Where do they really belong? Children, education and politics | Audrey Bezzina

Unity | The school is not a place of rehearsal for democratic politics. Children can still be kept safe, because they have the right to protection

Children are frequently seen as fragile beings who need protection, leading adults to regard them as incapable of holding political thoughts. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German thinker of Jewish descent, who believed that children should be protected from politics, to keep them safe from the criticism of the public. This article describes briefly Arendt’s idea of the four spheres in light of children, their need to become political and the role of education in the dilemma.

Whilst Hannah Arendt (1958a, 1958b) stated that there are four separate spheres in life which must be kept distinct from each other – namely, the ‘private’, the ‘public’, the ‘social’ and the ‘political’ spheres – she added that children should be kept in the ‘private sphere’ and that their parents should responsibly make all decisions regarding their upbringing. Children need to be protected by adults from being exposed to the ‘political’ realm and its injustices until they grow up. In ‘Reflections on Little Rock’, Arendt (1959) addressed the ‘Elizabeth Eckford’ case, a black girl who was photographed entering a white school – during times of de-segregation - as this much renowned school offered her a wide choice of courses to help her become a lawyer.

Although it seemed that Eckford was taking political action into her own hands, Arendt (1959) did not see it that way. Instead, Arendt was concerned that the girl was not being accompanied by her parents and that the angry white mob would attack her. Arendt was worried about the damage that can be caused to this child who wants to gain access to the white school and will probably have to face being denied admission. Arendt felt that it is dangerous for individuals to try to shift from their social group – to where they do not belong. Arendt preferred the maintenance of the status quo where everyone is to be segregated in their own social sphere.

For Arendt (2006), politics belongs to the ‘public sphere’ and should not be present in schools and contended that this can be done by keeping the private and the public spheres separate and keeping children safe if held in the private sphere. Schools were perceived as a transitional stage (a safe space), which children must go through, to progress from the ‘private’ to the ‘public’ realm. This is very much a protectionist standpoint, whereby Arendt viewed education as essential to introduce newcomers into the common world to act on the changes that need to occur when they grow up. From such a standpoint, education needs to preserve the world as it is and, simultaneously, nurture the natality in children so they can generate change when they become political.

In ‘The Crisis in Education’, Arendt (1958a) stipulated that teachers are to assume responsibility for the world as it is, even though they may not wholly agree with it; they need to share the historical and cultural events with their students while not sharing their opinions and ideas because they may be influencing their ability to renew and to regenerate the world. Education should be the transitional phase between the private and public spheres and represent a non-politicised space of mutual trust between teachers and students in preparation for action. The question here is how, or to what extent, children are to be kept safe, and at the same time be introduced to the political and the public sphere.

As a counterpart to such views, one finds Biesta’s (2010) belief that the idea that the child is not ready for the political world comes from the developmentalist standpoint whereby children are seen as citizens-in-the-making, and education is the intermediary process that helps create democratic citizens with moral attributes. Indeed, Biesta is a stern critic of Arendt’s demands that children should be kept out of the public and political spheres, and her assumption that freedom is only associated with adults, not children.

Personally, I find that Arendt’s private/public sphere separation for children to be puzzling especially in light of Hannah Arendt’s notion of action and the second birth. The school is not a place of rehearsal for democratic politics. Children can still be kept safe, because they have the right to protection however this right of protection is guaranteed by an educational experience that at the same time is actively involved in the process of starting something new.

Children are already political individuals continuously influenced by the private and public spheres they form part of. They are citizens who have a right to make an impact through their political activism and their direct representation.

Indeed, Arendt is rightly criticised for placing children strictly in the private sphere. Children are not waiting for adults to lead them from one sphere to the next, as children’s lives already contain pre-existing elements of all the spheres: private, public, social and political.

Unity Gazzetta is a collaboration between MaltaToday and the Faculty for Social Wellbeing