Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

the impact of ‘thoughtlessness’ (and the importance of teachers)


courtesy Google

Today, following yesterday’s post about research, I was reading the National Endowment for the Humanities bi-monthly magazine, Humanities. In it is an article about NEH-funded research on political theorist Hannah Arendt. And it underlines the importance of the critical thinking explicit in good research.


I admire & respect most serious Holocaust scholarship, but Arendt is in a class of her own. Her work Eichmann in Jerusalem garnered both critical acclaim and death threats. The reason? Arendt’s contention that Eichmann wasn’t a ‘monster’ (although certainly he was instrumental in horrific, monstrous acts), but rather a ‘thoughtless’ clown.

Considering the man orchestrated the deaths of millions, this assertion didn’t (and doesn’t) sit well with many.

thinking 2

courtesy Google


But if you read Arendt’s conclusion about Eichmann, and his ‘thoughtlessness,’ what you have is a damning indictment of much ersatz education and learning. Because what Arendt argues is this: “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak [in anything but clichés] was closely connected with an inability to think [emphasis the author’s], namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (Humanities Mar/April 2014)

Wow. What a profound damning of the kind of education that produces only obedience without critical contextualisation. In the article, the distinction is made between knowing what you’re doing, and seeing the large picture, a pivotal difference. Eichmann, Arendt realizes, knows he’s good at the transportation that results in the millions of deaths in concentration camps. But while he acknowledges his prowess at this ‘job,’ he appears never to question the impact of this efficacy: how it makes possible the relocation of millions of death camp internees, and their subsequent murder. He is proud of his prowess, while at the same time blind to its deadly consequences.


critical thinking

courtesy Google

In today’s hindsight, we can’t imagine such blindness. Until we look at terms like ‘collateral damage,’ and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians as recently as Afghanistan and Iraq. Too few Americans question such losses, assuming the death of non-combatants (not women, children, a bridal party) is an acceptable price to pay… For what? Oil? Most Americans — like most Germans — have only the vaguest, ‘patriotic’ ideas of why recent wars have been fought.


Yesterday, Oklahoma passed another income tax cut. What, you’re wondering, does this have to do w/ Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism, and critical thinking?

OK march on capitol 2 2014


Only the day before, 25,000 Oklahoma teachers actively protested — with their bodies, their signs, their voices, their children & students accompanying — the gutting of  Oklahoma’s education system to support further tax cuts. School enrollment has increased by 40,000 since 2008; school funding has been cut by almost 23%, the largest cuts in the nation.


Add to this the impact of standardised testing (some estimates of lost true teaching time — not time spent teaching the test, but actual material — are as high or higher than 20% of classroom time), and students today often lack familiarity with critical thinking strategies.

OK march on capitol 2014



Teachers at the university level call this generation ‘the NCLB generation,’ meaning that the onset of No Child Left Behind (and now other standardised tests, as well) has framed learning as a ‘fill in the blanks’ activity for far too many young Americans. No wonder we lag behind in so many areas where we used to excel.

But my point is far more general than the plight of Oklahoma’s overcrowded classrooms, and the Sisyphean task of teaching to the test. Without ongoing instruction in critical thinking, we raise robots, folks. Without teachers who stretch the minds of our students beyond ‘fill-in-the-bubble,’ we are doomed as a true democracy. What if Eichmann had a teacher — even one! — who required him to think outside obedience? Outside ‘doing a good job.’ What if someone, somewhere, had required him to really THINK?

What if mindfulness — beginner’s heart, with its attention to our thoughts and their impact — was part of learning? Who knows how things might have been different…?

  • Noah Gildersleeve

    I recently had a discussion with a manager. I said that I didn’t have a
    college degree, because I didn’t see the need. He said that college
    taught you how to learn and think. This seems to be a prevalent idea in
    our society, however it flies in the face of what I see everyday both
    personally and professionally.

    The idea seems to be that college WILL teach you these things. I would
    definitely agree that it can, and maybe even that it should, but there
    is this idea that it WILL. This would mean that college education is a
    sufficient condition (formal logically speaking) for critical
    thought/intelligence. This can be proven/disproven by one simple
    question with an anecdotal answer. Have you ever met someone that is
    college educated and not intelligent, or incapable of critical thought. I
    have met computer science majors (with honors) that didn’t know what a
    hard drive is, and philosophy majors whose entire arguments would be
    riddled with fallacious rhetoric. This would seem to point out that
    college graduation is not a sufficient condition for intelligence, even
    in the area you were studying.

    If that is the case I don’t see the point in spending 50k-100k on
    schooling. I think that part of the issue is that there is an entire
    generation that put their heart and soul into getting a college degree
    and there is this mantra in our society that people that don’t go to
    college aren’t successful. This is questionably true, and seems to reek
    of self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think that refraining from college
    indicates one thing or the other in terms of critical
    thinking/intelligence, but I feel the same way about a college degree.

    I think that finishing college is an indicator of certain
    skills/attributes, but they are much more arbitrary and unrelated to
    success than people usually admit. They point to certain levels of
    reading comprehension. Also a certain level of affluence of background,
    or a certain level of interpersonal intelligence to make up for the
    lack of money in terms of getting your financial aid setup (a la Outliers by
    Malcolm Gladwell). These might intersect with groupos of people with
    critical thinking and intelligence, but those intersections are likely
    temporary and arbitrary.

    I generally keep these opinions to myself because if you say this to
    someone with a degree they react emotionally and feel attacked and
    will instinctually start defending educational institutions because they
    define themselves as college grads. It is a part of their identity and
    people will defend their identity tooth and nail, because the
    alternative is an existential crisis.

    With the skyrocketing costs of college I think that this is changing and
    with the dying out of the boomers it will be less of an issue. Gen X
    seems, by my experience (anecdotal evidence I know), less tied up with
    those kinds of traditional yardsticks.

    • Britton Gildersleeve

      I agree — education alone is not enough. But just as innate intelligence and inquiry offset the ostensible ‘lack’ of a university degree, so education can offset a familial or cultural blindness. Your own early education (and inner workings) obviously drive you to continue learning. That isn’t so of many, unfortunately. :)

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