Master Class with Chris Hughes, Phillips Academy ’02 on Hannah Arendt’s “Responsibility and Judgment”

We have the great privilege today of Chris Hughes‘ visit to Andover.  Chris graduated from Phillips Academy in 2002.  He returns today to teach a master-class with me, to give the All School Meeting address, and to meet with various groups on campus.  The master class takes as its starting point a text: Hannah Arendt’s lecture entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” published in the book “Responsibility and Judgment.”  In this lecture, delivered in 1964, Arendt responded to criticism of things she previously wrote about the trial of the Nazi leader Eichmann.  The students in the room today come from two classes, one in our Religion and Philosophy department (taught by Tom Hodgson) and one on bioethics (team-taught by Vincent Avery and Christine Marshall-Walker).

Chris starts the class by asking a student to read aloud a section from near the end of Arendt’s lecture: “The total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something.”  Chris asks the group if norms can be changed as quickly as table manners.

The class also focuses for most of the discussion on the role of non-participants in societies.  Arendt says that “the nonparticipants; called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves.”  Does opting-out of a society enable you to preserve your values?  What does it mean, in fact, to “opt out” of a society?  The class debates whether it is different to opt out of Nazi Germany; America during the McCarthy era; Apartheid South Africa (was Albie Sachs right that only a few hundred whites took any personal risk in resisting the Apartheid regime?); and today, in the “consumerist” society prevalent in most countries in Western Europe and North America, for instance.

Chris stresses the difficulty of total opting out: it is almost impossible not to be ensconced in a body politic.  It is extremely hard not to pay some taxes to support a system; to be, at a minimum, a bystander to important events in the lives of others; to have a voice in the society, whether in public or in private.

We explored the distinction between non-participation and non-obedience.  The students are not sold on the extent to which Arendt praises the non-participants, seeing non-obedience — more actively opposing a system — as essential to positive change.  The text splices the difference between “supporting” a regime and “obeying” it.  The exposure of this tension, which comes in at the end of the essay, may be the most important point.

One of our core jobs as teachers at Phillips Academy, as stated in our school’s constitution from 1778, is to help develop not just the minds but also the morals of the students in our care.  Conversations, such as the one led by Chris today and others led by our faculty on every day on campus, are essential aspects of this kind of an education.

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