Dear Members of the Amherst Community, 

My short Friday notes are turning into Saturday missives.

The spring semester is coming to an end. We continue to work hard on planning for at least three different scenarios for fall, each with variations, and doing everything we can to prepare for each eventuality. But the purpose of my weekly notes is not to provide updates on fall planning. You will receive an update in the next couple of weeks—though, as you know, there will be no decision until the end of June.

This morning, I opened up the collected letters between Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers. I love the nearly lost art of correspondence in the old sense. I got lost for a couple of hours. Jaspers was a German-Swiss psychiatrist-turned- philosopher, a Kantian, who served as Arendt’s dissertation adviser. Arendt, a German Jew, became an American philosopher and political theorist after leaving Nazi Germany, eventually settling in New York. Their collected letters start in 1926 when Arendt was working on her doctorate; it trailed off after 1933 and ended abruptly in 1938, resuming in 1945 when Arendt learned that Karl and Gertrud Jaspers were alive and in Heidelberg.

There is so much of interest in these letters between philosophers and friends. I spent too much time reading through them, some for at least the third time. I was especially struck today by Arendt’s impressions of life in the U.S. in a letter she wrote to Jaspers, dated January 29, 1946:

You are quite right to say “lucky America’”—where, because of a basically sound political structure, so-called society has still not become so powerful that it cannot tolerate exceptions to the rules….There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom. The republic is not a vapid illusion, and the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom or at least one not pervaded by fanaticism. (Because of the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity, the melting pot is in large part not even an ideal, much less a reality.) Then, too, people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country.

Arendt expresses surprise at the degree to which ordinary Americans assume without question not only their right to oppose government decisions, but their responsibility to do so for the good of the whole. Freedom and responsibility seemed importantly joined in this country and in Arendt’s definition of a sound political structure. She gives Jaspers the example of ordinary citizens of her acquaintance who, with no fear of reprisals, began writing their congressmen in opposition to the internment of Japanese-Americans. That the melting pot really wasn’t one appears to have pleased her. 

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Perhaps the perspective of this then-stateless immigrant intellectual sheds light on the age-old American disdain for intellectuals, heightened over the past several years, and turned into scorn by cynics who want to believe campuses are only bastions of groupthink. But those of us who have lived through many decades in universities and colleges know that the view from inside is different. Our scientists and scholars are still, in Arendt’s words, unfanatical. All the stereotypes notwithstanding, faculties rarely agree among themselves about anything and have open and capacious minds. I wrote last week about the forms of arrogance that some academics can hold about those who do not share their educational backgrounds or their interests. And there are exceptions to every rule. But Arendt’s letter reminds us that intellectuals face the arrogance of those who have held the view that my brother Eddie expressed on a regular basis when saying: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” (Mind you, scholars and scientists do and they teach.) That some of the walls between academe and other walks of life exist to a greater extent in lore and in propaganda than in reality does not mean no divides exist. 

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The biggest threat to all she found positive in American society was what Arendt characterized as the country’s fundamental contradiction: the coexistence of political freedom and social oppression. And, to Arendt, American social oppression had anti-black racism at its core. She writes: “The latter (social oppression) is, as I‘ve already indicated, not total; but it is dangerous because the society organizes and orients itself along racial lines. And that holds true without exception at all social levels.” It is easy to see why, in 1946, Arendt would see social oppression organized along racial lines as a threat to a sound political structure and a genuine republic, one in which people still had room to be “exceptions to the rule,” could take their political rights for granted, and felt responsibility for public life. Social oppression with racism as organizing principle continues to threaten not only American ideals, but the possibility of a genuinely sound structure.

The other day, I heard a woman explain her reasons for refusing to wear a mask by saying: “I want my freedom!” I wish more people who “want their freedom” would also understand our responsibility for public life and realize that their freedom, to be meaningful and lasting, has to be connected to a larger good.


Biddy