Developing Oneself in Education towards Political Enlightenment

Kimmy Phan

Immanuel Kant states in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” that a scholar’s writings speaks to the world “in the public use of his reason, an unrestricted freedom to employ his own reason and to speak in his own person.” (Kant 61) Kant’s paper explores the idea that we must allow our thoughts to reach to the public sphere. In this way, we can reach enlightenment by emerging from our “self-incurred immaturity” (58) by relinquishing and surrendering our “laziness and cowardice” (58) and exercising the courage to willingly make use of our own intellect and rationality that prepare us for the public sphere. But before we can develop the world, we must develop ourselves in our education and gain qualities that allow us to delve into the public. Education assists us in the enlightenment process by endowing us with the abilities to fulfill our duties and obligations as citizens by teaching us to enlarge our minds, to work with the impermanence of politics, and to love the world. It is through education that we can refine ourselves and gain the freedom to participate in the public sphere and specifically the political realm.

To John Henry Newman in the Idea of a University, education is a process of enlightenment, and through this “enlargement of the mind,” (Newman 114) we can utilize our own philosophies and execute political prowess. Education serves to enrich the public by allowing us to acquire the skills to found principles, spawn ideas, and then actively build on them through “energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas,” (120) a process he calls illumination or enlargement. Newman states that the “primâ-facie view” (115) of many people in the public sphere believe that university, “considering it as a place of education, is nothing more or less than a place of acquiring a great deal of knowledge on a great many subjects” (115). In this way, education would become a medium just “to dazzle, to amuse, to refute, to perplex, but not to come to any useful result or any trustworthy conclusion” (117). But according to him, “enlargement consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it” (120) and that those who “generalize nothing and have no observation” (121) practice acquisition, not enlargement. Through acquisition, facts and information are just collected and untouched, left stored away in our minds. This is not enlargement, as acquisition serves no true purpose, especially in politics. Though collecting knowledge about many events in the past may be puzzling, this does not automatically grant us the gift to utilize what we know in current day events, as it does not help teach us to modify, combine, or build on old ideas to avoid the mistakes made in the past. Newman describes education as giving a different and more meaningful experience. Education first frees us from the “manacles or fetters” (118) we were so unaware of before. Seeing one world and being exposed to another is an unearthing experience, as if “one, who has ever lived in a quiet village, go for the first time to a great metropolis” (118). Intellectual enlargement comes paired with an overwhelming, distinct dizziness that begins to “fill and possess the mind” (118).  Learning the stories of past scholars and ideas of former philosophers provoke sentiments in the current struggles of achieving our entitlements to principles. For example, Newman describes the awakening experience induced by learning history:

The study of history is said to enlarge and enlighten the mind, and why? Because, as I conceive, it gives it a power of judging of passing events, and of all events, and a conscious superiority over them, which before it did not possess. (119)

Analyzing history allows us to critically study the past and its implications rather than see it as only a timeline of passive events. For Newman, an education in history becomes a “novel light” (119) that is “sacred” (119). Perhaps this process of enlargement of the mind through learning about history can not only provide amazement but compassion. Through studying history, an individual’s eyes and mind can be opened to the lives of others. For instance, though many people are aware of the existence of North Korea today, they tend to disregard how the divide between the Koreas came to be and the challenges North Koreans face today as the North and South Korea continue to be in a state of war. Conditions such as “dismal public health,” “chronic food shortages,” and “public executions” are commonplace for North Koreans (“The People’s Challenges”). When watching the video on the country’s history (provided below), we grasp a better understanding of what the people have endured and continue to endure, which arouses the experience Newman portrays. Enlargement of the mind is indeed an empowering and wondrous moment, as if “waking up from a dream” (119) to not only throw off previous prejudices but to also develop feelings toward newfound situations that help us develop our principles and to use our judgment to determine what are virtues or atrocities for humanity.

During university and college, we learn one another’s worlds and engage on thoughts formulated by thinkers from the past and present, if not from reading history then through deep, intellectual conversations. With this communication comes an exchange of principles through dialogue between intellectuals, in which we learn that all of us share common principles, values, and beliefs. Through education, we gain an understanding that education is not an accumulation of facts but “locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates” (121). Newman demonstrates that to become illuminated, our minds require “a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near,” (121) and a realization of these connections and their influences on one another. This interconnectedness is also seen in current political events and their effects on other governmental institutions and our everyday lives. For example, though America designated $138 billion toward the Iraq war in 2007, this could have been money spent on “healthcare, education, environmental sustainability and infrastructure” (Garrett-Peltier and Pollin). To get cash for the education for instance, go to the website of loanigo to avail their short term and personal loans. Through seeing these connections, we can the universality of the world and how each part relies on all others. We can then apply our knowledge through this realization. Newman lists the many gains of an education, by mastering our critical thinking ability and becoming an intellectual, for both the individual and society:

 It aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. (Newman 10)

We realize that “the world is all before it where to choose” (119) in that it rests in the hands of humanity to keep its balance and order. Before we can enter the world of politics, we must develop a compassionate self and understand how to use our feelings to judge political authority since political impositions and institutions may directly affect our daily lives and civil rights, among many other things. Enlarging our minds becomes as agent to cultivating our feelings and intellect and, in turn, society via politics.

Hannah Arendt is known for her writing on “political humanism.” Source:

How else does education prepare us to participate in the public sphere? Hannah Arendt says in her essay, “Crisis in Education,” that education does not prepare us for politics through indoctrination, though it has been practiced for many centuries like in Europe. This tactic can be traced to places like Germany, whose school curriculum exploited indoctrination as a political tool to teach students to become “loyal Nazis” early in their childhood (“Nazi Education”). This method of indoctrination mainly prevailed to keep the “monopoly of revolutionary movements of tyrannical cast,” (Between Past and Future 173) as Arendt puts it. We live in a world that designates education as “an instrument of politics” (173). In Germany, teaching history became a way to instill nationalism and studying biology emphasized eugenics and genetic superiority (“Nazi Education”). An urgency to force ideal beliefs on children through “dictatorial intervention, based upon the absolute authority of the adult” (173) to gain political superiority rather than political progression. Society prioritizes extreme authority through coercion when in fact we should be focusing on “joining with one’s equals in assuming the effort of persuasion and running the risk of failure” (173). While indoctrination is an inherently destructive influence as it serves a purpose that is strictly based on fixed subjective beliefs, it also does not recognize the nature of politics. Development in good judgment, not indoctrination, prepares us for the impermanence of politics. The nature of politics that is impermanent or transient is in that it cannot work through fixed ideas. Indoctrinating ideas leads us to believe that solving current issues is done by strictly stationary methods from past authority, whose methods may have not actually not worked. In Reflections on Literature and Culture, Arendt tells us that there exists a “conflict between culture and politics,” (188) that decisions should be made with one but not the other. The truth is that conflicts like these, and education, is that it should be based on the idea of growing or “expanding” on fixed methods and ideas through plurality: the dynamic, symphonic inclusion of both all parts. Arendt poses the dilemmatic implications that arise in relying on only politics or culture:

Who is better suited to doing that? The organization of the polis that secures the public space in which greatness may appear and may communicate, and in which a permanent presence of people who see and are seen, who speak and hear and may be heard, thus assures a permanent remembrance? Or else the poets and artists–and, more generally, the world-creating, world-producing activities, which obviously provide a considerably better guarantee of fame than acting and political organization, since they consist in the making-permanent and the making-imperishable of that which is by its very nature of the most perishable and most fleeting kind? It was poetry that taught the Greeks, whose educator was Homer, what fame was and what it was capable of being. And even if poetry, together with music, may be the least materially bound art, it still is a form of production, and it achieves a kind of objectification, the absence of which would make permanence, let alone imperishability, inconceivable. (189)

School teaches us to think this way when we are introduced to people and their differing ideas on matters such as politics, and it is necessary understand that there is nothing permanent about them.

While plurality plays a part in education and also politics and allows us to expand on ideas, the answer ultimately relies on practicing good judgment. In her essay “Crisis of Culture,” Arendt evaluates the importance of judgment in the political sense through Kant’s political philosophy in his Critique of Judgment, as “Kant now adds to the principle of agreement with oneself the principle of an ‘enlarged way of thinking,’ which submits that I can ‘think from the standpoint of everyone else.’” (198) Kant believed that good judgment requires being able to see from an objective lens, devoid of prejudices. By using his philosophy, decisions in politics can be made by thinking of others, not just ourselves. Kant then states that by being able to “orient [ourselves] in the public-political sphere and therefore in the world held in common,” (199) we can practice judgment and make decisions on matters impartially to work as a whole.  Although objective thinking is crucial to developing good judgment to base our decisions on, good judgment may also be established by using our own subjective values and principles to help us act in politics because, as John Henry Newman introduced earlier, this is because everything is all connected to and relies on one another. Ideas not only affect the bonds between governmental institutions but also the bonds between people, as we are bonded by our individual values and principles. In “Crisis in Education,” Arendt dubs judgment “common sense” (Between Past and Future 175), perhaps to emphasize that that applying our judgment in politics relies on values that are commonly shared between people. Good judgment requires that we know when to use objective and subjective thinking toward varying political occasions, and as we journey throughout our education we are met with different ideas and situations that challenge us to practice judgment using the two. By keeping an open mind, we can found our principles objectively, and then unify populations in politics subjectively.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is known for his famous speeches that unified the populations during the Civil Rights Movement. Source:

Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated of this idea of applying subjective values to act in politics during the Civil Rights Movement by weaving Christian theology into his speeches. This became a potent and unifying tool as he was able to reach a wider audience:  the Christian audience. In fact, by drawing on both “historical and biblical allusions,” (“Historical and Biblical Allusions”) he was able to gain support among many varying populations throughout his activism, regardless of their color, and accelerated social progress tremendously. While objective thinking allows us to decide in politics what is good for all of humanity, acting through subjective thinking can help us unify people and actually serve for humanity. Arendt uses her essays as instruments to emphasize that it is crucial for the world that we become intellectuals and exercise good judgment, whether objectively or subjectively, to then work as a whole and to be in tune with the transient nature of politics.

Our educators assume the role of preparing us to take over the responsibility of the world by helping to germinate within us amor mundi, or “love for the world.” Robert Pogue Harrison affirms in Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age that since new generations of people, or “oi néoi” (“the new ones”), are born into the world with the undeniable responsibility to inherit it, we must learn to claim ownership of it (129). Learning to love the world and understanding our part in it in this sense allows us understand how to change the world and continue its existence through politics, as “Nothing serves to bind human beings together as a polity more intensely than a heightened awareness of world-belonging. Only a shared world offers people what their shared humanity needs the most, namely the sense of cohesion.” (117) Understanding our part and interacting with our own self-conscious, as Harrison reveals, comes before worldly love. When we learn to love ourselves, we can then transfer that love similarly to the world. This is because “self-love invests its desire, will, and care into the world-configurations” (128). However, it’s easy for this self-love to mutate into egotism. To avoid this, the “new ones” must “learn what it means to become adults and assume responsibility for the world they were born into,” that is, through education. School prepares us for this, since it “positions [us] somewhere between the private and the public sphere” (129). It becomes apparent that only do we understand our role in humanity’s continuity and the love we have for it do we understand the role we have in politics, and education becomes the method in which we access this realization.

Education aids the cause of public enlightenment by preparing young people to participate in the public sphere and think for humanity by providing them with the compassion to understand the connections within all things, the dynamic use of both objectivism and subjectivism in good judgment, and self-love that can be made into worldly love. Education allows us to freely refine ourselves to access political enlightenment. It is over the course of an education that we begin to understand our own civic duties and the role we have in the world. To have a world without education is as if we don’t have a world at all.


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. 4th ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. Reflections on Literature and Culture. Stanford, California:  Stanford University Press, 2007. Print.

Garrett-Peltier, Heidi and Robert Pollin. “The Iraq War is Killing Our Economy.” Alter Net. Web. 12 December 2014.

Harrison, Robert Pogue. Juvenescence. Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.

“Historical and Biblical Allusions.” Martin Luther King Speech. Web. 12 Dec 2014.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Tran. James Schmidt. Ed. James Schmidt. 1st ed. London, England: University of California Press, 1996. Print.

“Nazi Education.” History Learning Site. Web. 12 Dec 2014.

Newman, John Henry. “Discourse VI: Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning.” The Idea of a University. Ed. I. T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976. Print.

“The People’s Challenges.” Liberty in North Korea. Web. 12 Dec 2014.

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