and reveal it to others. Political and intellectual life were Arendt’s examples of action, and liberal arts colleges and universities are in the business of intellectual action: persuading students to think about their own nature as human beings, recognize it in others, and share the results. Again, there is no student labor in a philosophy class or a creative writing seminar. There is only shared action, and a college is an institutional arrangement to make it possible.

Our Haverford signers are confused about what labor is, but their unexamined assumption that everything they do at college counts as “labor” also reveals their alienation from the idea of college as a place of intellectual action. Classes and extracurriculars have nothing to do with them, they seem to say; they gain no more benefit from them than they would from doing data entry in a university office.

I don’t think this alienation is entirely their fault; rather, it reflects a general failure of American liberal arts education. We’ve given everything a cash value and encouraged students and their parents to see college as a credentialing process that leads to a good job. Even the process of getting into college encourages students to see academic and extra-curricular activity alike as boxes to be ticked or hurdles to be cleared as cleanly and quickly as possible, without touching or being touched. No wonder that everything they do looks like labor to the Haverford students behind the recent letter. Liberal education has broken its promise to free their minds and, instead, left them in chains.

~Lee T. Pearcy


Followup Dec. 27, 2020: Eric Adler’s new bookThe Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, has trenchant remarks on the idea of college as a credentialing process. See also this for local coverage of these events, and this for a Bryn Mawr parent’s reaction.

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