Academic journal article Peer Review

Civic Virtues for Work and Action

Academic journal article Peer Review

Civic Virtues for Work and Action

Article excerpt

"Citizenship is the struggle, carried out through conversation, to achieve accounts of the world that accord with norms of friendship and provide grounds for action. "

-Danielle Allen

College students in America are experiencing what might be called a widespread "depoliticization" of our society. With high debt loads and an uncertain economy, students are increasingly pressured to see their education in terms of its benefits to their working lives rather than their public lives. Moreover, every day, they see polarized news media, policy-making institutions in gridlock, elections hijacked by special interests, and negative advertising. Lacking anything comparable to the student movement of the 1960s, they are understandably frustrated and alienated from what is called "politics" (Kiesa et al. 2008) and receive little guidance from colleges on how to connect politics to their working lives.

Students seek to make a difference and better the world around them, but they see politics as an ineffective way of doing so. If higher education is to produce an active and engaged citizenry, it must expose students to a different kind of politics-one that allows them to experience conflict, power, and collective action, but without reproducing the dysfunctions of our broken system. For a way to reconcile political engagement and preparation for work as part of a college experience with a genuinely political vision of higher education and its civic mission, we turn to Hannah Arendt, a preeminent 1950s political theorist. Drawing on Arendt's framework, we argue that meaningful work is what links individuals to the world of politics, and should be the central aim of liberal education.


Arendt was a German émigré who saw a similar depoliticization as the precursor of twentieth-century totalitarian movements. She feared that the industrial societies of the time-whether the free market systems of the West or the planned economies of the Soviet bloc-encouraged citizens to focus on economic activity rather than public life. Inspired by the Greek polis, Arendt sought to preserve the political world that humans shape, their "web of relationships," the space in which they organize themselves and appear to each other and act in pursuit of their common lives (Arendt 2000, 179). It was the polis that Arendt cared about and sought to love. The polis is neither the government nor elections, though these have come to seem coterminous with the word "political." There are myriad other settings-town meetings, union halls, clubs, even religious associations-in which the work of democracy is pursued today. Dubbed the "political wetlands" by David Matthews (2014), these informal spaces are where the modern polis can be found. Recreating more of these spaces is the task of politics today.

Arendt saw the polis as threatened by the "social," or economic, sphere of modern life-we have become a consumer society. To make sense of these trends, she developed classic distinctions among three forms of human activity: labor, work, and action.

Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history.... Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought (Arendt 1958, 8-9, emphasis added).

Arendt sought to recover an ethos of action in a world in which work-and worse, labor-claim ever-greater importance in our lives, replacing politics as the sphere that gives meaning and dignity to our lives.

According to Arendt, "labor" serves no purposes other than biological necessity and survival. …

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